Friday, January 8, 2010

African American History Update

Today we finished the movie Queen, The Story of an American Family the life story of a young slave girl named Queen. The movie illustrates the problems faced by bi-racial slaves in America. I hope that everyone understood howe Queen struggles to fit into the two cultures of her heritage, and is at times shunned by both. Below is a link for to a very good site that gives a summary of the movie, scene-by-scene, in case you were absent.

I'm sorry

I am sincerely sorry for the long layoff. I tend to update the blog at school but recently the school district deemed the site 'suspicious,' and therefore blocked me from the site. I am in the processed of getting this matter fixed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Israel Eyes Cyberwar Attack on Iran by Reuters

RAMAT HASHARON, Israel, - In the late 1990s, a computer specialist from Israel's Shin Bet internal security service hacked into the mainframe of the Pi Glilot fuel depot north of Tel Aviv.

It was meant to be a routine test of safeguards at the strategic site. But it also tipped off the Israelis to the potential such hi-tech infiltrations offered for real sabotage.

"Once inside the Pi Glilot system, we suddenly realised that, aside from accessing secret data, we could also set off deliberate explosions, just by programming a re-route of the pipelines," said a veteran of the Shin Bet drill.

So began a cyberwarfare project which, a decade on, is seen by independent experts as the likely new vanguard of Israel's efforts to foil the nuclear ambitions of its arch-foe Iran.

The appeal of cyber attacks was boosted, Israeli sources say, by the limited feasibility of conventional air strikes on the distant and fortified Iranian atomic facilities, and by U.S. reluctance to countenance another open war in the Middle East. "We came to the conclusion that, for our purposes, a key Iranian vulnerability is in its on-line information," said one recently retired Israeli security cabinet member, using a generic term for digital networks. "We have acted accordingly."

Cyberwarfare teams nestle deep within Israel's spy agencies, which have rich experience in traditional sabotage techniques and are cloaked in official secrecy and censorship.

They can draw on the know-how of Israeli commercial firms that are among the world's hi-tech leaders and whose staff are often veterans of elite military intelligence computer units.

"To judge by my interaction with Israeli experts in various international forums, Israel can definitely be assumed to have advanced cyber-attack capabilities," said Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, which advises various Washington agencies on cyber security.

Technolytics Institute, an American consultancy, last year rated Israel the sixth-biggest "cyber warfare threat", after China, Russia, Iran, France and "extremist/terrorist groups".

The United States is in the process of setting up a "Cyber Command" to oversee Pentagon operations, though officials have described its mandate as protective, rather than offensive.


Asked to speculate about how Israel might target Iran, Borg said malware -- a commonly used abbreviation for "malicious software" -- could be inserted to corrupt, commandeer or crash the controls of sensitive sites like uranium enrichment plants.

Such attacks could be immediate, he said. Or they might be latent, with the malware loitering unseen and awaiting an external trigger, or pre-set to strike automatically when the infected facility reaches a more critical level of activity. As Iran's nuclear assets would probably be isolated from outside computers, hackers would be unable to access them directly, Borg said. Israeli agents would have to conceal the malware in software used by the Iranians or discreetly plant it on portable hardware brought in, unknowingly, by technicians.

"A contaminated USB stick would be enough," Borg said.

Ali Ashtari, an Iranian businessman executed as an Israeli spy last year, was convicted of supplying tainted communications equipment for one of Iran's secret military projects.

Iranian media quoted a security official as saying that Ashtari's actions "led to the defeat of the project with irreversible damage". Israel declined all comment on the case.

"Cyberwar has the advantage of being clandestine and deniable," Borg said, noting Israel's considerations in the face of an Iranian nuclear programme that Tehran insists is peaceful.

"But its effectiveness is hard to gauge, because the targeted network can often conceal the extent of damage or even fake the symptoms of damage. Military strikes, by contrast, have an instantly quantifiable physical effect."

