Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bits and Pieces - April 10, 2014

Seymour Hersh has stenographed an article from a dubious source. There are so many things wrong with it, it took several people to show them all up. I've collected some of the best and added a few of my own comments here.

Something I point out toward the end of that post is commonalities among various incidents that point to Russian propaganda operations. They are indeed thick these days, with regard to Ukraine, but Syria is one of Russia's interests too. This intensity of propaganda hasn't been reached since Soviet times, and social media are a new outlet. There's a philosophical side to propaganda: actually more than one side. The first is epistemological: how do we know what we know? The other is the role of propaganda in building reality. On the first, I am tempted to say that too much of that kind of thing makes people crazy. We can consider the Republican Party and its various fantasies. And now the Russian Duma is looking at criminalizing the fall of the Soviet Union. I hope to write more about this. Just seems like a lot of crazy around today.

In other news,

Considering a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn. With a nice misty photo of Tallinn's Old Town.

Turning everyday sexism around: harassing men in London (autoplay video) and "Stop Telling Women To Smile" in Atlanta. And somewhere that it's needed: Technology's man problem.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bits and Pieces - March 29, 2014

I'm still writing about Ukraine and posting links to stuff I think is worth reading at Nuclear Diner. It's looking like Vladimir Putin feels he's in a strong enough position to negotiate. We'll see what comes of it.

This is worth thinking about: If Vladimir Putin is worried about "Nazis" in Kiev, why is he supporting far-right groups across Europe? And we can consider his claim to be leading the conservatives of the world in gay-bashing and other things. The simple answer is that a) he really is conservative in many senses of the word and b) he is opportunist enough to use whatever levers he can against people he considers enemies.

I've been following the adventures of the snowy owl who came to DC and got hit by a truck. She's in Minnesota now, having a feather transplant. She's also on Twitter: @DCSnowyOwl. And here's the chicken from hell!

In New Mexico, a Tea Partyish congressman hires a vituperative tweeter as his pr person.

If you want to know what's going on in space - auroras, meteor showers, satellites - this is the place to find out.

This is a cool idea and something I'd like to see lots of bloggers writing, but first I have about thirty other posts I'm thinking about...

I am really irritated by the MSM's practice of revising their breaking stories without appending a notice that the story is changed. Apparently others are too - and they've come up with a solution.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The President Of All The Russias Speaks

Before he signed a measure incorporating the Crimea into the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin gave a speech (official English translation). The speech lays out his justification for annexing Crimea and lists a number of grievances and a few promises. It is shot through with misstatements of fact. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, gives the factual content of the speech four pinocchios, indicating a high degree of inaccuracy. I can find a number of other inaccuracies, but that is not my focus. Links at the beginning of quotes should take you to that part of the speech.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bits and Pieces - March 18, 2014

I keep meaning to cross-post these three here, and just don't get to it. Maybe tomorrow.
War With No Hope
Soviet Economics
Russian Exceptionalism

Trapping and tracking the mysterious snowy owl.

Like those maps that show countries' characteristics by distorting the physical size of the countries? This is the site for you!

Some history to remind us that once upon a time, women dominated computer programming. Not misogynistic boys.

I don't want to insult anyone, so if you can tell me what LinkedIn is good for, I will apologize.

A science quiz that is somewhat more difficult than the run of the mill. With a link to another one.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Bits and Pieces - Ukraine Edition, 1 March 2014

I've been selecting some of the better articles to read on the situation in Ukraine and writing a bit about how I understand things. That's been at Nuclear Diner - too much happening this week to cross-post. Here are those posts and some additional reading.

Yanukovych out, officials flee to Russia

Ukraine update - 24 February

Ukraine update - 26 February

Ukraine update - 28 February

Plus some background I've written:

Ukraine historical background with maps

Russia as winner - not so much actually, with more damage likely.

Leadership without leaders

And we post political cartoons every Sunday morning. Articles from others:

Explainer: The Budapest Memorandum And Its Relevance To Crimea

The Russian Duma has approved the use of military force in Ukraine. Here's the resolution.

Some basics of Crimean history.

