New federal database will track Americans’ credit ratings, other financial information

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

New federal database will track Americans’ credit ratings, other financial information
May 30 2014

As many as 227 million Americans may be compelled to disclose intimate details of their families and financial lives — including their Social Securitynumbers — in a new national database being assembled by two federal agencies.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau posted an April 16 Federal Register notice of an expansion of their joint National Mortgage Database Program to include personally identifiable information that reveals actual users, a reversal of previously stated policy.

FHFA will manage the database and share it with CFPB. A CFPB internal planning document for 2013-17 describes the bureau as monitoring 95 percent of all mortgage transactions.

FHFA officials claim the database is essential to conducting a monthly mortgage survey required by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008and to help it prepare an annual report for Congress.

Critics, however, question the need for such a “vast database” for simple reporting purposes.

In a May 15 letter to FHFA Director Mel Watt and CFPB Director Richard Cordray, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, charged, “this expansion represents an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Americans.”

Crapo is the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Hensarling is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Critics also warn the new database will be vulnerable to cyber attacks that could put private information about millions of consumers at risk. They also question the agency’s authority to collect such information.

Earlier this year, Cordray tried to assuage concerned lawmakers during a Jan. 28 hearing of Hensarling’s panel, saying repeatedly the database will only contain “aggregate” information with no personal identifiers.

But under the April register notice, the database expansion means it will include a host of data points, including a mortgage owner’s name, address, Social Security number, all credit card and other loan information and account balances.

The database will also encompass a mortgage holder’s entire credit history, including delinquent payments, late payments, minimum payments, high account balances and credit scores, according to the notice.

The two agencies will also assemble “household demographic data,” including racial and ethnic data, gender, marital status, religion, education, employment history, military status, household composition, the number of wage earners and a family’s total wealth and assets.

Only 12 public comments were submitted during the 30-day comment period following the notice’s April 16 publication.

The mortgage database is unprecedented and would collect personal mortgage information on every single-family residential first lien loan issued since 1998. Federal officials will continue updating the database into the indefinite future.

The database held information on at least 10.1 million mortgage owners, according to a July 31, 2013, FHFA and CFPB presentation at an international conference on collateral risk.

FHFA has two contracts with CoreLogic, which boasts that it has “access to industry’s largest most comprehensive active and historical mortgage databases of over 227 million loans.”

Cordray confirmed in his January testimony that CoreLogic had been retained for the national mortgage database.

The credit giant Experian is also involved in the mortgage database project, according to an FHFA official who requested anonymity.


A Gathering of Silverbacks: Age of Limits 2014

[Note:  This item comes from friend Jock Gill.  Long, but worth reading!  DLH]

A Gathering of Silverbacks: Age of Limits 2014
By Albert Bates
May 31 2014

“Whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual but came in lurches. Resilience is the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving that kind of shock.”

The first known use of the Infinite Improbability Drive was initiated by Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian on the starship Heart of Gold. Its major consequence was rescuing Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from open space, at the probability of two to the power of 276,709 to one against. Other events that occurred, including those that occurred at a time of abnormality, include: 
• Lots of paper hats and party balloons appeared from a hole in the universe and drifted off in space.
• A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts came from the hole and died from a combination of asphyxiation and surprise.
• 239,000 lightly fried eggs fell out of the hole and onto the famine struck land of Poghril in the Pansel system. This caused the one surviving man of the Poghril tribe to die from cholesterol poisoning some weeks later.
• Arthur and Ford appeared to be at the sea front at South End, and were passed by a man with five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers.

Improbability is something we just have to come to better grips with. When we were young, we learned from those around us, hairless baboons like ourselves who had been here longer, in some cases much longer, that they were once young like us and that now they had grown up and gone on to be something like what we would eventually become. We learned that is how the world works. As we studied history and listened to the tales we were told, we constructed patterns to explain the world in terms of linear progressions. History marches. Spot the trend and follow the chart. Skate to where the puck will be.

Now, arriving at this new century we have to throw out that rule book. We are in the realm of highly improbable events that almost daily transform our world. The world our children and grandchildren will inhabit, and the rules they must learn to live by, or even invent, will be very different than those of our grandparents and their grandparents. For these momentous changes, one needs to seek some kind of guidance, and it can be difficult to find.

Somewhere up a wooded ridgeline following a dirt road in the Appalachians on the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Kentucky border, by a hillside where a strong river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, you’ll find Orren Whiddon building ceremonial circles out of huge monoliths. Orren was raised in a Texas farm family, became a master machinist, and now, in his 60s with a grey beard, has been methodically putting together a small colony of would-be Anthropocene survivors and assembling a village-scale doomstead.

