Monday, January 15, 2018

Russian Interference in Elections: Fancy Bear is Not Exactly What We Had in Mind

Excuse the long title, but whenever humorist Roy Blount Jr. would run across something totally contrary to his expectations, he would say mildly, "Well, that's not exactly what I had in mind."  By a convoluted series of circumstances, we in the U. S. have become vulnerable to election interference by a foreign power in a way that few people anticipated.  This is a lesson in how novel technologies and aggressions can outwit both legislators and organizations dedicated to preventing such aggressions.  And novel countermeasures—some of them possibly costly in both money and convenience—may be needed to deal with them.

Historically, it has been difficult for non-U. S. citizens or foreign countries to interfere with U. S. elections.  While the fear of such interference has always been present to a greater or lesser degree, my amateur historical memory does not bring to mind any significant cases in which a foreign power was clearly shown to have acted covertly in a way that provably influenced the outcome of a national election.  Laws prohibiting foreign campaign contributions acknowledge that the danger is real, but if such interference happened in the past, it was so well concealed that it never got into the historical record. 

Ever since there were governments, there have been privileged communications among those in power which, if disclosed in public, might prove to be embarrassing or even illegal.  But until recently, these communications took place either by word of mouth, by letter and memo, or by phone.  And considerable espionage work has to be done to intercept such communications.  You have to have a spy or a listening device in place to overhear critical private discussions.  You have to steal or secretly photograph written documents, and you have to tap phone lines.  All of these activities were by necessity local in nature, meaning that a foreign power bent on obtaining embarrassing information that could sway an election had to mount a full-scale espionage program, with boots on U. S. soil, and take serious risks of being caught while engaged on a fishing expedition that might or might not reveal any good dirt, so to speak. 

Then came the Internet and email.

While much email physically travels only a few miles or less, it passes through a network in which physical distance has for all intents and purposes been abolished.  So if I email my wife in the next room, somebody in Australia who simply wants to know what I'm emailing can try to hack into my emails and, if successful, can find out that I'm asking her to get crunchy raisin bran at the store today.  Nobody in their right mind would bother to do such a thing, but the Internet and email have made it hugely easier to carry out international spying on privileged communications of all kinds.  The kinds of spying that used to be done only in wartime by major powers can now be done by a few smart kids in some obscure but hospitable country.  And here is where Fancy Bear comes in.

A private security firm in Japan has discovered signs that the same group probably responsible for hacking the Democratic Party's emails during the 2016 elections is trying to mess with the Congressional elections coming up later this year.  An elaborate mock-up of the internal Senate email system has been traced to this so-called Fancy Bear group, which evidently has ties to Russia.  Such a mockup would be useful to entrap careless Senate staffers who might mistakenly reply to an email that looks legitimate, but is in fact a kind of Trojan horse that would allow the Russians (or their minions) access to all further emails sent through what looks like a legitimate site, but is in fact a trap. 

I am not a cybersecurity expert and won't speculate further on how the Fancy Bear people do their dirty work.  But the fact that they are still out there working to steal emails and release them at times calculated to throw U. S. elections one way or the other, brings to mind two things that we need to consider.

1.  Messing with electronic voting is not the main cyber-threat to our election system.  Much concern has been expressed that electronic voting systems are not as secure as they should be.  While this is probably true, it doesn't appear to be a significant problem that has actually resulted in thrown elections, except perhaps in small elections at the local level, and usually by accident rather than by design.

2.  We may have to trade some Internet freedom for security in guarding U. S. elections against foreign interference.  The moral innocents who designed the Internet back in the 1970s made the mistake of assuming that everybody who would use it was just like themselves, or rather, their polished-up image of themselves:  sincere, forthright, open, and filled with only good motives.  One wishes that the concept of original sin had been included in every computer-science curriculum since the discipline began in the 1960s, but that isn't the case.  The radically borderless and space-abolishing nature of the Internet brings foreign threats and interference to everyone's doorstep.  With the click of a button in Uzbekistan, Maude in Indianapolis can read the latest fabricated scandal on Facebook about the guy she was thinking of voting for, or hear on the news that his private emails to his mistress have been posted on Wikileaks. 

Not that I condone elected officials who have mistresses.  But these are examples of the kinds of things that can go on once everybody routinely uses a medium which, under present circumstances, is about as private as yelling your credit card number to somebody on the other side of Grand Central Station.

