Friday, March 29, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thursday Links

  • The NYT on why private sector involvement in Greek bond write-downs were a critical factor in the situation now in Cyprus.
  • Large scale distributed denial-of-service attacks going down on the Internet.  More here - this is a DNS reflection attack, first postulated as a possibility by Berkeley researcher Vern Paxson (a friend and sometime collaborator of mine).
  • Soy based biodiesel is much more energetically favorable than corn ethanol.  It still links food prices to fuel prices, however, so it's something to be done in great moderation.  High/rising food prices are very destabilizing to poor countries, which creates huge headaches for everyone (think Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali).
  • UC Riverside professor John Baez has a course on the Mathematics of the Environment, which looks to have some pretty interesting stuff in.
  • I got that link at the blog of Steve Easterbrook, Serendipity; another computer scientist learning about climate science.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • Formula One car racing is going hybrid.
  • The level of creepiness in online advertising is getting extreme.  Bruce Schneier is absolutely right to characterize the Internet as a surveillance state. (he's recently made some changes to his blog to make online tracking harder - would be interested in my reader's take on these issues).
  • The challenge of being a millenial in the current economy.
  • Future generally not bright for the middle class, says Bruce Bartlett.
  • Superb piece on how disability is essentially becoming the welfare program of last resort for the working class.  I had already pretty much figured this out, but there's lots of evidence and color at the link.  This (and related issues) is why I prefer to use the employment/population ratio for working age men as my employment indicator of choice, rather than relying on the unemployment rate. Excerpt from the piece:
After sitting in the waiting room of his clinic several mornings in a row, I met Dr. Timberlake. It turns out, there is nothing shifty about him. He is a doctor in a very poor place where pretty much every person who comes into his office tells him they are in pain.

"We talk about the pain and what it’s like," he says. "I always ask them, 'What grade did you finish?'"

What grade did you finish, of course, is not really a medical question. But Dr. Timberlake believes he needs this information in disability cases because people who have only a high school education aren't going to be able to get a sit-down job.

Dr. Timberlake is making a judgment call that if you have a particular back problem and a college degree, you're not disabled. Without the degree, you are.

Over and over again, I'd listen to someone's story of how back pain meant they could no longer work, or how a shoulder injury had put them out of a job. Then I would ask: What about a job where you don't have to lift things, or a job where you don't have to use your shoulder, or a job where you can sit down? They would look at me as if I were asking, "How come you didn't consider becoming an astronaut?"

Monday, March 25, 2013

Some Things That Will be True After AI

Kevin Drum muses about the advent of true artificial intelligence:
I agree, and something similar to this needles me periodically whenever my mind drifts into dorm room bull session mode.1 You see, I believe that we're only a few decades away from true artificial intelligence. I might be wrong about this, but put that aside for the moment. The point is that I believe it. And needless to say, that will literally change everything. If AI is ubiquitous by 2040 or so, nearly every long-term problem we face right now—medical inflation, declining employment, Social Security financing, returns to education, global warming, etc. etc.—either goes away or is radically transformed in ways we can't even imagine.
I agree with Kevin that AI is the biggest deal out there.  I also think it's coming, though I suspect it will take longer than 2040 to arrive fully* and that it will arrive in stages over the course of a number of decades.  Indeed, in important ways we can already feel the early effects.

It's worth thinking about some things that won't change as a result of AI, or at least not quickly.  Here's a draft list:
  • There will still be 9 or 10 billion humans on the planet (or may the gods and goddesses help us).
  • They will still want to live in big warm houses with lots of stuff, and travel around as much as they are able.
  • They will still want to have sex and raise children.
  • They will still be prone to getting very pissed if anyone tries to take their stuff away.
  • The economy will still consist of competing corporations regulated by governments (it's just that both the corporations and governments will over time employ fewer and fewer humans).
  • Humans will still have all the legal rights (I just don't see why we are ever going to think it's in our interest to give legal rights to algorithms).
It follows pretty immediately that most of our environmental problems, for example, won't be going anywhere as a result of AI.

On the other hand, we are going to have to go through some massive wrenching cultural adjustments in our ideas of work and dependency and how we derive meaning from our lives.  Jamais Cascio recently coined the term the Burning Man Future, which I like.  In particular, it captures the idea that the entire culture is going to increasingly have to become like what is currently a hippy artist fringe.  Either that, or we need to decide that there are some things we really don't want to invent and stop working on this stuff.

* It's probably worth pointing out that I have spent most of my career designing statistical reasoning algorithms for a living so my intuitions here are at least somewhat educated.  Of course, I could be as wrong as the next expert usually is.

Why Did Saudi Arabia Reduce Oil Production?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Weekend Links

  • The above is the annual energy consumption of a new refrigerator in the United States over time, according to the EIA.  It has fallen by more than two thirds since the first oil shock in 1973.
  • New York Times contemplating life after fossil fuels.
  • The Freelancer's Union is attempting to make life better for independent contractors in a world in which work is less secure.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thursday Links

US Crude Oil Production 1920-2012

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Distinguishing Natural and Man-Made Climate Change

Figure is from here, and shows estimated global temperature from the last glacial maximum to the end of the 21st century (according to a fairly business-as-usual emissions scenario).

