Thursday, September 30, 2010

Warp drives and extracting energy from information

I'm behind the curve on metamaterials (emphasis mine) ...
Technology Review: Blogs: arXiv blog: How to Build a Warp Drive Using Metamaterials

...Metamaterials are substances in which their ability to support electric and magnetic fields can be changed. Fiddle with these properties in just the right way and you can steer electromagnetic waves in all kinds of strange and exotic ways.

The highest profile use of this idea is to build invisibility cloaks but there's another more fascinating application. It turns out there is a formal mathematical analogy between the way metamaterials bend light and the way gravity does it. Inside metamaterials, electromagnetic space becomes distorted in exactly the same way as spacetime in general relatively.

That means physicists can use metamaterials to simulate the universe itself and all the weird phenomenon of general relativity. We've looked at various attempts to recreate black holes, the Big Bang and even multiverses...
I liked the May 2010 multiverse link ...
Today, Igor Smolyaninov at the University of Maryland in College Park... says it is possible to create metamaterials that are analogous to various kinds of spaces dreamt up by cosmologists to explain aspects of the Universe.
In these theories, space can have different numbers of dimensions that become compactified early in the Universe's history, leaving the three dimensions of space and one of time (3+1) that we see today. In symmetries of these spaces depend on the dimensions and the way they are compactified and this in turn determines the laws of physics in these regions.
It turns out, says Smolyaninov, that it is possible to create metamaterials with electromagnetic spaces in which some dimensions are compactified. He says it is even possible to create substances in which the spaces vary from region to region, so a space with 2 ordinary and 2 compactified dimensions, could be adjacent to a space with just 2 ordinary dimensions and also connected to a 2d space with 1 compactified dimension and so on.
The wormholes that make transitions between these regions would be especially interesting. It ought to be possible to observe the birth of photons in these regions and there is even a sense in which the transition could represent the birth of a new universe."A similar topological transition may have given birth to our own Universe," says Smolyaninov.
He goes on to show that these materials can be used to create a multiverse in which different universes have different properties. In fact it ought to be possible create universes in which different laws of physics arise.
That opens up a new area for optical devices. Smolyaninov gives the example of electromagnetic universes in which photons behave as if they are massive, massless or charged depending on the topology of space and the laws of physics this gives rise to...
In more recent related news Hawking radiation has also been detected in a non-metamaterial optical experiment that created a physical system with the mathematical properties of black hole.

Talk about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. The universe is feeling awfully recursive; maybe Wolfram was on to something. If you're going to run a simulated universe, it's good to make it highly recursive.

Meanwhile another group of physicists have implemented Maxwell's demon, and have allegedly demonstrated the extraction of energy from information. Soon they'll extract so much information they'll create  a black hole (sorry, I'm feeling a bit giddy).

Oh, I almost forgot. You can't make an FTL warp drive, but maybe you can make a 1/3 c warp drive. I wonder if the warped space time would make gravitational wakes ...

Update 10/4/10: More on information physics. How long before someone announces that they've discovered how to reboot the universe?

A habitable planet around Gliese 581

Twenty light years away an ancient largeish planet is tidally locked to a red giant.

The star system is about 9 billion years old.  Time enough.

The last time I ran a Drake Equation estimate I ended up with between 10 and 170 civilizations currently active in our galaxy. This data point pushes the posterior-probability to the higher end of that range.

We don't run into them though. So they must all be pretty darned shortlived ....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

iPad Mathematica and Rainbow's End

Rainbow's End (2006) was a bit of a disappointment compared to Fast Times at Fairmont High, but Vinge still did a good job of anticipating this 2010 Mathematica post on learning in the computer era.

Hey, these days 4 years is pretty good for science fiction prognostication.

Synchronidentaly Wolfram is singing the praises of the iPad as the best platform for his "new kind of science" tome ($10). You can't (yet) run a true Mathematica client on an iPad, but you can run the $1.99 Wolfram Alpha iPad app -- which is closer than you might think.

Did I mention the iPad app is $2? Excuse me while I hide in the corner and wimper a bit.

See also.

Newfoundland hammered by hurricane

Not only was a born in Canada, I spent a formative two months as a medical student in St. Anthony Newfoundland.

So if there'd been any US coverage, I'd have noticed Newfoundland was hammered by Hurricane Igor a week ago ...
Hurricane Igor (2010) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

... Significant wind and flooding damage was reported across much of the island of Newfoundland as Igor passed just to the east. Many communities had to declare a state of emergency and some parts of the community of Clarenville were evacuated due to flooding. 238 mm (9.37 inches) of rain fell on the Burin Peninsula at St. Lawrence, making Hurricane Igor at least the third wettest tropical cyclone to be recorded in Canada; roads and bridges were completely washed away as well.[30] The Bonavista Peninsula and Avalon Peninsula were also hard hit, with severe flooding in many communities in those areas as well. Power outages were also reported in many communities in eastern Newfoundland as a result of the strong winds.[31] Preliminary assessments place losses in Newfoundland well over $100 million.[32] One person is dead from Random Island after reportedly being swept out to sea...
There are only 480,000 people in Newfoundland, and it is as poor as it is beautiful. Poor by Canadian standards, that is.  100 million is a lot of damage there.

The lead article in The Telegram today is a convenience store robbery. So either they're recovering well, or St John's leading newspaper is only a facade. I suspect both are true. Newfies are a tough crowd though, a hurricane might not really register.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Trust and credential management: MyOpenID

I've been preoccupied lately with credential (un/password) management. I think the geek community has gotten confused by identity management isseus. We need to start with credential management, then associate identities (avatars, facets, personae, etc) with credentials.

I like my four un/pw proposa1 + one major password. So I wondered if anyone was going to do it.

That made me think again about MyOpenID, and what I wrote about Simplenote. I love Simplenote, but there are security risks to trusting them with a large volume of private information.

How much greater then, is the risk of trusting one's most precious credentials to MyOpenID.  What business model do they have? Why don't they already provide the approach I'm advocating? Should I be concerned that the MyOpenID blog link goes to a blog that never mentions the service?

To their credit MyOpenID provides an easy to find and use account deletion process. I have deleted my account. It just doesn't make sense to make a company that might vanish at any time a major holder of my digital identity.

See also:

The morality of markets - and a response to hunger

There is no Good in markets Krugman writes. It's short and good, and it should be read in every high school as an antidote to Marketarianism. Markets are not divine, theys are simply satisficing mechanisms for seeking local minima.

Krugman is responding to accusations that he favors war as a solution to the Great Waste (sequelae to the Great Recession).  He gives a smart response to dumb questions, but reading how major wars do Keynes better than politicians made me think about What Would the Market Do?

