Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helping My Favorite Bastard

Don't be afraid. Bitcoin is your friend.
Last week my fellow blogger Big Bad Bald Bastard wrote a piece expressing his contempt for Bitcoin. It was, as a useful analysis goes, pathetic, uninformed claptrap. Now, I'd ordinarily just ignore that - people hear about a technical topic, they hear people TALKING about it, and they form opinions based on nothing so much as a feeling, a sense that it is somehow dangerous or evil. But Mr. Bastard is different. I've known him for more than ten years, and he is one of the smartest people I know, well-read and broadly informed across multiple domains and topics. To be fair, he seldom writes about technology - and make no mistake, cryptocurrencies are complex technologies - but for him to go so far off the rails struck me as stunning, and I just feel like I need to help him understand why he needs to re-visit the topic in some deeper detail.

I'm not going to do yet another cryptocurrency explainer here - any of you can go read the Wikipedia article and there's no dearth of authoritative information sources if you want to go deeper. Instead I want to take issue with the Bastard's premise, and challenge some of his conclusions.

The Big Picture
The first question is about the concept of a digital currency itself. It's unclear from his piece what the Bastard thinks about the idea writ large, and yet I struggle with this ambiguity. Setting aside any problems with implementation, is there any reason why an anonymous digital currency - essentially a cash equivalent for use across the internet - should not be welcomed, even embraced? Right now, if you want to transfer funds digitally for any reason, you have to use a bank or financial company as an intermediary. All the details of the transaction are available to business, corporations, marketing companies and governments. We still have cash - even if we use it less than we used to for convenience sake - why shouldn't that option at least be available on the wire?

Pick an Argument
Part of the Bastards distaste for Bitcoin (and presumably all other cryptocurrencies) is that he sees it as an embodiment of the whole Ayn Rand/Ron Paul/Libertarian project, which he hates. I'm sympathetic to this conclusion, even though it is largely incorrect. Why? Well, to whatever extent he finds Libertarians stupid, unrealistic, racist and cruel, I either agree with him or even exceed him in contempt for this 'ideology'. But does this argument truly apply to cryptocurrencies? Well, it's true that they do tend to like the fact that it is not issued by any government or agency, and that it DOES provide a mechanism for avoiding government fees and taxes. But is a solution like Bitcoin really the Libertarian ideal? No, it's not. In general, a currency must meet two often incompatible requirements. It must be a:

1.) Reliable store of value
2.) Functional medium of exchange

Bitcoin is not a reliable store of value. The value of a Bitcoin floats on the exchanges, in a daily dance that all currencies and commodities go through called 'price discovery'. Commodities are worth exactly what people will pay for them, so they are traded on exchanges precisely so that the market can decide how much that is. In short, Libertarians like gold, because its value is intrinsic, rather than based on government backing.

But make no mistake - Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are highly functional as a medium of exchange, and are used as such thousands or millions of times every day - to the complete satisfaction of the parties to the transaction.

But People Steal Bitcoins All The Time
Mr. Bastard raises the point that hackers have stolen a lot of Bitcoins. This is true. The primary exchange, Mt. Gox, actually collapsed when hackers were able to take possession of all their Bitcoins. None of their customers could clear any transactions. This is all very true - but is it in any way reflective of the value or worthiness of a cryptocurrency? Actually, no. Hackers are constantly trying to steal anything of value on the internet. They have stolen orders of magnitude more regular dollars and Euros than they have stolen Bitcoins, and they steal intellectual property and pretty much anything they can get their hands on. If you're stupid, lazy, sloppy or just plain unlucky, you could lose anything you have on your computer or in the cloud. Interestingly, it's actually EASIER for a regular user to secure their Bitcoins than it is to secure their bank account. You are completely reliant on your bank to secure your money, but you don't have to store your Private Key online. You can put it on a thumb drive or even print it out, and put it in a home safe or safe deposit box. Hell, if you wanted to, you could print out your key and turn it into a book cypher.

The Greed Factor
The reason that Mr. Bastard chose now to write his Bitcoin piece is very likely because Bitcoin has been in the news quite a bit due to an extraordinary runup in the value of Bitcoins expressed in US Dollars. He clearly finds this troubling, but I can't even begin to imagine what he thinks it tells us about cryptocurrencies. Investors are always looking for a way to diversify their portfolio, so as a high-risk investment, putting some dollars into Bitcoins in a rising market makes perfect sense. The market is volatile, and some people are going to lose money. But that happens all the time, with copper, and oil, and soybeans. Exchanges exist for just this reason - to determine the current market price for a given commodity - and it is no reflection on the underlying commodity. When the price stabilizes, the commodity is still there.

