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The deep state vs. child abuse

April 26, 2022

Andy Greenberg writes a fascinating article in Wired about the IRS takedown of an international child abuse ring on the dark web.  Even though written in a factual style, the descriptions of the crimes and their effects on the investigators are hard to read.

The interesting parts are how the IRS used the Bitcoin ledger as a way to trace and identify the various suspects, how international law enforcement organizations cooperated, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not, and how the courts made an important legal ruling about blockchains. Start with a key fact about Bitcoin, and most other crypto currencies:

Every Bitcoin payment is captured in its blockchain, a permanent, unchangeable, and entirely public record of every transaction in the Bitcoin network. The blockchain ensures that coins can’t be forged or spent more than once. But it does so by making everyone in the Bitcoin economy a witness to every transaction. Every criminal payment is, in some sense, a smoking gun in broad daylight. Within a few years of Bitcoin’s arrival, academic security researchers — and then companies like Chainalysis — began to tear gaping holes in the masks separating Bitcoin users’ addresses and their real-world identities.

The article delves a bit into the practicalities of how that is done. Of course, that was only one part of the technical investigation, which included most everything else those familiar with IT will recognize, from IP tracing to username analysis. Which echoes the old saw about criminals not changing their monograms.

One of the child abusers arrested tried an interesting legal defense:

He [the abuser] argued that his case should be thrown out because IRS agents had identified him by tracking his Bitcoin payments — without a warrant — which he claimed violated his Fourth Amendment right to privacy and represented an unconstitutional “search.” A panel of appellate judges considered the argument — and rejected it. In a nine-page opinion, they explained their ruling, setting down a precedent that spelled out in glaring terms exactly how far from private they determined Bitcoin’s transactions to be. “Every Bitcoin user has access to the public Bitcoin blockchain and can see every Bitcoin address and its respective transfers. Due to this publicity, it is possible to determine the identities of Bitcoin address owners by analyzing the blockchain,” the ruling read. “There is no intrusion into a constitutionally protected area because there is no constitutional privacy interest in the information on the blockchain.”

Exactly right. The law should not try to impose privacy where the underlying technology requires information to be public.

Kudos for the investigators and prosecutors.

And as reminder, conspiracies from Pizzagate to QAnon have only hindered actual work against child abuse.  Real investigation is quite different.

Thank you, France

April 25, 2022

Though the fight is not yet done, the populist right is the last thing the democratic world wants to see coming to power in west Europe.  Congratulations, France! Again.

They were smoking … what??

April 21, 2022

MayanFlasksI sometimes use Mexican marigold to flavor fish. It seems the ancient Maya added it to tobacco. Which makes as much sense as other flavoring. We have not had much luck with the varieties sold at nurseries, which seem to need more continual care than I provide our plants.

Anthropologist Gregory Forth thinks little people, related to H. floresiensis, may be hiding out on some Pacific islands. I don’t know what he has been smoking, either.

Dupes in court

April 19, 2022

Dustin Thompson participated in the Jan. 6th storming of the Capitol. His lawyer cannot dispute that, so made an interesting argument:

Thompson and other “vulnerable” Trump supporters like him “believed the lies that were fed to them” in the months leading up to Jan. 6, Shamansky argued. Thompson was “predisposed” to “this lunacy,” Shamansky said, and losing his job at the beginning of the Covid pandemic left him sitting at home to digest the “garbage” that Trump and his supporters were spreading.

Laughing_FoolI can imagine why his lawyer would try such an argument. It has the advantage of being factual, and casts his client as victim rather than as criminal. Fortunately, the jury found that being duped does not, by itself, relieve someone of criminal responsibility.

Those who put money into the “Let’s Go Brandon” meme coin might have better luck suing Candace Owens, and the other grifters who promoted it. That will be an interesting case if the class is certified. Not that anyone involved in that should come out whole.

Like Owens, Alex Jones is more grifter than dupe. The courts are starting to drain his financial blood, subsequent to his loss of defamation suits.

Regardless of how they fare in court, it can be difficult to hold much human sympathy for those who get bit by an alligator after long swimming in such fetid waters. Many MAGA cultists may comfort themselves, that they wouldn’t have participated in the storming of the Capitol on January 6th. Or that they never fell for all the nonsense that Alex Jones spews. But, they cheer on the president who instigated that coup to remain in power, and whose lies are every bit as ridiculous as Jones’s. They’re playing a risky game. They want to be in the cult. Some. Just not as much as those who are even bigger dupes. The nature of such movements is to lure people ever further along that descent. Even if they think themselves a bit more insightful than their fellows — well, the law is coming after some of the grifters, too.

The maelstrom of the stupid

April 18, 2022

Jonathan Haidt is getting attention for his argument that the revolution in modern media has made the world more stupid. Peter McIndoe made much the same point in the last few years with his hoax conpiracy theory, Birds Aren’t Real. I expect those studying this in future years will consider several explanations, partly reinforcing, partly competing.

  • Modern media makes the stupid more visible. There always have been John Birchers, antivaxxers, and various other conspiracist groups. In the past, they had more work to gather and to distribute their views. The legacy media could relegate them to the margins because they were physically separate. Now, these groups are visible in thousands of websites and forums, just a weblink away, their content appearing in the same way and fashion as more respectable outlets.
  • Modern media engenders the creation of conspiracy theories. Where the first explanation above seems inadequate is explaining how something like QAnon bursts onto the scene in months, created by a few unknowns, becoming a major political force. Yes, equally ridiculous movements succeeded in the past. But if L. Ron Hubbard still were alive, he would be astounded at how easy it is today. Which suggests the next explanation.
  • Modern media makes it easier for grifters and political actors to marshall the stupid. Instant, anonymous platforms, armies of trolls (sometimes paid), digital fakes, and bots have created a media world unlike any before. That is a global change. Those taking advantage of those new tools copy and innovate both techniques and content. Russia’s claim that its war victims actually were crisis actors was lifted from right-wing conspiracy theories here in the US. Russia’s Defense ministry also knows how conspiracy theorists love their connection charts. China recycles a story that Moderna invented the Covid-19 virus, that also originated in the US. (As far as can be told.)

