Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why do smart people form stupid organizations?

Article originally published in The California Tech, January 26, 2015

Why do smart individuals form stupid organizations?

Casey Handmer

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be paraphrased as "too stupid to realize it." In more depth, an individual displaying the Dunning-Kruger effect is so ignorant of their ignorance, their self-assessed competence is wildly discordant with reality. Everyone displays this effect to some extent in areas beyond their interests or expertise, but examples of universal affliction are mercilessly rare, especially at an institution like Caltech, and especially not in YouTube comments. In general, people have the ability to incorporate new information and to self-assess and self-correct as necessary.

If we look at organizations, however, this generality becomes a rarity. There are many reasons for this. Top-down organizations often use a simply-connected org chart and have many single points of failure. Throw in an incentive scheme that actively impedes important information moving up the chain and it's frequently surprising that large organizations can function at all. As an example, problems in the supply chain outsourcing Boeing employed to build the 787 were predicted more than 15 years ago, and it took at least a decade before senior management did anything about it. Sony has been hacked half a dozen times with no apparent change in corporate culture. The most recent Iraq war was initiated on transparently false grounds, and none of our checks and balances were able to pull the US back from the brink. On the other hand, Google holds weekly company-wide meetings where anyone can ask a question. Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) has recommended to "really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, especially from friends."

Last week I wrote about Media FBI burglary. The FBI, run for nearly half a century by J. Edgar Hoover, became primarily obsessed with furthering its own agenda to the detriment of its supposed mission. The actions and labor of its individual agents were co-opted by an organization that was never accountable to the people it served. With no avenue for internal dissent, the FBI could and did run roughshod across the freedoms it was supposed to protect. In the end, only the actions of a handful of motivated activists and journalists were able to restore the flow of communication and enable the continuance of democratic functionality.

But it is too easy to point the finger and blame the police. Often, we read a portion of daily outrage at the conduct of some state-empowered law enforcement. Often, it seems that the actions of a few bad cops are enabled by corrupt or dysfunctional leadership. Often, it seems the idealistically motivated majority are hamstrung by the same institutional issues.

Law enforcement is more complicated than this. The golden rule of "do unto others" breaks down when it comes to punishing bad people. My personal experiences in places with no law enforcement has convinced me that police are an essential element of any society of nontrivial size. Yet law enforcement must involve secrecy to protect privacy and the innocent. Law enforcement must deal with the fact that it is primarily concerned with the dispensation of state-sanctioned violence. Law enforcers are to perform difficult, dangerous, and undervalued labor for the common good. Designing an organization to work in this environment without succumbing to corruption or self-interest is highly nontrivial and requires participation, constant maintenance, and oversight.

Bonnie Raines, one of the FBI burglars coming to campus on Tuesday, reminds us that all organizations and agencies are composed of individual people: "The average FBI agent felt pretty good about the job he was trying to do. A large number were Irish Catholic young men. They did have idealism about trying to do good. But it can be so easily manipulated. It is so easy to put blinders on. Some of them, we think, probably weren't all that smart. They didn't anticipate a break in." They certainly didn't anticipate becoming part of a notorious organization bent on crushing the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. It's too easy to point out, but almost no one sets out to do evil.

On Dec. 9, 2014, the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, or CIA Torture Report, was finally released. In comparison with the FBI abuses perpetrated during the 1960s and 1970s, it is illustrative to see how certain patterns are repeated in our own time. After Sept. 11, 2001, all 17 US intelligence agencies frantically worked to try to understand and prevent a future terrorist attack. Some of them (notably not the FBI in this instance) went so far as to employ torture, sometimes referred to euphemistically as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or EITs. Similarly, prisoners were referred to as detainees to avoid any confusion with the Geneva Convention. While the CIA was likely not the worst practitioner, it is the only agency thus far to be held to any kind of account and thus forms our case study.

In summary, the key findings of the report were:

  • The CIA's use of torture was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from prisoners, and justifications based on effectiveness were thus void.

  • The interrogations and conditions of imprisonment were brutal and far worse than the CIA told policymakers responsible for oversight, and included rape and hypothermia.

  • The CIA repeatedly lied to and obstructed the Department of Justice, congressional committees, the White House, and their own Office of Inspector General.

  • The program hindered and harmed national security.

  • The CIA leaked selected or false information to the media in support of the program.

  • The CIA's management of the program was fundamentally flawed throughout its duration, including outsourcing, lacking internal accountability, improvising torture methods on the fly, and failing to keep track of who, why, and how many people were kept.

  • The program was unsustainable, extremely costly, and significantly damaged the world standing of the US.

  • The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.

None of these findings are particularly surprising. The inefficacy of torture at eliciting reliable information has been recognized since the beginning of history. The science of effectively and ethically interrogating prisoners has been well understood in the West since at least the second world war. Even if torture worked it would still be unethical. There are plenty of examples of effective security techniques, such as universal pre-emptive imprisonment, that are nonetheless unethical and should be avoided, especially if you're fighting a war on moral or ethical grounds. Torture is illegal, and prosecution for it is mandatory under international law. Finally, torture and other acts that degrade the law of war endanger the US's own troops. As the most powerful country on Earth economically and militarily, the US has the most to lose if it seeks to normalize fighting dirty. This logic applies domestically as well, where the public's faith in government and law enforcement is the most powerful tool for law and order, a faith compromised by pointless and relatively rare actions by a handful of malefactors enabled by institutional incompetence.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion of the torture report is the last one. The CIA, like any other agency, is staffed primarily by motivated experts who have a solid moral compass and the interests of the country at heart. Yet despite that, none of these majority stakeholders within the CIA were able to prevent or confront the torture program. In a system where incompetence can be hidden through secrecy and classification, it becomes even harder to ensure just action.

