Monday, July 8

computer security

This is a reduced form of my earlier (dense, and rambling) "endpoint security" post.

* * * * *

A computer is secure when the person responsible for it understands what it is doing.

* * * * *

Here's how I think that looks when integrated with the fundamental design principles of the internet (the "internet golden rules"), derived from --

Rule 1: You SHOULD be liberal in what you accept, and be conservative
        in what you produce.

Rule 2: You SHOULD NOT use potentially harmful constructs (even
        if they are allowed in the restricted case you are using them

Rule 3: You SHOULD NOT munge (do not change protocol you get and
        resend, in particular do not try to correct incorrect protocol

Rule 4: Systems SHOULD be designed to educate the user about their function,
        and about how they are operating.

The above rules are "SHOULD" instead of "MUST" because they require judgement calls. (capitalizing these words, like this, carries a specific meaning in the context of internet rfcs).

These rules are useful in design meetings, to help distinguish between good and bad design decisions.

These rules were not adequate to prevent spam, and there is a very interesting lesson to be learned from how that went down. But note, also, that spam arose without the "educate the user" rule.

I am not linking to my earlier post on endpoint security because anyone needing the link (without the patience to search for it  themselves) will not have the patience to read the thing.

Wednesday, July 3

The Tillamook Burn

"The Tillamook Burn" is a name for four forest fires that happened in Tillamook Oregon.  One event in the burn happened in 1933.

As the current wikipedia page puts it:

"On the 24th, the humidity dropped rapidly to 26 per cent and hot gale-force winds from the east sprang up. During the next 20 hours of August 24th and 25th the fire burned over an additional 420 square miles, or at a rate of 21 square miles per hour along a 15-mile front. The fire was stopped only by the fact that the wind ceased and a thick, wet blanket of fog drifted in from the ocean."

We grew up not too far from there, and Dad would occasionally take us out to see "Tillamook". He'd talk to the locals and see what stories they had to tell about it.

One recurring theme that interested him was how on that day trees were thrown out into the ocean.

Wikipedia does not record this detail, and i have not been able to find any google hits that mention the trees being thrown into the water. But what I do read in the wikipedia seems consistent with that kind of information. "hot gale-force winds from the east sprang up".

The way Dad told it, these winds were a consequence of the fire. Hot air rises, and when it gets hot enough, it rises quickly. This particular forest fire had managed to get hot enough to create its own gale force wind.

Normally, winds blow in off the ocean and are stopped by the Coast Range (the minor mountains which start near the Oregon beaches). And, reading the wikipedia, the normal winds off the ocean played a role in dampening this fire back down.

Oregon has a lot of trees, and in Dad's opinion understanding something about forest fires, and how people deal with them, was something that everyone ought to know, living there.

Apparently, forests have had forest fires throughout the ages. Typically, forest fires would not go very far before dying out. However, because of property damage risks, we prevent forest fires and put them out as soon as we spot them. We do not, on a systematic basis, address the issues which make forest fires likely in the first place. But clear cut logging probably does, in some sense, prevent forest fires. Meanwhile, some people risk their lives to deal with these things and there does not seem to be any better option for them.

We (our family) would also go and see locations where Oregon has "the world's largest" tree, of various species of trees. And, Dad would talk about recent historical records of trees that used to stand not too far from there (up near British Columbia) which were much bigger than any of the current world records. Apparently, other places in the world had long since cut down their large trees. (Also, probably, the part of the world which oregon is a part of was just better for large trees than other locations?)

I needed to mention Dad here, because he was a primary source of my information. I might have conveyed the impression here that Dad was obsessed about trees - but that's mostly because I have made the decision to not talk about a number of other topics which I think would be related, if I were talking about Dad.

Tuesday, July 2

Western Civilization

Western Civilization rules the world. The english speaking world of course, and the spanish speaking world. Both of these are remnants of past empires. But also, in the guise of Karl Marx, the Chinese peoples and the Russian peoples are "ruled" by "Western Civilization". And, now that we have a global economy, these effects are pervasive.

That's kind of impressive, when you think about it.

And maybe just a bit terrifying.

The "Eastern" variants of western civilization are particularly passionate. When China adopted Marx's philosophies, the first thing they did was round up and kill "all of their intellectuals", for obvious reasons. These were their leaders, after all, and would have prevented the Chinese from adopting western civilization. It was a tried and true formula.


Wait, how did Karl Marx get to represent Western Civilization? Wasn't he opposed to ... well, almost everything?

Let's take a look, for a moment, at the real heart of Western Civilization. This is the institution that is the gold standard. The Catholic Church. This institution has stood for nearly 2000 years (in some sense it got started about year 400, but many people will happily explain how they can trace back their roots to earlier years). And, in the guise of the Vatican, they are even their own country with their own laws.

Laws are something we venerate, in western civilization.

Now, if you look at history, you can find records of how the Catholic Church got started. Apparently some roman leader found it useful to enforce the christian religion. This combined the military might of Rome with an ideal that helped unify the people.

It was, in some sense "a quick hack". And, a surprisingly stable hack.

But every time we have had an advance in communications technology we wind up re-examining ourselves, and our roots, from new perspectives.

So let's take a fresh look at the Roman Catholic Church. It's ... pretty.

They've also been in the news a lot. Apparently, like pretty much everyone else, they've got some bad apples.

And here's an odd thing - there's almost no coverage of child abuse cases in the news. Child abuse is apparently a worldwide epidemic, and news is not really above the boring problems, it's about the exciting, rare problems. No one wants to hear about the common risks. People die in traffic accidents every day, but it's rare outliers like shark attacks which make the news.

On the other hand, "child porn" is something that strikes fear in the heart of... well, pretty much everyone.

This is basic to who we are.

I'd like to propose a change in terminology, to let us see to the heart of this terror.

Instead of talking about "paedophilia" let's talk about "the rape of children" and "child rapists".  Instead of talking about "child porn" let's talk about "evidence of child rape".

This change in terminology will not solve anything, but maybe it will let us see what is really happening.

Will it? Do these terms have any accuracy?

If google translate works for you, or if you can read swedish, check this out:

Of course this is just an outlier. It's just one incident. In some sense, it's a consequence of new technology, which results in new ways of seeing things and tighter enforcement of law.

It's perhaps also a reflection of autism (which seems to be in some way related to mercury poisoning). Autism is a form of brain damage which effects how social cues are perceived. Autistic people can be incredibly brilliant, but sometimes they are just a bit too literal.

So, being reasonable, how does the Roman Catholic Church really work? How has it survived all these years? What is its purpose?

If you ask an expert, you can expect a huge volume of material. It's overwhelming in scope.

So here's my own summary, from my point of view:

The church is concerned with saving people. It has a political structure which is removed from the concerns of everyday life, and a lay population which aims at conquering the world simply by living good lives, growing families, and outlasting everyone else.

