Science Controversies in the US

In the US, there are a few “controversies” raging in the public debate. For the most part these controversies have been settle in the scientific community and many other countries. Europe for exam does not have a problem with either evolution through natural selection and climate change. These two are huge problems in the US. What are some others? Geocentric solar system, flat earth, connection between HIV and AIDs, and the link between autism and vaccines. While most of these can be laughed off, such as the geocentric or flat earth, others can have serious repercussions. For instance there is a growing population that is refusing to vaccinate their children because they are afraid that they will develop autism. This not only puts that child at risk, but it also puts every other child around them at risk.vaccines only work when a critical mass is vaccinated, because not all vaccines actually take. Typically, scientists look at people that are skeptical of the main stream science with scorn and tend to mock them. This will not get people to change their views.

I’m going to focus on evolution and climate change in this blog. Mostly because the people that don’t accept the evidence for either or both fit into the same set of people. Dealing, I don’t know enough about the autism/vaccine group to comment on them intelligently.

Who are the people that reject evolution most often? They are typically rural white, Christians that are also republicans (article). The same people also reject climate change (I can’t find an article, but republicans rejected global warming in the house). So, let’s assume that these people aren’t stupid, uneducated and are not immoral. What reasons could they have to reject Climate change?

Well, what kind of ethics are these people following? They believe that humans have no ability to change nature. This is actually a belief that Kant held, that there is a separation between what humans can impact and what they cannot impact. Next the Bible says God won’t allow another flood. This, to some extent, falls under the belief that we don’t have the ability to impact the world enough to destroy it.

BUT! Look at the data! It’s pretty obvious. Unfortunately, we humans have an amazing ability to take contradictory evidence and convince ourselves that it’s actually completely wrong and strengths our currently held position. So, people will create elaborate stories or point to anecdotal evidence that “disproves” the aggregate data. Meijnders et al, puts this as statistics are humans with the tears dried off. Basically we need stories. We don’t understand statistics  or how it relates to people in general.

Are these people being irrational? Well, the first case is clearly not irrational. They are operating within a clear set of ethical principles that dictated to them that the world is not at risk as we cannot impact it in this way whatsoever. Not accepting scientific evidence to the contrary is not irrational. The second part, well that’s a defense mechanism to increase the rationality of their decision. If you can show that these data are wrong, then obviously your ethical stance is even more justified.

Accepting climate change as fact for many of these people would cause an earth shattering change in their current belief system. It won’t cause them to lose faith in the bible or anything, however it will force them to look at their current behavior in a way that maybe incredibly painful for them.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to come up with some ways to correct this problem. How we address this is important for addressing our growing climate problem.

Meijnders et al (2009) “The Role of Similarity Cues in the Development of Trustin Sources of Information About GM Food” Risk Analysis Vol 29, No. 8

Is the internet a truly democratizing technology?

Boring title I know. However, I believe this is an extremely important discussion to have. Are technologies political things? Many people claim that the internet has radically changed things. That through the internet now all sorts of political activities can happen. Things are freer and more open. Is this true? Is this a result of technology? Does this technology have to be democratizing? I’m going to argue that while there are political implications of many technologies, there are other factors to considered when talking like this.

Can a road have political implications? Most people would argue that, no it’s a road, you use it to get from point A to point B, or just for fun. Well, what if you have to use public transportation and some one designed a bridge so that the bus couldn’t go over it? Would it be political then, or would the person who designed it be instilling political capabilities into a technologies? I would say in this case, the technology was used to prevent the lower class from reaching a nicer area in New York. A designer named Robert Moses designed many bridges for NYC from 1920-1970 that prevented exactly this type of traffic from occurring (Winner, 1986).

Other cases include using assembly lines to control how workers work and the steam engine to force people to work at a steady pace, or a takt time. Other technologies such as an automated tomato picker forced a lot of other changes in California. For instance it laid off workers, forced small farms to combine into larger farms to use the technology, which drove down the cost of tomatoes which big farms were taking advantage of, and also changed the tomato itself. It actually forced the development of a harder tomato so it could survive the automated picking. Which really pissed people off.

