Sep 292013

Last week, U.S. Republican senator Ted Cruz was featured on television screens numerous times, on account of his rather pointless marathon 21-hour filibuster trying to derail Obamacare.

Whenever I saw his face on screen, I was taken aback by one thing: Just how eerily similar he looks to another senator from the inglorious past, senator Joseph McCarthy.

Apparently, the similarity is more than skin deep. I just happened upon a February article published in Forbes Magazine, which compares the actions of senator Cruz to the dirty politics of his infamous predecessor.

 Posted by at 9:30 am
Sep 272013

It is now formally official: global surface temperatures did not increase significantly in the past 15 years or so.

But if skeptics conclude that this is it, the smoking gun that proves that all climate science is hogwash, they better think again. When we look closely, the plots reveal something a lot more interesting.

For starters… this is not the first time global temperatures stagnated or even decreased somewhat since the start of recordkeeping. There is a roughly 20-year period centered around 1950 or so, and another, even longer period centered roughly around 1890. This looks in fact like evidence that there may be something to the idea of a 60-year climate cycle. However, the alarming bit is this: every time the cycle peaks, temperatures are higher than in the previous cycle.

The just released IPCC Summary for Policymakers makes no mention of this cycle but it does offer an explanation for the observed stagnating temperatures. These are probably a result of volcanic activity, they tell us, the solar cycle, and perhaps mismodeling the effects of greenhouse gases and aerosols, but they are not exactly sure.

And certainty is characterized with words like “high confidence,” “medium confidence” and such, with no definitions given. These will be supplied, supposedly, in the technical report that will be released on Monday. Nonetheless, the statement that “Probabilistic estimates […] are based on statistical analysis of observations or model results, or both, and expert judgment” [emphasis mine] does not fill me with confidence, if you will pardon the pun.

In fact, I feel compelled to compare this to the various reports and releases issued by the LHC in recent years about the Higgs boson. There was no “expert judgment”. There were objective statistical analysis methods and procedures that were thoroughly documented (even though they were often difficult to comprehend, due to their sheer complexity.) There were objective standards for claiming a discovery.

Given the extreme political sensitivity of the topic, I think the IPCC should adopt similar or even more stringent standards of analysis as the LHC. Do away with “expert judgment” and use instead proper statistical tools to establish the likelihood of specific climate models in the light of the gathered data. And if the models do not work, e.g., if they failed to predict stagnating temperatures, the right thing to do is say that this is so; there is no need for “expert judgment”. Just state the facts.

 Posted by at 10:45 pm
Sep 272013

I’ve been hesitant to write about this, as skeptics will already have plenty to gripe about, I don’t need to pile on. And I swear I am not looking for excuses to bash the IPCC, not to mention that I have little sympathy or patience for skeptics who believe that an entire body of science is just one huge scam to make Al Gore and his buddies rich.

But… I was very disappointed to see plots in the latest IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” report that appear unnecessarily manipulative.

Wikipedia describes these as truncated or “gee-whiz” graphs: graphs in which the vertical axis does not start at zero. This can dramatically change the appearance of a plot, making small variations appear much larger than they really are.

To be clear, the use of truncated plots is often legitimate. Perhaps the plot compares two quantities that are of a similar magnitude. Perhaps the plot shows a quantity the absolute magnitude of which is irrelevant. Perhaps the quantity is such that “0” has no special meaning or it is not a natural start of the range (e.g., pH, temperature in Centigrade).

But in other cases, this practice can be viewed as misleading, intellectually dishonest (for instance, it is common for financial companies to manipulate plots this way to make their market performance appear more impressive than it really is) or outright fraudulent.

So here we are, the 2013 IPCC report’s summary for policymakers has been released in draft form, and what do I see in it? Several key plots that have been presented in truncated “gee-whiz” form, despite the fact that the quantities they represent are such that their absolute magnitudes are relevant, that their variability must be measured against their absolute magnitudes, and where zero is a natural start of the range.

I am presenting the original plots on the left and my crudely “untruncated” versions on the right:

This is not kosher, especially in a document that is intended for consumption by a lay audience who may not have the scientific education to spot such subtleties.

