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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Belly Fat and Elusive Causality

April 22nd, 2015
Jumping to conclusions is natural, which makes it all the more important to recognize when it happens.

Recently a couple of scientific studies like this one have caught the headlines. The studies conclude that people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight, especially gut fat, which is the worst.

This is an important and interesting fact, but almost right away people were saying, “diet soda causes belly fat.” While that may be true, that conclusion is not supported by the studies. The studies show exactly one thing: people who drink more diet soda tend to gain more weight. That is all the studies show. There could, for instance, be a fundamental genetic twist that makes diet soda tastier to some people, that also makes them more inclined to gain weight. Sound farfetched? Possibly it is, but the human animal is complicated, and wacky stuff turns out to be true all the time. There are enough alternatives to the conclusion that diet soda causes belly fat retention that we have to pay attention to them.

Brief aside: Here’s my unscientific take on artificial sweeteners. I avoid them, mostly, but not fanatically. I’ll stick with the known health consequences of the foods my organism evolved eating. I am (unscientifically) confident that those fancy chemicals come with a gotcha — even though the beer next to my elbow right now has far more proven negative health consequences. I am fully aware of the dichotomy in my reasoning.

Anyway, as the press picks up on the story of diet fatness, journalists flip through their electro-rolodexes to S-for-Scientist to find someone credible willing to comment on the story. On the record, respected people speculate on how diet soda and fat could be linked. Perhaps people stop associating sweet tastes with feeling full, one says. Another mentions gut bacteria in rats, and so forth. The press is (generally) careful to present these speculations for what they are.

Then those honest speculations hit Facebook as full-blown fact, and some asshole writes a book selling the shit from Facebook back to the same wide-eyed consumers, and you have another thing everyone knows that may not be true. That person will make a bunch of money, get on talk shows, and…

Hang on a sec, I have a book to write. I think I’ll call it “The Sugar-Free Plague: How Artificial Sweeteners are Destroying Everything You Love”. I probably need a sub-subtitle about big corporations and the government.

This cycle happens all the time, especially in the health fields. Any time you read “X boosts your immune system” you’re probably reading bullshit, or at the very least unproven wish fulfillment. How about this from Harvard Health:

For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, hell, that would be a crazy proposition. But the thing is, out of the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of purported immune-boosters, only a relative handful will ever prove to be effective. Overall, “do healthy things” is the advice Harvard gives. Vitamin C, the one everyone knows helps the immune system? Jury’s still out — direct evidence has been elusive, and unfortunately there’s a lot of bad science surrounding this critical nutrient.

The good news is that there’s a lot of good science focussed on this stuff now, and the folks in the labs have tools now that would make Watson and Crick green with envy.

Back to the original theme: There is an entire category of scientific study devoted to finding correlations. Diet soda and belly fat have been shown to be correlated. That’s important, but primarily as a guide to future research. It doesn’t mean that if you switch back to regular Dr. Pepper you’re going to lose weight. Far from it. It does mean that physiologists and psychopharmacologists have a very interesting fact to explain. And when they do, it will help a lot of people.

The correlation studies get the headlines. By the time the nitty-gritty details are worked out, finding causality in the correlation, we’ve already moved on to the next wide-eyed incredulous breakthrough, published first on Twitter.

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Writing Writing

The Hugo Kerfuffle

April 17th, 2015
Trolls, assholes, and a literary inferiority complex.

The most important award in Science Fiction has been reduced to the level of a Facebook popularity contest. Let’s stop wringing our hands and recognize the truth: It’s dead.

The Hugo awards are (well, were) the Oscars of Science Fiction. Except where the Oscars are sure to give lots of love to the commercial successes of the year, the Hugos seem rather disconnected from the commercial world. You can argue that’s good, recognizing talent that the marketplace has not (yet) discovered, and you can argue that it’s bad, showing that the judges are out of touch with reality.

This year, the Hugo awards will miss on both counts. The winner will suck by any measure. It’s a sad, sad story.

The sad story starts with the Sad Puppies, a group who asks, “whatever happened to good ol’ science fiction where dudes shot things with blasters?” They began an effort to promote GOSF to Hugo voters. (Anyone can be a Hugo voter. It costs $40. A friend of mine once gave me a priceless gift — he paid the bucks to nominate me. Alas, it took more than one nomination vote that year to win a place on the ballot.) At the edge of the Sad Puppies sat another, smaller group (well, a couple of guys), who said, more or less, “the liberal gay agenda is ruining our genre, and that’s why fine upstanding woman-haters like us don’t get the awards.” (I’m paraphrasing.) They took the Sad Puppies list, extremified it (by adding themselves over and over) and launched a grass-roots campaign to get their readers to vote for them.

