Saturday, September 22, 2012

Capitalist vs. socialist bombs

While reading Ross Anderson's massive tome, Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Systems (second edition), I came across this paragraph in section 19.7 on "Directed Energy Weapons" (p. 584):
Western concern about EMP grew after the Soviet Union started a research program on non-nuclear EMP weapons in the mid-80s.  At the time, the United States was deploying 'neutron bombs' in Europe--enhanced radiation weapons that could kill people without demolishing buildings.  The Soviets portrayed this as a 'capitalist bomb' which would destroy people while leaving property intact, and responded by threatening a 'socialist bomb' to destroy property (in the form of electronics) while leaving the surrounding people intact.
This reminded me of a science fiction story I read in Omni magazine at about the time in question, which Google reveals was "Returning Home" by Ian Watson in the December 1982 issue.  In the story, the Americans and the Soviets attacked each other, the Americans using neutron bombs which killed all of the Soviets, and the Soviets using some kind of bomb which destroyed essentially everything except the people.  The ending twist was that the surviving Americans ended up migrating to the Soviet Union and adopting the Soviet culture.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The myth of fingerprints

I've been reading Ross Anderson's epic tome, Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems (2nd edition, 2008, Wiley), and have just gotten into the chapter on biometrics (ch. 15).  Section 15.5.2, on Crime Scene Forensics, points out three major criminal cases where fingerprint matches have been in error, including the Brandon Mayfield case which I wrote about at this blog back in 2007.  Anderson points out that law enforcement agencies have claimed to juries "that forensic results are error-free when FBI proficiency exams have long had an error rate of about one percent, and misleading contextual information can push this up to ten percent or more" (pp. 470-471).  It's probability at work:
Even if the probability of a false match on sixteen points [the UK standard, the U.S. has no minimum] were one in ten billion (10-10) as claimed by police optimists, once many prints are compared against each other, probability theory starts to bite. A system that worked fine in the old days as a crime scene print would be compared manually with the records of a hundred and fifty-seven known local burglars, breaks down once thousands of prints are compared every year with an online database of millions. (p. 471)
One of the other two cases Anderson discusses is that of Scottish policewoman Shirley McKie, who was prosecuted on the basis of a 16-point fingerprint match found at a murder scene and could not find any fingerprint examiner in Britain to defend her.  She found two Americans who testified on her behalf that it was not a match (Anderson shows the crime scene print and her inked print on p. 469; the crime scene print is heavily smudged).  McKie's own fellow officers tried to convince her to give false testimony about her presence at the crime scene, which she refused to do.  She was acquitted, but lost her job and was unable to get reinstated.

The third case Anderson mentions is Stephan Cowans, who was convicted of shooting a police officer after a robbery in 1997.  He was convicted, but argued it was not his fingerprint.  After Cowans was able to get crime scene evidence tested for DNA which was found not to match, a re-examination of the fingerprint also found that there was no match.  So six years after his conviction, he was acquitted on appeal.

Further evidence of the errors which can arise from fingerprint examination comes from two studies by psychologist Itiel Dror which Anderson describes.  In one study, five fingerprint examiners were each shown a pair of prints, allegedly the falsely matched prints from the Mayfield case, and asked to point out the errors.  Three examiners gave explanations for the non-matches, one said that they did, in fact, match, and one was uncertain.  In fact, the pairs of prints were each purported matches by the corresponding examiner from a recent criminal case, so only one of the five was still certain that a match testified to in court was in fact a match upon re-examination with a skeptical mindset.  In a second study, Dror gave each of six experts eight prints that they had matched in previous cases, and four of the six gave inconsistent results.