The document is still labeled a draft, with copy editing in particular yet to take place. Here’s to hoping that these plots (and any similar plots that may appear in the main report) are corrected before publication, to avoid the impression of trying to exaggerate the case for climate change. Scientists should be presenting the science objectively and leave the manipulation, even inadvertent manipulation, to politicians.

 Posted by at 10:22 pm
Sep 202013

Last week, it was all over the news: Voyager 1 has left the solar system.

Except that it really didn’t. Voyager 1’s trajectory is, and will continue to be, dominated by the Sun’s gravity for thousands of years. Voyager 1 is significantly closer to the Sun than Sedna (one of the icy dwarfs in the outer solar system) at aphelion. And then there is the hypothesized Oort cloud, a spherical cloud of planetesimals roughly a light year from the Sun. Voyager 1 will take thousands of years to travel that distance.

Of course, Voyager 1 is way outside the orbit of the outermost planet, Neptune. But that happened decades ago, back in the 1980s. By 1990, Voyager 1 was far enough from the Sun to be able to take its famous “family portrait”, a mosaic that covered six of the eight planets (Mars was too faint, while Mercury was too close to the Sun.)

So what exactly happened this month? Well, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, the boundary where the solar wind collides with the interstellar medium. It is also the location where magnetic fields are no longer dominated by the Sun.

So in this sense, Voyager 1 has indeed crossed into the interstellar medium. The particles its instruments sample are the particles found in interstellar space, not particles emitted by the Sun.

So it is a significant milestone, but it is somewhat misleading to suggest that “Voyager 1 has left the solar system”, which we heard so many times in the past several days.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm
Sep 202013

Grote_Antenna_WheatonThe world’s first parabolic radio telescope was, astonishingly, built in someone’s back yard.

I am reading about the radio telescope of American amateur radio enthusiast and amateur astronomer Grote Reber.

In 1937, Reber built a 9-meter parabolic reflector in his family’s back yard.

Reber was the first to make a systematic survey of the radio sky, not only confirming Jansky’s earlier, pioneering discovery of radio waves from the Milky Way but also discovering radio sources such as Cygnus X-1 and Cassiopeia A.


For nearly a decade, Reber was the only person in the world doing radio astronomy.

Reber had a long life. He spent his final years in Tasmania, one of the few places on Earth where occasionally, very low frequency radio waves penetrate the ionosphere and are detectable by a ground-based antenna.

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Sep 172013

It has been known for some time: In the past decade, perhaps decade and a half, there was no significant global warming.

There are many explanations proposed for this slowdown/pause, and the actual cause is likely a combination of these: ocean surface cooling, natural climate oscillations, an unusual solar minimum, water vapor, aerosols, you name it.

Here is one problem with these explanations: These are the same ideas that were proposed, as alternatives to anthropogenic CO2, as causes behind the observed warming, by climate change “skeptics”, only to be summarily dismissed by many in the climate change community as denialist crackpottery.

Sadly, this may very well mean that climate skeptics will claim victory, and those inclined to listen to them will conclude that all this global warming hogwash was just some scam dreamed up by Al Gore and his cronies. Meanwhile, we tend to forget about other things that elevated atmospheric CO2 levels do, such as ocean acidification; not to mention other, equally threatening global environmental concerns, for instance species extinction occurring on a scale not seen since the day of the dinosaurs.

 Posted by at 7:43 pm
Sep 172013

This has been making the rounds on the Internets in the past few days: a modular mobile phone concept, with swappable parts.

Except that (with apologies to its inventor and supporters) I don’t think it will ever work. And no, not because conspiring corporations will torpedo it. (For what it’s worth, I am a free agent: I am not on the payroll of any conspiring corporations.)

The first reason is mechanical. For the phone to be robust, the backboard would have to be really strong and bulky. The connectors would have to be rock solid. Yes, it can be done, but only by using expensive materials, and the backboard itself will be half as thick already as a modern phone like a Samsung Galaxy.

