Archive for the 'Science and Technology' Category

How is all this Stasi stuff supposed to work anyhow?

After the ringing endorsement for more “talking rubbish” from Tom in the comments to my last post, I feel newly inspired to spout off.

So, a couple of news items in recent weeks about our government’s incompetent attempts to turn our generally-mostly-well-behaved-as-long-as-you-are-white police force into some kind of robo-stasi.  The ethics of these things are pretty obvious, but what perplexes me is how some of these powers are supposed to be used.

First, the Computer Misuse Act (1995) allows the police to hack into “compromised” systems without a warrant.  Who knew?  Not me. Anyway, apparently they plan to “step up this activity”.

Now as it happens I have briefly met some of the chaps from SOCA, who presumably would be executing this brief.  I am sure they are fine upstanding members of the constabulary, but leet haxors they are not.  Frankly I think it’s unlikely they could drive a pivot table in Excel, let alone devise a 0-day.  The drafters of this act perhaps envisaged the police employing uber hackers from the underground, which superficially sounds quite exciting, but it’s an ITV plot I’m afraid.  If the Old Bill know of uber hackers in the UK they’re most likely to feel their collars.

Alternatively of course they could employ russian hackers, but the amazingly bad idea of involving anyone associated with the FSB with sensitive police business may be apparent even to the clouded minds of our senior officers.

Security firms, on the whole, will also try their best to keep the police off your network, since they won’t be able to tell if it’s the police or not.  For all the fretting about these powers, in practice it’s only those who take no care at all who need to worry, and their machines are probably infested with viruses already.

Second is the rather more disturbing intention of the Government’s to require ISPs to log every email sent. Again, the ethical problems with this are pretty obvious but the practical implications are bizarre.

When you send an email from your workplace to someone else, it’s very likely that your emails never directly touch one of your ISPs mail servers – your mail goes to your corporate mailserver, then over the internet to your receipient’s mailserver.  That mail does traverse your ISPs network, but not their mailservers.

So to log this activity, your ISP would need to run a filter on all TCP traffic for port 25, decode this traffic and extract the headers.  Although this is onerous for ISPs, it’s possible.  It will inevitably make email less reliable, and slower, but hey who cares, right.

But, and this is a but you could drive a truck through, a whole load of people use opportunistic strong encryption for email. It’s enabled out of the box on all decent mail systems these days, and from watching our own logs I guess well more than half of email is encrypted for transport now.

Cracking this is not only difficult-to-impossible, but illegal in many cases. It certainly is more than onerous.

So, may  I just ask, WTF?  Are they really proposing on making laws to legislate for the impossible just to irritate everyone?



Intelligent Design and the Credit Crunch

At first sight there might not seem to be much connection between the belief in Intelligent Design and the ongoing meltdown of the world’s financial systems. I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn though, that help explain perhaps some of what went wrong.

Intelligent Design (ID) is the belief that some or all parts of the universe were designed by something.  At it’s most basic the belief is driven by the idea that some of what we perceive in the world around us is so complex, or well-designed, that it could not possibly have arisen through simple processes driven by the laws of nature.  That it must have been “designed“.

One oft cited example is the human eye.  This, some claim, shows such a marvellous degree of fitness for it’s purpose, such remarkable appositeness, that it could not have arisen through nature.  This is a property known sometimes as irreducible complexity.

This of course leads to a most interesting question – what is the limit of what can be produced by simple laws?  How can we spot something that has been created by “design” and one that has been created systemically.

Well, there is one property that tends to be exhibited by goal-seeking systems,as opposed to designed results.  That is the presence of local maxima.

You can think of goal seeking systems, such as evolution, as systems that attempt to maximise one or more properties.  The example I’ll show below is a very simple one, but imagine it extended to encompass multiple properties in many dimensions.

Imagine we start at a certain time and the thing we’re trying to maximise has a certain value.  We make some modifications to the available “knobs” we can twiddle, and step forward a step in time.  We discover this property is at some new position.  If this position is better than the previous one, then we’re winning.

Systems like that often find local maxima – the highest local point.  Here’s a lovely diagram from Wikipedia that illustrates it.

If we are somewhere in the little hill under “local maximum” then in attempting to find the “best” solution we will fail – but we will find the local maximum. There are algorithms that can improve on this sort of thing, such as Simulated Annealing, however all of them have the same property, ultimately, of  a lack of what we could term “vision”.

So, do we see this in the human eye?  In fact this sort of thing is found throughout the “design” of every life form you can examine – in the case of the eye, it is is built “backwards and upside down”, requiring “photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aquaeous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses- which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns.” (Dr. Michael Shermer, as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in his book “God is Not Great”, pg.82).

The human eye is very poorly “designed” in fact.  It contains many local maxima in it’s construction, showing it’s systemic roots.

So, the Credit Crunch.  Here we have another example of a system – one we optimistically call a Free Market.  Here we have another goal-seeking system.  Individual players are supposed to maximise their profits without indulging in coordinated planning.  Such planning is in fact frowned upon – cartels, price fixing and insider trading are illegal.

Again we see in the leaden hand of the market that it finds local maxima, not global ones.