Ok, but we’re in the age of the internet. Big deal, what’s your point with all these old technologies? Arab Spring. Protesters were able to rally using the internet. The US government created these things called suitcase internet This allows users to create a mesh network and connect to websites so users are able to get around the walls that governments put into place. Wikileaks is another source of political technology. Sure, it’s just a site where you can upload files, but you could say that anything is just a site. The point is that there are norms and expectations around Wikileaks that allows some one to feel secure if they leak something to.

Additionally, governments are starting to and continuing to control the internet and how it is used. Eric Schmidt, of Google, is worried that this sort of governmental control is only going to increase. Hacktivists such as Lulz Sec and Anonymous are only going to increase the likelihood of this. The US government itself has a conflicting approach to hackers. In the cases where these hackers are going after groups that are not within the US or not the US government, the State Department has been extremely supportive. However, as soon as these groups change focus to the US, they are declared terrorists groups, or something close, which much be destroyed. NATO recently declared much the same thing.

We are in the beginning of a struggle over the future of the internet. Hacking groups are standing up for regular users and attempting to change the direction of governments. There have been a few successes coming from unexpected locations. This op-ed has some of them. The TL;DR of the article is that the UN lambasted some of the UK’s laws, and that an Australian ISP backed out of a filtering agreement with the Government.

Clearly there are many different uses for the internet. These uses can be good and bad. However, these uses have political ramifications. The choice to hack, the choice to be social on the internet, and the choice to educate yourself all impact how the future of the internet goes. I don’t support hacking. However, it is forcing transparency and increasing awareness of people both in and out of cyber space, what is actually going on in the Interwebs.

Also, the UN declared the three-strike laws for copyright, where if you get caught three times you lose internet for life, to be a violation of human rights.

Winner, L. (1980) “Do Artifacts have Politics?” Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1:

Soft War:

California VS. Video Games (Video games won!)

In 2005 California enacted a law which would have made it illegal to sell extremely violent video games to minors. Much in the same way that it’s illegal to sell Hustler to a minor. The video games version of the RIAA, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), objected to this, with the support of many different organizations like the RIAA, MPAA, ACLU and many big players in software, like Microsoft and Activision. However, there’s more history to this case than first meets the eye. You have to go back to the initial ruling on pornography to really understand what’s at stake here and how this ruling could impact the gaming industry.

In 1964 a movie called “the Lovers” a French movie was banned in Ohio, because Ohio deemed it obscene. Ohio also fined the owner of the theater where the movie was shown. The owner took Ohio to court over this ruling. In this case the court decided this movie was not obscene, and that Ohio was violating the First Amendment of free speech. This case is where the phrase, I can’t tell you what it (pornography) is, “but I know it when I see it” comes from. One of the Supreme Court Justices, Justice Peters,  had decided against a hard and fast definition, but declared that this movie was ok.

Fast forward nine years and you run into another case against California. In this one a guy name Miller was selling sexually explicit material through a magazine. In this case an actual test was created to determine if the material was obscene or not. This test is the basis for the California law signed into effect in 2005.

If this law had gone into effect, it was halted with an injunction, it would have had a chilling effect on the video game industry. So, we know that it’s steadily gotten more difficult to buy violent video games since the 90’s because of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) placing ratings on video games. This is similar to what happens with movies. The major difference is that it is up to the reseller to determine if they want to carry a product with the M rating or not. Effectively what this law would have done is to turn the M from the equivalent of an R rated movie into an NC-17 or X rated movie. This would devastate the First Person Shooting (FPS) industry as well as many other games, such as fighting games, some real time strategy and most likely role playing games as well.

We got lucky. The court ruled that Video games are protected by the First Amendment. The results from the Justices were interesting. While the ruling was 7-2, it could have easily been 5-4 if the law had been written differently. The majority, 5 of the Justices, argued that California had been unable to prove that video games were different enough from books, movies, television and other media to justify this law. Thus they ruled it was violating the First Amendment. The two other Justices, Roberts and Alito, argued that the law was too vague and thus, if narrower the Justices would have sided with California.

