Sunday, May 8, 2011

AgencyWatch #1

Being the first in an occasional series investigating the doings of one of our approximately 666 federal agencies here in the United States. Yes, that's right, 666. If you suspect I engaged in some judicious counting there... you're right.

Today's Agency: HSARPA

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, created as part of the Department of Homeland Security Act in 2002, is the Science and Technology (S&T)) arm of the sprawling Homeland Security apparatus created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It manages the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, whose focus is more on Research & Development (R&D) as opposed to the S&T brief of HSARPA.

Ever notice how acronyms start piling up when you look at government? Almost like they're trying to hide something, isn't it?

Similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), HSARPA differentiates itself by focusing on projects with a realistic chance of producing workable technologies within two years of commission. Their focus is on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, border control, and disaster response; in many ways, HSARPA resembles the 'Q division' of James Bond fame.

They don't express their mission in such gee-whizz terms, of course. According to the HSARPA website, its approximately $1 billion budget is allocated to "push scientific limits to address customer-identified gaps in areas where current technologies and research and development are limited." The agency's Director, Roger D. McGinnis (sounds a bit like "MacGyver" if you say it fast), oversees diverse projects ranging from the extremely popular new screening technologies employed by the TSA, to new cabling technologies that avoid rolling blackouts like those experienced in the early 90s, to cellphone-sized detectors of chemical agents, to inflatable blast plugs that seal off tunnels in emergencies. And these are just the projects Dr. McGinnis feels comfortable talking about in public.

One of the most interesting public facets of HSARPA's work is the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative (CNCI - yet another acronym), which aims to secure the nation's online activities from attack. Of course, we'd never use the fruits of this research offensively against other nations... that's why we call it the Department of Defense these days, and not the Department of War. Wikileaks has made the vital importance of cybersecurity crystal clear to this administration, as if it weren't already aware. Although work on the CNCI covers many traditional areas such as data provenance and hardware-enabled trust (respectively, tracing where data comes from and building security into the computers used to access that data), HSARPA has a brief to pursue more 'blue-sky' ideas, like: "What if we could design a network that adapted itself to defend against attacks?"

I'm sure John Connor has an idea about that.

HSARPA, of course, fits within President Obama's "Winning the Future" strategy, with its unfortunate Charlie Sheen resonance. Quite why the future should constitute a zero-sum game, when it's clear our foreign policy assumes geopolitics in the present is anything but, is an open question. In any case, Homeland Security makes up a very small part of this "victory", if Federal budget allocations are any measure. The lion's share of research will be conducted - as always - by the National Institutes of Health (NIH); I guess to win the future, you have to be in the future.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Project: Alpha

With the passing of April, and hence the setting aside of the A-Z challenge - I'll be keenly following Lee's review of what went well, and not so well, with that - it's time for me to find some other structural hook to hang my ramblings upon.

In need of a new Project, it occured to me that I could do a Project on Projects - it may or may not be another alphabetical set, but it gives me the kind of theme I can work with.

Today's subject is, fittingly for a first choice, Project Alpha. This was the brainchild of magician James Randi, a man who freely admits that the various illusions and feats of prestidigitation he performed were the result of sustained and practiced cheating: misdirection, fraud, chicanery, and deception. He offers no apology for it - the essence of Magic, after all, is knowing something the audience does not, and most people who attend a magic show understand that the performer is hoodwinking them somehow. The allure is in trying to work out just how he does it.

As his career progressed through the Twentieth Century, Randi increasingly found himself competing for airtime with supposedly authentic paranormal talents like that of Uri Geller. Not perturbed by the competition, Randi was affronted that people - even apparently intelligent scientists in supposedly rigorous experimental laboratories - took Geller and his ilk at their word and believed they produced their effects through "psychic energy." As an experienced stage magician, Randi was by nature and training much more inclined to believe that Geller and Co. were simply tricking people: they were, he felt, no more paranormal than he was, and he took offence at the superstitious and mystical interpretation of acts like Geller's spoon-bending trick. The following video demonstrates some of the evidence for a more prosaic interpretation: Geller is simply a skilled flim-flam artist with a penchant for cutlery.

Randi set out in the 1970s to investigate and challenge Geller and other purported psychic talents, a stance adopted by other self-confessed tricksters and illusionists like England's Derren Brown and the venerable Harry Houdini. He encountered serious difficulties - not because he was unable to replicate Geller's effects; he was, quite easily - but because people wanted to believe in psi. At one demonstration, Randi was angrily accused of being a fraud. He smilingly admitted this was so - everything he had accomplished had been done by sleight of hand, trickery, and misdirection. No, no, his interlocuter angrily replied: he was a fraud because he actually was using psychic powers, and only claiming to be a charlatan!

(Houdini got the same treatment from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of whose propensity towards belief in such matters we shall speak another time.)

Randi might have expected this sort of thing from the rubes who pay to be entertained by magic shows, but he was deeply dismayed to find similar levels of credulity - and dismal levels of scientific rigor - among those parapsychologists who attempted to 'test' the abilities of psychics like Geller. It was this dismay that led Randi to set up Project Alpha, which, in 1979, infiltrated two Randi stooges into a research project, conducted at Washington University and handsomely funded by the board chairman of McDonnell Douglas - himself a believer in the paranormal. Randi also wrote to the researchers warning them to be on the lookout for fakes, and suggesting methodological refinements that might catch such tricksters in the act. He even volunteered his services as an observer; these were declined. The researchers were employing a two-stage approach: in the informal stage, they wanted everything to be as cosy as possible for the putative psychics.

