Friday, March 7, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

'Person of Interest': The TV Show That Predicted Edward Snowden

Person of Interest (TV series)

The morning of June 9, 2013, was surreal for the writers of "Person of Interest," the science-fictional CBS drama about government surveillance. Sixteen months earlier, they had written an episode about an N.S.A. whistle-blower - a fresh-faced, thirty-three-year-old analyst named Henry Peck. When Peck discovers that his agency is conducting "illegal surveillance on a massive scale," he sets up a meeting with a journalist, and soon finds himself evading a squad of government assassins. ("Our own government has been spying on us," he says, "and they're trying to kill me to cover it up!") The episode, called "No Good Deed," had aired in May, 2012.

Now, more than a year later, it turned out that there was a real N.S.A. whistle-blower: Edward Snowden. Like the fictional Peck, Snowden had a youthful face, a swoop of brown hair, and an idealistic streak that seemed at odds with his job at a spy agency. "We all came into work having read the Guardian article," Amanda Segel, a writer and co-executive producer, recalled, "and we realized we had actually done an episode that mirrored this very real story in Season 1." The writers spent the morning adjusting to the idea that their "grounded sci-fi" show had somehow become, as Segel put it, "more real."

In the Guardian article, Snowden said that he couldn't, in good conscience, "allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building." Since its première, in 2011, "Person of Interest" (which airs on Tuesdays at 10 P.M.) has taken the idea of a surveillance machine literally: in the world of the show, the government has built a vast, artificially intelligent computer system called the Machine, which reads every e-mail, listens to every phone call, and watches every CCTV camera. Flawlessly, and without human intervention, the Machine provides the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. with the identities of terrorist plotters around the world. But because it sees everything - it reads the e-mails not only of terrorists but also of regular citizens - the Machine can predict when ordinary people are planning violent crimes. The government ignores these predictions, and it falls to Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), the reclusive computer genius who invented the Machine, to respond. In partnership with a former Special Operations soldier named John Reese (Jim Caviezel), Finch leads a vigilante team of hackers, cops, and former Special Ops personnel to stop the crimes before they happen.

The show's cleverest twist is the Machine's off-kilter respect for civil liberties. Programmed never to divulge personal information about its surveillance targets, the Machine dispenses only their Social Security numbers. (The show's creators got the idea from the book "The Watchers," a history of N.S.A. surveillance by the journalist Shane Harris, which describes how John Poindexter, the head of the Total Information Awareness program, envisioned a Machine-like system equipped with a module that would hide the identities of surveillees from intelligence analysts, representing them only with numerical codes.) Thanks to the Machine's probity, it's unclear at the beginning of most episodes whether the person of the week is "the victim" or "the perpetrator"; all we know is that he or she is about to be involved in something bad. As a result, everyone must be equally surveilled. Much of the show's energy derives from this ambiguous setup. Even as you root for the heroes, you're unsettled by the surveillance society that they represent. (They're unsettled, too. "We probably shouldn't have built it," Finch admits, allowing that the Machine might be a "beautiful" but "terrible" invention.) In many ways, "Person of Interest" is a show about atonement. {Read on New Yorker}

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dead Houbara bustards -- after a hunt by Arab royals in Pakistan's Sindh province.

{Via Twitter}

Friday, January 10, 2014

This is an amazing moment that’s as crazy as it is brief.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sarajevo mourns a shoe-shine man

Around 2,000 people have signed a petition calling for the erection of a statue to Husein Hasani, the last shoe-shiner of Sarajevo - who plied his trade for decades, becoming a symbol of the city. 

Several thousand people have asked the Sarajevo authorities to erect a statue to Husein Hasani, a much-loved shoe shiner who died on Monday of a heart attack aged 82.

"Uncle Miso was a legend of Sarajevo, the last shoeshiner on our streets," the online petition reads. "Throughout his life he was fair, he helped when he could, and he was one of the best people. He deserves his monument," it adds.

Miso plied his trade for decades on Sarajevo's central boulevard, Marshal Tito Street. On hearing news of his death, many people brought flowers and lit candles around the chair where he spent his days polishing away and chatting to rich and poor alike.

Miso was not unrecognised even during his lifetime. Several years ago, the city authorities awarded him an apartment.

The Mayor of Sarajevo, Ivo Komsic, recalled Miso as an icon of the city in which he had lived and worked for decades - which he had loved, and which loved him in return.