Israel may be open to a more overt strain of cyberwarfare. Tony Skinner of Jane's Defence Weekly cited Israeli sources as saying that Israel's 2007 bombing of an alleged atomic reactor in Syria was preceded by a cyber attack which neutralised ground radars and anti-aircraft batteries.

"State of War," a 2006 book by New York Times reporter James Risen, recounted a short-lived plan by the CIA and its Israeli counterpart Mossad to fry the power lines of an Iranian nuclear facility using a smuggled electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) device.

A massive, nation-wide EMP attack on Iran could be effected by detonating a nuclear device at atmospheric height. But while Israel is assumed to have the region's only atomic arms, most experts believe they would be used only in a war of last resort

How Many Nukes Does It Take To Defend America? by Brian Palmer

President Obama, in Russia this week, announced an agreement to reduce American and Russian nuclear warhead stockpiles to a range between 1,500 and 1,675 for each country. How did negotiators arrive at these numbers?
By counting up potential targets for a nuclear strike and then negotiating around that number. U.S. military planners dream up a variety of hypothetical conflicts with other nuclear powers and determine how many warheads would be required to destroy all the most important targets in each scenario. The estimate is periodically adjusted downward, as planners eliminate targets to accommodate the president's desire to reduce stockpiles and their own changing views about how much deterrence is truly required. The president then consults allies—like Japan and South Korea—under the U.S. protective nuclear umbrella before entering into negotiations with Russia. Recent treaties have specified acceptable ranges for warhead stockpiles, with the United States tending to stick around the upper limit and Russia the lower limit. (U.S. military planners are more conservative than their Russian counterparts, in part because more countries rely on American protection.)
The first stage in planning for a reduction of the nuclear arsenal takes the form of the Nuclear Posture Review, a periodic policy analysis conducted by the Department of Defense and several other agencies. This report informs the president of the current status and needs of the nuclear program. The president then issues vague guidelines to the secretary of defense about the purpose of the nuclear weapon program, such as whether a pre-emptive strike might ever be employed. Finally, the Pentagon issues a confidential set of strike options detailing how we might be willing to use our nukes.
Next, the strike options go over to the U.S. Strategic Command, where military planners apply them to hypothetical conflicts with six different adversaries: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and a nonstate actor resembling al-Qaida. Within each simulation, the planners count up potential targets in four categories: 1) military forces; 2) weapons of mass destruction infrastructure, like launch bases and storage facilities; 3) military and national leadership; and 4) war-supporting infrastructure, such as factories, rail lines, and power plants. The number of warheads necessary to destroy or cripple these targets is calculated, taking into account the possibility of mechanical failure. (Planners assume that 15 percent of the nuclear weapons will turn out to be duds.) The calculations also take stock of the need for redundancy, so there will be enough nukes for an attack even in the aftermath of a disabling first strike by an opponent.
While the plans do not envision simultaneous nuclear conflict with all six adversaries, the military does plan for the possibility that one nuclear power might take advantage of the conflict between two others, either through blackmail or an actual strike.
Under the 2002 SORT treaty, the last bilateral agreement, the United States and Russia were limited to between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads apiece. This limitation refers only to warheads currently mounted on ICBMs, in submarines, or waiting to be loaded onto long-range bombers. Not included are strategic warhead reserves (many of which can be put into action within a few days) or the smaller, tactical nukes that can be delivered by cruise missiles or fighter jets. Currently, the United States possesses about 500 tactical nuclear weapons, compared with roughly 3,000 for the Russians.

Friday, July 3, 2009

When Our Brains Short-Circuit by Nicholas Kristof

Our political system sometimes produces such skewed results that it’s difficult not to blame bloviating politicians. But maybe the deeper problem lies in our brains.

Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the “threat.” Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future — a portion of the prefrontal cortex — will glimmer.

“We humans do strange things, perhaps because vestiges of our ancient brain still guide us in the modern world,” notes Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of a book on how our minds assess risks.

Consider America’s political response to these two recent challenges:

1. President Obama proposes moving some inmates from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to supermax prisons from which no one has ever escaped. This is the “enemy with club” threat that we have evolved to be alert to, so Democrats and Republicans alike erupt in outrage and kill the plan.

