The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk

Really, I didn’t make that up! They really did create it: http://cser.org/

I found it from this BBC article:

Risk of robot uprising wiping out human race to be studied
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20501091

There is no doubt in my mind that humans are quite capable of creating something that is so powerful that it can destroy the human species (and purt near all other higher life forms on the planet if so desired). However, having a bunch of academics have debates that no one but them cares about is about as pointless an exercise that I can think of. Because of the increasing ease in which it is possible to produce such deadly tools (I am quite sure that we will develop a synthetic global plague at some point in the next few decades, hopefully we can produce a treatment for it before we all go extinct) it is merely a matter of when, not if, something like this will happen. Even if we had a global debate where everyone could chime in with their two cents (man, I would like to get that money! Not as nice as Powerball, but more than enough so I wouldn’t have to work for a living any more!) how is that going to stop the terrorist from going forward? Would it have the tiniest impact on what governments do? More than likely, even if society agreed that such research was against its best interest and decided to ban such activity, research would progress but instead of being published would be kept private so when it was eventually unleashed the devastation would be even greater (since no one would be researching cures/treatments/responses because of the ban).

I equate this with discussions about the weather. Since weather is going to happen no matter how much discussion we have, unless you just can’t think of something better to talk about, why even bring it up?

Let us imagine, now, that CSER has been ruminating for a few years and has worked out the detailed response to all conceivable (and a few not) scenarios. Can anyone now imagine that those that hold the reigns of power are going to give a damn about what they have to say in the middle of a crisis? Can anyone imagine a panicked population even stopping their hysterical shouting and clamoring long enough to even hear what these guys have to say, let alone pausing long enough to absorb it and change their behavior? Even if a handful do pause, what is the chance they _won’t_ be clubbed over the head while they ponder to get whatever shreds of resources they had? If this turned out to be a Onion hoax it would make a lot more sense!

The normalization of the erosion of privacy

Cheaters and the sinister normalisation of our surveillance society
With zero outrage, a hit TV show turns snooping on private citizens into entertainment. How little we value our liberties
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/26/cheaters-sinister-normalisation-surveillance-society

In many ways the most horrifying part of this is how pedestrian and boring it is. Shrug. Who cares that people are using illegal methods to obtain information, heck the government does it all the time! Go on-line and pay a few bucks and get a laundry list of illegally obtained (but often scraped right off of government web sites because the government can’t be bothered to hire actual security professionals!) information about the most private part of any person. Of course, to the Facebook generation all this concern about privacy is rather idiotic, ‘privacy’ is the stuff that gets in the way of distributing their mundane activity. I am quite sure that I have spoor all over the ‘net that, if agglomerated and organized properly would have just about every single facet of my personal information. At this point, no one cares to collect that information (there are some pluses to being a nobody), so unless my wife thinks I am cheating on her (when would I have the time?), I doubt anyone would bother. However, were I to, for example, go into politics, no doubt all would be dredged up (this blog would be a fabulous place to get quotes out of context!) and used to embarrass me and my family.

I guess the real question is, is the notion of privacy a quaint relict from a bygone era, like cursive hand writing and very soon, the ability to type on a keyboard (not to mention, any knowledge of Latin or Greek)? Is anyone who cares about privacy just a curmudgeon who refuses to get with the times? I am starting to believe that this is the case. Privacy is dead because there was no one that cared to keep it alive. I see this as a big problem for the intelligence community (of which I am a member) as the young Turks now coming up through the ranks were raised on Facebook and Twitter and think nothing of posting their most personal information. That attitude will almost certainly lead to some loss of important information at some point and the longer this lossage goes on the more normal it becomes and the more difficult it becomes to change the behavior. Sort of like doping in sports, once everyone does it it becomes nigh on impossible to break the habit. Maybe I am over reacting and maybe these Turks can compartmentalize their life to the point where they won’t engage in that sort of behavior. Maybe these kids’ brains have developed different than mine. Maybe our nation will realize that all this top secret stuff really doesn’t need to be secret. Maybe I am getting senile and this blog is detailing my decent into madness…