What do I mean? Well, consider this. Charlie Stross, one of my mind expanding writers included "Finance Economics 2.0" in the novel Accelerando. Economics 2.0 was what emerged when trading/Finance AIs remade the solar system in their own image. It wasn't a pleasant place. [1]

The story captured a sense I often have that the large, complex adaptive systems we live in are, seen from a certain angle in a certain world as real and unreal as our own, alive. Not smart like we are, but alive in a landscape dominated by very powerful amoebae.

In this worldslice Markets are entities with their own agenda -- mostly to eat and grow. Sometimes, though, the growing is slow. The Market has to find new food. It moves along a chemotropic gradient to a new source of nutrition.


[1] I updated this paragraph thanks to a helpful comment.

The cultural impact of the Pill - neuroendocrinology

Modern imaging methods show hormonal contraceptive use changes brain structures.

That's interesting. It means it's now probably safe to mention one of the most interesting papers I ever wrote. For obvious reasons it was quickly buried.

I was an itinerant Watson Fellow in early 1982, staying with a very generous USAID worker and his wife in Dakka, Bangladesh. I was basically a parasite, but somehow I got it into my head to write a paper on the sociocultural implications of widespread OCP use in Thailand.

The premise of my paper was simple. Different OCPs, and progesterone implants, where known to have different effects on mood. Testosterone biased OCPs had one set of effects, estrogen biased another set, progesterone yet another. It seemed obvious that if you gave these medicines to millions of women the sum of the individual mood changes might have social implications.

If you wanted to change a society in a certain direction, you might favor one OCP over another. I was keen on social engineering in those days. That was before I was drummed out of the Trilateral Commission [1], and before a subsequent social engineering paper almost ended my first year of medical school.

Needless to say, I never got any comments about my pill paper. I was remarkably obtuse at that age, but even I had a sense this was not a wise topic choice. If anyone read my paper, they would have torched it immediately.

I suspect, however, that I was right.

[1] Joke. Sort of.

The smartest president in decades

Obama comments on Murdoch's empire ...
'Destructive' Fox News And The 'Darker' Parts Of The Tea Party: Obama's Rolling Stone Interview | TPMDC 
... The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition -- it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world...
I am grateful he's willing to be president.

Murdoch is anti-civilization. Maybe he's trying to avert the singularity by collapsing America. Hey, it explains a lot.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The $80 ultra-portable - in unexpected form

Jean-Louis Gassée, once CEO of Apple head of Mac development, drops a stunner in mid-column ...
The Carriers’ Rebellion | Monday Note

... Google wants to see smartphones priced at $79, without subsidy, thus taking away the carriers’ opportunity to dictate features. At $79 and no contract, consumers can change handsets and carriers at will. This frees Google to have a direct relationship with the consumer, allowing their money machine—advertising today, entertainment and business services tomorrow—to run unimpeded.
That's quite a precise number. Not "below $100", $79.

Think about that. Take your time. I'll be back.

We're talking about a computer that outclasses the desktop G3 iMac of 2001. There's no reason it couldn't work with an external monitor as well as an external keyboard. Incidentally, it's a phone too.

Yeah, they're thinking big. Forget the "Chromebook" I was so excited about a year ago (though I still hope we see it). This is so much bigger.

Can they do it? Today's smartphones cost about $500-$800 without a (carrier) subsidy. This seems like a big price drop -- unless you're about 50 years old.

If you're old enough, you remember the calculator price drop. In a few years they went from about $500 to cereal box prizes.

That never happened with computers. Instead the capabilities skyrocketed -- but the price never truly fell. A 1988 Commodore 64 and a 2010 bottom-of-the-heap netbook cost about the same. The difference was partly moving parts, calculators were almost pure silicon -- computers had drives and big power supplies and keyboards and so on. A lot of the difference though was IP protection and patent licensing.

I think this would have happened to the original Palm III if it had survived, but they didn't have a business model supporting a $10 PalmOS device. Google has the business model.

I don't doubt that it will be possible in 2012 to produce a somewhat junky version of a 2009 iPhone for a marginal manufacturing cost of less than $80 -- if you can manage the IP costs and if the payor has a separate (subsidizing) revenue stream. To do it Google will have to buy some IP, and cut deals that appeal to IP holders only when you start to talk a billion devices.

In the meanwhile, China will be doing the same thing internally -- and they don't really worry about IP costs.

Interesting times.

In Our Time - the number series

This IOT season starts with bang. In the first 3 minutes of Imaginary Numbers our guest professor runs through thousands of years of the develop of number, from positive integer to zero (ok, I think he skipped zero) to fraction to irrational to negative to imaginary to infinity.

As he spoke I realized IOT has done a programme on all of these save fractions. Taken together, it is a wonderful introduction to mathematics and some of the better sides of human history.

Nice way to start the year.

PS. Love the archives Melvyn, but you do realize they could be vastly improved, right? Also, how about selling episodes on iTunes for $1 apiece? I understand the BBC needs new revenue. Time to rethink the fruit aversion.


We glass-half-empty-but-that's-good-because-it's-poisoned sorts need to say something positive once in a while.

WiFi is much better than it was. 802.11g is commonplace now, and it is so much better than 802.11b.

We now return to our usual programming ...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Google-Apple detente - why?

It's not just the return of GV Mobile. It's also changes in Apple's advertising revenue model, a general quieting of Apple-Google rhetoric, and hints from well connected bloggers.

There are hints of a truce in the Apple-Google wars.

If a truce is coming, it's fair to ask why now. My guesses ...
  1. Google has realized how evil Verizon is -- and Brin/Page are pushing back against Schmidt. The carriers are the great enemy.
  2. Apple and Google believe the Windows Phone will not suck, and that Nokia will use it.
  3. Facebook shafted Apple at the Ping product launch, and the Apple/Facebook affair is over.
  4. Google has realized they can't do end user software.
  5. Apple has realized it can't do the Cloud.
  6. Apple and Google see big money in a joint approach to credential and identity management.
  7. The iPad.
  8. Schmidt is on the way out (ok, that's a bit farfetched).
  9. China.
Update 9/28/2010: Detente is real.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why the Pope is crazed -- the infographic

I Google-Reader-Shared a blog post on this British Religion in Numbers graph ...

I moved on to the next post, but the more I thought about it the more I understood how dire things look for the Pope, and why he was so crazed during a recent UK visit.

The chart shows the generational flow between birth and adult religion in Britain. There's a huge influx into the "No Religion" category, and very little flow out of that category. If the trend continues (big if) then within 20 years the British Catholic church will be completely irrelevant. The other Christian churches will be very close behind.

I suspect the Canadian picture would be similar, but things are more complex in the US. Even though the "no particular faith" group has almost doubled in a generation, it's clear that US Christian belief has miles to go.

Not so in Britain, and presumably not so in most of Western Europe. Papal revenues in particular must be screaming downwards. Growth in Africa can't possibly compensate.

The Catholic church has lasted a very long time. Has it ever looked so feeble?

The Great Waste: Cyclical, Structural, or Both?