2. The climate warms, ice sheets melt and seas rise. The House scrounges a narrow majority to pass a feeble cap-and-trade system, but Senate passage is uncertain. The issue is complex, full of trade-offs and more cerebral than visceral — and so it doesn’t activate our warning systems.

“What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history,” notes Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. In contrast, he says, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today — such as climate change — sneak in under the brain’s radar.

Professor Gilbert argues that the threats that get our attention tend to have four features. First, they are personalized and intentional. The human brain is highly evolved for social behavior (“that’s why we see faces in clouds, not clouds in faces,” says Mr. Gilbert), and, like gazelles, we are instinctively and obsessively on the lookout for predators and enemies.

Second, we respond to threats that we deem disgusting or immoral — characteristics more associated with sex, betrayal or spoiled food than with atmospheric chemistry.

“That’s why people are incensed about flag burning, or about what kind of sex people have in private, even though that doesn’t really affect the rest of us,” Professor Gilbert said. “Yet where we have a real threat to our well-being, like global warming, it doesn’t ring alarm bells.”

Third, threats get our attention when they are imminent, while our brain circuitry is often cavalier about the future. That’s why we are so bad at saving for retirement. Economists tear their hair out at a puzzlingly irrational behavior called hyperbolic discounting: people’s preference for money now rather than much larger payments later.

For example, in studies, most Americans prefer $50 now to $100 in six months, even though that represents a 100 percent return.

Fourth, we’re far more sensitive to changes that are instantaneous than those that are gradual. We yawn at a slow melting of the glaciers, while if they shrank overnight we might take to the streets.

In short, we’re brilliantly programmed to act on the risks that confronted us in the Pleistocene Age. We’re less adept with 21st-century challenges.

At the University of Virginia, Professor Jonathan Haidt shows his Psychology 101 students how evolution has prepared us to fear some things: He asks how many students would be afraid to stand within 10 feet of a friend carrying a pet boa constrictor. Many hands go up, although almost none of the students have been bitten by a snake.

“The objects of our phobias, and the things that are actually dangerous to us, are almost unrelated in the modern world, but they were related in our ancient environment,” Mr. Haidt said. “We have no ‘preparedness’ to fear a gradual rise in the Earth’s temperature.”

This short-circuitry in our brains explains many of our policy priorities. We Americans spend nearly $700 billion a year on the military and less than $3 billion on the F.D.A., even though food-poisoning kills more Americans than foreign armies and terrorists. We’re just lucky we don’t have a cabinet-level Department of Snake Extermination.

Still, all is not lost, particularly if we understand and acknowledge our neurological shortcomings — and try to compensate with rational analysis. When we work at it, we are indeed capable of foresight: If we can floss today to prevent tooth decay in later years, then perhaps we can also drive less to save the planet.

Nuclear Bomb Tests Behind Ivory Dating by Julian Rush

Selling ivory is not illegal, providing it is from an elephant that died before 1947. But until now, proving the age of an item was notoriously difficult, relying on expert opinion.

Around the world, forgers have become adept at faking modern carvings to make them look old. Conservationists argued that sales on auction sites like eBay created a market that encouraged the forgers - and the poachers who kill elephants to meet the demand.

But now a sophisticated forensic scientific technique has been used for the first time in a court case of a woman accused of illegally offering carved ivory items for sale on eBay.

Following a tip-off from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Hampshire Police raided the home of a woman from Aldershot in April 2007 and found 34 items. She was found not guilty at Winchester Crown Court last week.

The technique - radio carbon dating - is set to become an important weapon in the international fight against the illegal trade in animal parts and products that some suggest is worth billions of pounds a year.

For this case, Hampshire police called in the TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network who put them in touch with scientists in Scotland who specialise in radio carbon dating. It is usually used to date bones for archaeologists or rocks for geologists and uses the radioactive decay of carbon-14. 

Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope of normal carbon and it occurs naturally in small quantities. It's taken up into the tissue and bones of every living plant and animal on Earth during life. At death, the carbon-14 starts to decay at a known rate, so by measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to normal carbon (which doesn't decay), scientists can determine the age of the sample.

That's fine for dating Neanderthal bones or an Egyptian mummy

Every Mushroom Cloud Has A Silver Lining

But in the 1950s and 60s, the fall-out from atmospheric nuclear bomb tests suddenly added extra carbon-14 to the atmosphere. All of us now have elevated levels of carbon-14 in our bodies as a result. And so too does every elephant, rhinoceros or walrus that's been alive since 1950. 

"If we find that the level of carbon-14 is enriched, then we know that elephant was alive in the nuclear era and therefore the ivory is illegal." Professor Gordon Cook, of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, who dated the ivory in this case, told Channel 4 News.

The spike is so high and so clear they can identify any organism that was alive after 1950.

Which, by chance, coincides almost exactly with the date for the age of ivory that can be legally sold. 

Though the woman was not convicted, TRACE, an international collaboration of campaigners, enforcement agencies and forensic scientists set up in 2006, believes the technique can be used successfully in future against the illegal wildlife trade like that in tiger body parts, rhino horn and scrimshaw. 

"We're now able to fully enforce the wildlife trade legislation. It opens the door for police to go after people trading illegally in ivory." said Dr. Ross McEwing of TRACE.

Professor Gordon Cook says the "nuclear bomb test" has wider uses. "It has huge potential. We've also looked at human teeth and we think we can tie down the year of birth by measuring the carbon-14. That, for something like mass graves, could be very important."

In January 2009, after a global campaign by environmentalists, eBay finally banned all sale of ivory.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Triumph of the Random by Leonard Mlodinow

It was the summer of 1945, and World War II had ended. Former soldiers, including famous baseball stars, streamed back into America and into American life. Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio was trying to be Yankee fan Joe DiMaggio, sneaking into a mezzanine seat with his 4-year-old son, Joe Jr., before rejoining his team. A fan noticed him, then another. Soon throughout the stadium people were chanting “Joe, Joe, Joe DiMaggio!” DiMaggio, moved, gazed down to see if his son had noticed the tribute. He had. “See, Daddy,” said the little DiMaggio, “everybody knows me!”

We all interpret the events around us according to our own worldview. By adulthood we’ve either gotten beyond the me-me-me context of 4-year-olds, or gone into politics. But drawing conclusions about data we encounter in sports, business, medicine and even our personal lives, we often make errors as significant as that of Joe Jr.

This holiday weekend—the Fourth of July—kicks off the home stretch of a two-month period that made Joe DiMaggio Sr. an icon of American culture. In 1941, a few months before Joe Jr. was born, and sandwiched between the day Hitler’s insane deputy Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland on an unauthorized peace mission and the day a secret British report concluded that the Allies could complete an atomic bomb ahead of Germany, there was a period of 56 successive Yankee games in which Joltin’ Joe had at least one hit.

DiMaggio’s hitting streak was an inspiration in troubled times. The pursuit of any record comes with pressure—Roger Maris lost some of his hair during his attempt to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1961—but most records forgive you an off day as long as you compensate at other times. Not so with a streak, which demands unwavering performance. And so DiMaggio’s streak has been interpreted as a feat of mythic proportion, seen as a heroic, even miraculous, spurt of unrivaled effort and concentration.

But was it? Or was this epic moment simply a fluke?

Recent academic studies have questioned whether DiMaggio’s streak is unambiguous evidence of a spurt of ability that exceeded his everyday talent, rather than an anomaly to be expected from some highly talented player, in some year, by chance, something like the occasional 150-yard drive in golf that culminates in a hole in one. No one is saying that talent doesn’t matter. They are just asking whether a similar streak would have happened sometime in the history of baseball even if each player hit with the unheroic and unmiraculous—but steady—ability of an emotionless robot.

