Monday, June 16, 2008

Core Curriculum

There is a Luke Wilson movie that actually made it to theaters last year, titled Idiocracy. Not a good movie, to say the least, but the premise was quite interesting. It is based on a future America where Americans have gotten stupider and stupider over the decades and centuries such that the great USA is populated and run by morons. Language has no rules. Simple addition is difficult for everyone. Attention span is nonexistent unless it's with respect to sex and sports. If it were not for the computers that still miraculously seem to be running despite tech support, it would be the dark ages all over again. My first thought was that this future is an impossibility. There is no way that people could actually be getting dumber. We have advances in technology, medicine, and electronics everyday. We can do more now than our parents could in their day, and even more than our grandparents in their day.

But that is an unfortunate generalization.

The fact that we can do more now in terms of communications, medicinal treatments, eco-anything, and activities of daily living does not imply that we are all smarter. It simply demonstrates that some people are smarter because they have developed these advances. The rest of us are either the same or dumber. And the evidence seems to indicate that the latter is becoming the trend.

For starters, the rules of the English language are disappearing. Grammar and word choice are becoming optional. I have a lot of respect for teachers, but I would bet that less than half of all K-12 teachers can tell you when to properly use a comma, or when to hyphenate a two digit number in a sentence. And if most of them don't know, you can bet even more students will never know. This then perpetuates to future generations until there is no correct way to use a comma or a hyphen. What does it matter, you say? Languages evolve over time. The vernacular always changes. Remember old English? Or olde English? We've come a long way. I will concede that point. But what we are witnessing is more than evolution of a language. It is loss of parts of a language because of ignorance. Just the other day I was watching Good Morning America and there was a satellite video interview with a marine. The caption read, "Lt. John Doe, Marine Core". Are you kidding? Who typed that? Did they graduate high school? And even worse, who's double checking? Did they go to high school either? Not knowing the difference in "core" and "corps" is not an evolution of language. It's stupidity.

There are clear offenses against the English language everywhere--double negatives, split infinitives, dangling participles, and ending sentences with a preposition. And those are the obvious problems. There are also mistakes in tense, plurality, and punctuation. Now my grammar is far from perfect, but I do know when I need to look up a rule on commas or semicolons. There are also problems with math, which makes for easy exploitation, as explained in my last article, "Number Theory".

I think that there will be an even more pronounced divide between the well educated and not so well educated, just as today there is a wide divide between the rich and the poor. The problem is that erudition does not always follow wealth, as many rich celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson have demonstrated. So what does that mean the future will hold? It means big changes are still needed. There needs to be objective goals that can be tested objectively. The No Child Left Behind Act was too lenient. If you can't spell it doesn't mean you don't test well. It means you're not ready to graduate. There should be no more excuses. All fifth graders should have at least the same knowledge, and those requirements should be more extensive. It shouldn't matter whether or not you have a learning disability. There are so many special education teachers these days that you can get special attention and learning methods and whatever else you need. But if cannot do what a fifth grader needs to do, you cannot become a sixth grader. Period. If we can improve education in America, we might avoid an idiocracy in the future. Otherwise, it might be Atlas Shrugged come to life.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Number Theory

Marketing is pervasive in a capitalist society, as you need to be able to sell your products and services. In the olden days (read your grandparents days) you could fabricate any sort of data and make any claim in order to peddle your wares. Soft drinks because miracle elixirs and colored plastic became xray spectacles. But now there are rules and regulations. People won't put up with being fooled and scammed out of their hard earned money anymore. Now companies are responsible for their claims and must have supporting data. Just this year Airborne settled a lawsuit for claiming that its tablets prevented colds when it clearly did not. We can get into the absurdity of the ruling and penalty in another essay. So what's a business to do? Spin the data, of course! And there are many ways to convey true data to either subconsciously convince or simply scare them into agreeing with you.

If you asked someone what the gross national product of the US is, for example, how many people would know? Not many. But if you followed up the question with, "More or less than $200 million?", a lot of people will give you guesses close to $200 million. If instead you followed up the question with, "More or less than $1 billion?", you would get a lot of guesses close to $1 billion. This clearly does not work with people who already know the answer or have a very good idea of the answer. Thus, it is not usually helpful in negotiating salaries or prices.

How about the old relative instead of absolute comparison? For example, if I told you that taking Pill X increases your death rate two times, would you take Pill X? Probably not. Many of you probably already question that statement, and why wouldn't you? This essay is about the power of suggestion and you should be suspicious. What if I reworded the Pill X statement and said that Pill X increases your annual mortality from 0.01% to 0.02%? Does that make you think any differently about Pill X? What if it increases your annual mortality from 1% to 2%? What if instead of Pill X we talk about controlling blood pressure? If I tell you that a your blood pressure is 20 points higher than normal and thus doubled your risk of having a stroke? Would that get your attention? What if I told you that your risk of stroke went from 0.22% annually to 0.44% annually because your blood pressure was 20 points higher than normal? Would you still be as impressed?

The trick of multiplicity is also common. You see it in the stock market. At an average 7.8% annual return, $100,000 would be $125,272 in just three years! In three years you could have made over $25,000 without doing anything! The sad truth is that the majority of people don't have $100,000 sitting around to just invest in the stock market. They have a couple thousand, and that's only $253 after three years. Granted, it's free money, but it really doesn't make you want to jump into the stock market when you also know it could crash with the next credit crisis. (There are of course, very good reasons to invest in stocks. I just find this argument to be counterproductive.)