That's really an incredible philosophy. You can defeat any military organization simply by waiting. Military occupations are necessarily brief - they are incredibly inefficient, and once people die they cannot fight. So if you can be the people that survive these outbreaks of violence, your people can be the ultimate winners.

This can be expedited by getting other people to fight. If people are inclined to fight, you can set them up against each other and they will destroy each other and you can go on living peacefully.

Um ...

So, anyways, that leads us to today's world. We have the catholic church representing this doctrine of peace, and providing us a means to military victory.

The problem is, this is still just a quick hack.

One of the problems the church faces is feminism. A little lady by the name of Emma Goldman got just a bit fed up with the situation she was in, and she said some things which were inappropriate for the time. Some of the things she said were perhaps even inappropriate for our time (if you are in the wrong place, anyways).

See, historically, we have treasured our women. We still do. Also, men tend to be stronger, so when it comes to issues like picking up a big sharp piece of metal and cutting other people open? Men are just better at that than women. Plus, women are bette suited for raising children. Women have boobs and can feed the youngsters.

It's just simple common sense.

Or it was.

Nowadays, what this all means is that a people who have done the most thinking and writing about moral issues are priests. To get in the door, they must swear off any interest in sexual activities. Except, being human, they are still sexual creatures. In some sense, it's almost tantric in character, except more so.

So we have an ethical system, and moral system, which is written by people struggling against sexual pleasure. And, that's been a fascinatingly seductive struggle.

The problem is that it also lends itself to distorting our perceptions of ourselves.

If we listen to these guys, we will hear a story about the nature of sin and the evils of the world. And, in some sense, this message was meant to be disobeyed. It takes a lot of time and energy to work up the energy and resources to raise a child, and this message does a pretty decent job of focussing people's attention on the stuff that matters - preparation. And when people break the rules and actually have kids? No big deal, we just get them married and now they will support each other and the child.

Catholic families are notoriously large, because of this strategy. You are not supposed to enjoy sex, you are supposed to fight against it, which makes it more fun, till finally you just have to and... another child. Or, just as validly, children are a blessing and within the institution of marriage you should be blessed (except this attitude seems to not result in families which are quite so large).

Still, there's some topics which just stop conversation. Like, child porn.

Child porn is the ultimate evil. It strikes fear into the hearts of... well... everyone. If someone goes to jail for child abuse they'll probably not live very long. It's terrible and terrifying.

Wait, wasn't I going to rephrase this? Let's try this again:

Evidence of child rape is the ultimate evil. It strikes fear into the hearts of... well... everyone. If someone goes to jail for child abuse they'll probably not live very long. It's terrible and terrifying.


See the problem is that when kids hit puberty, they become unruly and rebellious and teenage pregnancy is an epidemic.  Well... actually... this is a consequence of how we raise our children. If you try to take advantage of "what comes naturally" to grow your population, you run into what some people call the Westermarck effect.  Thus, for example, Japan has a shrinking population and a public policy of expanding their population also allows pornography at a level which many countries object to - and their population shrinks.

China, on the other hand, has an overpopulation problem and a problem feeding everyone and has had to resort to draconian measures to keep it from getting worse. As a part of this effort, they have strict limits of decency - emulating, in some sensse, the morality of the catholic church.

This issue is very hard to reason about, because we have all agreed that our children our precious and we do not want to hurt them, and no one wants to face the wrath of angry parents protecting their children.

Except it's not really that way. Sexual interest was always only an occasional thing, even for adults. Children aren't really all that interested in it. They'll make jokes about poop and farts and whatever else that's unpleasant, maybe to provoke reactions, but it's not until we become adults that we start being obsessed by sexual activity. And, as we know from watching numerous marriages fail, sex becomes rather boring when it's not scarce.

And, as we know from the feminist movement and the cosmetic industry while we want to admire sexual beauty, people aren't really all that attractive. To be really seductive, we put on clothes and let imagination run free.


wait a minute, where's the great satan? We have people dying out there, by the millions. Something horribly evil is behind it all.


It's the bogeyman.

We are terrified of failing our children. As children we are simply terrified. We demonize victims of child rape (there are studies which show that victims of child rape are more likely to become child rapists when they are adults).

And we have strict laws against this kind of thing, with strict jurisdictions which mean that those laws have strict limits. They don't really mean anything. So we solve that by enforcing these rules using mechanisms other than the law.

Anyways, personally, I think it's all a sham.

Sex has a variety of aspects, and some are pleasant, some are disgusting, some are just boring, some are hard work, some are exhausting. It's not really that hard to deal with, and it's not all that scary.


Actually, it's scary, scary stuff. There's a damn good reason we in the U.S. have no problem exposing our kids to violence but sex is "adult only". We are running out of space. Overpopulation causes wars. People starve, they need food, we'll run out of oil.

Thus, for example, the Iraq War, which was supposedly about weapons of mass destruction but was really about getting access to future resources - we need to prepare the world so our children are safe.

Scary, scary stuff.

The world isn't ready to hear this.


Actually, I think almost everyone has long since figured it out.

The jig is up.

So here's a message to the kind folk representing the Vatican: we really appreciate the gift of civilization. We love you all to death. We promise to not try and be too literal about that. It's time to step out and take a bow.

Also, for the benefit of our autistic population, we really ought to establish classes on how to flirt. The essence of flirting is recognizing when we are getting beyond their comfort levels, and some people need to have the rules for that spelled out explicitly.

And for all the farmers in China - yeah. Chairman Mao missed his target. Congratulations.

Love you.

Monday, July 1


Meiosis is a term used to describe division of cells prior to sexual reproduction. It's used by bacteria, by plants, by animals, and of course by mammals.

Meiosis follows a long preparatory process, and is similar in some ways to the cell division process used when growing. Generally speaking, you start with a single diploid cell (which has chromosome pairs) and wind up with four haploid cells (which has unpaired chromosomes waiting to pair up with those from another organism).

In mammals (including humans), female meiosis happens before the mammal is born (for humans, it's when the female is about five months old) while male meiosis does not begin until after puberty (and presumably continues for most of the rest of the life of the male).  Also, in female mammal meiosis, only one of the set of four haploid cells produced by meiosis gets retained as an Oocyte (an "egg").

Note also that sexual reproduction includes asexual element: mitochondria. Mitochondria are haploid cells which are essential to metabolism (essential to life). Mitochondria are retained during meiosis in both sexes, but after sex only the mother's mitochondria are retained. Retaining the integrity of mitochondria might have something to do with why female meiosis happens before birth.  Mitochondria are characteristic of "animals". "Plants" have something else to keep them alive (chlorophyll).

Genetic searching is a robust searching technique used by computer programmers when dealing with a search problem which is too intricate for a lesser search algorithm. The details of this kind of algorithm are patterned after sexual reproduction and the behavior of algorithm is in some sense similar to the concept of "evolution".  In other words, this kind of system can be useful when dealing with complicated situations.

There's also something interesting in how much meiosis matters even when it's "not happening". This time is called "interphase" in literature describing meiosis. Normal people would probably call this "preparation".