Between Hoover's FBI, the CIA's catastrophic lapse, and the NSA's mass surveillance and deception of Congress, it is now clear that corruption stemming from secrecy and unaccountability is the norm, not the exception. This danger was recognized by the Founding Fathers when Jefferson wrote, "In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

What can we learn from these examples? Organizations exist to tackle big, complex problems that can be solved no other way. They perform vital functions and must deal with a constantly changing environment in a tightly coupled system. The most important tool an organization possesses in dealing effectively with pre-existing and emergent challenges is internal communication.

Effective internal communication is the antidote to chaos at every level, from family dynamics to Caltech student leadership to ensuring ethical action within secretive organizations to state, national, and international law and politics. Everyone on Earth participates in numerous organizations, and the actions of those organizations, mediated by communication, are the responsibility of their respective participants, whether that be speaking, listening, or relaying information.

Today, it seems unlikely that legislation will ever catch up with technological innovation. The political climate of the future is being determined in the present by the ideology of technology companies that connect people, conduct business, and solve particular problems. The prime example is the ongoing transition of political power from government to the big technology companies, for whom expertise in signals intelligence (sometimes known as targeted advertising) is core business. Whereas domestic and foreign intelligence actions have been historically separated to safeguard freedom, today both effectively sit in the hands of private, non-democratically regulated multinational corporations. To whom, if not their own engineers, will these entities be accountable when their power is absolute?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Daring FBI burglars to attend film screening of 1971 at Caltech

Article published in The California Tech on January 20 2015.

Daring FBI burglars to attend film screening of 1971 at Caltech

Casey Handmer

There will be a film screening and discussion on Tuesday, Jan. 27, in Beckman Institute Auditorium starting at 6 p.m.

"The best and the brightest of this generation are angry as all get out and they have every right to be. They're up to their noses in loans that send them out into the world as indentured servants. They know that the economic recovery is of Wall Street and has left Main Street behind. They know the political consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor. They know their vote is drowned in a sea of money. They're angry that old white men who run things have turned their back on the sustainable future that does not belong to them. They're going to be dead; the future belongs to the young folks. Leaders have turned their back on the future and on a world that's running out of possibilities."

I'm speaking with John Raines. His interactions with students over a teaching career spanning four decades has given him terrific insight into the challenges of the future. Despite his 81 years, he is more optimistic about the future than ever before.

"The anger of the best and brightest gives me great confidence and hope for the future. Courage comes out of anger when focused and disciplined."

John knows something about courage. In 1971, he was part of a team that burgled an FBI office, leaked incriminating files to the press, and precipitated a decade of reforms and accountability for systemic illegal government activity. As one does.

John described his transition into the Vietnam War protest movement: "I was very active in the civil rights movement, [which took the form of] non violent protest. We were very successful. We got the Civil Rights [Act] passed in '64 and the Voting Rights Act passed in '65. It took very considerable political pressure. We had to defeat the southern states' filibuster. We knew from back then something about [FBI founding director] J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and their dirty tricks, infiltrators, and informers. Hoover hated [Martin Luther] King. Thought he was a communist. Tried to persuade the people that King was a communist and thus an enemy of the people of the United States. [My wife] Bonnie and I came into the anti [Vietnam] War movement after '65, and by the time we got to '68 and '69, we knew that Hoover was using the same tactics as against the civil rights movement, but we had no way of documenting that. The general atmosphere by '69 was that civil disobedience and nonviolent protest was not working—getting no traction—so some of us began to consider moving from nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption. That was the key move to beginning to think about breaking into significant government or selective services (draft board) offices."

Members of the movement "cased draft boards and broke in in middle of the night," Bonnie added. "There were more than 350 draft board break-ins. They were orchestrated as part of the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, which was part of the Catholic Left. Originally, protesters would break in, burn files with homemade napalm, stand around and get arrested. It was found this was costly in terms of time spent in jail and money spent on lawyers. There was a transition within the Catholic Left to do it clandestinely. Pioneering procedures for successful breaking in and removal of files was a learning curve."

In 1970, John and Bonnie became involved in a plot to burgle an FBI office and remove files they had a hunch would reveal wrongdoing. A team of eight otherwise normal people planned meticulously for months, consistently surprised at how poor security was. "They didn't anticipate a break in," Bonnie told me.

John added, "Arrogance of power. Couldn't conceive that they would become a target of their own practices. Even during the [subsequent] investigation, 200 agents kept pursuing the wrong people. We were one of thousands of suspects in the Philadelphia area. When you become politically active, it's important that you have a movement, so you can hide in plain sight."

