Friday, September 27, 2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Your tax dollars at work...

Unbelievable:
Personally, I thought the Internet was already quite insecure without the US government spending large amounts of money to deliberately make  it worse.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

NSA Malware

There's a fascinating report in the Washington Post about the dimensions of US offensive cyber-operations. Here are a few excerpts.
Additionally, under an extensive effort code-named GENIE, U.S. computer specialists break into foreign networks so that they can be put under surreptitious U.S. control. Budget documents say the $652 million project has placed “covert implants,” sophisticated malware transmitted from far away, in computers, routers and firewalls on tens of thousands of machines every year, with plans to expand those numbers into the millions.

The documents provided by Snowden and interviews with former U.S. officials describe a campaign of computer intrusions that is far broader and more aggressive than previously understood. The Obama administration treats all such cyber-operations as clandestine and declines to acknowledge them.
and
The administration’s cyber-operations sometimes involve what one budget document calls “field operations” abroad, commonly with the help of CIA operatives or clandestine military forces, “to physically place hardware implants or software modifications.”

Much more often, an implant is coded entirely in software by an NSA group called Tailored Access Operations (TAO). As its name suggests, TAO builds attack tools that are custom-fitted to their targets.

The NSA unit’s software engineers would rather tap into networks than individual computers because there are usually many devices on each network. Tailored Access Operations has software templates to break into common brands and models of “routers, switches and firewalls from multiple product vendor lines,” according to one document describing its work.

The implants that TAO creates are intended to persist through software and equipment upgrades, to copy stored data, “harvest” communications and tunnel into other connected networks. This year TAO is working on implants that “can identify select voice conversations of interest within a target network and exfiltrate select cuts,” or excerpts, according to one budget document. In some cases, a single compromised device opens the door to hundreds or thousands of others.
The focus on routers, switches, and firewalls is very interesting and news.  To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this is known to the computer security industry.  No doubt the NSA is careful to test its efforts first, to ensure they aren't detected.

However, the hunt will be on now.

This suggests also a new market niche doing intrusion detection on these kinds of infrastructure components.  However, it's not clear that a US based firm could be a very credible provider...

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Links

  • Edward Snowden impersonated top level NSA officials to steal documents.  Fits my hypothesis about him.
  • Indian government to ban use of US email services for official communication.  There's going to be a lot more of this kind of thing, I think.
  • Kevin Drum bashes the Obama administration over Syria.  My general sense is that there are no good options here.  If we, collectively, do nothing, we are no doubt in for an ongoing and regular diet of headlines and youtube videos of Syrian kids being massacred with nerve gas.  Being able to clear neighborhoods cheaply is pretty handy for a dictator with his back to the wall and Assad will do it again if he thinks he can.  On the other hand, a limited bombing campaign is likely to be illegal, unpopular, and fairly ineffectual, particularly given the warning the Syrian government has had.  On the third hand, a major involvement in the war would be very costly in lots of ways, and it's completely unclear that the end result would be a better regime.  Anyone who suggests there are any simple good options here isn't thinking it through.  It's fairly likely to suck regardless of what we do, just in different ways.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What The Oil Drum Meant

Tuesday Links

Monday, August 19, 2013

Monday Links

  • This detention of Glenn Greenwald's partner under British anti-terrorism laws, while flying from Germany to Brazil, is absolutely and completely outrageous.  This is clearly harassment of journalists for publishing stories that authorities don't like, and strikes at the heart of freedom of speech.  If you weren't already convinced that the intelligence/anti-terrorism apparatus in Western countries is out of control, I imagine this will push you a bit further in that direction.
  • Things going from bad to worse in Egypt.
  • A new tool for scanning the Internet in 45 minutes (with a gigabit uplink).

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday Links

  • The European economy grew very slightly in Q2. The graph of European (and US) GDP is above.  I think it's too soon to be certain that Europe is out of the woods, but this last data point certainly does make the graph look less dismal.
  • Parts of China have slowed down badly though.
  • NSA surveillance leaks make national cyberdefense plan politically infeasible.  In general, I'm strongly in favor of national cyberdefense, and I research/design/build network intrusion detection systems for a living.  However, I have to admit that at this point I wouldn't trust the NSA with access to such systems either.  This is exactly why, in a democracy, major policy changes shouldn't be pursued in secret; it's toxic when it comes out.
  • Bruce Schneier: "Since the Snowden documents became public, I have been receiving e-mails from people seeking advice on whom to trust. As a security and privacy expert, I'm expected to know which companies protect their users' privacy and which encryption programs the NSA can't break. The truth is, I have no idea. No one outside the classified government world does. I tell people that they have no choice but to decide whom they trust and to then trust them as a matter of faith. It's a lousy answer, but until our government starts down the path of regaining our trust, it's the only thing we can do."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Links

  • The above is European unemployment.  Is that a slight hint of improvement, finally, there at the end?  Or just noise?  Too soon to tell.
  • Apparently, if you set up a decoy water treatment plant control system on the Internet, there are a lot of groups willing and able to compromise it and take over the non-existent water plant.  The implication is that critical infrastructure like this has probably been extensively compromised by foreign intelligence agencies.  Maybe folks should be getting a few extra plastic tanks for the basement?
  • Sounds like NSA wiretaps are actually being used to initiate normal criminal cases, and agents are being trained to conceal the fact on a large scale.  Great, just great.  
  • European retail trade is below.  Although the last month was down a little bit, the last six months in the aggregate appear to have stopped trending down.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Links

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some Questions on XKeyscore

Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian has written another very interesting article on XKeyscore, an NSA intelligence program to search huge amounts of bulk traffic that allied intelligence agencies are collecting from around the globe.  The Guardian also made available a top-secret presentation on XKeyscore from 2008.  This represents the program as it was inherited by the Obama administration from the Bush administration.  However, comments in interviews by Edward Snowden suggest that substantially similar capabilities still exist.

