The Hard Disk That Changed the World

Steven Levy:

The RAMAC, designed in Big Blue’s San Jose, Calif., research center, is the ultimate ancestor of that 1.8-inch drive that holds 7,500 songs inside your pocket-size $299 iPod. Of course, the RAMAC would have made a lousy music player. The drive weighed a full ton, and to lease it you’d pay about $250,000 a year in today’s dollars. Since it required a separate air compressor to protect the two moving “heads” that read and wrote information, it was noisy. The total amount of information stored on its 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks—each of them a pizza-size 24 inches—was 5 megabytes. That’s not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”

Yet those who beheld the RAMAC were astonished. “It was about the size of two large refrigerators, about as tall as a person stands, and though it used vacuum tubes, it was always running,” recalls Jim Porter, who worked at Crown Zellerbach in San Francisco in the mid-’50s and would proudly take people to the basement to see what he claims was the very first unit delivered by IBM. “It really turned the tide [in the Information Age],” he says. “It was the first to offer random access, whereas before you would have to wind a tape from one end to the other to access data.”

What Does $7 Billion in Telco Subsidies Buy?

Thomas Hazlett:

The “universal service” regime ostensibly extends local phone service to consumers who could not otherwise afford it. To achieve this goal, some $7 billion annually is raised – up from less than $4 billion in 1998 – by taxing telecommunications users. Yet, benefits are largely distributed to shareholders of rural telephone companies, not consumers, and fail – on net – to extend network access. Rather, the incentives created by these subsidies encourage widespread inefficiency and block adoption of advanced technologies – such as wireless, satellite, and Internet-based services – that could provide superior voice and data links at a fraction of the cost of traditional fixed-line networks. Ironically, subsidy payments are rising even as fixed-line phone subscribership falls, and as the emergence of competitive wireless and broadband networks make traditional universal service concepts obsolete. Unless policies are reformed to reflect current market realities, tax increases will continue to undermine the very goals “universal service” is said to advance.

Alex Tabarrok adds:

Guess how much would it cost a farmer to get telephone service in a small rural county far from a major city? Let’s say $800 for satellite service.

Now guess how much the government subsidizes rural phone carriers to provide this service. The answer? As much as $13,000 per line per year.

Hackers Clone Human-implanted RFID Chip


This is the first time someone has cloned an human-implanted RFID chip The pair demonstrated the cloning process: Westhues held a standard RFID reader against an arm to register the chip ’s unique identification number. It actually has no security devices what-so-ever – VeriChip’s claims that its RFID chips can not be counterfited

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is (was) a director of Applied Digital Solutions, a firm that is promoting this technology.

License Plate Tracking for All

Luke O’Brien:

In recent years, police around the country have started to use powerful infrared cameras to read plates and catch carjackers and ticket scofflaws. But the technology will soon migrate into the private sector, and morph into a tool for tracking individual motorists’ movements, says former policeman Andy Bucholz, who’s on the board of Virginia-based G2 Tactics, a manufacturer of the technology.

Bucholz, who designed some of the first mobile license plate reading, or LPR, equipment, gave a presentation at the 2006 National Institute of Justice conference here last week laying out a vision of the future in which LPR does everything from helping insurance companies find missing cars to letting retail chains chart customer migrations. It could also let a nosy citizen with enough cash find out if the mayor is having an affair, he says.

Giant data-tracking firms such as ChoicePoint, Accurint and Acxiom already collect detailed personal and financial information on millions of Americans. Once they discover how lucrative it is to know where a person goes between the supermarket, for example, and the strip club, the LPR industry could explode, says Bucholz.

Luck & Business Strategy

James Surowiecki:

Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 1999, after all, it was hard to find a business book that didn’t hold up Enron as the embodiment of one important principle or other. Of course, some strategies and structures work better than others, but real meaning emerges only over the long term.

How Big is the Federal Deficit – Really?

Citizens for Tax Justice:

n July, the Bush administration estimated that the fiscal 2006 budget deficit, including $174 billion borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund, will be $470 billion. That will bring total federal borrowing over the past five years to $2,449 billion.

That $2.4 trillion in borrowing means that from fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2006, a quarter of non-Social Security federal spending will be financed with borrowed money. In contrast, in fiscal 1999 through 2001, the federal government did not borrow a penny from the Social Security Trust Fund.

Indeed, the government saved all of Social Security’s $434 billion in surpluses, and actually ran surpluses in its regular budget, too, thus paying down the national debt by $120 billion.

Google Knows Who You Really Are

Scott Lemon:

It’s always fun to learn whole new layers of technology. What I’m posting about here is probably known by a lot of people, but my recent involvement in two new start-up companies has really started to have me think about the breadth and depth of data mining occurring on the Internet involving personal behavior and habits. And one of the largest harvesters of all of that personal information is Google. There are already others who cover this much better than I … Google Watch is one … however I still wanted to blog about this.