Structural unemployment occurs when the skills and culture of the workforce are a bad match for the demands of the market. For Marketarians there can only be two kinds of unemployment - structural and voluntary [1]. This follows because the Market is all wise, and the Market saith "Thou Shalt not Waste Inputs".

Since we obviously have substantial involuntary unemployment and underemployment, a Marketarian must believe this Great Waste is structural. If it is structural, there is nothing to do [2].

Despite some childhood flirtations I an not a Marketarian. Still, I'm sympathetic to the notion of structural unemployment. I've been expecting it for over 10 years. Between globalization, the rise of the machine and the whitewater world I find it easy to imagine that we are facing a structural employment problem. Krugman seemed to agree 3 years ago. Robert Reich is a structuralist today.

Unsurprisingly, The Economist, the modern bible of Marketarians [3], thinks US unemployment is structural too. They point to IT changes...
... In the 1970s and 1980s employment in quintessentially middle-skilled, middle-income occupations—salespeople, bank clerks, secretaries, machine operators and factory supervisors—grew faster than that in lower-skilled jobs. But around the early 1990s, something changed. Labour markets across the rich countries shifted from a world where people’s job and wage prospects were directly related to their skill levels. Instead, with only a few exceptions, employment in middle-class jobs began to decline as a share of the total while the share of both low- and high-skilled jobs rose (see chart)...
The development of information technology (IT) is the leading candidate. Computers do not directly compete with the abstract, analytical tasks that many high-skilled workers do, but aid their productivity by speeding up the more routine bits of their jobs. But they do directly affect the need for people like assembly-line workers or those doing certain clerical tasks..
... the economists find that industries that adopted IT at faster rates (as measured by their IT spending, as well as their spending on research and development) also saw the fastest growth in demand for the most educated workers, and the sharpest declines in demand for people with intermediate levels of education...
In recent writings, however, DeLong and Krugman tell us today's unemployment is not primarily structural (see also). The patterns of widespread unemployment (no labor mismatch) and concomitant deflation don't fit the structural story.

I am largely persuaded by their arguments, but I wonder if we might have both. Perhaps  demand driven unemployment might mask a structural problem?

That occurred to me yesterday. Fortunately Krugman monitors my thoughts so he's already responded ...
... Is it possible that there has been some rise in structural unemployment that’s swamped by a much larger rise in cyclical unemployment? Yes, conceivably...
Aha! Trust me on this -- I run Krugman in an internal simulation. I know what he's thinking. Krugman secretly believes that we do have a serious structural unemployment problem, but atop that we also have a cyclical unemployment problem. (FWIW, My DeLong simulation holds the same secret suspicion.)

Rationally, we should tackle both the cyclical and structural causes of the Great Waste.

Alas, we're not so good at rational these days.

[1] They would further claim that significant structural unemployment is primarily a result of government distorting the (perfect) market.
[2] I can imagine quite a few ways to approach structural unemployment, but that's a cardinal sin for a Marketarian -- akin to planning the overthrow of heaven.
[3] It wasn't always so bad. In the late 80s to early 90s The Economist was a great newspaper.

See also (mostly mine):
Update 9/29/10: My Krugman simulation is robust. Just as I suspected.

Why it hurts to read the right

This is not painful to read ...

John Gordon is not of my tribe. My God says all who are not of my tribe should be enslaved. John Gordon must serve me.

It's not painful because it's all consistent. Fact (not of my tribe), Value (follow my religious doctrine) and Goals (enslave John). I appreciate the logic, even if I don't like the implications.

So why are Limbaugh and Beck so hard for me to listen to?

Of course I don't agree with their goals, but that's not what causes me pain. It's the disconnect between their Facts, Values and Goals that makes for nails on the blackboard [1]. Their "Facts" are often trivially disprovable and their stated Values are often inconsistent with their Goals and Facts.

Beck and right wing bloggers like "level_head" would be easier to read if they simply said "Crush the weak, save those I love, because they are weak and I care only for the strong". I would not agree with them, but at least they'd be logical.

[1] Of course blackboards are gone, aren't they? We need a new simile.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Race and ethnicity: Minneapolis and St. Paul

Race and ethnicity: Minneapolis and St. Paul.

It's part of a Flickr set by Eric Fisher inspired by Bill Rankin's Chicago map. (Via Fast Company).

Where I live is very red dot (white), though my household is 40% sunburn resistant. The Chicago map is much more dramatic and interesting.

Emergent fraud: Anthem and automatic payment denials

Anthem, so someone wrote, puts the Hell in Health Care. Today's particular slice of Hades is a lovely example of how fraud evolves when natural selection meets entropy. Nobody has to plan this kind of scam, it just happens when you add incentives to markets.

I uncovered this example when I phoned to double/triple/quadruple check that a costly (age sucks) preventive medicine procedure was covered by my consumer driven health care plan.

Indeed, I was told, it is. I didn't hang up though. I'm too paranoid experienced. I pressed a bit more. The pleasant representative let slip that there was one catch.

When she said this, I swear I heard her pray that the call recording would go unheard, lest her children go unfed. Imagination, I'm sure.

The catch is that the claim will always be initially denied. It will, however, be promptly paid after a customer calls to "Appeal". If a customer doesn't appeal, however, they will have to pay the claim themselves.

I am pretty sure I know how this scam came to be.

The plan I'm in was, I believe, once part of a small consumer-driven healthcare plan startup that was acquired by a larger company. The two companies would have had different IT systems. The larger company probably outsourced IT integration, but, as often happens, I expect that didn't go well.

If I'm right then Anthem still doesn't have the right software to manage our kind of plan. When Anthem receives a claim, the software must choose between paying for claims that should be denied, or denying claims that should be paid.

You can imagine how long it took to make that decision, and how different the outcome would be with different incentives.

Since they really aren't crooks, just regular people in a hard job, they wrote Appeals process documentation so their agents would pay on Appeal. Probably 95% of their customers do appeal.

Five percent or so, however, probably don't appeal. They pay, or go bankrupt, or whatever. That five percent is pure margin. That margin probably made someone a VP.

Fixing the problem would unmake a VP. There's no money for IT anyway.

And so it goes.

It's a scam, but there's no intelligent designer. Just evolution in action. Health insurance companies can't help but be evil. It's in their incentives.

related stuff from me:
My Google Reader Shared items (feed)

Visiting hotels in the bedbug era

I've been wondering what bedbug experts do when they travel. This NYT article gave some hints ....
Step Right Up for Pest Control at Bedbug Meeting -
.... Nearly everyone said they had done as much when they arrived at the host hotel, and the maids may find more than a few headboards askew from their search. Many people said they started out by putting luggage on the bathroom floor, the better to see any scurrying, before investigating hiding spots in the rest of the room. One man put his luggage inside a bedbug-proof bag and kept all his clothes on a non-fabric chair throughout his stay, though his initial survey found nothing...
Sounds like the process is:
  1. Put luggage in a relatively safe place -- the bathroom (because it's easy to search).
  2. Carry a bedbug luggage bag?
  3. Search room esp. behind the headboard. If you see bedbugs, leave for the front desk and request a new room? (And if they have none? Sleep in the street? Do you want to know?)
  4. If you don't see bedbugs avoid fabric and drawers (hang in bathroom rail?)
Maybe furniture and car seats will return to being wood, vinyl and plastic?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How I know Google's Blogger is dying

Nobody but me screams about how bad the new text editor is.

