Gutbrain Records

Friday, 19 January 2007

My friend and colleague Chris Cawthray has recorded a new album, (pamplemousse), with his piano trio. It's really great, a mixture of originals and covers, including my own tune "Mouse Game" from the At Sunset record. Buy the download! Buy his other records, too, if you haven't already.

Tuesday, 02 January 2007

I can live without theories of Intelligent Design. In the most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement there's an interesting article about science and religion. The author, Thomas Dixon, expresses with enviable ease what I have always felt:

If the Big Bang had banged only slightly more vigorously, matter would have been blown apart too fast for stars and planets to be formed. [Owen] Gingerich [author of "God's Universe", Harvard University Press] approvingly repeats Fred Hoyle’s much-quoted remark that facts such as these suggest “that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature”. Gingerich is aware that some physicists prefer to explain physical fine-tuning on the hypothesis that our universe is just one of many in a “multiverse” or even a “megaverse”. And he acknowledges that to them the science looks the same but the worldview within which they interpret it is different.

When confronted with discussions of the Anthropic Principle (a phrase which is now used for almost any conceivable explanation of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe), I am almost always left feeling that the question is confused and the answer unconvincing. How do we know whether or not to be surprised by any given configuration of physical constants? Surely any combination is almost infinitely improbable? How, in any case, do we know that these constants are free to vary in the way these arguments assume they are, and are not simply fixed by nature or linked to each other in a way we do not understand? And should the actual existence of trillions of other universes, as opposed to their merely possible existence, really make us any less surprised about the existence and physical make-up of our own (supposing we were surprised in the first place, which honestly I wasn’t)? As Hume’s Philo put it, “having found, in so many other subjects much more familiar, the imperfections and even contradictions of human reason, I never should expect any success from its feeble conjectures, in a subject so sublime, and so remote from the sphere of our observation”.

After that, you may want to visit the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Alice and I were having lunch at Sripraphai today and my attention was caught by their large TV screen, which was tuned to CNN. The scroll at the bottom of the screen announced that today was January 2, 2007. It went on to offer the following observations: that January 2, 2007 was the second day of the year 2007 and that there were 363 days remaining until 2008. Wow. Never before has the decision we made years ago to cancel cable been so validated.

There's a lot of stuff to read on the Internet these days, but there are a few sites that I look at every day. If you haven't read Bruce Schneier before, I urge you to start now. He's a security technologist who has written books on cryptography and a wide range of security problems. His weblog offers incisive commentary on security-related news, of which there has been no shortage in recent years. Here's a sample, part of one of his posts which should be of interest to professional musicians who depend on touring to make a living:

Automated Targeting System

If you've traveled abroad recently, you've been investigated. You've been assigned a score indicating what kind of terrorist threat you pose. That score is used by the government to determine the treatment you receive when you return to the U.S. and for other purposes as well.

Curious about your score? You can't see it. Interested in what information was used? You can't know that. Want to clear your name if you've been wrongly categorized? You can't challenge it. Want to know what kind of rules the computer is using to judge you? That's secret, too. So is when and how the score will be used.

U.S. customs agencies have been quietly operating this system for several years. Called Automated Targeting System, it assigns a "risk assessment" score to people entering or leaving the country, or engaging in import or export activity. This score, and the information used to derive it, can be shared with federal, state, local and even foreign governments. It can be used if you apply for a government job, grant, license, contract or other benefit. It can be shared with nongovernmental organizations and individuals in the course of an investigation. In some circumstances private contractors can get it, even those outside the country. And it will be saved for 40 years.

Little is known about this program. Its bare outlines were disclosed in the Federal Register in October. We do know that the score is partially based on details of your flight record--where you're from, how you bought your ticket, where you're sitting, any special meal requests--or on motor vehicle records, as well as on information from crime, watch-list and other databases.

Civil liberties groups have called the program Kafkaesque. But I have an even bigger problem with it. It's a waste of money.

The idea of feeding a limited set of characteristics into a computer, which then somehow divines a person's terrorist leanings, is farcical. Uncovering terrorist plots requires intelligence and investigation, not large-scale processing of everyone.

Additionally, any system like this will generate so many false alarms as to be completely unusable. In 2005 Customs & Border Protection processed 431 million people. Assuming an unrealistic model that identifies terrorists (and innocents) with 99.9% accuracy, that's still 431,000 false alarms annually.

The number of false alarms will be much higher than that. The no-fly list is filled with inaccuracies; we've all read about innocent people named David Nelson who can't fly without hours-long harassment. Airline data, too, are riddled with errors.

The odds of this program's being implemented securely, with adequate privacy protections, are not good. Last year I participated in a government working group to assess the security and privacy of a similar program developed by the Transportation Security Administration, called Secure Flight. After five years and $100 million spent, the program still can't achieve the simple task of matching airline passengers against terrorist watch lists.

In addition to his blog, I also highly recommend these essays and op eds.

Other daily reading I wouldn't want to live without is the media analysis presented Monday through Friday by Bob Somerby's Daily Howler. I think that reading mainstream journalism or watching television news could be pointless or perhaps even damaging without the critical media analysis provided by the Daily Howler and organizations like FAIR.