It only took a couple hundred faithful to totally trash the ballot. The Hugo system was devised in a world before Internet trolls. Had I realized how easy it was, I would have bagged myself a Hugo long ago. I figure a cost of $100 per vote; $20K and I’m in!

But allow me to take a moment to consider the Sad Puppies’ initial complaint, and the objective fact that the awards are diverging from what the mainstream wants.

I think SF is still secretly annoyed that people think of it as pulp fiction. Not capital-A Art. For all the “fie on you, world, we all know that literary fiction is just another genre,” there’s still a little defensiveness. The insiders, the ones who usually vote for these awards, are well-read, lit-leaning, and (secretly) self-conscious. They want to sit at the table with the lit-fic guys, and get the nod of respect in the hallowed hallways. So they vote for more literary-leaning stories.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Eric Flint, a commercial success but not an awards darling, has some interesting thoughts that diverge from what I just wrote. We agree on this, however: the divide between commercial success and awards recognition is not about politics. In the comments for that post someone suggested that maybe SF should emulate the recording industry and give out awards based purely on sales. I kinda like that. (“Munchies goes platinum!” I hear in my head. That novel will not be winning any literary awards.)

So, what now? With the Hugo being torpedoed, and other major awards losing relevance, will the marketplace be the only measure of success? What will become of beautiful prose that is challenging to read, without the ivory-tower league to raise it on a pedestal? There is capital-A Art in Science Fiction, dammit, and it should be recognized.

My humble suggestion: The Sad Puppies handing out beanie baby trophies for the best stories with white guys saving scantily-clad helpless space princesses, the ivory tower crowd awarding elegant chess sets (with rooks made of ivory) to the most beautiful prose of the year, the geek crowd awarding the golden propeller beanie to the best representation of cybernetics, and so forth. Let the fragmentation happen. It’s healthy. It’s good. It’s time to surrender the One Award that Rules Them All to the trolls.

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Observations Observations

California’s Drought and Climate Change

April 10th, 2015

We had a nice storm pass through this week, but it’s going to take a lot more to end California’s water woes. The state is simply running out. The Official Residence of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has gone into full-on conservation mode, and we hope all our neighbors do likewise.

I hear people around me saying, “Take that, global warming deniers! Here’s your proof!” The thing is, that’s not actually true. I did some reading recently, and the gnomes in their supercomputing centers, honing their climate models ever-sharper, still think that Northern California will be getting more rain as a result of global warming, not less. Farther south there will be less rain, and where the inflection point lies is the subject of much analysis. Current best guess out of UCLA is that the line is around Los Angeles.

But wait — we’re supposed to be getting more rain? Then what’s up with this drought? Does it disprove global warming? A well-informed global warming denier could get some mileage sowing doubt in the climatologists’ computer models.

The thing is, this drought is weather. Just as you can’t calculate the mileage of your car based on a single drive to the store, you can’t form meaningful conclusions about climate based on a couple of years of weather.

And the drought isn’t really contrary to the climate models, anyway. While California may get more water in any given twenty-year period, the weather is likely to become more extreme in both directions — very dry periods followed by very very wet ones. The weather on a given day is almost never average, and will be average even less in the future. So in fact we are more likely to have droughts, but there will be floods between them.

Right now, a flood seems like a pretty good thing. It would take a lot of rain before California couldn’t find a use for it. Hell, if it rained enough, people in the cities could have grassy lawns like they do in other places.

Wait? They do have grassy lawns in desert cities even as the state’s farms dry up? Why, that makes no sense at all. Maybe we need this drought to last a while longer, so we can end that crazy habit and change the way water is allocated. It will probably take a true emergency to turn that boat around. (I feel obliged to confess that I had a small grassy lawn in San Diego and I liked it. I like grass. But it’s time we found alternatives in places where lawns don’t grow by themselves.)

So while Northern California might be getting more rain in the future, we are powerless to control when that rain will fall. Conservation may be different going forward, more about efficient storage during the wet years (and the will to not squander the water when it’s in the reservoir), but conservation will still be critical to the state’s continued prosperity — and its ability to help feed a nation.

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Pulling for the Flames Now

April 8th, 2015
Their fans deserve it.

I’ve always enjoyed hockey; it’s a game where something is always happening, scoring is a significant event, and the clock keeps ticking even when you wish it wouldn’t. Growing up in the coccyx of the rocky mountains in northern New Mexico, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage of the sport (this was before Colorado had a team), but it was fun to watch when it presented itself.

A brief aside: When I was growing up there was hockey right there in my town, at the local outdoor ice rink. It never even occurred to me that I could participate. I didn’t know anyone who did. I wonder if the hockey environment there has changed in the intervening years.

The first time I formed a loyalty to a team was on my Homeless Tour, when I was passing through Canmore, Canada. The Calgary Flames were in the finals, one win from the Stanley Cup. I got to the bar section of the Boston Pizza just in time to grab the last seat at the bar, behind the taps, and I proceeded to have a Seminal Sports Experience. It started when the whole place went quiet out of respect for the United States national anthem. Then came ‘O Canada’ and the whole damn bar belted it out. Things just got better from there.

The Flames lost, but the fans I met that day were awesome on every level. I became a Calgary fan, but even more I became a fan of Calgary’s fans.

Cut to late nights in the darkness, lying on the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch in my little flat in Prague, listening to radio calls via the Internet. The Flames’ play-by-play announcer was mesmerizing; in my book only the Blackhawks’ announcer was in the same league. Good times.

In the ensuing years I’ve come to be a Sharks fan. It’s the first time I’ve had a local hockey team to root for. I still harbor some loyalty to the Flames, and especially to the fans up there, but the Sharks are my team. So it goes.

I have also grown a hatred for the Los Angeles Kings. Thugs and morons, and if the league is crooked, they are crooked in the new-biggest-market’s favor. Not sure how many season-ending knee-on-knee ‘accidents’ have to happen before someone looks a little closer.

The season is winding down, and the Sharks are out of the playoffs. It’s the end of the third-longest playoff streak in major sports. That makes me sad. The Kings, the current champions, are on the bubble with two games to go. It will either be them or… the Calgary Flames.

Nobody thought the Flames had a chance this year. They’re rebuilding. A lot of kids with talent, but it takes time and experience to make a contender. But here they are, on the brink of making the playoffs. If they get in, Los Angeles doesn’t. It’s that simple.

The Kings have two games left. Tomorrow they play the Flames. Then on Saturday they play the Sharks. Words cannot describe the joy I will feel if the Sharks kill the Kings and put the lads from Calgary into the playoffs.

And this is sports. You love your guys. You hate the filthy bastards who have personally wronged you. You struggle when one of your guys winds up playing with the filthy bastards. But there’s a little more. There are the great fans you meet, people who love their team but aren’t assholes about it. We call those people ‘Flames fans’.

If I were so freakin’ rich that I solved the world’s fresh water problems and had money left over, I’d make an offer for the Flames, just to be part of that thing they have going on up there.

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

The First Anniversary of my 50th Birthday

April 2nd, 2015

As I marched through my 40’s I’d been thinking about how to best celebrate my 50th, but the months leading up to that milestone were brutal. At one point I made a decision to reduce my work day to 17 hours so that I could sleep for five. The project was running behind, but I was building something awesome. Really groundbreaking. The kind of thing you go all out for.

On April Twoth, 2014, my 50th birthday, one year ago today, the project was canceled. I was deflated, too tired to feel anything more. Lost.

It was the start of a pretty good year.

By any meaningful measure, I’m younger now than I was a year ago. Were you to take my medical statistics from last year and my current numbers and give them to a doctor with no hint what order they were taken in, my this-year stats would be chosen as ‘younger’ every time. The bicycle is a big part of that, of course. Going back to working 40 hours a week (which seemed like a vacation for the first three months) didn’t hurt either.

Also this year, I’ve accepted an offer from another group at Apple, and I’ll be starting there in a couple of weeks. I’ll be working at Apple University, an organization devoted to keeping the unique culture at my company alive even as Apple becomes mind-bendingly massive. One of Steve’s final legacies. I’ll be personally responsible for keeping Apple great. Yep, me. Personally. I’m ready.

Other noteworthy awesome things this year: the bread machine (how in the name of all that’s holy have we done without one so long?), lots of good home cookin’, fast friendships, our wee dog Lady Byng and her trips to the dog park each Saturday, and top of the top of the list, my sweetie. Dang things are nice when she’s around.

An hey, speaking of fun, how ’bout that Halloween booze thing? I’m expecting a Nobel Prize nomination for that work, though the official sweetie of MR&HBI was the leader of that effort. The accidental bottle of 18-year-old Scotch may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Only time will tell. But dang, it’s good.

Of course there were not-so-great things as well. A car with a couple of decades of useful life ahead of it was suddenly terminated. Now we have car payments. But no one was hurt — even the bad things could have been worse.

The cloud over the parade: not a whole lot of writing getting done. Gotta figure that out. Which is what I said last year, and the year before. But the bicycle was a structural change in my life that worked; I just have to make another.

But to me this really isn’t my 51st birthday, it’s one year after my 50th. I had anticipated the big 5-0 as a landmark, not as a scar. Fifty plus one is about healing, and appreciating just how good life can be. Because lately, it’s been pretty damn good.