Each individual system’s attempt to find the maximum manages to find at best only local maxima.  Certainly they may do better than the simplistic example above – they may continue past the tiny foothills tomorrow in search of a better hummock next month, however their horizons are relatively short, and they must show progress upwards, at least by the next quarterly statement.

This of course is fine when local maxima are acceptable, but just as the human body would have profited greatly from a designer, so would our financial system, as is now painfully revealed.  You cannot blame the players for following the rules, just as you cannot blame our genes for our rubbish eyes.  They were only following the rules.

Blame must be laid, in the case of this financial disaster, on the regulators and politicians who believed that markets were somehow magically able to find the best of everything.  They just cannot, and to expect them to is the same as expecting evolution to produce perfection.

It is almost amusing to note, of course, that many of those in the US who do not favour intelligent design in markets do believe in it for mammals.  A bizarre confluence of opinion that would be funny if, as Andy said today, we weren’t actually living here.

Neanderthals no less intelligent than Homo Sapiens

Reports Science Daily. They challenge researchers to work out why Homo Sapiens survived when Homo Neanderthalis became extinct.

Given the history of Homo Sapiens, It seems likely that our evolutionary advantage was just being more murderous – we just killed them all for looking different.

How depressing.

Water ice found on Mars

Kind of old news by now I guess, but space.com has the story.  It is a seriously important discovery though – perhaps much more important than it seems.  First, of course, it means we can send a manned mission to mars – and then they can get home again.  Second, if there’s enough then we can set up a self-sustaining presence on Mars (as long as someone fancies shelling out the money of course).

Finally, though, it has to alter our estimates for the presence of life not just on Mars, but everywhere.  With only one data-point, Earth, it has been basically impossible to extrapolate the chances of there being life anywhere.  But the more we discover about the universe, the more likely it seems there is life all over the place.

Of course this just makes the Fermi Paradox even more terrifying!

pwned by e coli

Top quality snarking.

Inflection points

A blog entry of mine over at our company blog, that may be of interest to the geeky: Inflection Points.

Complementary medicine

Apparently, It is unscientific to pour wholesale scorn on complementary medicine. Catchy title, you have to agree. After you’ve read the article you might find it’s URL amusing too.

Of course pouring scorn, wholesale or retail, isn’t directly a scientific activity. “It is unscientific to eat poached salmon” is as true a statement, but I guess rather less encouraging if you’ve got a word limit and a deadline.

The thrust of this offering is pretty startlingly original. The author’s premise is that complementary medicine is getting a really bad press from scientists, and that this is unscientific. She goes on at some length to say that the reason it’s unscientific to criticise complementary medicine is that complementary medicine is a load of rubbish. Yep, apparently complementary medicine has no evidence to support it, and most rational people would agree that it’s nonsense and therefore it’s unscientific to criticise it.

This is a use of the word ‘unscientific’ I’ve not been previously acquainted with.

The author, reasonably, says that lots of people have been treated successfully using complementary medicine and that this is due to the placebo effect. If you’ve seen the same claims made about Prozac, you’ll know that the placebo effect can be massive.

Not only can placebos induce things like reduction in pain, which seems obviously possible, but it can induce strong physical changes in the way the body behaves. The placebo effect can do all sorts of startling things, and this has been validated by experiment.

She also says that complementary medicine works because it’s pleasant. Reflexology, for example, involves having your feet massaged. This is nice. Having nice things done to you makes you feel better. This sounds pretty reasonable to me too – having your feet massaged is indeed very nice, and if you are unwell you are likely to appreciate it.

So, she says, complementary medicine works because it exploits the placebo effect and it makes you feel good.

Do either of these things make it unscientific to criticise it for being wrong? No, of course not. The purpose of science is to determine the truth as far as it can be tested experimentally. Is the author really suggesting that science should see that having your feet massaged is pleasant and back off? Or even, seeing the placebo effect deployed successfully that they should retire and investigate something else? That’s just bizarre.

Surely those being treated deserve more than this. I am rather less certain than the author that all complementary medicine is rubbish. Some of it is clearly transparent nonsense (homeopathy, I’m looking at you), but some of it could have more to it, and deserves further study.

Furthermore, there are some clear dangers in ignoring complementary therapy. I don’t see any aromatherapists in ambulances, and you shouldn’t see them anywhere near primary cancer care either. If people choose complementary therapy instead of science-based medicine in areas where they have a treatable problem then they could die or suffer completely unnecessarily.

Finally It’s quite possible these treatments have side-effects. The pat claims by some that complementary treatments can’t have side effects is a bizarre admission from those touting them that they probably do nothing. Certainly homeopathy is unlikely to have any side effects, but some herbal treatments use powerful drugs that can be dangerous. Patients deserve to know the facts about these treatments.

If you want to treat people with placebos, then do so. That’s fine – it works even if you tell people it’s a placebo (although it works better if you tell them it was expensive). But to claim that it is unscientific to investigate something is just dumb. What the author really means is that it is morally reprehensible to discourage people from treatments that might help them.

