Saturday, November 28, 2015

Political Sense and Nonsense

Donald Trump puts his name on everything and coats his homes with gold. Ben Carson's homes are plastered with paintings of himself (some of them selfies with Jesus) and blowups of press clippings, even in the baths. Carly Fiorina touts friendships with people who openly loathe her. Ted Cruz brags about burning bridges with every person he would have to work-with, if he became president.  

What's with the frail egos of these GOP front-runners?  Trump's blaring solipsism and Carson's relentless humble-brags say a lot about their followers - our neighbors who would foist such people on us.

Hate-government propaganda has reached a point where having a scintilla of experience at public governance is death to a GOP candidate. Our parents in the Greatest Generation (whose favorite living person was FDR) would be appalled. But ah well. At least Fiorina and Trump don't avow to praying daily (as Carson and Cruz do) for the world to end. Nothing less than that.

Ah then this note on the hate-government one-upmanship! Ben Carson says he does not want to shut down the Department of Education; he would prefer to turn it into an investigatory body which would "monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias." Carson says our tax system should be based upon the Bible... he clearly hasn't read it closely.

== Truth telling and fact-checking ==

Crime rates have been at historic lows during the Obama administration, and police deaths have also dropped to their lowest level in a lifetime.  So how does New Jersey governor Chris Christie get away with saying the diametric opposite, in railing against Obama during the recent debate?  Simple.  There is no longer even a figleaf correlation between dogma and actual fact on the American right.  

Any attempt to set up or refer to a Fact Check site soon devolves, because no matter how sincerely non-partisan the group's original intentions, they will soon be dismissed as "partisan," for one simple reason.  Because there is no longer even a figleaf correlation between dogma and actual fact on the American right. It is the basic reason for the War on Science… and against every other American clade of skill and knowledge, from medical doctors to teachers, civil servants, law professionals, economists, journalists. 

See Fact-checking the Republican debate on

Now logically, there is a solution. Ask each candidate to nominate a notoriously nitpicking-honest person from his/her home district -- a supporter, certainly but above all known for being  scrupulously meticulous and truthful.  If they pick a partisan shill, then that fact becomes a blatant stain.  If they pick someone of decent repute for savvy honesty, then all of the candidates' selections might gather to choose members of a new fact-checking organization!  Hey, it could happen, and our politics would improve.

But then again, it won't happen.  Because half of America has been taught to actively hate facts.  And all of the professions (only starting with scientists) who work with and live by facts. 

And nothing makes this clearer than their reaction to the huge disparity of positive vs negative outcomes from democratic and republican administrations. Any sane and sapient and patriotic US citizen would look at outcomes as a principal determination of which party to trust with power.

== Oh but the scion speaks! ==

In his desperation to stand out from the GOP front-runners -- Trump, Carson, FIorina, Cruz -- Jeb Bush has decided to put forward something original for a Republican politician, these days… substance.  He has offered a proposal for entitlement reform -- saving Social Security and Medicare from insolvency -- that contains actually plausible proposals that might contribute to solving the problem. 

Are you surprised that I would say anything nice about a member of the horrifically harmful Bush Clan?  Did I mention he's being reasonable as an act of desperation?

Oh but here's the capper.  Every single one of his proposals comes from the entitlement reform deal that had been worked out long ago, near the end of the last Clinton Administration! Only Jeb has stripped away any mention of that... along with all the compromises that Newt Gingrich and others had agreed to, in exchange for raising the retirement age, etc. 

 What were those compromises? For starters, cutting back the awesome-failures known as the Bush tax cuts for the super rich, which never delivered any economic benefits… any at all.  But Jeb can't include any of THAT in his grand plan. Those pullbacks of supply side (voodoo) idiocy were why the masters of the GOP betrayed Newt and common sense and torpedoed entitlement reform twenty years ago.

No, Jeb's plan is to take only the parts Rupert Murdoch liked, declare that he invented them, and preen that he's the reasonable "policy guy" in contrast to his rivals. And sure, at one level, he's the grownup in the room (leaving out hopeless leprechauns Kasich and Pataki) by talking plausible policy.

But no, sorry, Jeb. Once more, we'll judge you and your entire clan by the OUTCOMES of past Bushite rule. Outcomes that were universally and across-the-board disastrous for the United States of America. 

== Ah... justice... ==

Just above, I alluded to a watershed event in American political life, when it shifted from normal acrimonious negotiation (punctuated by bouts of lunacy) all the way to outright re-ignition of the American Civil War.  Now comes news that should cheer any patriot.