Initially, they had no idea just how significant their haul was, although they immediately found the expected evidence of FBI burglary, harassment, and blackmail. Betty Medsger was the first journalist to receive some of the liberated documents and publish them. One document stated that agents were to increase rates of interviews with dissenters "for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

But the motherlode was still to come. Bonnie explained: "The crucial document was the 'COINTELPRO' document. A program completely unknown to the press, to Congress, and probably even the White House." Investigative journalist Carl Stern eventually obtained a court order to force the FBI to hand over relevant documents under the Freedom of Information Act. They revealed a covert program that systematically spied on and repressed constitutionally protected political activity, focused on students, "hippie looking people," blacks, and Congress members. At its peak, COINTELPRO had dossiers on hundreds of thousands of people and went as far as political assassinations. Revelations eventually led to the creation of the Church Committee and substantial surveillance agency reform, including permanent congressional oversight.

Last week there was extensive press coverage on a proposal by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to legislatively require encryption backdoors in all electronic communications software, despite the fact that existing blanket surveillance did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombing, the underwear bomber, the French Charlie Hebdo attack, nor any other planned terrorist attack. Why are we having the same discussion post 9/11 about the terrorists, that we did in the 1970s about the communists?

John explained. "Nothing has changed. In the 1950s and 1960s we were a nation governed by fear of the International Communist Conspiracy. People's fear of communists was used [for political ends]. Anyone who opposes is a subversive. Today, the nation is still ruled by fear, this time of terrorism. Most of us do not act in our day to day lives like we are afraid. But both terrorists and anti-terrorists run on the same gasoline, sing the same song, dance the same dance, for both of their success and budgets and ambitions depend on making American people fear. They need us to be afraid. It's really fascinating. Why is it so easy to scare people? Why is the politics of fear so successful? We depend every day upon feeling safe with each other, and almost always this is the case. It's what makes every day life possible. Where does the fear and paranoia come from? The degree to which our culture is saturated with violence in movies and news and television, it is a complete contradiction to everyday life. The real contradiction for us—we the people—why do we put our lives in the hands of people who profit from increasing fear?"

I wondered about their thoughts on the intersection of rapidly developing technology, privacy, government accountability, and the moribund legislative process.

Bonnie started. "I think the [technological] genie is out of the bottle. I think it can be used for good or for harm. I don't think the discussion is taking place. Very few young people today worry about privacy. [Encryption] is a technology that very few people know much about. Who's asking the questions about what could happen in the next few years? Once it's learned, is it too late? Is that conversation taking place?"

Betty added, "The technology is going there whether we like it or not. The agencies … have adopted the idea/attitude that 'whatever power or capacity [surveillance] technology can give us, we want it and as soon as its available.' That's the overriding attitude and principle, rather than 'this is what we want to accomplish and how do we bend the new technologies to accomplish that?' My concern is that the capacities are so great that it makes it impossible for it to be valuable in preventing anything. It's only of value after the fact. It works against them accomplishing what they seek to accomplish. It was claimed that NSA surveillance helped to prevent 55 terrorist attacks and when that was examined very carefully it came down to one, maybe."

What does Betty have to say to today's students?
"The same as to young journalists: Know what your values are so that you know what's in control of your creativity, of your decision making. Think about what your values are and always try to be aware if your values are being shaped by technology and the goals of your masters. When you find your values that you think are critically important to your own integrity and to your role as a citizen in a democratic society, try to think continuously about what you would do if you felt that what [other elements of society] did was out of sync with your values."

John added, "We're going to need people who, when they see bad things happening, blow the whistle. But they depend on a courageous press and investigative reporters. All of those things finally head to Washington and the folks who are supposed to protect our freedoms. There is no democracy without dissent. Power will always try to protect its own privileges. Dissent is the engine of democracy. Democracy is always a horizon to be strived towards. We got information to the American public. The public responded and said 'stop this.' Between '76 and 9/11, we had significant restrictions on the FBI and CIA."

Bonnie said, "Young people today need to think about who they are going to affiliate with as they become adults. What will they commit to? I hope they commit to making necessary changes, rather than just floating about as individuals and trying to find a way to make money."

Quotes edited for brevity and clarity.

Dawn wall - conquered!

Dawn Wall - conquered!
Casey Handmer

On January 15 2015 Tommy Caldwell (36) and Kevin Jorgeson (30) managed to complete their groundbreaking Dawn Wall project. Begun by Caldwell in 2007 with Jorgeson joining in 2009, both climbers routinely spent weeks to months each year encamped in tiny hammock-tents thousands of feet off the ground as they worked on mastering the project.

Like every other slab of stone in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan has been climbed by more than 100 distinct routes, most involving the use of 'aid', mechanical systems to help the climber. Purists within the sport prefer to climb 'free', that is, with hands and feet and ropes only to catch a climber if they fall. At which point they generally begin again from the bottom of that section.

Like every other big wall climb, the Dawn Wall is broken up into multiple sections (32 in this case) or 'pitches' approximately as long as the 200' rope the climbers use to belay each other. What sets the Dawn Wall apart is the extreme technical difficulty of the climb. The central six (out of 32) pitches are the hardest - each individually as tough as the hardest walls you would find in any gym, and all thousands of feet from the ground. Over New Year Jorgeson struggled for a week with pitch 15, tearing skin from his finger tips during a traverse rated 5.14d in difficulty, so hard perhaps only a few dozen climbers in the world could ever repeat it.

