Monday, March 31, 2014

NSA infiltrated RSA security more deeply than thought

Reuters reports Exclusive: NSA infiltrated RSA security more deeply than thought "Security industry pioneer RSA adopted not just one but two encryption tools developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, greatly increasing the spy agency's ability to eavesdrop on some Internet communications, according to a team of academic researchers."

Jobs and Skills and Zombies

Paul Krugman on Jobs and Skills and Zombies - "But the belief that America suffers from a severe ‘skills gap’ is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die."

He points to this article, Is There Really a Shortage of Skilled Workers? that has lots of graphs showing high unemployment across all education levels, and across all occupations compared to 2007 as well as unemployment vastly outnumbering job openings across occupations and no evidence of hours or wages being ramped up.

Conclusion: it’s aggregate demand, stupid!

There are simply no structural changes capable of explaining the pattern of sustained high unemployment over the last five years. What we have, instead, is an aggregate demand problem. The reason we are not seeing robust job growth is because businesses have not seen demand for their goods and services pick up in a way that would require them to significantly ramp up hiring. The right policies for the present moment are, therefore, straightforward. More education and training to help workers make job transitions could help some individuals, but it’s not going to generate demand, so it will not solve the unemployment crisis. Instead, Washington policymakers must to focus on policies that will stimulate demand. In the current moment this can only be reliably accomplished through expansionary fiscal policy involving such measures as large-scale ongoing public investments and the reestablishment of state and local public services that were cut in the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Medicare Doc Fix Passed, Probably Illegally

Kevin Drum writes John Boehner vs. the Tea Party, Part XVII.

It's hard not to laugh at this. The House Republican leadership needed to pass the annual Medicare doc fix, but they didn't want to raise taxes or cut other spending to pay for it. Nor did they want anyone to be forced to go on record voting for a bill that wasn't paid for. What to do? Answer:

  • Call a recess.
  • Huddle up with Democratic leaders and get their buy-in for a quick voice vote.
  • Do not—repeat: do not—tell tea party types about this.
  • Get back out on the floor pronto and call up a bill that doesn't pay for the doc fix at all. Just put it on the ol' deficit spending credit card.
  • Pass it fast before conservative Republicans realize what's going on and demand a roll-call vote.
  • Hightail it out of Dodge.

More here, Boehner and Cantor Ram Home Unpaid-For Doc-Fix.

The more you look into this the more ridiculous it is. Medicare is extremely popular so cutting it is out of the question. If you're in the tea party, then paying for it is out of the question. This comes up because the fees that doctors can charge are way too low and rather than actually fixing them for good, we do temporary fixes that require votes every few months. And while there are votes to pass this, there aren't enough in just the GOP and Boehner wants to keep the illusion that the Republicans can govern on their own. Or something.

If you watch the CSPAN video of the vote, it probably didn't even pass. Reminds me of the Texas legislature trying to end Wendy Davis' filibuster.

It surprises me that tea party darling Eric Cantor was in on this. Why Did Eric Cantor Just Put More Medicare Spending on the U.S. Credit Card?

Our government is just broken.

After seven years, exactly one person gets off the gov’t no-fly list

Ars Technica reports After seven years, exactly one person gets off the gov’t no-fly list

The Ibrahim case marks the first and only successful challenge to the terrorist watch-listing program, which arose following the 9/11 attacks. But Ibrahim's case, as just one of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been placed on such lists, shows the system's opacity. First, the only surefire way to even determine if one is on such a list in the US is to attempt to board a flight and be denied. Even after that happens, when a denied person inquires about his or her status, the likely response will be that the government ‘can neither confirm nor deny’ the placement on such lists.

The government's surrender in Ibrahim comes on the heels of a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union that shows just how insanely difficult it is to contest one's status on the government blacklists. The ACLU explains:

The 'redress' procedures the US government provides for those who have been wrongly or mistakenly included on a watchlist are wholly inadequate. Even after people know the government has placed them on a watchlist... the government's official policy is to refuse to confirm or deny watchlist status. Nor is there any meaningful way to contest one's designation as a potential terrorist and ensure that the US government... removes or corrects inadequate records. The result is that innocent people can languish on the watchlists indefinitely, without real recourse.

Cory Doctorow summed the insanity up nicely:

The ACLU says that the national terrorism watchlist has 1.1 million names on it, and an AP report from 2012 found 21,000 people on the no-fly list. Recently, Rahinah Ibrahim became the first person to be officially, publicly removed from a no-fly list, after the government was forced to admit that she'd been placed there due to a bureaucratic error. All through the Ibrahim case, the government argued that disclosing any facts about her no-fly status would endanger national security, but ultimately it was obvious that the only potential risk was that the government's sloppiness would be disclosed. The state was willing to spend millions of dollars and ruin an innocent person's life rather than admitting that an FBI agent literally ticked the wrong box.

Friday, March 28, 2014

California's Historic Drought

In Focus shows California's Historic Drought "The year 2013 was the driest in California's recorded history, and predictions for 2014 aren't much better. Three consecutive years of below-normal rainfall have left reservoirs at a fraction of their normal depth, seriously threatening farms in the state that grows half the nation's fruits and vegetables. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and signed a $687 million drought-relief package into law, and 125 additional firefighters have been hired already in anticipation of a dangerous upcoming fire season. One bright spot: gold prospecting. Amateur prospectors are flocking to the Sierra Nevada foothills, taking advantage of lower water levels to search for gold in riverbeds that have been unreachable for decades. [25 photos]"

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2 Cellos Live

I don't think I've heard of 2CELLOSlive before but this was funny and entertaining...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

More on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores

Mark Walsh wrote in SCOTUSblog ACA’s return taxes the High Court describing the arguments almost as a short story.

Dahlia Lithwick does one better in Is the Contraception Mandate Doomed?. While describing the legal issues raised in the arguments she manages to answer "What kind of contraceptive method are you?" for each of the nine justices.

The ACLU wonders, Does Hobby Lobby Even Have Standing?. "These companies say that they suffer direct harm: the contraception mandate costs them money. That is what the Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby briefly noted: the companies “face an imminent loss of money, traceable to the contraceptive-coverage requirement.” But even if that is true (which was the subject of tough questions at the arguments), paying that money does not directly affect any individual’s ability to freely exercise religion. Only the employees and officers can directly exercise their individual religious beliefs. And they are not the ones paying to comply with the regulations. They are separate from the company."

Kenneth Jost tweets that so far in this Supreme Court term, "SCOTUS: another 9-0 ruling, still no 5-4; never before has Roberts Court reached April w/o a 5-4 decision."

St. Petersburg From Above

In Focus makes St. Petersburg From Above look gorgeous.