Money for banks = good, money for people = bad

Unemployment benefits cost: $520 billion
http://money.cnn.com/2012/11/29/news/economy/unemployment-benefits-cost/index.html?source=cnn_bin

The headline is clearly intended to fire up conservative blowhards who are convinced that poor people are stealing their money. Note that this figure is for the entire 5 year period of the Great Recession (which would absolutely be another Great Depression if not for these dribs and drabs of social safety net!), so the annual cost is a bit over $100 billion, or a bit less than 15% of the money we spend on our military industrial complex _each year_ (not including the wars or the intelligence community, at least another $300 billion!). Also, it is a small fraction (a bit more than 3%) of what we have spent on bailing out the banks where we are lucky to get our money back with interest (note that the CBO thinks we will get a 10% return on investment for every buck we spend on ‘these leeching, good for nothing layabouts’, so in reality, IT DOESN’T COST THE COUNTRY A DAMN THING!).

So, instead of printing the following, vastly more honest headline:

An investment of $30 billion in extending unemployment next year would net the country a 10% ROI

we have a headline specifically exaggerated to inflame the minds of conservative population.

Man I wish I could get my wife to consider emigration!

PROOF!!!

AP believes it found evidence of Iran’s work on nuclear weapons
A primitive graph provided by “a country critical of Iran’s atomic program” indicts the news outlet more than Tehran
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/28/ap-iran-nuclear-bomb

The drumbeat for the war with Iran continues. Below is _pure_ propaganda, a meaningless graph (even if it does have something (anything) to do with nuclear weapons, instead of just being fabricated in its entirety) and entirely fabricated headlines and hysterical proclamations. Can any rational human (are there any left?) not see that this is _exactly_ like the Weapons of Mass Destruction blather on the runup to the Iraq war? How credulous is our society anyway? Is there _anything_ they won’t believe?

Silly graph, nucs are for kids!

Bla bla bla…

There just doesn’t seem to be anything worth writing about today (or the last several days, though I wasn’t browsing the news sites, just glancing through the WaPo). Same old police state, same old corrupt politicians, same old ignorant sheeple electing the corrupt politicians establishing (maintaining, now) the police state. It gets dull in repetition, just as much for my reader(s) as for me writing.

I have read a few somewhat interesting science articles, but again, nothing prompted me to write. I wish I could manufacture the space to do science again, but, much as I worry that my programming skills have totally atrophied, I guess I am afraid that my ability to do research has also left me. Ignorance is bliss, I can continue to lie to myself that I am still a scientist this way.

Still adjusting to the winter weather. I am quite certain that come Jan/Feb that the temps we are ‘enduring’ now will be a welcome heat wave, but now my blood is too thin and walking is often not as enjoyable as a consequence.

Thanksgiving was great, lots of awesome food to shovel down with two hands. Meals are fleeting, though. It seems that the pain from eating too much has barely gone away when the desire to belly up to the trough has materialized once again. Things will be a bit easier when my parents-in-law head back home in a couple of weeks, but then my mother will be visiting, so it might be January before we are able to establish stable eating patterns again and attempt to shed the blubber we have accumulated.

Construction efforts are showing visible signs of progress; I hope to get motivated to update my web site soon. We are taking a break from roofing for a while, I forgot that we couldn’t shingle the pavilion roof until we had built the common wall between it and the greenhouse, so that will be put off until spring, more than likely. We will be constructing the pool walls so we can backfill and finally stop worrying about the sides collapsing (the hole has been getting steadily wider all this time). I am cautiously optimistic that things will move faster, or at least appear to move faster, as the wall sections should go up fairly quickly and we don’t have to wait for the dew to burn off since we will be working under roof now.

I have mostly convinced myself that my fusion idea is possible, once again. I am not likely to pursue it for a couple of years, though, so if I am right the human species will just have to wait a while longer for unlimited energy. I just have too damn many things I am already not working on to start spending (more) money on this one. I am tempted to write it up and timestamp it, but with our new ‘first to file’ rules with the patent office I really don’t see any point. No doubt by the time I have the time to work on it someone else will have invented it, just like my DNA sequencing idea. C’est la vie.