I wanted to draw attention to several things in the NSA presentation that the Guardian didn't mention but that struck me as interesting (having a computer security background).  The first is this map:


Several questions arise:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Links


  • The above map shows the likelihood of a child from the bottom fifth of the income distribution rising into the top fifth, and is from a fascinating article about the geography of income inequality in the NYT.  The underlying study is available, and you can get the raw data there too.
  • Shipping goods from western China to Europe by rail.  This seems like an interesting development as it might help China to continue developing its interior, which lags considerably behind the big coastal cities.
  • Interesting op-ed on the difficulties of growing food in the climate of the future with increasingly severe and prolonged heat waves.
  • Last year's collapse in natural gas prices appears to be over:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Links

  • The above is New York's real-time wholesale electricity prices showing the effect of the current heat wave in the North East.
  • The challenges of making changes to the US electric grid, which has over 500 owners.  This subject is really important to our ability to transition to a carbon neutral economy.
  • New startups working on energy storage options.
  • Juan Cole has some interesting thoughts on automation and globalization in the context of Detroit.
  • Finally, Paul Krugman has a column arguing that China is hitting the wall.  Some of the assertions in there I'm not too sure about.  For example, arguing that China is running out of peasants seems inconsistent with the fact that urbanization is still only 50%, versus 80%+ in developed countries.  For context, below are the GDP growth data (annual through 2010, quarterly after that).  While it's clear that China is slowing down somewhat relative to the mid 2000s peak, it's still a high growth rate by the standards of any other country.  This is far from a hard landing, at least for now.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday Links

  • The above is European industrial production.  Things were looking a bit more positive for a few months, but the last month's data is down again.  Retail trade was a bit better though - see graph at bottom.
  • It doesn't matter where in the world we do it, killing people without proper due process will brand us as hypocrites and do us far more harm than good in the long run.
  • Solar panel plant in Nevada canceled due to lack of demand.  If you as an individual don't yet buy your electricity from renewable generators, but could, now would be a great time.  This also suggests it's time to up the renewable portfolio standards in some of the states.
  • Nation states now the major buyers of computer vulnerabilities, says the NYT.
  • European retail trade:

Finally, I'm back from vacation so blogging should improve.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Wednesday Links

  • The NSA is recording and storing one billion cellphone calls per day.
  • Wow on the diversion of the Bolivian President's flight so his plane could be searched for Edward Snowden.  Suddenly Julian Assange doesn't sound so paranoid any more.  I think we are all getting an object lesson here in how the world really works, and it's not pretty at all.
  • Glenn Greenwald's speech on meeting Snowden worth reading in full.
  • Morsi government in Egypt overthrown by military.  More unrest in Middle East is not great for the rest of us, but of course the main hope would be for a decent life for the Egyptian people.  I'ts very unfortunate that it has come to this.
  • And the Oil Drum is closing down for new content.  That was where I first started blogging back in 2005.  Sad to see it go (though I confess I haven't been a regular reader in a number of years).
Finally, I mentioned the other day that I was using Vienna to read news.  It turns out that Vienna was in the background relying on Google Reader in ways that I didn't realize.  It totally fell apart and became useless once Google Reader was turned off.  Grrr.  It may take me a while to have a functioning blog reader set-up again.

Randy Udall, RIP

Randy Udall died last week while on a backpacking trip in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  His body has just been found after an extensive search.

Randy was a co-founder of ASPO-USA.  I certainly didn't know him well enough to attempt a proper obituary, but I will say that he was a regular reader of this blog, and frequently emailed me with thoughts or questions or interesting links.  I always felt it an honor that someone like him found my blog worth his time.  I had met him a number of times at ASPO meetings and he had impressed me as one of the finer human beings I have known.  He was very smart and knowledgeable about the world, but retained an almost childlike quality of enthusiasm for it.  He was funny, charming, and had a knack for finding unique ways to communicate his concern for this planet we share.

I am deeply saddened at the news of his passing, too soon, at the age of 61.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday Links

  • Above is European/Eurozone unemployment.  Still not stabilizing.
  • Europe is really, really steamed over US spying now.  Spying on your friends and allies is not the greatest idea.  French greens are pressing for Snowden to be given asylum in France (you heard it here first). "The Americans justify everything with combatting terrorism," said the Luxembourg foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, who on Sunday described the latest allegations as disgusting. "The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists."  And this:  The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement that he was “deeply worried and shocked.” He added, “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on E.U.-U.S. relations.”  Does anyone seriously doubt that these allegations will prove true?
  • On a side note, this situation is going to be very bad for Britain's relations with Europe also.  The British appear to have been functioning as very important enablers of American spying, and this is not going to forgotten or forgiven quickly by the Germans, French, etc.  (Of course, I don't doubt that the French at least are up to their ears in their own version of this stuff too).
  • NY Times confirms that Snowden was involved in cyber-offense for the US government.  I first hypothesized that this must have been the situation three weeks ago.  The tone of the NY Times coverage is starting to shift.  They are realizing that the Obama administration has been materially dishonest in this area and therefore its denials cannot be trusted going forward.  The linked piece has a good discussion of the weakness of the administration's shifting defenses.
  • Washington Post is also realizing it's been lied to.
  • Egypt is definitely falling apart again.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Weekend Links