The Blockchain - The Answer to All Your Cryptocurrency Questions
Another highly surprising argument that Mr. Bastard raised is that Bitcoins aren't 'real'. That's false, although the reason it's false is fairly hard to understand. Bitcoin is not a technology - it is a currency, or perhaps a product. The technology that enables cryptocurrencies is a cryptographic-based transaction monitor called the Blockchain. Every Bitcoin that has ever existed, and every transaction that has ever been executed is recorded in the Blockchain. The Blockchain can't be altered, it can't be tampered with, it can't be erased. It is the Blockchain that makes Bitcoins real - they can't ever disappear. Mr. Bastard wrote (referencing the Tulip panic of the seventeenth century) that at least, unlike Bitcoins, tulip bulbs were 'real' and still had value as tulip bulbs. Again, he's talking about the inherent value of a currency. Take your wallet out of your pocket. Look inside. You'll see pieces of green paper, cut to a uniform size and printed with a picture of a dead president. What is the inherent value of a $20 bill? I'm pretty sure it's zero. That is the magic of fiat currency - the money is representative of value. It doesn't carry that value in and of itself. Once again, this is why Libertarians prefer gold.

Let There Be Bitcoins
Speaking of fiat currency - and man, do Libertarians HATE fiat currency - the government produces those pieces of green paper using a printing press. So how the hell do you produce Bitcoins? Unsurprisingly, the Blockchain provides an answer to that question. It's called 'mining', and by providing the distributed computing power required for the large scale calculations made within the Blockchain, a user is periodically rewarded with one Bitcoin. It's exactly like a printing press turning paper and ink into money, but it's digital, so it uses processing power and connectivity instead. Once again, Mr. Bastard seemed to have a problem with this process, but he never really made it clear what that problem was.

Lions and Tigers and Mobsters, Oh My
And, of course, there's the standard complaint. If you have an anonymous digital cash-equivalent, then people will use it for criminal purposes. Of COURSE they will. Let me tell you a quick story. Back in the early '80s, I let a friend of mine use my apartment in San Rafael as the operational headquarters for a very large cocaine transaction being shipped to Alaska. I was not a known drug dealer, and I had the defensive wherewithal to protect both the cocaine and the money. So on the appointed night, I had five guys crawling around on my living room floor, carefully arranging foot-high stacks of US Currency from the wall to the kitchen. It was a SEA of money - more than I have ever seen in one place before or since. It was striking, really. But it occurs to me that nobody ever suggested that we get rid of cash dollars because they get used for purposes like that. That's not ALL they're for, and we like the freedom of using cash anytime we want that reassurance that our purchase is untracked.

The idea of a cryptocurrency was easier than the execution. This is a whole new concept, and it was based on some programming and a bunch of math and it was hard. There have been some birthing problems, but they're getting addressed. When we finally have a solid, stable, broadly accepted cryptocurrency, it probably won't be Bitcoins at all. But Bitcoins is where we learned how to do this, how to roll out a Blockchain based payment solution and manage the process.

But it seems like an important - perhaps even necessary - part of a modern digital economy. I just can't for the life of me understand why someone would think that the right answer is to make sure that banks and governments should be permitted to know everything about everything we buy, every dollar we transfer, every charitable contribution we make. I'm hopeful that in having this conversation I can convince my friend to think about this a little harder, and perhaps re-evaluate his position.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Super Villain du Jour

Eric Schmidt. Elon Musk. "Tech Bros". Gamergate. If you're an American liberal, your new favorite target of hatred and opprobrium is people who have had some success in the tech industry, particularly in Silicon Valley. And if you examine a highly competitive industry-specific locale and are shocked - SHOCKED I say - to find some bad actors, some arrogant people (many of whom found something they were unusually good at, and like star athletes or musicians or actors, invested their entire self-worth in that set of skills), and some foul human attributes like bigotry and misogyny, well, maybe you had an unrealistic set of expectations.

