More Korea stuff

The phrasing of this non-denial is impeccable (Scott Adams calls this the “Master Persuader answer”:

It happened again — a North Korean missile launch exploded in the air, over land, just a few minutes after launching on Friday.

While North Korea can still learn a lot from a failed missile test and use those lessons to advance their program, they’ve failed to demonstrate capability with missile types the US perfected in the 1970s — and cyber espionage may be to blame.

Asked about North Korea’s unsuccessful missile test by CBS’ John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, President Donald Trump refused to address whether or not the US had anything to do with the rogue nation’s missile failures.

“I’d rather not discuss it. But perhaps they’re just not very good missiles,” said Trump. Pressed further on possible US sabotage of North Korea’s missiles, Trump did not deny it. “I just don’t want to discuss it.”

Also of interest (from the same article):

Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for Comodo with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that cyberoperations like the one against North Korea were actually the norm. [..]

North Korea’s internal networks are fiercely insulated and not connect to the larger internet, however, which poses a challenge for hackers in the US, but Geers said it’s “absolutely not the case” that computers need to connect to the internet to be hacked.

Furthermore, Geers said, because of the limited number of servers and access points to North Korea’s very restricted internet, “If it ever came to cyberwar between the US and North Korea, it would be an overwhelming victory for the West.”

“North Korea can do a Sony attack or attack the White House, but that’s cause that’s the nature of cyberspace,” Geers said. “But if war came, you’d see Cyber Command wipe out most other countries’ pretty quickly.”

A provocative comment by the POTUS on the Dear Leader:

Trump, asked if he considered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be rational, said he was operating from the assumption that he is rational. He noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Say what you want, but that is an interesting observation.

This too:

President Donald Trump labeled brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “a pretty smart cookie” in a wide-ranging interview aired Sunday.

“At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie,” Trump told CBS News in an interview on “Face the Nation.”

And a policy twist of some consequence:

National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday that the U.S. will indeed pay for the roughly $1 billion THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, amid neighboring North Korea’s repeated ballistic test launches.

“What I told our South Korean counterpart is until any renegotiation, that the deals in place, we’ll adhere to our word,” McMaster told “Fox News Sunday.”

He spoke days after President Trump said South Korea should pay for the anti-missile system and hours after Seoul said that McMaster had assured its chief national security officer, Kim Kwan-jin, about the deal.


Fake peer review

The journal Tumor Biology, currently published by SAGE, has a bit of a fake science problem:

The journal Tumor Biology is retracting 107 research papers after discovering that the authors faked the peer review process. This isn’t the journal’s first rodeo. Late last year, 58 papers were retracted from seven different journals— 25 came from Tumor Biology for the same reason.

It’s possible to fake peer review because authors are often asked to suggest potential reviewers for their own papers. This is done because research subjects are often blindingly niche; a researcher working in a sub-sub-field may be more aware than the journal editor of who is best-placed to assess the work.

But some journals go further and request, or allow, authors to submit the contact details of these potential reviewers. If the editor isn’t aware of the potential for a scam, they then merrily send the requests for review out to fake e-mail addresses, often using the names of actual researchers. And at the other end of the fake e-mail address is someone who’s in on the game and happy to send in a friendly review.

I found this noteworthy, and along the lines of what I said here about the increasingly dubious nature of much of modern “science.”

Then I read the official retraction note by Springer, publisher of the journal until January.

After a thorough investigation we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised.

This retraction note is applicable to the following articles:

Take a gander at those authors’ names.

I keep wanting to believe that things are getting better in China, that mass fakery and fraud are on the decline, but it seems reality has different ideas.

See also here and here. What are these “ghost-writing services” that are apparently a major part of the problem? Who is running and staffing them?

Chicago in one sentence?

Paul Graham on the subtle messages that great cities send:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful. […]

The big thing in LA seems to be fame. […]

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider.

As a resident of Chicago, this naturally made me wonder what message the Windy City sends to people. A couple of excellent candidates are proposed on the Y Combinator message board:

Chicago: You went to the wrong fraternity


Chicago: There’s nothing wrong with second place.

But seriously, folks. Chicago is a great global city, it’s just hard to sum it up in one sentence because it’s such a mixed bag of industries. Chicago is said to have the most diversified economy in the US; its “industry mix most closely matches the nation’s, with no single industry employing more than 14% of the workforce,” according to World Business Chicago. Top industries in Chicago range from finance and insurance, to food processing and manufacturing, to publishing and biotech. The city is also a major logistics and transportation hub, as well as a cultural and academic powerhouse.