When a crucial hand hold snapped in 2012, pitch 16 went from difficult to impossible. Their nearly 3000 foot route up the slab stymied in the middle by eight feet of blank rock with nothing to stand on. Caldwell and Jorgeson realized the only solution would be to jump, the handholds on either side no bigger than a door frame and made of razor sharp granite.

While one of (if not) the hardest climbs ever completed, the Dawn Wall is more of a beginning than an end. Previous generations of climbers celebrated the free climbing of El Cap by the least challenging (and then only possible) routes. Today, top climbers often spend years developing routes that are deliberately challenging in keeping with an emerging aesthetic that favors bold, audacious lines.

On the completion of this nearly decade long project, Jorgeson said "this is not an effort to "conquer". It's about realizing a dream. I hope it inspires people to climb their own Dawn Wall." Looking forward to a shower and walking on flat ground after 19 days, Caldwell remarked "I would love for this to open people's eyes to what an amazing sport this is. I think the larger audience's conception is that we're thrill-seekers out there for an adrenaline rush. We really aren't at all. It's about spending our lives in these beautiful places and forming these incredible bonds."

Short video of one of the crux pitches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLd_c4CjG44 

Photo credit Instagram @TommyCaldwell

In this Jan. 5, 2015 photo provided by Tome Evans,
Photo credit: Tom Evans (AP)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Seattle and Arizona Road Trip

To Seattle! A plane dropped me at Minneapolis airport for a nice, restful sleep in the terminal lulled to sleep by incessant fire alarm tests. Then to Seattle. I took the train to the center of the city, then, my phone stoically not working, guessed a direction and walked to E's house with no wrong turns. It was relatively sunny, so I did some laundry, got some food, explored, and waited for E to get home from his work at a giant international jet aeroplane manufacturer that shall remain nameless. 

Seattle! What a town. I had heard so much but seen so little. A city inhabited entirely by healthy looking people clad in North Face polar fleece striding in Asolo hiking boots from arty book store cafes to their local man bun distribution coop. In other words, a slightly overcast paradise.

Regular readers will know already the endless tortures to which I had subjected E on his previous trips to LA (https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/EVisit2013 and http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2014/04/e-visits-la-again.html) and E was determined to return the favour. First up on Saturday was a trip to the Everett factory (where they build 747s, 777s, and 787s) and a series of aircraft museums, at which we managed to see everything. And I mean everything. After spending an hour in pouring rain dissecting the finer detail of riveting patterns on the underside of the 747 prototype, E was forced to admit defeat and we headed for dinner. A quick break and then off to a Duke Ellington jazz concert, which was incredible. 

On Sunday we were not sure what to do because we'd seen ALL THE PLANES. Or so we thought. So we headed downtown, driving over the trapped tunnel borer, to the Museum of Living Computers, ancient PDP-8s and all sorts of funky systems. I was practically having kittens. Computers nowadays are a bit inscrutable, but these machines just about represent the limits of what one person can completely understand. Lunch, hiking, stone skimming, making dinner, hanging out with friends, and next morning on the plane to LA.

Some might think my adventures were at an end. But really they had only just begun.

On Wednesday, a mere 36 hours later, E's parents (B and MA) arrived from Australia and we headed east. Our adventures were so extensive I can necessarily refer to the key ones only in passing, or we'll be here all week.

First up was Palm Springs. We took the tram up Mt San Jacinto, checked out a very windy Joshua Tree National Park, and visited the Annenbergs' rather palatial Sunnylands estate. E and I borrowed/stole the car and zoomed off to Painted Canyon for a few hours of scrambling through slot canyons and geologic speculation. Interspersed were regular trips to fabulous restaurants for sustenance.

Next up was Phoenix. A moderate drive, an interesting sandwich, and we arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Biltmore Resort, a modest establishment sandwiched between only a few golf courses. Ed and I took off for a nearby mountain and reached the top just after sunset. Now dark, we stumbled down the other side and headed out through the icy evening for dinner, followed by a divey but excellent blues bar with live (just) musicians.

Now it was Sunday. We drove out of town to Frank Lloyd Wright's compound Taliesin West, checked out the buildings and construction methods and art and designs and cactuses, followed by a quick jaunt through the Musical Instrument Museum. That evening we hit up the Wright bar at the hotel, followed by a quick look at moons of Jupiter through my binoculars.

The sun came up and it was time to head out. We were briefly waylaid at a local REI, stopped in at the Saguaro Cactus National Park, E learned to solve a Rubiks cube, and thence to the Arizona Sonora desert museum. An amazing zoo infested with all kinds of animals and hummingbirds and beavers and prairie dogs, it was pretty cool. In Tucson we found the guesthouse, did some laundry, exploited the wifi, and passed out.

By this point, E and I were going through major aviation withdrawal. We headed for the PIMA aircraft museum. Hundreds of types of retired planes littered the desert, and in the hangar was numerous awesome planes, including the Bede-5 and (of course) an SR-71. Hundreds wasn't enough, so we took a bus across the road to the boneyard, where thousands of ex military planes awaited need or death in the preserving desert environment. I think the contrast between the numbers of WW2 planes left over (not many) and contemporary warplanes (heaps, despite being made in much fewer numbers) is a beautiful microcosm for how much safer aviation has become, even at the cutting edge. 

