Archive for April, 2010

Hawking vs Alien

April 26, 2010

Stephen Hawking is in the news for reports on his comments on the inadvisability of communicating with aliens. We’ll have to wait for the full Discovery Channel series to see what he really said, and keep in mind it’s a made-for-TV statement. But it does give me an early morning hook to bang out a post instead of prepping for class.

There’s two reasons why the “hide and watch or they’ll loot us” approach is wrong. First off. The hide and watch part won’t work. It’s not the “Hello World” signals that SETItionists and other astronomers send out that will attract attention, it’s our normal human activity. First, of course, are our radio and TV transmissions. While all information in the signals will have degraded before it gets beyond much beyond the nearest stars, the carrier wave will still be there. Second is our military/aviation activities. We transmit lots of high power radar signals. We used to transmit even more, with our BMEWS and the Soviet Hen House radars. Those signals will be detectable long after “Lucy” has faded. Finally, there’s the big blue ball itself. We are getting to the point that we will soon be able to detect earth-like planets at great distances and, under special circumstances, detect signs of life, like liquid water and an oxygen atmosphere. So don’t worry about talking to the aliens, they’ll know we’re here long before we can think of what to say.

The second reason involves the looting and pillaging part of Hawking’s concerns. I am not going to talk about the morals of aliens. I suspect they will be incomprehensible to us (you know, alien). What I would argue is the old argument for having us Earthlingas establishing a space-based civilization — it’s raining soup out there and all we need is a bowl. There’s nothing in the way of resources at the bottom of the Earth’s gravity well that a space-faring people couldn’t get far more easily elsewhere. Metals? Melt down an asteroid. Petrochemicals? Go mine Titan. I seriously doubt that any race capable of interstellar viking isn’t also capable of building any long-chain organic molecule they want, using water from the outer solar system, and solar power from the inner…erm…solar…system.

That leaves lebensraum, and there you have me. A oxy-water world may be rare, and might be the target of colonization. But if you have built your civilization around living in an FTL habitat, or a generation ship for that matter, your mindset is to get the stuff you need from the Oort or the Main Belt, and leave the gravity wells alone.

The final reason I am not worried about this is my take on the Fermi Question. From everything I can see, in our Galaxy, right now, n = 1 and it’s us. I’ll have more to say about that in future. Right now I have to go prep.

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Sky Crawlers has moved

April 25, 2010

While working at avoiding both updates and work, I decided to create a new blog, to preserve for all eternity my efforts at having fun with Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. All of the SCIA posts are now over at SkyCrawler, and you can get to it via my blogroll.

The Ballad of Apollo 13

April 11, 2010

Forty years ago today.

Last year I posted the lyrics to William Warren’s song (best known in the Julia Ecklar rendition) about it. Here’s the link. It is, of course, based on the Gordon Lightfoot song Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Creating Passionate Users

April 6, 2010

Three years ago today, Kathy Sierra closed her Creating Passionate Users blog. She had built a remarkable community of people interested in software design, usability, and management. Sadly, there are those on the web who cannot stand seeing success and joy in others, and who are led, by whatever twisted failures of their brain chemistry, to do all they can to destroy them. In Kathy’s case, this went as far as death threats. Having better things to do than subject herself to such, she stopped writing the blog, to pursue other endeavors.

The blog is still up, and although the essays are now old, they are also timeless. I would strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in how to engage their user community, or whose goal is creating marvelous applications go back and read them. The final posts are about the closure and the issues that caused it. That’s reading for another time, and doesn’t capture the sheer fun of systems development. Instead, browse through the Past Favorites column. I do, now and again.

And, even though it has been quiet for the last three years, I still keep my link to her RSS feed open. We can always hope.

They hate us for our freedoms 6

April 4, 2010

Let’s be clear from the start that, despite having been a security professional most of my professional life, I am not particularly fond of either DHS or TSA. In part, that’s because their origin was profoundly flawed. Having found that many of our problems associated with 9/11 were due to an ineffective bureaucracy, the government decided the best solution was another layer of bureaucracy. And then they named it Department of Homeland Security. Is there anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t feel chills down their spine when the hear that term? Homeland? You know who else was concerned with the homeland, or as he would have put it, heimat? To give it such a name reveals both a lack of understanding of history, and a profoundly disturbing mindset.