"Recently, photographer Amos Chapple spent some time in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city. He used a small drone to lift his camera high above the cathedrals and fortresses, capturing some amazing aerial photos. Chapple: 'There's a legend in Russia that Saint Petersburg was constructed in the blue heavens and lowered in one piece into the marshland, 'for how otherwise could a city so beautiful exist in a region so bleak.'' Chapple, has previously showed us Stalin's Rope Roads, and took us on a trip to Turkmenistan. [12 photos]"

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The Republican Street Fight over Transparency in Government

Lawrence Lessig writes (and I could not avoid reading it in his voice) in The Daily Beast about The Republican Street Fight over Transparency in Government. "A growing rift in the Republican Party about transparency has deepened within the Senate, with 16 Republicans now scolding a federal agency for the outrage of requesting that scientists submitting studies in a rule-making procedure identify any financial conflicts of interest."

"The real question here for the Senate—and for that matter, for President Obama, since he is, after all, the executive—is not whether OSHA, like Oliver Twist, should be permitted to beg for the disclosure of financial conflicts. (‘Please, sir, tell me some more?’) The real question is why every federal agency doesn’t require disclosures of the financial interest of anyone seeking to affect federal policy through supposedly scientific submissions. Every single brief filed in any federal court must include a disclosure of interest by the parties making the arguments. Every senator must disclose every financial contribution (over $200) made to his or her campaign. Why, exactly, should federal agencies be any different?"

How Not To Conduct Online Surveys

I subscribe to a few magazines including Wired, Entertainment Weekly, The Atlantic, Boston Magazine, and Sky & Telescope. I also recently subscribed to Ars Technica, mostly so I could get single page views of articles to save in Instapaper but also to feel good about how much I consume their well written and researched content.

Today I got email from "WIRED". It was reasonably formatted and had a top portion that looked like a Condé Nast letterhead listing their publications. I recognized Wired and Ars Technica. I know the name Condé Nast but I wouldn't have been able to tell you what publications they own. Here's the text:

At Condé Nast, we really care what you think. That's why we are asking for your help with this online survey. As a thank-you for your valuable time, you will be entered into a sweepstakes giveaway for a chance to win $50,000.*

We know you may receive countless emails each day, but since this is one of the most important surveys we conduct all year, we hope you will take some time to fill it out. Simply click on the link below or cut and paste the link into your browser.

Many, many thanks for your help.

Kind regards,

Condé Nast Research and Insights

There's also some boilerplate legalese at the bottom about no purchase necessary, etc. I've X'ed out the id in the URL above since I don't really know what it identifies. Now I suspect this is actually real and I'd actually be willing to give them my opinion of their publications (though I suspect their survey will not have the questions I really care about). But the problem is, this email looks like spam. Sure it passed Gmail's spam filter, but so does real spam.

  • The From isn't from a magazine I subscribe to but from and that's at least a real domain name but the From header is easily forged.
  • The linked URL is to which is as spammy an URL as I could think up.
  • The $50,000 is a link to, another spammy sounding URL and different from the one with the actually survey and different from the From header. The links in the boilerplate stuff are all to so that's at least consistent.
  • They provide a link to a privacy policy which is also from but then follow it with this email address,, yet another domain name.
  • If you visit you get web page that looks circa 1993 with an Anti-Spam and Privacy Statement and saying to send questions to Silverpop is apparently "Award winning marketing software trusted by more than 5,000 brands worldwide." Uh huh.
  • If you visit the marketing survey the first two questions are your gender and age, certainly stuff that marketing surveys would want, but also stuff spammers or others would want. I was given no indication it wouldn't get worse going on.

So Condé Nast, if this really is "one of the most important surveys we conduct all year", then maybe you should make it not look like spam. Maybe instead of outsourcing it to several layers of marketing companies, you should do it yourself. You should at least set it up at your own website. That's kind of like the 21st century equivalent of signing your name. You should say what the survey is about, more than it's "online" and "important". The survey itsefl should like something from you, not something generic that any high school programmer could whip up in an afternoon. If I have to tell you these things, then I think you need more help than a survey response could give you.

Jedi Cat

This is much better than Laser Cats.

Death Penalty Evolution Map: How Executions Have Changed in States

Lane Florsheim writes in The New Republic writes Death Penalty Evolution Map: How Executions Have Changed in States "By 2009, all death-penalty states had made lethal injection the sole or primary execution method for death row inmates, despite problems with the method that have been evident since the 1950s. Now, the death penalty is transforming once again, due to a shortage in the drug used in the three-drug protocol to paralyze the inmate during his execution. As a result, states have resorted to hunting for a replacement in unusual places, such as domestic compounding pharmacies. Some have changed their protocols to use just one drug, or tried to replace the missing drug with new drugs. Others have put executions on hold. In states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, and Wyoming, there’s even been talk of reintroducing the electric chair. This has led to a spate of ethical problems and legal challenges."

Death penalty map v3f

Sadly the animation in the above map doesn't seem to be playing in my copy, click to visit the page to see the changes over time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SCOTUS Hears Obamacare Challenge on Religious Rights of Corporations

Lyle Denniston wrote for SCOTUSblog, Argument recap: One hearing, two dramas.

"The Supreme Court, in a one-hour, twenty-eight-minute session Tuesday, staged something like a two-act play on a revolving stage: first the liberals had their chance and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave them some help, and then the scene shifted entirely, and the conservatives had their chance — and, again, Kennedy provided them with some support.

So went the argument in the combined cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.  The ‘contraceptive mandate’ in the new federal health care law, challenged under federal law and the Constitution, fared well in the first scene, and badly in the second.

But the ultimate outcome, it seemed, will depend upon how Justice Kennedy makes up his mind.  There was very little doubt where the other eight Justices would wind up:  split four to four."

The conservatives are now arguing that corporations have religious rights. Denniston seemed to have missed this reference, Kagan Throws Scalia's Own Religious Liberty Arguments Back In His Face.

During oral arguments Tuesday about the validity of Obamacare's birth control mandate, Justice Elena Kagan cleverly echoed Justice Antonin Scalia's past warning that religious-based exceptions to neutral laws could lead to "anarchy."

"Your understanding of this law, your interpretation of it, would essentially subject the entire U.S. Code to the highest test in constitutional law, to a compelling interest standard," she told Paul Clement, the lawyer arguing against the mandate for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. "So another employer comes in and that employer says, I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws; and then another employer comes in, I have a religious objection to minimum wage laws; and then another, family leave; and then another, child labor laws. And all of that is subject to the exact same test which you say is this unbelievably high test, the compelling interest standard with the least restrictive alternative."

Kagan's remarks might sound familiar to the legally-trained ear. In a 1990 majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, Scalia alluded to the same examples of what might happen if religious entities are permitted to claim exemptions from generally applicable laws. He warned that "[a]ny society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy."

TPM's headline is of course too strong as they mention, "But Congress responded to Scalia's opinion by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which sets strict scrutiny standards for any law that substantially burdens a person's exercise of religion. That's the law that endangers the contraceptive mandate -- and it's the basis under which Scalia appeared to lean against the government's position during Tuesday's oral arguments."

Cities reluctant to reveal whether they’re using fake cell tower devices

Ars Technica reports Cities reluctant to reveal whether they’re using fake cell tower devices "For some time now, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been on a quest to better understand the use and legality of ‘stingrays.' These devices, which are also known as international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, or fake cell towers, can be used to track phones or, in some cases, intercept calls and text messages.

