Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Preparing for life in the twenty-first century. Uh, and a half.

Are insecurity questions designed to help hackers?—Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
United Music Styles

But I don’t see plutonium rock listed.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that the main purpose of insecurity questions is to help hackers get into your account. This is a testable theory. For example, one of the drawbacks, as far as hackers are concerned, is that the number of answers is unlimited. While it’s likely to be pretty easy to guess what your favorite dog breed is just by watching your Facebook feed, it’s possible that you use an odd spelling, or don’t know what your dog’s breed actually is.

The latest twist on insecurity questions solves that problem for hackers, while making it harder for the account owner whose answers differ from the norm to remember the answers. Instead of a free-form input, you’re provided with a small number of valid answers. I discovered this the last time I went to log in to my United Airlines MileagePlus account. They required that I change my answers, and instead of being allowed to type my own answers, I was forced to choose an answer from a small list.

Now, if your theory is that insecurity questions are there to help the owners of accounts, it’s unlikely that you would have predicted this development. It’s insane, because it does little to help you, the account owner who has forgotten their password but does know your dog’s breed, and everything to help hackers. It’s even worse if your favorite genre or favorite dog is not listed as an option. You’re very unlikely to remember which option you chose in its place—or you’re going to assist hackers by always choosing an item at the top of the list.

I noticed immediately that some of the lists were ridiculously small. The list of musical genres includes only twenty-one items. Jim Fenton went through a bunch of the questions and discovered that some of the questions involve months, which means that the number of answers is a mere twelve. It’s not going to take much of a security breach for a hacker’s computer program to cycle through the choices and come up with the right combination.

If that security breach is like this one described on Stack Exchange that interchanges answers, it’s going to make the month answers ridiculously easy to hack, for example.

St. Louis: Patten Books—Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
Patten Books

Patten Books is an unassuming storefront on Manchester; you might pass it while going to the mall or heading home from the office. Don’t.

The first time I went here, I walked out with a huge stack of old-school books from my rambling want-list. The second time I went here, I was on the way back from the Greater St. Louis Book Fair. The fair was pretty cool, but I had not found anything on my list. Feeling guilty adding so many books to my shelf without being able to check anything off, I stopped by Patten’s afterward and picked up Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld.

I knew I could count on them to have something on my list.

Looking at the list of books I’ve purchased here, they are all fantasy and science fiction, and Patten does have a great selection of SF&F. But they aren’t lacking in general fiction either, nor in non-fiction. If you only go to one bookstore in St. Louis, I’d have to recommend Patten Books. They have a great selection and great prices, and are just a nice, quiet, relaxing place to browse books.

Patten Books
10202 Manchester Road
St. Louis, MO

April 29, 2016

The Eyes of the Overworld Jack Vance $3.50 mass market paperback

March 24, 2015

The Best of Fredric Brown Fredric Brown $3.00 mass market paperback
Hiero’s Journey Sterling E. Lanier $3.00 mass market paperback
The Warrior of World’s End Lin Carter $3.00 mass market paperback
The Broken Sword Poul Anderson $3.00 mass market paperback
The Shadow People Margaret St. Clair $3.00 mass market paperback
The High Crusade Poul Anderson $3.00 mass market paperback
Democrats endorse public school elections, teacher recalls?—Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
Evaluate teachers like legislators

I recently saw an odd meme on Facebook that both illustrates the poor state of education among the left today, and suggests an interesting idea for improving public schools that does not involve vouchers. A group called “Winning Democrats” started a meme calling for treating legislators and teachers the same when it comes to measuring job performance.

Making teachers elected and recallable is an interesting idea.

Now, the group didn’t seem to realize that’s what they’re calling for. Their meme suggested devising a method for tying legislative pay to job performance:

Legislators want teachers to be paid according to their effectiveness as evaluated by student test scores.

How about paying legislators according to their job effectiveness, as evaluated by job creation and economic growth?

They don’t seem to realize that such a method already exists for legislators: elections and recalls.

Their ignorance is probably a reflection on the poor state of Civics instruction in the government-run schools they attended. But the idea is worth thinking about. Attempting to measure teacher performance is an understandable attempt to mimic a free market; but government always fails when it tries to fake a free market. Any rules put in place to pretend to be a free market end up being gamed by those taking part in the system, usually the administrators on both ends of the system. We saw this in California’s power exchanges, we see it today in the federal insurance exchanges, and we see it in all of the corruption attendant in trying to hold government schools accountable for the education they provide.

In a sane school system, parents of children who were not being served well by one school would simply take their children to another school. Teachers who failed to serve students well would be out of a job, or relegated to less remunerative non-teaching roles; any school that retained poor teachers would go out of business. This, of course, already happens in private schools, but because most people can’t afford to pay twice for their children’s education most parents cannot use private schools.

