Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

MI6 screws up, sells top secret data on eBay

Does anyone know where we put that camera?

"Does anyone know where we put that camera? It's not here at MI6 headquarters."

The bad news is that Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, lost a camera with sensitive, top secret documents saved on it.  The good news is that it’s been found… by a guy who bought it for $31 on eBay.

Some of the files on the camera included names and academic records of suspected al-Qaida members, pictures of rocket launchers and missiles, and details of an encrypted computer program used by “intelligence” officials.  Wow.  Way to do your jobs, guys! 

Maybe their plan to recruit spies via Facebook isn’t so bad.  After all, any new people they bring in can’t possibly be any worse than their current employees, who seem to be par for the course in Her Majesty’s Government, which employs a surfeit of excellent public servants, as recent events display:

On Monday, prosecutors said a senior public official who left top secret intelligence assessments of al-Qaida and the security forces in Iraq on a London commuter train is due to face charges under the Official Secrets Act.

Last year, a civil servant lost computer disks containing the names, addresses and bank details of 25 million people, while in January, the Ministry of Defense said it had lost a laptop containing personal data on 600,000 recruits.

The Home Office said in August that a contractor had lost personal details of every prisoner in England and Wales.

We should bear cases like these in mind when considering whether to grant further powers to our governments.


Presidential polling possibly problamatic

CNN’s newest poll of polls puts Democrat Barack Obama up over Republican John McCain, 48-43, which is where they stood prior to the first presidential debate.  Polls can be big news at this point in an election cycle, and while all the usual caveats apply, this year’s contest may involve some factors which makes the data less reliable than we’d expect.

The first variable could be the so-called Bradley effect, named for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley.  An African American, Bradley lost the 1982 gubernatorial election in California by 1.2% despite leading in pre-election polling.  Some suspect that many poll respondents who said they intended to vote for him only dis so because they didn’t want to appear racist.  If the Bradley effect is in effect, then Barack Obama’s actual support may be lower than polls indicate; some people who are actually leaning McCain or who really are totally undecided may be saying they’ll support the Democrat just so they don’t feel like the pollster is judging them as a racist.  In the anonymity of the voting booth, this pressure wouldn’t be there.  Helps: McCain

People who exclusively use cell phones may also be influencing polls by not influencing them.  Voters who don’t have a land line are much more likely to be young, minorities, and lower income, all demographics among which Obama has more support, but they are less likely to be questioned by a pollster.  (Younger people are also less likely to be married and to own a home, factors which correlate with somewhat more conservative political views.)  However, pollsters can attempt to correct for this bias; they usually ask demographics questions of their respondents and can tell if a particular demographic is significantly underrepresented in their samples.  If a demographic is underrepresented they can then weigh the responses of those people more heavily to try to approximate their numbers in the general population.  But research indicates that even correcting for age, people who exclusively use cell phones tend to support Obama more heavily than McCain.  Some polling experts, however, believe the difference is negligible or non-existent, given their ability to correct for sampling bias.  Helps: Obama

Then, even if the polls are accurate about current voter intent, one must still try to figure out which of those voters will actually go to vote on November 4th. Obama’s supporters are significantly more likely than McCain supporters to be “very enthusiastic” about their candidate.  Obviously, higher enthusiasm correlates with greater likelihood of actually voting for the guy you say you like.  Helps: Obama

But not so fast.  Older voters, who tend to support McCain, are historically more likely to vote than younger citizens, among whom Obama has such a big lead.  Will the youth vote disappoint again, as usual?  Helps: McCain

What does it all mean?  Who knows.  It’s impossible to tell even how much any one of this factors will come into play, let alone what the aggregate effect will be. Maybe we should pay less attention to polls and more attention to the political futures markets? Intrade speculators are moving towards Obama; market prices indicate that speculators think there is about a 64% chance that Obama will win.  They also favor him in all of the battleground states, predicting that he has a 53.5% chance to win Ohio, 54.5% chance to win Virginia, and 54.5% chance to win Florida, which is virtually must-win for McCain.  Obama is also up big in Colorado (68% chance to win) and has pulled close in North Carolina (48% chance to win).

Some really big prime number just got found

Mathematicians at UCLA have just discovered a prime number with almost 13 million digits. Prime numbers, of course, are only divisible by themselves and one; it has been known since Euclid in the third century BCE that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

However, this is a special type of prime number called a Mersenne Prime. Named for 17th century French mathematician Marin Mersenne, these numbers are simply one less than a power of two (2^n – 1). Only 47 have been discovered to date, all but ten of them first identified since the start of the 20th century. Incidentally, the largest currently known prime number happens to be a Mersenne Prime: 243,112,609 − 1.