Tuesday Links

Monday, March 18, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Future Blog Platform

Hmmm.  Commenter Greg draws my attention to Google's planned closure of its reader service in July.  I personally have been using reader as my main way to follow news and blogs for many years, and I think its closure raises questions about Google's commitment to the entire blogging ecosystem that they host.

So this seems like a good time to do some thinking about the future technological platform for this blog.  Should I go all Facebook?  Switch to another blogging platform?  Twitter?  What say readers?

Thursday Links

  • Interesting essay on the cyberwar arms race from Bruce Schneier.  I don't agree with his perspective, but I anticipate writing more on this subject on the blog and have started to look around at what others have been saying.  Also a cyberwar sceptic is Marcus Ranum, and he has a series of essays worth reading.
  • Mildly O/T, but monarch butterflies in trouble.
  • Finally, initial unemployment claims in the US seem to be falling again, which is good news:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • China is now the largest oil importer in the world, having surpassed the US.
  • If I was a South Korean, I'd be feeling this way too.  When your neighbor is openly talking about incinerating your cities with nuclear weapons, and they have nuclear weapons, it's pretty hard to sit there and not respond.  In general, North Korea seems pretty worrying at the moment.
  • That said, the commander of PACOM, Admiral Locklear, who is in charge of worrying about North Korea and China both, says he's most worried about climate change.
  • On the third hand, the Director of National Intelligence has now elevated cyberattacks to the number one threat to the US.
  • Krugman (relevant to yesterday's GDP graph): "Mario Draghi’s actions, by stabilizing markets and bringing down spreads, bought Europe quite a lot of time; Europe is determined to waste all of it."
  • Somebody reminded me yesterday of this paper I did with some collaborators back in 2004, causing me to reread it again.  It concerns how fast a computer worm could infect a large population of vulnerable computers spread all over the Internet - the answer turns out to be well under one second.  I think it's my favorite of my published papers (both because I love thinking about really big bad stuff that could happen, and because the actual analysis was a lot of fun).  Abstract: 
Flash worms follow a precomputed spread tree using prior knowledge of all systems vulnerable to the worm’s exploit. In previous work we suggested that a flash worm could saturate one million vulnerable hosts on the Internet in under 30 seconds. We grossly over-estimated.

In this paper, we revisit the problem in the context of single packet UDP worms (inspired by Slammer and Witty). Simulating a flash version of Slammer, calibrated by current Internet latency measurements and observed worm packet delivery rates, we show that a worm could saturate 95% of one million vulnerable hosts on the Internet in 510 milliseconds. A similar worm using a TCP based service could 95% saturate in 1.3 seconds.

The speeds above are achieved with flat infection trees and packets sent at line rates. Such worms are vulnerable to recently proposed worm containment techniques. To avoid this, flash worms should slow down and use deeper, narrower trees. We explore the resilience of such spread trees when the list of vulnerable addresses is inaccurate. Finally, we explore the implications of flash worms for containment defenses: such defenses must correlate information from multiple sites in order to detect the worm, but the speed of the worm will defeat this correlation unless a certain fraction of traffic is artificially delayed in case it later proves to be a worm.
This has still never been done in the wild, but I bet that, at some point in coming decades, someone will do this somewhere.

Update (1pm eastern): A Japanese research drilling vessel has apparently successfully tapped undersea methane hydrates for the first time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • The above figure (from the EIA) shows the seasonality of electricity demand by sector (residential, commercial, and industrial) in the US.  All are mainly summer peak demand.  It's interesting to think about this in the context of a carbon neutral economy in which heating would presumably mainly be done via heat-pumps (creating a large winter peak in demand also), and electricity would be supplied by wind and solar (with the latter being very much a summer peak thing).  Right now my guess is still that the only way to pull off a fully renewable-based economy is via global electricity trade (since storing electricity from summer to winter sounds really hopeless, whereas global electricity trade seems only somewhat quantitatively harder than the intra-continental electricity trade we do now).
  • Corporate profits soar as labor income stagnates.
  • The New York Times kills its Green blog (after having already dismantled its environmental desk).  The optics of this, at a minimum, are appalling.
  • David Brooks on the incentives for the US in dealing with Chinese commercial cyber-espionage.
  • Why are the Chinese hacking into US/Canadian pipeline and electric grid companies?  Very good question.  I was particularly amused by this quote:
At a moment when corporate America is caught between what it sees as two different nightmares — preventing a crippling attack that brings down America’s most critical systems, and preventing Congress from mandating that the private sector spend billions of dollars protecting against that risk — the Telvent experience resonates as a study in ambiguity.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Global Warming Perspective of 1958



Interesting to understand the perspective at that time.  They already knew that a few degrees warming was a really big deal.

Weekend Links

  • The above graph is long term interest rates across multiple developed countries (Ben Bernanke via James Hamilton).  My initial guess is this is due to globalization - it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest in mature developed countries when a lot of the jobs are being outsourced to the developing world, so desired investment is below desired savings, and therefore real interest rates are dropping to zero throughout the developed world.  I'm far from certain, however.  Clearly, deleveraging from the debt boom is part of the story too.
  • Apparently drought is even affecting Hobbiton now.  Nothing is sacred to climate change, it seems.

Friday, March 1, 2013

European Unemployment up in Jan


The figures just came out today.  So Eurozone unemployment is now almost 12% on an average basis, and still climbing.