Chicago has a protean quality that makes it somewhat hard to pin down. There may be no tidy way to summarize the city’s “message.” Part of the issue is that Chicago is a regional magnet for talent, but not a national one. People don’t flock to Chicago from across the country. (That has a lot to do with the weather, among other things.) Thus, while Chicago is a great city, it may not be a true hub of ambition in the way Graham is talking about.

This comment gets the last word:

As a cartoonist covering life in the Chicago area for the past 20 or so years, here is what Chicago says; “You really need to be successful here, but if not, someone just might help you.”

Is it really that hard?

Is public wifi going out of style? I often bring my laptop to cafés and coffee shops in downtown Chicago, intending to surf the internet and work. Almost invariably, I discover one of three things:

  1. There is no wifi at the café/coffee shop in question.
  2. There is wifi, in theory, but it’s so insanely slow and dysfunctional as to be unusable. (After spending several minutes trying to get online, I’ll gripe to the server and get a reply like: “Oh yeah, the wifi is terrible here. I’ve asked the manager to look into it.” Of course, it never gets better, even months later.)
  3. Wifi is available, but you’re not “supposed” to use it, because it’s not for customers, or the network belongs to an adjacent shop. (In these cases, the server will give me the password, sometimes scribbled on a ragged scrap of paper, with a conspiratorial whisper: “Don’t tell anyone I gave you this.” I am not making this up.)

Starbucks usually has fast and reliable wifi – but not always. Any other establishment, probably not.

Now, I’m not complaining. Life is good. A dearth of public wifi is very much a First World Problem that I wouldn’t even mention, except that I’m genuinely curious as to why this would be an issue in the bustling downtown of America’s third-largest city.

Seriously, what’s the deal? Is wifi just becoming a thing of the past? Are people so fixated on their phones that they don’t use their laptops for internet browsing or social media anymore, thus obviating the need for wifi?

My observation is that the few places that do offer wifi are often teeming with people on their laptops, suggesting that establishments with crappy or nonexistent wifi are leaving money on the table.

Is the technology really that daunting? Or is there something else going on?

Just askin’…

Radio silence

The heavens are still silent:

Astronomers who have been listening for signals from alien civilisations in the most intensive hunt for extraterrestrials yet have found no evidence of life in its first year in operation.

The Breakthrough Listen project began to eavesdrop on the universe with the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia in January last year, but the most intelligent transmissions the telescope has picked up so far appear to be from satellites or mobile phones and other Earthly devices. […]

The Green Bank telescope listened for signals in the range from one to two GHz coming from 692 of the nearest stars to Earth. “Our results mean that fewer than 1% of the stars within 150 light years are constantly transmitting in this range, but it doesn’t mean they are not transmitting at all,” Siemion said.

Breakthrough Listen is backed, in part, by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who is also funding the Breakthrough Starshot project that aims to send a light-propelled probe to Alpha Centauri.

The total lack of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence after decades of searching is puzzling, and a little troubling. The problem is known as Fermi’s paradox, which Wiki describes as “the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, e.g., those given by the Drake equation, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.”

See here for a great in-depth treatment. The thing is that there are roughly 10,000 stars in the universe for every grain of sand on every beach on earth, meaning there should be a mind-boggling number of planets capable of giving rise to intelligent life. In our galaxy alone, there should by all rights be some 100,000 advanced civilizations, at least.

And yet… no contact. Not one signal, radio wave, proven visitation, bleep or bloop from E.T. The silence is deafening.

There are, of course, lots of theories to explain this. One group of theories centers around the idea that humans are the first, or the only, advanced civilization in all creation. This seems very unlikely when you do the math. Another group of theories holds that other advanced life forms exist – but are too far away to reach us. Or they have contacted us, just in a format that our simple human brains are wholly incapable of understanding.

Or maybe the aliens are maintaining a deliberate silence. Why would they do this? They could be observing us (this is the Zoo Hypothesis). Or they could be hiding. From what?

From this, of course.

We now understand that the silence of the galaxies is a message of ultimate ominousness. A thing there is, of incomprehensible power, that takes intelligent life for its prey.

Like this, but on a cosmic scale

Under this theory, any alien race that reaches a certain level of development – the level at which we humans might become aware of its existence across the unfathomable abysses of space – is systematically wiped out by the Exterminator. Think of it as cosmic pest control.

This is why people like Stephen Hawking advocate listening for intelligent life… but not broadcasting to it.

