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At last, another supersonic jet

You have to give it to the bearded ballooning flop, he's ambitious. Branson's Virgin Galactic company have just unveiled a new supersonic jet capable of flying at three times the speed of sound.

Concorde, the last supersonic jet, died 17 years ago and that could get us from London to New York in three hours. This new Virgin Galactic jet will do it in two.

It's staggering to think we've gone 17 years without a commercial supersonic aeroplane and nobody's come up with a replacement yet. We're going backwards.

There are few greater miseries than travelling and it all needs to be speeded up. Planes, trains and automobiles should be aiming for double or triple their current cruising speeds. Yes, yes, you may wag your finger and mention things like safety or the environment, but that shouldn't stop us. We should use our brains to find ways to make fast transport that's safe and environmentally friendly too.

While they're at it, they should also be reconfiguring airports. Somehow we accept the idea that we have to be at an airport a ludicrous two or three hours before we actually fly. Why? You may wag another one of your fingers and mention logistics or security, but stop being so defeatist. Find a way to do it in half an hour, which should be considered the maximum wait for any transport these days.

Of course, this Virgin Galactic jet is still at the prototype stage, but the hope is that it will be able to transport up to 19 passengers at 60,000 feet. It will still have to make it into economical production, negotiate the various aviation rules and get past mountains of well-meaning but misguided health and safety regulations. So I'd say there's little chance of this jet ever operating commercially.

Even if it does, the only people who'll be able to afford tickets will be the ultra-rich, as was the case with Concorde. I doubt I'll see economical supersonic travel in my lifetime. We just don't have the cojones to pursue this sort of thing these days.

Other than Beardy Branson, that is. He offers the merest wisp of hope.

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Paying off hackers

The university at Aberystwyth, which lacks for a few more vowels, recently lost some data to hackers.

They weren't alone and a number of other educational establishments suffered the same fate.

The hole the hackers crawled through was left lying around by a company called Blackbaud, which provides software for these educational institutions. The attack was implemented via ransomware, which encrypts data and demands a fee for its subsequent decryption. The hackers also took a copy of some of the data.

Blackbaud paid the fee, which astonishes me. It isn't illegal to do so, which astonishes me even more, although security agencies worldwide recommend against it.

I can see how paying off hackers might look like the simplest solution for an organisation, but it's very selfish. It makes it worthwhile for the hackers to continue and it finances their exploits against other organisations. It's funding crime and I'm staggered that's not already illegal. It certainly should be.

In an act of what I can only assume is insanity, Blackbaud said, after paying off the hackers, that they've had:

… confirmation that the copy of the data they [the hackers] removed had been destroyed.

How can they possibly trust this?

There is absolutely no way you can know if a shady, criminal organisation has removed all copies of the data it stole.

If companies are only going to act in self-interest rather than the greater good, this is something that needs to be addressed at a government level.

There's something to be said for removable media. Back in my mainframe days, everything was backed up to tape and stored at a secure, off-site location. At least hackers can't access such media from behind a desk in another country. Sure, you might lose a day's data if you have to restore, but that's bearable and certainly better than losing the whole lot.

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Hurdles and horses

How is it that hurdlers can knock down a number of hurdles on the way and still be declared winners? The clue about what the participants must do is in the name: they must hurdle. If they’re going to allow that, they should rename the event to the-running-through-planks-of-wood-whilst-occasionally-hurdling-one race.

If you’re going to allow that sort of nonsense in athletics events then I could win a marathon by driving 26.1 miles and running — or at least ambling — the last 0.1 miles.

Whilst we’re on the subject of sport (I’m watching Britain’s Greatest Olympic Moments), what in the name of arse is dressage all about? Some woman just got a gold medal for sitting on a horse whilst it walked sideways a couple of times, pranced about like it had trodden in something untoward and dribbled a lot. Who, I wonder, thought that was a good idea?

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The law and banks

The law is an ass

I was reading an article on the BBC about how the government is considering increasing the maximum sentence for assault on emergency workers to two years.

I support the increase but it's still not right.

The maximum sentence for tax evasion is seven years and an unlimited fine. Both are crimes of course, but the respective punishments are the wrong way around. How is it that physically assaulting someone attracts a lesser punishment than diddling the government out of some money?

Banks stink

Another thing in what's becoming a general day of complaining, I note banks aren't allowing some people to switch to cheaper mortgages.

The problem, it seems, is that whilst they could pass credit checks for an expensive mortgage when they took it out, they can't pass credit checks for a cheaper mortgage now.

That is completely bonkers and something so ludicrous can only be explained by the banks preserving their own interests. Sure, they'll blame something else (like the credit checking rules they follow), but that's just a cop out.

I quite often get asked in surveys if I think banks have my interests at heart and this just one of the reasons why I always answer no.

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The man protecting the world from extinction

There's a chap in Wales who monitors space for potential Extinction Level Events (ELEs), which is things like an asteroid or comet heading for Earth.

An asteroid the size of a cricket pitch would take out a city and an asteroid 10 km wide would cause global mass extinction.

