Friday, April 16, 2010


I really want to visit Iceland someday. It is an island country in the process of being ripped apart by the biggest forces of Nature on earth; how cool is that?

Reading the wikipedia page on the latest volcanic eruption in Iceland is fascinating. The bad news is that it's making life difficult for the 500 or so people who live near the volcano, disrupting air travel all over Europe, and might kill a bunch of sheep via flourine poisoning.

I wonder if all the flourine getting dumped on Europe along with the volcanic ash will give them stronger teeth...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Cobbler's Wife Had No Shoes

Did I jinx myself by writing about LastPass a few weeks ago?

Somebody guessed Michele's gmail account password, and got control of her account. She was basically doing what I'd been doing until a couple of months ago, using a password that was short and easy to remember and, it turns out, easy to guess if you did a little bit of googling on her. Her gmail account started out as just a non-work email address she'd use when online services or shops asked for an email address.

So who cares if somebody guessed the password? No biggie.

But over time she started using the gmail account for all her non-work stuff. So she was extremely unhappy to wake up yesterday morning and find out all her friends and family received this message:
This had to come in a hurry and it has left me in a devastating state. I'm in some terrible situation and I'm really going to need your urgent help. Some days ago,unannounced,I came to visit a resort center in Drayton, Scotland Road Industrial Estate, Dry Drayton Cambridge England, UK..but I got mugged by some hoodlums and lost all my cash,credit cards, I'm financially stranded right now and my return flight leaves in few hours time but I need some money to clear some bills, I didn't bring my cell phone along since I didn't get to roam them before coming over. So all I can do now is pay cash and get out of here quickly.I do not want to make a scene of this which is why I did not call my house,this is embarrassing enough. I was wondering if you could loan me some cash, I'll refund it to you as soon as I arrive home just need to clear my Hotel bills and get the next plane home, As soon as I get home I'll refund it immediately. Write me so I can let you know how to send it.
Wow! Well, I was certainly concerned, so of course I wrote back:
Oh my gosh, that's terrible! I knew you were heading overseas, I'm sorry to hear you are having SUCH a hard time!

How can I help?

Three hours later "Michele" replied:
Glad you replied back to my email..I still have my life and passport cos it would have been worst if they made away with my passport. well all I need is just $2,450 and you can have it wired to me via Western Union. Here's my info below

Michele Cooke
8, Scotland Road Industrial Estate, Dry Drayton Cambridge CB23 8AT , United Kingdom.

As soon as it is done, kindly get back to me with the confirmation number and let me know if you are heading to the WU outlet now?

Anybody who knows Michele well enough to lend her $2,450 will know that she doesn't write "cos" unless she's writing about trigonometry. And after reporting the hijacking she's got control over her gmail account again and sent an "all clear" message, thanking all the people who emailed or called to let her know that she'd been hacked.

The scammers did several sneaky things, though:
  1. After spamming everybody, they deleted her gmail contacts list-- I assume to make it harder for her to send an "ignore that last email, I do not need money" message.
  2. They created a very similar free email address at Yahoo ( and setup a gmail filter to forward all email to that address.
  3. They moved all of her mail to the gmail Trash folder, and had the same mail forwarding filter automatically move new messages to the Trash.
Tricky buggers! Her email would probably still be forwarded to the scammers if I hadn't done a little research and run across a handy list of things to check if your gmail account gets compromised.

I suppose this is the digital equivalent of losing your wallet -- it is annoying and embarrassing and time-consuming. Gmail has a pretty good account recovery process, although it takes them most of a day to investigate and figure out who the proper owner is. Michele re-created it from messages left in the Trash folder; good design on Gmail's part that there's no way to erase a message immediately. But it would be way cool if they could automatically restore all the mail forwarding and contact list and other account settings to how they were before the account got hijacked.

I hadn't finished creating ultra-secure LastPass passwords for all the sites I visit; "who cares if somebody hijacks my Wordpress comment-on-blogs account?"

The answer is "anybody who might be fooled if they got a message from me saying I was in trouble." I'm changing those passwords, and am going to make sure the answers to the password recovery security questions are ultra-secure, too...

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Weather Makers

A couple of years ago Richard Morse suggested I read The Weather Makers to get a convincing argument for why global warming is a Really Big Deal and why we Must Do Something Now.