But come on. It's not a horrible, dystopian place full of rich people harming others. It's actually a place where the excitement of invention and the opportunity to build something of value from nothing has been embraced by going on three generations. I started working in tech in 1986, and moved to Silicon Valley in 1990. I've been there through Apple, Sun, Oracle, Ashton-Tate, Intel, Novell, the rise of Windows, the Browser wars, the rise and fall of the UNIX workstation, tape cartridges, optical media and the internet. Believe me when I say it, "I've SEEN things you...people...would not believe".

Are there some rich people doing awful things? SURPRISE!! Of course there are. Are there some priviledged assholes saying ugly things online? Wow. Never saw that coming. But to paint the entire region and the amazing things that are done there every day as some kind of fundamental evil is not only wrong, it's stupid.

One of the funniest things I see - typically from people who have spent little to no time in the valley themselves - is the description that this is somehow correlated with the generalized evil of 'white men' (or white cis men in common usage). I've worked in the valley for years, and you know what we don't have much of? White men. Asians, South Asians, Germans, Eastern Europeans sure - but in most companies I've worked at white men were the least numerous demographic category represented.

One of the things I have always LOVED about the valley - although it's kind of fading out now as things become more 'corporate' - is that it was entirely meritocracy based. I was a building products salesman with zero college when I started working in tech. Immediately, from my very first employer (Polaroid), my supervisors noticed that I seemed to be able to figure technical and process things out quickly. Everywhere I went, I got raises and promotions not because I had this degree from that University or I know those people, but because at the tip of the spear, operating on the bleeding edge of the technology envelope and living on our own dog food, I was able to make things work and convince people to buy them.

The same was true of women in particular, and people of color. There was never enough time, never enough resources, never enough knowledge. If you walked in the door and started making things work, you became a star.

Now, big companies all suck. Polaroid, Google, Apple, Facebook - the suits come along and make a bunch of rules and all of a sudden there's a place for pay discrimination and some weird version of the 'Good Ol' Boys Network' that in this case extends to Hyderabad and Guangdong. But what we're talking about here is an institutionalized set of limitations and restrictions that affect the entire Fortune 1000 equally. It's not a 'tech' phenomenon, it's a CORPORATE phenomenon. But there are thousands of brilliant, exciting little startups full of interesting, smart people who only want to see their vision brought to market. They don't CARE who helps them, and they will work with - and reward - anyone who can drive that process.

One of the things you learn very quickly working in a venture-funded startup, is that a LOT of the direction and guidance comes from the VCs themselves. They are very hands on, and if you work at a company like that the portfolio owners are going to talk to you and your team. Regularly. And I'm going to tell you - if they've got $10 million real US dollars invested in your company, and they see you fucking with a woman or a gay guy or a black guy instead of all pulling on the rope in the same direction - well, you're not going to enjoy the conversation. You're going to get told to leave your horseshit at the door, develop the product and build the company.

Or get out.

THAT is the reality of Silicon Valley.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EDC - Practical, Useful, No Guns


Seb Gorka is a massive Dorka, but the idea behind the article was pretty interesting. What do we carry when we leave the house on a given day? I've long been a fan of the gear bag/man purse solution - every since I got my first mobile device, an Apple Newton in 1994. The idea is you don't have to locate all the different bits you want and load up your pockets, you just grab your keys and gear bag and you're off!

So this is my current gear bag of choice. It's a Maxpedition Beefy Organizer - the size of an oversized wallet, it would be perfect if it had a shoulder strap. But it's pretty close to perfect as it is.

Clipped on the front is my longstanding favorite every day carry knife, the Benchmade AFCK Mini. It's no longer made, but you can find them used and they are a superb choice. I also stuff a couple of elastic hair ties in the net pocket on the front - when they break you NEED to have a backup available.

Here it is opened up. Since the AFCK lives on the front, I've set it to one side. But you can see how neatly everything just fits inside, always easy to get to. Pocket stuffers are easy to spot - they're always digging around in their various pockets trying to find something. It's like enduring a pat-down search a dozen times a day, except you're doing it to yourself.

And here's the gear:

1.) My 'glasses'. Just 1.5x drugstore cheaters, they were given to me years ago by an old girlfriend. My eyesight isn't that bad, but by golly when you need 'em, you need 'em bad.

2.) Aformentioned and beloved Benchmade AFCK

3.) Nail Clippers. The BIG size, because they're just easier to hold onto, and they generate a very strong clipping force. Leverage and stuff.