The perils of passwords

Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore
http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/11/ff-mat-honan-password-hacker/all/

Yes, a long article, but one well worth reading for anyone reading this (since you clearly are on-line and thus have an on-line presence to protect and defend). As mentioned in the article the problem is that humans are silly creatures that want maximum security and maximum convenience, two things that are mutually incompatible. Because humans are such credulous creatures they generally want to believe lies that match their fantasies, so when told that adding numbers, upper case and lower case characters and special characters to their passwords they figure they have done their civic duty and are free to move about the Internet. However, as explained in detail in the article (really, you should take the time to read it!), it doesn’t matter how complex and unguessable your password is when it can be trivially reset to anything a hacker wants. Because so damn many people forget their passwords (one of my 401K sites insists in changing passwords every quarter, or _exactly_ every time I access the damn site!) the password reset has to be trivial or any company would go bankrupt from the customer service nightmare. Of course, it is no more challenging to ‘defeat’ a human ‘powered’ password reset system than a computer-based system. If the customer support people weren’t helpful, they would be fired!

Is there a feasible system? Well, the traditional way to secure something is via three factor authentication: something you are, something you know and something you have. For example, finger prints or iris scan, password/pin and a security token such as a smart card. It is still possible for a determined attacker to overcome these hurdles (it is actually remarkably simple to fake fingerprint scanners and I have read stories that iris scanners are also fairly simple to defeat; passwords/pins, of course, are trivial to guess and you can steal a smart card without too much difficulty, though it does preclude a remote-only attack), but you substantially raise the bar and make wholesale hijack of information extremely difficult. People, of course, generally won’t put up with those sorts of constraints (they always lose stuff, first of all), so prefer the lie that passwords will protect them if they just don’t use ‘password’.

This is something that will eventually need to be overcome, but I don’t think it is feasible to predict what will be the successful path. Governments don’t really want strong authentication/encryption because that weakens their ability to snoop information, so in one sense the criminals and governments are on the same page and work toward the same goals. There is also the incredibly huge amount of money involved (8 _billion_ people!) so there will be endless attempts of the oligarchy attempting to game the system, so I see a very long time while we are insecure because we (as a human population and society) are too lazy to insist on something robust and there is just too many stakeholders with competing interests for the market to produce a single product. Look at how long the Blue Ray vs HD DVD war lasted and the previous one between Betamax and VHS (and what won in that case was the crappier VHS). Plan on being insecure for _at least_ a decade longer, likely two, unless you want to take on your own efforts to be secure and hugely complicating your life.

Of course, for the clever, there is a huge potential market to tap if they could somehow convince the world to adopt some solution they thought of. It would have to be open source and freely adoptable to have any chance, which makes revenue generation more than a little bit challenging, but I can see some sort of multi-factor authentication process via a smart phone or equivalent to be the way forward, but just thinking about the FUD that would be thrown at such an attempt exhausts me. There are all sorts of ideas I haven’t bothered to pursue because of what I perceive as the huge hurdles to overcome either via NIMBY (not in my back yard), consumer acceptance or unfair competition from current companies. One of the reasons I pretty much focus exclusively on coming up with novel ideas that solve problems in ways that wouldn’t have any competition.

Anyway, read the article so you know how vulnerable you are. Then, either follow some of the tips to make yourself much less insecure (but still not secure, but then security is all relative) or realize that you are only surviving by being obscure and ensure you never rise to the level of being interested to hackers.

OK, now for a view from the other side

As I already admitted, I didn’t do any research to see if the management bore a substantial part of the responsibility for the problems Hostess is/was having. Perhaps I should have, as this article presents a pretty damning picture against the management:

Vulture capitalism — not unions — killed Twinkies
Hedge funds took profits and piled on millions in debt at Hostess. They created this bankruptcy, not unions
http://www.salon.com/2012/11/20/vulture_capitalism_not_unions_killed_twinkies/

I pretty much took sides against unions so feel obligated to present a post from the union perspective. Reading the article it does appear quite plain that this was a case of vulture capitalism at work here and while the union workers are now out of work, one of them put it this way:

… “Remember how I said I made $48,000 in 2005 and $34,000 last year? I would make $25,000 in five years if I took their offer. It will be hard to replace the job I had, but it will be easy to replace the job they were trying to give me.”