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Observations Observations

This is a Metaphor

April 2nd, 2015
Also, it's meant to be taken literally.

Some days you tear up the road.
Attack the hills.
Fly across the flats.
Dance with the wind.

Other days, you just keep pedaling.

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Observations Observations

Bicycles and Italian Cars

March 22nd, 2015
A brief comparison.

How Italian sports cars and bicycles are alike: You always have something to do in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.

How they are not alike: If you accelerate through the corners on a bike, you get pedals that look like this:

smashed pedal

My right pedal. The outer metal part used to be rectangular.


It has proven very difficult for me to shed the habit of powering through corners.

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Big Wednesday

March 19th, 2015

I got on the scale yesterday morning, and all I could say was, “ugh.” Feasting on Chinese food the night before had its consequences. “What is it about Wednesdays?” I asked myself. It seemed like I’d seen a few Wednesdays like this.

But had I? This is how urban legends are born. You start to get a feeling that something is true: “I tend to gain weight on Wednesdays” or “More babies are born when the moon is full.” Then every time you see something that corroborates the impression, the more sure you get. Meanwhile, you don’t notice the unremarkable Wednesdays when weight follows its usual pattern.

However, having measured and recorded my weight consistently since last June (well, mostly consistently – more on that in a bit), I had the data to actually measure whether Wednesdays were Big Wednesdays or not. It took a little fiddling (I am not the spreadsheet-jockey that many of my coworkers are, and Apple’s spreadsheet, Numbers, lacks an obvious function that would have made this much easier), but I ended up with this graph:

Weight by Day

My weight change by day of week. (For me, negative is good.) The horizontal blue line is the average for all days.

It turns out Wednesdays are net-gain days, but not as bad as Mondays or Tuesdays. It’s odd that despite my having lost 13 pounds over that time, the first half of the work week still shows a net increase in plumpness. Notice also the shorter error bars Wednesday and Thursday; for whatever reason (or for no reason at all) the numbers are in a closer range on those days.

As you look at the graph, keep in mind that I weigh myself first thing in the morning, so the weight change is a reflection of the choices I made the day before. So while I show the most weight gain on Mondays, it’s actually what I do on Sunday that leads to it.

There’s also a subtle measurement bias that makes the weekend look better at the expense of Monday. I sleep in on the weekends, so my body processes a measurable amount of extra water before I climb on the scale. So, Saturdays may not be as good as they seem in this graph, and Mondays may not be as bad. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the trend that shows up here, and it makes me wonder a couple of things.

First, I’m not aware of anything I do substantially differently on Thursday than I do on Monday, yet the outcome seems quite different. This suggests to me that the lag time between decision and consequence is often more than twenty-four hours. That bulge early in the week may be the previous weekend catching up to me. Or it may not; there’s no way to tell from this data. I may try to research this further out there on the Internet.

Second, is this information actionable? Can I look at this little graph and make better life choices on Mondays? Probably I can, but honestly, I probably won’t. This graph will likely remain for me a mildly-interesting little factoid, and as long as my week-on-week numbers stay in the green, I’ll not worry so much.

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Passed by a Fat-Tire

March 17th, 2015
Sometimes appearances can be deceptive.

When I started riding to work, I was one of the slower ones out there. When stopped at a light, there was little doubt who would be pulling out first when it was time to crank. After a while, though, there were a few other riders where things were not so clear-cut. I started to look for clues while stopped, to know if I should be getting out of the way, or working to get in front while it was safe.

A couple of lessons I learned: 1) some of those fat-bottomed girls pack a lot of muscle down there; 2) don’t even think about trying to pass someone on skinny little racing tires.

But there is one category I feel pretty comfortable pushing ahead of: guys wearing sweatshirts who are riding bikes with fat tires. Most of them are commuting, like me, but they’re just not in as big a hurry — if they wanted to go fast, they’d have equipment designed for that. I assume they are not going as far.

On yesterday’s ride, however, as I pushed up Willow at (for me) a pretty good pace, a dude in a sweatshirt riding a bike with fairly wide tires passed me in style. I looked at his receding form, his near-effortless cadence as he pushed his pedals, and was impressed. He would have shamed a lot of the spandex crowd.

The Gods of Traffic favored me, and I caught up to him at the next light. No ambiguity about who should be at the front of the pack here. I waited behind him, and when the light changed he moved out effortlessly.

I mean, literally effortlessly. He didn’t pedal at all. His bike had an electric motor. He could go faster than cars do on that stretch, and he had the go-to-the-head-of-the-line benefit of the bike lane at traffic lights. Not a bad way to travel.