4.) Telescoping pointer. Yep, it's old school - I went through my laser pointer period decades ago - but when you pull it out and extend it, you automatically get everyone's attention. Kids today, amiright?

5.) Tactical pen. Yes, you can write with it, and as a non-lethal self defense weapon it is utterly unrivaled. The 'point' isn't that sharp - it's not a knife - but if you use it to strike nerves,  joints or even skulls, it ends the fight in a hurry.

6.) 7 Power monocular telescope. I'd love to carry a pair of binoculars - being able to see things a block away is remarkably useful - but obviously they're too big and heavy to be part of a gear bag. The monoculars are of good optical quality and are plenty small and light to always have one with you.

7.) Power brick. It's a gotta have. This is a 10,000 amp/hour battery that can charge my phone five times. It's one of the great insurance policies you can buy.

8.) Kubaton. Simple aluminum cylinder, you can really 'punch above your weight' when you have one of these and know a few weird tricks.

9.) Pillz. Yes, I take pillz. A lot of pillz. If I'm going to be gone for more than an hour, I want to have the requisite pillz (and coffee beans!) with me.

10.) Smiths PP1 Multifunction sharpener. Knives need maintenance. This has both ceramic and carbide guides depending on the condition of the blade in question. Plus a hone for serrated blades. It's indispensable.

11.) This is a cheap little Gerber folding knife. I once bought like a dozen of them - this is the last one I have. I don't like to use the Benchmade for the more 'industrial' tasks, so the Gerber is my box cutting type tool. After the Battle of Cupertino, I was searched, searched again and taken to the jail. It was only then I realized that they had missed the little Gerber I had tucked in my elastic wristband. Believe me, THAT was a delicate negotiation!

12.) Simple little flashlight. One AAA battery. Nothing special, but it lights things up when it's dark, and it's easy to carry.

13.) Earbuds. I got these with the soft rubber cups, because the hard plastic ones hurt my fragile ears. They sound good, and they work great for both phone calls and music.

14.) Hairbrush. When your hair is measured in feet, not inches, a comb is of zero practical use. A decent little hairbrush with strong rubber spikes keeps things neat and orderly.

So there you have it. No guns, not tourniquets, no alpha-male signalling. Just the things I want to have with me, all in one place, effortless.

Please feel free to post your EDC in comments. Let's see what other people (who are not me) do.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Good Friends We Had, Good Friends We Lost Along the Way

Sometimes Farce, Sometimes Tragedy
I've been researching, studying and writing about politics and economics (you can't separate 'em) since the 'soft coup' in 2000 that put the Odious GW Bush in power. There are a lot of people I've come to like and respect in the process, but every now and then one of them gets lost, reaches the worst, most inaccurate conclusions and just stops thinking, learning and listening. It always saddens me when it happens - it's not like I have an infinite supply of friends, especially not thoughtful, well-read and insightful ones who I can learn from. But I bring with me a set of rules, and I can't imagine trying to understand the chaotic and maddening political landscape without sticking to them no matter what.

1.) No false equivalences. Things can be in a category - there can also be category errors - but each thing brings its own set of context, and offers a different set of conclusions. When you advocate 'one-size-fits-all' solutions, you don't end up solving anything.

2.) No fantasies. There are things that are possible constitutionally, and there are things that are possible politically. The conversation HAS TO be held within those parameters. If you want to shriek SOCIALISM, if you want to destroy capitalism, if you demand a massive government program like publicly-funded single payer universal health care without at least learning enough to know what you'll have to overcome to deliver it, if you expect the very people who benefit from greed and corruption to eliminate greed and corruption from the political process - if these are the kinds of political goals you espouse, we're having two different conversations.

4.) The rules matter. If you don't like your party's candidate selection/nomination process, you can try to change it. But bear in mind that there are longstanding vested interests in that process, and until you can change it those are the rules of the game we're playing. We should continue to point out the rules that make no sense - disproportionate representation of rural states in the Senate, the Electoral College, etc - but we can't pretend we can ignore them or eliminate them in the short term.

5.) Politicians are dishonest. Pundits and scholars CANNOT be. If you can't come up with an actual viable argument for the policies you like, lying is not an acceptable option. Neither is pretending I said something I didn't say so you can argue against THAT. If an honest analysis demonstrates that your policy doesn't do what you claim, you don't get to invoke magic. You either have to accept the analysis and try to argue around it, or you have to change your policy.

