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.

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.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bits and Pieces - January 17, 2014

A pickup artist gets his comeuppance. From xkcd.

A history of Israel's secret nuclear arsenal.

Have senators actually read the Iran sanctions bill? With embedded video of an excellent speech by Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Nice infographic of the operation to remove Syria's chemical weapons. And some doubts raised about earlier intelligence.

In a Twitter conversation with a man who insisted that only cost-benefit should be considered in dealing with guns (and FREEDOM was one of his variables), it occurred to me that the pain and suffering involved should be counted in the equation as well. Here's someone who agrees. It's also a matter of what kind of society we want to be. Do we really want to teach children they may be shot at any time?

Finally, something brighter:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Framing Is Everything

After fifteen years and more of studies on why science students drop science as a major, sometimes agonized as “the leaky pipeline,” we are now told that about half the students in all disciplines change majors in college.

“I think that what has happened is that we defined [attrition] as the problem, and that led researchers down a certain path” said one of the researchers.

Framing. People wanted to know why more students didn’t finish up as scientists and ignored that students may generally change majors in college.

Frederick Dahl follows the IAEA’s attempts to inspect sites in Iran that may have been used for testing related to nuclear weapons design. So his reaction to the agreement to the deal recently worked out with Iran was that it wasn’t enough because it didn’t give access to those sites. He quotes an unnamed diplomat who is not from one of the P5+1 countries

"Do we take the P5+1's relative silence on PMD as sign that it will only get lip service now and that the past is the past?" the envoy said.

"Or is it simply a sign that we need to calm the situation now in the present, thereby build some confidence, and then they will help ensure PMD and other past issues are fully addressed before this file is declared resolved?"

The thrust of the article is to emphasize the first. If the article had been framed along the lines of the second, it would have been quite different.

And then there’s Edward Snowden’s frame, that his concern was privacy and everything he has released is in the service of privacy. Sometimes it is formulated as Americans’ privacy, sometimes more generally. But the latest article based on the documents he obtained from the NSA would hardly seem to be about privacy. If the broadcasting hardware were inserted into everyone’s computers, perhaps; but that is not what the article says, although its frame strongly implies it. Another frame would be that this is a rather normal intelligence operation against expected targets: Russia, China, police and drug cartels in Mexico, trade organizations, and governments that might aid terrorists.

A pattern that might be seen in Snowden’s revelations and an alternative frame is that Snowden wants all spying (or all American spying?) to end; even governments’ (or one government’s?) surveillance of other governments is intolerable. This frame may be idealistic, but it is in the same category with “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail,” which disappeared a long time ago. It would also make for much less sensational articles, with less personal impact.

Everyone gets stuck in frames: the scientists who were concerned only about attrition of science students, a reporter who is focused on one aspect of the Iranian nuclear program, and the reporters who follow Snowden’s privacy frame.

A frame is like blinders: you don’t know what you don’t see. Time and money were lost on the search for why science students change majors; exclusive focus on Iran’s suspended nuclear program may hamper progress on other aspects; and I guess we’ll have to wait to find out the cost of reporters’ uncritical acceptance of Snowden’s “it’s all about privacy” frame.

Graphic from here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bits and Pieces - January 14, 2014

Photoessay: La Belle Epoque: Paris, 1914.

I can't believe that professionals would do this kind of thing, but that's what I've always said about blatant gender discrimination.

The MSM figures out, a week after many bloggers did, that the hysteria over Fukushima might be worth responding to.

Frederick Dahl weighs in with his never-ending obsession with Iran's apparently suspended nuclear weapons program. We need to keep the possible military dimensions (PMD), in the IAEA nomenclature, in mind, but perhaps now is not the time for them? Dahl frames the article in terms of a missed opportunity, but it could equally be framed in terms of dealing with the immediate issue of enrichment and building trust before getting to the more difficult issue of PMD. South Africa took some time to come completely clean about its nuclear weapons program, and it had fully and voluntarily decided to give that program up.

When Ukraine gave up its nukes. It's the twentieth anniversary of Ukraine going nuke-free. (Brookings is doing a particularly annoying thing with its articles: As you get to the last few paragraphs, it slams a "Sign Up For Our Emails" popup across the screen. When you X it out, it returns you to the top of the story. So before you read this, scroll to the bottom and get rid of that popup. It seems to happen only once.)