To make email as secure as the U. S. Postal Service, we obviously require more rigid and well-organized security protocols than we have had up to now.  My own university has recently gone to a two-step verification system that is inconvenient, but greatly heightens the security of certain privileged communications such as entering grades.  It may be time for everyone concerned in elections—political parties, governments, and private citizens—to agree to some kind of inconvenient but more secure email approaches, applied uniformly with government regulation if necessary, so that we can get back to where we were in terms of preventing outsiders from interfering with our most characteristic action as a democracy—electing those in power.

Sources:  The AP report by Raphael Satter "Cybersecurity firm:  Senate in Russian hacker crosshairs" was published on Jan. 12 and carried by numerous papers, including the Washington Post at 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Meltdown and Spectre: Sometimes the Good Guys Win

Most computer viruses and bugs go for particular operating systems, Windows being the most popular, because it's on the majority of PCs.  So Mac users, although occasionally suffering their own kinds of attacks, usually breathe a sigh of relief every time a major PC-only virus hits the news. 

But over the weekend, you may have heard about a pair of bugs called Meltdown and Spectre that go for hardware, not software.  In particular, Meltdown is a vulnerability associated with Intel processors made since 1995, and the dominance of Intel means Macs, PCs, and most you-name-it computers are potential targets.  Spectre reportedly is even worse.  But the key word here is "potentially."  In an announcement, Apple claimed that no known malicious hacks have actually been committed using either of these bugs.  And by the time the general public learned about them, the major computer and software makers were already well on their way to devising fixes, although the fixes may have their own drawbacks.

The reason no bad guys have apparently used these bugs is that they were discovered independently by computer researchers in Austria and the United States.  And following a policy called "responsible disclosure," the researchers notified Intel that their chips were vulnerable to these bugs.  So until now, apparently the criminal elements of the computer world either didn't know of the bugs or didn't use them.

I am not a computer scientist, but the technical details of how Meltdown happens are interesting enough to try to summarize.  Apparently, some years back chip designers started doing certain things to speed up the use of what is called "kernel memory."  If you think of the kernel as a little homonculus guy (call him the Kernel) sitting in the control room doing the computer math, the trick they were playing with the Kernel's memory amounts to having other homonculus-people in the room guess at what the Kernel's going to want to do next, and bring stuff out of memory so it can be waiting for him when he needs it.  And all this stuff has to be secure from outside spying, so there's even security checks done way inside the control room there. 

But Meltdown evidently exploits some little timing gap between the moment the contents of memory get there and the moment they are certified as secure.  It's like some spy taking a picture of the secret document during the few seconds between its arrival in the room and when it's put into the "Top Secret" box.  I'm sure some computer scientists are having a good laugh at my pitiful attempt to describe this thing, but that's the impression I got, anyway.

So there are two ways to fix it:  redesign the hardware or write a software patch and put it in upgrades.  Obviously, if you're running older hardware, you're not going to rip out your Intel processor and put in the new one once they've designed the flaw out of it.  So the only practical thing right now is installing software fixes, which evidently will be included in standard operating system upgrades for PCs and Macs. 

Realistically, though, it appears that actually using these bugs to steal data is very tricky, and that is probably why nobody has discovered evidence that they've ever been used maliciously.  But even if they haven't, everybody knows about them now, and so theoretically a non-upgraded Mac could be spied on without a trace.  I'll put upgrading my OS on my to-do list for the new year, anyway.

This whole episode puts a highlight on the question of what computer researchers do when they discover flaws that no one else had suspected.  We can be grateful that Daniel Gruss and his colleagues at Austria's Graz Technical University, and Jann Horn at Google's Project Zero, who independently discovered the bugs as well, did the responsible thing and informed Intel and company of the problems as soon as they found they could be exploited. 

But it's not that hard to imagine what might have happened if some criminal groups, or worse, a state bent on cyber-warfare, had discovered these flaws first.  There are countries where both highly advanced computer science research is going on, and where researchers would be encouraged not to notify the manufacturers in the U. S., but to inform their government's military of such discoveries for use in future cyberattacks.  It's a little bit like thinking what World War II would have been like if Hitler hadn't chased away most of Germany's leading nuclear physicists, and he had gotten hold of nuclear weapons before the Allies did.

