Saturday, January 31, 2015

Politics and the Inverse Square Law

The farther you are from something, the less you know about. In physics, this applies to the force of gravity, to electro-static attraction or repulsion, to the intensity of sound.  More generally, it applies to social and political distances.  Political decisions made at city hall, the county seat, the state capital, and Washington D.C. must suffer by the square of the distance from a lack of information.


On the other hand, when you make economic choices for yourself, your family, or household, you are most directly informed about the facts and the consequences.  The further into the future you plan, the less you know and the greater your risks.

Political plans to save the planet and the future generations that inhabit it must suffer from degradations of knowledge along every dimension of true costs, actual benefits, and both primary and secondary consequences intended and unintended.  Indeed, it is quite likely that many, if not most, future generations will not even be on this planet.

The world’s oldest continuing companies (see Wikipedia here) are all narrowly focused on mundane pursuits such as beer, wine, candy, jewelry, and hospitality.  It is hard enough to make beer successfully for 200 years.  The oldest companies in the United States (Wikipedia here) reflect the economic paradigm of capitalism: pencils, chemicals, tools, and newspapers. And we still have old breweries and continuing farms.
 Governments are less successful.  The UK and USA are wonderful exceptions. England last executed a king in 1649.  The Glorious Revolution of 1688 defined the status of crown and parliament.  The Constitution of the United States was ratified a hundred years later.  Although Iceland does claim the longest continuing parliament, the Althing, that institution only existed within a context of subordination to Norway, Sweden, or Denmark, as Iceland was not politically independent from 1262 to 1944. Generally, governments come and go with alarming regularity exactly because they are so poor at both predicting the future and responding to new circumstances.
SUNY Canton Engineering
and Construction Management

Interactive here.

Perhaps the best judgment came from Prof. Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House.  Addressing a Republican Party fund-raiser, he said of the government, “These people are not evil. They just have the wrong information system.”  In other words, they are informed by power, not market.  And the physics of power is not encouraging. Though not all analogies between electrical circuits and political action are valid, generally, any resistance can draw more power until the system overloads.   


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Your Cell Phone is Not Safe

Your cell phone can be taken over by hackers who will view through your camera and watch you enter your passwords and other information.  Here in Austin at the IEEE “Globecom” conference on global communication last December, I attended a presentation from Temple University researchers who compromised an Android cell phone. (For the exposed risk of someone else taking control of your car while you are driving it, see “Securing Your Viper Against Cylons” here on NecessaryFacts.) 

Doctoral candidate Longfei Wu and five colleagues from Temple University, the University of Massachusetts, and Beijing University exploited vulnerabilities in the Android cell phone to seize control of the camera.  

Having done that – and having reduced their footprint to one pixel – they then watched finger touches to the keyboard in order to guess passwords.  Some sequences were more secure than others.  1459 and 1479 were easy to identify.  1359 and 1471 were harder to guess.  The fundamental fact remains: They took control of the camera without the cell phone owner being aware of it.

Moreover, the Android operating system does not provide you with a log file of usage.  There is no way for you to review what your phone has been doing.  However, the researchers fixed that. 
“We make changes to the CheckPermission() function of ActicityManagerService, and write a lightweight defense app such that whenever the camera is being called by apps with CAMERA permission, the defense app will be informed along with the caller’s Application Package Name.[…]There are three parts of warnings in our defense scheme. First, an alert dialog including the name of the suspicious app is displayed. In case the warning message cannot be seen immediately by the user (e.g., the user is not using the phone), the defense app will also make sound and vibration to warn the user of spy camera attacks. Besides, the detailed activity pattern of suspected apps are logged so that the user can check back.” -- from "Security Threats to Mobile Multimedia Applications: Camera-based Attacks on Mobile Phones", IEEE Communications Magazine, March 2014."
iPhones also are at risk
If you want to protect your phone, you have to figure out how for yourself.  Very few ready-made defense apps exist for Android, or iPhone.  You could join a local hacker club such as DefCon.  (For Ann Arbor, it is DefCon 734; for Minneapolis it is DC612.)  That brings up the problem of trust.  When I go to computer security conferences, I never take a computer; and I do not answer my phone.  I do trust the organizers of our local groups, LASCON, ISSA, OWASP,  and B-Sides; but I do not trust everyone who comes to every meeting.  If you want someone to “jailbreak” your phone, and program something on it for you, then you really need strong trust.  It is best to do it for yourself. 

“Unfortunately, it's not uploaded online. To support the defense scheme, I modified the Android system and generate new image files. This means if someone want to use the defense function, he/she must flash the phone. As a result, all the installed stuff may get lost. I think people wouldn't like that to happen. Besides, the Android version I used for testing is 4.1-4.3, while the most recent release is 5.0.” – Longfei Wu, reply to email.
As "the Internet of Things" connects your washing machine and your car to your home thermostat and puts them all online along with your coffee-maker and alarm clock, all of them connected to the television box that never shuts off and always listens, you will be increasingly exposed to harm.  