Photos: Chicago architecture

Chicago is one of the world’s great cities for architecture. Below are some photos of the downtown landscape that I took with my Samsung phone in Sept-Dec 2016:


And some more from 2017:


And a few more from the Nikon (the better to take night shots with):

Fake news about Korea?

Well, the predictions of imminent war with North Korea were certainly premature:

Toward the end of last week [i.e. the week of April 10], the world was on edge and anticipating a conflict on the Korean peninsula, but talk of war appears to have been a product of miscommunication and media hype.

As tensions were rising, a U.S. Navy carrier strike group was believed to be moving into waters off Korea, and Pyongyang was suspected of preparing for another nuclear test. As it turns out, the carrier was sailing in the opposite direction, and North Korea was preparing for a parade and a failed ballistic missile test.

The strike group was last spotted off Indonesia, over 3,000 miles from the Korean peninsula, Defense News reported Tuesday.

This calls for another Department of Defense acronym. Say hello to MILDEC (military deception):

But the impression of what the Navy likes to call “4-and-a-half-acres of sovereign U.S. territory”—that would be the flight deck of a Nimitz-class carrier like the Vinson—steaming toward the Sea of Japan at flank speed might help stay the hand of someone like Kim Jong-un. It could distract him and his military while minimizing the risk of escalation. […]

The Pentagon, always leery of being spanked by the White House, quickly committed ritual rhetorical hari-kari for its sin. “We communicated this badly,” one defense official told the Wall Street Journal. Similar mea culpas echoed in other media outlets, showing that a chagrined Pentagon had learned its lesson.

Except for one thing. What’s amazing is that the press, hoodwinked as it was by the Pentagon’s fakery, was so eager to gobble up the morning-after line that it was all an innocent snafu, wrought by miscommunication and confusion.

Yea, right.

What is really going on? Here’s a compelling on read on what increasingly appears to be a crafty geopolitical strategy, with Rodrigo “This will be your final Merry Christmas” Duterte as pawn:

The Giant Panda can eliminate the problem that is Kim Jong Un.

ASEAN Chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, modifying the confrontational tone of Asian nations toward China is yet another useful carrot by U.S. President Trump to stimulate China’s increased pressure upon North Korea.

That’s a really big ‘get’ for President Xi Jinping.

MILDEC and geopolitical 4D chess notwithstanding, things could still get very kinetic on the Korean peninsula. Here’s a good discussion on the possibilities by ChinaFile. Comment from Bruce Klingner:

Since 2006, there have been numerous media articles with titles such as “Chinese anger signals policy shift toward North Korea.” Similarly, there have been periodic assurances by overoptimistic U.S. diplomats that China now “got it,” was on board with U.S. objectives, and would adopt a tougher policy toward North Korea.

Perhaps President Trump’s efforts, combined with growing regional fear of North Korea’s growing capabilities and belligerence, will be the catalyst to induce long-hoped for Chinese pressure on Pyongyang. Or, Trump may join the long line of American presidents duped into believing Chinese promises.


UPDATE: The POTUS confirms that the kinetic option for dealing with North Korea is still very much on the table:

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Trump said he wanted to peacefully resolve a crisis that has bedeviled multiple U.S. presidents, a path that he and his administration are emphasizing by preparing a variety of new economic sanctions while not taking the military option off the table.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.


Rome: Power & Glory

This (you can also find it on YouTube) is a very good documentary series on the Roman Empire. Entertaining and covers a lot of ground. It’s well-written and well-made, and even the cheesy clips from the old gladiator movie somehow enhance the atmosphere.

Prepare for war, since evidently you have found peace intolerable. -Scipio Africanus to Hannibal

“28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds”

Last weekend, I watched a 15th anniversary showing of Donnie Darko at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago’s Southport neighborhood. Gene Siskel called the ornate, atmospheric Music Box his favorite movie theater and I can understand why. Opened in 1929, it now shows indie, classic and foreign films.

Donnie Darko is a powerful, eerie and engrossing film with shades of E.T. that deserves to be seen on the big screen. I saw it many years ago on the family TV (Netflix DVD back when that was a thing?) but hadn’t remembered anything about it except the terrifying man-sized rabbit that visits Donnie’s house at night.

Here’s an interpretation of the movie’s ending for those who’ve seen it. Apparently you need to watch the director’s cut, which is 20 minutes longer than the original theatrical version I actually watched and contains a lot of explanatory material, to understand what the heck is going on.