Newly selected House Speaker Paul Ryan’s first official act was removing a portrait of Dennis Hastert from the Speaker's lobby outside the House floor. Hastert, who served in the same position - second in line to the presidency - from 1999-2007, pleaded guilty in a $3.5 million hush money case last week.  “Two sources with knowledge of the federal investigation told CNN in June that Hastert was paying a former student to stay quiet about allegations of sexual abuse from when he was a wrestling coach and teacher in Yorkville, Illinois.” The plea bargain means that none of the details will come out in open trial.

You’re kidding me, right?  The same Dennis Hastert who called the Clintons the “most-corrupt” politicians of our lifetime? (When not one Clintonite wound up even indicted for malfeasance of office.) The Dennis Hastert who screeched at Bill Clinton’s immorality for some adult-consensual, hetero-rubbing in a hallway? Who denounced previous speaker Newt Gingrich for the twin sins of divorce and actually negotiating (shudder) with democrats to pass legislation for the good of the nation?

The Dennis Hastert whose “Hastert Rule” (to punish any republican who ever works with a democrat to craft compromise legislation) did more than even Fox News to destroy politics as a problem solving methodology in the U.S?  Thus wreaking more harm on the republic than anyone since Josef Stalin? In other words, Dennis Hastert the deliberate traitor… and now exposed as perjurer, briber, pervert and hypocrite?

Oh… could not have happened to a more apropos guy. Only note.  The ratio of Republicans to Democrats caught in sexual peccadilloes is at least two-to-one. (Keep track, over the years!) But the ratio of those involving under-age victims is simply enormous.

== Miscellaneous items ==

A new browser plug-in will highlight the names of U.S. politicians in news articles, letting you hover over them, creating a pop-out that informs you who their major donors are.  A great way to verify that their pronouncements and stances are - yes - bought and paid for.  Says the 16 year old designer of the App: “It is my hope that providing increased transparency around the amount and source of funding of our elected representatives may play a small role in educating citizens and promoting change. If you use the extension when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you’ll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Or maybe you’ll learn that the top donors to a member of Congress who opposes tort reform are lawyers and law firms.” The motto of Greenhouse is: “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” As in the color of cash. 

Ukraine has banned all relic Soviet or Russian-Imperial symbols, so the remaining Lenin statues had to go… or else… be transformed!  This one has become -- Darth Vader! Also "hey were planning to install a Wi-fi router on the statue's head so that he can "communicate with the other Siths."  

An interesting article shows that thousands of locales in the U.S. still have place-names that are racist or otherwise offensive by modern and evolving standards.  Most must have been offensive - deliberately so - in their own time and context… though some may have been genuine homages. No matter.  Standards do evolve and we should use names to suit our needs and times. And our time needs to to care. 

The Cybersecurity Podcast runs a series of timely and provocative interviews with figures who are prominent in our transitions era, from White House security czars to sic fi authors and privacy pundits (I overlap, though I've not been on ;-) ) to John MacAfee the anti-virus company owner who is running for President under the Cyber Party banner. 

Phew, interesting times.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Cool science stuff ... and more reasons to be thankful

Put this at the top of your shopping list!  Future Visions: Microsoft has published an anthology of original Science Fiction short stories reflecting its research projects, with entries by Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Robert Sawyer, Seanan McGuire, and Jack McDevitt. 

I visited Microsoft's cutting edge research labs before writing my story... on predictions. This free ebook is now available on Amazon, Google, Kobo and other sellers.

And soon... my long anticipated and long-delayed third short story collection will be available for pre-order.  Stay tuned.

And now -- a potpourri of items to help us all give thanks for being members of a fantastic civilization.  Our ancestors - who struggled to get us here - would be proud of us in most ways... except for giving in to gloom and failure of confidence, just when we are on the verge of putting it all together.

== Insight into the Brain ==

Mikhail Rabinovich, a physicist and neurocognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and a group of researchers have now mathematically modeled how the mind switches among different ways of thinking about a sequence of objects, events, or ideas that are based on the activity of “cognitive modes.” The new model, described in an open-access paper in the journal Chaos, may help scientists understand a variety of human psychiatric conditions that may involve sequential memory, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar, and attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and autism. 

What about thinking machines? A new book from John Brockman, publisher of, looks at the future of Artificial Intelligence: What to Think About Machines that Think: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence, with provocative essays by Steven Pinker, Frank Tipler, Daniel Dennett, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Nick Bostrom, Sam Harris, Freeman Dyson, Nicholas Carr, and others...

This Singularity University video examines whether we can reverse-engineer a brain.