Ultimately, the point of public policy as it plays out as politics is not to win so much as to make the lives of people in the community - constituents - better than they were. But every now and then, people on either side can 'lose their mind' and they often become obsessively focused on one arbitrary issue, typically attacking those on their own side of the center for a perceived lack of ideological purity or less than fanatical support for a particular extreme set of actions.

I've seen liberals I liked become so deeply enmeshed in anger over decisions made in Washington that they develop a burning hatred for their own country. Does the US do some bad things? Absolutely. Is the US (or banks, or pharma, or insurance companies, or {fill in the blank} the root of all evil in the world? Nope. Not even close. When you lose sight of global realities, you become a sad caricature, a laughable dancing bear. Look at Glenn Greenwald. Don't be like Glenn.

I wanted to talk about this a little bit, because this week I walked away from a friend I've liked and admired for a long time. But he's become so focused on tearing down the Democratic party, its institutions and the establishment left in general that you can no longer have an interesting or even rational conversation with him. There's a large contingent of the post-Bernie left that never got over the Democratic Primary, but with the government our system has allowed to form after the 2016 election, if we can't unite against the hatred, greed and corruption of the Republican party at this point, we're doomed.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

20/20 Vision


It seems abundantly clear at this point that as long as the American government is controlled by the Trump/Ryan nexus, Democrats are going to have a significant popular advantage throughout the electorate. Between the embarrassing, buffoonish Trump with a demonstrated disinterest in policy and process, and the almost comic-book villain personification of Ryan as he pursues Republican policy goals that are universally loathed by 80% of the electorate, the political ads just write themselves and in all but the reddest constituencies (you know, the racist ones) and the Democratic candidate starts with a powerful built-in advantage.

I still don't think the Democrats will recapture the majority in the House of Representatives, but it's hard to imagine they can't re-take the Senate and significantly tighten up the House. And with another year to go, Trump (or Mueller) could easily change the dynamic so even the House is in play.

But seriously. We need to start thinking about 2020. In the run-up to 2016, there were people who said that maybe it would be best in the longer-term if Trump were to win, burn the existing structures to the ground, and open the way for a liberal government to truly take power. I thought this was a horrible idea - certainly plausible, but it just seemed to me the costs would still be too high, no matter the longer term outcome. Well, as it turns out we ended up with this experiment in political destruction by government incompetence and corruption, so what the hell. Maybe it will all turn out for the better.

But we need to think seriously about candidates. It's true - I'll grudgingly admit - that Hillary Clinton was not a great politician. She ended up in a leadership role almost accidentally, did a wonderful job in her political roles, but faced with a relentless non-stop attack from both the Republican Party and the media, attacks that were encouraged by an effective cyber-influence campaign operated by a foreign adversary, and ultimately brought down by a federal police force that wanted to end Democratic leadership in the White House, a victory might have been just a little more than we could have expected. And even with that, she won the election, only losing by a tiny rounding error worth of votes that happened to be in exactly the right place. We have to do better.

I don't like Bernie Sanders. I think he's a flim-flam man, a fast talker who happens to share (to the extent we actually know them) my preferred policy goals. But he shows no interest in the details, and he's afraid to even suggest funding or regulatory details because he's terrified he'll be challenged on them. His government funded universal free health care for all is a nice little slogan, but he never engaged honestly with how he'd pass it, how he'd fund it and how he'd implement it. His numbers were clearly wrong, but when asked about that he attacked rather than engaged. I don't really like Paul Ryan, and a liberal Paul Ryan doesn't do much more for me. We have to do better.

I'm a politics geek, a gearhead who looks at policy function, economic distributional outcomes and effective government intervention in the private sector. I don't have any idea who the Dems should nominate - particularly in light of the chaos and suspicious swirling around the Republicans that obscures who their candidate might be - but I do think it's a conversation we need to be having. I don't believe we need to move radically to the left - most Democrats, if they had the power, would pass effective, liberal, technocratic legislation that would solve problems without disastrous unintended consequences. A big key will be nominating the anti-Trump - a clean, brilliant, well-spoken professional without a whiff of corruption. Yeah, another Barack Obama. He's proof that we CAN do better.