Recently I saw "Darkest Hour," the film about Winston Churchill during the crucial days in May of 1940, as Hitler's armies were overwhelming continental Europe and Churchill accepted the post of Prime Minister of England.  Things looked really bad at the time, and many powerful people advised him to give up the fight as hopeless and settle with Hitler before all was lost.  But needless to say, Churchill made the right decision and rallied Parliament with his famous speech in which he declares "We shall never surrender."

It's easy to get all nostalgic over times when issues were more clear-cut, and the only kinds of military threats were physical things like guns, airplanes, and bombs.  Not that World War II was a picnic—it was the worst self-inflicted cataclysm humanity has devised so far.  And tragic times make heroes, as World War II made a hero of Churchill and millions of otherwise ordinary people who lived through that extraordinary time.

But we have similar heroes working among us even today.  For every researcher and scientist who worked on nuclear weapons, radar, or other advanced military technologies back then, we have people like Gruss and Horn now who discover potential threats to the world's infrastructure and turn them over to those who will mitigate them, not exploit them for evil ends.  So here is a verbal bouquet of thanks to both them and other computer wonks who use their discoveries for good and not evil.  May their tribe increase, and may we never have cause to watch a future reality-based movie about how some nasty computer virus killed thousands before the good guys figured out how to stop it.

Sources:  I referred to articles on Meltdown and Spectre carried on the BBC website at and a report on describing how the bugs were discovered at, as well as the Wikipedia article "Meltdown (security vulnerability)."

Monday, January 01, 2018

Thank God for Gravity: Scott Kelly's Endurance and the Future of Space Travel

Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut, veteran of a year's stay on the International Space Station (ISS), and now a published author of a popular memoir called Endurance.  He is also the twin brother of fellow astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  At the time Giffords was shot, her brother-in-law was in orbit during an earlier ISS stay.

Needless to say, Kelly has led an eventful life, and his memoir is rather unusual in that he doesn't shy away from matters that reflect badly on either him or aspects of the space program.  He is honest about many of his shortcomings, including his first marriage that ended in divorce.  And when in the course of narrating in detail his experiences in space, he is inconvenienced by a NASA policy or action, he lets you know about it.  The part of the book that describes day-to-day life on the ISS has got to be one of the most detailed and vivid descriptions of space flight in print.  And that's the problem.  If he wrote this book to encourage people to think about mass migration to space, it may have backfired.

To a landlubber like me, Kelly's trials and risks he undergoes to be in space are appalling.  Take what sounds like a simple thing:  a space walk.  First off, it takes about five hours to get ready, involving hundreds of separate checklisted steps, many of which if neglected or done in the wrong order could result in your untimely and painful demise. 

Then there is the zero-G environment.  I never really appreciated gravity until I read Kelly's book.  On earth, you put down a pen, or a wrench, or a screw, and it stays there.  Not in space.  Every single last thing you might possibly need has to be either tied down, kept in a bag, stuck to a piece of Velcro (TM), or otherwise secured, or else on the space walk you will inadvertently contribute to the already vast quantity of space junk orbiting Earth, and lose whatever you needed in the bargain.  The most chilling aspect of his space walks is to learn that over the nearly two decades that at least some of the ISS has been up there, meteors or orbiting pieces of derelict satellites have punched holes and taken entire chunks out of handrails on the outside of the structure.  And it's just a matter of chance whether another one of those 17,000-MPH pieces of debris drills a hole through you while you're outside. 

Kelly, along with anyone else who endures the rigors of years of training and competition to go into space, deserves accolades for his monumental achievements.  But at the same time, I can't help but wonder whether the up-close view of what life in space is really like lends more weight to the argument that, like many people say of New York, it's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. 

The question really boils down to this:  is space, and whatever lies beyond in terms of potentially habitable planets, really more like America in 1620, or Antarctica in 1920?  Here's what I mean.

Right now, corporations are being organized to go into space exploration commercially, and large groups of visionaries are planning to spread humanity in some form to other planets.  From what I can tell, these folks believe that space and regions beyond it will eventually harbor lots of people, like the New World (North and South America) does now.  Some even seem to think that we have damaged our planet here beyond repair with global warming and pollution, and we better start making our plans for an exit strategy when Earth becomes uninhabitable.  Either way, these folks (who Kelly, incidentally, does not explicitly identify himself with) have an attitude toward space that says it is our manifest destiny to go there and occupy it with all the trappings of civilization:  cities, nations, the whole bit.  They would say that space now is like America was to Europe in 1620:  a new world beckoning us to explore and settle it.

