Thursday, June 30, 2016

Boris Johnson jumps ship

Not that I should be surprised by this, but Boris Johnson, leader of the Brexit movement, just announced that he will not run for prime minister.

What a sniveling coward.  After getting his country into this mess, he abandons ship and says, in effect, that it's someone else's job to get them out.  Johnson is Gilderoy Lockhart made flesh.  Or maybe Sir Robin.

If there is going to be a silver lining to Brexit, it will be that the causal chain from policy to catastrophe will be so stark and brightly drawn that it will be very hard for anyone to miss or deny (not that that will necessarily stop anyone from trying).  It is most unfortunate that this lesson will be so painful and it will take generations to repair the damage (if indeed it can ever be fully repaired).  But maybe this time the message will stick: conservatives are always wrong about everything.

Friday, June 24, 2016

I no longer believe in democracy

I used to believe in democracy, not because I thought it produced the best outcomes (it clearly doesn't) but because by giving people at least the illusion of having a say in the matter it encourages them to become engaged in the political process and, more importantly, to accept the results without resorting to violence.  At least in America the checks-and-balances built in to the system keep things from spinning too wildly out of control.

Alas, not so in the U.K., where We The People have just voted for secession from the European Union.  I predict this will ultimately be catastrophic, not just for the U.K. but for Europe and the world.  But that is not the reason this has shaken my faith in democracy, it's because, apparently, many British voters thought this was about Boaty McBoatface.  Now that they've voted to leave the E.U., British voters are frantically Googling to figure out exactly what it is that they voted for.
The whole world is reeling after a milestone referendum in Britain to leave the European Union. And although leaders of the campaign to exit Europe are crowing over their victory, it seems many Britons may not even know what they had actually voted for.
Awakening to a stock market plunge and a precipitous decline in the value of the pound that Britain hasn't seen in more than 30 years, voters now face a series of economic shocks that analysts say will only worsen before they improve. The consequences of the leave vote will be felt worldwide, even here in the United States, and some British voters say they now regret casting a ballot in favor of Brexit. 
"Even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and I just — the reality did actually hit me," one woman told the news channel ITV News. "If I'd had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay."
Talk about too-little-too-late.

This response was my "favorite":
I thought remain would win.  I didn't think my vote would mean anything.  I'm very worried now.
To whoever said that (the quote, unfortunately, was attributed merely to "a leave voter on the BBC"): you should be very worried.  You helped hammer the last nail into the United Kingdom's coffin.  Next year, Scotland is going to try again to break away from the U.K. and this time, with this precedent as a model, they will likely succeed.  And then Northern Ireland will go.  Why?  Because they will want to get back into the E.U.!  Unlike England, Scotland and Wales (God only knows what's going to happen to Wales -- there are nationalist grumblings there too), Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member, and where, at least for the moment, sanity still prevails.  Border checks are not going to be very popular on the Emerald Isle.  Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain.  Why should they be any happier about having their fates decided in Londan than London was about having its fate decided in Brussels?

But one thing is for certain: England is through.  The "leave" advocates liked to brag about how the U.K. is the fifth largest economy in the world [UPDATE: not any more].  But that was only because it was part of the E.U.  California has the sixth largest economy in the world, but I'm pretty sure it would not fare nearly as well if it seceded from the U.S.

If there is a silver lining to this mess it is that maybe, just maybe, it will awake people from their stupor and make them realize that votes really do have consequences.  Maybe, just maybe, this will help the U.S. avoid a similar catastrophe this November.

But for England, it's too late.  Their last ship just sailed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Apple bricked my MacBook and there's nothing I can do about it

About two months ago my wife tried to use the MacBook Air that we keep in our kitchen and found that it was displaying a screen that neither of us had ever seen before.  It was showing a message that said:
"Locking down temporarily pending investigation.  Please contact the iCloud account the Mac is linked to."
And it was asking for a PIN code.

Many calls to Apple Technical Support and one visit to the Apple Store later it turned out that this Mac had been placed under an iCloud lock.  This is a feature that is normally used by the owner of a Mac to lock it down when it is stolen.  Except that I was the owner of this Mac.   I had bought it from a private party three or four years earlier, I cannot recall exactly.  (But see the postscript below.)

Now, Apple has the ability to remove an iCloud lock, but they refused to do it in my case because I could not prove that I owned the machine.  They wanted to see an "original receipt", which of course I don't have.  I suppose it is possible that the machine I bought was stolen, except that I have to wonder why the rightful owner waited years before locking it.  If the machine is stolen, I would like to see it returned to its rightful owner.  But the cryptic message on the lock screen gives me no way to contact the person who had initiated the lock.  Apple knows who that person is, but they won't tell me, which is understandable.  But they also won't contact this person on my behalf, which is less understandable.