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Observations Observations

Return of the Ugly

March 14th, 2015

The other day I was using a car to get home from work, and in front of me at a traffic signal was a Cadillac with what might have been the Single Ugliest Rear End of All Time. This honor was once held firmly by the Pontiac Aztec, but in recent years our friends in Asia have produced some marvelously hideous-looking cars. Mind-boggling, to tell the truth.

So I guess the boys at General Motors decided to give the guy who made the Aztec another shot at glory. (This Caddy’s rear definitely had some of those Aztecan sensibilities.) They managed to find the storage room where they’d been keeping him, brushed most of the dust off him, and turned him loose on the newest Caddy. I thought I’d go to the Cadillac Web site and poach a picture so we could all appreciate the grotesquery.

Only, when I go to the Cadillac Web site, I see that while their CTS-V coupe rear (the closest match to what I saw) is by no means pretty (vast plains of plastic, almost no glass), it lacks those finishing details of the one I saw that put it into the running for all-time ugliest. Which means that they’ve already thought better of the horrid design. Maybe GM put it out for one year to reclaim the ugly crown, then backed off to merely “rather ugly” so people would buy the car. If someone were to say to me, “You know, I kind of like that look”, I would merely shrug and wonder quietly to myself what the hell is wrong with that person. But I know those people are out there.

On the subject of ugly cars, every once in a while I put “Electric Roadster” into my search engine to see if there’s any news on a viable electric replacement for my aging Miata coming down the pike. The answer is, alas, “not yet.” Tesla has announced a retrofit to it’s lotus-based roadster to put in better battery technology, so that’s progress.

The search engine results provide a wide range of things claiming to be electric roadsters. Most of them are not. Golf carts are not roadsters, even when they look like this:

http://californiaroadster.com/rlimo.php

If it can’t go more then 25 mph, it’s not a roadster. http://californiaroadster.com/rlimo.php

And then come the ugly ones. Boy howdy. The overall trend in automotive design these days is to add fiddly bits and creases to the car until there’s no surface area left to add bits to. Take this monstrosity:

From the highest branches of the ugly tree.

Pride forbids me from considering this vehicle. http://torqev.com


It is clearly designed to appeal to men, and the performance numbers are quite impressive. But… wow.

Along those same lines, only much more expensive, we find Detroit Electric’s entry in the field.

Detroit Electric SP:01

Maybe in person it wouldn’t seem so ugly. http://detroit-electric-group.com/sp01.html


There are some angles that make this car look kind of nice. Others, bleah. The Detroit Electric Web site seems to be aware of this, and you have to dig to see a view of the car from more than two feet off the ground. But holy crap, the performance numbers are mighty impressive. What a pleasure it would be to be stuck in stop-and-go traffic in this baby.

The Europeans, meanwhile, are heading off in a distinctly different direction. While this vehicle doesn’t fit my definition of ‘roadster’, that hasn’t stopped other people from calling it that:

Volkswagon electric concept

Just a concept car, but wow. Mashable


A car like this will not grace our streets any time soon, and while I’m not too sure about this design, at least it’s ugly in a different way that I find encouraging. More ugly-because-it-doesn’t-look-like-anything-we’ve-seen-before ugly, than ugly-because-we-had-to-add-more-fiddly-bits-to-make-it-distinctive ugly.

Finally we have this car, a one-off unconstrained by having to conform to any laws, that shows that out there are still some automotive designers who haven’t fallen into the more-is-better trap. We can thank the Italians for this one, and we can thank the Germans for paying them to build it:

bmw mini superlegga

Awesome inside and out – unconstrained by practicality. Design Boom


This is actually not the most flattering picture of the car, but it does show a lot of the design elements. It really is a clean design, and the interior of the car, especially the control panel, are awesome. The article linked in the picture caption is interesting as well, showing the process of building the car.

Music to my ears:

‘In this car all unnecessary equipment or decoration is sacrificed, as performance is gained through lightness and efficiency of the bodywork and interior.

Who knows? That might be my next car, right there, if they can keep the original aesthetic intact and get it to market.

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Tugging the Heart-Strings

March 12th, 2015
In some cases, I'm not ashamed to be manipulated.

TV playing silently in front of me, showing an ad with a kid, maybe twelve years old, on the baseball diamond throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a big-league ballgame. The kid did a pretty good job, a little low and outside, but with some zip. The catcher scooped it out of the dirt and held it up the way catchers do to show the umpire they have it. Then the catcher took off his mask and the kid lost his shit. It was his dad, back from military service overseas. Joy ensued.

I have no idea what that ad was selling. I wish I did, because if it isn’t shitty beer, I’d buy some.

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Another Baby Step Toward Email Privacy

March 11th, 2015
Maybe we're getting closer. Maybe we're almost there. I'd appreciate it if some of you out there could help me test this system.