The second reason is power and signaling. The placement of components on a modern phone mainboard is not accidental. Signal paths matter when things run off a multigigahertz clock. Power matters when some components can momentarily draw significant current. The placement of antennas matters, to maximize efficiency and minimize interference from the phone’s own components.

Third, the design will inevitably prove too constraining. Take modern PCs as an analogy. Yes, they are modular (it is much easier, of course, to make a desktop PC modular.) But only to a point. Try shoving an old ISA extension card into a modern PC. Even if it were perfectly functional (e.g., an old modem, serial/parallel or low-speed communication card that never needed more than ISA speeds) you can’t use it anymore, as no modern motherboard supports ISA slots. Many modern motherboards don’t even support PCI slots. Processor sockets change. Memory module standards change. Even power supply standards changed a surprising number of times. (You’d think there are only so many ways to supply 12VDC, 5VDC, and maybe 3.3VDC, but you’d be wrong.)

Still, Phonebloks is a neat idea. In fact, it’s one of those ideas that may never work as intended, but may still inspire other useful inventions.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Sep 172013

Lest we forget, this is a really big deal not just for Bombardier but also for Canada: the successful first test flight of Bombardier’s new C-series jet.

This new jet puts Bombardier in direct competition with the two giants, Boeing and Airbus.

Not bad from a country of less than 34 million people.

 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Sep 122013

Here is a sight I have not seen since July 30:

Route results for from Vienna, Austria

BGP routing table entry for
Paths: (4 available, best #1)
  1239 577
  AS-path translation: { AS1239 BELL-AS }
    edge3.Frankfurt1 (metric 13114)
      Origin IGP, metric 100000, localpref 86, valid, internal, best
      Community: Europe  Lclprf_86 Germany Level3_Peer Frankfurt
      Originator: edge3.Frankfurt1
  1239 577
  AS-path translation: { AS1239 BELL-AS }
    edge3.Frankfurt1 (metric 13114)
      Origin IGP, metric 100000, localpref 86, valid, internal
      Community: Europe  Lclprf_86 Germany Level3_Peer Frankfurt
      Originator: edge3.Frankfurt1
  1239 577
  AS-path translation: { AS1239 BELL-AS }
    edge3.Frankfurt1 (metric 13114)
      Origin IGP, metric 100000, localpref 86, valid, internal
      Community: Europe  Lclprf_86 Germany Level3_Peer Frankfurt
      Originator: edge3.Frankfurt1
  1239 577
  AS-path translation: { AS1239 BELL-AS }
    edge3.Frankfurt1 (metric 13114)
      Origin IGP, metric 100000, localpref 86, valid, internal
      Community: Europe  Lclprf_86 Germany Level3_Peer Frankfurt
      Originator: edge3.Frankfurt1

This is a valid routing table entry for my class C address space at a randomly picked backbone router somewhere on the Internet.

On July 30, Verizon Canada disconnected me. Or rather, they decommissioned the point-of-presence equipment that was utilized by my Internet connection, without moving all their customers first to another POP.

When Verizon proved unable to restore my connection after 10 (!) days, I canceled my contract with them. Meanwhile, my sites’ continuing existence on the Internet was maintained using a backup cable modem connection.

But, as of today, I once again have a functioning DSL connection, courtesy of Bell Canada. Better yet, they were actually able to set up everything properly, including my special request for routing for my portable class C address space. Needless to say, I am very pleased.

And their service costs a lot less than Verizon Canada’s.

 Posted by at 4:41 pm
Sep 102013

So Pauline Marois now tabled her proposal for religious neutrality. A new, secular charter for Quebec.

I am an atheist. I have no use for religion, especially dogmatic religion that prescribes even the clothes one wears. So I have some sympathy for those who support this proposed charter.

But I don’t, for several reasons.

First, it is trying to solve a problem where none exists. Yes, Canada is multicultural. Yes, this means that we encounter people wearing crosses, niqabs, hijabs, kippahs, and the Devil knows what other forms of ridiculous clothing. (On a side note: I respect other people’s right to their religion, and I am willing to fight for it. I have one condition: I claim the right to call every stupid superstition exactly what it is.) But since when is this a problem? I have met people ranging from medical professionals to supermarket checkout clerks wearing such things, and they were just as courteous, polite, and competent as those who wore no religious items.