Saturday, June 29


[edit: note that many of the issues I am raising here are historical - crude, crude things - hopefully we can do better than this. but I am writing here for myself, to help me get my head straight about some things, and crude is good enough for me for now.]

I grew up in a Mennonite family, without really knowing what that meant.

From a kid's perspective, we were boring christians (excuse me, "Christians" - that capital C is important for some people), and talking about religion is shameful. (And let's just say that I've spent some time looking at, and liking, other religions - most of them hated to some degree or another, and I've been ashamed of them. But that's just me.)

Looking at history, I think I can see how this came to be.

First, religion seems to be a popular activity for people. Around the world, and going way back in history, you can find views on religion, and people struggling with it. The vocabulary used to describe christianity often borrows from the vocabulary used to describe families, so that is how I often think of religion - as filling a need similar to our need for family.

Anyways, "Mennonite" turns out to have been a criminal designation used by law enforcement, back in the 1500s.  This was roughly a century after Gutenberg built his printing press. (It's not clear to me how much influence earlier work on printing presses had on Gutenberg's work.)  Other such designations include "Amish" and "Hutterite". In all cases, these were criminal groups and to the degree that a "leader" could be identified the groups were named after these leaders. You can go look up the words if you want to know about the people they were named after.

The crime being committed by these groups, back then, was heresy. This carried a death penalty. And, in fact, most of the people of this type were killed - the groups I mentioned above were among the few to survive.  And, as an aside, they were not the first to engage in heresy (the Waldensians, for example, predated them by many centuries).

As an aside, the things that were radical heresy, back then, seem to be extremely conservative nowadays. Back then, the "church" and the "state" were thought of as being the same thing. You revered the Bible, you respected your elders, and that's just how things were. But, with the printing press, people were reading this bible for themselves and - for better or worse - making their own interpretations of it. And, after years of study, many people apparently thought that their way was better than that of the authorities.

Two of the sticking points were:

(1) Infant baptism.
(2) Celibacy as a virtue.

In both cases, the problem that people were objecting to was the absence of informed choice. The baptism thing was largely ceremonial - it was about whether a person was a voluntary member of the church (which was everything back then: state and community) or whether many never even thought about why they would do so - and that led to the name that these criminals used to identify themselves ("anabaptists").

The celibacy thing is harder to reason about because topics of sexuality carry so many taboos. The rhetoric from back then, that I have read, simply states that this led to wickedness. (The structural change between anabaptists and the "state church" was that the anabaptists *required* that their leaders be parents, and also they sharply limited the "powers" of a "leader". There's a reason that you don't hear about amish armies, except in jokes.)

And I think you can see that to this day, in the news about catholic priests abusing children. By cutting themselves off from this essential aspect of their own lives, they've set themselves up with a distorted and misleading view of what sexuality is. Thus, for example, horror movies which are basically catholic morality plays (only the "sexually innocent" survive).

Of course, there's "good reason" for insisting that the pope not be married, and this has to do with the corruption of government that happens when a leader passes control to an unruly child. But in a sense, "celibacy" is just a hack and we (society) are suffering greatly from the consequences of this and of related decisions.  See also:

Anyways... Mennonites...

Back in the 1500s, government basically meant military government, and the way you dealt with opposition was by killing them. So, what this meant was that as people began to read, the first thing they would read was the governing documents (the Bible) and they would start seeing inconsistencies between what they were being told to do and their understanding of what they should do. And so we killed them.

We did a wonderfully good job of killing them. Not only were they killed by the Catholics (probably everyone has heard of the Spanish Inquisition - God Fearing Folks, the lot of them) but by the Protestants.

One approach for rooting out these clusters of dissent involved infiltrators, who would go and pretend to be converted to these "new religions" to find the names of those involved. (This, I think, relates to my own shame in discussing religious issues, though I do not fully understand the mechanisms that could have managed to propagate across all these centuries.)

But some of these "intellectuals" survived. (To this day, you can find all sorts of insults which are handy for demonizing intellectuals. I will not try to list them, but I'm sure you can think of some for yourself.)

Anyways, the approach that seemed to characterize the survivors was: work hard for their oppressors. This gamed the system, because now the people trying to kill them were hurting themselves. And, by not putting up a fight in return, good military leaders attacking them would give up in disgust. Military success, after all, requires that you have a winning set of priorities.

Or does it?

Most people have probably never heard of my grandfather. His name was Milton Vogt. He was a farmer (or, more properly, a tractor operator). I know very little of his story - you would have to ask other members of my family - but it is perhaps relevant that he went to India, to "minister" to the people there, back (I probably have the dates wrong) in the 1920s. This was well after Mahatma Gandhi had gotten going, so I certainly cannot claim that Milton had any great influence on Gandhi.

But influence is perhaps not the right concept to understand the pervasive effects that result from improvements in communication.

Perhaps a better place to focus attention is on that taboo subject: sexuality.


We're fucking screwed up, about sexual issues - about life. And that, I think, is why we are so afraid.

There's a sentence in the Bible which undermines every institution that has ever existed:

God is love. (with many saying, for probably good reason: omg, that's so trite! lol)

My take on this is: love people. And, try not to bother with anger except for the moments where it can make an immediate, helpful difference. Please don't be afraid of these aspects of yourself.

Work hard for them. And if you don't love them? Maybe just pretend or something, seriously, I don't have a solution for all problems.

If they kill you, or silence you, or shut you down? They lose (and, of course, so do you, but maybe others you love will have a chance. Check out John Wycliffe some time, if you want a historic example of this kind of thing.)

And, they will. For good reasons, out of shame, or whatever. (Those military folks that are out to kill you? Keep in mind that they are giving up their own lives for their concept of bettering someone's life.) It's probably wise to not antagonize people (if you love them, seriously, think this through)... but I'm saying "probably" for a reason.

On the positive side, the more interconnected we are, the sooner they will notice when they are hurting themselves. Nowadays, it's quite likely that we'll keep our heads on our shoulders. (Not at all certain, in some parts of the world, but even there I think it has been getting better.)

But there's a lot of work to do. Painful, tedious, back-breaking skin-wearing ugly, stinking discouraging work. (Speaking of which, I really need to get to cleaning. I'm scared of you all, and have been working to keep you all out, and it's high time I get over that. At least, somewhat.) Try to have fun doing it - you'll do a better job, and have more fun. And take care of yourself, these things build on each other.

It'll be fun!

(yeah, I can just tell how popular this idea is going to be...)

Wednesday, June 26

endpoint security

(Note: this post, and some of my adjacent posts, are scattered and disorganized - that reflects my knowledge of the underlying issues, and their secrecy)

One of the issues raised by Edward Snowden is that "endpoint security" is weak on our computer systems.

So what does that even mean? Why is it an issue?

For that matter, what is "security"?

(Here's an example of an insecure endpoint:

One model of "security" is "death". If someone is dead, they are not a threat. This is dark ages stuff, but keep in mind that our morals and institutions were formed in the dark ages (or earlier).

