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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Effects of possible solar influence on radioactive decay rates on HotBits-generated random sequences

Since the publication of a Stanford press release on August 23rd, 2010 on a possible connection between solar phenomena and the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes in laboratories on Earth, several people have written to ask what consequences, if any, such an effect might have on the randomness of data generated by Fourmilab's HotBits radioactive random number generator. The “executive summary” is “none whatsoever”, but let's look into the matter in some more detail.

One doesn't do science via press releases, but rather scholarly publications. Those describing the supposed linkage which I have found on the arXiv.org preprint server are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Reading these papers, the first thing that's clear is that we're talking a very small effect, whose cause can only be inferred by analyses of its periodicity and suppositions of possible causes. One must exclude environmental effects which might affect the detector in order to argue that it is the intensity of the source which is being modulated. For example, any radiation detector illuminated by a local source will also detect cosmic rays, whose intensity is known to change due to atmospheric and heliospheric effects. One must demonstrate that the supposed effect is greater than can be explained by changes in the cosmic ray flux in order to argue a direct solar influence on radioactive decay rates is present.

The way to bet (and if there were a contract on this trading on Intrade, I'd put a thousand depreciating Yankee Dollars on it) is that all of this will go away in a few months. When you get to a certain age, you've seen it all before: a very weak effect, measurable only by deviations from an expected random result, quantified only by long-term experiments with difficult to exclude environmental effects. If you frequent this chronicle and site, you'll know that I'm anything but a “professional sceptic” who dismisses wild-ass ideas indiscriminately. But several decades of chasing unicorns teaches the teachable fellow with the unicorn net that most reported sightings come to nothing and that other pursuits may be a better way to expend one's limited world line.

Fine—so I doubt there's anything there. But what if there is?  Well, it doesn't matter. There is a well-known and perfectly quantified effect which does affect the decay rate of radioactive isotopes, and that's their half life. The Cæsium-137 source illuminating the HotBits detector will lose half its intensity in 30.17 years, and hence the duration of the second of the two pairs of decays used to generate each random bit is slightly more likely to be longer than the first, which would bias the results. Now, in fact, this bias is much smaller than the variation of clock rate in the time standards used to measure the intervals between decay events, and therefore is negligible. But just in case, HotBits reverses the sense of the comparison on each pair of events to push any bias up to higher order effects.

What matters is that even if the effect suggested in this paper turns out to be real (which I hope it to be, because we could use some new science about now, although as I noted above, that isn't how I'd bet), it is a much smaller modulation of radioactive decay rate than the well-understood process of half-life, and will be equally well compensated for by the alternation of inter-event interval tests in HotBits.

The bottom line is that any generator of purported random numbers should be evaluated only on its results, not by inferences from its methodology. I have published statistical tests of HotBits results, which you are welcome to verify with your own validation suites, either with the data used in these tests, or with new data downloaded from the generator for your exclusive use. I'd say, don't worry about solar effects—worry about much greater risks. How do you know that every random data request you make from HotBits hasn't been recorded at Fourmilab and provided to The Authorities along with the IP address which requested it? You don't. How do you know, even if Fourmilab is entirely on your side, that there isn't a back door somewhere in the SSL encryption you use to receive HotBits which allows The Powers That Be to decrypt your message and extract the key you've generated as the root key for your public key infrastructure? Again, you don't.

Getting paranoid now? Good—it'll keep you looking in all directions, especially behind you, because if you're a productive citizen, they are, really, out to get you. Getting back to specifics, what can you do in the interest of privacy? Easy—generate about 100 times the HotBits you need for your root key, then choose the bytes you use by some process The Man cannot surveil: throwing a dart at a printout, rolling dice to choose pages, lines, and items from a computer-generated list of random numbers, etc.

We're creative. That's how we'll beat The Man!

That's how we always have.

That's how we always will.

Posted at 21:42 Permalink

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reading List: Plastic Fantastic

Reich, Eugenie Samuel. Plastic Fantastic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-230-62384-2.
Boosters of Big Science, and the politicians who rely upon its pronouncements to justify their policy prescriptions often cite the self-correcting nature of the scientific process: peer review subjects the work of researchers to independent and dispassionate scrutiny before results are published, and should an incorrect result make it into print, the failure of independent researchers to replicate it will inevitably call it into question and eventually cause it to be refuted.

Well, that's how it works in theory. Theory is very big in contemporary Big Science. This book is about how things work in fact, in the real world, and it's quite a bit different. At the turn of the century, there was no hotter property in condensed matter physics than Hendrik Schön, a junior researcher at Bell Labs who, in rapid succession reported breakthroughs in electronic devices fabricated from organic molecules including:

  • Organic field effect transistors
  • Field-induced superconductivity in organic crystals
  • Fractional quantum Hall effect in organic materials
  • Organic crystal laser
  • Light emitting organic transistor
  • Organic Josephson junction
  • High temperature superconductivity in C60
  • Single electron organic transistors

In the year 2001, Schön published a paper in a peer reviewed journal at a rate of one every eight days, with many reaching the empyrean heights of Nature, Science, and Physical Review. Other labs were in awe of his results, and puzzled because every attempt they made to replicate his experiments failed, often in ways which seemed to indicate the descriptions of experiments he published were insufficient for others to replicate them. Theorists also raised their eyebrows at Schön's results, because he claimed breakdown properties of sputtered aluminium oxide insulating layers far beyond measured experimental results, and behaviour of charge transport in his organic substrates which didn't make any sense according to the known properties of such materials.

The experimenters were in a tizzy, trying to figure out why they couldn't replicate Schön's results, while the theorists were filling blackboards trying to understand how his incongruous results could possibly make sense. His superiors were basking in the reflected glory of his ascendence into the élite of experimental physicists and the reflection of his glory upon their laboratory.

In April 2002, while waiting in the patent attorney's office at Bell Labs, researchers Julia Hsu and Lynn Loo were thumbing through copies of Schön's papers they'd printed out as background documentation for the patent application they were preparing, when Loo noticed that two graphs of inverter outputs, one in a Nature paper describing a device made of a layer of thousands of organic molecules, and another in a Science paper describing an inverter made of just one or two active molecules were identical, right down to the instrumental noise. When this was brought to the attention of Schön's manager and word of possible irregularities in Schön's publications began to make its way through the condensed matter physics grapevine, his work was subjected to intense scrutiny both within Bell Labs and by outside researchers, and additional instances of identical graphs re-labelled for entirely different experiments came to hand. Bell Labs launched a formal investigation in May 2002, which concluded, in a report issued the following September, that Schön had committed at least 16 instances of scientific misconduct, fabricating the experimental data he reported from mathematical functions, with no evidence whatsoever that he had ever built the devices he claimed to have, or performed the experiments described in his papers. A total of twenty-one papers authored by Schön in Science, Nature, and Physical Review were withdrawn, as well as a number in less prestigious venues.

What is fascinating in this saga of flat-out fraud and ultimate exposure and disgrace is how completely the much-vaunted system of checks and balances of industrial scale Big Science and peer review in the most prestigious journals completely fell on its face at the hands of a fraudster in a junior position with little or no scientific track record who was willing to make up data to confirm the published expectations of the theorists, and figured out how to game the peer review system, using criticisms of his papers as a guide to make up additional data to satisfy the objections of the referees. As a former manager of a group of ambitious and rambunctious technologists, what strikes me is how utterly Schön's colleagues and managers at Bell Labs failed in overseeing his work and vetting his results. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and Schön was making and publishing extraordinary claims at the rate of almost one a week in 2001, and yet not once did anybody at Bell Labs insist on observing him perform one of the experiments he claimed to be performing, even after other meticulous experimenters in laboratories around the world reported that they were unable to replicate his results. Think about it—if a junior software developer in your company claimed to have developed a miraculous application, wouldn't you want to see a demo before issuing a press release about it and filing a patent application? And yet nobody at Bell Labs thought to do so with Schön's work.

The lessons from this episode are profound, and I see little evidence that they have been internalised by the science establishment. A great deal of experimental science is now guided by the expectations of theorists; it is difficult to obtain funding for an experimental program which looks for effects not anticipated by theory. In such an environment, an unscrupulous scientist willing to make up data that conforms to the prejudices of the theorists may be able to publish in prestigious journals and be considered a rising star of science based on an entirely fraudulent corpus of work. Because scientists, especially in the Anglo-Saxon culture, are loath to make accusations of fraud (as the author notes, in the golden age of British science such an allegation might well result in a duel being fought), failure to replicate experimental results is often assumed to be a failure by the replicator to precisely reproduce the circumstances of the original investigator, not to call into question the veracity of the reported work. Schön's work consisted of desktop experiments involving straightforward measurements of electrical properties of materials, which were about as simple as anything in contemporary science to evaluate and independently replicate. Now think of how vulnerable research on far less clear cut topics such as global climate, effects of diet on public health, and other topics would be to fraudulent, agenda-driven “research”. Also, Schön got caught only because he became sloppy in his frenzy of publication, duplicating graphs and data sets from one paper to another. How long could a more careful charlatan get away with it?