The ‘Stingray’ itself is a trademarked product manufactured by a Florida-based company, the Harris Corporation. (It has since come to be used as a generic term, like Xerox or Kleenex.) Harris is notoriously secretive about the capabilities of its devices and generally won’t talk to the press about their capabilities or deployments."

How did I miss this? Ars reported on it a year ago, New e-mails reveal Feds not “forthright” about fake cell tower devices

At Least 14 Dead in Washington State Mudslide

In Focus on At Least 14 Dead in Washington State Mudslide "Last Saturday, at 10:45 am, part of a hillside above Oso, Washington -- known by some locals as 'Slide Hill' -- collapsed after weeks of heavy rain, sending a wall of mud and debris across a small valley of the Stillaguamish River. The neighborhood below the hillside was destroyed, and more than 100 properties damaged, resulting in at least 14 verified deaths -- a number that may grow larger, as the list of missing has grown to 176. Efforts to rescue victims have been slow, as the surrounding hills remain dangerously unstable and the affected area is so large. Rescue workers continued their search throughout last night. [16 photos]"

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner Is Real Food

Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner Is Real Food "Katz and Yale colleague Stephanie Meller published their findings in the current issue of the journal in a paper titled, 'Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health?' In it, they compare the major diets of the day: Low carb, low fat, low glycemic, Mediterranean, mixed/balanced (DASH), Paleolithic, vegan, and elements of other diets. Despite the pervasiveness of these diets in culture and media, Katz and Meller write, 'There have been no rigorous, long-term studies comparing contenders for best diet laurels using methodology that precludes bias and confounding. For many reasons, such studies are unlikely.' They conclude that no diet is clearly best, but there are common elements across eating patterns that are proven to be beneficial to health. 'A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.'"


Also, What the heck are we supposed to be eating?

A Polarizing Discovery About the Big Bang!

Minute Physics does a great job on the recent Polarizing Discovery About the Big Bang!

Also I guess some Cosmologists Cast Doubt on Inflation Evidence saying that while inflation is the mostly cause of the fluctuations, the discovery doesn't rule out other causes, it merely constrains them.

Can You Spot the Liar?

The NY Times has a Can You Spot the Liar? quiz. I got the first 2 wrong but then the next 8 right.

India beats the odds, beats polio

CNN reports India beats the odds, beats polio

"Rukhsar Khatoon is too young to fully grasp the significance of her life: that she is a last in a country of 1.2 billion people. She has become the greatest symbol of India's valiant -- and successful -- effort to rid itself of a crippling and potentially deadly disease. Rukhsar, 4, is the final documented case of polio in India."

"Since Rukhsar's diagnosis three years ago, India has not seen another new case of polio. On March 27, the World Health Organization will formally announce the end of polio in India and proclaim another one of its global regions -- Southeast Asia -- free of the disease. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only three countries that have not eradicated polio, leaving the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa the last two WHO regions with the disease."

While a great accomplishment, it seems odd to celebrate the last victim of the disease as the article does.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet

Chris Goodfellow in Wired has A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet

The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah1 was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do–you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles. The captain did not turn back to Kuala Lampur because he knew he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier toward Langkawi, which also was closer.

For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.

What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.

Iranian Ship, in Plain View but Shrouded in Mystery, Looks Very Familiar to U.S.

Iranian Ship, in Plain View but Shrouded in Mystery, Looks Very Familiar to U.S. - "Iran is building a nonworking mock-up of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that United States officials say may be intended to be blown up for propaganda value."

How strange. Personally, I would have thought this was an Absolute ad:


Teacher stuns noisy pupils into spellbinding silence by threatening them with Game of Thrones spoilers

The Mirror (not The Onion) writes Teacher stuns noisy pupils into spellbinding silence by threatening them with Game of Thrones spoilers.

"At one point he became tired, he stopped and asked the classroom who was watching Game of Thrones and three quarters of the room put their hands up.

"He said, 'well I have read all the books and from now on when there is too much noise I will write the name of the next death'."

The teacher then began writing names as a hurried silence fell across the room.

The student added: "I can tell you there was a religious silence during the last lesson."

True or not, a pretty fun story.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Revelations of N.S.A. Spying Cost U.S. Tech Companies

The New York TImes writes Revelations of N.S.A. Spying Cost U.S. Tech Companies

The business effect of the disclosures about the N.S.A. is felt most in the daily conversations between tech companies with products to pitch and their wary customers. The topic of surveillance, which rarely came up before, is now ‘the new normal’ in these conversations, as one tech company executive described it.

“We’re hearing from customers, especially global enterprise customers, that they care more than ever about where their content is stored and how it is used and secured,” said John E. Frank, deputy general counsel at Microsoft, which has been publicizing that it allows customers to store their data in Microsoft data centers in certain countries.

A few points:

People blaming Snowden for this are blaming the messenger. The problem is the extent of the NSA's operations.

I think companies looking for tech companies out of the US are doing exactly the wrong thing. The NSA is prohibited from spying on the US and most of the things we've learned about them spying on US companies like Google and Yahoo is that they use these companies' foreign connections to spy on the data. They're looking at Google data because Google is huge and their targets probably use them but they're not getting the data from the US, they're getting it when Google sends data between data centers in different countries. There's nothing stopping the NSA from doing anything to a company that has no US footprint.

Finally if you really care about the location of your data, then cloud services are probably not for you regardless of where they are.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Netflix says it will pay “tolls” to more ISPs, not just Comcast

Ars Technica explains Netflix says it will pay “tolls” to more ISPs, not just Comcast "Netflix today said it will continue to pay 'tolls' to Internet service providers to guarantee a good experience for its customers, but it called upon the Federal Communications Commission to create net neutrality rules that govern network interconnections."

Website turns any TV show into a chart, revolutionizes arguing about TV

The AV Club writes Website turns any TV show into a chart, revolutionizes arguing about TV

Graph TV, "looks up the IMDB user ratings for every episode of a given TV show and turns them into points on simple graphs that show the ebb and flow of public opinion over the course of a series. Each season of the show is coded with a different color, so users can see, for example, which seasons of Dexter received more praise as they went on and which ones tumbled down the Y-axis faster than an Olympic bobsled team with nothing left to lose."

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I do think this is kind of genius and am shocked no one's done it before. The y axis changes changes scale for different shows so it might look like the fourth season of The Sopranos was awful but it was just in the high 7s instead of the series average high 8s. I'd also like a graph to compare two or more different shows.

The Timidity Trap

Krugman The Timidity Trap

"There don’t seem to be any major economic crises underway right this moment, and policy makers in many places are patting themselves on the back. In Europe, for example, they’re crowing about Spain’s recovery: the country seems set to grow at least twice as fast this year as previously forecast.

