(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘standards

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it”*…

In 1968, Stewart Brand and small group of colleagues published the first Whole Earth Catalog, then followed it over the years with a series of updates, spin-offs, and sequels. An at-the-time unprecedented marriage of counterculture magazine and product catalog, it (and its successors) have been enormously influential. Now, as Long Now‘s Jacob Kupperman reports, the entire run of Whole Earth publications is freely available online…

When the Whole Earth Catalog arrived in the Fall of 01968, it came bearing a simple, epochal label: “Access to Tools.” As its editor and Long Now Co-founder Stewart Brand wrote in the introduction to that first edition, the goal was for the Catalog to serve as an “evaluation and access device” for tools that empowered its readers “to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

The key word in all of that idealistic declaration of purpose was “access.” The Whole Earth Catalog did not intend to directly grant its readers this knowledge, wisdom, and mastery, but to provide a kaleidoscopic array of gateways from which they could attempt to find it themselves.

Yet for years, access to the Whole Earth Catalog itself has been difficult. 55 years on from the first publication of the Catalog, it mostly lives on in the interstices — as a symbol of a vibrant countercultural history and an inspiration for writers, designers, and technologists, but less so as an actual set of catalogs that you can read. The Catalog is not lost media per se — copies can be found in libraries, archives, and personal collections across the world — but accessing its trove of information is no longer as easy as it was in its heyday.

That is, until now.

on the 55th anniversary of the publication of the original Whole Earth Catalog, Gray Area and the Internet Archive have made the Catalog freely available online via the Whole Earth Index, a website bringing together more than 130 Whole Earth Catalog-related publications, ranging from some of the earliest Catalogs published in the late 01960s and early 01970s to 02002 issues of Whole Earth Magazine.

Within the site’s grid of publications rests a cornucopia of writing and curation, from in-depth looks at space colonies to ecological analyses of the insurance industry to reporting on the state of the global teenager at the turn of the 01990s. The Whole Earth Index is a work of love, a noncommercial enterprise designed, as project lead and Gray Area Executive Director Barry Threw told Long Now Ideas, to “allow us to reflect on how we got to where we are and regain some of that connection to the countercultural world” of the Bay Area of the 01960s and 01970s.

For the people who helped make the Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants, the Whole Earth Index is in many ways a dream come true. Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly, who wrote for, edited, and led the CoEvolution Quarterly, the Whole Earth Review, and later editions of the Whole Earth Catalog, told us that he found “the interface to this historic collection to be as good, maybe even better, as reading the original paper artifacts,” adding that he’d “been giddy with delight in how satisfying this archive is.”  The project’s model of “instant access from your home, for free!”, Kelly noted, was something that the team behind the Whole Earth Catalog could only dream of when they began their work.

The open-ended design of the Whole Earth Index is intended as a sort of provocation towards future works — a message and invitation in the spirit of the original catalog’s epochal claim that “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” The tens of thousands of scanned pages will live on the servers of the Internet Archive — as good a place as any to try and stave off a Digital Dark Age — but the ideas of the Whole Earth Catalog and its heirs will always live among those of us who read it and access its tools. What will you do with them?

The Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants are newly available online through the Whole Earth Index: “The Lasting Whole Earth Catalog,” from @Jacobkupp and @longnow.

* Stewart Brand, in the “Statement of Purpose” in the first Whole Earth Catalog


As we treasure tools, we might spare a thought for a man whose work kicked in about the same time as the Whole Earth Catalog– and intersected with it in myriad ways (e.g., The WELL), Jon Postel; he died on this date in 1998. A computer scientist, he played a pivotal role in creating and administering the Internet. As a graduate student in the late 1960s, he was instrumental in developing ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet. He is known principally for being the Editor of the Request for Comment (RFC) document series from which internet standards emerged, for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and for founding and administering the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) until his death.

During his lifetime he was referred to as the “god of the Internet” for his comprehensive influence; Postel himself noted that this “compliment” came with a barb, the suggestion that he should be replaced by a “professional,” and responded with typical self-effacing matter-of-factness: “Of course, there isn’t any ‘God of the Internet.’ The Internet works because a lot of people cooperate to do things together.”


“There are two types of encryption: one that will prevent your sister from reading your diary and one that will prevent your government”*…

… But sometimes the encryption you think will work against governments won’t even deter your sister. Joesph Cox on the recently-uncovered vulnerabilities in TETRA, the encryption standard used in radios worldwide…

A group of cybersecurity researchers has uncovered what they believe is an intentional backdoor in encrypted radios used by police, military, and critical infrastructure entities around the world. The backdoor may have existed for decades, potentially exposing a wealth of sensitive information transmitted across them, according to the researchers… The end result, however, are radios with traffic that can be decrypted using consumer hardware like an ordinary laptop in under a minute…

The research is the first public and in-depth analysis of the TErrestrial Trunked RAdio (TETRA) standard in the more than 20 years the standard has existed. Not all users of TETRA-powered radios use the specific encryption algorithim called TEA1 which is impacted by the backdoor. TEA1 is part of the TETRA standard approved for export to other countries. But the researchers also found other, multiple vulnerabilities across TETRA that could allow historical decryption of communications and deanonymization. TETRA-radio users in general include national police forces and emergency services in Europe; military organizations in Africa; and train operators in North America and critical infrastructure providers elsewhere. 