That randomness naturally leads to streaks contradicts people’s intuition. If we were to picture randomness, we might think of a graph that looks jerky, not smooth like a straight line. But random processes do display periods of order. In a toss of 100 coins, for example, the chances are more than 75% that you will see a streak of six or more heads or tails, and almost 10% that you’ll produce a streak of 10 or more. As a result a streak can look quite impressive even if it is due to nothing more than chance.

A few years ago Bill Miller of the Legg Mason Value Trust Fund was the most celebrated fund manager on Wall Street because his fund outperformed the broad market for 15 years straight. It was a feat compared regularly to DiMaggio’s, but if all the comparable fund managers over the past 40 years had been doing nothing but flipping coins, the chances are 75% that one of them would have matched or exceeded Mr. Miller’s streak. If Mr. Miller was really merely the goddess of Fortune’s lucky beneficiary, then one would expect that once the streak ended there would be no carryover of his apparent golden touch. In that expectation Mr. Miller did not disappoint: in recent years his fund has significantly lagged the market as he bet on duds like AIG, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Freddie Mac.

Of course a 10- or 15-game streak is a far cry from one of 56 games. This is where DiMaggio’s great ability plays a role, for if we are to compare DiMaggio’s performance to a coin, it must be a weighted coin. With a lifetime batting average of .325, DiMaggio had a better-than-75% chance of getting a hit in a game, while a balanced coin has but a 50% chance of success. Moreover, each year for over a century, hundreds of players have sought to achieve a streak such as DiMaggio’s. All those factors increase the odds that such a streak could have occurred by chance alone.

It’s not just the statisticians who wonder whether our heroes achieve records more often than coins. Psychologists, and, increasingly, economists, also puzzle over the seemingly discrete worlds of chance and perception. The fusion of those worlds was sanctified when half of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to psychologist Daniel Kahneman “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty.”

Research into why people misinterpret streaks dates to 1985, and a paper co-authored by Mr. Kahneman’s regular collaborator, the late Amos Tversky, in the journal Cognitive Psychology. (No one doubts that, had he lived, Mr. Tversky would have shared in the prize). The paper was titled “The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences.” Everyone who has ever played basketball knows the feeling of being “in the zone.” Your hand is on fire. You can’t miss. But are you feeling a true increase in ability, or is your mind inferring it because you just took a bunch of shots that, for whatever reason, went in?

If a person tossing a coin weighted to land on heads 80% of the time produces a streak of 10 heads in a row, few people would see that as a sign of increased skill. Yet when an 80% free throw shooter in the NBA has that level of success people have a hard time accepting that it isn’t. The Cognitive Psychology paper, and the many that followed, showed that despite appearances, the “hot hand” is a mirage. Such hot and cold streaks are identical to those you would obtain from a properly weighted coin.

Why do people have a hard time accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? One reason is that we expect the outcomes of a process to reflect the underlying qualities of the process itself. For example, if an initiative has a 60% chance of success, we expect that six out of every 10 times such an initiative is undertaken, it will succeed. That, however, is false. In order to warrant confidence that results reflect a deeper truth, you need many more trials than 10. In fact, one of the most counterintuitive features of randomness is that for a small number of trials, the results of a random process typically do not reflect the underlying probabilities.

For example, suppose we undertake an analysis of the resources, effort and ability of all the companies in the Fortune 500 and determine that every company has the same 60% chance of success in any given year. If we observe all the companies over a period of five years and the underlying probability of success were reflected in each company’s results, then over the five-year period every company would have three good years.

The mathematics of chance indeed dictate that in this situation the odds of a company having zero, one, two, four or five good years are lower than the odds of having three. Nevertheless it is not likely that a company will have three out of five good years—because there are so many of those misleading outcomes, their combined odds add up to twice the odds of having exactly three. That means that of the 500 companies, two-thirds will experience results that belie their underlying potential. In fact, according to the rules of randomness, nearly 50 of the companies will have a streak of either five good years, or five bad years, even if their corporate capacities were no better or worse than their counterparts’. And so if you judged the companies by their five-year results alone, you would probably over- or underestimate their true value.