Unfortunately, that means growth of 1 percent, versus 0.5 percent, in a deeply depressed economy with 55 percent youth unemployment. The fact that this can be considered good news just goes to show how accustomed we’ve grown to terrible economic conditions. We’re doing worse than anyone could have imagined a few years ago, yet people seem increasingly to be accepting this miserable situation as the new normal."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What It Takes To Be An Effective Senator

Last November, after the umpteenth email from Elizabeth Warren about how she promised to fight for me and is doing so I sent her this email:

I understand how nothing is getting through both houses but these emails aren't encouraging to me. I've been a supporter of yours since before you started to run. I know you often use the "I'm ready to fight for you" line but honestly it's not what I want. First I'm not sure what it means, certainly not a boxing ring kind of fight. With the gridlock and polarization, I think giving partisan speeches on the floor is a useless act.

Honestly, I voted for you because you're smart and motivated and I agree with your positions. I'd much rather hear how you met with a Republican Senator one-on-one and had a conversation that maybe changed their mind a little a bit. Or convinced a Republican to co-sponsor a bill.

I was really happy to read this from Martin Longman, What It Takes To Be An Effective Senator "To be an effective senator, you have to build relationships with the other side and work constructively with legislators who you may be denouncing in public. Maybe you disagree about the proper size of government but you both have parents with Alzheimer’s disease. You can agree to set aside more money for the NIH to do research on prevention and treatment. This is why I find it encouraging that Cory Booker had a three-hour lunch with Ted Cruz last week."

Actually it was dinner, here's the original report Cory Booker: My dinner with Ted Cruz.

Stop Using Triclosan

Scientific American says A Key Antibacterial Soap Ingredient Must Go.

I Hunt Sys Admins

The Intercept posted a series of internal NSA posts I Hunt Sys Admins. If you're into computer security it's pretty entertaining.

Here's the article they wrote about it, Inside the NSA’s Secret Efforts to Hunt and Hack System Administrators.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Isn't the Fourth Amendment Classified as Top Secret?

Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic conducts a reductio ad absurdum argument, Why Isn't the Fourth Amendment Classified as Top Secret?. "Stewart Baker, an attorney who worked in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush Administration, participated in a debate about Edward Snowden:"

"You can't debate our intelligence capabilities and how to control them in the public without disclosing all of the things that you're discussing to the very people you're trying to gather intelligence about," he said. "Your targets are listening to the debates." In fact, he continued, they're listening particularly closely. For that reason, publicly debating intelligence techniques, targets and limits is foolish. As soon as targets figure out the limits of what authorities can touch, they'll change their tactics accordingly. In his view, limits should be set in secret. A class of overseers with security clearances can make the necessary judgment calls.

Trevor Timm, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, attempted to defend normal democratic debate. "What separates us from countries like Russia and China is that we can have these types of debates with an informed public that are completely aware of what types of surveillance are available to governments and what the legal standards are," he argued. "We're not specifically debating who the NSA is going to spy on, but whole surveillance regimes. If we didn't debate that in this country, the Fourth Amendment would be classified. But it's not."

I found it entertaining in an academic sort of way until I got to the part where he linked to this article, EFF: The Fourth Amendment Is Not Top Secret. It seems at some point the EFF made a Freedom of Information Act request and got back a document so heavily redacted that in further court actions some of it was released. The government (I think the DOJ) had redacted as Top Secret the text of the Fourth Amendent in the document!

FiveThirtyEight on AZ State Politics

FiveThirtyEight had an interesting article, The Wild, Conservative West. It seems that while Arizona is conservative, it's state legislature is way more conservative than it's people (and virtually any other state legislature in the country). The explanation is that clean election laws level the playing field between mainstream and extreme candidates. Also that long term representatives mellow out over time but Arizona has a term limit of 8 years meaning that representatives don't reach the mellow phase of their careers.

The annoying thing is that even though it's a FiveThirtyEight article there are no graphs and no real data. There are links like in this sentence:

Indeed, a study by Harvard University’s Andrew Hall and a separate study by the University of Denver’s Seth Masket and the University of Illinois’s Michael Miller both show that clean election laws lead to more extreme candidates.

but one is to a 43 page paper and another is to a page announcing a paper from two years ago but the link to the actual paper on that page is dead. I thought they were supposed to summarize the data for me with interesting graphs.

NSA surveillance program reaches ‘into the past’ to retrieve, replay phone calls

The Washington Post reports NSA surveillance program reaches ‘into the past’ to retrieve, replay phone calls

"The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording ‘100 percent’ of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.

The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere."

This is pretty astounding. They didn't name the country that it was used it (or the potential others). They did also say that it would pick up and record any calls that Americans had with that country and that the NSA made no effort to filter those out.

Mass. To Drop Contractor Behind Flawed Health Insurance Website

CGI didn't just screw up the federal Obamacare website, they screwed up the Massachusetts one as well. Mass. To Drop Contractor Behind Flawed Health Insurance Website.

"Massachusetts is negotiating an end to its contract with CGI, the Canadian vendor that built the state’s flawed health insurance website. The site was supposed to be up last October, offering one-stop health insurance shopping for anyone in Massachusetts. But six months later, only a few functions work but have glitches, and a few are not usable at all."

I'm not sure what the details are, but it would seem to me if the site doesn't work, the contract should have clear terms about what to do, and it should involve CGI not getting all the money they were expecting.

That Old-Time Whistle

Paul Krugman calls out Paul Ryan for That Old-Time Whistle.

"So it’s comical, in a way, to see Mr. Ryan trying to explain away some recent remarks in which he attributed persistent poverty to a ‘culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.’ He was, he says, simply being ‘inarticulate.’ How could anyone suggest that it was a racial dog-whistle? Why, he even cited the work of serious scholars — people like Charles Murray, most famous for arguing that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. Oh, wait.

Just to be clear, there’s no evidence that Mr. Ryan is personally a racist, and his dog-whistle may not even have been deliberate. But it doesn’t matter. He said what he said because that’s the kind of thing conservatives say to each other all the time. And why do they say such things? Because American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People."

I think Krugman is mostly correct, though I do think many tea partiers are very angry with Wall Street, but their elected politicians don't share this sentiment.

Big data in the age of the telegraph

Big data in the age of the telegraph "Daniel McCallum’s 1854 organizational design for the New York and Erie Railroad resembles a tree rather than a pyramid. It empowered frontline managers by clarifying data flows."

In 1854, Daniel McCallum took charge of the operations of the New York and Erie Railroad. With nearly 500 miles of track, it was one of the world’s longest systems, but not one of the most efficient. In fact, McCallum found that far from rendering operations more efficient, the scale of the railroad exponentially increased its complexity.1

The problem was not a lack of information: the growing use of the telegraph gave the company an unprecedented supply of nearly real-time data, including reports of accidents and train delays.2 Rather, the difficulty was putting that data to use, and it led McCallum to develop one of the era’s great low-tech management innovations: the organization chart. This article presents that long-lost chart (see sidebar, “Tracking a missing org chart”) and shows how aligning data with operations and strategy—the quintessential modern management challenge—is a problem that spans the ages.

NRA blocks surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy.

NRA blocks surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy.