A wide-ranging commentary on Russia's thinking from Strobe Talbott, who was a special advisor to the US State Department dealing with the former Soviet space after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Timothy Snyder's articles are very worth reading. The part of the world between Germany and Russia is poorly understood by many Western commentators. You really need to spend some time on it, even live there for a bit, to understand the contradictions to some of our common wisdom.

Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bits and Pieces - February 24, 2014

A bunch of science stuff:

Obesity and smoking are more dangerous than radiation.

This is why diversity is important in science. And that would include socioeconomic diversity, all kinds of diversity. People who come from outside the usual suspects might even think that science is the pursuit of truth and might pursue it strongly. They might not have surrendered to the conventional wisdom.

The most beautiful animal you’ve never seen.

The storms in Britain uncover a prehistoric forest in Cardigan Bay.


And today is Estonian Independence Day. Ninety-six years since Estonia won its independence from the Russian empire. Head Iseseisvuspäev, Eestimaa!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bits and Pieces - February 19, 2014

Ukraine links (a little more than in the MSM):

Yanukovych’s gamble and Kiev’s burning

How western Ukraine is driving a revolution

Russia's covert role in the Ukrainian crisis


The real story here is that banks trade in all sorts of physical commodities now. The headline about Iran? Oh yeah, long before Goldman Sachs, long before the Iranian revolution, the company they bought sold uranium to the Shah. But anything for clicks, I guess.

I'm not sure this is a good way to sell science or that it even makes much sense. What do you think?

Coming a little late, but well worth it: How Sid Caesar learned double-talk. With a great video.

Another woman's scientific contributions usurped.

Internet trolls are just your everyday sadists.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Doctor Atomic - A Review

Two weeks ago, I saw “Doctor Atomic” in Los Alamos’s Fuller Lodge. It was the Metropolitan Opera’s performance, from a DVD. I am accustomed enough to attending events in Los Alamos that it took a while to hit me: “Doctor Atomic” in the same Fuller Lodge where the Manhattan Project held dinners, dances, and convocations. I even slept and ate there on an interview trip, when it still was the only lodging in town.

This was my first viewing of the opera; perhaps surprising for someone whose interests include both the Manhattan Project and music. I thought, however, that it might be a screed on the evils of nuclear weapons. I was wrong.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Bits and Pieces - February 7, 2014

Still having problems at Nuclear Diner. So Phronesisaical links first, then Nuclear Diner links. There's always some overlap.

Patrick Rael on the Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865

The DC snowy owl who was hit by a bus is doing better. Did you know that it is this year's young snowy owls who migrate south for the winter? Their elders stay in the dark Arctic.

'Animal Pompeii' wiped out China's ancient creatures

Marc Lynch tries to explain social media to those who eschew it. It ain't going away.

Zach Messitte on the value of a college education. 

Nuclear vs. renewables: Divided they fall. There are those in both communities who don't understand that the real problem is fossil fuel.

Sigrid Kaag, who is in charge of the operation to remove chemical weapons from Syria, says she doesn't think Syria is stalling.

Here is the State Department daily press briefing from yesterday, mainly on the tapped Nuland telephone call about Ukraine. Is it just me, or do some of these reporters sound like idiots?

Some counterintelligence thoughts on that phonecall.

Deterring Iran. It can be done. And, I would add, we're doing it now.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Bits and Pieces - February 5, 2014

Nuclear Diner is down, so I'll post here the links I ordinarily would have posted there.

A good summary of the pros and cons of the Joint Plan ofAction with Iran. Bonus: explains why Fareed Zakaria’s “train wreck” is nonsense.

Russia says Syria will get their chemical weapons moving. Before that happened, Charles Duelfer, who was in charge of looking for WMD in Iraq, speculated that Russia couldn’t be too pleased about the slowdown, which is what I thought too. Imagine chemical weapons in Sochi. Russia is learning the downside of being a big internationalplayer.

Experts believe that more public outreach is necessary in the Mediterranean region about the chemical weapons recovery and disposal mission.