  • Aligning CEO pay with long term innovation performance.  This piece resonated with me, as I found innovation systematically undervalued in the corporate world, as a result of the focus on near term results.  (But then, as an inventor myself, perhaps it's not surprising that I would think that).
  • Is Miami doomed?
  • US is engaged in major spying against the EU and many of the European countries including France and Italy.  I'm sure that's going to go over really great in Europe...  Maybe Snowden can get asylum in France by the time the dust settles?  I think US moral standing in the world will take a permanent hit from all these revelations.  Not a fatal one of course, but a material one.  I don't blame Snowden at all, but rather the successive US administrations that decided to engage in all these behaviors in secret.  The truth was bound to come out eventually.
  • Morsi government in Egypt threatened?
Finally, a note that the demise of Google Reader is upon us.  I switched to Vienna some time back.  It's fine.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Links

  • The above is euro-area construction.  The last month is up slightly, but it's certainly not enough to declare and end to the down-trend.
  • The spread between WTI and Brent oil prices continues to narrow (indicating that the infrastructure to bring oil from the US tight oil boom to market is catching up).
  • I guess the President has essentially confirmed my theory that Snowden was a hacker for the government.
  • NSA surveillance programs considered criminal.
  • Chinese wind power company stealing US software and ending up in court.

IPOs Have Accelerated in 2013

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • Obama climate plan.  It does sound like the administration is planning to take some reasonable steps.  Well, it's not great, but given that there is no hope of congress doing anything, our expectations of a rational response to the situation have gotten very low, and this is much better than nothing.
  • Websites in both North and South Korea down due to cyber-attacks.
  • Mutually assured destruction in cyber-space.  I think this is an important subject.
  • Tundra fires in Siberia, record floods in Alberta, and heatwaves in Alaska.  All is not well in northern climes.
Also, administrivia note: blogging for the rest of this month and in July will be rather intermittent due to various summer/vacation things happening.  Relatively normal levels of blogging should resume around the beginning of August.  However, I'll try to keep at least some post flow so that you don't all abandon ship.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Monday Links

  • US offensive cyberwar policy.  Clearly, other nations will respond by doing the same to us (to the extent they haven't already).  One good outcome of these leaks - Bruce Schneier used to be a sceptic who argued that cyberwar was an overhyped threat.  That seems to be changing.
  • More surveillance revelations.  It appears that the British government is vacuuming up even more of the world's communications than the US government, but of course, sharing freely with its best friends.
  • I agree wholeheartedly with this Glenn Greenwald essay.  I have to say that, in the long tradition of second terms of presidents being consumed with scandals, it now appears that the second Obama term will be consumed with scandals about surveillance and civil liberties.  Given the President's extremely poor record and attitude on these subjects, that seems appropriate (and I say this as someone who voted for him in both 2008 and 2012).  It's very unfortunate that the President has been so corrupted by the power of his office.  This is certainly not the change I was hoping for when I first voted for him.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday Links

  • Above are wheat yields in the UK.  The study above is inconclusive, but clearly one should be concerned about climate change.  The UK has had a particularly marked change in climate in recent years with a level of floods, late snowfall, and other extreme weather that was unknown when I was a child there.  Given that global yields and US yields don't show any sign of bend in the yield curve, perhaps the UK is the canary in the coal mine, and is worth studying more carefully.
  • Has motorization in the US peaked?
  • President Obama not so popular overseas.
  • US coal exports set monthly record.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuesday Links


  • Above shows European car sales in May for the last ten years.  The graph is not zero-scaled.  Apparently, this last May is a twenty year low.
  • I suppose this is standard operating procedure.  Still, I can't help wondering what this kind of thing does to the character of our leaders.
  • David Brooks argues that the mind is not the brain.  Looks like he didn't make it to GF 2045 or his column would have been yet more interesting.
  • A quarter to a half of all bird species are threatened by climate change.
  • Speculation that the NSA is actually getting the content of all US phone calls, not just the metadata.  I still am far from satisfied that we have the full picture here.  I no longer believe anything the administration says on this subject, and I'm not sure how far to think Snowden is exaggerating for effect.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Final Thoughts on the GF 2045 Conference

I ran out of battery in the middle of the last section (with the spiritual leaders), so don't have good notes on what all of them said.  However, I think I can give an overall summary.  The folks from the eastern spiritual traditions all start from a non-materialist perspective in which consciousness is primary in the universe and not necessarily tied to matter.  They claim to have extensive experience, either within their tradition, or personally, or both, in moving consciousness around.  For example, Mahayogi 'Pilot' Baba is reported to have stopped his heart for days at a time and then come back to life (see here for a sceptical take).

So they all seemed willing to credit that it was potentially feasible that western science/technology could create a technological artifact that would support a consciousness (ho hum, we've been doing similar things for centuries, was kind of the perspective).  They were much more concerned with whether or not this would be a good thing employed en-masse by westerners.  They varied in their opinions: Swami Vishnudevananda Giri seemed to be pretty gung-ho (though he cautioned that the scientists who worked on this problem would end up profoundly changed by it), but most of the rest were fairly wary.  Phagyab Rinpoche gave a very eloquent speech in which he basically said it came down to the intent of those developing the technology.  If the goal was genuinely to help reduce the suffering of all beings, then it would probably be ok, but if the main goals were self-serving (eg just for longevity) it would probably give rise to all manner of problems.

That's the part that worries me: in the end, this stuff will be delivered by the technology industry, which is run by executives and investors who are, with some honorable exceptions, overwhelmingly driven by greed and competition.  I think that's going to show in the results.

So how did the conference impact my own thinking (as exemplified here, say)?  I continue to think that machine intelligence that is functionally (ie economically) equivalent to human is on the way.  I continue to think that it's likely to take longer than 30 years to achieve in full.  I continue to think this is going to exert absolutely massive stress on society, and that we should slow down.  The conference has caused me to revise upward my likelihood that scientists will reverse engineer the brain - I was impressed that they can produce a detailed level neuronal map of an entire mouse brain already (although they still can't emulate the complete functional behavior of even the simplest nervous systems).