Quite aside from the fascinating story and its implications for the integrity of the contemporary scientific enterprise, this is a superbly written narrative which reads more like a thriller than an account of a regrettable episode in science. But it is entirely factual, and documented with extensive end notes citing original sources.

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading List: Daemon

Suarez, Daniel. Daemon. New York: Signet, 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22873-4.
Ever since “giant electronic brains” came into the public consciousness in the 1940s and '50s, “the computers taking over” has been a staple of science fiction, thrillers, and dystopian novels. To anybody who knows anything about computers, most of these have fallen in the spectrum from implausible to laughably bad, primarily because their authors didn't understand computers, and attributed to them anthropomorphic powers they don't possess, or assumed they had ways to influence events in the real world which they don't.

Here we have a novel that gets it right, is not just a thoughtful exploration of the interaction of computers, networks, and society, but a rip-roaring thriller as well, and, remarkably, is a first novel. In it, Matthew Sobol, a computer game designer who parleyed his genius for crafting virtual worlds in which large numbers of individuals and computer-generated characters interact (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) into a global enterprise, CyberStorm Entertainment, and a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, tragically dies of brain cancer at the age of 34.

Shortly after Sobol's death, two CyberStorm employees die in bizarre circumstances which, when police detective Pete Sebeck begins to investigate them with the aid of itinerant computer consultant and dedicated gamer Jon Ross, lead them to suspect that they are murders orchestrated, for no immediately apparent motive, from beyond the grave by Sobol, and carried out by processes, daemons, running on Internet-connected computers without the knowledge of the systems' owners. When the FBI, called in due to their computer forensics resources, attempts to raid Sobol's mansion, things go beyond catastrophically wrong, and it appears they're up against an adversary which has resources and capabilities which are difficult to even quantify and potential consequences for society which cannot be bounded.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Or maybe not. Before long evidence emerges that Sobol was the victim of a scam orchestrated by Sebeck and his mistress, conning Sobol, whose cognitive facilities were failing as his disease progressed, and setting up the Daemon as a hoax to make a fortune in the stock market as CyberStorm's stock collapsed. This neatly wraps up the narrative, which is just what the police, FBI, and NSA want, and Sebeck is quickly convicted and finds himself on death row for the murders he was accused of having orchestrated. Some involved in the investigation doubt that this ties up all the loose ends, but their superiors put the kibosh on going public with their fears for the time-tested reason of “avoiding public panic”.

Meanwhile, curious things are happening in the worlds of online gaming, offshore Internet gambling and pornography businesses, pillars of the finance sector, media outlets, prisons, and online contract manufacturing. The plague of spam comes to an end in a cataclysmic event which many people on the receiving end may find entirely justified. As analysts at NSA and elsewhere put the pieces together, they begin to comprehend what they're up against and put together an above top secret task force to infiltrate and subvert the Daemon's activities. But in this wired world, it is difficult to keep anything off the record, especially when confronted by an adversary which, distributed on computers around the world, reading all Web sites and RSS feeds, and with its own stream of revenue and human agents which it rewards handsomely, is able to exert its power anywhere. It's a bit like God, when you think about it, or maybe what Google would like to become.

What makes the Daemon, and this book, so devilishly clever is that, in the words of the NSA analyst on its trail, “The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn't hack systems. It hacks society.” Indeed, the Daemon is essentially a role playing game engine connected to the real world, with the ability to reward those humans who do its bidding with real world money, power, and prestige, not virtual credits in a game. Consider how much time and money highly intelligent people with limited social skills currently spend on online multiplayer games. Now imagine if the very best of them were recruited to deploy their talents in the world outside their parents' basements, and be compensated with wealth, independence, and power over others. Do you think there would be a shortage of people to do the Daemon's bidding, even without the many forms of coercion it could bring to bear on those who were unwilling?

Ultimately this book is about a phase change in the structure of human society brought about by the emergence of universal high bandwidth connectivity and distributed autonomous agents interacting with humans on an individual basis. From a pure Darwinian standpoint, might such a system be able to act, react, and mobilise resources so quickly and efficiently that it would run rings around the strongly hierarchical, coercive, and low bandwidth forms of organisation which have characterised human society for thousands of years? And if so, what could the legacy society do to stop it, particularly once it has become completely dependent upon the technologies which now are subverting and supplanting it?