Elżbieta Drążkiewicz argues that we should have more empathy for those who spread conspiracy theories. But she doesn’t seem to much address this new world. The Smartmatic executives receiving death threats likely have a different take. So, it seems, does Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy, regarding the conspiracy theories in Russian propaganda:

The way they say that we’re eating people here, that we have killer pigeons, special biological weapons … They make videos, create content, and show Ukrainian birds supposedly attacking their planes. Putin and Lukashenko—they make it sound like some kid of political Monty Python.

I like a bit the proposals Haidt makes. But I fear they mostly are impractical to reach, fail to take into account the global nature of the problem, and even in the US, are partial remedies at best. Maybe we’ll find some other remedies to these hyenas. Maybe we will have to live with them.

The last person on the last train

April 13, 2022

Young Russians of draft age rightly fear being sent to Ukraine. Baryshnikov pens a letter in support of Ukraine. Westerners might ponder how to support an anti-war movement in Russia.

The door has closed on one of the easy routes out of Russia. Note that many who took advantage of that already had one foot outside.

Hear! Hear!

April 12, 2022

Joshua_Reynolds_self_portraitMIT spinout Frequency Therapeutics hopes to alleviate the most common form of hearing loss using a small molecule drug that stimulates hair production in the inner ear. Co-founder Chris Loose states the obvious: “Speech perception is the No. 1 goal for improving hearing and the No. 1 need we hear from patients.” It will be a huge advance for the world’s aging population if they succeed.

More controversially, Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov plans to use CRISPR gene editing of embryos to prevent inherited deafness in couples with an inherited from of deafness caused by a recessive gene. He has found the corner case where that cannot be prevented through embryonic screening. No doubt, that will generate all sorts of discussion around the ethics of doing so.

Photo shows a self portrait by Joshua Reynolds, who was left partially deaf after an illness.

They came by boat

April 11, 2022

Yet more research argues that the first Americans came by boat, because land migration wasn’t practical at the time. (Cite.) I suspect anthropology eventually will start to favor the view that watercraft were a common technology tens of thousands of years earlier than currently credited. And that will change their views on how early human migration was done. Not just with regard to the Americas.

“In life, to be good, you gotta study.”

April 7, 2022

Schachspieler_Willi_NeubertI couldn’t put it any better than E.G.G.S.

Painting is Schachspieler, by Willi Neubert.

It’s never just one thing

April 5, 2022

Until the omicron variant brought a leap in contagiousness, there were several places that had kept Covid-19 at bay, using measures such as quarantine of those entering, contact tracing, and isolation of any residents who became infected. Those measures had to be universal and thorough where that worked. Australia likely is the most populous example. And one might ask what good that did, now that it has failed? Now that the virus is spreading there? Australia recently has suffered two waves of the disease. (See the first graph.)

AustraliaCasesAnd the answer is: it depends. While it held Covid-19 at bay, Australia implemented a large vaccination program. By December last year, 87% of the population was vaccinated, and a higher percentage of the older population. As a consequence, Australia’s cumulative mortality from Covid-19 remains an order of magnitude less than the US or most EU nations. See the second graph. That’s despite the fact that the waves of recent infection generated waves of hospitalization an death. Those are just much lower now than they would have been in a place with less thorough vaccination.

AustraliaCumulativeMortalitySuch as Australia a year previous.

Or, such as Hong Kong now. It also had managed to keep the virus at bay until recently. But its vaccination program was less successful, especially with the elderly. As a consequence, it now is suffering significant fallout, including a high Covid-19 mortality rate.

I frequently see attempts to evaluate interventions, in the absence of a well-specified context. We can compare how well some intervention works across a set of locales that otherwise are similar in disease challenge, population, and culture. An RCT can measure the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical intervention across a population of patients, a technique that brackets off a variety of differences within the population, and whose results one should project to other populations only with care. Without such context, evaluation is trickier. To the question of whether limiting cross-border travel worked against Covid-19, the answers are:

  1. It worked well! where it was universal and coupled with adequate contact tracing and quarantine to keep the virus at bay, and when the polity doing so backstopped that with a strong vaccination program.
  2. It worked for a while, then failed. Where that last supposition gave way. Still, I suspect residents of Hong Kong are glad they had a respite most of the two years past. I don’t know what treatments developed during that time, such as molnupiravir, now are available there.
  3. It didn’t work much at all. In the larger number of places where the virus soon was circulating internally beyond all tracing and control. Studies such as the first referenced below may be able to show that this intervention did indeed win some time. It’s far from clear what larger benefit that had.

All of those were the case. Fighting an epidemic is similar to fighting a war, in the sense that most plausible strategies will have interlocking pieces working together. Whether a strategy succeeds depends both on the circumstance, and on the ability to execute all parts of it. It’s like war also in the sense that those forming strategies have only partial information at the time.

There have been some studies that attempt to compare or rank a variety of interventions. Such as this one, done prior to the emergence of the omicron variant. I suspect things would look quite different, were it redone now. The need to figure things out as well as possible while deep in the fog has generated methodology studies. Those may be more useful, because the next epidemic almost certainly will be a different disease.