Petitioning The Government To Update Electronic Communications Law

One of the petitions that generated a response from the U.S. government this summer concerned outdated laws on electronic communications.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was passed by Congress back in 1986 and was intended to update wiretapping laws to reflect the advent of e-mail and comparable electronic communications.

There has been action in Congress over the last several years to try and update the legislation.  Senator Leahy of Vermont, who was instrumental in crafting the initial legislation, understands the need to update it and has worked with others to extend the protection of a warrant to many forms of electronic communications stored with third parties.  Based on the 1986 laws, electronic communications could only be accessed with a warrant if they were kept with the individual.  But with web-based and cloud-based services, many electronic communications are held with third parties.  As such, after 180 days no warrant is necessary to access such communications.

The Administration was supportive of ECPA reform in its response, but since updates to this and other privacy laws have gone through the Congressional process several times without sniffing the President’s desk, it’s not clear from the response that the Administration is likely to expend much political capital on the latest bill supporting ECPA reform.

We The People – A Meaningful Tool For Disease Advocacy?

A fair number of petitions on the We The People site focus on individual matters.  This could be a petition about a bestowing an honor on a particular person, seeking some kind of criminal proceeding (or the ending of same), or resolving some injustice.  Individual matters can also include specific species or diseases.

A petition on sickle cell disease (one type of which is sickle cell anemia) was started last September and gathered enough signatures to receive a response from the Administration.  While the petition mentions support for a particular piece of legislation (which did not advance in the last Congress) the Administration’s response focused, as is its custom, on executive branch actions.

The response describes how the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are doing to improve understanding and awareness of Sickle Cell Disease.

Now, from an uninformed outsider, this seems to be a case where the Administration response implies a message of ‘don’t worry about it, we’re giving it the level of attention that (the petitioners) want.’  Presumably the disease organizations that spearheaded the petition drive have been doing other things to make sure Sickle Cell Disease gets the attention they think a national health priority warrants.  But I wouldn’t blame anyone who considers the response little more than lip service.

Petition Site Dabbles In Science And Technology Topics

In late July the White House announced a revision of its We The People petition site, and released several petition responses at the same time.  Some of those petitions addressed science and technology topics.  I’m very late in getting back to this, but it’s worth exploring each of those responses, if only briefly.

In February of this year, a petition was filed to ban the mandatory vaccination of anyone for any reason.  Not that the Administration seriously considered agreeing with the petitioner, the response was very thorough and accompanied by a video message from the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.  In the response both Murthy and President Obama are quoted on the necessity of vaccination and the benefits of the same.  The response notes that state and local laws typically determine vaccination policies for school admission, and that typically employers are the parties responsible for any vaccination policies for their employees.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of October 5

This marks my 3,000th post (combining what I posted on Prometheus and here at Pasco Phronesis).  I suspect as many as one or two hundred might be any good.  Feel free to (dis)agree in the comments.

This week the film Steve Jobs (not to be confused with the 2013 film Jobs) premieres in the U.S.  Michael Fassbender plays Jobs, and he will be on with Jimmy Fallon on Thursday.  The night before (Wednesday), Kate Winslet will chat with Jimmy, she is also in the film.  Aaron Sorkin wrote the movie (based in part on the Walter Isaacson biography), and he will be on The Daily Show Tuesday and talking with Conan O’Brien on Thursday.

Surprisingly (at least to me) there aren’t more promotional appearances tied into The Martian this week.  On Friday’s show, Jimmy Kimmel will repeat last week’s episode featuring the film’s star, Matt Damon.  It’s possible that The Nightly Show will spend some time on the film, but the program rarely tips its hand in advance of any night’s episode.

Stephen Colbert continues to bring it in terms of science and technology content.  On Thursday’s episode (which will be delayed by football in the eastern U.S.), he will have on the CEO of Airbnb and devote some time to an automated tackling dummy developed by researchers at Dartmouth.

I’ll close out this week’s entry by noting that former Tonight Show host Jay Leno is returning to television with a car show.  Jay Leno’s Garage seems geared toward serious automotive enthusiasts, but it’s hard to tell before the first episode airs how much Leno will get into automotive tech.  I suspect it will be at least a little.

In Case Gravity Or The Martian Weren’t Enough Space Disaster For You

This weekend The Martian premiered in U.S. cinemas to popular and critical approval.  (No spoilers ahead, unless you haven’t read the book or seen any previews.).

Working in a similar space (pun unavoidable) as the 2013 film Gravity, The Martian focuses on the plight of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet when he appears to be killed during the evacuation of a Martian expedition.  I’ll save an examination of the films’ relative merits for a later post, and simply note that true-life space disaster made it to film first, with Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff chronicling space struggles in the middle of the last century.

If reality-based disaster is more your thing, a forthcoming Science Channe program may be your thing.  Secret Space Escapes premieres in the U.S. on November 10.  It will cover accidents near misses and other problems astronauts and cosmonauts have faced.  Missions covered in the show date back to the 1960s and from as recently as 2013.

Vatican Appoints New Chief Astronomer

No doubt buried under the news related to the Pope’s recent Western Hemisphere travel the Vatican Observatory announced a new Chief Astronomer (H/T ScienceInsider).  Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, takes over from Father José Funes who ends his second five-year term.  Father Funes is also a Jesuit and an Argentinian like Pope Francis.  His tenure leading the Observatory was marked by moving the Observatory to new headquarters, and a modernization of the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona

Consolmagno is American, and holds a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona. He has served at the Observatory since 1993 and his research has focused on the relationship between meteorites, asteroids, and small solar system bodies.  There is an asteroid named for Brother Consolmagno, and he appeared on The Colbert Report back in 2009.

The Vatican Observatory was established in its current form by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.  However, papal interest in astronomy dates back to at least 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII consulted with astronomers to correct for errors in the Julian calendar that had been in use for more than 1500 years.  While observational research is conducted at the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona, the Observatory has collections of scientific works and instruments.  It also has a meteorite collection and laboratory which certainly influenced Brother Consolmagno to join the staff shortly after entering the Jesuit order in 1989.

Colbert’s Late Show Leads To Uptick In Late Night Science And Technology Content

Tonight marks the end of the fourth week of Stephen Colbert’s tenure at The Late Show.  Colbert often led in terms of science and technology content on his Comedy Central program and his CBS program has worked hard to maintain that lead.  This week marked the fifth tech company CEO to appear on the show – out of 19 episodes.  This week Colbert also spoke with inventor and designer Dominic Wilcox and game designer Sean Murray.  Unlike most other computer game segments at least part of Colbert’s conversation focused on the design of Murray’s forthcoming game (No Man’s Sky) and the algorithms that help populate the universe of the game.

And that was just the announced guests.  Tonight’s program included a humor segment on robots which might be a regular bit.  Earlier this week Colbert also mentioned climate change and China during another desk segment.

it even featured in the digressions. While Morgan Freeman was not on to promote Through the Wormhole, he and Stephen briefly discussed the program and the recent news about water on Mars.

So after all the churn in late night programming, it’s starting to look like science and technology content may become a larger part of the landscape.  While I have not yet watched the first week of Trevor Noah hosting The Daily Show, Larry Wilmore has brought a fair amount of science and technology content to The Nightly Show.

I still miss Craig Ferguson’s Nobel Prize monologues, but there will be plenty to post about late night television here every Monday.