There will be challenges in 2020, but they won't be ideological. Trump will have thoroughly destroyed the 'conservative' brand, and most any Democratic candidate should win any race not dominated by racists. One big key will be keeping the Russians from driving the narrative. Another - related in many ways to the first - will be making sure that the primary elections and nominating process aren't used to divide the Democratic vote.

Mainly, we have to recognize 2016 for the outlier that it was. The longer we on the left continue to rend our garments and re-litigate the primary, accuse each other of everything from dishonesty and corruption to socialism and something nebulous we call 'neo-liberalism' (which is apparently bad), the less we will be able to take advantage of the tailwinds that Trump is creating and intensifying. He's a clear and present danger, and we need to come together and agree that replacing him with a Democrat with as much legislative power as possible is critically important.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The End of Physics?

Our story so far...
Point 1.) The Large Hadron Collider in Europe, with a budget of almost eight billion euros, is the most powerful particle accelerator/collider in the world. It was built to replace FermiLab's Tevatron, the previous most powerful collider. Best known for discovering the Top Quark in 1983, the Tevatron was improved over its twenty year lifespan, eventually reaching collision energies of 1.8TeV (trillion electron volts) by colliding protons and anti-protons at 9oo GeV each. But it was recognized quite early on that, based on our understanding of the Standard Model, much higher collision energies and luminosity (essentially, the number of collisions recorded over a given period of time) were going to be necessary. When the US government cancelled the SSC being built in Texas in 1993, CERN's proposal to build the LHC was adopted and funded. After some frustrating delays, the LHC began it's initial run in 2009, with the intention to ramp up to collision energies of 13 TeV in 2015. The goal was to find out what could be learned about the fundamental characteristics of matter at energies and densities similar to what was extant in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. Specifically, the Higgs Boson, Dark Matter and Supersymmetry were expected to be discovered or disproved, and at long last the Standard Model would be completed.

Point 2.) The Standard Model can be comfortably thought of as the most successful failed theory in the history of physics. Every single prediction it makes has been proven, and yet we KNOW it is brutally incomplete. If we accept that gravity is one of the fundamental forces (along with electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force), then we need to understand both how it is mediated and why it is so much weaker than the other forces. While the discovery of the Higgs Boson filled out the last box in the Standard Model, we are left with no operational theory of quantum gravity, and no clue as to what most of our universe is made of.

So now we're nearing the end of the 2017 data run at LHC. The joyful discovery of the Higgs is years behind us. And once again, despite some tantalizing events that turned out to be mere statistical anomalies, we come away with nothing. No Graviton. No dark matter. No Supersymmetric particles. No surprises, nothing that tells us anything beyond what we already know. And nothing to help us fill in the pieces we KNOW are missing. If gravity is a force, the gravitational field has to be mediated by a quantum force carrier. We KNOW that's how it works, but if we can't find that 'graviton', we can't understand gravity.

Meanwhile, outside the realm of CERN, physicists are just lost, stumbling around in the darkness. Without a ten billion dollar machine, they have no idea where to look for new discoveries. We've spent decades watching theoretical physicists indulge in the worst form of academic masturbation, creating dense, elegant mathematics that make no predictions and cannot be tested experimentally. Between string theory, inflationary cosmology and Supersymmetry, the larges portion of working physicists today aren't even doing science. They're working on unfalsifiable speculation that leads off in silly, pointless, untestable directions like the multiverse, or worse, that our entire universe is somehow just a digital simulation.

The way science is supposed to work is that the theorists postulate a theory, and the experimental scientists and engineers develop ways to test the predictions that the theory makes. If they start finding actual evidence that supports the theory, it gets plugged into the larger base of knowledge to make sure it fits in all the corners and doesn't fall apart at certain energies or conditions. Once enough evidence is gathered for the theory, it becomes accepted science. But that's just the beginning. Accepted science is boring. Now the theorists go back to work, trying to 'break' the theory - to find a reason why what we THINK we know is wrong. Because if we get something wrong, that means there's more to learn.

All of which brings us back to the Standard Model. We KNOW it's wrong - or at least incomplete. We know what it tells us, and we know there are things it's NOT telling us. And that's with a ten billion dollar mega-machine churning away at the problem. So whither physics? What happens if we learn nothing of consequence for years to come? How do you do fundamental research when the basic cost of knowledge is beyond your species willingness to pay the cost of 'basic science'? How do we get from where we are to the next discovery when we do not have the equipment to do the experiments? And, of course, what if we, as a species, decided to spend $25 or 30 billion on a new collider at much higher energies, and nothing changed?