Anderson points out that belief in the infallibility of fingerprint evidence has the effect of promoting carelessness by examiners, not giving proper critical scrutiny to the method or its assumptions in changing conditions (e.g., the increase in the number of fingerprints to match against in the age of the computer), and increasing the negative consequences of cases of failure.  In the McKie case, Anderson points out, "there appears to have arisen a hierarchical risk-averse culture in which no one wanted to rock the boat, so examiners were predisposed to confirm identifications made by colleagues (especially senior colleagues).  This risk aversion backfired when four of them were tried for perjury." (p. 472)

Itiel Dror's two papers (references from Anderson, p. 923):

IE Dror, D Charlton, AE PĂ©ron, "Contextual information renders experts vulnerable to making erroneous identifications," in Forensic Science International 156 (2006) 74-78

IE Dror, D Charlton, "Why Experts Make Errors," in Journal of Forensic Identification v 56 no 4 (2006) pp 600-616; at

(Previously, which includes reference to Simon Cole's book on fingerprint evidence which shares the title of this post.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"In God We Teach" documentary

Now on YouTube, "In God We Teach," a documentary about Matt LaClair's exposure of his U.S. History teacher's proselytization in the public school classroom.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Document leak from the Heartland Institute

Documents leaked from the Heartland Institute reveal its funding sources (including Charles G. Koch and an unnamed single donor providing about 20% of their total revenue) and recipients of funding (including $5,000/mo to Fred Singer and a plan to raise $90,000 for blogger Anthony Watts in 2012).

The Heartland Institute is essentially the Tobacco Institute for climate change denial.  See previous posts as this blog with the Heartland Institute tag.

UPDATE (February 18, 2012): It appears that one of the documents, the one with the most embarrassing statements, was a forgery--but the statements I've made above all appear to be confirmed.

UPDATE (February 21, 2012): Climate scientist Peter Gleick has confessed to being the leaker of the documents, but claims the apparently forged document was mailed to him anonymously and he scanned it in before distributing it with the others which he obtained by subterfuge after receiving the anonymous mailing.  The oddities and errors in the forged document, however, strongly suggest Gleick himself forged the document after receiving the others.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Work-at-home scams

I was asked earlier today if I could give my opinion on whether the work-from-home opportunity advertised at the domain is a scam.  A quick bit of research produced some interesting results, my conclusion is that it is almost definitely a scam, by people with a history of promoting scams.

First, the domain registration:

   Phillip Gannuscia
   1780 W. 9000 South
   West Jordan, Utah 84088
   United States

   Registered through: Go Daddy
      Created on: 04-Nov-11
      Expires on: 04-Nov-12
      Last Updated on: 29-Nov-11

   Administrative Contact:
      Gannuscia, Phillip
      1780 W. 9000 South
      West Jordan, Utah 84088
      United States
      (801) 803-5769      Fax --

The very domain and URL and web content of the page are already screaming red flags, and there are more to be found in the above data.  It's a recently registered domain, and the contact physical address appears to be a private mail drop service.  Both the address and telephone number listed are associated with multiple other companies (e.g., BBB F-rated eVenture International, run by Richard Scott Nemrow, who was cited multiple times by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection in 2009) and domain names (e.g.,,,,, and which also look like scams,.  This particular company, Online Profit Masters, has an F rating from the BBB.  The named contact, Phillip Gannuscia, has an email address with someone else's name,, apparently Essent VP Nathan L. Kozlowski, a former Mormon missionary.  Does Gannuscia even exist, or is the name just an alias for Kozlowski?  The company whose domain is used here for the contact email address, Essent Media LLC, another Richard Scott Nemrow company, has a corporate registration which expired in 2010.

I'd steer clear of any business with these guys.  And if you come across this blog post because you've already been ripped off by them (like this guy reports), I suggest you file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center as well as contacting your local law enforcement agency.


I recently had a few opportunities on a plane to catch up on some reading and podcasts.  A few of the more interesting things I came across:

A bunch of interesting articles in The Economist for the past few weeks:

January 28-February 3, 2012:

"Saving Lives: Scattered Saviors" -- harnessing social media and mobile devices to deploy first aid faster than an ambulance can arrive (United Hatzalah in Israel believes it will be able to have first responders on the scene within 90 seconds).

"China's new tribes: Ant tribes and mortgage slaves" -- a new vocabulary in Mandarin describing emerging social groups in China.  (Reminds me of Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe.)

"Affinity fraud: Fleecing the flock" -- the rise in affinity fraud, especially religious affinity fraud, during the economic downturn, and why it works so effectively.  (Also see my blog post from 2008 and another on the same topic from the Secular Outpost in 2006.)  Briefly mentioned is the Baptist Foundation of Arizona affinity fraud, which victimized my step-grandfather by stealing most of his retirement savings.