A related model of "security" has to do with silence. This corresponds to "death" - a silent person is not that much different from a dead person, in some contexts. If a person is annoying you (or leading people against you) and you can get them to shut up, maybe you can stop them, or slow them. Or, for yourself, maybe you can sneak up on them (followed, presumably, by doing something so awful to them that they will then be silent, themselves).

Do we have anything better?

Our bodies have "pain nerves". These are slow, interior nerves which relay signals to our brains somewhat more slowly and more robustly than our regular nerves. If we receive information which is inconsistent between our different nervous systems, we perceive that as pain.  If you hurt yourself, and you pay attention, you will probably be able to notice a delay between when you are injured and when you start feeling pain.

This concept, I think, is relevant in security discussions. We do not need (or want) detailed security which is independent of our normal mechanisms for thought and action but we do need summary security information so we can tell when things are going bad.

Note also that a ton of political discussions are about inconsistencies between statements and actions.  (But most of that seems to be triggered by jargon differences and specialty differences - people talking past each other and not getting the other side's point of view - and only some of it seems to me to be triggered by what I perceive as "significant problems". Not that misunderstandings are not destructive - they are destructive.)

So, taking a concrete example - if I had hardware on my computer network interfaces which counted how many smtp requests my computer issued I would sometimes be able to just see if my computer was spamming people.  There are some problems with this example, but the key thing is "out of band" (or "unpredictable") awareness.

But I never really defined "security". In the context of computer systems, my definition of a "secure computer" is "the device is doing what the person responsible for the device thinks it's doing, and not doing things that the person responsible thinks it's not doing".

In other words, my concept of "computer security" sounds very like "education" or "knowledge". And, it's related to the computer UI principle of "least surprise". Of course, it's also related to death - for example, dead people can't be surprised (or at least, that seems to me to be difficult).

So I'm going to say something that might surprise some people. This is not me violating any security principle, this is me taking someone (maybe you, maybe not) from a slightly less secure state of existence:

Computers are electronic gear. That means they radiate information. We take advantage of this in building our computer networks (and this is related to things like radio broad casting, tv broadcasting and cell phones), but they also radiate information in other less efficient ways, just of because what they are. It's possible to design a system to mostly eliminate this kind of radiation, but this is expensive and no one cares to pay for that.

So, from my point of view, if you want to be secure, in a medieval sense (silence, or death), you will not be using a computer. If you want to be secure in a more modern sense, you will educate yourself on how your computer works. This doesn't need to be detailed knowledge (though that can be a very good thing), but it should be something.

So, exercise: find a way of detecting whether your computer is broken and see if it triggers when exposed to a threat. (This seems like a huge waste of time, since if things go wrong you might need to recover from backups and maybe your backups are broken.)

Exercise: how do you recover a compromised computer system (reboot! reinstall stuff! throw it away and get a new one!) ... hopefully you can talk with someone who has an interest in fixing your system and a good track record of having done so.

That said, nowadays, it's probably wise to assume your system is already compromised and work on ways to detect what's broken and how to fix it. And, then, try to track down the source and make it stop - hopefully without resorting to medieval measures.

So... why are medieval measures bad? isn't silence a good thing? And, no, I don't think it is - remember, we detect when things are wrong by looking for inconsistencies. Inconsistencies alone do not tell us what's wrong nor how to fix it, but they start the process. And silence does not make things consistent.

Meanwhile, modern computer systems and communication systems allow us to be sensitive to inconsistencies, and our reaction to non-networked peoples is a sort of numbness - they do not interact with us. If it's deep enough, we might not even notice, and there's some unpleasantnesses (and, fortunately, pleasures) in encountering other people's points of view. But in a modern well connected society, hiding is a lot harder than it used to be. And this is probably a good thing. But I think we need to something like tolerance to replace this lack of privacy.

So... endpoint security?

First, you need the endpoints (e.g. a cell phone or a computer). If it doesn't exist, that's not secure (except in a medieval sense).

Second, whoever is responsible for an endpoint needs to understand that endpoint. So this means that our computer systems need to be designed to educate the user about the system (at a sustainable and reasonable pace).

* * * * *

rules of the internet, derived from

Rule 1: You SHOULD be liberal in what you accept, and be conservative
        in what you produce.

Rule 2: You SHOULD NOT use potentially harmful constructs (even
        if they are allowed in the restricted case you are using them

Rule 3: You SHOULD NOT munge (do not change protocol you get and
        resend, in particular do not try to correct incorrect protocol

Rule 4: Systems SHOULD be designed to educate the user about their function,
        and about how they are operating.

(The page I referenced just had the first three rules and did not mark the rules as "SHOULD" rules. These are "SHOULD" instead of "MUST" because all of these issues require judgement calls.)

* * * * *

Looking for a reference that expresses what I want to say, I found this:

"Greatest Threat To Democracy

Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.–Jimmy Buffett"

* * * * *

Endpoint security is a problem because we have not been designing our systems to teach the user about key underlying abstractions. We need a more diverse set of awarenesses and cross specializations if we are going to have computer systems which do not surprise people.

And the "NSA"? They have problems, absolutely, and hopefully we and they can be honest enough for them to resolve their biggest problems. But if you care about privacy, I think that attacking the NSA because of their problems is like ripping a bandage off a bleeding wound because it hurts.

Restated: you have bought a computer that is compromised, and you don't even know it. "Fixing the NSA" won't make your computer be not compromised. And if you needed sensationalism to become aware of the issues?

And, as a bonus, understanding how things work is a great way to come up with ideas for being more productive, more useful and higher salaried. These ideas will not always work (and, if they are predatory you should expect to be slapped down, perhaps in an unfair fashion, and that slapping process might itself also be predatory and need to be fixed) but if they make people's live's better, that's a good good thing.

* * * * *

Another problem: At least 24 million people in the U.S. are unemployed (want jobs, do not have jobs, and have been without jobs for a short enough time to be on the records as wanting jobs), and these are frequently in rural areas (with low network access). If they were all connected we could perhaps talk them through solutions to their problems (finding people that need their help that can reciprocate, finding ways to get food, just being friends and loving them for being who they are).  And the scale of the problem outside the U.S. is much bigger.

So maybe it's important also to realize that we have bigger problems than "endpoint security".

* * * * *

This is just my current point of view. I expect that there will be people who do not connect with the ideas as I have expressed them here. I may change my mind at a later date.

Sunday, June 23

China and secrets?

(additions in italics.)

At the moment, I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that China is responsible for Snowden's actions.

If that is true, I think it might also be fair to claim that the U.S. intelligence structures (which NSA is a "visible" aspect of) is something that China is responsible for. China is known, after all, for its vast bureaucratic structures, for its love of secrets, and for its relatively stable civilizations. And, as a structure, the NSA (or, rather, the shadowy vastness which the NSA is a visible component of) seems to be a reflection of this kind of thinking.