When Old Technologies Were New

Friday, January 16, 2015

Tycoon Dough is Democratic

Today's "Great Debate" from Reuters online was a one-sided argument about the effect of "uber-rich tycoons" on our democracy.  The authors acknowledge that these individuals express a range of political opinions, from Republican, to liberal, and libertarian. (Put "richest Democrat … ic Party Donor …. in Congress…)"  into your search engine.)  However, their thesis is that no one person should have too much influence; and that claim is arguable.  

Read the full article here
What is "too much" of anything?  Obviously, if you had such power, you would engage it ethically.  You would support worthy causes and meritorious candidates.  Of course, from my point of view, your actions might be objectionable. 

It is known that "facts do not matter." In other words, research has shown that people make up their minds first and then find the expert opinions and demonstrated facts that support their notions.  (See "Why Evidence is Not Enough" on this blog for a discussion and a link to the Yale Law School research archived on Mother Jones.)  The spectacular failures of the presidential bids of Steve Forbes and Mitt Romney are only paradigmatic of a myriad of others where all the slick advertising thrown at the voters did not bring victory.  On the other hand, the meteoric rise of Barack Obama shows that you can go far if you speak well in public for other people who prefer to remain private. But those Chicago communists are not rich. They just write well.  By the commutative law of arithmetic, if money is speech, then speech is money.  

And wealth is power.  We Americans distrust power.  Our federal and state constitutions distribute and balance power.  That explains both the integrated elegance of the federal charter and why state constitutions are often clumsy amalgams.  We all know Lord Acton's maxim that power corrupts.  The full statement is a louder alarm:  "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Perhaps the root of the problem is how we measure greatness. Also, we apparently have no corollary about great women.

Good writers address the back of your mind.  Lawrence Norden and Daniel Weiner call these people "uber-rich." According to the Urban Dictionary (here) the germanism "uber" came into our language in the 1980s via California punk music as a direct play on Deutschland Über Alles.  While the Urban Dictionary allows that you can be uber-confused, the subliminal message from Weiner and Norden is that tycoons are unAmerican, perhaps even anti-American crypto-nazis.  Slandering the rich pays big dividends.

Among the targets chosen by Norden and Weiner was Sheldon Adelson whose many charities include the Republican Party. However…
Adelson was born into a poor family and grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Sarah (née Tonkin) and Arthur Adelson.  His family was of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry.  His father drove a taxi, and his mother ran a knitting shop.
"An entrepreneur is born with the mentality to take risks, though there are several important characteristics: courage, faith in yourself, and above all, even when you fail, to learn from failure and get up and try again."  - Sheldon Adelson, 2013
He started his business career at the age of 12, when he borrowed two hundred dollars from his uncle and purchased a license to sell newspapers in Boston. At the age of 16, he had started a candy-vending-machine business. He attended trade school to become a court reporter and subsequently joined the army. Adelson attended City College of New York, but soon decided to drop out.
He established a business selling toiletry kits after being discharged from the army then started another business named De-Ice-It, which sold a chemical spray to help clear frozen windshields. In the 1960s, he started a charter tours business. He had soon become a millionaire, although by his 30s he had built and lost a fortune twice. Over the course of his business career, Adelson has created over 50 of his own businesses.  -- Wikipedia here.
In The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times, edited by David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr & William J. Baumol (Princeton University Press, 2011), the authors admit that in every society, some people rise in status, but what matters is the moral standards of the society.  

In America, from Benjamin Franklin's Way to Wealth to Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, the "bourgeois virtues" elucidated by Deirdre McCloskey were the implicit norms.  In ancient Rome, conquest brought honors. You cannot blame Marc Antony for looting the town of Pergamum and giving its library to Cleopatra. We might prefer that he had used his organizational skills in some great profit-making ventures, but he was only a man of his time. It is also true that in Republican Rome, "ambition" (literally, ambling around glad-handing citizens for votes) was a crime.  Today, we reward it.

My libertarian and Objectivist comrades wring their hands over Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and other entrepreneurs who achieve great success in the marketplace and then go to bed with governments.  Rather than squelching individual efficacy, we should just limit the government's powers.  That is easier said than done.  The strictest constitution cannot prevent unlimited government, if that is what very many people want.  As Aristotle said, tradition is stronger than law.  