Email is frightfully insecure. Anything you write can and will be read by any number of robots or worse as it bounces across the Internet. Gmail? forget about any shred of privacy. While the Goog champions securing the data as it comes to and from their servers, once it’s there, your private life is fair game.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can encrypt the contents of our emails so that only the intended recipients can read them. I’m not sure how many more embarrassing corporate, government, and university email hacks will have to happen before people start to take this seriously, but remember, those were only the illegal hacks. Other people are reading your emails all the time already. This bothers me.

Sorting out a solution to this problem has been like having a big jumble of puzzle pieces on my coffee table, and while I’ve pushed the pieces around to get them to fit together, it’s become apparent that there’s a piece missing — until (perhaps) now. To understand the puzzle piece, it’s easiest to start with the hole it needs to fill. Some of this you may have read in posts from days of yore.

Here’s a simplified illustration of how email encryption works. Picture a box with two locks, that take two different keys. When you lock the box with one key, only the other key can open the box again. If you want to send me a message, I give you one of the keys, and you put the message in the box and lock it. Since I’m the only one with the matching key, only I can unlock it. Sorry, Google! You just get gibberish.

Of course, there’s a catch. How do I get your half of the key pair to you? If I put it in an email, any bad guy could switch the key before it got to you, and then your secret message would only be readable by the bad guy. He’d probably pack the message back up and lock it with my key and send it on, so I might not notice right away that that the message had been intercepted.

What’s needed is either a foolproof way to send my public key to you, or a way to confirm that the key you got really came from me.

If there were a foolproof way to send the key, we’d dispense with the whole lockbox thing and just send the original message that way. So until that foolproof way arrives, we are left with the need to authenticate the key I send you, through some trusted, hard-to-fake source. There are competing ways to accomplish this, and they all have flaws. This is the hole in our jigsaw puzzle.

The most common way key-verifying is done is through a series of Certificate Authorities, companies entrusted with issuing and verifying these keys. This works pretty well, as long as every single Certificate Authority can be trusted. The moment one is hacked, the entire system has been compromised. Guess what? CA’s have been hacked. There are also several governments that are CA’s, meaning those governments can listen in on any transaction on the Web today that uses https:// – which is just about all of them. Any of those entities could send a fake key to you and your software would trust it. I don’t know which makes me more nervous, that China is on the list or the United States.

So if you can’t collectively trust a few hundred companies and governments, who can you trust? There are several competing systems now where you and all your friends only have to trust one company. As long as you and I both set up with that company, they will quite effectively safeguard our communications. Your privacy is as good as the security and integrity of a single corporation — unless a jealous government shuts them down, anyway, or they get bought by a less-scrupulous company, or a pissed-off engineer in their IT department decides to drop their corporate pants. Having a single entity hold all the keys is called the “key escrow problem”.

At the far end of the spectrum is crowd-sourcing trust. There exists a large and (alas) floundering network of people who vouch for each other, so if you trust Bob and Bob says my key’s OK, you can choose to trust my key. I’ve tried to participate in the “Web of Trust”, and, well, here I am, still sending emails in the clear.

But now there’s a new kid in town! I just got an invitation to join the alpha-testing stage for a new key-verification service, keybase.io. Let’s say you want to send me a message. You need the public key to my lockbox. You ask keybase for it, and they send you a key. But do you trust that key? No, not at all. Along with the key, the server sends a bunch of links, to things like this blog and my twitter account. The software on your computer automatically checks those links to see if a special code is there, and if it is, invites you to go and look at those links to make sure they point to things I control. You see the special code on Muddled Ramblings or Twitter or whatever that only I could have put there, and you can feel pretty good about the key. You put your own stamp on the key so you don’t have to go through the manual verification again, and away you go!

There are more features to prevent bad guys from other shenanigans like hacking my blog and twitter before giving you a fake key, but you can read about them at http://keybase.io.

The service is still in the pre-pubescent stage; I’m fiddling now to see if I can use keybase-verified keys from my mail software. Failing that, there are other methods to encrypt and decrypt messages you cut and paste from your email. Kinda clunky.

Having set up my keybase identity, I have been given the privilege of inviting four more people aboard. Good thing, too, since otherwise I’d have no one to exchange messages with, to see how it works. I’d be grateful if one (or four!) of y’all out there would like to be a guinea pig with me. Drop me a line if you’re interested. Let’s win one for the little guy!

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Observations Observations

Like a Duck

March 5th, 2015
The man is keeping us from... um... I'm not exactly sure what.

Let’s pause for a moment to talk about Quack Science.