"That means that at least three Democrats who were comfortable supporting Manchin-Toomey, plus probably Montana's new Sen. John Walsh, lost their sea legs after reading the NRA's Feb. 26 letter. Its brief against Murthy was based in large part on letters sent by the group he founded, Doctors for America, during the post-Sandy Hook debate. DFA had, for example, called on Congress to 'remove the provision in the Affordable Care Act and other federal policies that prohibit physicians from documenting gun ownership.' This was never going to happen—provisions like that had secured red-state-Democrat votes in the first place—but the NRA's Chris Cox argued that it was put there to 'foster trust between gun owners and their physicians, ensuring that the information exchanged during an exam will not be used to curb the patient's rights.'"

At first this law didn't make much sense to me, then I read the DFA's letter.

Yet gun violence is an area where both state and federal policies have prohibited us from doing our job. Research shows that having a gun at home markedly increases risk of injury and suicide. Despite this, legislators in multiple states have sought to prevent physicians from assessing that risk by limiting what physicians can talk about with their patients.

Similarly, especially when it comes to suicide risk, we have far too few resources to adequately treat patients with those mental illnesses.

Specific approaches should include:

  • Prohibit laws preventing physicians from discussing gun safety with patients.
  • Remove the provision in the Affordable Care Act and other federal policies that prohibit physicians from documenting gun ownership.
  • Invest in improving access to mental health resources.

After Sandy Hook the NRA was all about wanting more guns and dealing with the mental health issues in the country. Well it seems to me that letting doctors talk to their patients openly would probably help. Regardless, a nominee's involvement with an organization wouldn't seem to be an issue. He's nominated for Surgeon General, a position that can't change such federal law, for that he'd have to be nominated for Congress, an office that seems to have much lower qualifications.

Dancing in Movies

"Dancing on the silver screen has been happening since film was invented. From the big time musicals to the small quirky dances that pop up now and then. There are so many examples of dancing we could only fit 246 films in this cut, so a part 2 might be on its way for the 100+ clips we had left over."

There's a list of the films in the YouTube listing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

12 Charts Only Game Of Thrones Fans Will Understand

Some of these were pretty cute. 12 Charts Only Game Of Thrones Fans Will Understand. Some spoilers for season three of the TV series (which corresponds to book 3). Chart 4 might have some spoilers for later, I'm not sure and skipped over it pretty easily.

The Wages of Men

Krugman: The Wages of Men "For reference: Here are changes in hourly real wages of men, 1973-2012, at different percentiles of the wage distribution, calculated from Census data by the Economic Policy Institute. As you can see, wages have fallen for 60 percent of men."


Incredible Discovery Provides Evidence for the Big Bang Theory

io9 reports Incredible Discovery Provides Evidence for the Big Bang Theory "Kamionkowski and his team were there to announce that B-modes of gravitational waves have been detected in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Put simply, this is the best evidence yet that our universe was formed when a very large explosion known as the Big Bang started a process that physicists call 'inflation.' As a result of this rapid inflation of physical space, everything in the universe was born.

Gravitational waves have been observed before, but the B-mode polarization is something new. This is a kind of gravitational wave that cosmological theorists have predicted would peak during those first 10-34 seconds of the primordial universe when we exploded from nothing into everything. So this announcement today confirms our first real observations of early inflation. Now that we can see B-mode gravitational waves, those observations put limits on just what happened when our universe was young, and how it got to be way it is today."

Update: Here's the theory's inventor being surprised with the news. This might well earn him the Nobel Prize.

and here's the NY TImes article, Detection of Waves in Space Buttresses Landmark Theory of Big Bang

This Winter Wasn’t the Coldest, But It Was One of the Most Miserable

FiveThirtyEight | This Winter Wasn’t the Coldest, But It Was One of the Most Miserable

When I talk about winter, I mean the three months between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28. That’s the common definition among meteorologists. Looking at that period keeps data cleanly organized and consistent from year to year.

Turns out my mom was right. The winter of 2013-14 brought a rare combination of miseries that many of us hadn’t seen in years, and some had never seen. It was colder than usual, it was extremely cold more often than usual, and it snowed more than usual in more places than usual.

Ever since 1997, I give winter until after April 1st just to be sure.


The new FiveThirtyEight is up. Nate Silver starts with a post about what they're trying to do, What the Fox Knows.

From his post I learned The plural of anecdote is data, after all.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap

Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap "That reality is playing out across the country. For the upper half of the income spectrum, men who reach the age of 65 are living about six years longer than they did in the late 1970s. Men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer.

This life-expectancy gap has started to surface in discussions among researchers, public health officials and Washington policy makers. The general trend is for Americans to live longer, and as lawmakers contemplate changes to government programs — like nudging up the Social Security retirement age or changing its cost-of-living adjustment — they are confronted with the potential unfairness to those who die considerably earlier."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Shale Bubble

Shale Bubble says that we're in a shale drilling bubble. Prices are below cost so that Wall Street can profit on mergers. I can't comment on that, but they have produced a nice Map. "Over 63,000 shale gas and shale oil (tight oil) wells in the U.S. were analyzed in the effort to produce ‘Drill, Baby, Drill‘. Mouse over any well to find production data on both the well and the play as a whole, or type in a location to see what wells are nearby. View full screen map here."

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 48 46 PM 500

Friday, March 14, 2014

The SR-71 Blackbird

Two good stories about the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. One about flying it and one about crashing it.

Fox News Welfare Academy

Jon Stewart last night spent the opening segment calling out Fox News for hypocrisy on their attacks on fraud in food stamp programs vs fraud in business. Fox News Welfare Academy and 2014: A Waste Odyssey. The thing that struck me about this piece is that Stewart was visibly angry. They're taking next week off, but the second segment was put him back in a good mood, #McConnelling.

Happy Pi Day

Universe Today explains 5 Ways NASA Uses Pi.

Also, Opinionator explains some math in Take It to the Limit

Interviewly - Interviews with interesting people

Interviewly is a new site that reformats and posts AMAs (Ask Me Anythings) from reddit.

"Reddit is great, but the format isn't conducive to interviews (so AMA's end up a bit ugly and hard to follow). I've cleaned them up a bit, added photos, ordered the questions chronologically, and broken them into categories. For now, I've focused on the interviews of well-known people, but that may expand in the future."

Animals see power lines as glowing, flashing bands

The Guardian writes Animals see power lines as glowing, flashing bands, research reveals.

"Power lines are seen as glowing and flashing bands across the sky by many animals, research has revealed. The work suggests that the pylons and wires that stretch across many landscapes are having a worldwide impact on wildlife. Scientists knew many creatures avoid power lines but the reason why was mysterious as they are not impassable physical barriers. Now, a new understanding of just how many species can see the ultraviolet light – which is invisible to humans – has revealed the major visual impact of the power lines."

This would freak me out too.

Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers. You Just Brought Back Measles in NYC

Russell Saunders writes in The Daily Beast, Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers. You Just Brought Back Measles in NYC "This is sheer lunacy.  Just over a dozen years ago this illness was considered eliminated in our country, and this year people are being hospitalized for it. All due to the hysteria about a safe, effective vaccine. All based on nothing.