Try this experiment with Safari/Mac and the editor:
  1. Write a post in the rich text editor with paragraphs.
  2. Copy from the HTML view.
  3. Paste into a different post HTML view.
  4. View in Compose (rich text). Note the absence of paragraphs.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.

So what do I do with this blog?

If I were rational, I'd vote GOP

I consider myself relatively rational.

I believe the GOP is the anti-civilization party. A vote for the GOP is a vote for the collapse of our technocentric science-dependent society.

I also believe the greatest threat to human survival is artificial sentience, and I think it will happen with 100 years. It might happen within the lifespan of my children.

Unless civilization collapses.

How rational am I?


What's the chance that our dentistry practices are optimal?

Think about it.

Many of the practices of 1980 medicine have been found ineffective or even misguided.

Remember estrogen therapy?  If you're a physician of a certain age, that question should make you shudder.

But we still brush and floss much as we did in 1980?

Do you really think we got it right the first time?

Or is that we really don't do dental prevention research?

Imagine the cost if we've got it wrong.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Google's two factor authentication and why you need four OpenID accounts

My Google account was hacked two weeks ago, so today Google is deploying two factor authentication to (paid) Google Apps.

What, you think that's coincidental? You underestimate my power (cue mad laughter).

This is a good thing, but it won't prevent a keystroke logger from pinching your password if you use an insecure (ex: XP) machine. On the other hand, maybe I'll switch to a trivial password and just rely on the more robust 2nd factor.

Which brings me to OpenID and OAuth. In my latest post-hack "what am I doing" post I warned against OpenID. The only thing worse than losing a critical password to keystroke logging is losing a critical OpenID password.

Since then I've been thinking about where we're going, and I think there's a place for OpenID/OAuth and two factor authentication.  More specifically, there's a role for multiple OAuth (I'll drop the /OpenID for now) accounts - one for each of the five credential classes.

What's a credential class? Think  in terms of how you'd feel about someone taking your credentials ...
I: You want it? Take it.
II: I'd rather you didn't.
III: Help!! Help!! 
IV: I'll fight you for it.
V: Kreegah bundolo! Kill!! 
We need a master account with Category V security. The One Ring account has two factor authentication and a robust reset procedure that might involving banks and other identity authentication services. It may be tied to a strong identity as well, but that's another post. You only enter these Category V credentials on a secure machine and an encrypted connection. The Master Account can be used to override and change the passwords on lesser accounts.

From the master account we have four other credentials (un/pw combinations), each with OpenID/OAuth services.

The Class IV credential service is what we use with Gmail and a range of high-end OpenID/OAuth services like banks. We enter these credentials only on a secure machine - but there's a degree of comfort from having a Class V account that can change passwords. On less secure machines maybe we use two factor authentication.

The Class III credentials are what we use anywhere that has credit card capabilities. Use these for Amazon and iTunes.

Class II credentials are for your spam only Yahoo email and the New York Times.

Class I credentials are for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In a world of widespread OAuth/OpenID type services and this type of master account we really need to know five passwords, and only three of them have to be decent passwords. We can manage that.

This is where we will go.

We can do it now of course, by setting up five Google accounts. It will probably get a lot easier when Google Apps start providing full Google account services for each user, with optional two factor authentication.

In fact, this is so simple I'm surprised MyOpenID doesn't do it already.

Maybe in two weeks.

Bayes theorem - in a nutshell

xkcd: Conditional Risk. Beautiful. Should be the first graphic in any lecture on Bayesian statistics.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Yes, you're living at the end time - emulating the 6502 chip

jwz - Visual Transistor-level Simulation of the 6502 - in Javascript. This team use photographs of the 6502 chip to create a model of the circuits and their interactions, allowing the physical chip to be modeled ...
Visual 6502 FAQ
.... There are many excellent emulators available, but emulation is approximation. It can be extremely difficult to create an accurate emulator, because the typical approach to writing an emulator is to glean information from chip specification documents or more rarely from any chip schematics that happen to be available. This information is always incomplete and even the original chip logic schematics (also Verilog and VHDL code) can differ from what was actually built in silicon (see ECO). A disciplined emulator will capture and use traces of actual chip behavior, but it's near impossible to capture the billions of sequences of bits that a real chip gives rise to. Instead, we build a virtual chip by modeling and simulating the actual microscopic parts of a physical chip. We're interested in accurately preserving historic designs. It's archaeology for microchips.
While a multitude of people understand the instruction set for the 6502, almost no one, apart from the original designers, understands how the physical chip achieves this instruction set. The design is as elegant and sophisticated as any program written for the 6502. As digital archaeologists, we invite the current generation of hardware and software engineers to appreciate the work of the small number of designers who created the basis of everything we do today...

GV Mobile is back. What's next?

This pusilanimous Apple web site document justifies a reasonable amount of Apple hatred. It was written after Apple declared war on Google in July of 2009 ...
Apple Answers the FCC’s Questions 
Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it....
The following applications also fall into this category.

  • Name: GVDialer / GVDialer Lite... 
    Name: VoiceCentral.. 
    Name: GV Mobile / GV Mobile Free...
One of the most wretched things about this press release is that none of the complaints Apple had with Google's application (some legitimate) actually applied to GV Mobile and its competitors. Banning them, along with Google Apps like Latitude, was proof that Apple wasn't protecting the user experience, they were in a commerce war with Google.

Since then the FTC has been squeezing Apple, and GV Mobile is back (bit of a botched debut though). I wonder if they pointed out that while Apple might get away with blocking Google Voice, they had gone too far when they blocked GV Mobile. If that's true, I wonder if we'll see other Google related apps appear, like a Google Latitude client that actually works (sorry Latitudie).

PS. Yes, I know the formatting of this post is a mess. Google has outsourced their Blogger rich text editor to Microsoft Adobe. You have a better explanation? (I wrote Microsoft, but, really, this stuff they do well.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Muslim world - I'm sorry too

Nicholas Kristof apologizes for his fellow Americans ...
Nicholas Kristof - Message to Muslims - I’m Sorry -

Many Americans have suggested that more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their brethren.

That’s reasonable advice, and as a moderate myself, I’m going to take it. (Throat clearing.) I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you. Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.
I don't agree that moderate Muslims should apologize for their brethren's sin. Otherwise, I liked the essay.

