The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

...sorry about the Disqus ads everyone

Qanda's Razor

Imagine this situation: you and someone else, perhaps a friend or relative, are on different sides of a political issue. You both go to watch a debate, or panel discussion, or some similar public forum. You hear both sides argue their cases and it gradually occurs to you that it’s really one sided. The organisers have picked speakers for your side whose expertise isn’t really relevant, or who don’t really know what they’re talking about, or can’t really articulate a case.

You come out of the event, ready to say this, but your companion tells you first: “that was really one sided. They really set up my side to fail.”

How could both of you feel this way? Is it necessarily the case that one of you is right about the debate having an agenda, and one of you is wrong?

Well, maybe, sometimes. But I think we often leap to this conclusion far more often than it actually applies. I think what’s also likely is something I call the Qanda Illusion.

The illusion

The Qanda illusion applies to a situation where a debate, forum, discussion etc. features such poor presentation of both sides of the argument that people on either side will see bias against them.

This happens because there’s a fair chance you don’t know the opposing case as well as your own. You’ll notice every time your own advocates screw up, but you won’t notice the other side’s omissions. You will assume that the other side is fully utilising the chance to present its best arguments. You’ll hear the same arguments you’ve rebutted in your own head a thousand times, and wonder why no one on your side is addressing them.

But anyone on the other side of this will see exactly the same problem applied to their case!

The illusion is that although the debate appears to be skewed, there is no bias. There is only the pretence of evidence or other information and a failure to deliver all around.

A Letter to Vice-Chancellor Johnson

Last week I sent a letter to Prof. Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (the school what I went to). The letter concerned his recent decision to circumvent the usual decision making processes and just throw university resources at a “consensus centre” set up for professional climate-change-water-muddier Dr Bjorn Lomborg at the bequest of our current government.

The Letter

Dear Professor Johnson,

I am deeply concerned with your recent decision to accept funding to house a policy centre specifically for Dr. Bjorn Lomborg at the University of Western Australia.

You are no doubt aware that to be an academic researcher of any sort in Australia is to be in a tenuous and thankless position. It is widely acknowledged that the scarcity of dedicated research funding, unreliability of funding allocation, and the overall lack of planning around research policy in Australia all mean that many promising early and mid-career researchers are simply denied the opportunity to pursue valuable and highly-regarded research. I count myself among them.

In this environment I would have hoped to see the upper levels of UWA governance add to calls to improve Australia’s research policy and the processes by which new and existing research is initiated and sustained.

Instead, you have arbitrarily dedicated UWA’s resources to court a single celebrity in a way that circumvents all mechanisms for academic integrity and merit. For the same amount of money involved, the government could instead fund four or five Future Fellowships.

A Hybrid Kali/Debian Wheezy Live Distro

There are two things that I particularly love doing: security auditing, and tinkering with live distributions. It is very intriguing to see exactly how weak or strong your own electronic devices are against various attacks, and sometimes very contrary to expectations.

This is, of course, an extension of my usual love of seeing exactly what new and strange things I can get my old electronic devices to do, which brings us to live distributions. Live distros are simply operating systems designed to work from removable media, usually across multiple, different devices. For example, I once turned an old laptop into an ethernet/wireless bridge for my games console, by creating a live distro that ran off a USB stick. Boot with the USB stick: it’s a bridge! Without the USB: it’s my old laptop again! This gets even better if you’re dealing with embedded systems, systems with no permanent storage, etc.

(Live distros are also a gateway drug to stateless distributions, which are absolutely fascinating for repeatable engineering processes, testing, compliance, etc.)

Kali is Amazing

Given these two interests, it’s amazing that I hadn’t heard about Kali Linux until last week. Kali is a Debian-based OS, primarily designed for live usage, that is all about security testing.

So what?

Anyone who has ever tried security testing from their main OS knows what a pain it can be. Patch these drivers. Downgrade these packages. Install this thing from git. Oh no it sprayed random files all over your meticulously managed distro lol oops sorry not sorry…

But Kali gives you a nice, safe live distro, complete with patched drivers, recent kernels, up-to-date software, etc. Run it, mess around, hack on whatever, check to see if the router you bought from that dodgy shop in Ultimo patched a nasty WPS vulnerability, then reboot back into your normal day-to-day OS.

I felt like a ninja. In a tuxedo. WITH POISON DARTS.

There Was But One Problem…

…and that was, Kali didn’t work too well on my machine. When using the virtual consoles (accessed by ctrl+alt+f1), I would have missed or repeated keystrokes. I couldn’t do serial debugging when running under Qemu. There were extra utilities that I wanted to install, and some cruft that I wanted to remove. Then I discovered that Kali actually provides instructions and repositories for building your own Debian-based live image.

