Thursday, August 31, 2006

Global Warming is
faster than predicted

BBC News has an article by Roger Harrabin based on a broadcast interview with Prof. John Holdren, the new president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which is scarcely a radical or alarmist organization).
"The climate [is] changing much faster than predicted.

"We are not talking anymore about what climate models say might happen in the future.

"We are experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate and we're going to experience more...

"We are not starting to address climate change with the technology we have in hand, and we are not accelerating our investment in energy technology research and development..."

In order to make any progress, funding for climate technology need[s] to multiply by three or four times...

If the US administration agreed that there was a need to limit CO2, this would inevitably lead to mandatory caps. President Bush has already rejected that option.

For more than a year, the BBC has invited the US government to give its view on safe levels of CO2. Our request is repeatedly passed between the White House office of the Council on Environmental Quality and the office of the US chief scientist.

To date, we have received no response to questions on this issue that Tony Blair calls the most important in the world. Professor Holdren called on the US Government to back the UK position.
"What, me worry?"

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Alice and Bob After Dinner Speech

Thanks to Brian Randell for pointing me to this speech by John Gordon.

It contains fascinating inferences about the private lives of Alice and Bob, based on what has been published about them in papers on coding theory, but goes on to other fascinating topics, including one of the best versions of the phonetic alphabet (actually, an abcedarian) that I've ever seen:

A for 'Orses
B for Mutton
C for Yourself
D for Mation
E for Brick
F for Vescence
G for Police
H for Consent
I for Lutin
J for Orange
K for Teria
L for Leather
M for Sis
N for Mation
O for A Muse of Fire
P for Ate
Q for A Song
[R seems to have been omitted, maybe R for Mo?]
S for Something Else
T for Two
U for Mism
V for La France
W for Mism
X for Breakfast
Y for Lover
Z for Yourself
[better Z for Breeze to avoid the repetition with C?]

Edited to add: For explanations of any of these you find cryptic, plus a wide selection of alternatives, click here.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Schneier on Educating Users

Great blog post by Bruce Schneier. Here are some excerpts, which will hopefully convince you to read the whole thing:

I don't see a failure of education; I see a failure of technology...

The real problem is that computers don't work well. The industry has convinced everyone that people need a computer to survive, and at the same time it's made computers so complicated that only an expert can maintain them.

If I try to repair my home heating system, I'm likely to break all sorts of safety rules. I have no experience in that sort of thing, and honestly, there's no point in trying to educate me. But the heating system works fine without my having to learn anything about it. I know how to set my thermostat and to call a professional if anything goes wrong...

I say we stop punishing people for failures of technology, and demand that computer companies market secure hardware and software.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Privacy Debacle Hall of Fame

Wired has an article by Annalee Newitz pointing out that, although the AOL release of over 500,000 search queries "may have been one of the dumbest privacy debacles of all time," it probably doesn't rate in the Top Ten violations. Her choices:
  1. The creation of the Social Security Number
  2. AT&T lets the NSA listen to all phone calls
  4. Testing CAPPS II
  5. Amy Boyer's murder
  6. Philip Agee's revenge
  7. Discovery of data on used hard drives for sale
  8. CardSystems hacked
  9. VA laptop theft
  10. ChoicePoint data spill

The article expands on each of these and her reasons for singling them out.

"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."
--Scott McNealy

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rebels & Redcoats

I recently read David McCollough's popular 1776 and Don Cook's less popular, but more thorough, The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785. They both left me with the question, "What were the British thinking?" I.e., what did the British decision-makers believe, know, intend, plan, and expect? How did they get it so horribly wrong?

Via a British friend, I got a recommendation for a British perspective from his university's Reader in American History. Hugh Bicheno's Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War is "the best general history ... of a far higher standard than McCullough, but still lively and accessible to a general audience."

Rebels & Redcoats was certainly eye-opening in some respects, including its view of the Founding Fathers as a reprehensible bunch who dragged their mostly-unwilling countrymen into an unnecessary war. It is incessant in its attacks on "the Foundation Myth" (on which, of course, I was raised).

Depending on taste, this is either the most deliciously vicious, or the most consistently mean-spirited, book of historical non-fiction that I can recall. The only major figure (American or British) to emerge relatively unscathed is Benedict Arnold--possibly because his reputation has already been ruined. On topics where Bicheno agrees with the conventional view, he says little or nothing, and he presents little concrete evidence for many of his most sweeping character judgments.