I read it on my Kindle, and used the Kindle's "add note" feature to jot down my thoughts as I read. Definitely klunky, but better than sticking post-it notes in a paper book or writing in the margins-- the Kindle lets me see all my notes at once and it's way more environmentally friendly to use electrons to read rather than pen and paper.

Which brings me to my first criticism of the book. Flannery repeatedly makes the mistake of believing that we're all competing with each other for a share of a fixed resource pie. For example, talking about grain yields he says "although substantial wheat surpluses were recorded in 1999 and 2004, overall the trend in world food security has been a downward one."

Ummm... no. My favorite usually-unbiased quick source of information (Wikipedia) has a helpful graph of global food production per capita; "food per person increased during the 1961-2005 period."

Flannery's warnings about Peak Oil fall into the same trap. Another "oops" I noted: he predicts "the world may experience the end of cheap oil sometime between now and 2010." Well... no, not yet.

Yes, oil will become more expensive than it is now. No, that won't matter, any more than the fact that whale oil is impossible to buy today but used to be cheap and economically important.

I recently read From Poverity to Prosperity (also on my Kindle), which is all about why thinking about the modern economy in terms of physical stuff is all wrong. In today's world using human ingenuity to rearrange atoms or bits in new and interesting ways is the key to prosperity.

And that brings me to the other major issue I have with this book. Flannery isn't an economist, so why does he dismiss their expert opinion? He admits that "economists who participated in the IPCC discussions stated that doing anything serious about climate change was too expensive to be worthwhile," and then instead of examining their arguments he simply states that "... adaptation of this sort is genocide, and attempted Gaia-cide, as well."

No mention of discount rates or cost/benefit calculations or any serious discussion of how to balance our competing desires for material wealth and a pristine environment, just over-the-top rhetoric and fear-mongering. NO serious scientist thinks that global warming will kill all life on Earth, and as a paleontologist Flannery should know that. Carbon dioxide concentrations in paleolithic times were much, much higher than even the highest of the IPCC projections, and life flourished.

And that brings me to my last criticism. For somebody who has studied the stunning variety of life nature produces (Flannery is an expert in kangaroo evolution, among other things-- didja know that there used to be 10-foot-tall kangaroos hopping around?) he seems amazingly pessimistic about nature's ability to respond to change. Biologists have discovered that new species can evolve in as little as 20 years.

So I remain unconvinced that global warming is a Really Big Deal and that we Must Act Now. As I've said before, I think we should focus on more immediate issues like habitat destruction, pollution from coal-burning power plants, stupid, expensive, environmentally-destructive ethanol subsidies, and environmentally unfriendly zoning laws that encourage cars and energy-inefficient single-family houses.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Being unlucky (I'm a bleeding-heart libertarian)

I like Megan McArdle's proposal for health care reform:
I'd like to see the government pick up the tab for expenses that total more than 15% or 20% of annual income. There's certainly also a case for providing basic care and treatment for certain chronic conditions to the poor, though even in that case, I'd like to see us at least try to handle the problem with a combination of catastrophic insurance, and better income supports.
The government supposedly already pays for basic care and treatment for the poor through the Medicaid program. I say "supposedly" because in many places it is tough to find doctors who will accept Medicaid patients.

I found it disheartening that the recent health care debate the main talking point from the left was "insuring the XYZ million uninsured." We're failing Medicaid patients now, adding millions more won't fix the problem, it will just make it worse.

And I found it equally disheartening that the main talking point from the right seemed to be "no socialized medicine." Our current half-socialized system is the worst of both worlds.

I think I'll start calling myself a "bleeding-heart libertarian." "Bleeding heart" because I believe that we have a moral obligation to help people who, through no fault of their own, get sick and cannot afford to pay for their health care. "Libertarian" because I realize that there's no free lunch-- health care is a limited resource, and like any limited resource there are only a few ways to figure out who gets it.

I like McArdle's proposal because it is a natural, market-driven way of identifying the truly needy. If you make $40,000 per year and are spending more than $6,000/year on health care then you're either a huge hypochondriac (but they're so rare I don't think we need to worry about them) or you're really sick. If we all paid out-of-pocket for run-of-the-mill health care that would provide powerful incentives to keep costs down. The average person spends about 15% of their income for food; it seems perfectly reasonable to expect to spend an equal amount on health care.

Especially since we're already spending that much on health care, we just don't realize it because the costs are hidden from us.