Midnight Blue [presented] their findings at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference in August. The details of the talk have been closely under wraps, with the Black Hat website simply describing the briefing as a “Redacted Telecom Talk.” That reason for secrecy was in large part due to the unusually long disclosure process. Wetzels told Motherboard the team has been disclosing these vulnerabilities to impacted parties so they can be fixed for more than a year and a half. That included an initial meeting with Dutch police in January 2022, a meeting with the intelligence community later that month, and then the main bulk of providing information and mitigations being distributed to stakeholders. NLnet Foundation, an organization which funds “those with ideas to fix the internet,” financed the research.

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), an organization that standardizes technologies across the industry, first created TETRA in 1995. Since then, TETRA has been used in products, including radios, sold by Motorola, Airbus, and more. Crucially, TETRA is not open-source. Instead, it relies on what the researchers describe in their presentation slides as “secret, proprietary cryptography,” meaning it is typically difficult for outside experts to verify how secure the standard really is.

Bart Jacobs, a professor of security, privacy and identity, who did not work on the research itself but says he was briefed on it, said he hopes “this really is the end of closed, proprietary crypto, not based on open, publicly scrutinised standards.”…

The veil, pierced: “Researchers Find ‘Backdoor’ in Encrypted Police and Military Radios,” from @josephfcox in @motherboard. (Not long after this article ran– and after the downfall of Vice, Motherboard’s parent), Cox and a number of his talented Motherboard colleagues launched 404 Media. Check it out.)

Remarkably, some of the radio systems enabling critical infrastructure are even easier to hack– they aren’t even encrypted.

Bruce Schneier (@schneierblog)


As we take precautions, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that the last IBM 7030 “Stretch” mainframe in active use is decommissioned at Brigham Young University. The first Stretch was was delivered to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1961, giving the model almost 20 years of operational service.

The Stretch was famous for many things, but perhaps most notably it was the first IBM computer to use transistors instead of vacuum tubes; it was the first computer to be designed with the help of an earlier computer; and it was the world’s fastest computer from 1961 to 1964.


“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died


As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…


Happy Juneteenth!

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men”*…




Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy…

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few… It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision—precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”…

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,… shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.”…

James Gleick reviews– and responds to– Simon Winchester‘s The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World:  “Masters of Tolerance.”

[Image above: precision engineering research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology]

* Theodor Adorno


As we contemplate craft, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Lewis Mumford; he was born on this date in 1895.  A historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and cultural critic, Mumford is probably best remembered for his writings on cities, perhaps especially for his award-winning book The City in History.  (See also The City— the extraordinary film that Mumford made with Ralph Steiner and Wiilard Van Dyne, from an outline by the renowned documentarian Pare Lorentz, with a score by Aaron Copland.) 

Mumford’s approaches to technology, its history, and its roles in society were acknowledged influences on writers like Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Thomas Merton, and Marshall McLuhan.  In a similar way, he was an inspiration for the organicist and environmentalist movements of today.

Unfortunately, once an economy is geared to expansion, the means rapidly turn into an end and “the going becomes the goal.” Even more unfortunately, the industries that are favored by such expansion must, to maintain their output, be devoted to goods that are readily consumable either by their nature, or because they are so shoddily fabricated that they must soon be replaced. By fashion and build-in obsolescence the economies of machine production, instead of producing leisure and durable wealth, are duly cancelled out by the mandatory consumption on an even larger scale.

– Lewis Mumford, The City in History



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Aside from velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe”*…



Detail from Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory


In normal life, you open the car door before getting into the car. Operation A happens before operation B. That’s the causal order of things. But a new quantum switch weirdly enables two operations to happen simultaneously. From Science News:

The device, known as a quantum switch, works by putting particles of light through a series of two operations — labeled A and B — that alter the shape of the light. These photons can travel along two separate paths to A and B. Along one path, A happens before B, and on the other, B happens before A.

Which path the photon takes is determined by its polarization, the direction in which its electromagnetic waves wiggle — up and down or side to side. Photons that have horizontal polarization experience operation A first, and those with vertical polarization experience B first.

But, thanks to the counterintuitive quantum property of superposition, the photon can be both horizontally and vertically polarized at once. In that case, the light experiences both A before B, and B before A, Romero and colleagues report.

While this is deeply weird and amazing, it unfortunately doesn’t occur at the human scale but rather in the quantum realm where measurements are in the nanometers. Still, quantum switches do have clear applications in future communications and computation systems.

Indefinite Causal Order in a Quantum Switch” (Physical Review Letters)

From the ever-illuminating David Pescovitz at Boing Boing: “Weird time-jumbling quantum device defies ‘before’ and ‘after’.”

* Dave Barry


As we check our watches, we might send timely birthday greetings to Louis Essen; he was born on this date in 1908.  A physicist, he drew on his World War II work on radar to develop the first generally-accepted scientific measurement of the speed of light (one that has held up well as measurement techniques have advanced.).

But Essen is probably better remembered as the father of the atomic clock: in 1955, in collaboration with Jack Parry, he developed the first practical atomic clock by integrating the caesium atomic standard with conventional quartz crystal oscillators to allow calibration of existing time-keeping.


Louis Essen (right) and Jack Parry (left) standing next to the world’s first caesium-133 atomic clock


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: