2015-05-21

You get what you pay for: Infographic

One of my biggest frustrations is that I can't get this point across to people. For some reason, people think that driven, principled, high quality individuals should be attracted to politics simply out of the goodness of their hearts!

The US problem is not Republicans vs. Democrats. It's that corporations buy your politicians because you begrudge paying them in any way proportional to good service. You get what you pay for, and the pittance you pay attracts few honest people, but primarily those who would abuse and sell power. It's not possible to fund a re-election campaign otherwise!



My previous posts about this:
  1. Study: Congress literally doesn’t care what you think (May 2015)
  2. Thoughts in favor of much better compensation for elected officials (July 2007)

2015-05-19

Acetaminophen may cause autism, ADHD in vulnerable children

I came across the following paper, which suggests convincing - though perhaps not yet fully conclusive - evidence that the incidence of autism might be greatly increased by acetaminophen exposure in genetically susceptible children:

Evidence that Increased Acetaminophen use in Genetically Vulnerable Children Appears to be a Major Cause of the Epidemics of Autism, Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity, and Asthma

Cuba has some of the lowest rates of autism in the world. In comparison, vaccination rates are some of the world's highest; but, acetaminophen is not available without prescription. In fact: their medical system hardly ever uses acetaminophen, preferring a different antipyretic to treat fever.

In the US, on the other hand, there are physicians with the bizarre practice of prescribing acetaminophen prophylactically, every day for 5 days prior to a child's immunization.

The following is another paper suggesting that acetaminophen may be a culprit:

Did acetaminophen provoke the autism epidemic?

Article about a related study in TIME, February 2014:

Tylenol During Pregnancy Linked to Higher Risk of ADHD

2015-05-08

You get what you pay for.

In 2007, I posted:

You get what you pay for?
or
Thoughts in favor of much better compensation for elected officials

Now check out this study:

Study: Congress literally doesn’t care what you think

Specifically - check out this graphic:


Yeah.

That is the entire problem of US politics.

The smart people in your country are leveraging $5.8 billion over a decade to receive in return a thousand times more in favorable regulation and subsidies. It all ends up being paid to them at your expense. It's literally taken out of your paycheck.

The only reason this can happen is because you just don't want to pay your politicians well. They run a $10 trillion dollar country, and you're too stingy to pay them anything remotely resembling that responsibility.

So corporations pay instead. With your money. And it ends up costing you a thousand times more.

We can argue about getting money out of politics all day, but that's not really how this works. You need to get money into politics. If politicians are properly compensated by you, they will be harder to buy by others.

What they want is power. They wouldn't bend to corporations if they didn't happen to also need money.

2015-05-06

BusyBeaver key derivation function

I present BusyBeaver, a password-based key derivation function (PBKDF) which I believe to be original and new. BusyBeaver attempts to improve on lessons of the past, which I would summarize thusly:
  • Recklessly foolish systems store passwords in plaintext. Anyone who peeks at database has everyone's passwords.
  • Naive systems try to protect passwords by storing their one-way hashes. It turns out it's cheap and easy to mount dictionary attacks.
  • Less naive systems store salted one-way hashes of passwords. It turns out low-iteration hashes are easy to brute-force.
  • PKCS#5 specifies PBKDF2, a salted one-way hash, repeated many times. Along comes Bitcoin, proving just how efficiently standard hashes can be brute-forced with GPUs, FPGAs, and ASICs.
  • Colin Percival creates scrypt, a PBKDF that attempts to increase the cost of brute-forcing by being memory-hungry. Along comes Litecoin, showing how GPU, FPGA, and ASIC optimizations are still quite feasible, and their improvements still measure in orders of magnitude.
BusyBeaver attempts to improve on this by taking advantage of what CPUs do well - serial execution of arbitrary code, 64-bit instructions, cache prefetch - in order to thwart optimizations that are made easier by the order of operations being static. BusyBeaver does not try to be as memory hungry as scrypt; top-end GPUs that might be used in brute-forcing now include so much memory per core as to make topping this expensive for legitimate users.

