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Technology

Home alarm systems: how can I improve my security?

Peter has to move from his very secure high-rise flat and wants to avoid being burgled

I currently live in a high-rise flat, which is very secure, with CCTV, fob-controlled access and so on. Unfortunately, due to Grenfell, our block is being emptied for refurbishment. I don’t know what type of property I will be offered, but I will have to provide my own home security system. Cost is not a major issue, because I will get a disturbance grant for the enforced move. But, as a pensioner, I wouldn’t like to be saddled with a high monthly premium for monitoring. Any suggestions would be very welcome.Peter

Technology companies are selling a lot of new gadgets to increase home security, including smart locks, motion detectors, window sensors and digital cameras. Many are part of the trend towards “smart homes” with internet-connected doorbells, lighting, voice assistants and so on. Most of this stuff comes under the general tech-industry label of the internet of things (IoT).

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Do I really need fibre broadband?

Angela is a light internet user and is wondering if she could make do with an older, slower ADSL service

I signed up for fibre broadband a couple of years ago but am now wondering whether it is worth the cost. The only devices I use in my home are a six-year-old Toshiba Satellite L870 laptop and a Samsung tablet. I use them for email, web browsing and watching BBC iPlayer, but not much else. The laptop runs Windows 10 and works well enough so I don’t have any immediate plans to replace it.

If I revert to ordinary broadband, will I notice a reduction in performance in either device? Angela

You should notice a difference, because your “fibre” connection is probably about five times faster than you will get from ADSL2. However, for your purposes, the difference may not matter.

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Remarks to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on fossil fuel divestment

Today the FAS today discussed the advisability of Harvard divesting from fossil fuel investments. This discussion had started at the previous meeting; see Harvard Magazine for a complete transcript. I spoke at today's meeting, as follows:

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I am Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science, and I should like to speak against the push for divestment from fossil fuels. 

Let me begin by agreeing with the colleagues who have docketed this discussion that climate change is the great existential threat of our times. The question is what Harvard should do about it. Of course, Harvard can do more than one thing, but as we are an institution devoted to teaching and research, those are the weapons we are best positioned to marshal in the fight. And teaching in particular is the thing that this Faculty, acting as a body, can decide to do. Our undergraduates disproportionately go on to influence the future of the world in industry, the professions, and public service. We could shape our curriculum so that Harvard undergraduates will leave here understanding the nature of the threat and their agency to do something about it. I know that many individual faculty members have, to their credit, stressed environmental issues in their own teaching. But we are now being asked to act as a body to pressure the Corporation for divestment, when we have taken no comparable action as a body to better educate our students. 

For this Faculty as a body to alter our education requires no petition to the Corporation or permission from any dean or president. Someone could put a curricular motion on the table and we could vote on it. If we wanted to make it happen, it would happen, whether the Corporation liked it or not. We could make a requirement, or we could fashion a more creative educational strategy. But mainly I wish that my colleagues had asked us to make a commitment as a body to do something that is actually within our competence and power to do, before asking us to tell the Corporation how it should run the endowment. Rather than piling up educational requirements, we might even decide that learning about climate change is more important than the least important of the many other things we already expect of our students.

As for divestment now. I took some pains a moment ago to name the donor of my chair, to make the point that Harvard can do good works with tainted money. If you do not know the tale of Gordon McKay, I invite you to read the vitaI wrote about him for Harvard Magazine a few years ago. He would be a pariah today, but I don’t think that has diminished the good that has come from his endowment. 

Now I have no opinion about whether Harvard should or should not be invested in anything. The job of the endowment managers is to preserve and increase Harvard’s endowment, so that we faculty can do our good works and our students can reap the benefit. Our job is advancing society through teaching and learning.

Universities are the kidneys of society. The main thing you want from kidneys is to produce pure output, whether or not the inflow is dirty. It is odd that we regularly try to seize the moral high ground by discussing divestment from something or other that is considered impure, but we rarely talk about whether our own work advances society or not. It is no breach of academic freedom to seek answers to that question. All it requires is a willingness to be as critical of ourselves as we are of the Corporation and its investments.

At the last meeting Professor Hall correctly described fossil fuel divestment as a political statement, one that would not exert financial leverage on the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, selling supply-side stocks to someone else and leaving all the demand-side stocks in our portfolio---airlines, trucking companies, Amazon, the meat industry—seems to me pointlessly self-gratifying. Really, divestment votes are a waste of time. The country’s two largest pension funds, which are many times the size of the Harvard endowment, divested from gun stocks after the Sandy Hook massacre, but there’s no evidence that did anything to solve our horrible gun problem. But they resisted pressure to divest from stores selling guns, and because they had a seat at the table as shareholders, they helped get some of those companies to change their practices.

One of the things about political statements is that they tend to be welcomed by people who don’t need convincing and to do little to persuade skeptics. They are divisive, when academia more than ever needs friends and allies today. Universities make too many political statements already, and such empty declarations increase skepticism about whether we are really in the business of truth as we claim to be or are now just one more politicized American institution.

What we as a Faculty should instead do to impact the climate, it seems to me, is to use as much money as Harvard can make available to us to fight the needed scientific, technical, economic, civic, and social fights. If some of the money we use to do that comes from the fossil fuel industries themselves, the joke will be on them.  We should accept the profits and use them to help save the planet in the ways we are professionally competent—and powerfully positioned—to do.

The Wheaties box

There is plenty of skepticism about the recent NCAA decision to allow athletes to profit from their likenesses, but as I told the Crimson, it's a step in the right direction. The objections are based on predictions of the ruin  to be visited on intercollegiate athletics by any breach of the strictest interpretation of the amateur standard. Somehow the amateurism purists never worry about the student musician who performs in the orchestra and is paid for birthday-party gigs on weekends, nor the computer programming team members who are treated to a fancy meal while they are halfway around the world representing the University in championship competitions. Those activities, of course, have nothing comparable to the labor-market-controlling NCAA setting limits on students' off-campus lives.

To be sure, there are real opportunities for abuse and unfairness as the amateurism regulations are relaxed (not that excesses have been impossible under current rules). It all depends on the way the rules are written and interpreted. I expect that what will happen is that the NCAA, having controlled the market with an iron hand up to now by absurdly inflexible regulation, will be forced by outside authorities to go too far. Had it shown a bit more common sense earlier on, it would not have created the social and governmental pressure that will now decide what's best for universities to do. (Not the first time such a thing has happened in higher ed. Not even the first time in this issue of the Crimson.)

Be that as it may, this image explains my sympathy for the players on this change.


It's a photo of the 1998 US women's ice hockey team, which won gold at the Olympics. Except that a few players are missing, including Harvard star AJ Mleczko. These players still had a year or two of intercollegiate competition ahead of them, but would have been disqualified if they turned pro -- where the standard for turning pro included allowing their images to be used in a commercial promotion like this one, even if they were not being paid. This is not just crazy; it's mean. I hope the rule change will mean that no such thing will happen to students in the future.

The same journalist has a second Crimson story online, about the social isolation of athletes. Meal times are a major irritant on this, as they have been as long as I can remember. I have a win-win suggestion to attack this problem, one I have been advocating since the plan was announced to move Engineering to Allston: Serve dinner at the new Science and Engineering Complex, just steps from Soldiers Field. Athletes tend to rise and go to bed early, engineers tend to be night owls, so there is not much overlap of their circadian rhythms, but they have the dinner hour in common. It would be a great vehicle for social mixing, and would attract arts students too, not to mention friends curious about life on the other side of the river. How about it?

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