We dropped in at the San Xavier mission on the way back, met a friend of a friend for dinner, and walked around the town. Next morning a storm hit while we were on our way to Flagstaff, so we spent a lot of time driving slowly through snow. That evening I evaluated 2014 and set the agenda for 2015. So far, so good. 

The following day was more snow, fog, and clouds, until we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. E and I took off for the Kaibab trail down to Skeleton Point and back. The canyon was covered in snow right down to the river and yawned beneath a low cloud ceiling. That night the internet didn't work, so we were forced to actually sleep. Which was lucky - we were pretty tired.

Next morning we were up before the dawn. We packed the essentials - water, corn chips, and a bandaid - and, crampons clicking through the snow, we snuck off towards the Bright Angel Trail. As the sun rose we used warning signs for support and took off down the canyon. The air was crisp and the day looked bright. Before long we arrived in Indian garden, checked the time, packed the crampons, and pushed on to the river. This is the part of the walk described as 'suicidal' 'not a day hike' 'regularly causes injuries'. I took a sip of water and tossed my head derisively. Before long we passed the great unconformity and reached the water's edge. 

Well, what a place. Rock, water, sand, sun, snow. We ate the snacks, ripped off thermals, took a photo and skimmed a stone. It was time to head back up. The air was cool and the path was the perfect grade. By 2pm we had reached the rim, managing an average speed of 3 miles an hour. A lot of fun! 

By now the trip was winding to a close. We headed back to Flagstaff, checked out Sedona and Jerome. Sedona has numerous vortexes of silly people looking for energy vortexes, so there was much productive trolling to be done. Jerome, a revitalized mining ghost town, had two streets. The upper one was mostly empty churches, the lower one mostly empty brothels. It also contains the world's largest kaleidoscope shop. That evening I was a bit tired, but thrashed out a 1000 word article on US/China emissions deals before passing out. The following day we drove down the 40 through the desert, across the Colorado, past Barstow, and down the terrifying Cajon pass. I drove at the usual speed, beating the GPS back to Pasadena with time to spare. 

What a trip! What a way to start and finish a year! I am astounded by the Arizona landscape, the company and generosity of E, B, and MA, and the distances between places on this Earth.

Washington DC

In mid December 2014, I was part of a Caltech Y-run field trip to the nation's capitol. We went to learn about science policy and government, and had a full schedule of meetings and tours.

Our operations were based out of the William Penn house, a half-hearted hostel and Quaker meeting house less than a mile east of the Capitol. Days typically started with an excursion on the metro to a relevant agency. The first one we visited was the National Science Foundation, or NSF. Standing on an internal balcony we were able to stare into room upon room of experts assessing thousands of grant proposals. NSF does not conduct in house research, and is proud to spend less than 6% of their ~$7b annual budget on internal administration.

Next up was the National Institute of Health, at their sprawling campus. Here, 33 divisions research many aspects of human health, including the recent Ebola outbreak. It was fascinating to get a 'boots on the ground' view of how the dollars and cents are spent - our particular example was hearing aid research.

DARPA was an interesting event. With a comparatively small budget of $5b, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is based in an unmarked building and employs a rotating staff of contractors to invent the future and prevent surprises. I took the opportunity to ask about jet-launched satellites, 3D printed vaccines, and addressing the balance between law enforcement and privacy-enhancing technology.

Last up was the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the French Second Empire-styled Eisenhower Executive Office building directly adjacent to the White House. Here we got an incredible view of both the West Wing and the process by which the nation's scientists form consensus for advising on science policy.

In the evenings, we hosted Caltech alumni at the William Penn house. We got a good view of work in lobbying, contracting, and policy. The motions between working 'on the hill' and the need to keep ones skills sharp and therefore useful. The grave importance attached to making your boss look good and avoiding offence! And the process by which ideas become laws. Here, I understood more fully, the complexity and slowness is a feature, not a bug!

In our moments of spare time I managed to zoom through the Air and Space Museum, get a tour of the Capitol building, and walk around the mall through all the monuments during a chilly midnight.

We were lucky to have such incredible access and rather warm weather. I am not convinced that working in Washington is something I'd like to do. It takes more dedication than I have to be content with a legacy that is 99% shutting down dumb ideas, like a legislative ban on Nitrogen. On the other hand, someone has to do it, and the price you pay for a participatory government is that you have to participate.

All too soon it was time to catch the blue line to the airport and leave - the next adventure beckoned!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Journalists murdered by fundamentalists in France

Article originally published in the California Tech on January 12 2015

Journalists murdered by fundamentalists in France

Casey Handmer

On Wednesday, Jan. 7, the offices of Parisian satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were stormed by three heavily armed attackers, killing 12 and injuring 11. This article is not a rehashing of the poorly informed and highly opinionated clickbait that tries to cash in on this sort of tragedy. This article is a condensed record of statements by the victims and survivors closest to the tragedy. Where needed, translations to English have been provided.

The dead

  • Frédéric Boisseau, 42, a building maintenance worker for Sodexo and Krav Maga enthusiast. He was killed in the lobby.

  • Franck Brinsolaro, 49, a police officer assigned as a bodyguard for Stéphane Charbonnier.