Even though I don't believe in the cultural or tribal inheritance of sin, I'm personally ok with apologizing for American whackos. Sorry everyone, we have more than our share of frightened people living in a world they can't understand. We also have Newt Gingrich, but he's just a psychopath.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Technological regressions: two examples

Two examples of technological regressions.
  1. Typing. I'm filling out hockey forms. By printing with a pen. Once upon a time I might have typed them. I was a fast typist.
  2. Reliable phone calls. Switched circuit calling was inefficient, but the quality was excellent. Now we have layers of VOIP everywhere -- and it's nowhere near as good as switched circuit. When you add mobile delays to VOIP home phones to VOIP teleconferencing systems you get voice quality from 1940s long distance.
I'm sure there are others ...

RIP Bloglines. So is the feed next?

Bloglines is closing - at last.

It was a mercy killing. I started out with NetNewsWire on OS X, but Bloglines is what I remember -- starting in 2004. They were good then. When Reader first appeared in October 2005 Bloglines was clearly superior.

In 2006 Bloglies was acquired by, and they rolled out a nice constrained search feature.

That was the high water mark. After the acquisition Bloglines was put in the freezer, but Reader kept getting better. I started playing with Reader in late 2006, but I was still a Bloglines guy in July 2007. I did note, however, that the feeds were updating erratically.

That was a bad sign, but not as bad a sign as the failure to develop a mobile version of Bloglines. My iPhone made me switch to Reader for good in August of 2008. By September of 2008 there was no comparison - Google Reader was clearly better.

In retrospect Bloglines died in July 2007 -- more than three years ago. I assume kept it around while they looked for a buyer who'd sell it into the corporate marketplace. (I tried to persuade that this was a good idea). Maybe Bloglines had some secret revenue somehow.

Even though Bloglines was well past its due date, the formal expiration has produced the usual comments about the death of the Feed Reader. I am sure none of those commentators actually used Bloglines in the past year or two.

Even if we disregard the uninformed, however, it is true that Onfolio (Win), Omea Pro, and Newsgator Inbox all expired alongside Bloglines. They were done in by the combination of Outlook 2007 (abysmal reader - like OS X, but workflow is good) and Google Reader. On the other hand, iOS and Android have produced a new crop of very useful clients (albeit all Reader clients!) and OS X has Safari (fair) and NetNewsWire (still!).

Between Outlook 2007, Google Reader, and OS X/iOS/Android readers we're probably neutral to positive across the Feed Reader landscape over the past four years. What about use of feeds then? Google has some numbers ...
Official Google Reader Blog: A welcome and a look back 
... Since Reader's fifth anniversary is also approaching (though it feels like yesterday, Reader was launched on October 7, 2005), we thought it might be a good time to reflect on how Reader has grown over the past few years.... Here's a graph of Reader users over time (where 'user' is defined as someone who has used Reader at least once a week)...
And as we found out this past April, Reader users sure do like to read lots of items. Here's another graph, this time of the number of items read per day...
The graphs would be more interesting if the y axis were (cough) labeled, but there's pretty respectable growth -- albeit with a 2010 plateau that's only now turned upwards again.

As a consumer of feeds I can report the quality remains excellent. Some of my favorite writers have slowed down, but many of them do return over time.  I particularly appreciate the combination of direct feeds and shared items from the Readers I follow. The Notes/Comments muckup makes my teeth ache, but Reader remains one of Google's best products.

Readers aren't for everyone (though they should be), but for infovores they are red hot data joy. It's a big world, and the infovore community is big enough, and geek-powerful enough, that feeds and readers have years to go.

After all, Google is clearly a fan.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

After the hack: Why you REALLY shouldn't do personal business on a corporate machine

Corporations hate employees doing personal business on office machines.

I, of course, have never done this. I've certainly not checked my family calendar, or managed personal email, or browsed my Google Reader feeds on my corporate laptop, either at home or at the office.

Corporations hate this because employees should be working. Besides, it's an obvious security risk. Employees visiting off-color web sites are sure to bring viruses to work.

I agree. Sort of. Specifically I agree employees shouldn't use their Google credentials on corporate machines, and I agree there's a security risk -- for someone.

Mostly, though, the security risk is for the employee, not the corporation.

Let me explain why.

As best I can tell the average large publicly traded company admits to at least one major XP malware attack every 4-12 months. I expect the real number is twice that. That's a pretty high attack rate. A lot this of this malware, like Lemir.VA, incorporates a keylogger function. This malware captures usernames and passwords and sends them on.

If you check your family calendar at work, that would include your Google credentials. Your robust password is now meaningless; you will be hacked like I was.

That's at work. How about at home? Well, in our OS X/iOS household we haven't had a malware attack for over five ten years. My home is far more secure than my workplace.

It's safe to access Google from home. It's not safe to access Google from my office.

So you shouldn't use the office computer for personal work after all. It's in a very bad neighborhood, you really don't want to take your Google credentials there.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Religion Poverty correlation - cause?

Religiosity and national wealth are inversely correlated.

This is not a new finding, though the linked graph is novel. The US is an obvious outlier. Iran used to be an outlier too -- more religious than expected. I can't find it on the chart, but I believe Iran is much poorer than it used to be, and perhaps less religious too.

The usual assumption is that as a nation becomes wealthy, and better educated, it becomes less religious. Of course it could be the other way around. It might be that religiosity makes a nation poorer.

That would explain Iran. And the US too, I suppose.

Most likely, however, both wealth and religiosity are more directly related to national education levels.

We're crazy now. We were crazier forty years ago.

Limbaugh. Beck. Palin. Bachman. Pawlenty. Mosque madness. Burning Qu'rans. Marketarianism. Denialism. Birther. TrutherAmerican torture.

We're certifiable. It's not just 9/11 -- we elected Cheney and denied reason before that. It took 9/11 though, to really put us in asylum territory.

If you care about humanity, or your own family, it's a wee bit depressing. That's why I liked Graham Burnett's Orion article. It's ostensibly about dolphins, but it tells the story of a peculiar man in a peculiar time not so long ago...
A Mind in the Water | Orion Magazine

... who was Lilly? His early biography offers little hint of what would be his enduring obsession with the bottlenose. Taking a degree in physics from Caltech in 1938, Lilly headed off to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, joining the war effort as a researcher in avionics. An early photo shows him as a rakish young scientist, smoking a corncob pipe while tinkering with a device designed to monitor the blood pressure of American flyboys—a number of whom, in those days, were actually using surfacing cetaceans for strafing practice.