"Visible-light communication: Tripping the light fantastic" -- an update on where we stand with Li-Fi (using LED lighting as a mechanism for data transmission).

February 4-10, 2012:

"Synaesthesia: Smells like Beethoven" -- A new study finds correlations between odors and sounds, even among people who are not synaesthetes.

"Scientific publishing: The price of information" -- On the boycott of Elsevier by scientists tired of excessive charges for journals, and the competition from arXiv and PLoS.

"Biomimetics: Not a scratch" -- lessons from the microstructure of scorpion armor for reducing wear rates on aircraft engines and helicopter rotors.


Philosophy Bites interview with Alain de Botton on Atheism 2.0: de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, argues that there are good and useful components of religion which can be secularized, and that it is as legitimate to borrow things we like from religion while discarding what we don't as it is to prefer different kinds of art and music.  (Also see the Token Skeptic interview with de Botton and watch his TED talk.)  I think his picture of religion, like that of Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust) and Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) makes more sense than the way some atheists talk about it as though fundamentalist religion is the essence of religion, and should be discarded completely (which doesn't seem likely to happen as long as we live in social communities).

Rationally Speaking interview with Joseph Heath: Heath, author of Economics without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism (Canadian title: Filthy Lucre: Economics for People who Hate Capitalism, which the publishers decided wouldn't sell in the U.S.), talks about misunderstandings of economics on both the right and the left.  (Also see this BloggingHeads TV interview of Heath by Will Wilkinson, who writes: "The section on right-wing fallacies is largely on the money and a great challenge for rote libertarians and conservatives. The section of left-wing fallacies is terrific, and it would be terrific if more folks on the left were anywhere near as economically literate as Heath.")  Heath's "Rationally Speaking pick" also sounds fascinating, Janos Kornai's The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, which explains the creative but ultimately futile ways that human beings tried to replace markets with planning and design.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Decline and (Probable) Fall of the Scientology Empire!

The title of this post is the title of my multi-book review article in the current issue of Skeptic magazine, which is primarily about last year's Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman and The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion by Hugh Urban.  It's a very long article for a book review in the magazine, running from pp. 18-27 with a couple of sidebars and a couple pages of footnotes. What I had in mind when I started writing it wasn't what I ended up with--my envisioned article would probably be more like a book that tells the story of Scientology's two wars with the Internet, which Reitman only devoted a few paragraphs to.  (If that never happens, the best place to find the information in question is in the writings of Village Voice editor Tony Ortega, who has done more than anyone to cover those topics.)  I also would have liked to have done a bit more analysis of Urban's book, which I think is a bit wishy-washy in places in the name of academic objectivity, and makes a few promises at the beginning that it fails to deliver on as though it were rushed to completion.  But I think it came out OK, and I recommend Reitman's book as the best and most up-to-date single overview of Scientology and its history, and Urban's for its coverage of Scientology's battles with the IRS for religious tax exemption and its contribution to explaining what Hubbard was up to when he created Scientology.  I think Hubbard died believing his own nonsense, because some Scientology doctrines literally became true for him--he was the one person in Scientology who really could dream things up and make them happen around him, through the efforts of his devotees.

I also hoped to devote a bit more space to what I allude to in my first footnote, referencing John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality, pp. 90-93 and 117-119, about how institutions can quickly collapse when collective agreement about social facts is undermined, as seems to be happening at an accelerating pace within the Church of Scientology.

(All posts on Scientology at this blog--65 so far since 2005--can be found here. An overview of my involvement in Scientology's battles with the Internet is in my 2006 "Scientology Sampler" post, which was updated with a 2009 post, "Scientology v. the Internet history lesson.")

UPDATE (26 January 2012): Tony Ortega, editor-in-chief at the Village Voice and prolific investigative journalist on the subject of Scientology, says very nice things about my article and Michael Shermer's associated article in Skeptic at his "Runnin' Scared" blog, where there are lots of comments.

This issue of Skeptic should be available in all Barnes & Noble stores beginning around the first of February.