Money is Speech

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Perfect Machine

“Putting the observer inside the telescope had obvious advantages.”  The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope by Ronald Florence (HarperCollins, 1994; HarperPerennial ppb 1995).  Author Ronald Florence grinds through the history to produce a polished narrative.  Unfortunately, as is too often true with popular reads, the chronology gets lost.  The book has an index and notes at the back.  Again, though, as a popular publication, the sparse notes are not tied directly to the text with numbers.  The work is entertaining, even compelling.  If this story of Mount Palomar excites you, then Internet references and websites for the great telescopes will give you even more to read.  This book will provide the context for those details.  

George Ellery Hale’s lifelong quest gave the world a set of telescopes, each larger than the previous. The 40-inch refractor paid for by Chicago entrepreneur Charles T. Yerkes was Hale’s first triumph, but not his first telescope.

“An astronomical telescope
is an impossible combination
of the scale of a battleship
and the precision of a microscope.”
Born in 1868, the eldest of three children, Hale grew up pursuing intellectual passions for machinery and tools, including microscopes.  His father made his money installing elevators as Chicago was rebuilt after the great fire of 1871; that gave George Hale access to local leaders. When Hale was fourteen he introduced himself to Wesley Sherburne Burnham, a court reporter and an avid astronomer.  Assisting Burnham, Hale was introduced to optician Alvan Clark, from whom he purchased a used four-inch telescope.  A decade later, Hale obtained from Clark the 40-inch glass blanks that became the Yerkes refractor.  
Next came the 60-inch reflector at Mount Wilson, then the 100-inch at Mount Wilson.  Hale died in 1938.  The 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar was completed in 1948. It was more than the largest telescope.

“Gradually Anderson and Porter began looking at the scale of the telescope – the latest estimates were that the primary mirror would weigh close to twenty tons and the mounting more than five hundred – as an advantage.  The size of the telescope tube and the stability of the immense mounting meant that the auxiliary mirrors for the Cassegrain and Coudé  foci could be mounted in a permanent cell in the middle of the telescope tube, with gear-driven mechanisms to swing and lock them in place as needed.  The mirrors and cell, approximately six feet in diameter, would rob the central portion of the two-hundred-inch disk of only one-ninth of its area, an acceptable sacrifice. And since the telescope could tolerate a six foot cell, by extending the cell on the other side of the compartment that held the swinging mirrors, they had room for an observer to ride inside the telescope to use the prime focus.”

Also on Necessary Facts

Friday, January 2, 2015

Kale, Oats, and Mai Tais

Kale is a superfood, loaded with nutrition, lacking bad stuff.  Kale is unfortunately tough, bitter, and generally difficult to eat. Cooking does little for it, except to remove its nutrients.  Rhythm Super Foods found solutions to all of those problems. Their kale snacks actually taste good and have far more nutrients than popcorn, pretzels, or potato chips.

"Treat yourself to a crispy chip packed with the nutritional power of kale. We gently air-crisp organic kale that has been tossed in our hand-crafted dressings, made from the most delicious and nutritious ingredients on the planet."
at the Wheatsville Co-op

"We purchase fresh, organic kale weekly! By the time it starts its long, low temperature dehydration process in our kitchen, our fresh-picked kale has been de-stemmed, washed three times, and is ready to be made into our crunchy delicious chips."
Kale seeds are often sprouted in a greenhouse. Seedlings are transferred to perfectly spaced rows for a 60-90 day initial growth period. It’s a beautiful sight, these fields ‘o kale!
After about 60 to 90 days (depending on the weather), kale is hand-picked in the field, loaded into small totes, and rushed to the triple wash station. The fresh-picked greens are placed in a stainless steel flume, gently agitated and rinsed three times, then spun in a giant “salad spinner” to shed excess water. Once dry, the Kale is boxed in clean, reusable plastic crates and shipped to our dehydration kitchen."

Nutrition is pretty easy to understand. It can be harder to achieve, especially when you work in an office.  Proteins are at the top of the pyramid.  You can break it down into sugars; you cannot build sugars up into proteins.   Sugars burn fast, like newspaper in a fireplace.  Proteins burn slowly, like oak.  So, in the office, the best snack food at the moment might be a protein bar.  They all have problems, so you make your best choice for trade-offs.  But there is a better way.
Standing there, right next to the kale chips.
"Since 2007, founder Trevor Ross has been on a mission: to handcraft innovative products that heal.

"Losing his sister to breast cancer served as a wakeup call to Trevor, a busy young professional in the high tech industry in Austin. He started to think about food differently, almost as medicine, and overhauled his diet, focusing on small frequent meals that contained high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and antioxidants.

"Not satisfied with the nutritional profile of available bars, he ended up making his own. Soon, demand for his bars grew beyond his friends and family and Oatmega Bar was born."