For most parents, there is only one option for school just as there is only one option for government: the government-run school that their tax dollars pay for.

Divisive double standards—Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

It’s easy to see that someone taking part in a left-approved movement has committed a horrendous crime. The media is filled with journalists and politicians calling for togetherness and reason.

This would be fine if it weren’t so hypocritical. Black Lives Matter spokespeople are absolutely right to say that we shouldn’t judge a group based on the actions of one or two members. But their rhetoric since the start has been about judging a group based on the actions of one or two members. Sometimes, even, judging a group based on the non-actions of non-members.

If they really wanted togetherness, reason, and non-judgmentalism, they’d switch their slogan to all lives matter. But they can’t, because they were founded on the principle that brown lives don’t matter and that blue lives don’t matter. Black Lives Matter was formed to protest self-defense by a Hispanic against a black man who, it came out in the trial, had told his girlfriend he was going to assault the Hispanic—who was returning to his vehicle. Medical analysis—and police photos from the night of the assault—corroborated the girlfriend’s testimony. Forgoing self-defense would have meant death for the brown man.

After its founding, Black Lives Matter gained prominence by protesting self-defense by a police officer against a criminal who tried to take the officer’s gun1and was now attacking again. Forensic experts—both for the police and for the dead man’s family—as well as the Obama Justice Department corroborated this, and rejected the myth of hands-up don’t shoot. Forgoing self-defense would have meant death for the officer.

Using the slogan “black lives matter” in response to these incidents is the same as saying that “brown lives don’t matter” and “blue lives don’t matter”.

The response from Black Lives Matter was that the attackers had become “symbols” of victimhood, and that the facts were not relevant because of that. But symbolic or not, it doesn’t change the fact that they still believe Zimmerman should have let Trayvon Martin beat him to death, and that Officer Wilson should have let Michael Brown take his service weapon.

BLM’s response is the left’s reaction to horrendous crimes writ small. When a crime is committed on behalf of the left or a left-approved group, downplay the perpetrator and call for togetherness. When a crime is committed that isn’t clearly on behalf of the left, ascribe it to conservatives and engage in shrill, unreasoning partisanship.

Broken but Unbowed—Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
Shaking Hands with Governor Abbott

Shaking hands with the Governor at our local Barnes & Noble.

This is a short and clearly heartfelt book. The first half is a sometimes touching, sometimes humorous account of his life from the freak accident that paralyzed him to winning the governorship of Texas. This part of the book is less about him than it is about his family, his friends, and his colleagues, who provided him the help and inspiration he needed to move forward.

He talks about how his priorities changed from the moment of the accident. In the very beginning of the book, lying under the tree, he began to realize, through the pain, that he could not move his legs or feet.

This, I realized, must be paralysis. My injury could be really bad.

… I remembered watching a movie with my wife a year earlier about a man who had been paralyzed by an accident. At the time, I told my wife that if that ever happened to me, just put me to death.

Faced with the actuality, however, he chose to focus not on what he couldn’t do, but on what he could.

The second half of the book is a heartfelt appeal for the slate of constitutional amendments he’s proposed, Restoring the Rule of Law, with States Leading the Way. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s going to be hard to argue that he doesn’t have a deep respect for the constitution and what it stands for after reading these chapters.

He believes that these amendments must come from outside the federal government because “It’s simply the nature of the system to perpetuate the system.”

He talks heavily about how federal solutions to economic problems, because of regulatory capture, often exacerbate the very problem they were meant to solve. For example,

Dodd-Frank was intended to prevent banks from being too big to fail, and, hence, avoid the necessity of government bailouts. Instead, the high cost and heavy hand by which the regulations are imposed are leading to the opposite result: eliminating banks that are too small to succeed [under the greater regulatory burden].

Dodd-Frank has had the very predictable effect of increasing regulatory costs. Because of this, it privileges larger banks over smaller banks. Larger banks have more lawyers and bureaucrats to manage greater regulatory costs.

This is, according to Abbott, exactly to be expected. It’s simply the nature of the system to perpetuate the system.

The slate of amendments Abbott proposes are designed specifically to throw a wrench into the system, to make it work better for smaller, local businesses than for larger, national and multinational ones. By moving the levers of power closer to the people, the people can more easily access them.

It makes a lot of sense.

Climate priests cry wolf one more time?—Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
Spinner dolphin jumping

There’s a wolf in the water! Run! (photo by Magnus Kjaergaard, CC-BY-3.0)

It’s getting a bit tedious comparing the occasional global warming article in Science News to the real science articles they run, but the contrast is often so wide it’s hard not to discuss them. In the April 30, 2016 issue there is an amazing juxtaposition between three articles: a nearly-literally fuzzy article about cute white bunny rabbits, a serious article about a potential discovery of a new white dwarf in astronomy, and what looks for all the world like an article from some apocalyptic prophet about how we will not see any sea level rise (unless we do, or unless we see a sea level drop) until about two and a half decades from now when it will SUDDENLY SHOOT UP AND DROWN US ALL UNLESS WE REPENT IMMEDIATELY!!!