And I was somewhat intrigued by the quantum mechanics arguments.  I don't have time to go into detail here, but it really is true that quantum mechanics privileges the observer, in such a way that it's not quite clear how to give a quantum-materialistic account of the human brain and mind (at least unless there's been new progress on this in the last couple of decades that I don't know about).  It's not clear to me whether this means that this project is going to run into the limits of materialism in a big way, or that there's just something that we really don't understand about quantum mechanics that the physicists are going to have to fix.

I think better of Dmitry Itskov.  Holding conferences and inviting a broad range of perspectives is at least making this stuff conscious, rather than society just continuing to drive hard in this direction without really talking about where it is that we are going.  I think he deserves credit for hosting a very open discussion.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Last Session of GF 2045

Amit Goswami

Consciousness and the Quantum: Science, Psychology and Spirituality

Technology is good for allowing humans to do what?  Creating free time - what we will do with it?  How will we make a living?  Scientific materialism is a 350 year old world view - not getting us anywhere (environmental problems etc).  Have to change our science.  "Quantum physics liberates the human spirit".  The individual behavior of objects is not determined.  "You are not a machine.  You know this already.  You have been the victim of propaganda."  Quantum activism - humans are capable of change.  "If objects are possibilities, then what makes this object turn into actuality?  All objects are concrete - they don't appear in possible positions."  Reality consists of two things - the domain of wavelike possibility, and the domain of concrete actuality.  In ancient times, people had the same idea - transcendant reality and immanent reality.  Became heaven and earth due to confusion.

GF 2045: Second Sunday Session

Randall Koene

Title: Whole Brain Emulation: Reverse Engineering A Mind.

Trying to take the big picture and look top down at how to understand the mind in order to duplicate.  Motivation for doing this is to avoid external catastrophes (meteorites, supervolcanoes, etc) - make ourselves more adaptable so we can cope with changes.  (Talk about projection - technology is the leading cause of change!)  Goal is to get to substrate independent minds.

Weekend Links

  • The NYT has managed to dig up some more color on Snowden.
  • Hmmm - since 2009 I've been working under the assumption that Iran's elections were fixed, but that led me to be completely incorrect in predicting this election.  So time to update my beliefs - the 2009 election corruption was a freak?  Ahmadinijad really did win?  The regime decided it needed to moderate this time?  Not sure what to think.
  • China is planning to move 250 million rural residents to cities in the next 12 years.  It sounds like farmers are being forced off their land wholesale and into cities at an enormous pace.  Makes enclosure sound positively humane.

GF 2045: First Sunday Session

Kurzweil is up...  Talking about exponentials and acceleration.  He's kind of sloppy - talking about social media and blogs taking only three years to spread (FB founded in 2004, blogs before 2000) .

Has a graph of microprocessor clock speed that doesn't seem to show the fact that clock speed has plateaud (we've moved to having many cores instead).

Kurzweil is explicit that the singularity metaphor is drawn from black holes (rather than mathematical singularities more abstractly).

Saturday, June 15, 2013

GF 2045: Section 3

Back from lunch with 70% battery, so I'm going to return to live-blogging.

First up is Marvin Minsky, who is of course a god in computer science.  I'm very intrigued to know what he has to say on these subjects.

He thinks we're going to run out of workers due to increasing lifespan and low fertility!  Don't think he's looked at the data on employment/population ratio, which show the reverse.  This is his case for the need for smart robots and it's based on a total lack of knowledge of the relevant economic statistics!

Smart robots have not made a whole lot of progress since the 1970s, in his view.  Humans are resourceful and complex (extended example on object recognition in vision) and it's been hard to duplicate that.

AI has split into different approaches that work on particular subfields.  In the sixties/seventies, quite a lot of progress was made on algorithms that could solve basic math problems (high school/college algebra/calculus).  So seemed easy to solve highly technical problems.  But extremely difficult to get computers to solve "common sense" things that even young children can do.

Minsky believes that understanding of the brain is very limited at the large scale.  Know a great deal about individual neurons, a little about connections between neurons, and almost nothing about how large assemblies of neurons collaborate to solve problems.  Know that different brain regions do different things, but very little about how they are done.

Shouts out to Freud for an early theory of learning being due to strengthening neural connections, fifty years ahead of time.  Also draws on Freudian ideas of inner critics.  Wants to see more money diverted to top-down analysis of thinking/brain, versus bottom-up neuroscience in order to make better progress on AI.

"My prediction for the 2040s is that this will happen more slowly than most of us think, but that eventually it will happen".

Next up are Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff.  They are famously AI sceptics and have a completely different theory than most people of how brain/consciousness work.

Hameroff is talking in person, Penrose by video.  Hameroff's life is devoted to "What is consciousness".  Defines consciousness as subjective awareness - objective correlates are not know scientifically.  Eastern view is consciousness pervades universe.  Western view is brain produces consciousness as some kind of excitation of neurons in a network of connections.

Outlining his microtubule theory of consciousness - too complex to liveblog but pretty interesting stuff - more plausible on first exposure than I would have guessed.

Means brain does 1027 operations per second instead of 1016 per second.  Puts the singularity back a good ways (if you think the latter is tied to mere computation speed, anyway).

Now Penrose up - big gap in quantum mechanics where Schrodinger equation and making measurement are foundation principles, but inconsistent (apologies to the non-physicists here).  Obvious place to look for consciousness.  Schrodinger's cat - why don't we see superpositions?  Articulating a new theory of quantum mechanics/consciousness here - I'm not going to follow this without a lot more study.  Rest of the audience must be completely lost (assuming there aren't too many physics PhDs here).  Whoa - their theory of consciousness somehow can accomodate it occurring not tied to the brain and so can accomodate out-of-body experiences etc.

These guys are either crazy or geniuses (or both).

