A glimpse at the ideas re-shaping building design from the science up

Passive house image

I wrote the cover story to the special September edition of “Green Building + Design,” a design-porn glossy that doesn’t shy away from hard questions about its subjects. (I, for one, balk at the consumerist trend to “be green.”)

I wrote about the mantra–and standards–called Passive House, which uses modelling and analysis to incorporate remarkable efficiencies without breaking the bank.

In choosing photos, of course, the magazine has to cater to its audience, which craves pricey aesthetics.

Here’s the PDF of the 10-page spread, but in case you want to get a feel before jumping in, I’ve pasted the leading paragraphs below.

When you’re old and frail, or maybe when your kids are old and frail, textbooks may refer back to the early 2000s as the time when we started applying the same rigorous science to the design of our built environment that for a hundred years already we had put to work in our cars, entertainment, and communication. Those future readers might wonder, “What took us so long?”

Nobody is doing more to advance building science today than the people behind Passive House. They advocate super-tight envelopers, extreme insulation and specialty windows, window placement that accounts for solar gain, and heat-exchanger ventilators and heat-recapturing appliances. They’re thoroughly mindful of thermal bridging–properly insulating I-beams from the outside, for example, since in the winter they suck heat out.

One of the Passive House movement’s most significant achievements is analytical software that ties together all these techniques and materials and provides predictive power based on real analyses of houses built before.

I helped break who Chicago police were spying on

leader

Kristiana Rae Colón, center with the red scarf, leads a “Brown Friday” protest in a Chicago shopping district. This reporter broke the news that Colón, daughter of an Alderman, likely had her phone surveilled by Chicago police trying to learn where the protest was headed. Photo credit: Bryant Cross.

This story of mine, published on the website Reader Supported News, first divulged the identity of protest organizer Kristiana Rae Colón, the likely target of police cellphone surveillance.

(Colón was the organizer of that day’s protests, told police as much, and police were later recorded asking one another whether they were receiving any information from the “girl” organizer’s phone.)

It served as my very quick education into the world of police surveillance technology. More stories on the subject will follow.

The past few months in photos, minus all the computers

Roadblocks en route to the world’s thinnest watch

CT Blue_Sky_Watch_05.JPGChicagoan Jerry O’Leary, wearing the watch he designed and helped engineer—the world’s thinnest. His company is called Central Standard Timing. Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak, used with permission from Chicago Tribune.

A year ago, when I read news stories on the Kickstarter hardware phenomenon of the millimeter-thin watch, I latched onto the catchy company name and the care taken to design the font used on the watch’s curved face.

Little did I know, I’d write a little blurb about these cats and what they’ve gone through, for the Tribune’s Blue Sky project.

Jerry made the process sound grueling. I got the sense he wasn’t trying to dissuade competition, but truthfully discuss the work involved. Still, I probably would have made the same choices he did.

That is, if I knew how  to engineer electronics.

eBay entrepreneur could make the powerful and corrupt shiver

If the stories are saying what I think they are, one of the biggest barriers to doing important journalism—heavy security protecting your sources and research—will soon be less about cobbling together your own ragtag system and more about buying into a proven solution.

Let’s just hope they open the source code.

I’m excited about Greenwald and Omidyar’s new organization for its journalism potential, but even more excited about the fact that it’s getting into the “technology” business to produce tech for “new media.” That’s so incredibly vague, but I suspect it’ll be looking to fill the need for end-to-end-secure products that are easy enough for everyone to use.

For example, PGP (the widely used e-mail encryption scheme) works, and is fun for those who use it, but I posit that’s in part because it has such a small user base. It’s like you’re in a little club. And in fact, the not-insignificant setup work and learning curve can fuel a nice smug attitude with every use.

It shouldn’t be this way. If everyone encrypted their communication, corporations and governments wouldn’t be developing the huge profiles on us that they do. (If you don’t care about that, read this right now, then return if you’d like.) Lots of folks wish for the ability to evade the dragnet—and journalists NEED to—so I figured it was only a matter of time before someone capitalized on these gaps.

(Of course, PGP is only good so far as the NSA doesn’t have quantum computing, which it looks like they don’t at the moment…and so far as they don’t keylog everyone, or in particular, YOU. I hope First Look Media makes some software that detects and eludes keyloggers.)

What are the gaps as I see them? I already mentioned encrypted e-mail and keylogging. (OTR chat is pretty easy enough already.) To head off the potential fall of RSA, they could ramp up the development of elliptic curve cryptography. They could get into making whole-drive encryption systems that rely on both hardware and software-level encryption. I suspect they could develop software (free software as a loss-leader??) that helps folks pick strong, easy-to-remember passwords. They could use Poitras’ experience in mail drops and drive-wiping to create systems for that with less friction.

I don’t think they could compete with LastPass or 1Password. I don’t think they could compete with Freedom of the Press Foundation’s SecureDrop system for anonymous submissions. They could manufacture extremely cheap burner phones whose cases decompose in landfills when you toss ’em. If the battery were easier to disconnect, people would be more inclined to do that whenever they weren’t using it. No GPS transponder, obviously, but tower triangulation is a problem. I wonder if there’s software akin to TOR that could mask what towers your signal is going through. (hint hint)

Seriously, the opportunity for providing secure systems to journalists, in particular, is huge. After the past year’s disclosures, inkbloods are shaking in their boots.

In a few years, if journos like me are armed with the right tools, I suspect any sufficiently corrupt politician or corporate executive will be doing the same.

A judge rules

It’s not the last word, but a hint of rulings to come. Below are excerpts from the Times’ story about a federal judge ruling against one NSA data-siphoning program.

In a statement distributed by the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was a recipient of leaked documents from Mr. Snowden and who wrote the first article about the bulk data collection, Mr. Snowden hailed the ruling.

“I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” Mr. Snowden said. “Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”

Though long and detailed, the ruling is not a final judgment, but rather a request for an injunction to stop the data collection while the plaintiffs pursued the case. It turned on whether there was a substantial likelihood that they would ultimately succeed and whether they would suffer substantial harm in the meantime.

But Judge Leon left little doubt about his view.

(Among other things, the judge stated the following)

“…it is significantly likely that on that day, I will answer that question in plaintiffs’ favor.”

I’d be at risk of re-posting the entire article if I were to paste more. But there’s more juicy stuff to be read—particularly about how effective the judge thinks the programs have been at thwarting terrorism—so head on over and read it.