A science chat on Twitter. 6:00 PST on Twitter. Hashtag: #sciencechat

Snowden Stuff:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bits and Pieces - January 29, 2014

How a New Science of Cities Is Emerging from Mobile Phone Data Analysis. They don't say how they got the data, but presumably it's from the phone companies. Part of that all-the-time surveillance Edward Snowden keeps warning us about. But there's a new book out suggesting that maybe Snowden isn't such a hero. That's my opinion; he's spreading information that has nothing to do with privacy, but perhaps more to do with a hacker-libertarian hatred of all functions of government. And the materials he's stolen are showing up in more and more places. Of course, we all know how easy it is to duplicate a thumb drive. It looks like people are losing interest, too. I'm not surprised; the articles are hard to follow, show little of the materials they are based on, and frequently are found to be wrong. I've pretty much given up on following them closely.

Here's how Estonia got thoroughly networked. Hint: it didn't expect internet companies to look out for the good of the country.

Did World War II save us from the income inequality we've got now?

Eat your fruit! The good fruit does for you far outweighs whether it's organic or not.

"We had a hard time getting a war started." Nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling on the thinking that was the basis for the movie "Dr. Strangelove," fifty years old today. Something to think about: at that time, tensions were much higher between the US and the USSR than any tensions in the world now, and many of the safeguards against accidental nuclear war that we have now were not in place then.

Everyone needs to calm down. Good advice on Fareed Zakaria's breathless declaration of a "train wreck" in negotiations with Iran. Both sides are placating their hardliners. Let them do it. More here.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


I've noticed a bit of this: people excoriating other people for using passive verb constructions when that is not what the verb constructions are.

Geoffrey Pullum deconstructs one example from Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post in which none of the 23 verb forms in the passage she criticizes is passive. None. Zero. But Petri thinks they are. And that's the sad part: she and many others don't know what a passive verb is, but they feel obliged to criticze others for using them.

Pullum has collected examples of this phenomenon from many sources and considers the overall phenomenon here.
The topic of this paper is not so much a construction as a strange cultural trend emerging in the 20th century among language mavens, writing tutors, and usage advisers. Unneeded warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who actually don’t know how to identify instances of what they are warning against, and the people they aim to educate or intimidate don’t know enough grammar to reject the nonsense they are offered. The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bits and Pieces - January 24, 2014

Henry Gee, an editor at Nature, decided to out a pseudonymous female scientist-blogger who had the audacity to criticize him. Sarah Hillenbrand, a new scientist-blogger who has decided to use her own name, summarizes the situation nicely. Red Ink fixes some things for Gee and Nature.

Tim Parks has been thinking some things through at the NYRB blog. This post summarizes a lot on change in literature and life.

Video games change the way people dream.

Assad is still strong, but the Geneva talks are going better than this article expected.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

And Now, Fruit!

 We haven't had any fruit posted in a long time. This is a list of what is in a natural passionfruit. Chemicals!

Reading An Article On NSA Materials Very Carefully

Edward Snowden has said that his objective in stealing an enormous number of classified documents from the NSA was to let people know about the invasions of privacy by that agency. He says he has handed over all his materials to several journalists, and it is up to them to decide what is newsworthy and how to write their stories.

The Guardian, Der Speigel, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ProPublica all have parts or all of the stolen files. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, now part of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, also have files.

The stories have been coming out a few a week. The material is not easy to report on, some of it highly technical and all of it embedded in a highly secret context. Confirmation, for which most newspapers require at least two independent sources, is difficult.

Reporters like to follow a narrative, and Snowden’s claim that he wants to open a discussion of how Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights may have been breached is an attractive one. Many of the articles have followed that narrative, although it often misleads. The David Sanger and Thom Shanker article “NSA Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers” in the New York Times starts misleading with the headline (which an editor, rather than Sanger and Shanker, probably wrote).

The headline sounds like NSA is reaching out toward computers, even your computer, with radio waves to snatch your data. The article says otherwise, although you have to read carefully to know that.
Continuing the headline, the first paragraph says that the NSA “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers.” The second paragraph hurries by the fact that physical access is required for that implanting to focus on “a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet.” The third paragraph finally mentions that the radio waves are coming from the altered computers, into which hardware has been installed.

The headline and first two paragraphs set up the idea that the NSA is using radio waves to get into computers not connected to the internet to implant software. Sanger and Shanker, I’m sure, would point out that that is not what they said. And that is correct. But figuring that out takes a much more careful reading than most people give newspaper articles.