== Cool stuff! ==

Physics Girl shows a way-cool trick of bouncing balls transferring momentum... and how this relates to the way a supernova works.  You might like a lot of her other videos.

NASA released this mesmerizing video of a liquid drop floating in space.

Intel is summoning contestants for an upcoming 2016 TV show called “America’s Greatest Makers”.  Competitors will vie for a $1M grand prize. An exceptional opportunity for all you talented Tinkerers out there.

Magnificence on a tiny level: See the winners of this year's microphotography contest hosted by Nikon.

Iceland is building its first humanoid electricity pylons, 150-foot steel figurines that look like mythical male and female giants … and support power lines in their hands. The first one is now scheduled for construction in 2017. 

== Tech news ==

Potassium is 880 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium the workhorse element in modern batteries. Now there is hope that potassium might replace Lithium in carbon-based batteries, making them far cheaper.  

Scientists have developed a robust, solid-state catalyst that shows promise to replace expensive platinum for hydrogen production from water.  One of many potential "medium game changers." 

The new Anti-UAV Defense System (Auds) beams high-powered radio to freeze drones in mid-flight. The Auds works by disrupting a drone’s signal to make it unresponsive. 

Or... will we soon see drones that dissolve into air once their mission is done? 

4D Printing Tech: Using components made from smart shape-memory materials with slightly different responses to heat, researchers have demonstrated a four-dimensional printing technology that allowed creation of complex self-folding structures.

Drones build a rope bridge you could safely cross. Not only entrancing, but useful. My sons could’ve used this in scouts!

“The Pike,” a 40mm laser semi-guided missile that can be fired using a standard tube grenade launcher, but expanding range from 150 to 2000 yards. 

== Geosciences ==

For many years I have corresponded with  Michael Rampino, a New York University geologist, about theories of mass extinction. (I even filled a small part of idea space with a low probability theory of my own.) Now, with Ken Caldeira, a scientist in the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, Michael offers new support linking the age of meteorite impacts with recurring mass extinctions of life every 26 million years, including the demise of dinosaurs. This cycle has been linked to periodic motion of the sun and planets through the dense mid-plane of our galaxy. Scientists have theorized that gravitational perturbations of the distant Oort comet cloud that surrounds the sun lead to periodic comet showers in the inner solar system, where some comets strike the Earth.

It took a while. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been producing detailed topographic maps for more than 125 years. Today they are nearly all digitized and free to download through the USGS Map Store, plus the ability to overlay every USGS topographic map on top of Google Earth. An incredible treasure trove for both map junkies and casual hikers alike. Civil servants doing good.   

See these open source methods to make underwater exploring ROVs. 

== BioTech & Health News ==

Offering promise for curing disease... Researchers create complex kidney structures from human stem cells derived from adult skin cells.

Will we all be web-spinners? Genetically engineered yeast can now brew silk proteins that can be spun into fibers. The properties of those fibers can be altered by tinkering with the protein concentration and the temperature, tension, and other aspects of the spinning process.

Wow… Researchers found that when this vine was climbing a tree it was able to imitate the host leaves in terms of size, shape, color, orientation and even vein conspicuousness.  Furthermore, when a single vine was associated with multiple tree species, it was able to sequentially mimic these different hosts.

Do Omega 3 fats actually protect against heart disease?  Conflicting results suggest a mutation that is common among Inuit people and ¼ of Asians may be partly at work. 

According to a recent paper in Scientific Data, about three-fifths of human diseases are believed to have been initially passed along to us by animals.  See this flow in an eerie and daunting visual. As you’d expect, the strongest connection is between humans and livestock.

Simply giving near-sighted children glasses can dramatically boost their school performance. Convincing Chinese teachers and parents is harder.

== Future Fiction ==

Part documentary and part science fiction, The Visit: An Alien Encounter is a faux documentary of first contact, milking a sense of mystery and suspense that might accompany such a transforming event. (Available for streaming on Amazon.) Will it be silly or cogent?  I guess we’ll see…

… though it is highly reminiscent of a TV series I was on called Alien Encounters (Discovery Channel) that took viewers through a similar situation that evolves rapidly and disturbingly in unexpected directions — alternating fictional segments with interviews in which varied sages discuss plausible technologies and conceivable outcomes.

And finally...

Inventor Lowell Wood just broke Edison's record at 1805 awarded U.S. patents. This feature about Wood portrays an American original who just happened to live in exactly the sub-civilization that best leveraged his talents, benefiting us all. (Among the inventions are a few that you might find suggested, way back in 1987, in EARTH… but never mind that.)