I’m going to ignore the white fuzzies article. It’s just “aw, nature is mean & evolution is stupid”, although if you’re interested it does have a cute photo of a snowshoe hare. It doesn’t have bad science in it; it doesn’t have any science at all. Below it, on the left page, is Christopher Crockett’s Odd white dwarf offers peek at core. It’s about the discovery of what is potentially a smaller white dwarf than one would expect to find, with a much different atmosphere. And after describing the potential benefits to finding a low-mass white dwarf, the article ends with some serious caveats:

Dufour says the idea is plausible, but he’s skeptical. “It could work,” he says, “but I doubt it would leave a low-mass white dwarf.”

In 2007, Dufour and colleagues reported a similar strange sighting: several white dwarfs whose atmospheres were loaded with carbon instead of hydrogen and helium. Those also appeared to be missing mass, he says, though the problem was found to lie not with the stars but with the mass estimates. The white dwarfs are heavier than initially thought, and Dufour now suspects that each one arose from a collision between two white dwarfs.

It’s too early to draw strong conclusions from a single oxygen-laden white dwarf. “There are lots of open questions before we can say that this changes our view of white dwarf evolution,” Dufour says.

Why now for the alt-right?—Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

I was reading in the June Commentary about a faction in American politics called the alt-right that appears to have some heavily establishment politics: policy decisions by a technocratic elite, a disdain for the democratic process, and a preference for dealing with strongmen rather than engaging with and convincing voters.

They also appear to go in for bullying those who disagree with them, and many have aligned themselves with Donald Trump.

I can’t say whether James Kirchick paints an accurate picture of the movement. I honestly haven’t seen much of it except some comments in blogs, mainly the Ace of Spades HQ1.

But one thing missing from the article was any discussion of why now?2 There will always be angry factions ready to lash out, on every side. Usually, however, such factions remain tiny and ineffectual. To paraphrase Chauncey Gardiner, such movements will not take root unless the soil is prepared. In other words, why do they grow? Why now?

And the answer to that is, they grow when their tactics work, and their tactics clearly work now. Trump’s alt-right wasn’t first the first to use fascist tactics like these, nor are they the most common and blatant users of it. The tactics that Kirchick describes are no different from the left’s finger nannies who storm the phone lines and social media and even physical barricades to get people like Brendan Eich fired, or to get people fired from colleges.

Why don’t gun owners trust the left?—Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
The real concern of gun control

Immediately following new of the Orlando shooting, the left’s finger nannies got onto social media and began trying to convince their friends to support new gun control laws—specifically, gun control laws that wouldn’t have stopped the Orlando shooter.

Here’s an example from my feed:

I think the terrorist thing, while real in this particular case, is not really the issue. As I stated before, from my point of view, the larger issue has more to do with the relative value we put on our right to free and easy access to fire arms and the cost in human lives that access entails… guns make us less safe, not more, by a huge margin…

To support this, he also wrote:

You are 800 times more likely to die of gun violence if you have guns in the home. That is a fact.

That is “in fact” a pretty huge margin. It was also, of course, completely false. When challenged on it, he immediately dropped it from 800 to 8—no longer a huge margin, but still with no references. Challenged on that, he provided a study that didn’t mention any 8 times greater likelihood of dying from gun violence, or any 8 times greater chance of anything whatsoever.

Then he clammed up, claiming the other people in the discussion (me, mainly) were “just looking to win instead of learning” and that we should “learn some critical thinking skills.”

It turns out that in order to reach “8 times more likely” he was adding two unrelated rates of increase together, and, as is often the case when the left begins to realize that their arguments are filled with bad logic and worse math, he accused those questioning him of his own failures.

Now, no one expects random social media posters to be mathematically literate or even logical. What was amazing to me, though, was how closely his evolution in that one set of comments over a few days mirrored what gun owners get from the left in general, and has been getting, for decades—since before I stopped supporting gun control.

Ironically, the study he quoted just before he petulantly clammed up in the face of a collapsing argument was a 1993 study by Kellerman, once a leading light on the left who followed the same pattern: first, a wildly outrageous statistic (43 times more likely to die from your own gun!) downgraded to a merely moderately outrageous statistic (2.7 times more likely to die from your own gun!) to, when it was pointed out that it looked like, from his tables, that there was actually a moderate benefit to owning a firearm, clammed up and refused to release his data. It was this latter study that provided the “800 times more likely!”, then, “8 times more likely!”, to “you’re a meanie, I just wanted to talk about larger issues”.

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