We’re all about facts here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, so this afternoon I went in search of a factoid I’d heard tossed out in an advertisement, upon which I hope to one day base an episode. That little bit of analysis will have to wait, however, because I stumbled across another, shinier trivium, and while “researching” that (also known as drifting through Duck-Duck-Go results), I stumbled across a Grand Conspiracy.

The interesting nugget: 99% of the molecules in your body are water. Most of the time we hear about the composition of the body in terms of mass, where water can account for somewhere in a very broad neighborhood of 60% (how much fat is in your body being the major variable). But water molecules are relatively small, compared to all the proteins and whatnot, so if you just want to count the sheer number of molecules, well, they’re mostly water.

While digging into my research I discovered that just by telling you that little fact, I am a rebel. It seems Modern Science doesn’t want you to think about the water in your body that way. I found a site that leads with

Settled Science has some very strange fixations about water and mass.

Uh, oh, I thought. I believe I hear ducks in the distance. Apparently comparing body composition using the masses of the constituent chemicals is a fixation. Using Wikipedia as the reference for what Settled Science wants you to believe, the blogger goes on about how widely the number varies from person to person, and so forth. He doesn’t say why this is bad, just that it’s “quantitatively meaningless”.

Step one to selling people quack science: pick a straw man and throw insults at it. “Science says this! But that’s not true! So trust me instead!

I kept reading, because I was curious what the guy was selling.

Apparently, it’s much more quantitatively meaningful to count the number of molecules rather than their mass. The reason for this is unclear. Never mind that his number is based on exactly the same measurements, with exactly the same variation, just doing a little math on the results. His own tables even show this.

Step two in selling Quack Science: baffle them with bullshit. The numbers look different. He’s got more decimal places (a sign of bad analysis). He must be on to something!

Presumably, this curious charade of mainstream misdirection is undertaken so that the casual reader doesn’t realise that 99% of molecules in the human body are water.

First, I love the phrase “curious charade of mainstream misdirection”. I’m gong to use it, I promise. Second, what a bizarre presumption. Why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone bother to prevent casual readers from pondering this mildly-interesting trivium? Curious indeed. Perhaps even nonsensical.

Step three in selling Quack Science: Set up the Establishment to be toppled by the white-night rogue scientist.

Thankfully, Dr Gerald Pollack [University of Washington Bioengineering] is far more direct.

OK, then! Now we’re about to get the sales pitch.

Only what we get is a video by Dr. Pollack showing how he can make water do crazy stuff, and thoughts on ways his discoveries might be useful, increasingly speculative as the presentation continues. Desalination definitely got my attention. (If I were a billionaire, I’d spend my lucre building bulletproof, low-maintenance solar desalination facilities in communities around the world that need them most.)

And our colorful blogger who spent all this time tilting at windmills? He just fades away, leaving me without a final conclusion to mock. Rebellion was his only product, and in the end, doing an extra step of math on the mainstream numbers and calling it rebellion was his only trick.

But then for bonus points I found a whole bunch of products that are loudly quoting (or misquoting) Dr. Pollack to sell fancy water bottles and crap. Often they will have a sentence that starts out with his quote, then adds to it, putting words in his mouth.

Because if you’re 99% water, that makes what you drink that much more important. Some of the products are blink-blink ridiculous, some are just portable water softeners. One kickstarter offered “Living” water. Yikes.

Get this: “Far-infrared emitted by the <product’s magic beads> enliven your water to improve your bodies natural healing capabilities” Never mind that every object at room temperature emits infrared; what does that even mean? What’s the difference between enlivened and non-enlivened water? How does that affect you, physiologically? IS IT SAFE? Are people going to start having aliens explode from their guts because of ‘enlivened’ water? And dudes! LEARN SOME FUCKING GRAMMAR!

That company also thought oranges were alkaline, and conveniently glossed over the part where the water is immediately dumped into a pool of acid when you swallow it. The more alkaline the input, the more acid your stomach creates.

I’ll let you research those products on your own; I don’t want to boost their search engine ranks with a link.

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Reading Reading

I Broke a Solemn Vow

February 19th, 2015
I hope you can forgive me.

A few years ago I read the novel Step on a Crack by (ostensibly) James Patterson and (reprehensibly) Michael Ledwidge. It was awful. Really, really horrible. After reading it, not only did I vow never to read anything with James Patterson’s name on it ever again, I vowed to stay clear of anything published by Little, Brown and Company, as clearly there was no editor there, just marketers trying to find ways to put Patterson’s name in larger type on the cover.

So-called critics gushed over the steaming pile of poo, which shows how professional critics make a living.

In fact, before I get to the actual subject of this episode, let me step into the way-back machine and relive just how ghastly awful Step on a Crack was.