The dissenting Justices argued that minors have different kinds of free speech, and they claimed there is not much difference between binding and murdering a women and binding and murdering a topless woman. Using this argument is basically saying that it’s obscene to create this kind of art.

There were also discussions on the science used in this case. Which claimed that the more interactive nature of video games make them more dangerous to children developing minds than any other sort of entertainment.

Now that you have some understanding of this case what does it all mean? Well, first, in a way, this legitimizes video games as a type of art. We all have felt that they’ve been art, but now officially the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) has agreed and given video games the protection they deserve. Second, this prevents any other state from attempting to pass a law similar to the California law. It’s also clear from the way that the Justices ruled on this decision that even a narrower ruling would have gone in favor of the video game industry. This is a really good thing, as it means that it’s unlikely another state will try to challenge this ruling with the current Supreme Court.

What other implications does this have? Well, it clearly says that as a culture we feel that violence is inherently different than sex. We have made it clear with this ruling that the US is willing to accept graphic violence as non-obscene while sex is. This is interesting itself. The initial ruling on obscenity, and the 2005 California law, state that what is culturally acceptable defines obscenity. With this ruling we are saying that violence is acceptable in media.

Other observations, while the SCOTUS ruled that there isn’t a difference between video games and books and movies, I can’t help but still see that there is. Some in books, such as A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF), would never be allowed in movies are video games because of the sexual content. However, a young impressionable mind can more easily pick up one of these books than they could pick up a movie or video game with the same content. I started to read ASOIF when I was 13, it would have been extremely difficult for me to actually be able to see a movie that had the same amount of sex and violence. Now, I’m not saying that it should have been easier, but that’s because of my parenting more than anything else. As a matter of free speech, I personally don’t see any difference between the word and the picture. The picture just requires less effort to understand or see the scene. This is not a reason to segregate a section of material. Additionally, in Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 he describes an author that writes stories that are violent and sexually violent towards women. This author was arrested and charges were pressed against him. He was acquitted as he was protected under the first amendment. We need to be aware that no matter how much we don’t like these images or words that we can’t make them illegal. Our founding fathers fought for our freedom to allow us these rights.

So, video gamers rejoice! We have won a great victory, one that will hopefully set a precedent which will protect video game writers, artists, coders and everyone else involved long into the future.

Happy Gaming!

Further Reading:
Actual Ruling:

LulzSec, Anonymous, ICE, FBI and users Part IV

Get caught up on this series Part I, Part II and Part III.

Well, it goes to show how quickly the internet works. LulzSec calls it quit, see NY Times article. However, in my opinion this doesn’t change a whole lot about what I said in my previous posts. There will be another group that decides to do the same sort of thing. I’m sure the individual members of LulzSec will be active with groups like Anonymous and perhaps join up with some other hacking group out there.

At any rate, it’s important to discuss the overall structure of the internet. While many users believe the internet should be free and anonymous and all those things. It’s starting to become apparent that this is not going to be the case. With major US ISPs deciding to go after pirating directly, it seems that deep packet analysis is going to be the way of the future. Wait, what is deep packet analysis? Well, when you send information across the internet it’s broken up into smaller pieces and sent to the end point through many different routes. This ensures that the data all makes it to the other side in the fastest manner possible. Initially, it was difficult to determine what this information was. Now there are many different suppliers that allow ISPs to figure out what these packets of data are. This gets to the root of the Net Neutrality debate. I haven’t talked about that yet, which I’ll do later this week I believe.

Anyway, since the ISPs know what you’re sending, you’re already less anonymous there. They know where you live, who you are and how you are paying your bills. They know a lot of other information about you too. Next, the EFF has shown that based on your browser and plugins that it is likely your browser configuration makes it unique like a finger print (article). On top of that you have a lot of  “Cookies” based on the websites you’ve visited. These are useful to you and to commercial websites. It stores personal information and allows you to get your recommended books list from Amazon. This means that over time, you’ve accumulated a great deal of identifying information on your computer that is accessible through your browser. Using your browser it is easy to identify you and your online habits. However, the EU just implemented a law about requiring consent for websites to use cookies (BBC article).