In sports, the championship contenders are usually pretty evenly matched. But in baseball, even if one assumes that the better team has a lopsided 55/45 edge over the inferior one, the lesser team will win the seven-game World Series 40% of the time. That might seem counterintuitive, but you can look at it as follows. If you play a best-of-one game series, then, by our assumption, the lesser team will win 45% of the time. Playing a longer series will cut down that probability. The problem is that playing a seven-game series only cuts it down to 40%, which isn’t cutting it down by much. What if you demand that the lesser team win no more than 5% of the time—a constraint called statistical significance? The World Series would have to be the best of 269 games, and probably draw an audience the size of that for Olympic curling. Swap baseball for marketing, and you find a mistake often made by marketing departments: assuming that the results of small focus groups reflect a trend in the general population.

We find false meaning in the patterns of randomness for good reason: we are animals built to do just that. Suppose, for example, that you sit a subject in front of a light which flashes red twice as often as green, but otherwise without pattern. After the subject watches for a while, you offer the subject a reward for each future flash correctly predicted. What is the best strategy?

A nonhuman animal in this situation will always guess red, the more frequent color. A different strategy is to match your proportion of red and green guesses to the proportion you observed in the past, that is, two reds for every green. If the colors come in some pattern that you can figure out, this strategy will enable you to be right every time. But if the colors come without pattern you will do worse. Most humans try to guess the pattern, and in the process allow themselves to be outsmarted by a rat. (Those trying to time the market lately might wish they had let the rat take charge.) Looking for order in patterns has allowed us to understand the patterns of the universe, and hence to create modern physics and technology; but it also sometimes compels us to submit bids on eBay because we see the face of Jesus in a slice of toast.

Another reason we reject the power of randomness is our need for control. DiMaggio’s streak affects us because we all appreciate struggle and effort, triumphing despite huge odds. The notion that we might not have control over our environment, on the other hand, causes us to shudder.

Many studies illustrate how this basic aspect of human nature translates to a misperception of chance. For example, a group of Yale students were asked to predict the result of a series of coin tosses. The tosses were secretly rigged so that each student would have some success initially, but end up with a 50% success rate. The students were obviously aware of the random nature of their task. Yet when asked whether their performance would be hampered by distraction, and whether it would improve with practice, a significant number indicated that it would. Their deep-seated need for control trumped their intellectual understanding of the situation.

What about DiMaggio’s streak? There are many subtleties in randomness. For example, do you model a player as having a fixed batting average—that is, probability of a hit—or do you allow for the average to vary within the season, or even game to game? How do you treat the variation in at-bats, walks, etc.? The analyses can get long and the number of data needed unwieldy, so the jury is still out, but one of the studies, by Samuel Arbesman and Stephen H. Strogatz of Cornell University, attacked the problem by having a computer generate a mock version of each year in baseball from 1871 to 2005, based on the players’ actual statistics from that year. The scientists had the computer repeat the process 10,000 times, generating in essence 10,000 parallel histories of the sport.

The researchers found that 42% of the simulated histories had a streak of DiMaggio’s length or longer. The longest record streak was 109 games, the shortest, 39. In those 10,000 universes, many other players held the record more often than DiMaggio. Ty Cobb, for example, held it nearly 300 times.

DiMaggio’s streak, for better or worse, defined his life. Decades later, constantly hounded by autograph seekers, he wrote “If I thought this would be taking place due to the streak, I would have stopped hitting at 40 games.” He died just 10 years ago, at age 84. Joe Jr., who had trouble coping with his father’s fame, fell to a history of drug and alcohol abuse. He died five months after his father.

People are remembered—and often rewarded—not for their usual level of talent or hard work, but for their singular achievements, the ones that stand out in memory. It does no harm to view those achievements as heroic. But it does harm us to make investments or other decisions on a basis of misunderstanding. And it can be sad or even tragic when we interpret as failures plans or people simply because they did not succeed. Extraordinary events, both good and bad, can happen without extraordinary causes, and so it is best to always remember the other factor that is always present—the factor of chance.