So is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Or is that even the right question? (And is it even true? Note that we might blame the drug war on China - China, after all, was defeated by a drug war back in the 1800s and it's just natural that people will take a tactic which was successfully used against them and try to use it in their defense. On the other hand, it was a British tactic in the first place, and also we've been making major mistakes in our math both in the context of economic theory and in the context of medical theory.)

My current thought is that secrets make for inefficiencies. Sometimes inefficiencies can be seen as good (sales people typically like to keep their contact list secret, for example, because they do not want competitors to be more efficient than themselves, in dealing with the people that they have relationships with). Sometimes inefficiencies can be seen as bad (they do, after all, block certain kinds of actions and innovations).

I also find China's censorship system distasteful. I can understand some motivations that might be behind it (preventing discord, squelching falsehood, and/or exercising people's abilities to overcome adversities), and in some respects it's a fairly gentle system (it's slow, and people can often exchange information before it kicks in). Still, when combined with other things which cause fear, it conveys the message that the government might kill you if you say the wrong kind of thing. And I fear that that limits people's abilities and thoughts.  Also its most notable feature - the suppression of calls to action - is about government stability but also suggests a lack of tolerance for the exchange of ideas. And, most especially, it institutionalizes support for "editing history". And I think respect for history is crucial for the health of a nation. This feels to me like the difference between "learning from our mistakes" and "hiding our mistakes".

People try to solve problems which will prevent them from surviving.

Anyways... my thoughts on this subject are uncertain. Secrecy, after all, is enforced ignorance. Which seems odd, because ignorance is not something we have any shortage of.

On the other hand, privacy and secrecy go hand-in-hand - they are different words describing much the same thing.

But, also, over the long run, secrecy tends to erode, as does knowledge. We converge on a steady state where issues become exposed and details get lost. And I suspect that advances in communication techniques shift this steady state - new ways of expressing ideas allow for understandings which were not previously possible, and lack of support for older information storage formats allow for new ways for information to be lost.

It also seems to me that keeping strategies secret is a mistake. How do you even know if you are cooperating with a strategy if you do not know what it is? But operational secrecy - keeping secret the precise details of how you have implemented a strategy - can sometimes be a good thing. And this kind of thing is probably the distinction between "secrecy" and "privacy".

Meanwhile... about that "NSA" thing... it seems to me also that modern computer architectures leak information at a rate quite a bit higher than most people understand. People fall into the trap of thinking about "solutions" and don't quite realize the mechanisms being used. But computers are electronic mechanisms and they radiate quite a lot of information in the electronic spectrum in various ways. And, at a fine level of detail they execute sequences of instructions which only achieve a purpose in an aggregate and in a context.

So, from my point of view, the "NSA" has been trying to adapt to this situation without changing it. Their mission - stopping really outrageously horrid things - in some ways becomes easier and in some ways becomes harder with modern computer architectures and engineering. But you can't really operate without having some effects, both direct and indirect.

Meanwhile, we see the problems created by elaborate government secrecy more clearly, in the context of the NSA than we do in countries where it's just accepted that people are going to be doing secret things. And regardless of what the best way of doing things is, we have to live with the situation we find ourselves in.


My current thought is we take advantage of the efficiencies that come from being aware of government secrecy. In the U.S.A. we should probably institutionalize this - U.S. courts are designed to be publicly visible, and our contribution to the world is based on our concepts of fairness and rights.

Of course, we have a long way to go, both within the U.S. and outside. We need to learn how to turn negative criticism into positive criticism. We need to re-engage in our economy those who have been lost to us through various mistakes in deregulation and banking. We have been trying to support a large number of other countries - supplying military to Germany and Japan because 70 years ago we did not trust them to supply their own but as a side effect removing that burden from their economies. But also we have been supplying food to a variety of countries, and so on. But we need to recognize that gifts alone are not a solution to problems (and that relates to our own internal struggles).

So... taking a few steps back, I'm going to say some things which I hope are not so obvious as to be annoying:

We need people engaged and active in trading for each other's benefit. We need children to be raised with adequate nutrition and good language and math skills. We need people thinking about real problems and not bored because they have been shielded from the things that matter to them. We need to respect and support those that work hard for our benefit, because our lives depend on them. We need to break out of the "enemy" mind sets where we view conflicts as something inherent in the person rather than the problem.

And here's one that I think should be obvious but seems to be sadly controversial:

We need to get rid of the idea that celibacy is a virtue - I think we should require that our leaders first be good parents.

Since I think that that one is controversial, I think I should try to talk a bit about the mechanisms and the social conflicts hiding behind that statement. But I am not a parent myself, so I'll just mention that issues include dealing with exhaustion, the ability to set relevant priorities, and an appreciation for our lives. (Note also that I am not particularly concerned about the genetic aspects of parenting, I am more concerned about supporting and valuing children (and the elderly, for that matter) - I think that if we can't sort out these issues for ourselves that we should not be telling other people what to do with their lives.)

Anyways, back to national secrets.

My current thought is that strategic secrecy is harmful but that operational secrecy is something we have to accept and allow for. My reasoning here boils down to: We simply do not have the brain power to comprehend all that goes on at a detailed level, and we have visceral needs for privacy (albeit, socially constructed needs) but if we don't agree about some things at some general level we can't even make sense of what we are saying when we talk with each other.

Wednesday, June 19

Fractal Borders

After the printing press, we experienced a number of changes that might be attributed to the existence of printing:

The Protestant Reformation
Copyright Laws
The Renaissance
The concept of "Separation of Church and State"
and eventually, the "Industrial Revolution" and modern life...

Back in the 1500s, "church" was an expected part of governments. In other words, if you were Swiss, for example, people that disagreed with the swiss branch of the catholic church got their heads cut off. On the other hand, because of the printing press, people were able to read the bible and see just how different it was from what the official party lines were.

So, on the one hand, there were people who were fond of proper authority. An example of this might be to go before the city counsel to resolve theological matters. On the other hand, there were the "radicals" who made up their own mind about theological matters based on their understanding of what they read. This was heresy, and carried a death penalty.

Two examples of these heretics were the Protestants, including Martin Luther (not to be confused with Martin Luther King Jr, who was named after the original) and the Anabaptists. Technically speaking, anabaptists are protestants, but that didn't stop Martin Luther's crowd from killing them for heresy.

The heresy of the anabaptists were named after was that they did not believe infant baptism meant anything - something about a lack of meaningful choice on the part of the infants. They also strongly objected to the concept of celibacy - they felt that that was evil (I think that this was based on simple observation of the consequences). They also felt that christians could not be a part of the government (probably this had something to do with how government officials were obligated to chop their heads off).

One story I read was about a town where the entire population was sentenced to death for heresy. Pregnant mothers were given an exception long enough for their children to be born, at which point they were killed and their children were put into a catholic orphanage.

Another involved secret agents who would infiltrate these heretical settlements and be converted to the new ways as a way of gathering names for the executions.

