Category Archives: Science

Internet Privacy Is An Oxymoron

It’s not unusual — one might even say it is fairly common — for me to wander down some rabbit hole on the intertoobz and find myself in way over my head. Such was the case a few years ago when I first read about the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange. (The name makes it sound like it’s about swingers, but it’s actually an encryption protocol.)

It gets way math-y, but what the protocol does is allow two computers to create a secure connection by first generating a shared private encryption key across a non-secure connection, and then using that key to exchange information. Here’s a very simple example: You and I want to exchange some encrypted data. In order to encrypt the data, and later decrypt it, we both need to have the same key. But we are on different sides of the world, and don’t actually know each other. In order to create the key, we first agree on a “public” number, let’s say we pick the numeral 11. Next, we both choose a “private” number, let’s say I pick 5 and you choose 7. I multiply our public number (11) by my private number (5) for a total of 55, and I send that to you. You multiply our public number (11) by your private number (7) producing 77, and you send that to me. Now we both multiply what the other sent by our respective private numbers. I multiply 77 times 5, you multiply 55 times 7, and we both end up with our secret key of 385 without ever having to exchange it over the non-secure connection.

Of course, since we are using computers, we don’t have to limit ourselves to simple multiplication. We can use logarithmic algorithms and really large prime numbers, making our key impossible to break for anyone without a supercomputer and a whole lot of time and money to waste. Sure, given enough time, any code can be cracked, but why would anyone put so much time and effort into breaking one key when the protocol generates a new key for every transaction, right? Right? Not so much.

For the nerds in the audience, here’s what’s wrong: If a client and server are speaking Diffie-Hellman, they first need to agree on a large prime number with a particular form. There seemed to be no reason why everyone couldn’t just use the same prime, and, in fact, many applications tend to use standardized or hard-coded primes. But there was a very important detail that got lost in translation between the mathematicians and the practitioners: an adversary can perform a single enormous computation to “crack” a particular prime, then easily break any individual connection that uses that prime.

Oopsie. Overconfidence and a dash of laziness will burn you every time. But what evil empire would do such a dastardly thing? Say it with me. U-S-A! U-S-A!

There have been rumors for years that the NSA can decrypt a significant fraction of encrypted Internet traffic. In 2012, James Bamford published an article quoting anonymous former NSA officials stating that the agency had achieved a “computing breakthrough” that gave them “the ability to crack current public encryption.” The Snowden documents also hint at some extraordinary capabilities: they show that NSA has built extensive infrastructure to intercept and decrypt VPN traffic and suggest that the agency can decrypt at least some HTTPS and SSH connections on demand.

That’s right. Your government can decrypt HTTPS. Not only did you give your credit card number to that shady website in Thailand, the NSA now knows your tastes in porn. If that doesn’t scare you, consider this: If our government can do it, you can bet your ass China and Russia are doing it too, or will be soon enough.

High-Octane Evil

It is only with age that one appreciates the importance of memories and realizes that knowledge without experience is merely data. I love that endorphin rush I get when some random bit of information triggers an avalanche of old memories. It must be why old people live in the past so much. It’s also why dementia is so frightening.

I can remember some specific things about the summer of 1977, but there are many more things that I simply know.

For instance, I know I was 14 years old; I remember looking forward to the fall when I would turn 15, and get that coveted driving permit.

I know it was the summer that Elvis died; I remember women my mother’s age losing their shit about that.

I know disco was all the rage, but I remember it as the summer of Bob Seger’s Night Moves and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, both still among my all-time favorites.

I was far from politically aware as a kid, so I was oblivious to our misadventures in the Middle East, but I know 1977 was only a few years after the Arab oil embargo, and I remember my parents bitching about high prices and long lines at the gas pumps. I remember we had a new preznit who talked a lot about conservation and alternative energy sources. I know nobody was listening.