He wears torn bluejeans held by leather suspenders over a striped shirt recently stained with grease and spattered with sawdust from the machine shop where he spends his time on custom work when not roaming the land or sitting at a computer browsing RSS feeds of world news. Half-read books pile up on his desk, amidst stacks of scientific paper reprints, mail and notepads. Four Quarters Sanctuary is a retreat for native and non-native worshipers, a place of sweat lodges and Beltaine fire circles, home to a large annual music festival, and one other event of note — this annual Age of Limits conference.


Universities can’t fulfill the myth, but they can’t become a vocational school either

Universities can’t fulfill the myth, but they can’t become a vocational school either
Universities come with a mythical mission. But they don’t fulfil it.
By Chris Lee
May 31 2014

Is it time to rethink higher education? I’m someone who went through the system and I’m now, to a greater or lesser extent, contributing to its maintenance, so it seems strange that I should advocate its dismantling. Yet I’m beginning to think that I ought to.

Unlike most rants of this nature, I have no complaints about the modern standard of education. The myth of falling standards has been with us since the Roman republic decided that they wanted the south of France as their personal back garden. If they really were falling for that long, we would all be living in caves wondering how our fore bearers were able to create this thing called fire.

Indeed, I think that students today learn a hell of a lot more than I did in my day. Although I may mourn the fact that Lagrangian mechanics is now a footnote on the way to a physics degree, that is not a sign of falling standards, but rather tells us that it is more important to learn other things to obtain a relevant education.

No, my complaint is that universities do not fill the role that there weresupposed to play, and they are very inefficient at fulfilling the role that theyactually play.

The rose colored past that never was

Usually when people extol the virtues of universities, they discuss teaching people how to think, and how to critically examine evidence and ideas. The ideal role of this sort of university is to churn out well-rounded individuals who can think independently. Most people who despair of today’s youth seem to think that these ideal universities are a casualty of the modern world. The young lads that universities used to produce—ladies being considered too delicate in nature to actually think in those days—were supposed to cast a jaundiced eye over society and to defend against iniquities of government, big business, and, in general, be superheroes without a secret identity.

My point here is not that this ideal was a bad thing, but that universities were never intended to be places to develop independent inquiring minds. And today, universities are ill suited to developing independent inquiring minds.

In the past, universities really only served two purposes. You can see this by examining who attended universities, and what those people went on to do. Traditionally, the university intake was dominated by young men who had attended private schools. That is, young men from rich families would be sent to Eaton or Rugby to learn their letters and look down on everyone else. After a smooth passage through these schools, they were sent on to Oxford or Cambridge to complete their education.

They didn’t really go to university to learn anything much. Instead, the effect of going to private schools and university was to develop a circle of close friends who could be relied upon to continue to smooth each other’s passage through life. That was the primary purpose of university: to give young men a chance to form bonds of friendship that would serve to secure and increase their family interests in the future.

Which brings us to what these young folk went on to do. Sure, some went on to specialized professions, such as law or medicine. But, a significant fraction came from families that were rich and had diverse interests: a family might own land with tenant farmers, part of a shipping fleet, a plantation in the Caribbean, and a small Indian village. To successfully manage diverse interests does not require a degree in physics, or mathematics, or (heaven forbid) business management. Even as a younger son with very little in the way of prospects, a life in government service—invading other nations for fun and profit—would not benefit from a degree in a specific topic.

This brings us to the second reason for the existence of universities. Young men, when they have finished high school are still a little too enthusiastic and impulsive to be given charge of a multimillion dollar business. So, they were sent to university to mature. Any actual learning they did was a happy accident.

I think it is pretty easy to see that this model is never going to serve in terms of creating independent thinkers. The university was a place that shaped young men to maintain their power and position. Doing so meant they shouldn’t think too critically about the society in which they lived. Which is not to say that none did, or that none of the teachers encouraged it. Rather, this type of thinking was present in what was very much a minority of students, and it was an unintended positive consequence of the university system.


The Moon Gets Broadband Wireless Connection

Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

The Moon Gets Broadband Wireless Connection
By Janet Fang
May 30 2014

Working from moon? Forget dial-up speeds. A team of MIT and NASA researchers is demonstrating a laser-based data communication technology that provides space workers (or maybe even dwellers) with the connectivity we have on Earth. That means large data transfers and high-definition video streaming from and on the lunar surface.  

Last fall, the on-orbit performance of their moon-to-Earth uplink shattered previous transmission speed records. Now they’ve got the underlying physics sorted out, and they think the technology could even extend into deep-space missions to Mars. 

The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) transmitted over 384,633 kilometers between here and the moon at a download rate of 622 megabits per second. They also sent data from Earth to the moon at 19.44 megabits per second. That’s 4,800 times faster than the best radio frequency uplink ever used.