Now Alexander Panov, a Russian physicist.  Outlining the idea of the technological singularity.  Kurzweil prediction of date of singularity is based on comparing computational capacity of brains and computers, with brains approximated as number of synapses times switching frequency of about 100Hz, with computation extrapolated using Moore's Law.

Points out that software progress is not tied all that closely to hardware progress. Computer translation sucked in the eighties and sucks now, despite a million-fold increase in computer power.  No indications that we understand how to program a strong AI.  Claims the problem of simulating nervous system of the simple worm C. elegans (with only a few hundred neurons) is unsolved.

Also, individual neurons have been shown to be stateful and learn - so brain is more than just the neuronal interactions.  More discussion of possibility of quantum effects in brain.

Martine Rothblatt

"The Purpose of Biotechnology Is the End of Death".  Talking about mindclones - talking about duplication of consciousness, thinks "Humans will have no trouble getting used to being in two places at the same time".  Speculating about "mindware" - software that can interact with a "mindfile" - an uploaded consciousness.  Yawn - not happening soon.  Very glib shallow defense of the idea that it's inevitable that we will be able to upload minds (given we still have no real idea how the brain/mind works, I don't see how this can possibly be certain).

Problem of mindclone civil rights.  Does a mindclone have rights - while biological form still exists?  Afterwards?  "The cause celebre of the 21st century".

Are you legally responsible for the actions of your mind-clones?

What about mind-clone procreation?  Do combinations of mind-clones that have never been biologically alive have rights?

Anders Sandberg

Ethics of mind uploading.  Analogy with animals - what moral consideration do they deserve?  Long philosophical discussion of rights of software.

Having said this, it's clear there will be a legal/practical minefield if we ever could upload minds.  Who owns the upload?  What happens if multiple uploads are running - can they all vote?  What happens if somebody runs bootleg copies of you?

GF 2045: Section 2

My battery indeed ran out and prevented live blogging of the second session, so I'm going to give a very quick summary.  This section concerned the current technology of android and human-computer interface.

The highlight was Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese robotics professor who builds life-like androids.  He's a warm, funny, appealing speaker, and brought a couple of androids with him, including a replica of himself.  The state of the art in androids is that they look fairly life-like but behave like stiff, indeed severely autistic, individuals with computer generated voices saying pre-determined things (although a video of an android and a robot talking while both running cleverbot was fairly hilarious).

This has been Ishiguro's life work, and he describes his motivation as being to understand what it means to be human - only by trying to build simulations can we understand what really makes humans tick.  I have some sympathy with that motivation.

The other thing that was very helpful was a pair of professors from Berkeley (Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz) who gave a talk about the current state of Brain-Machine interface.  It's pretty primitive - they can stick a grid of a few dozen needles into the brain and read stuff out of it, but it will only last for a year or two.  In using robotic prosthetics, they currently cannot get anywhere near the needed degrees of freedom to control all that the arm can do.  Plus the requirement to get wires out through the skull is a major problem (infection risk).  They are currently working on an approach ("neural dust"), in which a bunch of tiny disattached receptors (the dust) would be scattered in the cortex and communicate via ultrasound with a base station at the surface of the cortex, which in turn would relay the information wirelessly to another station attached to the skull exterior.  If they can get it to work, that sounds like it would be a big advance.

In short, this stuff is currently light-years from being able to control anything like a complete avatar.  Of course, there's still three decades between now and 2045.

Still, I have to say that the ability of robots/algorithms to displace humans from jobs is many decades ahead of the ability to provide much improvement to the human body.  My concern is that it's likely to stay that way.

Live Blogging the GF 2045 Conference

I'm going to try and live-blog the GF 2045 conference.  I may get tired or bored, or my battery might run out, and quit, but I'm going to give it a go.

Up now is Dmitry Itskov.  Slightly awkward Russian speaker.  Giving a straight up "The future will be Utopia" pitch.  No-one will die, everyone will be happy, we will all spend our time working on our spiritual growth, we'll be able to travel holographically everywhere.  My inner Burkean is screaming.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Oil Supply Continues Flat

Friday Links

  • Krugman proposes redistribution as the only solution to the problems of technological unemployment.
  • Edward Snowden's choice to go to Hong Kong just keeps looking more and more interesting.
  • Kevin Drum has some questions about Snowden.
  • The current Black Canyon fire will likely be the most expensive fire in Colorado history.
  • Dishwashers use less energy than washing the dishes by hand.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Above is the latest figures for global oil supply from OPEC.  It looks like the pattern of flat supply has continued, so nothing very exciting.  I will try to post the usual monthly graphs later.
  • Snowden claims the NSA engaged in 61,000 hacking operations globally, including hundreds in Hong Kong.  I think this lends support to my conjecture that Snowden himself was a government cyber-offensive specialist.
  • The Chinese reaction.
  • Someone else putting solar on their barn (as I want to).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday Links

  • As I pointed out last week, the US is going to have a lot of explaining to do, internationally.
  • Given that the Obama administration has established a track record of being untruthful about NSA surveillance, it's going to be hard to credit their assurances going forward.
  • Some sign of life in Congress.  I think some one should point out how easy it would be for the NSA to identify most gun owners based on having all their phone/Internet records.  Then maybe we can get a little bit of second amendment anger going to help out the fourth amendment.
  • Interesting new green building material.
  • Administration also slowing down on new energy efficiency rules.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snowden and the Toxicity of the Internet

I think we are still operating with very partial information here.  Glenn Greenwald has promised that he has thousands of documents from Snowden still, dozens of which are newsworthy.  It's still very unclear how Snowden came to have access to the documents he seems to have, who he really is, whether his testimony is 100% accurate, or where he has gone now.  I assume a lot more will come out in coming days and weeks.