Encryption has a long way to go. A (Very) Brief History Of Encryption Policy, by James Andrew Lewis.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Blind Faith

Back in the 1950s, MI6 continued to back Kim Philby, despite loads of evidence that he had been a Soviet spy for some long time.

That might have been the old boys' club (which was practically the definition of MI6 at that time) or an inability to admit they had gotten him so badly wrong.

The NSA has reacted quite differently to Edward Snowden, but a large group of people, including reporters and editors, feel strongly that he is in the right.

We have very little information about Snowden's activities in late 2011 and early 2012, as he was leading up to going public with the NSA's information. I am bothered by interviews with Snowden through email. How did James Risen know it was Snowden he was talking to? And in-person interviews are only a little better. In both cases, the reporters have done little beyond conveying Snowden's words to us. Usually reporting requires confirmation by other parties.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Bora Is Back

He’s back at his own blog, not at Scientific American. And that blog is now private, as it was not when I started writing this post. Zivkovic was the editor of the blog section at Scientific American. He resigned from that position in October, after it was revealed that he had sexually harassed at least two women who thought their coffee dates with him were about writing. An account of the whole sad story is here, with some reasonable observations about what Zivkovic and others might have learned about the uses of power.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Fukushima Zombies

Every few months, they’re…back….

Before I dig into some of the nonsense that’s floating around the internet, let’s consider a few facts.
The earthquake and subsequent meltdowns of the Fukushima reactors took place in March 2011. That’s almost three years. Radioactive isotopes decay into stable isotopes, which means the radiation is decreasing with every day that goes by. The most dangerous – hottest radioactively and thermally – also have the shortest half-lives, of days or months. The thermal heat comes from the radioactive decay, and a short half-life means that lots of atoms are decaying all at once. So the worst ones go away fastest.

Additionally, the buildings have been stabilized (one example, from which the top photo is taken), and the spent fuel in Unit 4, which so many are so worried about, is being removed successfully. Here’s an animation of how it will be done. It turns out there was water in the pool all along (see video in first link), even though there was a question about that back in March 2011. More here and here. So all stories about how the spent fuel pool is going to flame up and kill us all are nonsense.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Bits and Pieces - January 4, 2013

Resolution: I'll post more here this year.

I'm not impressed by Edward Snowden, and I find the "revelations" being published by a variety of reporters and hangers-on frequently overblown and showing some large misunderstandings of, say, how slide presentations are originated and how to understand them. I also find Snowden's statements about himself self-contradictory in places and wonder why reporters take his statements at face value, with little investigation beyond asking a presence at the other end of a computer. How do they even know it's Snowden? So I largely agree with Fred Kaplan's response to the recent flurry of calls for the government to grant Snowden clemency.

Two examples of what I find hard to incorporate into a story of a highly intelligent, conscientious whistleblower: 1) The Washington Post story on NSA's work on a quantum computer. Of course NSA is working on a quantum computer. Computing is what they do. They want better computers. Many people believe that a quantum computer is that better computer. This is not sinister. Of course they want it to crack encryption. So do the hackers, the Russians, the Chinese, and anyone else who can afford the research. This is not news. But it is presented as if it is somehow sinister.
In room-size metal boxes ­secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world.
The security against electromagnetic leaks is essential to the work that is done to develop a quantum computer. The metal box is called a Faraday cage. I've used Faraday cages. So has anyone who has worked with delicate electronics. And the ever-present could, which serves such heavy duty throughout the "revelations."  Could is not is, but the reporters seem to think it is.

I could go on with that article, but here's example 2)
Watching CNN on New Year’s Eve, I learned that the National Security Agency was able to snoop on everything I did or said on my iPhone. Actually, I had been reading this for a couple of days on an assortment of web sites, whose idea of reporting seems to consist pretty much entirely of reading and borrowing from other web sites, with, or more likely without, attribution.
The story starts sensational, and even the few qualifications in the original story get dropped out, and we always seem to wind up with THE NSA IS SPYING ON YOOOUUU! Which isn't likely the case, unless you have friends who act like or are terrorists. Read the whole thing; it maps the process out nicely.

Enough griping about Snowden and his hangers-on.

Here's a very good story about the rise and fall of popularity of the eucalyptus tree in California.

Since we're talking about California, we might observe that every time someone does a scientific test of wine-tasting, it seems to show that the results depend on the taster's perception of the quality of the wine before tasting and are otherwise random.

Does feminism need an intellectual voice? Who? How?

Being honest on Iran: the hawks in Congress.