Such an object is certain to head our way too. They've impacted before and it was one such object that wiped out the dinosaurs. Of course we don't know when it'll happen — it might be tomorrow or it might be in a million years — but it will happen.

If we see it early enough we should be able to deflect it off course. Bruce Willis got rid of that last one.

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Lies, damn lies and 36 alien civilisations

The latest news from the ET hunters is that there are 36 extraterrestrial civilisations in the galaxy (advanced enough to communicate). Or is it 211? Or maybe it’s between 100 and 3,000. The article I link to bandies a few numbers around.

The trouble with doing a statistical analysis of this sort of thing is we only have a sample size of one: us. We’re the only intelligent civilisation we know about (and I use the term intelligent in the loosest possible sense).

Such low numbers — and even 3,000 is low amongst 250 billion stars — would explain the Fermi Paradox, which wonders why we haven’t heard from any alien civilisations so far.

The most troubling term in the so-called Drake Equation they use to calculate these things appears to be L, which estimates how long an intelligent civilisation lasts. In fact, Drake himself thought that was they key term.

It took us 4.5 billion years to evolve and we’ve only been intelligent enough to send potentially communicative radio waves out into space for about 100 years. Again, the sample size we’re using couldn’t be any smaller.

I’m quite chuffed the proper scientists’ efforts produced a number so close to one I calculated a couple of years ago myself. I was a bit more pessimistic with my completely unscientific guesswork. I estimated there are 23 civilisations in the galaxy. I chose 420 years for that L number. I based that on someone’s study of Earth civilisations that have risen and fallen to date.

I’m sticking to the idea that alien civilisations are deliberately ignoring us because they’re fed up with the dreadful reality TV we’re broadcasting out into the cosmos. If they came here at all it would be to ask us to shut up.

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The naughtiness of gravity

Gravity generally behaves itself. It keeps us anchored to the planet and when we drop things we know they'll fall down rather than up.

Alas, at its extremes — such as inside a black hole — the theory that describes gravity gets its knickers in a twist. It starts to spit out an infinite number of infinite answers that are impossible to resolve.

So something's amiss and we probably need another way to describe gravity. Gravity is described by General Relativity and the other three forces of nature are described by Quantum Theory. So the most obvious new way to describe gravity would be to lump it in with the other three forces and use quantum theory, but physicists have been trying to do this for nearly 100 years without success.

It would be useful if we could perform experiments on gravity at its extremes. The trouble is, if you built some experimental apparatus that harnessed enough energy to test gravity at its extremes, the experimental apparatus itself would turn into a black hole. That sort of thing pisses physicists off and probably breaches a number of health and safety regulations.

So where do we go from here?

In the article I link to, four physicists talk about how naughty gravity is.

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Agenda app review — the golden goose?

I'm hoping to be able to replace a number of my organisational apps with Agenda, which I review here. I should be able to roll notes, to-do lists, journals and project management all into one.

Read this post in full.

Should fully automated AI be allowed?

A computer scientist called Dr Ben Shneiderman argues against fully automated AI, suggesting it could absolve humans of ethical responsibility.

He said:

We're replacing humans in certain places with systems that are robotic and artificially intelligent. And the designers need to make ethical decisions about what they imbue the software and the robots with. It's becoming a big deal for society.

He goes on to cite examples of where fully automated AI is undesirable, such as the Boeing 737's MCAS flight control system, nuclear reactors or lethal military robots and drones.

However, he seems to be generalising too much for my liking.

I believe there are indeed situations where human input is needed. Until AI can cope with nuance and context, human input is necessary for many tasks. But there are plenty of situations where a robot can act autonomously, such as on assembly lines or when vacuuming a floor. As AI gets cleverer then the number of tasks suitable for a robot with fully automated AI will increase.

Therefore the particular caution I'd urge is that AI is not given complete power over tasks too soon and that, I'd suggest, is what went wrong with the MCAS system.

We must also remember that humans are particularly bad at making decisions themselves, of which there's ample evidence on daily news bulletins.

I tend to agree with the counter argument presented by Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory:

The degree of collaboration should be driven by the amount of uncertainty in the system and the criticality of outcomes.

Nuclear reactors are highly automated for a reason: Humans often do not have fast enough reaction times to push the rods in if the reactor goes critical.

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Prospect theory still holds

If you had the following two choices:

  1. definitely gaining £3,000, or
  2. an 80% chance of gaining £4,000.

You'd choose option 1 and take the certain £3,000.

However, if you had a choice between:

  1. definitely losing £3,000, or
  2. an 80% chance of losing £4,000.

You'd do the opposite and take the 80% chance of losing £4,000.

Or at least that's what most people would do according to research.

This apparently demonstrates how we view losses in a different way to gains. It's all part of something called Prospect Theory and it won someone the Nobel Prize for a paper they published in 1979. Recent research shows it's still true.