With that caveat, here are a few thoughts: this case illustrates some long-standing concerns I have about the direction of society.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday Links

  • Suddenly the Guardian has become a must read for American political observers.
  • USDA announcing new programs to help farmers cope with a climate of greater extremes.
  • EIA estimates that global oil reserves are increased about 10% by tight (shale) oil.
  • A more detailed technical taxonomy of possibilities for PRISM (requires some computer security knowledge in places).

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Weekend Links

  • Possibly taking energy efficiency measures into account in home loans?  Sounds good to me.
  • Recent extreme flooding events in central Europe likely due to jet stream anomalies driven by climate change.
  • The Guardian tells us who is responsible for the recent NSA leaks.  I guess there are two lessons here: 1) the Internet lends itself to massive surveillance of the populace, but 2) it's very difficult to keep the massive surveillance secret.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Brainstorming a Few Hypotheses About Prism

So executives at major tech companies are doubling down on the denials that they know anything about PRISM, including Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg.  My first assumption was that the denials were legally compelled by the very orders under which they provided the data.  However, after the Obama administration had confirmed the program's existence, there would be little incentive for CEOs to personally continue to dispute the facts.  So what's going on here?  I don't know, but here's all the hypotheses I can come up with:
  • The tech executives do know about PRISM (in fact if not by name) but are continuing to deny it in the hopes of muddying the waters and limiting the damage to their company's brands internationally (this doesn't seem like it would be very smart given that more revelations seem likely, but it's at least a logical possibility).
  • The tech companies have employees with clearances who have implemented PRISM at the behest of the government, and non-cleared executives, including CEOs, genuinely don't know what's occurring.  If so, they are going to be outraged, and with every right.
  • The NSA has gained access to company's internal data via some third party (eg a telco provider to the tech companies, or a hardware or operating system vendor who has provided equipment with a backdoor).
  • The NSA has used technical means to break into the tech companies and install monitoring systems without their knowledge or permission (much as China has been trying to do).
  • The reporting by the Washington Post and the Guardian mischaracterized PRISM, and for some hard-to-imagine reason, the administration has decided to confirm it rather than correct it or deny it.
I have to say that any of these would be fairly breath-taking.  I await further revelations with great interest.  I have a feeling there are a lot more shoes still to drop here.

Oh, in an aside, the Guardian is reporting from a supposedly knowledgeable US intelligence source that "We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world"  If that's true, not very much of it's been brought to light by the commercial security industry, suggesting that there are some interesting techniques in need of discovery.

Sustaining a City in a Long-Term Power Outage

A few comments on this fascinating study from Pittsburgh (site of Carnegie Mellon, which is a center of excellence at studying critical infrastructure issues).  The key theme that emerges for me is the interaction of the liquid fuel system (particularly diesel) and the electricity system.  In a short outage, lots of critical infrastructure has diesel generator backup, and so the hospitals, 911-call centers, and so on can continue to operate.  However, they typically have limited fuel storage capacity (if for no other reason than that diesel doesn't keep indefinitely), and so in a long outage, the availability of diesel becomes critical to keeping everything together.

Friday Links

  • The above is from the National Transportation Fuels Model at Sandia Labs.  It models the processing and distribution system for oil and petroleum products with a view to predicting what would happen in the event of damage to or attacks on the system.
  • It turns out that US cyber-spying is every bit as wide-ranging as Chinese cyber-hacking of US firms.
  • Indeed, the US now pretty much has the legal framework of an authoritarian regime, even if it's a good way from using it to the max.
  • A time lapse visualization of every nuclear explosion since 1945.  Starts off slow but becomes strangely hypnotic as it gathers speed.
  • An interesting analysis of what would happen to a particular US city (Pittsburgh) in the event of an extended power outage affecting the entire city.  Things would start to go south pretty badly after the first few days.

US Exports and PRISM

It appears to me that the new revelations about the PRISM program are likely to hurt US commerce over time.  If I'm a buyer at a non-US company and I'm contemplating putting my data on Amazon's cloud, using Google Docs, buying a Cisco router, even installing Microsoft Windows on my PCs, I now have to assume that the US company I want to do business with is in bed with the NSA.  I have to assume that my enterprise data, my employee's personal data, etc, may be compromised by this new equipment or software.  The company's denials clearly mean nothing (since the government has now confirmed PRISM, thereby making liars of them all).  For all foreigners, you have to assume that anything you share on Facebook, send in a Gmail, say on a Skype call, etc, could be inspected by US intelligence.

In the short term, this will likely have little effect, since people will have limited choice, and it will take a while for the culture to shift.  But in every internal debate about whether to use the American solution or some other homegrown option, this information is going to put a finger on the scale.  Foreign governments are now going to have excellent reasons to promote and protect their homegrown software and equipment industries, since they know they can trust them.  It will take years or even decades for this to play out, but "Made in America", or at least "Designed in California", just took a massive hit to the brand.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hints of Climate Change Affecting the Electricity Grid