  • Ahmed Merabet, 42, a police officer on patrol in the area. Wounded in the crossfire, a witness's video shows him approached by one of the attackers, who asked, "Did you want to kill me?" Merabet replied "No, it's OK, boss." He was then shot at point blank range.

  • Mustapha Ourrad, 56, copy editor. "Two men have a dispute, they will then consult a Sufi sage to decide between them. The first puts his case; the wise man said, 'I understand you, you're right.' The second then presents his vision; 'Yes, I understand you,' said the wise, 'you're right.' A witness at the scene exclaims to the wise man in wonder, 'How can you tell both that they are right? It is not possible!' 'You're right,' replied the sage."

  • Bernard Maris, 68, economist, editor, and columnist. "Let [economists] put on a pointed cap, a red nose, let them wag with their ears and tickle the armpits. What were economists for, one will ask a hundred years from now? To make people laugh."

  • Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier, 47, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief. Under guard since 2011, he stated on numerous occasions, "I am not afraid of reprisals, I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I'd prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees."

"Muhammed isn't sacred to me. I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Koranic law."

  • Jean "Cabu" Cabut, 76, Charlie Hebdo cofounder and cartoonist. "Sometimes laughter can hurt, but it is our only weapon, humor, derision…"

  • Elsa Cayat, 54, psychoanalyst and humor/advice columnist. "The knowledge of the unconscious shows us something of the difficult-to-realize, the autonomous, and the power of life in us. The existence of a thought which transcends us, which arises from a singular mind, but also steps beyond and exists in the universality of the mind."

  • Michel Renaud, 69, travel writer and founder of the Rendez-vous du Carnet de Voyage art festival, and a guest at the meeting.

  • Georges Wolinski, 80, cartoonist. "Humor is the shortest road from one person to another."

"Luckily the world is evil. I could not bear to go wrong in a world that is well!"

  • Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac, 57, cartoonist. "A caricature … is the hardest thing to get right. You have to put everything into a single image."

"My work never seems to be done."

The injured

  • Philippe Lançon, 51, journalist, shot in the face and in critical condition

  • Fabrice Nicolino, 59, journalist, shot in the leg

  • Laurent "Riss" Sourisseau, 48, cartoonist, shot in the shoulder

  • Simon Fieschi, 31, webmaster, shot in the shoulder

  • Several police officers and a nearby driver whose car was struck as the attackers fled

The perpetrators

The attacks were carried out by three French nationals, identified as Hamyd Mourad, 18, who surrendered to police, and brothers Said Kouachi, 32, and Cherif Kouachi, 34. Cherif was convicted in 2008 of helping to recruit soldiers to fight for the Iraqi insurgency and served 18 months in prison. Both brothers had allegedly trained in Yemen and seen action in Syria. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has since taken responsibility for the attacks. On the street, following the attack, one of the attackers was heard to have said, "God is great. We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!"

The survivors

Corinne "CoCo" Rey, a cartoonist, had picked up her daughter from daycare. Approached by the armed and hooded men speaking perfect French, they threatened her daughter's life. "They said they wanted to go up to the offices, so I tapped in the code. They shot Wolinski and Cabu. It lasted five minutes. I had taken refuge under a desk."

Sigolène Vinson, a journalist, was spared at gunpoint. "I'm not killing you because you are a woman and we don't kill women, but you have to convert to Islam, read the Quran and wear a veil."

Two other people present at the meeting, Laurent Léger and Renaud's guest Gérard Gaillard, were not harmed. Another Sodexo employee accompanying Boisseau in the lobby was not harmed.

In a radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Caroline Fourest, a former writer with Charlie Hebdo, spoke about the attack and ensuring the magazine's work will continue.

"All the time when we met, we tried to make fun and joke about the crazy stupid people who were violent enough to be afraid of a simple cartoon. They can continue to be afraid, because there will be more cartoons.

"We have all decided, the journalists who survived and their ex-colleagues, that we are going to have a meeting tomorrow to publish the next Charlie Hebdo, because there is no way, even if they killed 10 of us, that the newspaper won't be out next week.

"[Fear and self-censorship] is what the jihadis want. They know that this is the way. You just have to kill a few people in every country, which is the easiest thing to do in the world. To have an automatic weapon and kill people is really easy. You don't need any talent to do that. You need talent to be a cartoonist. You need talent to be a journalist.

"Those people without any talent killed many talented people today just to create this emotion, this shock, this reaction of panic and hatred.

"Many of my friends who died today were very sweet people, very funny people, and very brave people, because they knew that they had to continue to smile and make others smile while defending freedom of the press. Many of my colleagues were under police protection for many years. Their lives changed completely after the [2005 Mohammed] Cartoon Affair. They were just dealing with that. There is no choice when you are a journalist and you want to be free and you refuse to be silenced just because a violent, stupid guy wants you to be silent. You continue to do what you do, what you know how to do, which is to be free."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Obama reaches emissions agreement with China

Originally published in the California Tech, January 7 2015.

Obama reaches emissions agreement with China

Casey Handmer

In mid-November it was announced that China and the US had reached a secretly negotiated carbon emissions deal that, for the first time, injected some hope into the apparently moribund issue.