Math people get really excited over these numbers and when new ones are discovered. I don’t see why. There is no practical use for these numbers. What’s the big deal? I could just as easily make up the “Jacob Prime” which, uh, is… three four less than a power of two. Wow; how special is that? Yeah, okay, it sucks—but that’s my point.

But I don’t dislike prime numbers. One thing about them that I do find very interesting is the Ulam spiral phenomenon, named after its discoverer, Polish mathematicial Stanislaw Ulam. He stumbled upon them while at doodling at a really boring meeting (probably where they were discussing Mersenne Primes) and you can produce the phenomenon this way: (1) write down all integers starting at one point and spiraling outward (see firgure 1 below) and then (2) either circling, as Ulam did, all the primes, or, as below, removing all the non primes (see figure 2).

See paragraph above for explanation

Start by writing all integers in a spiral, then remove all the numbers that aren't prime to find something quite interesting...

Once you have done enough numbers—and it doesn’t take many—you’ll see that the prime numbers tend to occur along orthogonal lines. See, for instance, the lines formed by 3-13-31, 41-19-5, and 19-7-23-47 in figure 2.

The Ulam spiral phenomenon is clearly seen here on a 200 x 200 grid. Note the orthogonal lines throughout the image.

The Ulam spiral phenomenon is clearly seen here on a 200 x 200 grid. Note the diagonal lines throughout the image.

All prime numbers, except for 2, are odd numbers; and since in the Ulam spiral adjacent diagonals are alternatively odd and even numbers, it is not surprising that all prime numbers lie in alternate diagonals. However, what is surprising is the tendency of prime numbers to lie on some diagonals more than others; there is no apparent reason for this to be. This tendency occurs on any scale and regardless of what integer you start with at the middle. At right is a 200 x 200 grid of numbers and the effect is clearly seen. I am furthermore told that, at sufficient distances from the center, horizontal and vertical lines also become evident.

This effect is built into the nature of numbers, it’s not something that some guy just made up. Admittedly, it’s no more useful than Mersenne primes, but it’s a whole lot cooler and doesn’t take huge amounts of computing power to play around with—just grab a piece of paper and a pen!

Anyway, those guys who found the 13 million digit Mersenne prime are going to win $100,000 (I told you, mathematicians go nuts over these things). I’ll give a nickel to whoever finds the first Jacob prime with more than 1207 digits. Start your calculators!

China performs space walk, rips off Star Trek

The logo of the China National Space Administration looks strangely familiar

The logo of the China National Space Administration looks strangely familiar

Congratulations to the People’s Republic of China, which has launched their third crewed mission to space and Zhai Zhigang, age 41, has successfully performed his nation’s first space walk. The spacecraft, the Shenzhou 7, has a crew of three astronauts—or taikonauts, as the Chinese call them (cf. cosmonaut). Besides China, only the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have launched people into space.

China hopes to establish a space station by 2020 and also has plans to land people on the Moon and, eventually, Mars. They made the news last year when they shot down an old satellite in a test of their military abilities; this was largely seen as a provocative act and a possible threat to the United States, which maintains considerable assets in space for both communication, intelligence, and scientific purposes.

I am also struck, however, by the unoriginality of the China National Space Administration logo. Just look at it. Doesn’t it remind you of something? If you’re a fan of Star Trek, I’ll bet that it does. Compare:

One possible origin of the CNSA logo

One possible origin of the CNSA logo

Regardless of where the logo came from, Godspeed to the three taikonauts, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng.

Intrade markets predict Obama victory

Following last night’s first presidential debate, speculators playing the Intrade prediction markets still anticipate an Obama victory on November 4th.  Intrade is a gambling site where you can bet real money that a certain event will or won’t happen, and the presidential election is just one such event; you buy shares that will pay a fixed amount, I believe $10, if the event happens and nothing if it doesn’t; the value of the shares varies as people buy and sell them as their perception of the likelihood of the event occurring rises and falls.

At this moment, shares that will pay $10 if Obama wins (and nothing if he doesn’t) are trading at $5.60 and shares that will pay $10 if McCain wins (and nothing if he doesn’t) are trading at $4.36.  This means that gamblers—or investors, if you prefer—think there is about a 56% chance Obama will win and about a 43.6% chance that McCain will win; this is a slight move in Obama’s favor since last night’s debate.  They also sell shares for the contests in each of the 50 states plus the district of Columbia.  Currently, speculators think that Obama will win 311 electoral votes and McCain will gain 227, this is with the Democrat winning Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and, by the thinnest margins, Ohio.