After decades of this sort of thing, there weren't very many "heretics" left. The best survival tactic for them seems to have been to recognize the authority of the state, and to support it in the sense of working hard, growing food, while being quiet and humble and keeping their views to themselves. (The Amish are an example of this sort of thing. The Hutterites are another. These are people who would rather be killed than go to war - and as recently as WWI some of them have been killed because they refused to fight. Nowadays, though, we have a "contentious objector" exception to the draft, for people like this.)

Anyways, ... I think that the concept of separation of church and state arose because of people like this, and because of people with less extreme views (including those who were willing to fight).

All this because of a new form of communication - the printing press, but also because of how people have used their abilities to reason and decide. And, in some sense, because people need some sort of consistency in their thoughts and actions.

* * * * *

Flash forward to today, and the problems surrounding the NSA. Just as the printing press resulted in social revolution, the forms of communication afforded by modern technology have been reforming society. Some of the mechanisms, like radio, television, movies, newspapers and so on, are "broadcast" mechanisms - they make a voice or a work available to many people. Other mechanisms, like telephones, have been structured as "point-to-point" mechanisms that let individuals talk with each other. But there are also mechanisms such as ham radio (and "citizen's band" radio) and various computer based communication systems (email, twitter, blogging, facebook, ...) which start to blend the personal point-to-point mechanisms with the impersonal broadcast mechanisms.

And this means that some of the arbitrary social mechanisms which we cobbled together after the printing press revolution need further work to cope with the more recent revolutions.

In essence, information flows much more freely now than in the past. One reaction to this change is to try and stop the flow of information. And this works, for a time, but the problem is that anyone adopting this position is also hurting the people who cooperate economically. This leaves criminals and those in other countries with a competitive advantage which soon turns into a security problem.

On the other hand, people have gotten used to privacy. We expect it in sexual contexts, in business contexts, in government contexts, in military contexts, in religious contexts and in criminal contexts. We react almost violently to its removal.

So we need, somehow, to find a way to live together without hurting ourselves in the process. Worse, the classic mechanisms (get people to shut up, kill them if necessary to make sure they shut up) have serious problems. One problem, for example, is it's hard to kill in secret now, and people get upset when their friends and family get killed. Another problem is that the flow of information lets people more easily discover culprits which reduces the value of killing people and often turns an otherwise successful campaign of brutality into a liability.

(Actually, I think I like having these problems, but of course it's more complicated than I have described.)

* * * * *

So, flash forward to the present day...

It's extremely difficult to talk with any accuracy about secret things, like the NSA.

In Bradley Manning's case, and in Edward Snowden's case, revealing information to the public has been classified as "revealing information to the enemy". And, maybe this is correct. Or, maybe not. Obviously, some people believe that it is correct.

One possible issue is terrorists. But, I cannot for the life of me figure out how a gag order on otherwise public court cases has any influence here.

Another possibility is that the people of the USA are indeed the enemy. This could be a viewpoint for people who are fed up with criminal activities, and it could be a viewpoint for people who are a part of a foreign government. There's probably little distinction between "criminal" and "government" in this context, other than association with a particular region or territory. Governments are probably also bigger than other organizations, though that is not a given.

Another possibility is simple bureaucratic maneuvering... This is not mutually exclusive with the other possibilities, and of course different people can have different beliefs.

Other concepts which might tie in here include British Colonialism, Chinese bureaucracy and might, corruption in various institutions (for example, I grew up hearing jokes about "choir boys" and priests and we have been starting to see that the very advocates of sexual celibacy have also been engaged in sexual rape of children (I don't think "pedophelia" adequately describes the problem) on a grand scale; for example I also grew up hearing statements about how building inspectors routinely expect bribes and of course the construction industry is a "major part of our economy"; for example, the protocols involved in high frequency trading make it difficult for us to even track where our money is going and the deregulation of derivatives and some other deregulation efforts make that even worse; I am sure there are other significant examples).

Anyways, let's consider that this is an open issue and get back to it later.

If we think about the issues which Edward Snowden raised, he mentioned something about endpoint security being weak. We've not been taking responsibility for spam, for malware, nor have we been paying attention to how our computers simply radiate information in the electromagnetic spectrum. It should be ludicrously easy to detect malware that emits spam - it's not at all a secret that it's happening. Given typical computer architecture, we would probably need some hardware devoted to the issue but it's not like there's anything radically difficult here, nor are the concepts particularly hard to grasp. (For example, you can count the number of mail protocol connections made by a computer and if that count is obviously wrong you've got malware. Similarly, we could do something involving tracking of connections to remote machines and organizations could declare which machines are theirs. There are other examples. But "no one cares about that". Except, of course, people do care, when they finally see what the issues really are.)

Basically, we've been giving up all sorts of competitive advantages, so we should not be surprised to find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

In other words, it's not just the "NSA" who can tap into this information. And, having people that are at least plausibly patriotic and plausibly focussed on important issues should be a good thing. But no one exists in a vacuum.

* * * * *

And I'm falling into some of the self-similar complexities which we are all tripping over.  So, I am going to end this in a recap that does not satisfy me:

A fractal perimeter can have infinite length and enclose a finite area.

The "NSA" is in some sense a discardable acronym describing an exposed face of the U.S. federal government.

The internet brings international borders into our homes.

Democracy has always been about bending to pressures without breaking too badly. We must not only expect failures but we must expect buildup of efforts where the failures happen.

Those pressures include both legal and illegal pressures. Those pressures include both local and international pressures. Those pressures include both present and historical pressures.

Meanwhile our bastions of morality (e.g. the church, and probably most of history) are anything but adequately moral.

The concept of a "cell" (in the activist sense) is inefficient, at best. It's great when you can throw away people, but the secrecy involved means and assumes communication failures. You also need some broadcast mechanism that they all subscribe to and if that is secret you have to assume that your cells will fail more often than they succeed.

In a democratic government, the government answers to the people. The President of the U.S. is hierarchically beneath the people of the U.S. when viewed over any extended period of time.

Nobody lives alone, not even the U.S. - over the long term, we need to be fair and we need others to be fair with us.

* * * * *

Just to be clear: I think that the FISA secret courts were a bad mistake.

Thursday, June 13

mid-June 2013

I am going to be off the net for a bit (visiting my family for the weekend) and I have a bunch of disconnected thoughts I'd like to write down somewhere so I can ignore them until I get back.

* * * * *

Current headline news includes the "NSA" and Mr. Snowden

One of the most troubling parts of this is part of the congressional record:

   Wyden: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
   Clapper: "No, sir."
   Wyden : "It does not."
   Clapper: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."

In my opinion, what Clapper should have said was something like this:

"Sir, our mission is to prevent threats to all Americans, and in that sense every bit of data we collect is data on hundreds of millions of Americans, regardless of what country we collect it in. That said, we rigourously scrub our intelligence, because we want to focus on those threats and we want to protect their targets. We believe that we do a damn good job of that, but in any event we collect far too much information to do anything else and it's an ongoing issue for us that we have to re-address on a continuing basis."

