Sunday musings: Our pixel in the universe, pernicious keywords, electronic devices in the air


Pale Blue Dot – Animation from Ehdubya on Vimeo.

As travelers, we know the world is full of new places and experiences. This video puts us in our place as a planet and a pixel of the universe. Next, TSA and DHS take a look at language, but not in a way that we should really accept. Finally, a look at the possible ending of the ban on electronic devices during takeoff and landing in planes.

An animated adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

As Voyager 1 becomes the first man-made object to break free from our solar system, this is a good time to reflect on how tiny a speck of the vastness of space we are. So far, Voyager 1 is the ultimate traveler launched from Earth into the vast cosmic arena. How much longer will it be before man follows?

Thirty-five years ago …, the Voyager 1 launched into space in a quest to explore the outer solar system and carried with it the Golden Record, an ultimate mixtape of humanity’s sounds that was also a record of how Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan fell in eternal love. There’s hardly a better way to celebrate the Voyager’s legacy than with Sagan’s iconic, timeless, infinitely humbling yet awe-inspiring Pale Blue Dot (public library), based on the photograph of the same title taken by the Voyager 1 in 1990.

The language of Homeland Security

It’s a little bit creepy. Homeland Security is scanning all of our Twitter and Facebook posts looking for words that may indicate we are terrorists. It’s a bit like searching our files without a warrant. This keyword search is part of the layers of security we now enjoy as travelers.

DHS has been forced to release a list of keywords and phrases it uses to monitor various social networking sites. The list provides a glimpse into what DHS describes as, “signs of terrorist or other threats against the U.S.”

The information sheds new light on how government analysts are instructed to patrol the internet while searching for domestic and external threats.

Here is the full list of keywords being searched by DHS.

When will the ban on electronic devices end? Study under way, but not so fast.

The Wall Street Journal takes a close look at the new panel that will be studying use of electronic devices in planes during takeoff and landing. Scott McCartney’s advice — Not so fast.

The crucial point is that there really is evidence of the potential for a problem. The nonprofit RTCA Inc., a high-level scientific group made up of industry experts that advises the FAA on technical issues, said in a lengthy study in 2008 that emissions from transmitting personal electronic devices, or T-PEDS, could interfere with critical aircraft systems.

The panel conducting the RTCA study included representatives from airlines Boeing Co, Airbus, cellular providers, equipment makers and government regulators. The work was thorough, and yet it doesn’t get much attention — probably because people who want to lift the ban find it doesn’t support their case.

Regulators believe there is a chance that electronic emissions from passenger devices could interfere with navigation instruments, so best just to turn them off for takeoff and landing. It’s hard to see how a new panel is going to come to a different conclusion.

  • Anonymous

    What in the name of common sense is “creepy” about the government scanning Twitter posts for keywords. Do you really, after all this time, fail to comprehend that Twitter is a public feed and that ANYBODY at ANY MOMENT can get real-time reports of Twitter activity. Here, for example, is all the Twitter posts with your name, Charlie (apparently you’re not too popular):!/search/realtime/Leocha

    It would be moronic of the government NOT to do this. And it is moronic of any citizen to judge them for it.

  • Jonathan_G

    I agree completely. If someone makes an announcement in a public forum that includes “white powder”, “deaths”, “anthrax” and “white house”, the authorities would be absurd to not look a little closer to establish whether someone is a credible threat.

    Paying attention to comments made in public fora, which can be done by any individual as well as the government, is a very different thing from eavesdropping on private conversations or intercepting messages where there is an expectation of privacy. The former is perfectly legitimate while the latter at the very least requires careful oversight if it is to be allowed at all.

    You don’t think the corporations are doing the same thing all the time, to glean feedback on their products, to profile potential customers, etc? Why do you think there’s such an explosion of interest in so-called “big data”? At least the government can be forced to disclose what it’s up to. In my book, that makes them a more trustworthy big brother than the varied corporate entities who are far more likely than the government to be motivated solely by self-interest and not the common good.

  • Jonathan_G

    If Voyager I were breaking free from our universe, it would be absolutely momentous news. By being the first manmade object to leave the solar bubble (and report back to us!), Voyager I represents mankind dipping its toe into the much larger pool of interstellar space for the first time. That’s certainly big enough news already.

    Voyager is not escaping the universe, nor the local group of galaxies, nor our own Galaxy, nor the local arm of the Galaxy, nor the local neighborhood of the Sun. It’s approaching the outer limits of our Solar System. The field within which the little blue dot is a pixel is itself a pixel within the Solar neighborhood; that neighborhood is a mere pixel within the local arm of the Galaxy, and so on. The universe, which encompasses every star and every galaxy we can observe, is incredibly more vast than the Solar System. To put it in perspective a different way, Voyager I would have to travel more than 2000 times its current distance from Earth just to reach the nearest known star, Proxima Centauri.

  • Charlie Leocha

    Noted and corrected. Thanks.

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