After the war, motivated in large part by contact with the pioneering brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, Lilly turned his hand to neuroscience, applying the era’s expanding array of solid-state electronic devices to the monitoring and mapping of the central nervous system. Eventually appointed to a research position at the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), Lilly spent the better part of a decade conducting invasive cortical vivisection on a variety of animals, particularly macaques. In the spy-versus-spy world of the high Cold War, this kind of work had undeniably creepy dimensions. Manchurian Candidate anxieties about “forced indoctrination” and pharmacological manipulation of political loyalties peaked in the 1950s, and security establishment spooks (as well as a few actual thugs) hung around the edges of the laboratories where scientists were hammering electrodes into primate brains...
Calech alumni. Medical training in Pennsylvania. Went into the tech industry. That's way too close to my life.

There are other intersections. I loved dolphins as a child; I'm sure I read his 1960 Man and Dolphin -- or at least the derivative works. (I was born in 1959, but in those days books lasted a long time in public libraries.)

Lily was genuinely crazy, but, as  Burnett reveals, so was his time.

This may come as a surprise to some. My generation has been keeping the 1970s in the attic, pretending it never happened. We got rid of all the books and most of the movies (the early music  we kept). We had lots of help -- everyone from that time has something to hide. The 1960s made a good distraction.

It's been forty years though. There are curious adults alive today with nothing to hide. They're going to start poking around the attic.

They'l find that the 1970s were seriously crazy. Yeah, America's nuts now, but, the good news is, we were at least as crazy then.

Thunder in the Cloud: Lessons from my hacked Google Account

It was just another week in the age of insecurity. Yet another low tech Windows-only trojan spread throughout American corporations, costing a day or so of economic output and probably acquiring a rich bounty of passwords. Twitter implemented a defective OAuth security framework. Oh, and my Google (Gmail) account was hacked.

The last of these was the most important.

Cough. Go head, laugh. Check back in three years and we'll talk. For now, trust me on this. There are some interesting implications.

First though, a quick review. Nothing obvious was done to my Cloud data by the hacker, I only know of the hack because of defenses Google put in place after they were hacked by China. Secondly I used a robust and unique password on my primary Google account and I'm a Phishing/social engineering hard target. So, in order of descending probability the security flaw was
  • Keystroke logging > Google false alarm (no hack) > iPhone app credential theft > WiFi intercepts >> Google was hacked > password/brute force attack.
I changed my password, but that doesn't deal with the real security problems (keystroke logging, WiFi intercepts, App credential theft). The other changes I'm making are more important.

That's the background. Why is this interesting? It's interesting because of what we can infer about motives, and the implications for the future of Cloud computing, iOS devices, and Apple.

Consider first the motives. The hackers owned my Google credentials for 24 hours, but they did nothing. They didn't change my passwords, they didn't send any email. The most likely explanation is that the next move was to identify and attack our mutual fund accounts by taking advantage of harvested data (58,000 emails, hundreds of Googel Docs), accessible internet data, and the stupidity of mutual fund security systems.

We're not rich by American standards, but emptying our accounts would be a good return on investment for most organized criminal organizations.

Secondly if I can be hacked like this, anyone can. I am the canary in this coal mine, and I just keeled over.

Ok, maybe the impractically pure and young Cryptonomicon live-in-a-thumb-drive-VM-with-SSL geeks are relatively safe, but, practically speaking, everyone is vulnerable. Windows, OS X or Linux - it doesn't make a difference. (But the iPhone/"iTouch" and iPad do make a difference. More on that below.)

When history combines motive (huge revenue hits) with opportunity then "Houston, We have a Problem". Sometimes freaking out is not unwise. 2010 network security is a market failure. The business model of Cloud Computing is in deep trouble.

I think I know how this ends up. Somehow, some day, we will all have layers of identity and data protection, designed so that one layer can fall while others endure. Our most critical data may never be committed to the network, perhaps never on a digital device. If I were running Microsoft, Google or Apple I'd be spending millions on figuring out how to do make this relatively seamless.

That part is fuzzy. What's clear is good news for Apple, though everyone else isn't far behind. Untrusted devices, untrusted software, and untrusted networks are all dead. That means shared devices are dead too. Corporations need to own their machines and trust systems, we need to own our machines and trust systems, and when we have both a corporate and a personal identity we need two machines.

Practically speaking, we all need iPhone/iTouch/iPad class devices with screened and validated software that we carry everywhere [1]. That means the equivalent of iOS and App Store, but software apps that provide Google access need to be highly screened. Practically speaking, they need to come from Google or Apple.)

We need secure network access. For the moment, that means AT&T 3G rather than, say, Cafe WiFi (Witopia VPN is not quite ready for the mass market). Within the near term we need Apple to make VPN services a part of their MobileMe offering with seamless iOS integration. Apple currently provides remote MobileMe iPhone annihilation, we need the iPhone/iPod Touch FaceTime camera to start doing facial/iris biometrics.

Yes, Apple is oddly well positioned to provide all of these, though Google's ChromeOS mayb be close behind.

Funny coincidence isn't it? It's almost as though Apple thought this through a few years ago. I wonder what they're planning now to enforce trusted hardware. Oh, right, they bought the A4.

The page is turning on the remnants of 20th century computing. Welcome to the new world.

-- footnotes

[1] Really we need iPhone/iTouch class devices with optional external displays. Maybe in 2013.

See also:

Post-hack posts (past week):
Pre-hack posts

And some warnings of mine that were premature -- because Team Obama converted Great Depression II into the Great Recession.

Friday, September 10, 2010

P vs NP: terrific essay

I've read quite a few discussions about computational complexity and P=NP theorems, including several following a claim of a proof that, as expected P!=NP.

So I have a basis for comparison when I say that Julie Rehmeyer has written the best ever short discussion of computational complexity. It's ostensibly about "crowdsourcing peer review", but you ignore all of that. It's really about explaining the basic problem with bold excursions into the deepest realms of modern mathematics.

So where did Ms. Rehmeyer come from? Her LinkedIn site tells us she's a Wellesley/MIT alumn, which would explain some of it. Surprisingly, she doesn't seem to have a personal blog. That is different. Most freelancers keep a blog even if they only point to recent publications.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

No of 1 trials: lipid variability

In Nov 2009 my Chol was 249, LDL 181. These are unhappy numbers, though risk calculators still gave me about 20th percentile male risks (lipids aren't everything). I resigned myself to statins in a year or so.

Ten months later my Chol was 189, LDL 125. Those are good numbers, they don't merit statins.

I didn't change much between those two tests. The main difference is I weigh about 15 lbs less now than in 2009 [1], but that just moved me from the high end to the low end of recommended weight for my height and build. My diet isn't dramatically different. 

I really wouldn't expect that modest weight reduction to make a large difference in lipid levels. If I'd thought the effect was this big I would have dropped the weight years ago.

Weird. It's just another anecdotal "n of 1" data point, but it reinforces my suspicion that we still don't understand the basics of human metabolism very well.

[1] Thanks to the radical "eat substantially less" diet. I'm a forager, it's relatively easy for me to both lose and gain weight.

