The mad ramblings of a scientist
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Saturday, June 15, 2013
NSA: The Real Question

There has been a lot of hysteria over the recent revelations about secret NSA programs. Some of the most frantic protests from the more libertarian and technically minded organizations on the web have suggested that the NSA programs are illegal. Unfortunately, much of the sentiment behind these protests are missing the real question.

We know that the government and police are allowed to spy on citizens if there is good enough cause. The classic example are phone wiretaps performed under warrant. Few people are against these legal, law enforcement tools. And few people would be against similar means on electronic communication, such as e-mail.

Unlike phone taps, which requires a technician to fiddle directly with wires, technology makes spying on individuals very easy in the internet age. This is good in some ways, because it makes the government's job easier, and we want government to be efficient. It is also bad in other ways, because if spying is so trivial, it becomes more open to potential abuse.

For example, consider the subject of PRISM. If the current descriptions are true, the PRISM project is of breathtaking scope. That said, has anyone found any evidence that information from PRISM has been used illegally to harass any citizen? Anything at all?

I personally want the NSA to work as effectively as possible, and use the latest technology to perform it's duty. The real question we should be asking is not some much how the NSA collects information, but what administrative and legal controls are used to access that information. If those administrative controls are found lacking, then they should be fixed. Otherwise, let the government do its job.

Posted at: 5:13 PM (Edited: June 15, 2013, 7:18 PM)
Categories: Science and Policy
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Cognitive bias

Often enough, individuals with strong beliefs find others who share similar beliefs to latch on to and socialize with. Such social behavior might begin as a search for comfort, because people are lazy and fearful and it takes effort to appreciate other points of view (take, for example, the popularity of political cable channels like Fox News and MSNBC). What starts as comfort can progress to reinforcement. The internet has made it easier than ever to reach out to fellow believers, accelerating this tendency in modern times.

A good example of this social phenomenon are religious cults. A more dangerous example are some political movements.

There are two recent examples that come to mind.

Nate Silver is a statistician who earned a reputation over many years for his accurate political projections, based on sound mathematics and logic. He predicted Obama's recent presidential win with almost patronizing confidence. Nate Silver's rational, objective analysis infuriated many pundits on the right. These same pundits latched instead onto predictions that were clearly biased to anyone with any statistical training whatsoever. Why did these right-wing pundits refuse to listen to the facts? I simply do not understand. It's like they live in an alternate universe were mathematics doesn't work.

My second example is the NRA's initial response to the Newtown shooting. When I read about their response, already days late (and presumably, then, fully discussed among the NRA's leadership), I was stunned how politically deaf it was. This was the golden opportunity for the NRA to become part of the solution, and they blew it. How was this possible? It's like the NRA leadership lives in an alternate universe where are all of America is still a gun-toting frontier.

Posted at: 1:33 PM
Categories: Diary
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Holy Spam, Batman!

I am not interested in promoting my web site, partly because it generates no income (no advertisements), but mostly because I am not into self promotion in general. So I was happy for these articles to sit in quiet obscurity. Even the comment forms I developed for this blog were really a programming exercise.

Of course, there is no such thing as obscurity on the web for any published site. And my site is published, given that I have a registered domain name. In fact, I noticed that several web robots (some of which were fabulously obscure) trawled my web site the very first night I put it up. So, even though my web site is basically irrelevent, it is not completely unknown!

And so the spam bots have found this blog. I suppose they did many months ago, but the code I used for the comment forms is distinctly unique (I wrote it myself, after all), and so somewhat hardened against spam robots. No hard enough, though, since it was recently broken. This morning I deleted several hundred spam messages (fortunately I know how to edit my MySQL database by hand to delete comments in mass on the command line). For old time's sake, I left the very first spam message, which you can find in a couple articles below.

Time to escalate the war! Today I install a CAPTCHA scheme!

Posted at: 8:45 AM
Categories: Diary, Projects
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Good bye, BMI?

I am fortunate to have, what I believe, is a very good doctor. So I was a little surprised some time ago to notice while waiting in her office (visits often involved a great deal of waiting) a posting of the Body Mass Index, or BMI, on the wall. I was even more shocked to find out that the BMI was incorporated into the clinic's electronic record keeping. The final blow came when the Doctor herself looked up my weight and height and issued a diagnosis to me in person.

The BMI originates from a statistical analysis performed almost 200 years ago (according to Jeremy Singer-Vine from the Slate) and updated in 1972 by a researcher named Ancel Keys. Keys wisely cautioned against using the results for individual diagnosis. So I supposed he was probably dismayed when the BMI started getting used for just this exact purpose by doctors everywhere.

So why use a flawed diagnostic like the BMI at all? Because it is cheap and easy, and the insurance industry will use any information that is cheap and easy, no matter how inaccurate. And once a practice gets ingrained in medicine, no matter how ill advised, it seems to stick around forever.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that using a combination of waist size and height can be turned into a useful index for individuals, and since waist size is almost as easy to measure as weight, perhaps we can finally say goodbye to the BMI.

Posted at: 9:49 PM
Categories: Biotechnology
Sunday, March 04, 2012
The New Age of Electronic Activism

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have probably heard of the latest offense from Rush Limbaugh. Rush is constantly and deliberately pushing the boundary of decency, but in the case, he travelled so far over the line that just about no one is defending his remarks.

Rush Limbaugh putting his foot in his mouth is by no means new and interesting news, given how often it has happened. What is interesting this time is the response. A public movement was organized from such popular online sites such as Reddit and Twitter with the goal of shaming advertisers away from Limbaugh's radio show. This movement has been remarkably effective at getting some major companies to pull their ads.

Of particular note was Carbonite, a popular online backup service. The initial and somewhat tepid response from Carbonite's CEO was conciliatory but ambiguous, and not nearly enough to halt the protests. It only took one day for the company to completely cave to the pressure.

I think this is only the beginning of the age of electronic activism. Immensely popular social web sites provide the manpower, and the internet provides instant access to the bare facts to fuel the flames. Old-fashioned media personalities like Rush Limbaugh who built their empires based on lies and hyperbole are just no match.

Posted at: 4:04 PM
Categories: Science and Policy