One more tricky number tactic is the false idol. It is a form of specious reasoning and incorrect syllogism. Let's consider autism. The prevalence of autism is anywhere from 5 to 30 per 10,000 children. For simplicity in this example (an example, i will remind all readers who are passionate about autism) let's say the prevalence of autism is 0.1%. That means of 1 million children, 1000 will have autism. Let's now say Company Y has developed a breath test for early diagnosis of autism that is 99.9% sensitive and 99.9% specific. That means if you tested 1000 autistic children, 999 of them would test positive. It also means that if you tested 1000 nonautistic children, only 1 of them would test positive. Sounds like a good test, right? Would it be worth $1000 to parents that want to know if they need to make special arrangements for their child months if not years in advance? To me it's worth one penny. Look at the table below.

If we take a million children, 1000 will be autistic, and 999 of those will have a positive breath test. On the other hand, there will be 999,000 children who are nonautistic, but 999 of those will have a positive breath test (0.1% of them given a 99.9% specific breath test). So if you look only at the children who have a positive breath test, there will be 1998 of them, 999 autistic and 999 nonautistic. That means if the breath test is positive, there's a fifty-fifty chance the child will be autistic. You might as well have flipped that penny. The point is that as the disease become less common, the test has to be closer to perfect. If autism were prevalent in 10% of the population, this fictitious breath test would be fabulous.

There are more number plays out there to deceive and scare you, but again, that's another essay.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Passe Words

I was editing a database over a VPN connection the other day and was alerted that my password would expire in 12 days and if I would like to change my password now. I clicked "yes" and was given a text field to type my old password, my new password, and my new password again. This was not a new occurrence. I have changed my password before, but now I was reminded of how insane the concept of passwords and security has become today. Three rules, which I know in my gut help strengthen security of information, actually worsen security when applied practically to the general user in this day and age of digital information, web 2.0, and multiple email accounts.

Expiration date on passwords. Passwords now expire like milk and eggs. Who knew passwords could spoil? Some servers require that you change your password every 90 days. Some even sooner. Fortunately, many servers do not require that you change your password ever. Imagine what madness that would be if you had to change all your email passwords, online banking and investment passwords, work related program passwords, and whatever online anything you have an account with passwords (like theater tickets, electric bill, cable bill, phone bill, etc) every 90 days! The benefit of changing your password is obvious. It's harder to hit a moving target. If the password changes frequently, a hacker only has so much time to try to figure out the password. And if you go by brute force and combination of characters, you'd have to start over again each time the password changes. The problem is that people have a hard time coming up with passwords already, and this is made worse by the next two rules.

No repeat passwords. Passwords now must be retired like an aging 007. Right now the rule prohibits users from reusing their last 3 to 5 passwords. Quite irksome. That will at least triple the number of passwords you need to think up. I know that most people are like me--lazy. They won't have a totally different password for everything. Passwords are reused from site to site so they can be remembered. So maybe it's not such a big deal to come up with a new password a couple of times a year. I can always change a '1' to a '2' or a '0' to an "O', or add a "." to the end of the password. I'll just have to remember what I changed. Too bad I can barely remember to take my multivitamin every night.

Special characters for "strong" passwords. Really? Special characters? Now a strong password is considered one that is at least 8 characters long, contains both upper and lower case letter, numerals, and special characters like an ampersand or umlaut. If you consider such a miraculous password, it would be quite strong, indeed. Who would guess that your gmail password is 'Prk)8639' other than a brute force guessing machine? No one, really. And that also means you if you forget it. For a higher level of security you risk a much higher rate of resetting passwords. I'm not sure that's really an improvement in security, then. Another way of looking at "strong" passwords is from a purely mathematical point of view. If you had a 3 digit code you had to create, you would have 1000 codes to choose from--0-9 for each of the three digits. But what if i told you that in order to have a "strong" code, you had to have a number between 0-3 and a number between 6-9? Now you don't have 1000 codes to choose from--you have 672. You actually have fewer codes to choose from, and from a hacker's prespective, fewer codes to try. Of course, when you talk about all the keys on a keyboard with upper and lower case included, there are an incredible number of combinations, and forcing the inclusion of certain characters should not reduce the number of combinations by any great number. But I don't like my options restricted. Is "prk)8639" a weaker password than "Prk)8639"? or even "prk8639"? I believe that these restrictions are mostly designed to prevent people from creating passwords like "ilovejohn" or "221bbaker". It's very easy to use people's personal information to guess their password.

So where does that leave us? I think that following the rules will result in people writing down their passwords. There is no way that the average user can remember several "strong" passwords that are changed every several months. And if more servers require these password rules, it'll only get harder. Doesn't writing down you passwords negate the security? Of course it does. But the servers will ridiculously recommend that you keep your written passwords in a safe place that only you know about. How vague and third gradish is that? Instead of trying to figure out which of several trillion or more passwords yours could be one only needs to find the piece of paper you've written it on and stealthly hidden under your mousepad. Or better yet, you could put that piece of paper in a safe that requires a key. No combinations or you're liable to forget that, too. Just don't lose your keys.

For now, I'll struggle with the "strong" passwords. But if I don't have to use them, it's "123" or "admin" or "god" all the way. Is anyone that naive to use those passwords anyway?