Another MSP house blows up

This is the 2nd or 3rd time in the past year a Minneapolis St Paul house has blown up, presumably due to a gas explosion, while sewer line construction work was being done ...

House explodes in Richfield; no one injured |
... The 3:50 p.m. explosion in the 7600 block of 11th Av. S. leveled the house, set its ruins on fire and sent flames up the sides of two adjacent homes .... The homeowner was away, and his two daughters were in school, according to Richfield Fire Chief Brad Sveum. He confirmed that the family's dog was missing...
We don't know this one was a gas explosion. In similar recent episodes the culprit has been a methodology of constructing gas and sewer lines that led to occasional intersection. When sewer line work is done the gas line is punctured. It's assumed there are many unknown intersections out there, just waiting for sewer line work to expose them. I assume some of these are caught prior to explosion.

It does remind me how crude our world is, that we still pipe astoundingly explosive gas into our homes to create heat. By now we were all supposed to have fusion reactors in the basement (those explosions would be even more impressive).

I wish voters would show more interest in exploding houses, and less interest in Glenn Beck.

Update: To everyone's surprise, the dog turned up. Fur singed all about, but otherwise pretty well.

The Transparent Society - 1920 edition

I've mentioned David Brin's prescient 1999 book, The Transparent Society, a few times. In today's panopticon it's a premature cliche, but he deserves credit for working through so many of its implications.

Credit is also due a work I learned of through a throwaway comment of Melvyn Bragg in a 1999 (30 min!) program on Utopias (Anthony Grayling, John Carey). Lord Bragg mentioned a 1921 novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin called "We". The novel is described in an Amazon review by Leonard Fleisig ...
... WE takes place in the twenty-sixth century where a totalitarian regime has created an extremely regimented society where individual expression simply does not exist. All remnants of individuality have been stripped from its inhabitants including their names. Their names have been replaced with an alpha-numeric system. People are not coupled. Rather, each individual is assigned three friends with whom they can have intimate relations on a rigid schedule established by the state. Those scheduled assignations are the only times the shades in a citizen's glass houses can be closed. Apart from those hourly intervals everyone's life is monitored by the state. As in Orwell's 1984, language has been turned on its head. Freedom means unhappiness and conformity and the submission of individual will to the state means happiness...
Yes, rather like Huxley or Clockwork Orange or 1984. Orwell was a fan but Huxley denied having read We

We certainly belongs in a "panopticon" reading list. Glass houses are the ultimate transparent society.

See also:

Archives of In Our Time: Smolin, Gribbin and Greene

Every physics hobbyist should be familiar with the names of Smolin, Gribbin and Greene. All are literate physicists who've written excellent books and essays on tough topics, while still doing exciting research. If you're in this club, you'll love these superb In Our Time programs from the archives.
I'm a fan of Gribbin and Greene in particular. I tagged several Gribbin posts back when I was catching up with modern interpretations of Quantum Mechanics - before we started doing entanglement experiments with grossly macroscopic entities. Greene wrote the best modern physics book of the past decade (the non-string bits are the best), I'm way late to give it a review.

These gentleman turn out to be verbal gymnasts as well as physicists and writers. Really, it's not fair - but at least they share.

See also:

Torture is now an American state secret

This does not surprise me. We are a very sick nation ...
"State Secrets" Trump Justice Again | Mother Jones
... the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the so-called "state secrets" privilege protects the government and its contractors from a lawsuit brought by five men who say they were kidnapped, flown to foreign countries, and tortured on the behalf of the American government. Even the ACLU, which supported the men in their suit, acknowledged that the decision "all but shuts the door on accountability for the illegal program."
The 6-5 ruling (PDF) in the case, Mohamed et. al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, rests on the "state secrets" privilege. In the years after September 11, the controversial doctrine has basically acted as a "get out of court free" card for the Bush and Obama administrations in cases related to torture and domestic spying ... the Obama administration, which continued the Bush administration policy of intervening in the case on Jeppesen's behalf, was still able to get a dismissal by saying the magic words "state secrets." ...
... This is a sad day not only for the torture victims whose attempt to seek justice has been extinguished, but for all Americans who care about the rule of law and our nation's reputation in the world. To date, not a single victim of the Bush administration's torture program has had his day in court. If today's decision is allowed to stand, the United States will have closed its courtroom doors to torture victims while providing complete immunity to their torturers. The torture architects and their enablers may have escaped the judgment of this court, but they will not escape the judgment of history.
This is very much in the tradition of states that sanction torture.

Mimicry - more than we imagined

The more we look around, the more mimicry we see ...
Basics - Surviving by Disguising - Nature’s Game of Charades - Natlie Angier -
...  scientists recently discovered that in some ant species, the queen is a consummate percussionist, equipped with a tiny, uniquely ridged organ for stridulating out royal fanfares that help keep her workers in line. Who knew that the queen was such a squeezebox? Her freeloaders sure did. The scientists also discovered parasitic butterfly larvae in the colony that use their abdominal muscles or other body parts to precisely imitate the queen's stridulations, an act of musical piracy that induces worker ants to flutter and fuss and regurgitate food right into the parasites' mouths...
Dogs mimic humans to communicate with them. I mimic my dog to play with her. Humans mimic one another to facilitate communication, each participant in a conversation adapts to find a common ground. A way for very diverse minds to get along.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The disposable brain - lessons from our elastic axons

The human brain is misplaced. It ought to be inside our pelvic-abdominal cavity, where humans carry babies. Instead it's stuck at the top of a tall biped, fully exposed to all traumas.

Intelligent design, my ass.

Thanks to its bad neighborhood the poor brain is being constantly banged about. Every so often it gets plastered against its membranous sac, typically when a head meets an rapidly moving object such as a sidewalk or a baseball bat. This is not good for something with "the consistency of custard". Evolution has struggled to adjust (emphases mine) ...
The Brain: What Happens to a Linebacker's Neurons? | Carl Zimmer | DISCOVER
... axons are remarkably elastic. They can stretch out slowly to twice their ordinary length and then pull back again without any harm. Axons are stretchy due in part to their flexible internal skeleton. ... When an axon stretches, these microtubules can slide past one another. If the movement is gradual, the microtubules will immediately slide back into place after the stretching stops, with no harm done.
If Smith delivers a quick, sharp puff of air, however, something else entirely happens. Instead of recoiling smoothly, the axon develops kinks. Over the next 40 minutes, the axon gradually returns to its regular shape, but after an hour a series of swellings appears. Each swelling may be up to 50 times as wide as the normal diameter of the axon. Eventually the axon falls apart.
These kinks form, Smith believes, when microtubules are stretched so rapidly that they snap ... Normally, enzymes inside neurons are constantly taking apart microtubules and building new ones with the recycled parts. But now the enzymes attack the broken ends of the microtubules, causing the internal structure of the axon to dissolve...
... Smith’s findings could shed light on a common but puzzling brain trauma known as diffuse axonal injury. This happens when people experience sudden accelerations to the brain—from a bomb’s shock waves, for example, or from whiplash in a car crash ... When pathologists perform autopsies on people with diffuse axonal injury, they see severed axons with swollen tips, just like what Smith sees in his experiments.
Smith’s research also suggests that even mild shocks to the brain can cause serious harm. ... A moderate stretch to an axon, Smith recently found, causes the sodium channels to malfunction. In order to keep the current flowing, the traumatized axons start to build more channels.
Smith suspects that such a mended axon may be able to go on working, but only in a very frail state. Another stretch—even a moderate one—can cause the axon to go haywire ... The axon dies like a shorted-out circuit.
... Preliminary brain studies show that axons are still vulnerable even months after an initial stretch...
Just in case you're not depressed enough yet, wherever you read "axons" substitute the phrase "young axons". Any wagers on how well older axons stretch? Also note that "even months after" doesn't mean they're not vulnerable "years after".