These predictions markets are somewhat like polls in how they attempt to gauge support and predict the ultimate outcome.  However, unlike polls, they anticipate future moves: investors knew that Obama’s poll numbers would rise during the Democratic convention and McCain’s during the Republican convention and share prices took this into account and didn’t move when the expected bumps came.

People interested in the outcome of the election, which is hopefully everyone, may find it interesting to watch the political futures markets.  By putting real money at stake, they attempt to harness the wisdom of crowds, which is often better at predicting the future than even what experts say.

I recently saw the wisdom of crowds at work, though in a considerably different context.  One gentleman, a fireman, had shared an anecdote about the aluminum siding on a house melting in the course of one conflagration he witnessed.  This got me to asking what the melting point of Aluminum is; I didn’t know, and neither did anyone else.  Eventually, I took guesses from everyone to see who could come the closest, promising a prize to the winner.  There were ten guesses, ranging from 162.5° F all the way up to 3200° F.  The actual melting point of Aluminum is 1220.6° F; the two closes guesses were 550° and 1800°.  However, if we’d taken the average of all the guesses (omitting the guess of 8° by the two year old son of one attendee) we’d have 1031.95°—which would have been, by far, the most accurate and would have won the prize: a nickel.

In any event, if you find poll numbers interesting, check out the Intrade prediction market, it just may prove more accurate than Gallup.

10 worst ideas from both Obama & McCain

Foreign Policy, the bimonthly magazine, has interesting articles available online about John McCain’s 10 worst ideas and Barack Obama’s 10 worst ideas.

The two articles are both brief and provide concise reasons why they think the ideas are bad.  I highly recommended the two pieces.  See tags to this post for hints at what some of the ideas concern—but check out both articles for the details.

Something outside observable universe pulling galaxies

Cosmologists have discovered that 700 clusters of galaxies are being pulled by a massive gravity source that is outside the observable universe.

Since the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old we can see no more than about 13.7 billion light years in any direction.  However, the entirety of the universe is larger—potentially unimaginably larger—than that due to an early expansionary phase in the universe in which space itself expanded at an incredible rate.  The mass that is pulling on those galaxy clusters, each of which is made up of many galaxies, lies beyond our event horizon, outside the observable universe.

Some of the researchers hypothesize that the mega mass in question is the result of an area of the universe that did not undergo as extensive a period of hyper inflation, leading to a more dense area of space.

In these regions, space-time might be very different, and likely doesn’t contain stars and galaxies (which only formed because of the particular density pattern of mass in our bubble).

It could include giant, massive structures much larger than anything in our own observable universe. These structures are what researchers suspect are tugging on the galaxy clusters, causing the dark flow.

“The structures responsible for this motion have been pushed so far away by inflation, I would guesstimate they may be hundreds of billions of light years away, that we cannot see even with the deepest telescopes because the light emitted there could not have reached us in the age of the universe,” Kashlinsky said in a telephone interview. “Most likely to create such a coherent flow they would have to be some very strange structures, maybe some warped space time. But this is just pure speculation.”

Needless to say, scientists are very surprised at this unexpected finding.

Sarah Palin, the press, and proximity to Russia

The 0.22% of Americans who live in Alaska are (probably) all closer to this than you are. Are they all more qualified to be Vice President?

The 0.22% of Americans who live in Alaska are (probably) all closer to this than you are. Are they all more qualified to be Vice President?

The Obama campaign reports that Joe Biden has given approximately 89 local and national interviews since his selection as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Sarah Palin has given just three meaningful interviews. Apparently to quiet media criticism about this secrecy, today she met with a few of the media who travel with her—after informing them just 20 minutes in advance; she took just four (4) questions in that brief session (read transcript).

Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post and CNN media critic, said “I have never seen a presidential or vice presidential nominee, in my lifetime, be so inaccessible to the national media.” The protection from the press that she’s getting is incredible, as I blogged yesterday. But it’s easy to see why this is: she’s not doing very well in real interviews with well-prepared journalists and needs to be shielded from them. Sarah Palin is not ready for prime time, let alone the Vice Presidency of the United States of America.

I thought that Palin had given up on claiming that Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience, but when Katie Couric brought it up in an interview Palin didn’t back down (see video, read transcript). Couric asked what Palin meant when she cited the nearness of Russia as part of her foreign policy experience.

PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don’t know, you know … reporters.

COURIC: Mocked?

PALIN: Yeah, mocked, I guess that’s the word, yeah.

COURIC: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of.