The whole article is interesting in a ‘how not to run a company’ point of view, that is, if you are interested in its long-term health. However, as regular reader(s) know, the average management doesn’t give a damn about the long-term health of the company and are in it pure and simple to rape and pillage and get their million-dollar parachutes leaving a devastated wasteland behind. One of the most interesting points of the article, though, is the media’s almost absolute focus on the ‘unreasonable unions’ rather than the miserable management that forced the company into this position. Nearly uniform reporting (including mine, if you care to dignify what I do with the moniker of ‘reporting’) took the view point that an unreasonable union was forcing a going-concern to go belly up. Presuming the facts reported in this article are true (once again, I am too lazy to investigate) it is unambiguous that the failure was all in the management, appointed, naturally, by the ‘vulture capitalist’ investors who all, just like how we all learned Bain capital operated, made out like bandits via their ‘management’ fees. That you have to go to an ultra progressive site like Salon to get any of this info (which, by rights, should be on the Wall Street Journal as a case study on how to drive a company into the ground) just shows you how clearly tilted our media is in favor of the oligarchy.

If I were a God fearing man I would exclaim “Thank God for the Internet”, but of course, I am a heathen polytheist who believes humans are the architects of their own future, so it is just with humble (yea right!) gratefulness that I acknowledge DARPA and their great invention.

Long live the Internet!

Yes, but can this information extend my healthy lifespan?

Telomere length linked to risk of dying
Large study examines association between protective caps at end of chromosomes and health
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/346387/title/Telomere_length_linked_to_risk_of_dying

Lots of science stuff today helping to make up, somewhat, from a dearth of blogging last week. This article is more in the way of a tantalizing hint than anything else. The author contributes to this by so adequately covering ‘both sides’ that one is left with the conclusion that there is no conclusion. However, it is exciting to me to realize that there are still groups doing research that can contribute to (healthy) longevity. I just hope they get their act together before I die of old age!

Global Drought

Global drought may have changed less than thought
Simple models have overestimated drying over past 60 years
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/346428/title/Global_drought_may_have_changed_less_than_thought

Once again there seems to be accumulating information that perhaps, just perhaps, we should take a collective deep breath and re-evaluate our response to global warming. As regular reader(s) no doubt know, I have strong opinions regarding global warming and the somewhat hysterical (in my mind) reactions. However, the typical GOP stance of simply ignoring that humans are totally trashing the planet is also terribly misguided. Humans are having a HUGE impact on our environment, I just try to suggest that the burning of fossil fuels is a rather minor part of the massive impact.

Anyway, since models are built on data, if the data collected is flawed somehow, then the models have no chance. The article seems to be a discussion about ways to extrapolate one measurement by taking a different one (in this case, ‘dryness’ based on temps). If that assumption was flawed (as the article indicates) then any conclusions based on that data must be reevaluated. What if, then, it is discovered that things (e.g., global warming) really aren’t as bad as first reported? In the world of ‘normal’ science (i.e., that not politicized), the authors would publish some papers based on their analysis and if their fellows doing the same research agreed with their data, methodology and conclusions, then the science would simply evolve. However, in our current idiotic situation (regarding global warming), people who just want to be scientists toiling away in obscurity now become the focus of a character assassination campaign (from either side, it just depends on what they are reporting). It is enough to make you take up astronomy or something!

Nanoparticles for health!

Nanoparticles Stop Multiple Sclerosis In Mice
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/252967.php

This particular article is more interesting because I have very good friend who has dealt with MS for about 15 years now. I also like the idea that it can probably be widely applied to various auto-immune diseases _without_ side effects, so it sounds like it might be a ‘magic bullet’. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that the human studies will replicate the mouse results (not always the case!).