If Kelly's spare-time reading had been about Columbus or Vasco da Gama, I might agree that he is of that party.  But what book did he take with him on the ISS?  Endurance:  Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, the story of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition to cross the Antarctic.  Their ship got stuck in ice and Shackleton and his men ended up floating away on chunks of sea ice and lifeboats.  In his choice of reading matter, I think Kelly has inadvertently answered the question of what space exploration is most similar to in the history of humanity so far.  And it doesn't bode well for any large-scale plans that involve moving lots of ordinary people into space.

There have been manned outposts in the extreme Arctic and Antarctic regions for about a century now, and the population of Antarctica still hovers in the hundreds at most.  The fact is that the environment there is so hostile to human life that living there is extremely expensive, inconvenient, and worth while only if a strong scientific or cultural motive justifies it. 

I think space is the same way.  It's hard to imagine how we could make space travel so safe, convenient, and comfortable that you could get lots of people (I'm talking thousands at least) to attempt it.  And by definition, you have to travel through space to get to anywhere besides Earth. 

So I salute Kelly and his compatriots for the incredible achievements they have made in simply keeping the ISS running and keeping alive up there, no small part of which is due to Kelly's accumulated expertise in repeatedly fixing what has to be the world's most expensive toilet.  But by the same token, I think space travel will remain a hugely expensive and highly specialized endeavor for a narrowly chosen few, for the foreseeable future—and maybe beyond that, too.

Sources:  I thank my wife for giving me Scott Kelly's Endurance:  A Year In Space, A Lifetime of Discovery (Knopf, 2017) for Christmas.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Too Fast and Too Slow: The Washington State Derailment and Positive Train Control

After more than a decade of planning and construction, a new section of track was opened for Amtrak passenger service south of Tacoma, Washington on Dec. 18, 2017.  The old route that Amtrak trains used to take went northwest from Tacoma along the coast of Puget Sound, around a peninsula named Point Defiance, and then down the coastline several miles until it crossed Interstate 5 south of the small town of DuPont and headed south inland.  The new shorter route uses a bypass track that goes southwest of Tacoma and hugs I-5 for the rest of the distance, crossing the interstate south of DuPont.  There is a long stretch of fairly straight track just north of I-5 past a golf course before the track makes a sharp left turn to the south to cross the bridge over the freeway.

The problem with the old route was that a number of sharp turns and single-track tunnels slowed the Amtrak passenger trains down, making the Point Defiance section something of a bottleneck.  The project map on the Washington State Department of Transportation website for the Point Defiance bypass bragged that the top speed allowed on the new route would be 79 miles per hour.

Rail fans and others interested in passenger rail transportation made plans to be on Amtrak 501 as it left the station in Tacoma on the new route.  The engineer, whose name has not yet been released, was training another railroad employee who rode with him in the cab. 

In most parts of the U. S., trains are not operated in a completely automatic mode, although in many regions a system called Positive Train Control (PTC) is in operation.  PTC is a kind of robotic supervisory system that, among other things, constantly monitors a train's speed and intervenes if the train goes too fast for a particular section of track.  About 60% of all Amtrak trains use PTC, but in order for PTC to work, the track has to have sensors installed along it, and the Point Defiance bypass was not one of those routes.  So the engineer was solely in charge.

Around 7:25 AM, the train was running on the long stretch of straight track before the turn to the bridge over I-5.  A properly trained engineer knows what speeds are safe for which parts of a route, and knows when to apply brakes in anticipation of a lower-speed area ahead, as passenger trains can take several miles to decelerate at a rate that doesn't unduly disturb the passengers.  A video exists of what was going on in the cab in the last few seconds before the train reached the I-5 bridge.  The train was still going at the maximum route speed of 78 MPH.  Six seconds before the bridge, the engineer commented about the excesssive speed of the train, but by then it was too late.  The engine and a dozen other cars left the tracks, killing three, injuring dozens, causing numerous highway-traffic crashes (none fatal), and closing Interstate 5 for many hours.  The maximum safe speed for negotiating the turn was posted as 30 MPH.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will not issue its formal report on the investigation of this disaster for many months, the preliminary evidence is pretty clear that the accident was caused by human error.  Something—possibly distraction in conversing with the trainee, possibly plain forgetfulness—made the engineer neglect to slow the train before the I-5 curve.  As numerous reports emphasized after the wreck, if the train had been using PTC, it would have automatically slowed down for the curve if the engineer had done nothing, or even if he had tried to keep the speed high.  And we have no knowledge of how many wrecks of both freight and passenger trains have been prevented by PTC, because by definition such incidents that don't injure or kill anybody don't get reported.  But it is clear in this case that the absence of PTC was a contributory cause.