Though she couldn’t give any specifics concerning how she’s interacted with Russia (saying something vague about trade missions was the closest she came) Palin still claims that living near a foreign country is somehow a qualification to be the second highest ranking person in our government. Yes, governors do interact with other countries; but Palin needs to build her case on the specifics of those interactions, not by pointing to a map and saying “see how close we are?”

The nominee didn’t do much better on the economic questions that Couric asked. I don’t get the sense that there is a real deep understanding of the issues under Palin’s answers; she sounds like she’s just regurgitating the talking points. Here’s a short clip:

I feel sorry for Joe Biden. How do you prepare to debate someone like this without looking patronizing or like a bully? Especially given that she’s a woman and he’s quite prone to gaffes, as I blogged previously.

On viewing those interview clips, one Slate blogger said “She cannot possibly be this uninformed. You absolutely have to see these for yourself to believe them. These are self-mocking; they could be SNL appearances. Tina Fey couldn’t possibly improve on this. This is why they’ve been keeping her under wraps.” Yep.

Joe Biden is still Mr. Gaffe

If elected Vice President, this guy will still be gaffe prone

If elected Vice President, this guy will still be gaffe prone

Delaware’s senior U.S. Senator Joe Biden has been for years well known for being prone to embarrassing gaffes and this has not changed since Barack Obama selected him to be the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee.  Now he has an even bigger stage on which to misspeak.

In the past few days he said that President Franklin Roosevelt went on television after the stock market crash of 1929. But Roosevelt was not president in 1929, and it’d be years before any presidential address was televised.  He’s also made misstatements about the political positions that Barack Obama has taken, saying that the Illinois Senator opposes clean coal technology, but he does.  He’s also criticized an ad that the Obama campaign has aired and said that Hillary Clinton would have been a better Veep choice.

Everyone misspeaks, and politicians talk on the record a lot more than most of us.  But Biden is definitely more prone to it than most; if elected, he’d probably produce more humorous quotes than any Vice President since Dan Quayle.  No doubt much of it will end up on YouTube, like this clip:

Chuck Graham, a Missouri State Senator, is paralyzed from the waste down and confined to a wheelchair; he is incapable of “standing up.”

Many of his other gaffes, going back decades, are also well-known, such as his characterization of Barack Obama as “a clean guy” during the primaries.  However, these misstatements don’t appear to be hurting the Obama-Biden ticket, or even getting that much media attention–compared to how they’d be covered if Sarah Palin had made them. has an interesting take: he makes so many gaffes that they aren’t notable anymore.  writes:

Biden’s blunder couldn’t matter less. Not because gaffes never matter—they can, if they play into public perceptions of the candidate’s character—but because Joe Biden is gaffe-proof. Whatever traps he sets for himself, however many minorities he offends, he always seems to wriggle out. It’s almost as if, by committing so many gaffes, he has become immune to their effects. “Joe Biden Makes Gaffe” is the new “Dog Bites Man.”

In some ways, the one Vice Presidential debate may be more interesting than either of the three Presidential debates.  Not just because we’ll all be watching to see if Biden makes another gaffe, but to see if Palin can hold her own.  Maybe we’ll get another “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Palin protected from the probing presence of the press

If this woman can't handle questions from the American press corps, do we really want her meeting with foreign leaders when it counts?

She can give a speech, but if this woman can't take questions from the American press corps, do we really want her meeting with hostile foreign leaders when it counts?

Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin visited with foreign heads of state yesterday and today, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and Pakistan’s newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari. Palin has accumulated little to no foreign policy experience so far in her political career and didn’t travel outside of North America until last year. This is her first opportunity to meet with foreign leaders.

The meetings are designed in part as a photo op, to show her meeting world leaders and thus enhance her foreign policy credentials in the eyes of voters. It is also to continue her crash course in foreign affairs ahead of the upcoming Vice Presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To this end she also met with former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissenger.

The meetings have all been tightly choreographed and carefully controlled. Palin has taken no questions from the media. Initially, John McCain’s campaign wanted to exclude reporters even from the photo ops, in case they might overhear something worth reporting or maybe ask a question. However, the five major TV networks threatened to boycott the meetings and not broadcast the pictures and video if no reporter could be present. The McCain campaign relented; a journalist was allowed to be there, but not to ask any questions.

Today, the foreign policy crash course continued with Palin and McCain scheduled to meet with the Presidents of Urkarine and Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, respectively.  They were also to speak with U2 singer Bono and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Previously, Palin had cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as evidence of her international exposure and her foreign travel has been so scant that her campaign initially counted a touchdown in Ireland as a visit.  She has backed away from both claims.

Today, First Lady Laura Bush, while openly acknowledging Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience, characterized her as a “quick study.”  We’d better hope so.