Let’s you and I imagine for a moment that we are bad guys — wait, no, we are criminal masterminds. Let’s also imagine that criminal masterminds have a place they like to hang out and discuss evil plots. We’re sitting, having a beer, discussing which root certificate authority is the most vulnerable, when a new guy bellies up to the bar.

“Got a big thing going on,” he says.

“Oh?” You ask, not wanting to be rude.

“I know some stuff about this Cathedral,” he says. “If I can get a bunch of A-listers and world leaders in there all at once, I can do some damage.”

“Nice,” I say. We’re all evil here, and this sounds promising.

“How you going to get them in there?” you ask.

“A funeral,” he says, and that appeals to both of us. “Former first lady. Beloved the world over. She dies, the world comes callin'”

“Nice,” I say again. I’m not terribly creative.

“So you’re going to kill the former first lady?” you ask.

“Damn straight,” our newcomer says. “There’s this restaurant they go to every year. Anniversary or something like that.”

“And you’re going to shoot her at the restaurant,” you say.

“Even better,” the man says, “She’s allergic to peanuts.” You start to get that sinking feeling. Real masterminds keep things simple.

“You don’t say,” you say.

“Yep. I’m going to get a guy hired there as a cook, and he’s going to put peanut oil in her food.”

Questions start to bubble up in your mind. How does this man know that his peanut-oil slinger will be scheduled to work that day? How does he know that he will be on the line and get that dish? What if the chef decides to do the one for the first lady personally? This plan is starting to sound pretty fishy. “Or you could shoot her,” you suggest.

“Then people will know it’s murder. There will be too much security at the funeral.”

“Huh,” we say together. “She’ll have an Epipen,” I say. “One blast of adrenaline and she’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”

Our fellow mastermind shakes his head. “I’m thinking what with all the excitement of the anniversary and all, she’ll forget it.”

“Isn’t she protected by the Secret Service?” you ask.

“Sure, but they won’t know about her life-threatening allergy. They’re just there to protect her life.”

“So…” I say.

You sum it up. “Your entire plan is predicated on the assumption that no one will be able to handle a food allergy, even though there will be several people there with a vested interest in being prepared for it, and she will die as a result.”

“What about your guy on the inside?” I ask. “They’re going to grill him pretty hard.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“Because he killed the former first lady.” You remind him. “They’re going to put the entire kitchen through the wringer.”

“I don’t think they’ll bother,” our fellow mastermind says. “Accidents happen, you know.” He slaps the bartop. “And that’s only step one! Wait ’till I tell you how we get away!”

The above part of the “mastermind’s” plan gets us though the first few preposterous pages of the Patterson/Ledwidge farce Step on a Crack. I read the whole damn thing, and I promise you it doesn’t get any better. Thus I vowed to boycott the whole Patterson swindle.

If you have already guessed by the title of this episode that I broke that vow, congratulations! You are smarter than any character in Crack. A while back I was early to pick up an order at Panda Express (as Chinese as McDonalds is Scottish, but some days nothing else will do) and I needed something to read. iBookstore was quick to tell me that the latest Patterson was FREE! I decided, for science, to see if the opening few pages of the latest work compared with Crack.

So I downloaded Private, only realizing later that by doing so I participated in the swindle. I helped produce inflated numbers for the book, which will ultimately lead to more people paying money for the rot. You see, each Patterson book is called a #1 best-seller because book stores order lots of copies, not because people buy them. THEN people buy them because it looks like the book is really successful. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Anyway, I read the prolog. The first sentence was really quite good. I stopped to savor the moment before continuing. The rest of that first very short chapter wasn’t too bad either, although the contortions the writer went through to make the protagonist as heroic as fuckin’ possible got pretty ridiculous. In one paragraph the dude is dead from unspecified war-related injuries, heart stopped and everything, then maybe three sentences later he’s knocked his buddy down and is running toward a burning helicopter. I think if the author could have worked in puppies in mortal peril he would have.

Still, better than Crack. The writer at least has some sort of voice.

In the second chapter of the prolog he visits his father in prison and learns he will inherit fifteen million dollars and a (thoroughly discredited) private detective agency (named “Private”) that caters to the rich and famous. His n’er-do-well twin brother is not to know about this.

There’s a few hundred pages after that, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them to know what’s going to happen. Hot movie star almost-girlfriend imperiled by evil twin, (only of course that’s the big surprise), yadda yadda.

Not bad for a Patterson, though, I’ll give ‘em that.

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

It’s a Tough Life

February 17th, 2015

I mentioned to the light of my life that I was craving burgers to replenish my strength after my last (for a while) visit to the colon doctor.

For most people, the response would be, “where do you want to get them?” Not so my sweetie. Her response: “I’ve been wanting to make burger buns!”

And so she did.

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