There is no legitimate scientific controversy about whether or not vaccines are safe.  The original study that started us down this insane path by linking the MMR vaccine to autism has been retracted outright. The evidence against administering the MMR vaccine to healthy individuals is utterly without merit."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Top 10 Presidential Pop Culture Moments

The right is complaining that Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns was "inappropriate". I had to go look up wasn't "Nixon on Laugh-In". Turns out yes. Thank you Time magazine for this list from a few years ago, Top 10 Presidential Pop Culture Moments:

  • Barack Obama Goes on The View
  • Richard Nixon Invites Elvis Presley to the Oval Office
  • Marilyn Monroe Performs for John F. Kennedy
  • Boxers or Briefs? Clinton Answers
  • Richard Nixon Goes on Laugh-In
  • Bush the Elder Invites Dana Carvey to the White House
  • Jimmy Carter's Playboy Confessional
  • George W. Bush Appears on Deal or No Deal
  • Gerald Ford and Chevy Chase at the White House Correspondent's Dinner
  • Eisenhower And Television

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Daily Show Shows the Utility of Experts

The Daily Show last night was good but frustrating. A few days ago they made fun of Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano for some things he said about Lincoln and the Civil War. Last night they had him on to talk about it. That's good. It was in the B segment instead of the usual C segment which seemed odd until we got to the C segment which was a game show format with Napolitano vs Jessica White dressed as Lincoln on Civil War info (trivia isn't quite right). The nice thing was he had a panel of three expert professors judging their answers.

The bad thing was that both the B and C segments ran long and were edited. It's just not worth watching the show at night to have to watch it again the next day. But if you do, it was good. It was particularly gratifying in the last segment when Napolitano would make some claim (say about tariff rates) and the professors would say "That's not true". Stewart as game show host would laugh and then joke about what they meant was "Good try". It made me wish that all interviews would have a panel of experts correcting people when they say incorrect things. You know, like fact checkers. Wouldn't that be helpful to journalists?

Here's the first extended segment and at least when I played it, it seamlessly moved to the next part all the way through the game show. Andrew Napolitano Extended Interview Pt. 1

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Shocker: Supreme Court Wrong on Effects of Money on Access

Congress to constituents: “Show me the money” "Matea Gold reports today on the first ever randomized field experiment to assess the influence of campaign contributions on legislators’ behavior."


"Moreover, the study findings directly undermine the logic behind numerous Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including Citizens United. In that case, the Court reasoned that because corporate election spending cannot be given directly to legislators, it would not facilitate influence with them. But the study authors note that the donor emails ‘did not state that the attendees had given to the legislator considering the request, merely that the attendees were ‘campaign donors’ in general. The results therefore support reformers’ assertions that campaign contributions may facilitate influence with a legislator even if not given to that particular legislator.’ In other words, simply alluding to the prospect of a donation was enough get legislators’ attention."

Here's an interview with the study authors, A new experiment shows how money buys access to Congress

Jamie Dimon’s Raise Proves That The MegaBanks Need To Be Broken Up

John Winslow makes a simple case, Jamie Dimon’s Raise Proves That The MegaBanks Need To Be Broken Up

"First we learned last fall that the Justice Department had fined JPMorgan Chase shareholders $13 billion - that’s the largest fine in history - mainly for its sale of fraudulent residential mortgages, which helped wipe out the savings of millions of pensioners and was a major cause of the Great Recession.

Then, a few months later, we learned that those very same shareholders had awarded JPMC president Jamie Dimon, who himself had engineered the catastrophic sale, a 73 percent salary increase - bumping up his annual compensation to more than $20 million."

New SAT Practice Questions

These New SAT Practice Questions in The New Yorker are pretty funny.

The Daily Show on CPAC

I have a few articles on CPAC bookmarked, but as usual, The Daily Show covers it well and funnier than anyone else. In two parts, The Amazing Base and Power of Love.

The Story Behind The THX Deep Note

The Story Behind The THX Deep Note is short and kinda interesting.

"Something between a black MIDI glissando and a brown note, the THX "Deep Note" is one of the world's most recognizable audio logos, signaling the highest quality audio standard in films. Parodied by The Simpsons and sampled by Dr. Dre (which got him sued), at peak popularity the THX Deep Note was played in front of 4,000 movie theater audiences a day, or around once every 20 seconds. Yet despite its distinctive crescendo, the THX Deep Note wasn't actually composed so much as it was programmed, which makes it a fascinating success story of early computer audio design."

Monday, March 10, 2014

25 things you might not know about the web on its 25th birthday

The Guardian's Observer lists 25 things you might not know about the web on its 25th birthday. I knew them.

The internet is fucked

Nilay Patel channels his inner Matt Tahibi in The Verge The internet is fucked "American politicians love to stand on the edges of important problems by insisting that the market will find a solution. And that’s mostly right; we don’t need the government meddling in places where smart companies can create their own answers. But you can’t depend on the market to do anything when the market doesn’t exist. 'We can either have competition, which would solve a lot of these problems, or we can have regulation,' says Aaron. 'What Comcast is trying is to have neither.' It’s insanity, and we keep lying to ourselves about it. It’s time to start thinking about ways to actually do something."

"This shit is insane. It is unacceptable. The smartphone revolution was about putting a powerful computer and an internet connection in everyone’s pocket; it was not about creating a new class of economic gatekeepers with the unchecked power to control and destroy markets with zero oversight and little true competition. Famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures has called the net neutrality situation a "nightmare" for startups trying to get funded, saying that he expects telecom companies to "pick their preferred partners, subsidize the data costs for those apps, and make it much harder for new entrants to compete with the incumbents.""

"So there’s the entire problem, expressed in four simple ideas: the internet is a utility, there is zero meaningful competition to provide that utility to Americans, all internet providers should be treated equally, and the FCC is doing a miserably ineffective job. The United States should lead the world in broadband deployment and speeds: we should have the lowest prices, the best service, and the most competition. We should have the freest speech and the loudest voices, the best debate and the soundest policy. We are home to the most innovative technology companies in the world, and we should have the broadband networks to match. We should stop fucking it up."

Sunday, March 09, 2014

How Our World Would Look If You Were A Bird

Pixtale shows How Our World Would Look If You Were A Bird "Famous landmarks like the Arc Du Triumph, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Sagrada Familia have been photographed countless times by photographers from around the world, and they are recognizable to most, if not all, of us. But this collection of stunning aerial photographs gives us a bird’s-eye-view of these places, casting them in a totally new light."

There's also How Our World Would Look If You Were A Bird. Part 2.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Why We Did It

I watched the Rachel Maddow "documentary" on MSNBC last night on Why We Did It, referring to the Iraq War. Her conclusion was that it was about oil. Shocker! There wasn't much new information presented. There were meetings in the fall of 2002 before the war about oil but it fits nicely into the planning for the peace after the war and that since the Iraqi economy was based on oil, this wasn't that surprising.