Sadly, these are not the only structures that we need to be aware of. Many companies like Google are required by the US government to have a backdoor for them to execute warrants and do general snooping of the email systems. I’m sure Facebook is also required to do this, but I haven’t directly heard this yet. This has caused at least one acknowledged case of hacking by a Chinese group on Google (article). With these backdoors there is only so much an individual user can do to protect themselves. In cases like this, the strongest password in the world wouldn’t have protected your emails.

Groups like Anonymous, LulzSec and Ninja Hackers are trying to increase the amount of freedom and anonymity users have on the internet. The Government and businesses are trying to decrease it. The US government does want to initiate a national level internet ID, which basically would tie all your information together. While easy for users, it could be very high risk for them as well. The difference in how these groups feel that the internet should be operating is the root cause of the “Softwar.”  This will not stop, and we, the users, will be stuck between these two sides, unless we force our government to decide one way or the other.

Additional Reading:
Lawrence Lessig Code 2.0. Many of the ideas I got for this post are discussed in this book, which I’m currently reading, you can download it for free legally here.

LulzSec, Anonymous, ICE, FBI and users Part III

Get caught up on this series Part I, and Part II.
So I’ve been talking about these four groups and how they have been interacting. However, these groups are not interacting in a vacuum. Theses groups are either hacking governmental organizations or they are hacking corporations.When Anonymous and LulzSec (or any other hacking group) goes after a company, they are trying to get one of two things, some times both, either user data or  some sort of dirt on the company itself.

User information can range from names, locations, email address to IP addresses and credit card information. Since these guys are going after big companies, like Sony, Blizzard, and other gaming companies, they are most likely going after as much information as they can get their hands on. When it comes to dirt on a company, they go after big companies and small alike. They went after Bank of America in an attempt to reveal improper behavior to punish someone for the financial mess we’re in. Small companies like HBGary was a bit of a grudge match. HBGary claimed that they were able to bring down all of Anonymous, which pissed the group off. HBGary was hack and completely discredited and also showed a lot of nastiness going on in the security world in general.

In some ways it’s pretty obvious how stealing using information impacts the user. Recently, Sony’s PlayStaion Network was down for a month, because of the security breach, which included some 1.3 million user’s information being stolen including credit card information. In another case a game called Brink was hacked and 200,000 users information was stolen.

So, obviously these guys are in the wrong right? Well, yes and no. They think they are completely in the right here. They could have been doing all these things and not made it public. Just stole the information, then sell it to someone and make a lot of money from it. Or perhaps use it themselves. In some cases they did that. Anonymous ordered about 100 pizzas to a Sony Executive’s house. In fact, Sony is currently being sued for the weakness of their network. We would not have known about it, without the hacker attack.

The US government is fighting back and taking down servers which have obvious impacts on users and hosting agents at the same time. However, both ICE and the FBI feel they are 100% in the right based on the law. ICE firmly believes that it has the required authority and rights to take down websites, and the FBI feels it can take whatever servers it needs to find these guys.

It’s the immovable object versions the unstoppable force, with the regular internet users in the middle. Most users won’t notice unless some website they are using goes down, or they find out their card has been hacked. Users that play games, watch movies, and create content have the most risk in this battle.

How can users mitigate their risk? Well, the best thing to do is to get a specific online credit card that has a low limit that will cover your gaming and general online purchases. If you’re only spending $10/month on games then get a card that will have a maximum of $100 or something like that. Minimize the number of credit cards you use online, and try to avoid using debit cards as much as possible. Additionally, try to create difficult passwords, something with multiple capital letters, numbers and special characters if the website allows it. Such as: Dr.Wh0d^nn!t something more random might be better, but it’s still a much more difficult password to deal with than drwhodunit. If you are unable to create passwords like this, then you should request it from the website you are using.

Finally, there’s only so much you can do as a user. Some of this has to deal with how the internet is structured. I’ll discuss this tomorrow. Protect yourself as much as you can.

The NY Times posted this article yesterday about LulzSec.