Friday, 30 September 2011

ACTA Update

Seems the USA push to extend their own broken laws on The Rest of the World has reached a critical step. Also seems NZ will be a signatory. Remains to be seen how well the treaty will be honored or the extent to which it obligates us to alter our laws to suit large US-based manufacturers.

One of the concerns - iirc - was that generic medicines may become illegal as "counterfeit" products. Looks like it's gone from the final version of acta but the interest in this is very big and it is now in TPPA. Block it there are it will show up someplace else unless NZ makes a firm statement that no such provision will pass or, if passed "on the sly", will not be enforceable.

And in other liberty news, NZ FOSS folks brace themselves for the rollout of MSs secure boot process, which has the potential to remove your ability to replace the pre-installed operating system. There is another way to securely boot your computer - replace windows. There is no reason to hand over control of your computer to MS just to secure yourself from flaws in MS software ... especially since it won't work.

On the upside - maybe we can get a beef-up to our anti-competition laws, say, set the fines to a percentage of a company's net worth, then milk Microsoft Corporation to fund our national debt. Just a thought.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

FTL Neutrinos ... oh dear oh dear...

I was brought up short by a news thing about neutrinos apparently measured faster than light. The comments in that link are sad sad sad. But to be fair, it's a poorly understood part of science.

My favorite description of relativity vis a vis FTL, with the problems this poses. Basically, special relativity manages to be internally consistent as long as nothing goes faster than light (in a vacuum) or if it does, it is restricted in how it does so. Of course, special relativity could be wrong.

In quantum mechanics, the things we are pleased to think of as the Laws of Physics are more like "firm guidelines" which are only obeyed on average. This means that the speed of light is approximate and energy violations occur all the time. There are still restrictions on how this can happen though, so that the physics does not contradict itself.

An example is the FTL information transfer apparent in Quantum Entanglement experiments (used to be called "teleportation"). In these experiments, an observation made in one place affects the results of an observation in another place in such a way that it cannot be turned into a kind of FTL radio.

An easier example would be the spot of light cast from (say) a laser pointer onto a surface. If you move the pointer through an angle A, the spot moves RA where R is the distance to the surface. Make R big enough and even quite slow movements of the pointer results in FTL movement of the spot.

But these are neutrinos... weakly interacting particles with a very small mass (<16eV/c^2) so we need to be more careful about what we actually say is happening.

The researchers set up an experiment to test the quantum oscillation of mu and tau neutrinos (mu and tau neutrinos can be set up to change between each other cyclically) from a well configured source. This sort of thing involves setting up a source of mu neutrinos with a known set of statistics, firing them off at a target, and counting how many mu and tau neutrinos get detected (compensating for the sensitivity of the detector and the background of detection events) to see how the result compares with the theoretically projected counts.

Presumably they got fewer tau and more mu than expected, which could be interpreted as a higher than expected speed (or a slower than expected oscillation). If you have reason to discount the oscillation rate as a cause, then you can use the data to compute what sort of speed must have been achieved ... they did this and reported that the anomalous neutrinos arrived at the detector 60ns sooner than light would have traversed the same distance in a vacuum. The uncertainty in the calculation was 10ns - so the result is highly significant, statistically.

At this stage, the findings have been made public so the scientific community can check them, maybe repeat the experiments. This was the right thing to do. It shows scientific humility to put your findings up to scrutiny like this ... someone could find an embarrassing mistake.

I stress: I don't know for sure that this is the method they used. I am going by how such experiments are _usually_ done. Maybe someone was sitting on the detector with a stop-watch, but it's unlikely.

One of the big problems is that there have been plenty of opportunities to see something like this before now. For example, the neutrinos from SP1987A arrived about 3 hours ahead of the light-pulse from over 187000ly away. This difference is consistent with the light having to traverse the surrounding stellar material first. If the above figures are treated as correct, then they should have been of the order of months early, even taking into account the uncertainty in the distance.

There have been many neutrino experiments, and many experiments looking specifically for this sort of thing using other particles.

One of the ways that has been considered for FTL concerns the way QM represents particles as waves. In _wave mechanics_, a particle is represented by a wave-packet - the square of the part of the wave-packet inside the detector is the probability of the particle being detected. In wave-mechanics, it is these wave-packets that move around.

A typical wave packet used in an experiment is Gaussian (normal distribution). Relativity means that the speed of the peak of the packet (the group velocity) cannot be faster than light. But, with this kind of packet, different parts of it travel at different speeds. In particular, the leading parts are faster and the trailing parts are slower. So it is technically possible to set up a situation where some distant part of the leading edge is moving faster than light. Thus, there is a small, but non-zero, chance that the particle gets detected well ahead of when the peak would have arrived at the detector. This would detect as FTL.