I wrote a letter to Tim Cook to no avail.  He almost certainly never saw it.  I got a call from a lackey who politely but firmly told me that Apple was not going to change their policy.  They will not unlock the machine without a receipt, and they will not contact the person who placed the lock.

So I am hosed.  I have a locked machine, no way to unlock it, and no way to contact whoever placed the lock.  I can't even safely dispose of this machine because there's personal data on the internal drive that I now cannot erase.

FWIW, the machine is a 2010 11-inch MacBook Air, serial number C02DM1GNDDR0.  If you are the person who locked this machine, please get in touch.

Postscript: When I found out that my machine was under an iCloud lock and Apple wanted proof that I was the owner before they would remove it, I went back through my records and found the correspondence I had with the person I remembered buying it from.  I also went through our basement and found the box that it had come in.  I figured if the machine was stolen, the thief would probably not have taken the box, so the fact that I had it would be pretty convincing evidence that it wasn't stolen.

Unfortunately, when I checked the serial number on the box against the locked machine, it turned out that they didn't match (even though the model was an exact match).  What I think happened is that I had bought a second, identical machine at some point and then re-sold it (I have a vague recollection and some sketchy records of this second transaction).  When I sold it I must have used the wrong box.  The serial number on the box is C02DPD69DDQX.  If you own this machine, please contact me.  I have your box, and you may have mine.

Lessons learned:  If you buy a used Mac from a private party, always take it to an Apple store to make sure that it is not bound to an iCloud account.  If you don't do this, you don't really own the machine.  It turns out that the iCloud lock is implemented in the UEFI secure boot ROM.  Wiping the hard drive and doing a clean install of the OS is not enough to disable it.  Make sure you get and keep the sellers contact information.  Check their ID.  And, of course, keep track of the box.  (And check the serial numbers!)

Monday, June 13, 2016

The biggest obstacle to Martian colonization isn't technical

Elon Musk's vowing to die on Mars has turned up the volume on the discussion of how to overcome the many daunting technical hurdles to colonizing the red planet, even going so far as to speculate about whether it is possible for prospective Martian colonists to remain human rather than evolving into a distinct species.  But there is a much more fundamental problem which has received very little attention, because merely contemplating it will make most people very, very queasy.  If thinking about torturing kittens makes you uneasy, then stop reading now because this is going to get much, much worse.

Last year, Lenny Abrahamson made a movie called Room (based on a true story, though it isn't advertised that way) about a man who kidnaps a nineteen-year-old girl, impregnates her, and keeps her and her child locked in a soundproof shed in his back yard for five years until (spoiler alert!) they manage to escape.  It is every bit as emotionally gut-wrenching as it sounds.  If you can handle it, though, it is a very good movie.  (Warning: more spoilers follow.)

Martian colonization would necessarily entail re-enacting certain aspects of this scenario.  To have a colony (rather than simply an outpost) you have to have a self-sustaining population, and to do that you have to have children.  Those children would be born, live, and die inside an artificial habitat.  This may sound cool if all you know about such places is what you see on Star Trek, but the reality of life in space is actually quite harsh, not so different, really, from being locked up in a shed in someone's back yard.  You can go outside, but only while wearing a space suit.  The rest of the time, you're completely, utterly trapped.  And on Mars, unlike the shed, there is absolutely no hope of escape.

Of course there is a huge difference in that the original colonists would be volunteers rather than kidnapping victims, but the point I'm making is not about them.  It's about their children.  They would not be volunteers.  Their situation would be similar in many respects to that of the children of the kidnapping victims.

So here's a thought experiment: suppose we lined up some volunteers to lock themselves in a habitat in the Atacama desert, and have and raise children there in the name of advancing scientific knowledge.  We'll make it a really habitat, full of cool scientific-looking doodads and other forms of stimulation.  But the children (and their parents) will be locked in for life (modulo short-range excursions in space suits), just as they would be on Mars.  If we're going to colonize Mars, we are going to have to do something like this sooner or later.

The question is: under what circumstances would conducting this experiment be considered ethical?

In all the discussion of prospective Martian colonization, I have never seen this question even raised, let alone answered.  One of the most chilling things about Room is that the kid thinks that being locked up in someone's shed is perfectly normal (because that is the only existence he has ever known) and watching the mother struggle to convince her child that it is not normal and not OK, that there is a world outside Room (they refer to shed by the proper noun), that trees and other people (besides her and her kidnapper) are real things and not just figments of her imagination.

Colonists will, presumably, have the opposite problem.  Their kids will have access to books, movies, video games, Wikipedia, social media (albeit with a time delay, so email rather than chats).  There will be no doubt in their minds that there is a world out there with other people, and that those other people get to go Outside without space suits on and see real trees and clouds and experience rain and shopping and ride bicycles and have pets.  And they will know that this world is forever and utterly denied to them because of a choice their parents made.