“Communicating at high data rates from Earth to the moon with laser beams is challenging because of the 400,000-kilometer distance spreading out the light beam,” Mark Stevens of MIT Lincoln Laboratory says in a news release. “It’s doubly difficult going through the atmosphere, because turbulence can bend light — causing rapid fading or dropouts of the signal at the receiver.”

To avoid a fading signal over such a distance, they employed several techniques to help overcome a wide range of atmospheric conditions, in both darkness and light, and through clouds in our atmosphere. 

A ground terminal (pictured below) at White Sands, New Mexico, uses four telescopes to send the uplink signal to the moon. Each telescope is about 15 centimeters in diameter and fed by a laser transmitter that sends information coded as pulses of infrared light. The four separate transmitters combined results in 40 watts of power. 


Meet NASA’s commercial space capsule contenders

Meet NASA’s commercial space capsule contenders
May 31 2014

Sure, the Dragon V2 is the latest (and greatest) spacecraft from SpaceX, but it’s not the only capsule that may one day schlep astronauts to the International Space Station. In fact, Elon Musk’s firm is just one of three private outfits currently competing in a NASA program for commercial launches with their own vehicles. We’ve surveyed the space capsule landscape and have whipped up a primer on the future crafts that may wind up taking humans to space.

The second-gen Dragon just had its coming-out party, but we’ll recap the highlights. As SpaceX’s workhorse, the original Dragon has sat atop Falcon 9 rockets and carried cargo to the International Space Station, but it hasn’t been able to safely transport humans. Dragon V2 remedies that, providing accommodations for up to seven passengers (or less for additional cargo space). What’s more, it’s expected the capsule can be used up to 10 times before needing significant repairs.

Eight new SuperDraco engines are fitted into the vehicle, allowing it to land on solid ground with the precision of helicopter, all without using a single parachute. Of course, in an emergency, the vessel can use its reserve chutes and drop itself into the sea. A battery of tests is still in the cards for Dragon V2 before it goes airborne, but it’s expected to fly with humans aboard in 2016.


Engineering Our Way Out of Fascism

Engineering Our Way Out of Fascism
May 28 2014

Smári “Mailpile” McCarthy’s lecture ‘Engineering Our Way Out of Fascism’ sets out a set of technical, legal and social interventions we can undertake to make mass surveillance impossible, starting with this: “The goal of those interested in protecting human rights should be to raise the average cost of surveillance to $10.000 per person per day within the next five years.”

Video+Transcript: 54:42 min

Europe demands driverless cars be driveable

Europe demands driverless cars be driveable
Legal framework for the sale of self-driving vehicles isn’t there yet.
By Chris Baraniuk,
May 31 2014

The latest in a long line of breezy promotional videos from Google has landed. This time, it was the company’s self-driving vehicle project that took centre stage. Although the car’s dinky, bubble-like design was mocked by some, its announcement has also been widely understood to signal the fact that autonomous vehicles are now entering the next level of testing and development.

Google’s cars will, for now, be limited to trials in the Palo Alto firm’s home state of California. So what about driverless transportation in Europe? Is the EU ready to embrace this technology, or is it about to be left in the wake of another American innovation?

At first glance the situation seems a little murky. Both BMW and Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, have been working on autonomous vehicle concepts for years, such as BMW’s self-driving 5 Series.

However, spokespersons for both companies have admitted to that marketable products in this category are a long way off. The reason? Simply put, it’s because the legal framework that would enable the sale of such vehicles is more or less absent.

“The legislation is just not in place for us to be able to put these vehicles on the market,” explains a BMW spokesperson.

Essentially, EU law has not yet worked out applicable assumptions and rules that would apply to the kind of intermittently autonomous vehicles currently available, never mind the sort of design just shown off by Google—which lacks a steering wheel.

The UN Convention on Road Traffic was until very recently considered a major stumbling block to European progress in this area. Based on a 1968 agreement, the original ruling demanded that a driver be in control of his or her vehicle “at all times.” Now that’s been changed to allow for autonomous systems but the law still stipulates that the human driver be able to retake control at any moment. Cars without steering wheels aren’t coming to the EU any time soon.

But a closer look at the situation reveals some surprising advantages that makers of autonomous vehicles have in the EU when compared to their American counterparts. For one thing, the European Union has for years supported a number of large, politically impactful projects which have sought to explore the viability of self-driving cars and shuttle services.

The SARTRE project demonstrated how “road trains”—convoys of self-driving automobiles led by a human driver in the leading vehicle—were relatively easy and safe to deploy. Around the same time, the Citymobil initiative, which included the autonomous pods at Heathrow Terminal 5, brought three distinctdriverless shuttle programs to European locations.

A public report produced at the end of the Citymobil project stated, “Until a set of generally accepted certification guidelines exist, it will be difficult for system developers to convince authorities and operators that automated systems are safe.” However, Citymobil2 was launched in September 2012 and is currently exploring what a future certification framework for European shuttle systems might look like.