Okay!  That great big pile of cool items ought to keep you busy, clicking and skimming while groaning and loosening your belts on Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday)... or else however you folks elsewhere around the world celebrate Thursday.  (Ah... Thursday!)

Don't let grouches undermine our confidence.  Star Trek awaits.  Do thrive and persevere.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Obfuscation: protect privacy by destroying the Web!

Time for a return to the core issue of our time: how shall we best preserve and extend freedom?  Along with freedom's contingent benefits, like privacy?

In the LA Review of Books, Internet Privacy: Stepping Up Our Self-Defense Game, Evan Selinger reviews a slim book -- Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest, by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum.  

Distilled, the core argument is that defenders of freedom and privacy should poison the Web and Net that we now know, by flooding it with disinformation and false data, so that no one -- including powerful elites -- will be able to tell what's real. In other words -- burn the commons to the ground, so smoke gets in their eyes. That'll show 'em.

Let me avow that I actually quite respect Brunton and Nissenbaum and other members of this weird cult, for one reason.  At least in Obfuscation they are recommending a different solution from the standard offerings, which are “encrypt everything!” and “surrender to despair.”  True, the obfuscation approach was first offered in sci fi thought experiments, like Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End and Vernor saw the logical reasons why it cannot possibly work.  Still, at least they are trying to envision something assertive.

To be clear, most of us share the same fear – of a return to the obligate pyramids of privilege and power that dominated 99% of human societies for at least the last 6000 years.  George Orwell terrified us by portraying Big Brother’s tyranny becoming far worse even than feudalism, enhanced and locked-in with technological powers that make resistance futile, forever.  I am often accused of shugging off that threat when, in fact, I am as much (or more) motivated to fight it than anyone else alive.  Motivated enough to ask that rarest of questions: 

“How did we get the narrow window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

Oh, there is no end to Cassandras issuing jeremiads and hand-wringing denunciations that the window is closing! Declaring that various elites – government agencies, corporations, oligarchs, criminal gangs – are forging Big Brother’s tools and applying them, as we speak. And these complainers are right! As far as they go, that is. Yes, the revolution and renaissance is in danger! It always has been, with odds stacked high in favor of feudalism’s horrible return.  And yet…

…and yet dire warnings are best when accompanied by perspective. But not one of the modern doomcasters – from Snowden and Assange to Fukayama and Schneier to Nissenbaum and Brunton – not one of them ever casts an eye toward the question that I will now reiterate: “How did we get the admittedly imperfect window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

The answer is not “obfuscation.” Nor is it a more frequently prescribed version of the same notion – universal encryption of everything. Our ancestors who set the enlightenment revolution in motion held no truck with such cowardly approaches, that boil down to “If you are afraid of looming tyrants, then by all means hide!” (See my earlier critique: Everybody Hide!)

Across twenty years I have asked fans of cowering in shadows to name one time when that approach truly stymied would-be lords, or helped to maintain a free and open and accountable society. The answer I get is always… always… puzzled, blinking stares, as if the question had never once occurred to them. But in fact, if you examine sixty centuries of tyranny – and the methods used by secret police and despots since Hammurabi – only a handful of their tactics would be even slightly inconvenienced by perfectly-encrypted messaging – or by setting the commons on fire. 

(Oh, and fans of encrypted cowering also ignore technological change.  The fact that agencies and corporations can trivially decipher encryption from ten years ago, so why won’t they be able to parse today’s best ciphers, ten years from now? Revelation delayed is still revelation. Oh, you respond that this time it'll work much better than it ever worked before? You’d really and truly entrust everything to such a slender reed?)

Ah, but solutions only have to sound plausible and logical. What? I’m asking for a history of their proposed approach ever, ever, ever having worked?  Call me a spoil-sport.

In fact, only one thing has ever actually worked, thwarting tyranny long enough to let us have this recent – albeit imperfect – stretch of relative freedom and privacy. The method is called reciprocal accountability.  Also Sousveillance (look it up.) A far more demanding, citizen-centered approach that happens to be the way our parents did it, and their parents, and the founders of our revolution.

It is the very same method that is currently being applied on our streets, as citizens -- empowered by new technologies of vision – assert themselves to hold police accountable.  Using new technologies like cell phone cameras to empower citizenship, instead of oppressing it, they are preserving and enhancing freedom as we speak, not by hiding from the Man, but by militantly and courageously aiming tools of light to hold authority accountable. 

And that is the difference between us, friends.  I share with Nissenbaum and Brunton and Selinger a fear and loathing of potential feudal lords and tyrants. Only I care enough to actually get past the indignant reflex and ask what has worked in the past – and what is working right now. 