Second, it is divisive. Far from solving problems, it creates one. It is designed not to embrace but to exclude people.

Third… we have to recognize this attempt for exactly what it is. A cynically divisive attempt by a mediocre politician to gather support for her failing party, and to turn her province against the rest of Canada. The language debate is long over. Canada is a fully bilingual country where folks like me, who do not speak fluent French, feel stupid and embarrassed. They can no longer drum up support by claiming to fight for the future of the French language in an English-speaking sea in North America. So they need something new.

I hope they miscalculated. I hope that Quebec voters will realize that they are being played. Support for this proposed secular charter may be high now, but I hope this will change as we learn more about the politics behind this backward, pitiful political game.

Simply put, I hope most of Quebec has firmly embraced the 21st century, even if some of the province’s leaders haven’t yet.

 Posted by at 7:36 pm
Sep 082013

Bittersweet, or solanum dulcamara, is a species of vine. According to my wife the gardener, it was a vine of this species that climbed up a light pole just outside our house a few years ago.

Bittersweet is actually considered an invasive weed in North America, and for a good reason. Just look at the picture below… the vines climbed all the way to the top, completely engulfing the concrete light pole.

We decided to call this thing Shrek. The name was inspired not so much by the animated character but by a New Zealand sheep named after it, which avoided being caught and shorn for six years.

Alas, our Shrek has also been caught and shorn. The City of Ottawa had enough of it (and with good reason, considering the damage it likely did to the concrete light pole, not to mention the increased surface area which may very well cause the light pole to topple in a windstorm.) A few weeks ago, a city crew appeared and cut Shrek at the roots. This is what Shrek looked like as a result last week:

Of course, we hope that Shrek will grow back eventually. That light pole just wouldn’t look the same without it.

Meanwhile, though, it’d be nice if the city opted to finish the job and remove the now dead remains of the plant from its light pole. Or maybe they hope that winter weather will do the trick?

 Posted by at 7:38 pm
Sep 082013

Yes, I am beginning to wonder if Bush (or Cheney or Rumsfeld) was indeed smarter than Obama after all.

But first… I actually believe that the Obama administration is telling the truth. I actually believe that the Sarin attack was the doing of the Syrian government. I spent some time this the weekend reading, in particular reading about the history and properties of [(CH3)2CHO]CH3P(O)F (the chemical formula for Sarin). I came to realize that producing Sarin is not easy, storing Sarin (which is unstable) is not easy, and deploying Sarin is not easy. Yes, it can be done (as demonstrated by two separate Sarin attacks in Tokyo by an extremist sect in the 1990s) but it is very hard to do it effectively (as demonstrated during an attack on American troops in Iraq in 2004, in which a roadside bomb based on a Sarin artillery shell was used, but the components did not mix properly and very little Sarin was produced.) In light of what I read, and in light of the evidence offered in the meantime by the White House, I think there is very little doubt that the attack was the regime’s doing. (In other words, Putin is full of the proverbial “it”.)

So why is the free world not lining up behind its brave leader, Barack H. Obama? Well… here is where Bush’s smarts come in. While those opposed to him (myself included) liked to ridicule his statements (which basically all boiled down to, “Saddam evil, bomb Iraq”) by the time he brought his case to Congress, well, he had a case. We may have laughed at his “coalition of the willing”, but at least he had a coalition! And, ridiculous as his so-called evidence for WMDs in Iraq was (all of which turned out to be a boldfaced lie), he managed to sell it to all those who mattered: the US Congress, the Senate, his allies. When he started his war, sure he had significant opposition but he also had broad support. Even as he said that if necessary, he would “go it alone”, he didn’t. He was backed by many.

Barack Obama: the smart, highly educated, peace-loving, consensus-builder Barack Obama has no support. Even his closest allies are abandoning him both in Congress and abroad. CNN boldly states that Obama has a “challenge” convincing Congress, but it looks more like a slam dunk to me: what was it, I think 24 in favor, well over 100 against, and the rest who are undecided are not exactly leaning towards authorizing war either.