At this point I’m just drunk on sheer technological possibility.

I’ve used live-build a lot before, and it’s a wonderful tool. Its major drawback is that it’s a fast-moving target, and Kali seems to be a little behind. Using the instructions on the website proved problematic with the version of live-build (4 point something) in Debian Wheezy (which is what I use for packaging and certain kinds of tinkering).

When I tried simply using live-build with the Kali repos as the main package source (as per their git repo), the live-config hooks didn’t run, which meant the live user wasn’t set up, the serial console wasn’t available, and so on.

Technical Analogies are Usually Garbage

Analogies are a hugely important part of science communication. When done well, they can catalyse that “light bulb” moment for students. They can be an excellent way to convey the irreducible, interacting factors in a physical system. They can emphasise the primary point of a lesson. Or they can present an old idea in a new way, that might finally help a student to understand some tricky concept.

And then, there are politicians trying to talk about technology.

And politicians really only bother to talk about technology when they are trying to foul it up.

And when politicians are trying to foul up technology to satisfy an agenda, they will not carefully communicate difficult concepts in an accurate and enlightening way.

Politicians, and those who quote them uncritically, don’t talk in analogies to simplify things. They do it to make their awful agendas seem reasonable. They choose analogies by deciding on the outcome they want to sell, and working backwards to find some contrived situation that fits it.

The elephant in the room is, of course, that not everyone actually understands technology. Shouldn’t politicians do their best to communicate these concepts to a lay audience? But… they’re not doing that. They never are. Reject this premise.

I’ll illustrate this with an example: the Internet.

But I Don’t Know what an Internet is!

Say I want to usher in new laws to enforce mandatory metadata retention by telecommunications companies. What this means is: your internet service provider will be required, by law, to record certain parts of your internet data so that government organisations can inspect it at some later date. But which parts of your data actually qualify as “metadata” and will be recorded? Well, that’s a good question.

The big argument against mandatory data retention is that it is mass surveillance, an invasion of literally everyone’s privacy that can be all-to-easily abused. So if I were a politician, and I wanted to defuse this argument, I would try to sell the idea that there are two classes of internet data: the really personal kind that any patriot might want to keep secret, and the impersonal kind that can only betray you if you’re doing something evil or treacherous.

In other words, I would insist that “metadata” is in a fundamentally different class to “data”, and I would choose analogies to suit this distinction.

The Australian Liberal Party, and in particular Tony Abbott, love the analogy of snail mail. There’s a letter: that’s personal. They won’t look at that. Indiscriminate tampering with the post is widely regarded as taboo amongst even the most ardent security-state-loving conservative voters. But then there’s the writing on the outside of the envelope. That’s pretty safe! No one who is, well, doing the right thing would care about that being read! Or recorded by the post office! Or being accessed by hackers used by police!

You’re A Grown Up, Use Grown Up Words

You know what’s a good way to describe the internet? By describing the internet. There’s a protocol called the internet protocol that’s used to direct small amounts of data (packets) from one computer to another. There’s a protocol called the transmission control protocol that’s used to make sure the packets are assembled and given to the correct application at the destination. And then… there’s… more. A lot more. But these two protocols — together referred to as TCP/IP — are, basically, the internet.

Taxpayers' Money

The phrase taxpayers' money is often deployed as the clincher in political discussions where a politician has little other justification for their policies. (So, most discussions.)

We don’t, the MP will say, as they remove their monocle and begin polishing it, want to waste taxpayers' money.

Some will even go so far as to claim that it is a fundamental right, equal in importance to the right not to starve to death.

I am all in favour of rights, the Prime Minister (Tony Abbott) said. I am also in favour of the rights of taxpayers not to have their money abused.

That’s a right now, huh? We’ll come back to that.

It’s interesting that it’s even referred to as taxpayers' money, rather than citizens' money. By definition, once tax is paid, it’s no longer owned by the payer. And when I say by definition, I mean the definition of pay, not of tax. That’s the entire point of paying, really.

And while there isn’t really any fundamental right for taxpayers to avoid having their money abused, there is a widely recognised right that everyone should have representation. And this means that tax revenue is owned by every citizen, to an equal extent — no more by a citizen who pays more tax than one who doesn’t pay any at all.

What this language really means is, we believe that those who pay more tax are entitled to a greater say in public policy, no matter whether it’s sensible or not.

The irony is that invoking taxpayers' money is pretty much always used to justify irrational use of tax, through policies that are emotionally satisfying to the wealthy but end up costing more and being less effective than alternatives. And nonsensical allocation of public funds clearly is an abuse of taxpayers' money, so for all the posturing about it, anyone using this phrase doesn’t actually respect such a right after all.