BusyBeaver operates as follows:
  1. Takes as input a salt and a password.
  2. Uses provided inputs to generate two 64 kB blocks of data using SHA-512 and HMAC-SHA512.
  3. Interprets the two blocks as byte code for a virtual machine where all inputs are valid as instructions and arguments. To avoid side channel attacks based on cache timing, all memory read/write offsets are controlled by the first block, which is generated from salt information only. Instructions perform calculations and changes on the second block, using operations that preserve entropy (jumps, additions, rotations, substitutions, XOR, and multiplication/modulo).
  4. The executed algorithm is unpredictable, but deterministically dependent on input.
  5. The algorithm is exceedingly unlikely to run into infinite loops, so much so that if it does, it's not a problem. Any infinite loops are local to very rare combinations of salt and password, and the attacker's cost of detecting them is greater than the maximum possible benefit.
  6. Processing stops when the requested number of operations have been executed.
  7. The final digest is produced as HMAC-SHA512 dependent on salt, password, and the final processed 64kB block.
BusyBeaver's C++ source code can be downloaded here:

BusyBeaver-20150510.zip (8 kB)

It is platform-agnostic, includes a test program, and comes with a permissive, free software license.

My implementation is parameterized by the number of operations to be executed. I find that a good value is on the order of 50,000 - enough to ensure that execution is not dominated by SHA-512, and nearly all bytes of the second 64 kB block have been replaced with different values.

The full KDF, parameterized with 50,000 operations, executes in about 6 ms on my machine as 64-bit code (of which 20% is SHA-512), and 18 ms as 32-bit code (of which 25% is SHA-512).

2015-05-05

Honey badger ought to give a fuck

Sometimes people ask me, "Why do you care?" About some thing that they ostensibly don't care about.

Caring is important. Not caring is harmful.

I don't consider people less valuable if they are strangers. So many people will one day influence my life, who are now strangers to me. They all have value. Others, who will not be in my life, also have value. Their opinions do, as well.

I am ultimately connected to everyone. Therefore, I find it valuable to correct incorrectness when I can.

You could say I'm opposed to the church of "Honey Badger Doesn't Give a Fuck". Honey badger ought to give a fuck. People not giving a fuck - about the world, about people - is a disease. It's what is causing most of our trouble.

To not care about others is, ultimately, to not care about ourselves. Eventually, the not caring comes around, and bites us all in our collective ass.

2015-04-15

Atheism's holy cow

To be atheist, as opposed to agnostic, is to find predictability and comfort in the belief that the prime constituent of the universe is matter. In this view, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that arises from matter that has accidentally been organized sufficiently.

Belief in a materialist universe offers an illusion of metaphysical certainty. There's comfort in believing that our current scientific understanding is substantially complete, and substantially correct. That all that's left to work out are kinks and details. The belief suggests what is to be valued, and provides purpose: science, knowledge, technology, experimentation. The atheist points to the many successes of this process as evidence that brightness lies this way.

What the atheist gets from the materialist hypothesis is much the same thing that the Christian gets from God: answers of a firmness that otherwise could not be obtained; a metaphysical framework on which to build life, and find meaning. Much like Pascal rationalized the irrational using Pascal's Wager; or like Thomas Aquinas did the same with his five proofs; so the atheist does this using Occam's Razor - an excuse to believe that which has no proof. Like with a person who is religious, what compels the atheist to defend materialism so ardently is not ultimately reason; it is fear of losing the entire foundation of that which he's built.

The atheist fears that allowing investigation of a non-materialist hypothesis threatens to undermine science, and to impede the holy grail of technological progress, which the atheist believes is our main worthwhile goal. Anything doubting the materialist belief is seen as supportive of the religious; and anything religious is seen as a source of evil, backwardness, suffering, and darkness. Therefore, any suggestion of a non-materialist hypothesis is met with extreme prejudice, since it's perceived as threatening to the one thing which the atheist considers holy.