For what it’s worth, I still like Obama. I still believe that he is a better president than his predecessor, all things considered. But I am really puzzled by this Syria thing. If I were a lawmaker in the US Congress, I would also vote against it, not to spite Obama, but because I just don’t see what a limited military strike is intended to accomplish and how. Nor do I see an honest attempt to account for all possible consequences of such a strike.

Meanwhile I also cannot help but scowl at the hypocrisy of anti-war protesters who chant for “peace”. Assad’s war is not “peace”. It is a very nasty civil war, in which Assad’s government is committing wholesale murder. The world should consider intervention. But such an intervention should be based on a decisive military commitment (i.e., boots must be on the ground) and a well-defined outcome (a civilian government free of jihadist elements firmly in control of Syria.) You can’t do this on the cheap by lobbing a few missiles into the country and hope for the best. That’s just irresponsible and stupid.

 Posted by at 8:42 am
Sep 072013

We used to have a cat named Tarka. (It’s a Hungarian word for mottled, spotted, etc.) She showed up at our doorstep in 1999. Winter was just around the corner, the cat was obviously not doing well outside, and no-one was looking for her… so one day, we let her in.

Tarka was “not a very polite cat,” as a neighbor described her one day. Her characteristic sounds were hissing and howling, especially at other cats.

One such other cat was Bill, another stray that showed up in the neighborhood. Eventually, Bill was adopted by some people across the street, but in the winter of 1999/2000, Bill was still an outdoor cat who occasionally showed up on the small deck just outside our kitchen glass sliding door.

One morning, Tarka noticed Bill outside and she began howling. My video camera (yes, it was that long ago) was handy, so I started taping. The concert went on for several minutes until Bill got bored and left. But not before our other cat, Marzipan, showed up on the scene, no doubt wondering what this racket was all about.

Sadly, none of these cats are around anymore. The first one to leave us was Marzipan; ten months after this video was made, lymphoma killed him. Tarka stayed with us for another 11 years, until her ailing kidneys took her away. She mellowed as she aged, but she never really became what I would call a “polite” cat. And Bill spent 13 years with the family that adopted him before he, too, died earlier this year.

We have several other cats, who will hopefully stay with us for a long time. But I doubt we’ll ever have another cat as unique as Tarka was.

 Posted by at 10:22 am
Sep 072013

After spending a week in Hungary earlier this year, on my way back I stopped in London for three days. London is one of my favorite cities, and I haven’t spent any time there in years. My plan to enjoy myself was simple: get an Oyster card, take the Underground to random places, walk.

A few days before, still in Budapest, I badly twisted an ankle. Still, even this did not deter me, although it did slow me down; occasionally, I felt the need to sit down and rest my aching and swelling foot a little.

That’s precisely what happened one early evening in central London, where I found a tiny little park tucked in between two large office buildings near the Thames. Despite the fact that I was in the center of a world metropolis, it was eerily quiet in this spot, except for the loud singing of birds.

As soon as I sat down, I spotted a bunch of pigeons eating some crumbs from the pavement and occasionally fighting each other off. It was fascinating. My phone was with me, so I started capturing the scene on video.

Don’t expect anything spectacular. Just a bunch of pigeons living their lives in a big city. I don’t even like pigeons; many believe that they are flying rats, and I think they have a point. Still… these guys were funny. And the surrealist quiet of the spot I found right in the heart of a big city created an atmosphere that I will forever remember.

 Posted by at 10:11 am
Sep 062013

Two days ago, a woodpecker appeared on our linden tree. By the time I managed to grab my phone, it was gone.

Today, the bird reappeared and kindly stayed long enough for me to shoot a few minutes of video.

Nothing exciting here. Just a woodpecker doing what woodpeckers do, on a dead branch of our tree. I just found the bird fascinating, and I found it especially fascinating that a somewhat uncommon bird like this one would appear on a tree in a busy city.