The article goes on to another subject: why the NSA wants to be able to tap computers not connected to the internet. That allows the initial mistaken impression to settle into one’s brain. We think of the connected internet and wifi in ways that make it easy to continue thinking that the NSA can reach out by radio waves to MY computer.

Then the targets of this technology are enumerated: units of the Chinese Army, Russian military networks, systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Oh.

Next is a graphic titled “How the N.S.A. Uses Radio Frequencies to Penetrate Computers.” NSA, reaching into your computer. But the graphic itself shows that a piece of hardware, barely mentioned until then, is required to transmit signals from the bugged computer to a field station. “Penetrate,” however, still sounds like those radio waves/frequencies are reaching out from the NSA.

And then…

No Domestic Use Seen
There is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States…

“N.S.A.'s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements,” Vanee Vines, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”

The article goes on to other issues – President Obama’s speech, encryption – and then a confusing paragraph on internet cables that implies, without saying, that these radio devices have been planted on the cables. This ties back, for those of us who have been following the many Snowden-related articles, to something about tapping cables. Is this how it was done? Or is this something else? Sanger and Shanker don’t tell  us. This information comes from a map that they don’t show.

And then we are told that the United States has two centers in China from which “it can insert malware into computers.” So the Chinese are sweeping their computers for radio emissions and trying to find where those emissions are being picked up.

The article refers to radio waves, once to radio frequencies. This sounds, to a technically trained person, a bit tinfoil-hatty. A technical person would more likely talk about radio transmissions. Radio transmissions are used for a great many things: garage door openers, wifi, Bluetooth, cell phones, microwave ovens, traffic radar, GPS. The phrase “radio waves” is no-fault: it doesn’t say where the waves are coming from. “Radio transmissions” would implies a transmitter, the existence of which, in the bugged computer, the article seems to want to avoid.

The relay station is said to “attack” the computer, although its function seems to be the passive one of picking up transmissions. It may also send malware back to the transmitting computer. The article is unclear about this.

If this article were structured honestly, it would start with something about a technology that the US was using in response to Chinese attempts to penetrate US computer networks and that could even be used to get computers not on the internet to “report back” to the NSA. But that would not follow the narrative of damaged Fourth Amendment rights.

The article winds up with the assertion that the “The hardware in the N.S.A.'s catalog” was the means for inserting Stuxnet into Iranian computers controlling their centrifuges. No source or confirmation is given for this assertion, which seems to be a connection Sanger and Shanker have made. The story of the rock in Iran that exploded into circuit boards is repeated. Was that in FARS news, which is mentioned in the last paragraph? The outlet that just told us that Edward Snowden revealed that the Earth is run by tall aliens?

Other stories from the Snowden material have followed a similar narrative and have been equally misleading. Many, like this one, reveal techniques that are used against other countries. Many, like this one, are inaccurate: although the impression is given that NSA is reaching into computers with radio waves, the fact is that the computer must be equipped with a special transmitter. And only 100,000 computers have been so equipped. That seems like a big number, but there are over one billion personal computers in use in the world. That’s .01% of all personal computers. And even this article says that none of them are in the United States.

It’s necessary to read the articles on the Snowden material very carefully. Like Gwen Ifill doesn’t do in this interview of Sanger. The job of reporters is to make complex things understandable. When they tie themselves to Snowden’s narrative, they add complexity and confusion. We shouldn’t have to read their articles like legal documents. But that’s what I’ve found necessary in every article I’ve read on the Snowden material.

First posted at Nuclear Diner.

Bits and Pieces - January 21, 2014

Utterly disgusting. 85 people have as much money as the poorer half of the world. And this seems to explain a lot about why.

The hardest thing for me to understand in this article is why the particles weren't conclusively identified as palladium and then the results replicated, if that was the case. However, I've been involved in research disputes, and, while none reached this level, personalities and egos do get involved, making resolution very difficult.

One of the issues I want to track this year is how fear damages a free society. This article covers pretty much everything in that area. I'm not sure that's good, and I don't agree with all of it, but there's a lot of stuff worth reading.

I am NOT a fan of TED, so here's some TED-bashing. They do get a lot wrong about science.

I AM a fan of T. S. Eliot and his Four Quartets, read by Jeremy Irons.