I find it sad and frustrating to be living in such an amazing time, a time when we understand so much that no human ever understood before, and yet we seem to have no path forward. We're seeing breakthrough science in machine intelligence, computing power, data analytics and robotics, and that's both interesting and life changing. But we're stuck with the nagging thought that big science has picked all the low-hanging fruit and left us here, wondering what is just beyond the limits of our ability to discover it. And scientists keep going off in weirder and weirder directions because they don't have any way to do new science today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Social Goddam Media - Somebody Really Should DO Something...

Watch your ass, Jesus,
she's got a BIG right hand
Russian intelligence agencies have not been sleeping for the last ten years. They have been watching the political and ideological polarization in western democracies, and they have noted the opening that provided a skilled and prolific propagandist in in the age of the internet. They understood Wikileaks, they understood Infowars, they understood the power that gave them to guide the narrative. But then, with the unfettered power to publish professional (or not-so-professional - it turns out it doesn't really matter) looking narratives directly to targeted audiences provided by Facebook and Twitter (among so many others), they discovered how easy it was to actually shape the domestic narrative. They found that by pushing made-up stories through Social Media, they could actually drive the entire American news cycle. That's right, they paved a direct highway from troll/bot farm to Fox News and MSNBC.

There's a number of reasons they chose to support Trump, but it's not unreasonable to consider that 2016 was a proof of concept exercise, an opportunity for 'live fire' testing of a new and powerful weapon of destabilization. Putin has long been furious with Bill Clinton's manipulation of the drunken and mentally debilitated Boris Yeltsin in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. He also angrily - but carefully - observed the US sponsored 'Color Revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine, and planned to defeat the Americans at their own information game. When Trump came along, with his nativist, nationalist and isolationist rhetoric, he was the obvious vessel to support with a full-spectrum cyber-campaign that might help him destabilize the EU and weaken NATO.

So the hackers used advanced phishing techniques to steal information, while the paid trolls and bots spread story after story smearing Clinton and encouraging anger and humiliation among Berniecrats.  Altogether, it was a quite effective campaign, using stolen data to amplify false narratives in a way that could be targeted against any set of demographic characteristics.

And now everybody's pissed.

So, with the next election a year away, what is to be done? Well, for all the spittle-flecked hatred being flung at the leadership of Facebook and Twitter, you'd think it would just be a matter of some bipartisan legislation banning them from...what, exactly? Political speech? Dishonest posts? Foreigners? Hmmm, maybe this isn't quite as easy as we thought.

Suppose we were aware of - and worried about - the power of social media to amplify specific messages and agendas long before the events of 2016 transpired? Well, that's problematic, because that phrase - "amplify specific messages" - is precisely the goal of online advertising. The platform was built to provide carefully segmented, highly targeted access to paying customers. The owners of the platform rely on those revenues, and would not set out to intentionally cripple them, regardless of the larger risk they represent. And a platform that goes around deleting posts and banning users isn't going to be successful for very long - the market would soon produce a platform who's sole raison d'ĂȘtre would be "we let you post and read what YOU want". Can you imagine ANY effective action that could have been taken to prevent an adversary nation from using social media tools like Facebook to undermine our democratic processes?

What role do we want government to take in limiting our exposure to propaganda? One thing I DO know - if you silence someone I hate, I'm happy, but if you silence ME (or someone I agree with) I'm furious. But that dynamic sort of prevents any action at all, doesn't it? Of course, Facebook isn't the government, so you have no absolute right of free speech on a digital communication platform, but what is the attraction of a platform like that when it seems to silence anyone at any time for anything? Wouldn't we immediately seek a platform that let us share our thoughts and beliefs without keeping such a heavy thumb on the topic scale?

Nobody's going to like it, but I know what the answer is. Foreign governments are going to have to become a little more careful in how they deliver targeted propaganda on social media platforms - hiding sources of funding, using better writers and grammar, perhaps being a little more selective in choosing false narratives - but beyond that, this is now a core feature of western democratic politics. From Brexit to Berlin, Washington to Paris, some of the most effective activists will be rabble-rousing on Facebook, and there's nothing that can be done that doesn't make the situation worse.