Spoilers end here.  
When I say the author gets it right, I'm not claiming the plot is actually plausible or that something like this could happen in the present or near future—there are numerous circumstances where a reader with business or engineering experience will be extremely sceptical that so many intricate things which have never before been tested on a full scale (or at all) could be expected to work the first time. After all, multi-player online games are not opened to the public before extensive play testing and revision based upon the results. But lighten up: this is a thriller, not a technological forecast, and the price of admission in suspension of disbelief is much the same as other more conventional thrillers. Where the book gets it right is that when discussing technical details, terminology is used correctly, descriptions are accurate, and speculative technologies at least have prototypes already demonstrated. Many books of this genre simply fall into the trap of Star Trek-like technobabble or endow their technological gadgets with capabilities nobody would have any idea how to implement today. In many stories in which technology figures prominently, technologically knowledgeable readers find themselves constantly put off by blunders which aren't germane to the plot but are simply indicative of ignorance or sloppiness on the part of the author; that doesn't happen here. One of the few goofs I noticed was in chapter 37 where one of the Daemon's minions receives “[a] new 3-D plan file … then opened it in AutoCAD. It took several seconds, even on his powerful Unix workstation.” In fact, AutoCAD has run only on Microsoft platforms for more than a decade, and that isn't likely to change. But he knows about AutoCAD, not to mention the Haas Mini Mill.

The novel concludes with a rock 'em, sock 'em action scene which is going to be awe inspiring when this book is made into a movie. Rumour is that Paramount Pictures has already optioned the story, and they'll be fools if they don't proceed with production for the big screen. At the end of the book the saga is far from over, but it ends at a logical point and doesn't leave you with a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Freedom™, is already out in hardcover and is available in a Kindle edition.

Posted at 21:48 Permalink

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Four planets at sunset


Click image to enlarge.

There's a glorious spectacle in the Western sky at sunset for the next few days. You can see four planets in the gloaming with the unaided eye in one field of view. Here they are: Earth (in the foreground), Venus, Mars, and Saturn. Mars and Saturn are just subtle pixels in the reduced image above—click it to enlarge. The image has been processed to approximate the appearance to the dark-adapted human eye. If you have a view all the way to the horizon and look a bit earlier, you may be able to spot elusive Mercury below and way to the right of this grouping (almost directly West on the compass). With the Jura mountains obscuring the horizon at Fourmilab, the western sky remains too bright to glimpse Mercury until it has set behind the mountains.

This picture was taken at 19:31 UTC on 2010-08-07 with a Leica M9 digital camera with a Noctilux 50mm lens at f/0.95, 1/45 second exposure, and ISO 160 sensitivity. Trees in the foreground are out of focus due to the minuscule depth of field of the Noctilux at full aperture, but then you're looking at the planets, aren't you?

Your Sky provides this view of the horizon at the time this photo was taken.

No, Venus isn't really pink. There's a bit of residual colour in the Noctilux wide open, and the M9 has no anti-aliasing (or, to be more precise, blurring) filter, so pixels that come through the lens and hit the sensor are rendered precisely as they land on the photosites of the detector. This is why some people love the M9 and some detest it. Put me down in the first column—just give me the raw sensor data—I'll fix it in the processing phase and be glad not to have to undo adjustments by some robot trying to improve on what the camera captured.

But then, I still drive a manual transmission car.

We're four days away from the Perseid meteor shower in a moonless sky. Here's wishing for good weather.

Posted at 00:26 Permalink

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reading List: Endurance

Lansing, Alfred. Endurance. New York: Carroll & Graf [1959, 1986] 1999. ISBN 978-0-7867-0621-1.
Novels and dramatisations of interplanetary missions, whether (reasonably) scrupulously realistic, highly speculative, or utterly absurd, often focus on the privation of their hardy crews and the psychological and interpersonal stresses they must endure when venturing so distant from the embrace of the planetary nanny state.

Balderdash! Unless a century of socialism succeeds in infantilising its subjects into pathetic, dependent, perpetual adolescents (see the last item cited above as an example), such voyages of discovery will be crewed by explorers, that pinnacle of the human species who volunteers to pay any price, bear any burden, and accept any risk to be among the first to see what's over the horizon.

This chronicle of Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition will acquaint you with real explorers, and leave you in awe of what those outliers on the bell curve of our species can and will endure in circumstances which almost defy description on the printed page.