To my mind, much of the book reeks of what I call "Simon Schama-ism": The use of a book ostensibly directed to the general reader to attack other historians' positions, without the encumbering impedimenta of scholarly publication. Bicheno often assumes that the reader already knows the history he is commenting on, rather than troubling to present it. Had I not already read the other books, I would have been mystified by a number of Bicheno's discursions, and would have lacked the background to connect many of the book's parts to its whole.

Three allegations in the book have the potential to significantly alter my view of important aspects of the Revolution:
  1. The supply of arms and military stores cached in Concord in April 1775 included three 24-pounder cannon. "These were 5600-pound monsters requiring eight to ten men to serve them and a team of six horses to pull them... They were siege guns, not field artillery pieces, and how they came to be buried in the courtyard of the Concord jail is a mystery... The conspirators were desperate to provoke some bloody event to polarize opinion, and the French would have regarded a brace and a half of 24-pounders as seed corn... The existence of such powerful weapons at such a place and time of itself is one of those ugly facts so harmful to beautiful theories, in this case the myth of peace-loving farmers spontaneously rising up against unprovoked aggression."
  2. "Myth has it these were either personal weapons or stocks siezed from poorly guarded depots, but even if we are to suppose that every colony gave up every weapon it captured in 1775-76, more cannon were lost by the Rebels during the New York campaign than the British Army had ever felt it necessary to store in the colonies. It is impossible to reconcile the spontaneous uprising thesis with this proof of serious long-term planning and preparation."
  3. Jefferson's first manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence contained the following passage accusing George III of foisting the slave trade on the colonies:
    "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold he has prostituted his negative for supressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."
Since Bicheno does not specify the sources on which he bases these allegations, it is difficult for me to decide how much credence to give them.

Bicheno is not overly concerned with consistency, being willing to assert a proposition to skewer one character, and then a contradictory proposition to eviscerate another. I'm not talking about minor points, but major ones, like whether or not the Tea Act precipitated the conflict, or whether the terms on which the war was settled in 1782 were significantly different from the ones offered by Britain in 1778.

A few sample quotes:

It often crossed my mind that the standard accounts of the Anglo-American civil war of 1775-83 are the most outstanding example of propaganda not merely triumphing over historical substance, but virtually obliterating it.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence ... denounced measures taken for the common defence, the preservation of public order and the value of the currency, which most would regard as minimum obligations of any government.

It is also absurd to enumerate atrocities as though they constitute a scorecard of righteousness in war, when it consists largely of acts that would give pause to a moderately fastidious hyena. But for those wishing to do so it should be self-evident that the Rebels, intent on simultaneously crushing Native and African American autonomy ... committed the most offences against peacetime standards of decent behaviour.

Only the most devoted hagiographers have been able to stomach the personalities of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the partnership that made the war happen.

Franklin was a pot-stirrer quite on a par with Samuel Adams, like him carefully tailoring his message to whatever audience he was addressing... Franklin's ... apparent moderation was simply a smokescreen.

But as all politicians know, the executive truth is what people can be persuaded to believe long enough to commit them to a course from which there is no easy retreat.

What British politicians did not do was provoke a peaceful people to revolt... Few pugilists would argue in favor of thrusting your face into your opponent's fist. Yet as we shall see next, this was what the flower of the British officer corps decided was the best way to start round one of the contest for America.

The Scots slaver and pirate John Paul alias Jones ... defeated the frigate HMS Serapis... His later career included service in the navy of the freedom-loving Catherine the Great of Russia, finally fleeing St Petersburg to evade an allegedly fabricated accusation of rape. What may have been his remains were exhumed from a built-over Paris cemetery in 1905 and escorted across the Atlantic by the US fleet for deposit in a magnificent crypt at the Annapolis Naval Academy. Not many other career criminals have been similarly honored.

After centuries in which the House of Lords, on occasion alone, resisted relentless centralization, the British are now to find out whether it will be an improvement to have an upper house packed with government placepersons possessing all the attributes of petty criminals save the minimum courage required to rob the helpless openly.