Randi's stooges, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, sailed through the first stage despite resorting to grossly obvious manipulations of the tests - for example, they 'read' messages in sealed envelopes by simply unsealing and resealing them, and moved objects in 'sealed' containers by blowing through holes in the containers. In one test, they altered the dimensions of spoons by the simple method of swapping the labels attached to spoons of different sizes. Incredibly, these clumsy frauds went unnoticed by the researchers, who proved so obliging in their efforts to facilitate trickery that even Shaw and Edwards were surprised. Although Randi had instructed them to confess their deception if they were ever asked about it directly, they never were during a period of almost 2 years. During the second stage of the process, under more rigorous laboratory conditions, their psi abilities faded dramatically; still, the researchers were unwilling to conclude that they were deliberate frauds, speculating instead that such conditions might inhibit psychic abilities.

Meanwhile, Shaw and Edwards had become minor celebrities in their own right, dazzling other paranormal researchers with their abilities even as the Washington University team cooled on them. Eventually, after two years, Randi pulled the plug, revealing the whole deception in an article in Discover magazine. Many parapsychologists were outraged, much as the fawning courtiers of the Emperor with No Clothes were furious at the little boy who remarked upon the Imperial nakedness; some, however, thanked Randi for his service to their cause.

Does the success of charlatans like Randi, and the suspicions over successful entertainers like Geller, mean there are no genuine paranormal talents out there? The James Randi Educational Foundation promoted a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to anybody who enjoys a measure of celebrity and the support of a reputable academic for their claimed paranormal abilities; to date, nobody has won the prize.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mojo's Monthly Mindbender: May 2011

I had intended to introduce the Mindbender with a musical/mathematical quiz thing, but it still requires finishing touches, and besides, May is already four - count them - days old. So, instead, and inspired by the cinematic flavor of some of my new blogreads, I volunteer something a little easier. Maybe.

This quiz is just a single question, and it's one of the oldest in the book. Who's the odd one out? For full credit, I'll require an explanation to back up your answer. I have an answer in mind, but any offering that makes sense will earn an as-yet-to-be-determined Mojo Prize.

I'll happily give feedback on any guesses, conjectures, comments, and criticisms in the comments to this blog. The answer will be revealed almost a month hence, on June 1st 2011, at the unveiling of the next Mindbender - unless, of course, one of you clever folks uncovers it before then...

Mojo's Mailbox #4

Completing a thirty-day A-to-Z blogging challenge, after long blogless years, is the internet equivalent of following a four-year stay in a monastery with an all-expenses-paid no-questions-asked weekend at the Playboy mansion: satisfying and exhausting in equal measure.

This explains, without excusing, the hiatus between my last post and this one - a necessary pause for your chronicler, and perhaps a welcome one for his readers, but one that concludes here with a roundup of comments before I embark on the next chapter. I may retain the A-to-Z format, at least for a while (the structure appeals to me) but I'd like to leaven my written contributions with rather more in the way of reading. The little I managed to do during the past month whetted my appetite, and there are at least 15 people to whom I owe it simply as a courtesy. This, plus the surprising difficulty of obtaining dilithium crystals at Walmart and the concomitant unavailability of my time machine, should see a reduction in the number of blogs I produce monthly, but hopefully a compensating increase in the number of comments I bestow on yours. I earnestly hope this proves to be a good thing...

So: to the mailbox.

Heather has been a selfless commenter on my doggerel, with far too little by way of grateful recognition. Consider this a partial recompense for your kind and encouraging words! The flip side is that they have kindly encouraged me to inflict a trivia quiz in the next post that ushers in the Monthly Mindbender series of Mojonalia, for which you may yet have cause to curse my name. Either way, your blog's delightful, and I intend to go back and comment on the posts I missed. Your visuals appeal to my sense of the eclectic, and you quoted one of my favorite songs of all time in your Z post, so it will be a profound pleasure to shower belated praise on your efforts over the last month. I look forward to reading more of you in future!

P.S. Thanks ever so much for my award!!! We never tire of flattery, here at Mojo, Inc. ...

I was pleased that Laurie, whose blog I found full of wisdom and wonderfully open to alternative ideas, enjoys a good Rickroll as much as I do. Mrs. Mojo and I were surfing Youtube the other evening and encountered a Rickroll while perusing the "Duck Song" series - highly recommended by me, which might mark mine as a peculiar sense of humor - which was among the highlights of the day. In my defense, it was a Monday, and those are seldom awesome.

I was also delighted to see comments from new readers - a very satisfying feeling for a n00b blogger like myself, that!

Luana, whose blurb reveals herself to be a high-caliber polymath, earns even more of my admiration by having produced an A-Z of movies. This idea is sufficiently brilliant that I will shamelessly steal it - I haven't decided whether to do so this month or allow a little time to elapse so I can deceive future followers into believing it was all my own creation. The blog of her alter ego Madison is also extremely interesting and entertaining, although I'm not sure what to make of people who create online alter egos ...

Moving on... Nicole was very complimentary about my posts, and I'm delighted to reciprocate about hers. Another cineaste, and an eloquent and entertaining one, I'm happy to add her to my list of followed blogs as well.

Sylvia hosts an entertaining blog that is both informative and demonstrates terrific taste in blog templates.

Well, I liked it... In all seriousness, Sylvia's one of several people I've encountered through the A-Z blogroll who is just a very positive presence - her blog's another that's full of useful and encouraging tidbits of information, and I thank her for doing an exemplary job with it.

Last, but not least, Elizabeth bestowed yet another award for my already-groaning shelf - part of an extraordinarily ambitious and generous journey through the 1000+ blogs on the A-Z blogroll that I cannot sufficiently admire. As soon as I can devise an appropriate award of my own, I shall be sending it your way. You inspire me.

Thanks to everybody who I've met through the A to Z challenge; for those I missed, and for those I didn't follow as closely as I would have liked, I look forward to seeing more in future.