At the very outbreak of World War I, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, named after the motto of his family, Fortitudine vincimus: “By endurance we conquer”, sailed for Antarctica. The mission was breathtaking in its ambition: to land a party in Vahsel Bay area of the Weddell Sea, which would cross the entire continent of Antarctica, proceeding to the South Pole with the resources landed from their ship, and then crossing to the Ross Sea with the aid of caches of supplies emplaced by a second party landing at McMurdo Sound. So difficult was the goal that Shackleton's expedition was attempting to accomplish that it was not achieved until 1957–1958, when the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition made the crossing with the aid of motorised vehicles and aerial reconnaissance.

Shackleton's expedition didn't even manage to land on the Antarctic shore; the Endurance was trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915, and the crew were forced to endure the Antarctic winter on the ship, frozen in place. Throughout the long polar night, conditions were tolerable and morale was high, but much worse was to come. As the southern summer approached, the pack ice began to melt, break up, and grind floe against floe, and on 27th October 1915, pressure of the ice against the ship became unsustainable and Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and establish a camp on the ice floe, floating on the Weddell Sea. The original plan was to use the sled dogs and the men to drag supplies and the ship's three lifeboats across the ice toward a cache of supplies known to have been left at Paulet Island by an earlier expedition, but pressure ridges in the sea ice soon made it evident that such an ambitious traverse would be impossible, and the crew resigned themselves to camping on the ice pack, whose drift was taking them north, until its breakup would allow them to use the boats to make for the nearest land. And so they waited, until April 8th, 1916, when the floe on which they were camped began to break up and they were forced into the three lifeboats to head for Elephant Island, a forbidding and uninhabited speck of land in the Southern Ocean. After a harrowing six day voyage, the three lifeboats arrived at the island, and for the first time in 497 days the crew of the Endurance were able to sleep on terra firma.

Nobody, even sealers and whalers operating of Antarctica, ever visited Elephant Island: Shackleton's crew were the first to land there. So the only hope of rescue was for a party to set out from there to the nearest reachable inhabited location, South Georgia Island, 1,300 kilometres across the Drake Passage, the stormiest and most treacherous sea on Earth. (There were closer destinations, but due to the winds and currents of the Southern Ocean, none of them were achievable in a vessel with the limited capabilities of their lifeboat.) Well, it had to be done, and so they did it. In one of the most remarkable achievements of seamanship of all time, Frank Worsley sailed his small open boat through these forbidding seas, surviving hurricane-force winds, rogue waves, and unimaginable conditions at the helm, arriving at almost a pinpoint landing on a tiny island in a vast sea with only his sextant and a pocket chronometer, the last remaining of the 24 the Endurance carried when it sailed from the Thames, worn around his neck to keep it from freezing.

But even then it wasn't over. Shackleton's small party had landed on the other side of South Georgia Island from the whaling station, and the state of their boat and prevailing currents and winds made it impossible to sail around the coast to there. So, there was no alternative but to go cross-country, across terrain completely uncharted (all maps showed only the coast, as nobody had ventured inland). And, with no other option, they did it. Since Shackleton's party, there has been only one crossing of South Georgia Island, done in 1955 by a party of expert climbers with modern equipment and a complete aerial survey of their route. They found it difficult to imagine how Shackleton's party, in their condition and with their resources, managed to make the crossing, but of course it was because they had to.

Then it was a matter of rescuing the party left at the original landing site on South Georgia, and then mounting an expedition to relieve those waiting at Elephant Island. The latter was difficult and frustrating—it was not until 30th August 1916 that Shackleton was able to take those he left on Elephant Island back to civilisation. And every single person who departed from South Georgia on the Endurance survived the expedition and returned to civilisation. All suffered from the voyage, but only stowaway Perce Blackboro lost a foot to frostbite; all the rest returned without consequences from their ordeal.

Bottom line—there were men on this expedition, and if similarly demanding expeditions in the future are crewed by men and women equal to their mettle, they will come through just fine without any of the problems the touchy-feely inkblot drones worry about. People with the “born as victim” self-image instilled by the nanny state are unlikely to qualify for such a mission, and should the all-smothering state manage to reduce its subjects to such larvæ, it is unlikely in the extreme that it would mount such a mission, choosing instead to huddle in its green enclaves powered by sewage and the unpredictable winds until the giant rock from the sky calls down the curtain on their fruitless existence.

I read the Kindle edition; unless you're concerned with mass and volume taking this book on a long trip (for which it couldn't be more appropriate!), I'd recommend the print edition, which is not only less expensive (neglecting shipping charges), but also reproduces with much higher quality the many photographs taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and preserved through the entire ordeal.

Posted at 02:51 Permalink