Next, we come to their mindset. A good system, a good big system, almost invariably arises because a good little system was successful, and grew. The kinds of systems that are most prone to failure are those where pre-existing systems are bolted together — they are big, but their different parts never learned how to communicate with each other, so they are also clumsy. The clumsiness of this Frankenstein’s monster is exacerbated by the fact that the parts don’t want to communicate. This, in turn, is due to the profound difference between organizations that deal with what is called positive intelligence vs those whose primary role is counterintelligence and security. In positive intelligence, there is one cardinal sin, and this may surprise you — knowing something and not telling the people who need to know it. In counterintelligence and law enforcement, you get promoted for making more arrests than anyone else, and the way you do that is by having better intelligence than anyone else. A career in these fields builds in a no-share mindset. This is what Linstone would call a Personal issue, aggravated by the Organizational structure. Technology (the third leg off his multiple perspectives), as usual, isn’t really a player in this fail structure.

Now we look back at what I talked about last time, the two goals of the bureaucratic organization: control and failure avoidance. I freely admit up front that DHS/TSA have been given an impossible job. There is no working system that is 100% failure-free, nor will there ever be. As Bruce Schneier has often said, the most effective bureaucratic action to come out of 9/11 was the order to armor airline cockpit doors. At one swoop, DHS/TSA made it almost impossible for 9/11 to happen again. Terrorists might bring down an aircraft, but they will never be able to fly one into a public building. The second most effective thing, by the way, to come out of 9/11 was the realization of the passengers that onboard security was up to them. All attempts to bring down airliners by setting fire to terrorist feet or crotches have been foiled by alert and active passengers, not by any actions of DHS/TSA. The best their sky marshals have been able to do is to kill a mentally disturbed man who posed no great threat, and was already off the aircraft. Of course, the new rules about when you can stand and move about the compartment will have the primary effect of limiting passenger response to a threat.

In the face of this monumental, structural, impotence, DHS/TSA has reverted to (Schneier again) “security theater”. Security theater, like street theater, has little to do with reality. It is all about appearances. When the next airliner comes down (not if), DHS/TSA will be able to point to all their amateur theatrics and say “we did everything possible”. It’s not failure avoidance, it’s avoidance of the appearance of failure. Take the ban on fluids. Even DHS/TSA doesn’t believe in it. As others have pointed out, if you try to bring an AK-47 through security, they will arrest you. If you try to bring a half-full 6oz bottle labeled “baby cream” through, they will take it from you and — drop it in a can with all the other confiscations. On top of that, the ban isn’t on taking a large amount of fluids on an aircraft, it’s a ban against an individual taking a large amount of fluids through security. OK, so we get an accomplice who is part of the ground crew to stash it where you can pick it up prior to boarding. Or, we get ten people to go through security and each transfer their 3oz payload to the pocket bomber, or carpet bomber, or whatever is the next technique, again, after security screening but prior to boarding.

This isn’t control, this is the illusion of control, and they work to maintain this illusion, at all costs. For example, there was an elderly nun a few years back, who shares a name with someone on the “additional screening” list. Not the “no-fly” list, that compendium of names of people who are so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly, but against whom we do not have enough evidence to arrest, but a different, much larger, list. She flys a lot, this nun, on church business, and at one point, during her hundredth or so patdown she said something like “I could see doing this if this was Northern Ireland…” The patter-down exercised their bureaucratic compassion and said “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, because if I did, I’d have to arrest you”. The rule is, you can’t diss the system. You have to pretend that it’s all very serious and in aid of something, or draconian measures will be taken.

It’s not just air safety, although that was the initial excuse. Consider the recent arrest and conviction of a Canadian SF writer for the federal felony crime of taking too long when ordered to lie down at a border crossing. Even more recently, a federal court in Seattle found that it is permissable for a police officer to taser a pregnant woman who refuses to accept a traffic ticket. Three times. What is happening is that those who desire more control are using the new attitudes of the whole of this country’s bureaucracy, including that of the courts, to further their own goals of control and suppression of freedom. The result is that those who are theoretically charged with protecting us are now a greater threat to our personal freedom and well-being than any terrorist.

NOTE: No sooner do I mention the ineffectiveness of the Sky Marshall program do we get this item from a Republican Congressman.

More, anon.