There is more grounding to this argument, even if she doesn’t understand that’s what she’s really saying. But even here I have to disagree. This is the same claim that’s often made about religious faith – that it’s good for you, and therefore that you should have faith. Faith makes you a better, happier person. I’m not going to debate this, or even draw your attention to the bizarre logical flaws in it, because it’s completely irrelevant. If it is a pack of lies it deserves to be exposed as such whether it makes you a better person or not. There are many practices and beliefs that might be beneficial, but how do we ever progress if we accept this as sufficient?

Believing the sun only comes up each morning because the king does a magic dance is probably quite good for you but IT IS NOT TRUE. Sorry. It just isn’t.

Throughout history conservatives have used this argument to defend the status quo, that even if it’s wrong it’s good for you, and it’s just plain unacceptable. Not only that, it’s incredibly patronising – the idea that somehow we know it’s rubbish but we’d better keep it quiet from them, the unwashed masses who are unable to cope with the truth.

UPDATE: I think I must be telepathic: PhD girl is killed by Chinese treatment

Odds-on guilty

Gary Pugh, director of forensic services at Scotland Yard has suggested putting kids who look likely to become criminals in later life on the national DNA register. My natural reaction to this, like most people’s, is revulsion. It really is “like something from a science fiction novel”, and really dark science fiction at that.

The DNA register has some serious problems as it stands, and I haven’t seen these discussed anywhere. The problem is one I have written about before: how hard it is to understand odds when they work at the sorts of levels you encounter with large populations. This sounds really boring but is vitally important to justice.

It is very common now in criminal trial reports to hear that forensic evidence has been a critical part of the conviction. Sometimes a matching DNA sample is the only real evidence, with every other piece of evidence being circumstantial. Odds are quoted by the forensic expert on the stand as being “one in a million” or even a “one in ten million” chance of the sample matching someone else.

These odds sound pretty convincing, and juries certainly find them so. I’ve not heard of any case anywhere where DNA evidence was produced in this manner and the jury found not guilty.

The problem is that these odds are actually not quite so convincing as all that on their own. The argument I’m about to put forward is sometimes called “The Defense Attorney’s Fallacy” because it presumes the only evidence available is the DNA evidence, and that nothing else is available. In most countries there is no such thing as a national register, so the DNA match was found after the suspect was identified by other means. This does make DNA evidence extremely convincing even at quite low odds. This isn’t the case here though – if people are identified by routine DNA sweeps through the database this is most definitely not a fallacy.

Right now anyone who passes through a police station gets their DNA sample taken. Whether they are charged or released that sample is then kept forever. Whenever a serious crime is committed the database is searched for a match. If a match comes up, the police pop over to the home of whoever matches and arrest them.

You’d have to be very lucky not to be charged at this point. A cast-iron alibi would possibly do the job, as would, perhaps, being a High Court Judge or an MP. But perhaps not even then. You are definitely prime suspect, and will probably end up in court, especially if it’s a high profile case with a lot of pressure on the police to arrest someone.

Right now the DNA register has nearly five million records, approaching ten percent of the population. Lets see how well those odds work.

A DNA sample has a “one in ten million” chance of matching someone, say. That means a given sample will match 6 people in the UK, which has a population of sixty million. Ten percent of the population are on the register, roughly, which means that of these 6 the chances are pretty good that one of them is on the register.

This means that for any sample at any crime scene, there will probably be a match with the register – but only a one in six chance that the person who matched actually committed the crime.

This has some pretty far-reaching implications. Imagine if a forensic expert witness instead of quoting a “one in ten million” chance of it being someone else instead said there was an eighty percent chance it was somebody else who did it.

Doesn’t sound so hot now does it?

This is an artifact of the sampling method – if you only sample a random portion of the population your quoted odds have to be modified by the sample rate. This is being completely ignored by everyone in the justice system. They have good reasons for this of course – the police are widely distrusted by juries, and with good reason, since they have such a vested interest in obtaining a conviction. They have finally found a weapon that convinces juries instantly, and the last thing they want to do is undermine it.

Perversely requiring everyone in the country to go on the register might have precisely this effect. For every sample they’d have half a dozen matches, and it might become a lot clearer just how poor odds one in ten million really is, when dealing with populations of the size we are dealing with.

BBQ-smoker-turned-’Robocop’ chases off drug dealers

What really gets me about this, is that at no point do they explain wtf a BBQ Smoker is.  Whatever it is, I’m scared.

Why no malware on the Mac?

John Gruber, over at Daring Fireball, wonders why there’s no malware for the Mac.  I think they’re mostly there with the reasoning, but they’ve missed a bit.

The reason malware can function so successfully on Windows is because they’re so damn much of it.  Just like diseases that infect humans, there’s a vast range and our antibody system has to be appropriately complex to deal with it.  Virus checkers in windows are pretty complex beasties, and they still only spot 40% of malware.  In effect there is a strong network effect on that platform, encouraging others to join the happy malware ecosystem.

Writing malware for a Mac, right now, would be a no-win situation.  You’d get slapped down so hard you’d probably end up not only with your virus failing to work, but there’d be a worldwide hunt by the mac community to find you.

Being the first virus writer for the Mac has absolutely zero benefits.