The problem with cocktails is not the alcohol; it is the other stuff that goes into the mix.  Beer enthusiasts have their micro-breweries. You even can get gluten-free beer from one of the world’s largest factories.  Where do you go for a good mai tai?  
88% real fruit juice.
Real cane sugar.
is a redirect from their other URL
"In 1959 the Mai Tai knocked the Zombie off its pedestal. Why 1959? That's the year Hawaii became a state, and it's also the year the Boeing 747 went into service. Trips to this new exotic state took four hours instead of 12 and Hawaii became a tourist mecca almost overnight. All the tourists went to luaus and were served a fruity drink called the Mai Tai. Soon there were backyard Polynesian theme parties with "ham wrapped around pineapple and other mid-century hors d'oeuvres … plus Mai Tais."


Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Chronology of Recent Historical Periods

We like our history neat. The western Roman empire ended on September 4, 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus and declared himself king, with direct allegiance to the emperor at Constantinople.  The Dark Ages ended on Christmas Day 800 AD when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.  But life is not like that.  To the people of the time, not much had changed.

 The philosophes and encyclopédistes of the Enlightenment created a new understanding of how history was made – and could be made.   They decided that the Renaissance ended the Middle Ages.  The founders of the American republic were acutely aware that they were making history. The Great Seal of the United States announced a new order for the ages.  The French revolution brought a new calendar and a new system of “rational” weights and measures to complement their new social order. 

About New Year’s Day 1960, I heard a radio commentator speak of the Fabulous Fifites and Fortified Forties; and he wondered what we would call the Sixties.  As I completed 37 hours of undergraduate and graduate classes in history over the course of 40 years at half a dozen schools, the question stayed with me.  My answers may be arguable, but they are not arbitrary.

Age of Reason 1648 to 1775 (End of 30 Years War to Adam Smith and American Revolution)
Enlightenment 1726-1803  (Third Edition of Newton’s Principia to Napoleon’s Empire)

The Industrial Revolution: 
  • Long Industrial Revolution: 1750-1950 (Watt improved the Newcomen Engine 1759; first computers during World War II).
  • Short Industrial Revoltions 1759-1775  (Watt's improved engine; Watt and Boulton)
  • Modal Industrial Revolution: 1775 -1837 (Watt went into business with Boulton making his engines commercially successful; the first practical electric telegraphs cap the era and announce the conception of the information age.)

19th Century 1815 to 1914 (Fall of Napoleon to World War I)

These periods are imprecise because they affected painting, music, and literature differently. Even chess has classic, romantic, and neoclassic trends. Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (1917) was self-consciously neoclassical.  Post-modernism was perceived as a historical trend by art critics about the same time as it was declared mandatory by philosophy professors.
Baroque  17th to early or mid 18th centuries
Rococo  Mid to late 17th century
Neo-Classical  1750-1803 (Goes with the Enlightenment)
Romantic 1820 to 1890 (The French Restoration and English Regency to the Gilded Age)
Impressionist  1880 to 1940
Expressionist  1920 to 1940
Modernist (1900 to 1960)
Post-Modernist (1970 to present)
Roaring Twenties – 1919 to 1933 (The Prohibition Era, with its easy prosperity and dramatic Depression)
Thifty Thirties – 1929 to 1940/41  (The Black Tuesday and Black Thursday of the stock market only suggested events to come, but the collapse was dramatic and well-perceived at the time.)
Fortified Forties – 1939 to 1952 (The shooting did not stop until the Korean War.)

The Cold War (1949-1989; from the Berlin Airlift to the Fall of the Berlin Wall.)

The Space Age: It is easy to see when it started.  We might still be in it, with the ISS in orbit, universal GPS, and a probe landing on a comet.  But I believe that something was lost, if not in the disasters, then perhaps in the successes. )
·       Space Age 1957 to 2011 (Sputnik to last Atlantis Flight)
·       Space Age 1957 to 2003 (Sputnik to Columbia disaster)
·       Space Age 1957 to 1986 (Sputnik to Challenger disaster)
·       Space Age 1957 to 1972 (Sputnik to last Apollo mission)

Fabulous Fifties – 1952 to 1963  (Eisenhower to Kennedy)

Psychedelic Sixties 1964 to 1972 (Beatles to Watergate) [Jimi Hendrix died Sept. 18, 1970; Janis Joplin died October 4, 1970; Jim Morrison died July 3, 1971]

Spaced Out Seventies 1972 to 1980 (Watergate to Reagan)
Spaced Out Seventies 1972 to 1984 (Watergate to Macintosh)

Yuppies 1984 to 1998 (Success of Reagan Revolution to Clinton Impeachment)

Computer Revolution 1974 to 1984 (Altair 8800 to Macintosh)
Information Age 1984 to Present

The New World Order 1989 to Present (Fall of Communism to Present)
Globalism Ascendant 1989 to 2001 (Fall of Communism to 9/11; "The End of History" prematurely announced.)

Islamic Reaction 2001 to Present (9/11/2001 to Present)