In 2010, the US emitted around 5.5 gigatons of CO2, shrinking at about 1% per year. China emitted around 8 gigatons with 7% growth per year. The EU emitted about 4.5 gigatons, shrinking also at about 1% per year. While much of the US reduction has been due to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent displacement of coal by gas, the EU, a signatory to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, has committed to reduce their emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and is already halfway there. Together, the US, China, and the EU account for half of the world's CO2 emissions. The US and China did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and nearly two decades later the world is rapidly approaching the 1000 gigaton net CO2 limit understood to limit global temperature rise to below 2 °C.

Exceeding 2 °C global temperature rise will not fry people in the street nor end microbial life as we know it. Instead, we can look forward to a slow, agonizing death to be completed by the end of our children's natural lives. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), intensifying weather, changing rainfall patterns, and salt water incursions across much of the world's arable land will cause mass hunger, poverty, and war. A destabilized west-Antarctic ice sheet will break up and, over a decade or so, drown every coastal city beneath an ever-rising tide of up to 30 feet. Such a bleak future is not inevitable, however.

Under the new deal, the US commits to reduce emissions by 26% below its 2005 peak by 2025, and China commits to reach peak emissions by 2030, and to increase zero-carbon energy generation to 20%. Ipso facto it would seem the US got the raw end of the deal, but there is more to the Chinese commitment than meets the eye. With 7% annual growth in emissions, peaking by 2030 implies a rapid and concerted effort to decouple ongoing exponential economic growth from carbon emissions, to which such growth has traditionally been tied, since the industrial revolution. In other words, both parties will need to take positive and comprehensive action to bolster low- and zero-emission power generation methods.

During the 1930s, the Hoover dam was built in Nevada to tame the Colorado and provide vast quantities of energy for Los Angeles. Much of the technical detail surrounding the high voltage transmission of power over long distances was developed at Caltech. Today, Caltech still occupies a position at the forefront of power generation innovation, and it is into the vacuum of a post-carbon future that many of today's students' efforts will be directed.

In 2009, world leaders met in Copenhagen to attempt a comprehensive UN treaty limiting carbon emissions enough to keep global temperature rise below 2 °C. The meeting failed due to an impasse between China and the US. In particular, limiting CO2 was seen as strongly economically deleterious and all parties bargained so aggressively that no deal was established. What has changed since then? While it is impossible to say for certain, the Chinese political landscape has evolved, while the ongoing environmental and health catastrophes wrought by fossil fuels in China are now impossible to ignore.

With that in mind, it seems more likely that the upcoming Paris accord will consist more of individual countries making their own commitments rather than a broad umbrella agreement on emissions. This approach gives each country more flexibility to tailor its response to its current and projected economic needs. Crucially, it also gives world leaders an opportunity to grandstand. Rather than submitting to a restrictive global deal, countries can enter a competition or rivalry, wherein technological prowess and political maturity can be proven on the world stage. And, unlike the space race, everyone is a winner.

The consequences of this deal go deeper than that, however. Today's technology-based economies, which include all the major carbon emitters, recognize that a post-carbon future is inevitable. Already the rising prices of resource extraction (to say nothing of the unpriced externality of exhaust dumping) have opened the market to utility-scale solar and wind generation. Regardless of timing, if civilization is to continue, it must necessarily transition away from finite fossil fuels. With that in mind, whoever gets there first will enjoy an enormous technological and economic advantage. For too long climate discussions and emissions targets have painted a picture of either economic stability and rising emissions, or economic collapse and a green future.

This need not be the case. Technologies both mature and emerging are beginning to illustrate a powerful future where our accomplishments as human beings are limited not by the width of an oil drill casing but only by the colossal power of the sun. There are substantial technical challenges to generating almost all our power from solar energy, but given a smart grid and distributed storage mechanism for responsive demand, solar farms covering but half the desert military bases in California and Nevada could power the entirety of North America. Similarly, solar panels covering the exclusion zone of a nuclear power plant would generate more power and at less than one-third of the amortized cost. Challenges remain, but never before has need, ability, and raw economic opportunity aligned in so powerful a way.

Today, five-sixths of the coal and oil reserves remaining must stay in the ground if we are to avoid the crucial 2 °C temperature rise. No fossil fuel producer, country, or mining company will accept anything other than an economic argument to discontinue mining. Investment in extraction today assumes profitable returns given a minimum coal price ten years from now, when infrastructure is in place and production can begin. Already, the Rockefeller group has led a partial divestment in fossil fuels, perhaps due to moral obligation but more likely due to economic expedience. Consumer-level solar deployment such as SolarCity and Varengo is leading the charge to drive up future fuel price uncertainty, but many pieces of the puzzle remain unsolved. A future in which coal is as uneconomic to mine as sand is the future in which we leave the planet for our indefinitely many descendants better than when we found it.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Colour Analysis

A friend/colleague wrote a thing: https://medium.com/@mokounkova/color-in-online-art-images-becc9ee517d4 about colour variability in digitized art.

I thought it was super cool and wanted to give it a go in my weapon of choice Mathematica. But I got distracted, because Mathematica.

I started with one of my favourite paintings, "The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon", by Sir Edward John Poynter, in 1890. I am very late romantic, afterall. High resolution version here: http://tinyurl.com/oj7tfhn

Low resolution version here:

Each pixel has an RGB value which can be translated into a position in 3D space. Here is a very schmick diagram of the same image, with the points coloured appropriately. 