Congress mandated the installation of PTC after the worst train accident in the last thirty years, a 2008 wreck caused by operator error that killed 24 people.  The original deadline for all passenger trains to be using PTC was 2015.  But as the deadline approached and railroads were lagging behind in their rate of installations—in fairness to them, due to problems with government regulation of necessary radio frequencies as well as other causes—they told Congress that if the deadline wasn't extended, they would simply shut down.  How serious this threat was, we'll never know, because Congress caved and moved the deadline to the end of 2018.  And under the current business-friendly administration, we can expect if the railroads ask for another extension, they're likely to get it.

Statistically, rail passenger travel is very safe overall, with the number of fatalities most years hovering in the single digits.  Still, nobody wants to be one of the six or seven people who get killed in a train wreck or hit by lightning—dead is dead, no matter how you go. 

A utilitarian approach to the issue of PTC and passenger trains might conclude that, hey, given the low number of fatalities, let's just allow things to go the way they're going, and eventually we'll have PTC everywhere and we won't have to worry about it.  But the expense per life saved is so high with railroads that we'd be better off using political and monetary capital fighting automobile traffic accidents or promoting self-driving cars.

That's one approach.  But another approach says, "Look, here's this technological fix that will cost the railroads money and trouble, but will almost completely eliminate what is the last major remaining cause of railroad passenger fatalities:  human error.  Let's bite the bullet and make a special effort, even spend some extra money, to fix this thing once and for all."  Maybe that's the engineering approach, or even the perfectionist approach (many engineers have perfectionist tendencies).  Yes, the absolute numbers of fatalities are small.  But deaths in a train wreck share with deaths in plane crashes a peculiar horror, in that you are completely bereft of control of the situation.  And in the case of train fans who simply wanted to experience a new route for the first time and ended up paying for their hobby with their lives—well, some ironies are too much to contemplate.  I have a good friend who, if he was not otherwise engaged that day, might well have been on that train, because he simply likes to ride trains.

Better training (pardon the pun) of engineers and faster completion of the installation of PTC are needed.  And maybe if these things happen, this will be the last fatal accident involving train passengers for a long time.

Sources:  I referred to several news items on the accident, including CBS News at, a government-run transportation statistics site at, a Washington State Department of Transportation map of the bypass route at, and a report giving the time of the crash at 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Will We Miss Net Neutrality?

On Thursday, Dec. 14, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favor of repealing the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that have been in effect since 2015.  Like so many things lately, net neutrality has become a partisan issue, and the vote went along party lines, the three Republican appointees on the Commission voting in favor of repeal and the two Democrats opposing it.  Polls show that the idea of net neutrality is popular, with as many as 80% of those asked being in favor of it.  But the pollsters generally didn't ask respondents to define net neutrality, or to say why they favored it.  Amid the protests and shrill voices raised on both sides of the issue, it's hard to get a grasp on what exactly is at stake, and what the pros and cons are.  A little history may help in this regard.

Among other things, most modern governments are expected to protect the weak against the strong.  This is an elementary aspect of justice.  In the late 1800s, during the rapid expansion of another kind of network—the railroad network—the public became aroused over perceived abuses that the railroads were practicing.  Farmers discovered that the railroads were manipulating shipping charges to curry favor with certain interest groups, and handing out free passenger passes to influential politicians.  The problems were so pervasive that the first free-standing administrative commission in the executive branch of the federal government was established to ride herd on the railroads:  the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC.

The ICC established rules for what became known as "common carriers"—enterprises that were so essential to the public that regulation by government was regarded as necessary.  The idea of a common carrier spread to other systems such as bus lines, airlines, and public utilities like electric and water systems.  In exchange for close regulation by the government, the business being regulated was allowed to make a reasonable profit.  Some industries eventually came around to welcoming common-carrier status, because they found that manipulating the government's rules in their favor wasn't that hard and it stabilized their business models. 