To my knowledge, this has not been seen.

It could be something like this, with the particular care taken in these experiments being the reason nobody saw it before now. However, this is highly unlikely. A fluctuation in the background mu neutrinos would also produce this sort of result, much like you can get a freak wave when you are out rock-fishing. This is why it is very important to repeat these experiments.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I can't believe something so simple could be so effective!

(or: late night infomercial rubbish)

The title is the catchphrase from a certain infomercial for a certain shoe insert, you know the one. Another notable comment: "Could it be that it creates a force field that ..." Answer: no. It cannot possibly be because that's not what "force field" means.

What they do is show you loads of people doing something called a "balance test" where subjects are easily shifted off balance unless they are wearing the special inserts. Here is what it looks like:

... this is an old con exploiting misconceptions about how well we balance, as well as a bit of basic physics. In general, humans are unstable - particularly with their feet together - which is why toy soldiers need a wide base to stand up. We balance by shifting our weight and generally moving about.

Look carefully at the video again: the subject is in an unstable, but sustainable, position. In the first test the seller pushes down and a bit away from his body, thus directing the force away from his feet, pulling him over. In the second, she pushes down and towards his body, basically directing the force down to his feet and improving his stability. Nothing to do with the inserts.

This method has been used to sell a wide variety of junk. It is so effective it works in even less stable stances like, standing on one leg. Here's how it generally works:

Skeptics have been facing this sort of thing for a while now. While the basic testing method (double blind) shows up the fallacy, it is generally not very convincing if you don't know how it works. You just can't believe such a simple con can be so effective!

This is because, if you have experienced the test, it is very convincing. We are just not used to doubting our own experiences, and it is unpleasant to do so. On top of this, skeptics deliberately avoid using methods which encourage the willing suspension of disbelief. Skeptics want you to question everything, the advertiser does not. So the skeptic will always appear the less believable of the two.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

DELL Facebook Scam

Recieved a facebook message like this?
"I received a Dell XPS 1530 laptop today for nothing! I think they are only sending out a limited supply of promo laptops in each area, its actually very nice :) I got it from here [redacted]"

It's a scam.

In the original version you had to fill out a lot of different surveys, handing over personal information, enticed by the prospect of a fine DELL laptop. The newer version (same url) has only one survey with three bullshit questions and Apple products (Macbook Air, iPad, iPhone the usual). How likely is it that DELL would offer Apple products in a promo?

The next stage is verification - where you must give them your cell-phone number. They text you a pin, enter the pin for your prize. Ha ha ha: the pin will never work. But there is fine-print at the bottom of the screen:

"Summary terms: You must be the account holder or have permission from the account holder. This is an auto renewing subscription service that will continue until cancelled anytime by texting STOP to 2012. Available to users over 13 for $7 per week + $3.50 join charged on your wireless account or deducted from your prepaid balance for mBill Content Club @ 2 messages per week. Supported carriers: Telecom, Vodafone. For prizeKing support: text HELP to 2012, email or call 0800 630 114. Std msg/data rates apply. Your phone must have text messaging capability. Call for your money back within first 30 days of service if you are not satisfied. By signing up for this service and entering your personal PIN Code delivered to the cell phone number supplied by you on this website, you acknowledge that you are agreeing to the full Terms of Use. Click here for full Terms & Conditions. For Privacy Policy Click here."

So you will find yourself sent two txts a week for $7 off your bill - basically for visiting the page.
AFAIK: this sort of sign-up is illegal in NZ.

The links go to a domain which whois says does not exist! It's actually a javascript thingy that takes you to more content on the same page. Considering that billing through a cell-phone requires cooperation from the phone company, it is probably possible to cut of their revenue. You see this, complain to your phone co.

You can also report them to Internal Affairs.

Note the person whose name is on the message is a victim too - treat them nice: they got a virus.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Verified IDs Old News

The National Identity Workshop - these folks:
... have been presented as context for g+ names policy re: #nymwars et al.

People who want to see the problems with the underlying concept need look no further than the long-running national ID card debates...

eg.Bruce Schneier:

Real ID: Costs and Benifits (2007)

A National ID Card Wouldn't Make Us Safer(2004!)

... this is not new and the issues are well known.

EPIC overview(2007)

This is just in the USA! It seems this is a debate that just keeps going round and round - only the context changes.

Not so say that ID cards are not useful. They are. It's just that a universal, ubiquitous ID system cannot make us more secure. Even if it was perfect. People and organisations implementing any kind of ID verification need to be very clear about what it can and cannot do.

ID verification of some users seems like it would be useful for g+ ... and some people would use it. Enforced for everyone? The harm outweigs the good. Besides - google stands to gain more by allowing a graduated verification system.