Which leads me to the cause of my little trip down memory lane; a lengthy (three parts so far) story I’ve been reading this past week at Inside Climate News. It turns out, in July of 1977, while I was busy getting the right side pants leg of my Levi’s Super Bells tangled in my bike chain, one of Exxon Corporation’s senior scientists was speaking to a committee of their top management executives:

…Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” …

If you haven’t read this story — (and I highly recommend you do, here is Part One) — you are probably thinking Exxon just swept this information under the rug and continued with business as usual. But no, they did the right thing. They assembled a team of top-notch scientists and engineers, and spent millions to learn all they could about this emerging climate crisis.

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

Not only did they do the right thing, they seemingly did it for the right reasons. Internal memos show Exxon viewed climate change as an opportunity to conduct a project that would benefit mankind. It’s laughable to picture an international corporation doing something like that now, but astonishingly, Exxon actually helped create a good deal of the science they now routinely shit all over. From Part Three:

Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming’s risks.

Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science.

As I noted above, there is still more of this story to come. We already knew the ending, now we have the beginning. The messy middle, the truth of Exxon’s reversal on this issue, will assuredly be about money. Notably, it came at the end of the Reagan administration, which ushered in our current era of government de-regulation and unconstrained corporate greed.

I can’t help thinking about the Butterfly Effect and all the other possible outcomes. Where would we be now if Exxon had continued down its path of corporate responsibility? Or if Amurka had listened to Jimmy Carter and begun constructing an alternative energy infrastructure in the ’70s? Would our lust for oil have abated by now? Or would we still be reeling from one catastrophe to the next in the Middle East?

Does it even matter any more? We are all pretty much powerless to do anything about it, so we might as well relax and listen to some tunes. Sing it, Stevie.

Now here you go again
You say you want your freedom
Well, who am I to keep you down?…

Less Is More Better

As anyone who knows me or has read this blog will attest, I have virtually no respect for organized religions of any denomination or flavor. On an individual level, I’m usually okay with religious practitioners, it is the purveyors who push my buttons. I try to be courteous to every one I meet, but I admit that courtesy is often a thin veneer. I can be a bit of a dick to the religious, especially if they knock on my door and try to “share the word” with me.

Despite my lack of respect for pretty much everything he stands for, over the last couple of years I have found myself becoming an admirer, if not an outright fan, of Pope Francis. Part of my admiration comes, sadly, from just how refreshing it is to see a Christian leader exhorting his flock to genuinely live their lives according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. (You know, the guy their religion is named after.) But the main reason I am liking this guy so much is that he is pissing all the right people off. The hateful, selfish assholes that call themselves Christians here in Amurka are just not down with all this talk about loving thy neighbor as thyself and feeding the poor, and they really don’t like this hippie Pope calling them out on their hypocrisy.

Case in point, Pope Frannie released an encyclical last week that seems designed to cause Republican heads to explode. It is subtitled On Care For Our Common Home, and in it, the Pope gets his environmentalism on. The first chapter alone has subsections about pollution and climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and global inequality. I haven’t finished reading it yet (it is looonnnggg and I am laaazzzyy), but I did run across one bit where the Pope lands a couple of shots on that old dead horse I often beat; the myth of infinite growth.

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.

I don’t know how much effect this encyclical will have, but the Pope is certainly the most powerful individual thus far to come out and say that we — the human race — need to stop shitting in our nest. We’ve got to figure out how to fly this rock more carefully and respectfully. It’s the only one we have.

Cave Girls Are Easy

Unless you are one of those biblical literalists clinging to the popular mythology that an invisible cloud-daddy magically let-there-be-d us all into existence just as we are 6,000 years ago, you are probably at least familiar with the evidence that modern man evolved in Africa and migrated to the rest of the world from there. Over thousands of years, we moved North, and then East into Europe and West into Asia and eventually North and South America.

Over all those centuries, as we moved and adapted to ever new environments, our physical appearance, things like skin, hair and eye color continually changed. So much so that when the descendants of those humans that went East — modern Europeans — eventually met up with the descendants of those humans that went West — native Americans — in North America, they no longer even remotely resembled one another.

Some scientists in Spain were able to reconstuct the genome of a 7,000 year old cave man from DNA found in a tooth, and they have made some interesting discoveries about those physical changes.