The watershed was not the French alliance, but the means it provided to a small group of men, wedded to conspiracy, to exploit the situation for their own advantage. That some went on to falsify the record may indicate a vestigial sense of shame, but more likely reflects a sober awareness of what their fellow citizens would do if the truth emerged. Even so, like the wretchedly treated soldiers of the Continental Army but with far more reason, the members of the wartime Congress were generally regarded with contempt by their contemporaries.

Vermont is still a maverick state, while despite a political history of almost unparalleled corruption and judicial malfeasance, Massachusetts remains the preferred domicile of the tiresomely self-righteous... Philadelphia treasures the cracked Liberty Bell, which perfectly symbolizes Pennsylvania's commitment to the cause of independence.

This book did not satisfy my particular curiosity about what the British decision-makers believed, knew, intended, planned and expected. In fact, it gave remarkably little space to either decisions in Britain or by the British command in America. But it was a very interesting read.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Powerless NSA?

Wired News has a story on NSA approaching the limits of its electrical supply.

Agency officials anticipated the problem nearly a decade ago as they looked ahead at the technology needs of the agency, sources said, but it was never made a priority, and now the agency's ability to keep its operations going is threatened. The NSA is already unable to install some costly and sophisticated new equipment, including two new supercomputers, for fear of blowing out the electrical infrastructure, they said...

In response, the NSA is quietly sending pleas to its targets via pre-recorded phone calls, text messages and its super-secret microwave "power of suggestion" feature to voluntarily reduce their volume of communications. (You can activate this at home by pressing the "defrost" button.)
They also asked people to:

  • Turn off any encryption, at least until September brings cooler weather to the East Coast.
  • Make overseas calls at non-peak hours.
  • Directly CC: for only the most essential terrorist plotting emails.
  • Try to avoid, in conversation or written communications, any non-relevant uses of the phrases 'jihad,' 'pipe bomb' and 'this country is run by incompetent, ideological nincompoops'.
The note closes with my favorite of their slogans: "Help the NSA Help You."

Please do your part -- Remember we are all in this together.



Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Internet malware costs consumers $8.4 billion/year

A Consumer Reports summary of the State of the Net 2006 totals up costs to consumers of viruses ($5.2B), spyware ($2.6B) and phishing ($0.6B).

The risks associated with using the Internet remain high. Our third annual State of the Net assesses the ­likelihood and impact of four leading online hazards, listed in order of ­incidence, based on the nationally representativesurvey ­conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center and our follow-up investigation.

The incidence of heavy spam remains as elevated as last year. Spam still makes up most of the e-mail traffic on the Internet, clogging the In boxes of tens of millions of U.S. households...

The frequency of virus-induced problems is at the same high level as last year. Despite the absence of any highly publicized outbreaks, viruses are still widespread and quite hazardous...

Despite a decline in the incidence of spyware, its resulting problems remain epidemic. In the previous six months, spyware infections prompted nearly a million U.S. households to replace their computer...

Phishing attacks are as rampant as they were last year, while the ­median cost per victim has increased fivefold. In 2006 alone, the number of fraudulent sites has risen at an alarming rate.

The Washington Post reports on this report (but omits the cost of phishing).

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Monday, August 07, 2006

At least AOL apologizes for its massive privacy breach

A Reuters story by Kenneth Li covers the privacy breach and AOL's apology:
NEW YORK (Reuters) - AOL on Monday apologized for releasing information on about 20 million keyword searches in a move that ignited a firestorm of criticism about privacy rights on the Internet.

AOL, the online unit of media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., said it launched an internal investigation into how a research division of the company mistakenly released the data on its Web site about 10 days ago.

AOL released search information on about 20 million searches done from its software by about 658,000 anonymous AOL users over a three-month period, representing about one-third-of-1-percent of searches conducted over that time.

The disclosure, which AOL said was not cleared through official channels, came months after Google Inc. won kudos from privacy pundits for refusing to comply with U.S. government requests for search data on its users.

"This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," said Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman. "It was an innocent-enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant."

Although user information was not disclosed, keyword searches have included users who search their own names...

One legal expert said the disclosure probably did not violate the company's own privacy policy as the data did not include personally identifiable information.

"This is more of a business snafu than anything else," Jason Epstein, head of the business and technology group at law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC said.
As with almost anything released on the Web, enough copies were made to other sites that AOL's removal of the file will not unspill the water.

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