Friday, December 19, 2014

Does Not Compute

Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korea's leader, in what appears to be an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang and its abilities to wage cyber-warfare.
Sony cancels North Korea movie in apparent win for Pyongyang hackers
Maybe it's just me, but I don't understand how veiled references to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York speak to the ability of North Korea to wage cyber-warfare. While it's true that the Guardians of Peace were likely taken more seriously than they otherwise would have been because of their successful breach of Sony's computer security, they didn't need to have hacked into anything to make such a threat - or, despite the serious difficulties in doing so, carry it out. After all, al-Queda didn't need to breach any corporate computer systems to carry out the attack that the Guardians of Peace referenced in their threat.
Today, Guardians of Peace threatened theaters that planned to screen The Interview, saying: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
Theater Cancels New York Premiere of 'The Interview'

[...]Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of “The Interview,” a satire targeting that country’s dictator, after the hackers made some ridiculous threats about terrorist violence.
Sony Made It Easy, but Any of Us Could Get Hacked
The former Sony employees who filed suit against their one-time employer allege that Sony effectively blew off the threat of hacking against their systems, even though other attacks have occurred in the past. If that's the case, it hardly seems "unprecedented" for someone to pry open a door that was proven to be ineffectively locked in the first place.

In the end, making the North Koreans out to be the world's most accomplished cyber-warriors draws more eyeballs, and seems much more serious, than a simple story about how large theater chains, and then Sony itself, folded in the face of dubious threats form an organization that only its members had heard of before last month. Taken at face value, this is little more than a story of corporate caution - regardless of how far-fetched the threats may have seemed, or how many people call the companies out for cowardice, had the show opened, and so much as a single person were injured or killed, there would have been a predictable rush of lawsuits from people claiming that they had been placed in unnecessary danger by companies hungry for profits.

That's not the same as the penetration of Sony security making it difficult or impossible to release the movie. It's a distinction worth making.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

To Remember

A roadside remembrance of the deceased.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's All Good

In the car on my way home this evening, I was listening to a radio journalist interviewing a transportation activist about Washington Governor Jay Inslee's plan to mandate lower-carbon fuels for the state, in an effort to lower it's carbon footprint. (Washington, receiving a good portion of its electricity from hydropower, is as something of a disadvantage, given less low-hanging fruit to pick.)

The interviewer asked a simple question: basically, what are the pros and the cons of using lower-carbon fuels for transportation. The activist gladly rattled off the upsides he saw, but started his short statement of the downsides with "the oil industry says," before basically simply listing some scare tactics.

I was unimpressed. One thing that I know is there are the few unmitigated benefits simply lying around free for the asking. On some level or another, a wholesale switch of an entire, fairly populous state to lower-carbon fuels likely won't be painless. Petroleum and coal aren't popular sources of energy simply because of the perfidy of fossil-fuel suppliers. They're popular because they're really energy-dense and fairly safe to transport. That makes them worthwhile despite the fairly obvious downsides to using them as much as we do. If something manifestly better were simply available to anyone who wanted it - people would be using it already.

My personal experience is that anyone who won't be upfront with you about the costs and benefits of the approach that they're promoting doesn't trust that you will make the choice that they want you to make. And that leads me to be distrustful in turn, especially when I realize that they're not being forthcoming. Perhaps a little confidence, especially in the solutions that one is promoting, would go a long way. And if that confidence is unwarranted, perhaps it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


In boardrooms, banks and governments the belief has taken root that the advance of capitalism is irreversible.
John Gray, "A Point Of View: Why capitalism hasn't triumphed"
In this case, it seems to me that boardrooms, banks and governments all misunderstand the fact that what we generally call capitalism, isn't and how societies work. Herbert Spencer understood capitalism to be the mark of "industrial societies[, where] the economy was based on contract and voluntary exchange." But that's actually a fairly rare circumstance. While the current economy of the United States isn't centrally planned, it's not laissez-faire by any stretch of the imagination.

And although I must admit to not being a particularly adept historian, it seems to me that Gray is right when he says that the formation of economies is driven by human decisions. And those decisions are often reactive, looking to correct perceived problems in what came before. Capitalism isn't free of perverse incentives, and those perverse incentives can, and have, created any number of problems that many people are keen to fix - especially when cronyism enters the picture, as it often does. Given that, it's fairly easy to imagine a situation in which societies move away from what we now understand to be capitalism, in an effort to solve those issues.

Spencer, coiner of the notorious "Survival of the fittest," tended to believe that a Darwinian evolutionary model could be applied to anything, including societies (hence, "social Darwinism"). But he tended to see evolution as a process that drove things in predictable directions, towards things that he considered superior. Boardrooms, banks and governments may follow him in that, but it is likely to end in the same disillusionment.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best. Study. Ever.

From the moment I saw the title, I knew this one would be good:

The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour
Although, one has to admit, conventional wisdom is right on the mark here.
Sex differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency hospital admissions, and mortality are well documented. However, little is known about sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. This paper reviews the data on winners of the Darwin Award over a 20 year period (1995-2014). Winners of the Darwin Award must eliminate themselves from the gene pool in such an idiotic manner that their action ensures one less idiot will survive. This paper reports a marked sex difference in Darwin Award winners: males are significantly more likely to receive the award than females (P less than 0.0001). We discuss some of the reasons for this difference.
You just have to love science sometimes.