The DNA threw up a series of surprises. When Lalueza-Fox looked at the genome, he found that rather than having light skin, the man had gene variants that tend to produce much darker skin. “This guy had to be darker than any modern European, but we don’t know how dark,” the scientist said.

Pretty cool. I knew we all must have been dark-skinned at one time, and I’ve often idly wondered when the changes that led to my pasty white ass began. (Of course, by “idly wondered” I mean curious, but too lazy to go looking for an answer.) Here’s another interesting bit:

Another surprise finding was that the man had blue eyes. That was unexpected, said Lalueza-Fox, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin colour. The results suggest that blue eye colour came first in Europe, with the transition to lighter skin ongoing through Mesolithic times.

So. With dark hair, dark skin and blue eyes, I’m thinking those cave women must have been smoking hot, right? Well, maybe from a distance. This was, after all, a looooong time before toothbrushes and soap and Chanel No. 5.

 

Fidowareness

Way back in the good old days, before the rise of the teabaggers, Amurkin scientists conducted studies like this.

When dogs wag their tails, they can convey not just happiness but a wide array of emotions. As Italian researchers reported in 2007, a wag to the left indicates negative emotions; a wag to the right indicates positive ones.

I, for one, find it embarrassing that we have to rely on the Italians to tell us what it means when a dog wags its tail. I blame Obamacare.

My own preliminary research, carried out on my two dogs since reading this story last week, indicates the Italians may be wrong. Both subjects tend to wag their tails in both directions simultaneously, indicating either some sort of canine bipolar disorder or an intense yearning for a biscuit.

I will have to move to the Mediterranean and apply for a grant in order to conduct further study. I hope they have intertoobz there.

Get Off Of My Lawn

I try not to watch cable news, so I don’t know how much time was devoted to this story last week. I’m guessing not much, since the Republicans are still throwing their temper tantrum and threatening to destroy our economy if they don’t get their way.

But this really is good news. Scientists have developed a compound that completely halts the degeneration of brain tissue in mice.

The discovery of the first chemical to prevent the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease has been hailed as the “turning point” in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

I’m sure it will be a decade or more before they can develop and begin testing anything for humans, but this will be huge. They will concentrate on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s at first, but mark my words, there will come a time when we will all be taking something like this. It will be part of your daily multivitamin.

It’s probably too late for a us middle-aged people to benefit from this discovery, but hopefully our kids won’t have to feel their mind slip away. Truly, one of the most saddening moments in life is the personal discovery that the wisdom that comes with age is accompanied by a gradual, continuous loss of basic cognitive abilities.

When I was a younger man, I had the thoroughly unpleasant experience of watching my grandmother succumb to dementia. I think about her as I get older and have more and more of those rat-in-a-maze moments when I walk from one room into another and forget why I did so. I wonder if that is a precursor to Alzheimer’s sufferers tendency to wander away? I wonder if they are going somewhere… or some when?

There is an old joke that goes, “Of all the things I’ve lost in life, I think I miss my mind the most.” At some point, that ceases to be a joke, and becomes more a wistful observation. I understand why the cranky old man is cranky.

Climate Numbers

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is coming out next week. The summary, published today, states that the Panel’s certainty that humans are responsible for global warming has moved from 90% in the last report in 2007 to 95% now.

The degree of certainty has been steadily creeping up since the IPCC started doing these reports back in the ’80s. Most of the rest of the world has long since taken notice, if not action. Here in the US, climate change is still a vast conspiracy created by scientists to keep their grant money flowing. Lots of scientists.

Friday’s report is the culmination of work by over 250 authors from 39 countries and was subject to an extensive review process involving more than 1,000 experts.

But that’s just for the summary. Even more scientists.

More than 850 expert authors from 85 countries contributed research for the full report…

The old saying about there being strength in numbers is never more true than here in Amurka. Our numbers are just different. My guess is it will take about one month and 100 million dollars for a half dozen Exxon Mobil “climate scientists” appearing on the Fox News Outrage Channel and hate radio to completely negate this report. And we will keep going hell for leather toward the cliff. Sigh.