Instead, he said something nearly the opposite. And this is a problem because of the secrecy of the "NSA mission". Secrecy is an invitation for people to make up stories based on the little they know, and so every bit of released information is a basis for a story. And, information has an amazing ability to creep into the minds of anyone observant enough to notice it.

* * * * *

I have read, on more than one occasion, criticisms of "American Imperialism" - what is that?

One concept has to do with the rapid expansion of the States. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, we had a large number of American tribes - extended families - that were killed and their property taken by the people of the U.S.A. This is disturbing to think about - but it was unfortunately typical of the way that governments back then operated - striking mostly in its successfulness.  In the early 1900s, we had some world wars, and the focus of the military shifted from internal conquest to external battles. We also developed nuclear weapons which for better or worse are so horrifying that no one sane will consider military conquest a viable option. So we are now a nation of shop keepers and dilettantes. And this is probably a good thing.

Nowadays, "American Imperialism" probably refers "the spread of democracy".

Democracy, perhaps ironically, seems to have been a superior form of government for military conquests - it seems to have been efficient for that. I like to think that it's also efficient in non-military contexts.

Democracy, in its essence, lets governments "fail early" before the failures become too troublesome. This lets us get past our problems and lets us focus on bigger issues. Unfortunately, this is not always popular, because people do not like failure. Getting past failure, and ignorance, is the essence of intelligence, and a successful democracy requires that we value this process. In other words, I think that ignorance should be relished as a temporary thing, and getting past that to greater understandings should be prized by any civilized country.

In other words, if someone tells you that you are stupid, you should probably ask for an explanation, and if what they have to say is relevant and useful you both should happy about the exchange. This can be a difficult thing to learn.

This relates particularly to the use of jargon (including such things as "American Imperialism" and "Bourgeoisie"). All too often we stumble over these things, or use them to refer to dead history or creative entertainment or something else which can be hard to relate to. When someone uses jargon and is not prepared to explain why they use it, do they even mean anything? Ignorance is bliss only when it's temporary or irrelevant - it's miserable when it's long-lasting and relevant.

* * * * *

Similarly, there are numerous criticisms of "Capitalism". As an alternative for "War" I think that capitalistic "competition" is a good thing. Unfortunately, many of the advocates and practitioners of "capitalism" have been getting their math wrong. There are also criticisms of moral failings and I think that these are inevitable given some of the pervasive mathematical errors behind the decision making processes. This is probably a "good" example of long-lasting and relevant ignorance.

One such error is the "efficient market hypothesis". Another such error (and it's related) is the use of the gaussian distribution in economic statistics. I suspect that ANOVA can also be misleading (leading the users to take sucker bets and ignore important issues).

But fair exchange reduces misery, and fair exchange on a large scale reduces misery on a large scale. It's not completely stable for a variety of reasons (all infants have to offer is themselves and yet each person is their own judge of what's fair for them, for example), but getting people to work together seems like a worthwhile undertaking even (perhaps especially) at the scale of governments.

* * * * *

I have been meaning to write on "value coupling" - this is what money is about, but how do you reason about value without taking money as a given? One approach is to take a look at what's being accomplished (this is a "by their fruits you shall know them" approach). If we think of money as representing people's work, then the value of money has to do with the number of participants in the system of exchange fot that currency. Scarcity lets us approximate this (because people that care about the scarcity approximate the number of participants).  The number of participants is also an approximation (if you pay someone to do something and they won't do that thing but instead break your stuff, that was not valuable).  I suspect that the "communist government" model is trying to come at this from a different angle (the rhetoric, or at least the name, seems to be about a sense of community). But communism apparently was not built to fail - it apparently doesn't respect its own people enough to trust that a majority of them can get over its failings. I say "apparently" because I have no first-hand experiences living under a communist government, and my only experiences of "community" have been from inside a somewhat democratic government.

Fail early, fail often, fail small.


Fail late, fail rarely, fail disastrously.

A good economy will have healthy members, with adequate nutrition, breathable air,

* * * * *

Perversely, we need the ability to murder people. Some people will choose to do this. I think a goal of government is to minimize murders. That's why we have military bodies. That's also why we have police (but police are an investigative after-the-fact approach, if we have enough police to defend everyone then everyone is police and that doesn't let us fail easily - instead we wait for everything else to fall down around us because we were dealing with the wrong issues).

Anyways, we need a military, if only to sit on those nuclear bombs. But that's incredibly boring if done right and nightmarish if mishandled, and military needs an enemy or it has nothing to fight. So we need to fail, occasionally, in defending ourselves, just so we can identify our enemies (and, if we engineer those failures we are the enemy and we should expect that sooner or later someone will observe that).

* * * * *

Secrets are temporary things. Privacy is also fleeting. These are related concepts.

Innovation - intelligence - in some sense dooms privacy. Every time we observe something new we potentially observe something that someone considered unattractive or private or secret (like a list of sales contacts or someone's naked body or anything embarassing). There's ways of observing that no one has even considered yet, and that will always be the case.

* * * * *

A large part of our governmental inefficiencies center on our medical practice. We call this "health care" but honestly it's mostly not. A person who is about to die is incredibly valuable while a person with their life ahead of them is not. What we have is mostly focussed on emergency health care, and that can be decent care for the dying without any significant increases in health.

Here, we do not tolerate failure, and I think it's going to get bigger and bigger until we just can't deal with it any longer.

Health care must include things like exercise, nutrition, learning how to be valuable to others, clean air, and a good schedule. Medicine mostly does not address these issues.

* * * * *

I have a feeling that all of these topics are related, and I see threads that connect them, but I am not prepared to create an overarching story that connects them. Instead, I keep seeing other, related issues (like the School to Prison Pipeline and the War on Drugs (which might be related to the Cold War in some sense) and Jihads (and other issues where people are killing other people because of long dead people having killed other long dead people)).

* * * * *

Anyways, I need to get moving, so I'm just going to dump all these thoughts onto a page and maybe worry about them later.

Argh I overwrote one copy of this with another, and blogger doesn't give me an edit history that I know of. From memory:

I think the NSA is a problem because it interferes with "American Imperialism". In other words, by example, it interferes with the democratic process. In some sense, it is engaged defeating some enemies which it hides from us. But if we cannot know our enemies, our democracy cannot learn from our mistakes and cannot address the problems that made them our enemies in the first place. But, also, other governments look at us and they will follow our example (never mind that we were following their example in the first place - for this to be relevant those were not democratic governments in the first place - in other words, they do not tolerate failures and thus do not tolerate learning from their mistakes). Anyways, maybe some of this is justified - there's thresholds of boredom and so one and there's only so much we can cope with. But hiding court decisions from the immediate public record? I think that is wrong, and I think that that actively damages our country.