 Posted by at 11:47 pm
Sep 062013

Last December, I wrote a blog entry in which I criticized one aspect of the LHC’s analysis of the scalar particle discovered earlier this year, which is believed to be the long sought-after Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is a scalar. It is conceivable that the particle observed at the LHC is not the Higgs particle but an “impostor”, some composite of known (and perhaps unknown) particles that behaves like a scalar. Or, I should say, almost like a scalar, as the ground state of such composites would likely behave like a pseudoscalar. The difference is that whereas a scalar-valued field remains unchanged under a reflection, a pseudoscalar field changes sign.

This has specific consequences when the particle decays, apparent in the angles of the decay products’ trajectories.

Several such angles are measured, but the analysis used at the ATLAS detector of the LHC employs a method borrowed from machine learning research, called a Boosted Decision Tree algorithm, that synthesizes a single parameter that has maximum sensitivity to the parity of the observed particle. (The CMS detector’s analysis uses a similar approach.)

The result can be plotted against scalar vs. pseudoscalar model predictions. This plot, shown below, does not appear very convincing. The data points (which represent binned numbers of events) are all over the place with large errors. Out of a total of only 43 events (give or take), more than 25% are the expected background, only 30+ events represent an actual signal. And the scalar vs. pseudoscalar predictions are very similar.

This is why, when I saw that the analysis concluded that the scalar hypothesis is supported with a probability of over 97%, I felt rather skeptical. And I thought I knew the reason: I thought that the experimental error, i.e., the error bars in the plot above, was not properly accounted for in the analysis.

Indeed, if I calculate the normalized chi-square per degree of freedom, I get \(\chi^2_{J^P=0^+} = 0.247\) and \(\chi^2_{J^P=0^-} = 0.426\), respectively, for the two hypotheses. The difference is not very big.

Alas, my skepticism was misplaced. The folks at the LHC didn’t bother with chi-squares, instead they performed a likelihood analysis. The question they were asking was this: given the set of observations available, what are the likelihoods of the scalar and the pseudoscalar scenarios?

At the LHC, they used likelihood functions and distributions derived from the actual theory. However, I can do a poor man’s version myself by simply using the Gaussian normal distribution (or a nonsymmetric version of the same). Given a data point \(D_i\), a model value \(M_I\), and a standard deviation (error) \(\sigma_i\), the probability that the data point is at least as far from \(M_i\) as \(D_i\) is given by

{\cal P}_i=2\left[1-\Psi\left(\frac{|D_i-M_i|}{\sigma_i}\right)\right],

where \(\Psi(x)\) is the cumulative normal distribution.

Now \({\cal P}_i\) also happens to be the likelihood of the model value \(M_i\) given the data point \(D_i\) and standard distribution \(\sigma_i\). If we assume that the data points and their errors are statistically indepdendent, the likelihood that all the data points happen to fall where they fell is given by

{\cal L}=\prod\limits_{i=1}^N{\cal P}_i.

Taking the data from the ATLAS figure above, the value \(q\) of the commonly used log-likelihood ratio is

q=\ln\frac{{\cal L}(J^P=0^+)}{{\cal L}(J^P=0^-)}=2.89.

(The LHC folks calculated 2.2, which is “close enough” for me given that I am using a naive Gaussian distribution.)

Furthermore, if I choose to believe that the only two viable hypothesis for the spin-parity of the observed particle are the scalar and pseudoscalar scenarios (e.g., if other experiments already convinced me that alternatives, such as intepreting the result as a spin-2 particle, can be completely excluded) I can normalize these two likelihoods and interpret them as probabilities. The probability of the scalar scenario is then \(e^{2.89}\simeq 18\) times larger than the probability of the pseudoscalar scenario. So if these probabilities add up to 100%, that means that the scalar scenario is favored with a probability of nearly 95%. Not exactly “slam dunk” but pretty darn convincing.

As to the validity of the method, there is, in fact, a theorem called the Neyman-Pearson lemma that states that the likelihood-ratio test is the most powerful test for this type of comparison of hypotheses.

But what about my earlier objection that the observational error was not properly accounted for? Well… it appears that it was, after all. In my “poor man’s” version of the analysis, the observational error was used to select the appropriate form of the normal distribution, through \(\sigma_i\). In the LHC’s analysis, I believe, the observational error found its was into the Monte-Carlo simulation that was used to develop a physically more accurate probability distribution function that was used for the same purpose.