A few times they showed some documents that were reports on the meetings (one was from BP meeting in the US) and they pulled a few quotes, but if you paused and read the whole document it wasn't particularly damning. They weren't talking about dividing up the oil or taking control as much as trying to figure out a system to get oil flowing after the war. Okay. Apparently the goal was to get oil flowing to keep the global price down, which to me doesn't line up with oil executives trying to make a fortune. Wouldn't they want higher prices? The one time they talked about something being previously unrevealed before this show was about a post war oil meeting happening in executive offices in Houston instead of in Washington in some military facility. That doesn't seem like a smoking gun to me.

Like many people suspected at the time, the war was about oil and the WMD argument was a lie. That's not right (and I think should probably be a war crime) but we've known that for years. But once you get past that, does it matter if the goal was to personally profit from the oil (say as a large share holder in Haliburton) or to ensure the world market was stable? Those seem like different things to me. Of course a decade of war didn't stabilize oil prices and if ensuring the long term energy needs of the west was the goal, it would have made more sense (to me) to move us off of oil and onto other sources (even as we were rapidly expanding our own fracking).

Anyway I was disappointed in the show, I didn't learn anything.

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals

I like the distinction in Why most conservatives are secretly liberals.

In Ideology in America, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson describe a striking disjuncture. When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose ‘conservative’ far more than ‘liberal.’ In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s.

But when it comes to saying what the government should actually do, the public appears more liberal than conservative. Ellis and Stimson gathered 7,000 survey questions dating back to 1956 that asked some variant of whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas.  On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down.  For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).

Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are ‘consistent liberals’ — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics.  Only 15 percent are ‘consistent conservatives’ — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics.  Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views.  The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.

The Daily Show on Third World Health Care in Knoxville, Tennessee

Again The Daily Show was really good last night. Now I think I know why Jon Stewart laughed knowingly the other day when Jim DeMint said we had the best health care system in the world, he knew about last night's segment, Third World Health Care - Knoxville, Tennessee Edition.

I think The Daily Show is really at their best when they point out that statements someone makes, that are the basis of their platform, are completely wrong. That leads to statements like "And I'll be honest, If you're poor, stop being poor."

I first heard about Remote Area Medical from a documentary of the same name. They do giant pop-up free clinics over a weekend. The organization was originally created to help third world nations but they found a great need in their home area of Tennessee so now they work in the US almost exclusively. In the film they document a three day clinic at a speedway. Hundreds (thousands?) of people lined up over night for some care, ranging from eye glasses and dental to cancer care. The patients were so tremendously grateful.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

As Seen on Kickstarter

"We understand that as backers, you are donating the hard money you've earned"

I don't know why this set me off so much. In the phrase "hard earned money" it's not the money that's hard, it's the earning. You can't just change it to "hard money you've earned". It makes no sense unless you're asking for coins.

The Daily Show on Food Stamps, Racism and Jim DeMint

Last night's Daily Show was hilarious.

The opening bit was about the right's fight against food stamps (and about how wrong it is). It's in two parts, What Not To Buy and What Would Jesus Soil.

Then Jessica Williams did a great bit on Racism Doggy Style.

The guest was Jim DeMint and as is often the case, what was aired was heavily cut, but the full interview is online in three parts: one, two, three. To me, it seemed like DeMint hadn't ever heard the arguments that Stewart made. That seems unbelievable but it fits so well into the bubble narrative.

If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel

If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel - A tediously accurate map of the solar system is pretty cool. Just keep scrolling right (or use the planet buttons at the top)...

Good Stuff in This Month's Wired

I thought Inside the New Arms Race to Control Bandwidth on the Battlefield was really interesting going into some of the issues of dealing with networking in an extremely hostile environment.

This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood "Instead of vials of blood—one for every test needed—Theranos requires only a pinprick and a drop of blood. With that they can perform hundreds of tests, from standard cholesterol checks to sophisticated genetic analyses. The results are faster, more accurate, and far cheaper than conventional methods."

Plus there's a nice video of a U2 spy plane taking off and flying which is a few years old from a TV show James May on the Moon.

I So Want To Like Agents of SHIELD But It's Not Letting Me

Film Critic Hulk writes really great essays that are way too long and in hard to read ALL CAPS, but they're really great. My love of comics and the Marvel universe has me stuck watching Agents of Shield. Josh Whedon usually gets this stuff right, but I think the show runners need to immediately read these two HULK essays: THE AGE OF THE CONVOLUTED BLOCKBUSTER and THE IMPORTANCE OF DRAMATIZING CHARACTER.

Making the backstories of all your characters be mysteries to the audience (and to each other and even themselves) undermines our reason to care about what happens to them.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

WonkBlog Explains Obama's Budget in Three Posts

Obama budget seeks new spending, new taxes to boost economy, tame debt

The two charts you need to see to understand Obama’s new budget

Why presidents often don’t get the budgets they want, in one amazing chart

Far-Traveling Objects

In Far-Traveling Objects What If answers this question:

"In terms of human-made objects, has Voyager 1 travelled the farthest distance? It's certainly the farthest from Earth we know about. But what about the edge of ultracentrifuges, or generator turbines that have been running for years, for example?"

It's really a lot of fun.

GnuTLS Broken Too

Ars Technica reports Critical crypto bug leaves Linux, hundreds of apps open to eavesdropping. Apparently GnuTLS has been broken since 2005 in a similar way as the recent Apple gotofail bug (which was introduced in late 2012). So much for the argument that open source security code is safer because of code reviews.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Oscars

I thought last night's Oscar broadcast was the best in a long time. I'm not alone in that as it had the biggest audience in 10 years. I thought Ellen was funny and appropriate as host, the speeches were good or great, the rest was fine. Even though they got to the first award within 10 minutes, they still managed to go 3.5 hours and I think they should just schedule the show for that long.

They let the winners speak. I don't think anyone was really played off the stage and overall I think the speeches were good. Lupita N'yongo stole the show. She was poised and stunned, appreciative and humble. She thanked her character and had the line of the night, "When I look down at this statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid." I thought Cate Blanchett gave another great speech, telling each of her competitors how much she liked their performance, thanked everyone on the film and told off Hollywood for not thinking woman can carry a film that makes money. It's just what an Oscar speech should be. Jared Leto was also good, maybe he shouldn't have gone political but he did it well. He definitely did the best job I've seen of thanking his mother. Matthew McConaughey started out okay but then got weird. 20 Feet from Stardom won for best documentary and Darlene Love sang her speech. The husband and wife team that won for best song rhymed and sang their speech. Most of the rest did a standard list, often with a little joke. Whether any of them went a few seconds over it was much better without them being played off.

They left the entertaining part of the show to the host and the songs and the winners which seems right. I think ordering pizzas and getting money for a tip and taking the most popular selfie ever were a lot of fun (and a much better way to bring social media into the show than having James Franco tweet). I also really liked Pharrell Williams' "Happy" with dancing with the stars in the front row. It would have been better later in the broadcast as a seventh inning stretch. Maybe they should have switched it with "Let it Go" so kids staying up could have heard the song from the movie they loved as my friend Mike suggested. And someone I've never head of won an EGOT, that's pretty fun.