The atheist values investigation - but a non-materialist hypothesis is the one area he will not willingly investigate. You are either with us, or against us; and if you doubt the universe is made primarily of matter, you are against.

2015-04-07

The water-efficiency of dinosaur foods!

I'm happy to find out that dinosaur foods - eggs and chicken - are actually by far the most water-efficient sources of protein! Way more calorie-water-efficient than mangos and asparagus, too! Yay!

(Now if only the poor dinosaurs weren't put through lives of absolute torture by the meat industry :-/ )


Source article in LA Times:

From steak to mangoes, here are some water-hogging foods

2015-04-03

Money

I invite you to read this post by Anna, a sex worker in Portland, Oregon. Excerpt:
Before I started escorting, I often just didn’t eat on my days off (I worked in a kitchen and was allowed to eat whatever I wanted at work, so that was helpful). I often didn’t have $2.50 to ride the bus. I don’t mean I just didn’t have any cash on hand, I literally didn’t possess two dollars and fifty cents, nothing in the bank or anything. One time my bike got a flat tire and I didn’t have the $4 to buy a new tube and I didn’t have $2.50 to take the bus to work even just one way so I had to walk the 12 miles round trip to work and back for a couple days until I got paid.
This is an adult woman; gainfully employed, in a minimum wage job; without children; without apparent alcohol troubles, or drug habits.

After doing lovely work like scrubbing toilets all day, 90% of her income would go for rent and taxes.

2015-04-02

Lack of fictional distance and American insanity

I beg your indulgence for being a bit tongue-in-cheek.

It stands to reason that most Americans are partially insane. Everyone, except Americans, agrees on this. (For Americans themselves, it is of course just "normal". As anywhere, their insanity is their Tuesday.)

Far be it from me to suggest that the US is the only, or the most, insane country in the world. That's probably Saudi Arabia. Or lately, ISIS, if anyone recognized them as a country. But the US insanity is peculiar. It is so markedly different, in a hard-to-nail-down way, from insanities we see elsewhere.

The question is the nature and cause of this insanity. And of course, I wouldn't be writing if I wasn't itching with a theory.

For most people in the world, who consider Americans to be generally crazy, the stories in TV and movies happen in a clearly different, far-away land. For people in the US, though, those stories happen at home. There's no distance.

Due to this reduction in fictional distance, everything that appears out of the ordinary is immediately suspected by Americans to be, potentially, like the worst thing you've ever seen on TV. For citizens, this leads to paranoia about serial killers lurking around every corner. For cops, it leads to trigger-happy behavior we're reading about constantly.

It is of course impossible to talk about American irrationality, and not mention the brainwashing aspect of American "news". But I suggest it's not just the "news". It's the fiction. All of this stuff that America exports, that makes up $500 billion of US GDP.

Our subconscious doesn't distinguish between fiction and news. And it's the fiction that's constantly creating the association between typically American living and working environments, and images of gun fights, car chases, sociopathy, drugs, rape, and murder. These images affect how we perceive real risks.

Citizens of most other countries have the privilege of not having their living and working environments marred with associations like this on a daily basis. We watch the same stuff, but it happens elsewhere. The Bates Motel resides in a fictional California, not potentially down the road I drive by every day.

Americans don't have this privilege. They are being primed every day, in every way, on every channel.

When a big budget movie is showing a city being destroyed - whether by nature, or aliens, or zombies - it's hardly ever Shanghai. It's almost always New York, or LA, or Chicago, or San Francisco. Does that not suggest why a larger fraction of Americans than probably any country in Europe seem to constantly be contemplating total social collapse in a handful of years as something to plan for? As a real possibility?

Have you seen much of Breaking Bad? What's your first, immediate thought about Albuquerque?

2015-03-19

Non-24-hour living

As far back as I can remember, I always had trouble getting up in the morning... and no trouble staying up during the night.