It's interesting reading the NERC 2013 Summer Reliability Assessment.  Although it's not a focus of the report, reading between the lines you can see that climate change is going to have complex effects on the grid, and all of them increase the stress on it:
  1. Weather extremes, particular heat-waves, cause higher peak demands, and larger swings in power demand.  For example, p1 refers to challenges in the Texas interconnect (ERCOT) as follows: "The Anticipated Reserve Margin for ERCOT is 12.88 percent for summer 2013. This is below the 13.75 percent target for ERCOT. Sustained extreme weather could be a threat to supply adequacy this summer. ERCOT may need to declare Energy Emergency Alerts (EEA) if there are higher‐than‐normal forced generation outages or if record‐breaking weather conditions similar to the summer of 2011 lead to higher‐than‐expected peak demands."
  2. Drought (expected to increase under climate change) can affect the operation of thermal generation plants (both nuclear and fossil-fuel powered).  Eg p4 says: "When water levels fall significantly, water intake structures may be exposed above the water surface, causing the plant to become nonoperational. Additionally, generators are less efficient as the temperature of cooling water increases and results in a reduction of the power capability of the plant. Along some bodies of water, regulatory limits are placed on the temperature of the cooling water system discharges, and power plants are not allowed to raise water temperatures above levels deemed safe for species of fish and other aquatic life. Again, no major system impacts are expected; however, in certain extreme cases, waivers may be needed to keep critical generation online."
  3. Drought more obviously reduces available hydro-electric generation, eg in the midwest this year (p5): "For the upcoming summer season, the Missouri River main‐stem water levels are being monitored closely, as impacts to this water source may affect significant hydro generation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts that 2013 will be a drought year, and electric energy produced from the Missouri River will be approximately 80 percent of the historical average."
  4. Major storms appear to be worsening, and these can cause unpredictable damage to the grid, or the fuel sources required to run the grid.  For example, hurricane Sandy caused substantial outages in the northeast last year, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico can cause loss of natural gas production required for electricity generation (p6).
  5. Finally, the increase in solar and wind production (which is being undertaken to reduce the causes of climate change) itself is a grid-stressor as these sources are intermittent and mostly not under the control of the grid operators.  The larger the mix of these sources becomes, the more we will demand of the transmission grid.
Of course, none of these things need be fatal to the reliable production of electricity.  But it's clear that it's going to take significant additional investment to keep the grid working reliably in the face of climate change.  Given human inertia, one might imagine that we will be slow to make all the necessary investments and be prone to run the grid in a stressed and vulnerable manner.

Thursday Links

  • The above shows recent and planned capacity adds to the US electricity grid for wind (left) and solar (right).  This is from NERC's short term reliability assessment for this summer.  Rapid additions are going on with a lot of eastern wind and western solar in particular.  If I understand correctly, the full height of the bar here is the nameplate capacity, and the dark blue portion is the amount of that capacity expected to be available at peak demand.  It's interesting that looked at this way, solar is much more useful than wind.  Presumably this is because peak electricity demand currently occurs on hot summer afternoons - something that will change as heat pumps continue to penetrate deeper into the heating market.
  • This is the way blue-collar America ends.
  • Somewhat O/T but the Guardian reports as follows:
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The text of the fourth amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I believe that what the government is doing is an outrageous and blatant violation of the constitution and it should stop immediately.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wednesday Links

  • The above is "Eroom's Law" (named by taking Moore backwards).  It's the number of new drugs  introduced to the market per $billion (inflation adjusted) in research and development spending.  Clearly progress in pharmaceuticals is slowing down - the low-hanging fruit are used up and it's getting harder and harder to find safe and useful medicines.  
  • Trophy fish aren't what they used to be.
  • This is interesting and encouraging: 38% of new homes in 2012 had a heat pump as a the primary heat source.  I didn't realize heat pumps had gone so mainstream.
  • A slow living summit in Vermont.
  • Graffiti in national parks.  It may seem like a small thing, but there is something particularly discouraging about this particular desecration.  Ah well, I suppose soon enough there will be drones everywhere to catch this sort of malfeasor.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Couple of Notes on Global Futures 2045

The link in this morning's links posts to Dmitry Itskov led me to a big conference in Manhattan that he is putting on June 15/16th.  The speaker's list involves a bunch of eminent singularity/AI thinkers, as well as various spiritual thinkers.

I am increasingly struck by the overtly spiritual language being used by techno-optimist singularity thinkers.  From the conference's "About" page:
The main goals of the 2045 Initiative: the creation and realization of a new strategy for the development of humanity which meets global civilization challenges; the creation of optimale conditions promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity; and the realization of a new futuristic reality based on 5 principles: high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science and high technologies.

The main science mega-project of the 2045 Initiative aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. We devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between the world’s major spiritual traditions, science and society.

A large-scale transformation of humanity, comparable to some of the major spiritual and sci-tech revolutions in history, will require a new strategy. We believe this to be necessary to overcome existing crises, which threaten our planetary habitat and the continued existence of humanity as a species. With the 2045 Initiative, we hope to realize a new strategy for humanity's development, and in so doing, create a more productive, fulfilling, and satisfying future.

Tuesday Links

  • US and China agree to regular discussions on cyber-attacks.  Could be a good thing.  Probably can't do any harm, at least.
  • Floating wind turbines?
  • 31 charts that will restore your faith in humanity (maybe :-).
  • Dmitry Itskov has made it his personal mission to solve the problem of uploading human minds into robots.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Friday Links

  • Above - European unemployment continues to worsen.
  • US Department of Transportation supportive of at least semi-autonomous cars (basically with an auto-pilot).
  • 5.3 new diseases emerging per year.
  • What kind of money should cyber-criminals use?
  • The Arab Spring countries may be worse off economically as a result.  A general lesson of history seems to be that revolutions are really hard to do well.  Running a country is not easy, and even if the current government really sucks, it's quite easy to make things even worse.
  • A cyclone in the Arctic might be making a big hole in the ice early in the melting season.
  • On the CO2 in the Bakken thing, I found this: "Harju said he knows of two field tests of CO2  injection into Bakken rocks – one in Mountrail County and one in Montana. Neither was economically successful, but they will help researchers with their laboratory experiments."  Sounds like it might be premature to get too excited.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thursday Links

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

International Power Outage Comparisons

A Parallel

A stray thought I had last night.  I was thinking about the compulsion we in computer science have to develop artificial intelligence.  My experience is that most of my colleagues in the field simply don't really question whether or not it's a good thing that they are working on trying to build algorithms that are smarter than we are.  Whatever our reasons are, it's by and large not because we've really thought it through with an open mind and have decided it's a great idea.  Instead, we are compelled by powerful unconscious motivations, and then try to justify it after the fact.