Ponder this truth: what has worked is not - and never has been - hiding.

== Is hiding even remotely possible? ==

The new techno romantics all proclaim so, demanding the cowardly approach – hiding from the Man – and loudly proclaiming it to be brave.  But physically and pragmatically, can it actually be done?

In the future, elites will have all sorts of tools to defeat obfuscation.  Linguistic-semantic analysis will detect your statements and ID you, even hidden by a pseudonym. Comparison of multi-path inputs will parse truth from fabulation. Governments and criminals and aristocrats will have means to bypass the bits, eavesdropping on the sonic data as your voice vibrates your window, or they’ll tap and log the strokes you type on your keyboard, from the different sounds each letter emits.

Technologies like facial coding, biofeedback and brain imaging have long been used by companies in the hope of pushing the boundaries of marketing and product development. But their use by political parties and governments is a growing phenomenon, evoking futuristic scenes from the movie “Minority Report,” in which eerily well-informed billboards scan commuters’ eyes and call out to them by name.

I have compiled a long list of biometric traits that are useful or effective at distinguishing one human being from another.  These range from fingerprints and retinal or iris scans to face recognition, hand-bone ratios, voiceprints, walking-gait... all the way to the otto-acoustic sound emissions that many of us radiate involuntarily from our eardrums!  We positively fizz with identifiers. And the romantics who think they will ever be able to conceal their movements in such a future are uber-fools.

Now comes news that just sitting in a room you'll leave a unique panoply of bacteria that can be attributed to you. Everywhere you go... you emit your own unique microbial cloud -- a personalized signature of your own micro biome.

"We all continually emit our own microbial cloud into the air and onto nearby—and not so nearby—surfaces. Now, according to a new study in the open-access journal Peerj, scientists can distinguish the make-up of the cloud is uniquely yours—a personal marker that is as particular to you as your fingerprints or your genome. That’s a biological calling card that could have implications for epidemiology, environmental engineering or even, intriguingly, criminal forensics."

Elsewhere, I talk about a posh gym in New York where a $26,000 membership and a retinal scan lets you into a facility where they measure everything about you… in order to guide your workout. Um okay.  So rich people are paying high rates in order to offer up their bodies to be measured in every conceivable way, so that unvetted parties will have every single biometric ... ah, I see you are getting it.  But do they?

Safety-through-concealment is a fool's fantasy -- even for elites.

I do not say this out of despair!  Rather, in order to rouse you to fight for freedom the only way that has ever worked.  The only way that can possibly work.  And the way that the self-appointed mavens of privacy absolutely refuse to consider.  In their relentless preaching for cowardice… that we all should protect ourselves by hiding… they perform the worst possible betrayal of everything that they claim to stand for.

Pardon me for repeating. I'll stop doing it when I see signs that the point is getting through to anyone, anyone at all.  But hiding will not work over any long-run.  

Sure, protect your passwords as a short term, practical matter.  But over the long term only one thing will keep you free.  Aggressively, militantly empowering yourself and your neighbors to see!

== So what’s to be done? ==

This is why the banks will not go all electronic and abandon their branches.  Bank branches will in future do what they do now, verify your credentials and help you do transactions.  Only in 2050 you will walk in... in-person... and be verified via all of your biometrics, including biomeNtrics (I just coined that!) via cranial sensors.

With that verification, you can then, in-person, clean up the last month's messes and prepare the next month's passwords.

== Someone being useful, at least ==

Much more cogent and well-supported – and hence scarier – is: "6 Spooky Ways Local Law Enforcement Is Watching You: A day in the life of the surveillance state," by Elliot Harmon and Nadia Kayyali, posted on the site of the worthy Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which I urge all of you to make one of your two dozen “proxy activism” NGOs.

Just because I disagree with EFF's set of prescriptive solutions, that doesn't mean they aren't completely right to be shouting and hollering and rousing public awareness of the overall dangers!  I send them money.  You should, too.

Harmon and Kayyali summarize, with useful links, half a dozen ways you are being watched, from social media monitoring and automated license plate readers to surveillance cameras, biometrics and imsi catchers.  Alas though, in the end the problem and drawback is the same.

== And finally… Yelp for People? ==

Of course this had to come. Yelp for people: You will soon be able to rate anyone you have interacted with on this new app: with reviews and 1 to 5 star ratings assigned to "your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose."

The good news?  This will light a fire under creating real reputation mediation services, a potential billion dollar business (and I know the secret sauce) – and don’t let anyone tell you that reputation companies already exist.  They are jokes.