Tuesday, May 14

Markets become increasingly inefficient

Here's a summary of some popular economic reasoning: Market Efficiency is a good thing. Efficiency makes things possible. Markets are efficient because the more people involved in a market the harder it is to beat the other people in the market. Efficient markets mean that you can't do better than a market at getting the people with the needs exchanging with the people with the supplies - it's a mutually beneficial relationship. Everyone benefits in a market, but no one benefits unfairly because they are just naturally efficient.

Here's a mathematician's point of view on this reasoning: Markets are efficient if and only if P = NP.  "Specifically, markets become increasingly inefficient as the time series lengthens or becomes more frequent."

Um... so?

Basically, Philip argues that if markets are such great problem solving machines, he's got a whole bunch of unsolved math problems that he could use the market to solve. In other words, the math behind "market efficiency" is mathematically implausible.

Now, I could go on to explain how "the knapsack problem" (that's what the P = NP thing refers to) is like a competitive buying decision. Here's an example of the problem: "I pay $x to go into a bank vault and pick up small jewelry boxes, each worth a different amount $y and put them in my knapsack. I can keep them if I choose the most valuable combination that fits in my knapsack. $x is known ahead of time, and so is the N - number of jewelry boxes, and $y is at least N * $x, and my "knapsack" is big enough to hold M boxes where M*M is at least N and no larger than N+1.  And, I have N minutes to make my decision, before I have to leave."  If the efficient market hypothesis is valid, this would always be a good deal. But that's a trick question because while it initially seems like a good deal once you add enough jewelry boxes it starts becoming a really hard problem. (It's also a trick question because you would eventually die of old age rather than being able to take full advantage of your allotted time.)

Isn't that a stretch?

I mean, markets are not really like that. You don't have to be "best" to be competitive, you just have to be "better". I don't have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you.

Except, that was the point. Or part of it.

In other words, from a mathematicians point of view, these kinds of things make markets inefficient:

  • High frequency trading
  • Long periods of time
  • Lots of competition
Wait, what? 

But it's not really like that, right? I mean, people simplify things and ... Actually, this argument can go on and on. But when we look at how poor people live their lives, we see that markets have not been very great for things like health care (where long term health matters the most), child raising (where the time it takes to raise a child is significantly longer than the financial planing cycles of some of the best and brightest companies), and so on. In other words, it's probably no coincidence that many of the budgeting woes of the U.S federal government are associated with its healthcare program.

But that's not all. Other relevant issues include:

Value is not conserved. If no one buys that cabbage, it will eventually rot. And, on the flip side, some time ago that cabbage did not exist.  (But wait, if people could really create value that did not exist before, somebody would be getting rich off of the idea. So that can't be right?)

Currency. I'm going to save that topic for a future blog post on "value coupling". But my current impression is that the problems with the fed are real, are crucially important, and are radically different from what fans of gold, (or bitcoin) currency have been representing them as. (There are superficial similarities, but superficial similarities are what give us a system where, quoting a doctor I know: "I think that it is very sad that I can deliver a baby, and very little will be spent on his education, he may live in an impoverished home and never learn good communication skills that allow him to work and succeed. But, if he's in a car accident because a drunk driver hits him and he ends up in the ICU, suddenly his life is worth $200,000, or even $2 million." Though, of course, inflation will eventually change those numbers.)

Update: I went on an image search, to find examples of the sort of high frequency trading which my intuition suggests to me are examples of the sorts of market inefficiencies I describe here.  I found:


I did not find the article I was looking for. I do not know how relevant the reasoning is in these articles. But I do feel that the complexity of the trades illustrated in these articles represent artificially induced market inefficiencies.

Thursday, April 11


Where do numbers start?

The right answer depends on what your context is - this is typical of "truth valued statements" in the context of mathematics.

Answers include:

2 and 3



I've arranged those answers in roughly the order that a person will first encounter them.

If you are learning numbers, you really need to grasp the concepts behind multiples of them before you can understand them.

Let's say you are counting sheep.  You need to understand that they are the same thing ("sheep") and you need to understand that you only count the different things that are the same (you can't count the same one twice).

And once you learn to count one thing you then need to understand that you can count other things.  And this can give you a different number.  Of course, stopping at 3 would interfere with this learning, so there's more to it.

Anyways, once you understand numbers, it's reasonable to talk about having only one of something that you count.

It's even reasonable to talk about not having any of something that you can count.

See what I mean by contextual?

Tuesday, January 22

Law, Privacy, Copyright, Justice, Responsibility


Recently, Aaron Swartz killed himself and Andrew Auernheimer is being sent to jail, and once upon a time, Randall Schwartz had a criminal record.  And, I'm sure that there's other such activities billowing through the courts. in part because of 18 USC 1030 (aka CFAA).

So... what's going on here?

Historically, we have copyright law, which is based on social and community norms which in turn were originally based on the economics of the printing press.  Over time, copyright law has been extended in various ways which I'd summarize as "when somebody gets unhappy and can convey this unhappiness to a large enough of a group of people, we change the laws to minimize [but not eliminate] that unhappiness".  Copyright on a theatrical performance, for example, is different from copyright on a faucet (and, in fact, the latter -- design copyright -- almost seems more like trademark, rather than copyright, when we look at the way it gets handled in court).

We also have legal theorists who claim that copyright laws (along with trademark laws and patent laws) are property laws.  Generally speaking, people call these laws "Intellectual Property Laws".  In other words, the basic idea is that someone can own a thought.  Except, not really.  One issue here, from a legal standpoint, is that no court has ever supported the idea that Nuisance is relevant in the context of Intellectual Property.  (Nuisance is the idea that the person that owns a piece of property has some responsibility towards people outside that property.)

Why is this?

In the context of the people mentioned in the opening paragraph, the issue has been "access to information has been criminalized".  Here, someone published something and then someone looked at the thing that was published, and then the person that read the information was hit with legal charges (felony charges).  And, apparently with the best of intentions...

But internet publishing is a bit different from publishing a book.  I can sit in my bedroom and read content which is sitting on a server on the other side of the world.  I could do this with a book, also, but the internet makes the process trivially cheap, and trivially fast -- trivially easy.  So how do we deal with this all being so easy?

One thing we can do, of course, is criminalize the act of reading or the act of requesting something to read.  And, sometimes there might be good reasons for imposing access restrictions (banks, power grids, medical care records, ...).  However, there are potentially billions of readers, and if there's any valid reason for restricting access then penalizing individual readers isn't going to address the reasons for imposing the access restrictions.  So in my opinion, if gaining access is a criminal matter, then granting access to that person should carry the same penalties.

So, what is "access"?

For now, I imagine it involves some sort of cryptographic protocol.  I'm a bit dubious about the security of such things, but in general if you have restrictive access requirements, you should also have keys (very large numbers -- more than 600 digits, for example), where only specific keys grant access, and where each number that grants access is known.

This kind of system is not ideal, but it's at least unwieldy enough that it's mostly possible to identify who is responsible for someone having access when they "should not have access".

That's if it belongs on the internet at all.  If accessing the information is a criminal issue, then why is it available on a collection of network which can be accessed by anyone?