It's interesting, after reading this article, to search PubMed with the phrase "microtubule amyloid axonal injury".  A 2006 paper looked at animal model transient accumulation of neurotoxic amyloid precursor protein after injury. Amyloid protein has, of course, long been associated with Alzheimer's dementia. Head injury is also strongly associated with dementia risk; head injury avoidance is about the only "intervention" known to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. (Don't make too much of this injury/amyloid connection though, researchers have been banging on it since the 1990s. It's not straightforward.)

Short of radical genetic engineering, or spending our lives watching TV with thickly padded carpets, what can we do about our fragile brains? Sure, football is dead. Yes, soccer will lose the header. Sure we can change the rules of hockey. Yes, horseback riding is almost as crazy as riding donorcycles. But, really, have you watched any TV lately? There are worse things than dementia.

Today's helmets are not the answer. Current bicycle helmet designs, for example, don't materially change the rate of anterior impact deceleration. Their primary benefit is to facilitating head gliding and reduce abrasions; they aren't designed to reduce the deceleration injuries that matter -- without severing our wimpy cervical spines. (On road bikes effectiveness is further diminished by paradoxical automobile driver behavior.)

We need to revise our sports (so long NFL), but we also need much better helmets. Air bags anyone?

How to use Amazon reviews

I wrote a negative Amazon review of Apple's battery charger (2/6 batteries were defective). As expected "0 of 2 people found the following review helpful".

This is very common with certain items, such as Apple products, Microsoft products, Christian conservative books, and other products that have "fans". It also happens with lawn mowers and dehumidifiers [1], but in those cases the negative feedback comes from manufacturer employees and retailers.

The "helpful" metric on Amazon reviews is not only worthless, it's harmful. It points people away from important reviews. It's also used to create reviewer rankings, so those are also worse than worthless. (By using these metrics Amazon is setting itself up for emergent fraud.)

There's another weakness of Amazon reviews -- name changes. Just as Google's Ballmer Schmidt tells teens they'll need to rename themselves as adults, so to do vendors change model numbers to dodge bad reputations.

There are workarounds for both problems. Here's how to use Amazon reviews:
  • Always read the negative reviews, even on a 4.5 star product. The two star reviews are usually the best, some of the 1 star reviews are nonsensical.
  • Remember statistics, a 50 review product will usually have meaningful negative reviews.
  • Look at other models by the vendor to defeat name change strategies. Amazon keeps older model information around for a while, so you can usually find the previous model number. Vendors don't change their behaviors as quickly as they change their model numbers.
  • When looking across a product category, sort the category by sales, not by average rating. The rating averages are not discriminating and are unreliable.
  • Give more weight to True Name (authenticated) reviewers. If a review seems unusual, look at other reviews by the same person.
- footnotes

[1] Based on my experiences with appliance purchases over the past few years, I think Sears or even Best Buy are better options than Amazon -- because it is practical to use the warranty.

Why not Depo-Provera dart wild horse mares?

Horses are tougher than they look. Millions used to live in awful conditions before the internal combustion engine filled the world's glue factories. Now, in the absence of wolves and mountain lions they're overflowing their bounded western world and the private lands that stockpile the overflow.

Modern Americans are more sentimental than they were 100 years ago, so we're unwilling to shoot them all. Were I a horse I'd rather be shot than starve or be eaten alive by wolves, but nobody asks the horses.

So why can't we hire cowboys to shoot mares with Depo-Provera in late May? It's cheap stuff, its used with horses, and it's designed for deposition. Shoot a capsule of it into the mare buttocks around mating time.

It's been done for lions.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

After the Google Hack: Life in the transparent society

My Google Account (Gmail and more) was hacked on 9/3/10, a day before I wrote about the risks of online backup.

I had a 99th percentile password. It had six letters, four numbers, no words or meaningful sequences. It wouldn't be in a dictionary. On the other hand, like Schneier and other security gurus, I didn't change it often. I also had it stored locally on multiple desktop and iPhone apps. As far as I know it wasn't stored on any reasonably current web app.

If my password had been a bike lock, it would have been one of those high end models. Enough to secure a mid-range bike on the principle that better bikes with cheaper locks were easy to find.

That wasn't enough. For some reason a pro thief [2] decided to pinch my mid-range bike. They didn't do any damage, they didn't seem to send spam [1]. They seem to have unlocked my bike, peaked around, and locked it again.

Why would a pro bother? Trust me, I lead an intensely narrowcast life. It's interesting to only a few people, and boring to everyone else.

On the other hand, it wasn't always so. "I coulda been a contendah." I knew people who have had interesting lives, I still correspond with some. If a pro was interested in me, it was most likely because of someone like that. My visitor was probably looking for correspondence. Once they found it, or confirmed my dullness, they wouldn't have further interest in me.

Fortunately even that correspondence is quite dull.

I've changed my password. The new one is 99.9th percentile. Doesn't matter, I doubt I'm much more secure.

This isn't a complete surprise. Passwords died as a high end security measure about ten years ago. What's more surprising, except in retrospect, is that you don't have to really do anything or be anybody to get some high end attention. You only have to be within 1-2 degrees of separation of someone interesting. Security and "interest" are "social"; even a dull person like me can inherit the security risk of an interesting acquaintance or correspondent.

Welcome to the transparent society. If you put something in the Cloud, you should assume it's public. Draw your own conclusions about the corporate Cloud business model and online backup, and remember your Gmail is public.

footnotes --

[1] Of course they could erase the sent email queue, but I haven't gotten any bounce backs. Anyway, there are much easier ways to send spam.
[2] Russian pro, Chinese government equivalent, etc. Why pro? Because the hacker didn't change my password after they hacked the account, they didn't trash anything obvious, they didn't send out spam, and the access was by an abandoned domain. I'm not vulnerable to keystroke logger hacks except at my place of employment and wifi intercepts are relatively infrequent. Still, it's all probabilities.