"Uncle Miso became a symbol of this city," said Komsic. "He use to say that he knew ministers and common workers, who all come to have their shoes cleaned and talk a bit."

Komsic added that Miso was a sort of a mayor of Sarajevo himself and that the city will miss him.
shoe-shiner of Sarajevo - who plied his trade for decades, becoming a symbol of the city.{Via Balkaninsight}

WaterWheel to ease burden on women


Girls and women carrying plastic jerry cans of water on their heads is a common sight in rural areas of poor countries. The WaterWheel eases that burden by storing water in a round 50-litre container that doubles as a wheel.

Designed after consultations with villagers in the dry northern Indian state of Rajasthan, the WaterWheel is made from high-quality plastic that can withstand rough terrain. It will sell for $25-$30, compared with $75-$100 for similar products.

"Our goal is to distribute on a large scale, on small margins to 10,000-20,000 customers a year," says Cynthia Koenig, founder and chief executive of Wello, a US social venture working on ways to deliver clean water in poor countries. Wello won a $100,000 Grand Challenges Canada prize to develop the WaterWheel.

The idea came from an exploratory trip to India in 2010 to ask what people thought of the idea of rolling water, instead of carrying it. "We were pleasantly surprised," Koenig says. "We returned a year later, worked in close collaboration with villages in Rajasthan, and kept coming back to the idea of rolling water. We were surprised the idea had so much traction - we never thought it would work in India."

The designers played around with different sizes - 10-20 litres - before agreeing on 50 litres. While the WaterWheel was created with women in mind, as they tend to collect water, Koenig says Wello has been surprised by its popularity among men.

"One of most exciting things is that men love using it, they see it as a tool," she adds. "Men take on the primary role so the women are freed up to do other things. Or the role is split so men use it four days a week and the women use it two days. It has reduced the burden on women. A nurse told me she is not late for work anymore because the husband collects the water."

The device, to be constructed Ahmedabad city in Gujarat, also saves time, at least an hour in many cases. It is also being used for irrigation and to bring water to animals.

Wello plans to sell the WaterWheel in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat states, as well as explore opportunities for water purification. {Via The Guardian}

God that sounds sexy!

It's official: Reptiles can use tools to help them hunt.

New research shows that alligators and crocodiles can use small sticks to attract birds looking for nesting
materials. If the birds get too close, they become a meal. The behavior has so far been observed among American alligators in Louisiana, as well as mugger crocodiles (also known as marsh crocodiles) in India.

Alligators only engaged in this trickery during the nesting season and in areas where birds nested, said Vladimir Dinets, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. During nesting season, there's often a shortage of sticks in marshy areas where these reptiles and birds overlap, and birds sometimes even fight amongst themselves to procure sticks to build nests. The study, which Dinets co-authored and which was published in late November in the journal Ethology Ecology & Evolution, suggests that there is no other explanation for this behavior than as one of tool use.

"What's really remarkable  -  they are not only using lures, but they are timing it to just when the birds they want to capture are nesting and looking for sticks to use," said Gordon Burghardt, an ethologist (animal behaviorist) and comparative psychologist specializing in reptiles at UT-Knoxville. "They are making some assessment of the birds themselves."

An American alligator successfully lures a snowy egret with a stick, and then eats it, at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.Pin It An American alligator successfully lures a snowy egret with a stick, and then eats it, at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida. Credit: Don SpechtView full size image "This is indeed the first convincing evidence of tool use in any reptile," said Burghardt, who wasn't involved in the study. [Alligator Alley: Pictures of Monster Reptiles]

The finding, along with other recent work, suggests reptiles are much more intelligent than generally acknowledged, Dinets said. As anybody who studies the beasts can attest, they are quite smart, he added. Crocodiles, for example, have complex communication systems, can hunt in coordination and ambush prey, and both parents may help raise young, he said.

Relatively less is known about crocodiles and alligators than many animals, because, as large predators, they are difficult to raise in the lab and study up close in the wild. Their cold-bloodedness also makes them slow.

"They operate on a different time scale; they do things more slowly," Burghardt said. "Sometimes we don't have the patience to let them strut their stuff, as it were ... so this kind of study is important."

Wading birds like snowy egrets have been known to nest in wooded islands near areas with high levels of alligators, for example in Florida. Scientists think the birds nest near such scaly enemies because the alligators keep at bay predators like snakes. Apparently, the occasional loss of adult birds to the hungry alligators, or nestlings that fall into the water, is worth the lowered risk of being eaten by something else, according to the study. {Via}