What we see here is that the palette is overwhelmingly red, red, red, and mostly in the middle area.

Clearly my taste in art needs work, so I took Masha's promised (but not delivered) example, Botticelli's "Primavera" 1482, oh so early Renaissance.


In 3D colourspace, it looks like

Clearly Botticelli would have executed his art in such a style, if only he had the tools. What's cool about this is there seems to be some structure. The diagonal axis corresponds to the admixture of white or black paint to lighten or darken the original colour, and as such we see a number of diagonal spears of colour. From this angle the red central garment and blue of the sky are most prominent. 

Being a physicist, I ripped out the dimension of brightness as soon as humanly possible.

Here we see some broad colours varying only in hue, completely saturated. Let's rip out that dimension properly...

For some bizarre reason Mathematica requires 2D ListPlots to be joined if they are to be coloured, so we have lines of scribble. As before, the dominant colours are reds and purples, with a few greens thrown in. The blacks and darker colours are most likely hovering around the middle somewhere. 

Regarding the original question of colour differences between different digitizations of art, I speculate that principle component analysis should be able to reproduce the wide variety of images found on the internet.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 in review

With mere minutes remaining of 2014, I thought it a good time to reflect on the joy and wonder of the year.

2014 began with a flight in a blue Navion once owned by Errol Flynn to Catalina Island. This turned out to be an excellent summary (Russian style) for how the year would go. Two and four days later I completed my cross-country solos as part of my pilot's license. Both were incredible learning experiences that I none-the-less survived. On the latter I encountered the most severe turbulence I've ever experienced, as well as some intermittent mechanical problems. Props to my CFI RT for preparing me so well.

By the end of January I'd also made a quick jaunt to the old country - Australia - though I'm not certain when next I shall return. One highlight was exploring the innards of the Sydney Town Hall Organ, the largest non-electric pipe organ in the world, and one of only two with an actual 64' stop.

Three weeks later RENT opened, a terrific show largely orchestrated by MG, DS, and JLL, who later left me for Boston. Building set and singing and dancing and acting is some of the most fun.

I somehow found time to take a few field trips, with the geologists to Zion and Mono Lake, and with the Caltech Y to Yosemite, Washington DC, and a five day induction/indoctrination trip for incoming frosh in the Sierras.

Around Easter ET visited from sunny Seattle, and we did our best to go bananas, with trips to JPL, Catalina Island, and the Mt Wilson 60" telescope to coincide with Mars' opposition. We saw polar caps and the dark plains of Syrtis Major. 

Around this time I procrastinated on flying long enough to 3D print a bunch of jewelry and scientific models, and began a tradition of flying tiny quadcopter drones around TAPIR, the physics department. 

When the drone batteries were exhausted I reluctantly did some work, and went so far as to present it at the APS April meeting in Savannah, Georgia, followed by a few days break with KH in NY and JH in Philadelphia. While in NY I walked down Wall Street wearing my Occupy Mars teeshirt, which was pretty fun.

Back at Caltech I got stuck into satellite control software, eventually succeeding in getting the AAReST mirror to work with MD, T, YP, IH, et al.

The sublime tended to the ridiculous when on the third attempt I managed to outsmart weather and mechanical issues to sit, and pass, my private pilot license checkride, burning cash and old dinosaurs to coast serenely above the LA traffic while occasionally pulling 0gs.

The academic year wound to a close as Fluid Dynamics recorded a studio album (New Tones https://soundcloud.com/fdacappella/) featuring one of my less clunky arrangements. Summer was upon us. Work was completed at a feverish pace, some of it even related to my PhD. In the meantime my old housemate BM had finished his PhD(s) and was walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I flew in and intercepted him in Pamplona, walking for 6 days and also finding time to check in on TN, who was resting up in Gijon. 

Returning via a 9 hour layover in Belgium, I prepared feverishly for my first expedition to Burning Man. About this I will relate little except to flag my wonder and amazement when first the Coup de Foudre Tesla coil came to life beneath my fingers.

September saw a visit from LO, turning 27 = 3^3, and the publication at long last of a substantial paper representing the bulk of my academic work for the last three years. Read and cite, people: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1406.7029

October brought some sober reckoning and romantic reconfiguration, but ended promisingly as my outrageously talented brother MH dropped in for a few days, fresh from a big medical conference in SF. The weather was unkind but we managed to fit in a Tesla test drive, a JPL tour, a SpaceX tour, and about 6 hours in a tiny plane buzzing southern California.

In November I achieved the lifelong goal of stranding an ex on a desert island when I flew TK, S, and MB out to Catalina for a birthday camping trip. And, I might add, back the following day with an ad-hoc diversion to Hawthorne-Northrop airfield.

In December I had had enough and decided to spend the month in bed recuperating. Ha! I reveled in the wonders of Interstellar, bought my first thermal camera, and visited DC, Seattle, and Arizona in one of the more unusual trips I've ever done.

What will 2015 hold? My operational priorities include graduating, flying a lot, being mindfully (and mindlessly) generous and less mean, doing Burning Man again, learning much more about computers and quadcopters, and finding a real job doing something I love.