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Zuckerberg claims to be ready to prevent electoral interference

Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is ready for the job of preventing electoral interference on its platform:

Countries are going to continue to try and interfere and we are going to see issues like that but we have learnt a lot since 2016 and I feel pretty confident that we are going to be able to protect the integrity of the upcoming election.

Although the report goes on to say that Facebook will be less strict with coronavirus misinformation:

On the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Zuckerberg said that while Facebook had and would remove any content that would likely result in "immediate harm" to users it would not stop groups alleging that the infection was state sponsored or connected to the launch of the new digital 5G network.

Instead, they will add a warning label to such nonsense. Although they did recently remove David Icke for the repeated offence of posting unmitigated bullshit.

The thing that baffles me is that anyone takes anything posted on social media seriously. You just have to look at why people post on those platforms in the first place to realise that accuracy and truthfulness are not primary motivations.

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Hafthor Bjornsson deadlifts 501kg

Hafthor Bjornsson broke Eddie Hall's 500kg deadlift record. He added 1kg to the record, taking it up to 501kg or 1,104lb, which is an astonishing amount of weight.

The 6ft9in, 205kg Icelandic behemoth and Game of Thrones actor won World's Strongest Man in 2018 and also has three second and four third placings in the competition.

He looked like he lifted it fairly comfortably too. I reckon he had 510kg+ in him.

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Birds of Prey (2020) movie review — I could live without it

I watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) during the week and wasn't particularly enamoured with it, although it's not a complete loss.

Read this post in full.

Ryanair and social distancing

I neither "moo" nor "baa" so I generally dislike Ryanair, but I tend to agree that the government's plans for social distancing on an aeroplane are crap.

The government is suggesting the middle seat on planes should be left vacant, but that still leaves you just a few feet from your neighbour. Let's not forget that cattle-class on a plane can only comfortably seat hobbits at the best of times. I'm pretty sure you have to check your legs into luggage to fly Ryanair these days.

Two metres is what has been touted as optimal distancing, which would probably mean a row to yourself and nobody in either the row in front or behind. It would be delightful but I doubt any airline could run a profit while instigating proper social distancing.

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Bullshit tracking and computer misuse

The bullshit web is something I rail against at length myself and Nick Heer's article sums up a lot of my own thoughts.

Violations of users’ intent are nothing new. Ad tech companies like Criteo and AdRoll created workarounds specifically to track Safari users without their explicit consent; Google was penalized by the FTC for ignoring Safari users’ preferences. These techniques are arrogant and unethical. If a user has set their browser preferences to make tracking difficult or impossible, that decision should be respected. Likewise, if a browser has preferences that are not favourable to tracking, it is not the prerogative of ad tech companies to ignore or work around those defaults.

Well, quite. In my opinion this sort of thing qualifies as hacking. It could even fall under the UK's Computer Misuse Act under Section 3. I'd argue they are trying to impair the operation of my computer, specifically its browser, and they certainly aren't authorised by me to do that.

I don't care if a website rejects me if I don't accept them tracking me, but I want to know. I don't want them to let me in and then track me by subverting my browser preferences without my knowledge. Just give me a clear choice. And no, putting up the standard sort of cookie confirmation or privacy agreement is not a clear choice.

As I said in a previous article, the default way in which I should enter any site should be with only (truly) essential cookies active and none of those should have anything to do with tracking or advertising. If I access a site without any intervention, that's the way it should be. If a site won't accept me on that basis it should intervene and tell me clearly that I can only continue if I allow it to track me. Give me the choice. They won't, though, because they probably figure that would scare me away (and they're right in a lot of cases).

I don't mind sites advertising to me or even tracking me (to a certain degree, anyway) and there are many I would give approval to. The thing is, I want complete, clear, up-front knowledge that I'm doing so.

The only way we'll achieve any control over this sort of thing is via legislation, and not the sort of half-arsed thinking that gave us cookie confirmation pop-ups.

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ICANN under pressure over the sale of the .org top-level domain

The .org top-level domain is controlled by the Public Interest Registry (PIR), a non-profit organisation. The Public Interest Registry is itself a subsidiary of the Internet Society (ISOC), another non-profit organisation.

The Internet Society has plans to sell the Public Interest Registry — and the .org domain with it — to a company called Ethos Capital, which nobody knows much about. Ethos plan to buy the PIR for $1.1 billion via a leveraged buyout using the PIR's assets as part of its leverage, which would meant the PIR would end up with a $300m debt as a result.

This all has to be approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) who oversee the domain name system for the entire internet.

ICANN seemed inclined to grant approval but they've met with some bitter opposition to the transaction, including from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. This is significant because ICANN is incorporated in California and Becerra is therefore responsible for making sure ICANN lives up to its articles of incorporation, one of which states it operates for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole.

Several former ICANN officials are involved in the Ethos Capital transaction, which stinks mightily.

There are 10m+ .org registrations and the worry for users is that the price of domains could be increased if the deal where to complete. Ethos Capital are definitely not non-profit and they could significantly increase prices to take advantage of those who want to hang on to their established .org domains.

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