Even clever people make mistakes. Even large groups of very clever people sometimes succumb to groupthink. But when you bet against clever people, you are likely to lose. I thought I spotted an error in the analysis performed at the LHC, but all I really found were gaps in my own understanding. Oh well… live and learn.

 Posted by at 4:12 pm
Sep 062013

So the NSA and their counterparts elsewhere, including Canada and the UK, are spying on us. I wish I could say the news shocked me, but it didn’t.

The level of secrecy is a cause for concern of course. It is one thing for these agencies not to disclose specific sources and methods, it is another to keep the existence of entire programs secret, especially when these programs are designed to collect data wholesale.

But my biggest concern is that the programs themselves represent a huge security threat for all of us.

First, the NSA apparently relies on its ability to compromise the security of encryption products and technologies or on backdoors built into these products. An unspoken assumption is that only the NSA would be able to exploit these weaknesses. But how do we know that this is the case? How do we know that the same weaknesses and backdoors used by the NSA to decrypt our communications are not discovered and then exploited by foreign intelligence agencies, industrial spies, or criminal organizations?

As an illustrative example, imagine purchasing a very secure lock for your front door. Now imagine that the manufacturer does not tell you that the locks are designed such that there exists a master key that opens them all. Maybe the only officially sanctioned master key is deposited in a safe place, but what are the guarantees that it does not get stolen? Copied? Or that the lock is not reverse engineered?

My other worry is about how the NSA either directly collects, or compels service providers to collect, and store, large amounts of data (e.g., raw Internet traffic). Once again, the unspoken assumption is that only authorized personnel are able to access the data that was collected. But what are the guarantees for that? How do we know that these databases are not compromised and that our private data will not fall into hands not bound by laws and legislative oversight?

These are not groundless concerns. As Edward Snowden’s case demonstrates, the NSA was unable to control unauthorized access even by its own contract employees working in what was supposedly a highly structured, extremely secure work environment. (How on Earth was Snowden able to copy data from a top secret system to a portable device? That violates just about every security rule in the book.)

So even if the NSA and friends play entirely above board and never act in an unlawful manner, these serious concerns remain.

I do not believe we, as citizens, should grant the authority to any state security apparatus to collect data wholesale, or to compromise the cryptographic security of our digital infrastructure. Even if it makes it harder to catch bad guys.

So, our message to the NSA, the CSE, the GCHQ and their friends elsewhere in the free world should be simply this: back off, guys. Or else, risk undermining the very thing you purportedly protect, our basic security.

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Sep 032013

szabad-radioI am reading a letter of resignation, written by a journalist who worked for the newsroom of Hungary’s public radio network until July this year. Unlike many of his colleagues who began their carriers in communist Hungary, Montreal-born Janos F. Antal was a Radio Free Europe correspondent. Here are some experts from this disturbing letter, in my rough translation:

“I was already working on the restoration of national sovereignty when many of you were still standing at stiff attention, listening to the Internationale […] At the time of ‘regime change’ I did not need to switch sides or become a turncoat, I just continued what I began much earlier, at Radio Free Europe…

“I am a spectator, not a participant; a chronicler, not an evangelist. A journalist – not a politician.

“All came to a head, however, when one day someone appeared behind my back and over my shoulder, staring at my monitor, began giving instructions to move this news item up, leave that one out, insert thit one, rewrite that – just like that, in such a tone.

“Moreover, this censorship brings about the growth of manipulative, propagandistic content. Once again the ‘repertoire’ includes production news of the type for which real demand existed only in the Kadar era.”

Yup, that’s Hungary’s national broadcaster in 2013.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Sep 032013

One of the giants of the golden era of science-fiction, indeed a co-author of one of the most influential science-fiction novels of all time, The Space Merchants, passed away yesterday, just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

I think it would be a fitting tribute if a future space probe took his ashes to Venus and scattered it in the planet’s atmosphere.

 Posted by at 11:12 am