This week in science, technology, public policy

September 11, 2013

  • Open source lab tools

    Scientific instrumentation tends to be expensive: the long r&d&calibration cycles necessary to produce a precise and reliable tool have a direct impact on prices. However, there is a growing number of initiatives that aim to distribute or sell low-cost, “open” tools/techniques, e.g. http://www.openbiotech.com, http://publiclab.org.

    Will openness foster science education and proliferation, specifically in places that cannot afford branded machinery? Is low-cost an observer-independent synonym for low-quality? where quality might mean any combination of reproducibility, availability of debug/maintainance support, etc.

  • The order of things ; what college rankings really tell us – M. Gladwell

    Not exactly news, but this piece from the New Yorker explores how various – arbitrary – choices of metrics used to rank higher education institutions (e.g. graduation rate, tuition etc.) lead to very different results.

    This would not be of much consequence, if these charts were not routinely touted as authoritative by the school deans themselves, and used in all media to bias the perception of “excellence”.

  • NSA: Possibly breaking US laws, but still bound by laws of computational complexity – S. Aaronson

    Scott Aaronson argues that the most widely used “attacks” on citizens’ privacy are the most straightforward (“side-channel”, e.g. lobbying either the standardization committees to put forward weak encryption protocols or commercial software vendors to plant backdoors in their network services) and do not involve disproving mathematically-proven techniques. Social engineering, old as security itself.

    Bruce Schneier, a prominent security expert, gives a few practical tips to have a better illusion of online privacy.

Last but not least, XKCD’s analysis is ever so accurate:

(embedded from http://xkcd.com/1269/ )

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