During the years I went to school - and the brief time in my late teens when I actually worked in an office - having to get up in the morning was, without exception, horrendous. It was due to the experience of these years that I thought I hated mornings, and it took me a while to realize I really don't. I actually love being up and alert when the sun is rising, with the streets still calm as night, when nobody is yet up. I really don't mind getting up at that time, either. I just absolutely can't handle a 24-hour sleep cycle.

Early in my twenties, I started to become less dependent on other people's schedules, but I still tried to keep a 24-hour sleep cycle, because that's what you are supposed to do. I would still try to get up at about the same time every day, but the time kept slipping. Getting up at 10 am turned to getting up at 10:15, then 10:30, 10:45, and so on until I was finally getting up at 5 pm, and going to bed when the sun rose in the morning. I struggled against this tendency; I used alarms, I guilted myself to get up earlier, but I was never successfully able to turn the clock back. Always forward. When the cycle came around so I was getting up at 6 pm again, I pushed myself the following few days to stay up much longer, so that I would skip a day and begin waking up again at a reasonable hour. Always, I wished this time around I could start sticking to a reasonable schedule. But again, getting up at 7 am turned to 7:15... And then 7:30... And so on, until it was time to skip a day again.

I failed to stop the slippage at either end of sleep. If I tried forcing myself to get up at a consistent hour, this became increasingly difficult until my eyelids felt like cinder blocks, and it was impossible to honor the alarm. If I tried to make myself fall asleep at the same time each night, I would increasingly just toss and turn in bed.

A few months ago, I thought to myself, what the heck. I had always tried to keep a 24-hour sleep cycle. It had always been a struggle, and in vain. But by now, I'm no longer tied to nearly anyone else's schedule - and I'm far from anyone's judgment. So why not let myself stay up however long I want, until I feel like sleep; and then sleep for however long I need?

For the past few months, the result has been a close-to-25-hour sleep cycle. My wake-up time shifts by about 1 hour, on average, per day. For the first time in my life, I'm neither tossing and turning in bed, nor waging a "get up!" war between spirit and body. I'm rested and relaxed, and never groggy after I wake up. Throughout the day, I feel like I'm at full capacity. This is what a smooth experience feels like.

The negative, of course, is that for a good portion of the month, I'm sleeping through the day when other people would expect me to be up.

A known condition that fits these symptoms is Non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder. I have not yet sought a diagnosis, so I cannot claim that this is what I have. However, the article states: "The disorder is an invisible disability that can be 'extremely debilitating in that it is incompatible with most social and professional obligations'." That is approximately right. One could argue I'm fortunate to have a life and work situation that allows me to accommodate this condition. But the truth is, this is not coincidental. I have never been free of this tendency. I built my life and work situation around this. Chances are that I would not have made the same life choices if I didn't have what felt like a biological requirement to not get locked into a fixed work day.

It is a condition that limits. It does not help me to have it. I have worked my way around it, at some cost.

2015-03-07

Fair and unfair agreements

In economic terms, an agreement can happen where both parties extract value from the arrangement. A fair agreement is where both parties extract proportionally similar value. An unfair agreement is when one party has few alternatives, so the other party can negotiate terms such as to capture most of the value.

If you deal fairly with people, you will offer them agreements that provide them with proportional value. You will do so even when you could negotiate them into terms that are much better for you than for them.

Walmart could be considered an entity that extracts all the value in their agreements with employees, because the counterparty has very limited other options. These are consensual agreements, but they aren't fair. Making such agreements is legal; but that doesn't get you off the hook as a scumbag.

Many countries have legal requirements which attempt to ensure that certain types of agreements - especially in employment - are not only consensual, but fair. This is a form of state coercion which I've come to think is necessary, and welcome. Employment is an area where allowing people to be scumbags has especially detrimental results.

But employment isn't the only area where an agreement, or a mutual promise, can be unfair.