The presenters mostly just announced things and didn't do minute long comedy bits. Most managed fine. John Travolta just had to get two things right, the name of the song he introduced, Let it Go and the name of the performer, Idina Menzel and he managed to call her "Adele Dazeem". Robert DeNiro and Penelope Cruz presented the screenwriting awards. He read jokes from the teleprompter just as badly as he does on Saturday Night Live. She managed to pronounce "screenplay" as "scrimptling" but unlike Travolta, it was her accent and it was funny.

I don't get people complaining about Ellen DeGeneres being a bland Oscar host, e.g. Why Ellen is the perfect Oscar host. "DeGeneres has styled herself as the safest thing going: She’s not abrasive to the more sensitive of sensibilities, like Rock, Stewart or MacFarlane. She’s not liable to offend anyone as would Goldberg or Crystal. She’s very good at telling jokes, but those jokes are so inclusive as to be amiably unspecific."

I thought her monologue was funny and not too long. I liked her opening, "For those of you watching around the world, it's been a tough couple of days here. It's been raining. We're fine. Thank you for your prayers." She was self deprecating about not having hosted in 7 years, and then did bits on various nominees. Pretty standard fare. I liked her bit about Jennifer Lawrence tripping and this year they should if she wins they should bring the award to her. I also liked how she finished it, "Anything can happen, there are so many possibilities. Possibility number one, 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two, you're all racists. Now please welcome our first white presenter Anne Hathaway."

Today I looked at monologues from old Oscar telecasts. Here's Bob Hope hosting in 1965, 1967, and 1970. He doesn't even show up until 7-12 minutes in and does about 10 minutes like Ellen did. Watching them back-to-back you realize how similar they are. Bit's about the movie titles and the new stars, politics, taxes, and how he hasn't been nominated. The pace is a little faster but it doesn't put the present day to shame by any means.

In 1973 Angela Lansbury opened with a musical number. And then Charlton Heston was late and Clint Eastwood subs for him until Heston shows up and then starts over! In 1980 Johnny Carson did similar bits to Hope and then held up wallpaper samples and asked for advice decorating his bedroom. In 1993 Billy Crystal was fun but the monologue is similar and then he goes into his Oscar Oscar bit which I don't think aged very well.

In short I think people complaining that the show isn't as good as it used to be are looking through rose colored glasses.

Some things can still be improved. I don't know why Bette Middler sang after the In Memorium instead of during. The theme of heroes didn't make much sense to me and I thought the three clips of movies (animation, real life and superheroes) were done badly. The individual clips were too short, they blatantly emphasized Disney films (they own ABC) and they showed multiple clips from the same film (4 from Shrek, 3 from The Incredibles), 3 from 42, 9 from the marvel studios movies not counting various x-men and spider-man clips). To me, if it's the 75th anniversary of Wizard of Oz, it's the 75th anniversary of 1939, the greatest year of movies. They should have celebrated that instead.

All in all it was good, certainly the best Oscar show in five years if not ten. I think for the most part reasonable films won, though clearly The Act of Killing should have won Best Documentary and been nominated for Best Picture. I still have a few well respected films from 2013 to see, then I'll do a post of my favorites of the year. What did you think of the show?

Perspective on Ukraine

I really know nothing about what's happening in Ukraine so I hope that Michael Cohen is right, Don't listen to Obama's Ukraine critics: he's not 'losing' – and it's not his fight.

In the days since Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea, it has been amateur hour back in Washington. I don’t mean Barack Obama. He’s doing pretty much everything he can, with what are a very limited set of policy options at his disposal. No, I’m talking about the people who won’t stop weighing in on Obama’s lack of “action” in the Ukraine. Indeed, the sea of foreign policy punditry – already shark-infested – has reached new lows in fear-mongering, exaggerated doom-saying and a stunning inability to place global events in any rational historical context.

A bunch of hyperbolic examples follow. Then

Which brings us to perhaps the most bizarre element of watching the Crimean situation unfold through a US-centric lens: the iron-clad certainty of the pundit class that Putin is winning and Obama is losing. The exact opposite is true.

Putin has initiated a conflict that will, quite obviously, result in greater diplomatic and political isolation as well as the potential for economic sanction. He’s compounded his loss of a key ally in Kiev by further enflaming Ukrainian nationalism, and his provocations could have a cascading effect in Europe by pushing countries that rely on Russia’s natural gas exports to look elsewhere for their energy needs. Putin is the leader of a country with a weak military, an under-performing economy and a host of social, environmental and health-related challenges. Seizing the Crimea will only make the problems facing Russia that much greater."

It's the Gas Gas Gas

Krugman notes, It's the Gas Gas Gas "Short-run fluctuations in the inflation rate are more or less entirely about gasoline prices, which affect headline and even, to some extent, core inflation via their impact on costs...Meanwhile, gas prices have no predictive power at all for future inflation."


Climate change: Another study shows they don’t publish actual papers.

Phil Plait wrote Climate change: Another study shows they don’t publish actual papers.

Here’s the thing: If you listen to Fox News, or right-wing radio, or read the denier blogs, you’d have to think climate scientists were complete idiots to miss how fake global warming is. Yet despite this incredibly obvious hoax, no one ever publishes evidence exposing it. Mind you, scientists are a contrary lot. If there were solid evidence that global warming didn’t exist, or that CO2 emissions weren’t the culprit, there would be papers in the journals about it. Lots of them.

I base this on my own experience with contrary data in astronomy. In 1998, two teams of researchers found evidence that the expansion of the Universe was not slowing down, as expected, but actually speeding up. This idea is as crazy as holding a ball in your hand, letting go, and having it fall up, accelerating wildly into the sky. Yet those papers got published. They inspired lively discussion (to say the least) and motivated further observations. Careful, meticulous work was done to eliminate errors and confounding factors, until it became very clear that we were seeing an overturning of the previous paradigm. It took years, but now astronomers accept that the Universal expansion is accelerating and that dark energy is the culprit.

Mind you, dark energy is far, far weirder than anything climate change deniers have come up with, yet it became mainstream science in a decade or so. Deniers have been bloviating for longer than that, yet their claims are rejected overwhelmingly by climate scientists. Why? Because they’re wrong."

He leaves out the argument I've heard, that scientists are perpetuating this hoax because they're getting rich from all the government funding of science. Rich scientists, there's a hoax.

Apple CarPlay

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but Apple's CarPlay is probably the biggest factor in my next car purchase.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

NSA head floats idea: What if we only gathered terrorist communications?

Ars Technica reports NSA head floats idea: What if we only gathered terrorist communications? "The outgoing head of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, told a United States Senate committee on Thursday that he was open to government spooks narrowing the focus of the metadata that they gather."

"‘Chairman, I think there are three options that you put on the table,’ Alexander said. ‘You mentioned the government holding it, the ISPs holding it. I think there is yet another option where we look at what data you actually need and only get that data. Can we come up with a capability that just gets those that are predicated on a terrorist communication? I think you have those three options that I’ve put on the table. Those are three of the ones that I think need to be clearly discussed and the merits from both sides, they have pros and cons on the agility that you would have with the program.’"

What a radical idea.