THE COMPUTERS ARE LISTENING, American Waste Paper Basket, Chemistry That Led to Life on Earth

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Most people realize that emails and other digital communications they once considered private can now become part of their permanent record.

But even as they increasingly use apps that understand what they say, most people don’t realize that the words they speak are not so private anymore, either.

Top-secret documents from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the National Security Agency can now automatically recognize the content within phone calls by creating rough transcripts and phonetic representations that can be easily searched and stored.

The documents show NSA analysts celebrating the development of what they called “Google for Voice” nearly a decade ago.

Though perfect transcription of natural conversation apparently remains the Intelligence Community’s “holy grail,” the Snowden documentsdescribe extensive use of keyword searching as well as computer programs designed to analyze and “extract” the content of voice conversations, and even use sophisticated algorithms to flag conversations of interest.

The documents include vivid examples of the use of speech recognition in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Latin America. But they leave unclear exactly how widely the spy agency uses this ability, particularly in programs that pick up considerable amounts of conversations that include people who live in or are citizens of the United States.

Spying on international telephone calls has always been a staple of NSA surveillance, but the requirement that an actual person do the listening meant it was effectively limited to a tiny percentage of the total traffic. By leveraging advances in automated speech recognition, the NSA has entered the era of bulk listening.

And this has happened with no apparent public oversight, hearings or legislative action. Congress hasn’t shown signs of even knowing that it’s going on.

The USA Freedom Act — the surveillance reform bill that Congress is currently debating — doesn’t address the topic at all. The bill would end an NSA program that does not collect voice content: the government’s bulk collection of domestic calling data, showing who called who and for how long.

Even if becomes law, the bill would leave in place a multitude of mechanisms exposed by Snowden that scoop up vast amounts of innocent people’s text and voice communications in the U.S. and across the globe.

Much more to read found HERE.

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The Existential Conundrum That Is the American Waste Paper Basket

If the acclaimed 20th-century existential phenomenologist Martin Heidegger had written a book about garbage cans, it might read like portions of “The Paradox of the Waste Paper Basket” by Jos Legrand. Published earlier this year in Maastricht, Netherlands, where Legrand lives, Paradox is a concise history of the trash receptacles used in American offices between 1870 and 1930. You know, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a retired Dutch art-history teacher to be passionate about.

As it turns out, Legrand has long been passionate about all sorts of old office equipment, particularly typewriters, which led his to his interest in the containers that crumpled up sheets of typewriter paper were routinely tossed into. “No one had ever paid any attention to the waste paper basket,” Legrand explained recently via email (he does not own a phone). “For me, this was a challenge rather than a discouragement.”

Legrand’s unnumbered book (it’s about 50 pages long) arrives as the zeitgeist, as Heidegger probably would have put it, is unusually preoccupied with garbage cans. In many municipalities across the United States, one must practically have a degree in waste management before tossing one’s refuse in the trash. There’s a blue can for recyclables, a green one for compostables, and if your garbage is truly garbage, it goes in the black can, depending, of course, on where you live (which can make traveling complicated, but I digress…).

Happily for us, Legrand digresses, too, devoting a fair amount of his book to the “European” (his word) perspective on the great American waste paper basket. “Mistakes are as old as the office,” he writes, “and therefore the waste bin is the symbol of the ‘officium imperfectum,’ the imperfect office.” This, Legrand believes, is just one of several paradoxes of the office waste paper basket.

Until I read Paradox, I had not considered the possibility that waste paper baskets could be imbued with paradox, but Legrand has convinced me. In a perfect world, he postulates, the office is a place where work is performed efficiently and at high speed. But the presence of a waste paper basket is proof of the opposite condition, since it’s designed to be filled with failures. Thus, as Legrand puts it, a waste bin is “a jelled temporality.”

“As long as the bin hasn’t been emptied,” he elaborates, “its contents are the physical rendering of our thinking, our doubts, and ultimately the rejection of everything that doesn’t fit into a certain system. Once emptied, that visibility is over, or, as Heidegger would say, the truth is hidden again.”

Continue reading this HERE.

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The Harvard Classics: Download All 51 Volumes as Free eBooks

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Only 12 people have been on the moon: the astronauts on the Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972.

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More like the above found HERE.

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Making Sense of the Chemistry That Led to Life on Earth

It was the actions of Jupiter and Saturn that quite inadvertently created life on Earth — not the gods of the Roman pantheon, but the giant planets, which once orbited much closer to the sun.

Driven outward, they let loose a cascade of asteroids, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, that blasted the surface of the young Earth and created the deep pockmarks still visible on the face of the moon.

In the heat of these impacts, carbon from the meteorites reacted with nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. Though a deadly poison, cyanide is nonetheless the ancient pathway for inert carbon atoms to enter the chemistry of life.

By the time the Late Heavy Bombardment had eased, some 3.8 billion years ago, the cyanide had rained down into pools, reacted with metals, evaporated, been baked and irradiated with ultraviolet light, and dissolved by streams flowing down to a freshwater pool. The chemicals formed from the interactions of cyanide combined there in various ways to generate the precursors of lipids, nucleotides and amino acids. These are the three significant components of a living cell — lipids make the walls of a cell’s various compartments; nucleotides store its information; and amino acids assemble into the proteins that control its metabolism.

All of this is a hypothesis, proposed by John Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Cambridge in England. But he has tested all the required chemical reactions in a laboratory and developed evidence that they are plausible under the conditions expected of primitive Earth.

Having figured out a likely chemistry needed to produce the starting materials of life, Dr. Sutherland then developed this geological scenario because it provides the conditions required by the chemistry.

As for the chemistry itself, that springs from Dr. Sutherland’s discovery six years ago of the key to the RNA world.

Finish reading all this HERE.

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