The analogy that occurred to me is the physicists in the first half of the twentieth century figuring out nuclear physics ("splitting the atom") and eventually developing nuclear weapons.  They remain humankind's most destructive weapon.  And yet, in a strange way, they have led to marked moral/spiritual progress on the part of the species.  They were used twice, and then we've refrained from using them in anger since.  And as a result, there's been no open war between major powers since 1945.  To see how remarkable this is, here's a list of major wars in Europe - there have been wars between major powers every few decades since time immemorial.  But the prospect of nuclear war was so awful that we finally learned to stop.  At least, I hope it stays that way.

So perhaps that's the hope here.  In starting to build something that has the potential to completely tear our society apart altogether, maybe it will force us to finally confront the unconscious forces that drive us to blindly innovate and grow our economy, whatever the cost.  Being a bit more conscious about where we want to go would be a good thing.

Wednesday Links

  • The end of the world isn't as likely as humans fighting back.  Always worth remembering.
  • The agricultural sector in the US uses less than 2% of total energy usage.  Also worth remembering.
  • Sounds like Saeed Jalili is Iran's next president (I'm pretty convinced after 2009 that Iranian elections are effectively fixed).  Doesn't sound like relations with the rest of the world are likely to improve much: "The goal of Iran and its allies, Mr. Jalili said, is to 'uproot capitalism, Zionism and Communism, and promote the discourse of pure Islam in the world.'"
  • China shipping too many crappy solar panels?  Caveat emptor!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System

I am currently reading Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System.  From the summary:
The electric power delivery system that carries electricity from large central generators to customers could be severely damaged by a small number of well-informed attackers. The system is inherently vulnerable because transmission lines may span hundreds of miles, and many key facilities are unguarded. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that the power grid, most of which was originally designed to meet the needs of individual vertically integrated utilities, is now being used to move power between regions to support the needs of new competitive markets for power generation. Primarily because of ambiguities introduced as a result of recent restructuring of the industry and cost pressures from consumers and regulators, investment to strengthen and upgrade the grid has lagged, with the result that many parts of the bulk high-voltage system are heavily stressed.

A terrorist attack on the power system would lack the dramatic impact of the attacks in New York, Madrid, or London. It would not immediately kill many people or make for spectacular television footage of bloody destruction. But if it were carried out in a carefully planned way, by people who knew what they were doing, it could deny large regions of the country access to bulk system power for weeks or even months. An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helpless- ness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold.

The largest power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States have caused high economic impacts. Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions that were even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars—that is, perhaps as much as a few percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), which is currently about $12.5 trillion.

Electric systems are not designed to withstand or quickly recover from damage inflicted simultaneously on multiple components. Such an attack could be carried out by knowl- edgeable attackers with little risk of detection or interdiction. Further well-planned and coordinated attacks by terrorists could leave the electric power system in a large region of the country at least partially disabled for a very long time.
Alert readers may note that the $12.5 trillion figure for GDP is inconsistent with the 2012 publication date of this National Academies of Science report.  Apparently it was written in the 2004-2007 timeframe, but then classified until last year.

Tuesday Links

  • At high speed, on the road to a driverless future.
  • Weakness in air cargo industry.
  • Tom Murphy corrects some common bad thinking about entropy.
  • Prosecutors claim Liberty Reserve handled $6 billion in criminal transactions over seven years and was the leading online money-launderer.  That's a big number, and yet also not, in the context of a $74 trillion global economy.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Weekend Links

  • No clear evidence that tornadoes are likely to get worse under climate change.  Well, that's something.
  • How a big bank failure could unfold.
  • The jet stream - what it is and how it's changing.  This is a very good, long, primer on the changes in the weather that appear to be occurring as a result of the melting arctic.  I blogged about this last April.
  • Could Europe surprise to the upside?
  • Suicide on the rise.  I expect the causes are complex, but at a minimum this is consistent with something I would predict as we continue to move towards the singularity: humans need a sense of meaning, and in the industrial west, a lot of us are used to this coming from work.  As the economy starts to need fewer of us, I expect more depression and suicide.
  • China contemplating economic reform, and perhaps slower growth.
  • Climate change creates some high-class problems too.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Links

  • The above is Markit's PMI index for Chinese manufacturing.  The scale is from the beginning of 2008 through May 2013.  Thus the big dip near the beginning is associated with the great recession.  The recovery, initially strong, has become anemic in the last couple of years.  It was a bit better in the last six months, but May's number is anemic again.  This is presumably associated with weak demand for manufactured goods in contracting Europe and the weakly growing US.
  • America's greenest office building.
  • Asset values probably are being propped up by the Fed.
  • Norbert Wiener back in 1949 on the coming age of the machines.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

April Saudi Oil Production


The above graph summarizes the data on Saudi oil production (and oil rig count on the right scale).  The feature of most current interest is the large production cut that was implemented in the last months of 2012 (more background here).

It appears that in April there was a noticeable uptick in production of around 100-150kbd.  That is nowhere near enough to offset the cut in late 2012, but since it shows up in both sources with data available for April, it's most likely a robust feature of the data.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • The above is Eurostat's European construction index.  The great recession never ended as far as this is concerned - it's still falling rapidly six years after its peak.
  • Syria may break into pieces.
  • Losing the High Plains Aquifer.
  • Google getting into the massive cloud computing business.
  • Bruce Schneier on the future of privacy: none.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Above is European and US GDP from Eurostat, including the latest data for Europe (Q1).  The European economy continues to shrink.  Some enterprising university over there needs to make Paul Krugman an offer he can't refuse so that he can nag their elites endlessly to reinflate the economy.
  • The weather is really losing it in the US midwest.
  • A bibliography of papers on artificial intelligence risk.