Except that in the experiment, the children won't really be on Mars, and that will really change the dynamic of the experiment.  It is one thing to be locked in by the laws of physics, quite another to be imprisoned by an experimental protocol.  And the whole point of doing the experiment is to figure out the psychological effects of being born and raised on Mars.  In order to do that, the children will have to be deceived.

Leaving aside the practical difficulties of maintaining such an elaborate ruse, I return to my original question: assuming such an experiment were possible, under what circumstances would it be considered ethical?

My purpose here is not to answer this question, merely to raise it, and to point out that, AFAICT, on this question the Martian colonization advocates seem to have their heads buried in the sand.  There is so much discussion about the technical and biological problems of merely getting to Mars and sustaining life there that the psycho-social aspects of having and raising children in space have been largely ignored.  (Here's a data point: "I think the biggest concern is the .38 g and how it will affect children's physiological development.")  Part of the reason they are being ignored is that the technical problems are sexy and intellectually challenging.  There's a reason that science fiction plots tend to turn on aliens and black holes rather than dealing with recalcitrant teens.  But the other reason is that I believe that once you start to really think about what it would take to figure out how to raise children off-planet most people will be instinctively repulsed by the answers.  And that may be a harder problem to solve than any of the technical ones precisely because it isn't rocket science.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Donald Trump is a moron

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, Donald Trump renewed his call for a ban on ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S.  I guess he didn't get the memo: the shooter was born in the U.S.  In fact, he was born in Trump's home state of New York.

Maybe we should put a ban on New Yorkers migrating to the rest of the country.  Or running for President.  Now that is an immigration ban I could get behind.

The real tragedy of the Orlando shootings

If you are reading this then you surely know about the Orlando nightclub shooting, the worst such attack in the history of the U.S.  Frankly, I'm surprised it has taken this long for something like this to happen.  The U.S. -- in fact, the entire Western world -- is chock-full of soft targets, and the fact that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often is evidence that run-of-the-mill terrorism is not actually a serious problem.  (By run-of-the-mill terrorism I mean terrorism that does not employ WMDs, which is indeed a potentially serious problem.)

I don't want to minimize the tragedy or the pain of the friends and families of the victims, but the (sad) fact of the matter is that 50 dead is not a very big number in the grand scheme of things.  Twice as many people died in traffic accidents on the same day.  Their deaths are no less tragic, the pain felt by their friends and families no less real, but they don't get the media attention because another 100 people will die in traffic accidents today, and another 100 tomorrow, and another 100 the day after that.  It is really important not to lose sight of the fact that terrorism grabs the headlines in no small measure because it is rare.

We will, of course, go through the usual ritual of handwringing about the second amendment.  Liberals will shout, "Well-regulated militia!" and conservatives will retort, "Right of the people!" and at the end of the day, again, nothing will change because a majority of U.S. citizens seems to believe that 50 innocents dead is not too high a price to pay for the freedom, or at least the perception of freedom.

The real tragedy IMHO is that neither side of the debate actually makes a principled argument, or acknowledges the simple fact that technology has changed the situation on the ground in ways that demand changes in the law.  Physics and economics constrained the carnage in 1791 in ways that it no longer does today.  An automatic assault rifle can do a hell of a lot more damage than a muzzle loader, and even the NRA concedes (tacitly!) that it's probably a bad idea to let people buy RPGs or SAMs or tactical nukes at the Walmart without a background check.

And therein lies the fundamental problem for gun-rights advocates.  The argument that the individual right to bear arms is a line of defense against tyranny is untenable.  An assault rifle might slow the jack-booted thugs down a little, but it won't stop them.  The government has tanks and predator drones.  You don't, and you never will.  If we ever get into a situation where your AK-47 is the only thing standing between us and tyranny, we are screwed.

Guns are not effective defenders of freedom, but they are powerful symbols of freedom.  Freedom means that individuals get to make choices for themselves that other people don't approve of, and in particular, that the government doesn't approve of.  They get to say unpopular things, take unnecessary risks, worship unfashionable deities.  People have a right to bear arms not because AK-47s will stop the government from abusing its power, but because taking people's guns is in and of itself an abuse of that power if the people do not consent to having their guns taken.  And they don't.  The fact that their rationale is bogus doesn't matter.  Making bogus arguments is also one of the privileges of freedom.

Freedom is the ability of people to make choices for themselves.  Sometimes bad things happen as a result of those choices.  That is the price of freedom.  Is it worth the cost?  That is the argument we should be having.  But we aren't because all of the players are firmly dug-in to absolute but unprincipled and hence ultimately untenable positions.  We've been here before.  It doesn't end well.