In 2003, a Columbia University professor named Tim Wu coined the phrase "net neutrality" to extend the common-carrier idea to the internet, which was not regulated in any meaningful way at the time.  In the case of the internet, the potential for the kind of abuse that the railroads got into trouble for is always there.  And there have been some incidents prior to the 2015 adoption of formal net-neutrality rules that give advocates of net neutrality some credibility.  According to the Wikipedia article on net neutrality, the internet service provider (ISP) Comcast took measures to throw digital roadblocks in the way of the troublesome service BitTorrent, which was using up a lot of bandwidth at the time, and the FCC has fined AT&T for similar misbehavior.

But the net neutrality rules that the FCC has now pledged to abandon may go too far in the other direction.  According to ISPs, the rules left them with limited flexibility for expansion and the offering of new services.  Treating everybody the same on the internet is a fine idea in principle, but working out the details can get complicated, and there are genuine judgment calls involved in an ISP's decisions of how to allocate limited fiber-optic and especially wireless bandwidth to best serve the incredible variety of customers, and websites that customers want to visit. 

We have seen how the content providers themselves (e. g. Facebook) have done things that go against some principles of net neutrality, such as the idea of no censorship.  Both for legal and moral reasons, Facebook polices itself and removes posts it deems to be unsuitable for various reasons.  But it's not an ISP that's doing this, it's Facebook. 

The ISPs, as ISPs, do not have the resources (or I suspect, the inclination) to do a lot of fine-grain discrimination, which is probably the kind of thing that many people who favor net neutrality are worried about.  Basically, the ISPs don't have time to pick through the floods of data that they must ship around every microsecond.  The most they can do in a typical situation is to note sites and services that produce unusually demanding traffic patterns.  And I think the most that they are hoping for in the repeal of net neutrality is to gain some freedom more efficiently to allocate their bandwidth in order to serve the most customers with the fewest additional resources of hardware and software. 

Maybe that is a Pollyanna-ish and naive view of ISPs, but it's hard for me to imagine that some of the more dire consequences foretold by the proponents of net neutrality will result from its abandonment:  widespread censorship, the inability of small-scale websites and enterprises to compete with larger ones based on something the ISP is doing, and so on.  One concern, transparency, is largely being taken care of by the internet itself.  Tricks like artificially degrading services are quickly detected and exposed by users, and it's easy for protesters to gather a digital lynch mob with torches and clubs and go after the bad guys.  Whether the bad guys mend their ways is another question, but my point is that if an ISP tries anything unpopular, they will be called out for it.  And this is an important self-regulating aspect of the internet that we may not appreciate as much as we should.

So my own answer is, no, I don't think we'll miss what we've had for only the last two years anyway, in terms of the Obama-era net neutrality regulations.  Even critics of the FCC decision admit that nothing is going to change right away, as the Commission has to come up with alternative rules and perhaps turn over some aspects of its work with the internet to the Federal Trade Commission. 

The internet is a modern necessity, not much less essential than electric power, and it is appropriate for governments to make sure that whoever qualifies as "weak" with regard to it is protected against unfair and unjust depredations by ISPs, or anybody else for that matter.  But even in the bad old days before government regulations were in place, abuses were fairly rare.  And it looks like the commercial instinct of self-preservation will keep ISPs from doing anything really dastardly, now that net neutrality rules are going away. 

Sources:  I referred to reports on the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality carried by at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on net neutrality and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Are Teens Killing Themselves With Smartphones?

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and she thinks she knows one surprising reason why the rates of teenage depression and suicide have been climbing steadily since 2012 in the U. S.  She summarizes both her own work and the results of several other social-science studies of the problem in a recent article on the academics-to-the-public website called "The Conversation."

From an analytical view, she and her colleagues seem to have done their homework.  The raw statistics are chilling:  between 2010 and 2015, the number of teenagers reporting symptoms of depression in several large surveys rose by a third, as well as the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide.  Examining the usual suspects—economic causes, race, class, and so on—revealed that the increases were quite uniform and uncorrelated to shifts in those factors.  So the researchers started looking for anything else that changed a lot in those five years.  And what they hit on was the fact that what marketers call the "penetration rate"—the percent of a given market group which owns a new product—went above 50 percent in 2012 among teenagers for guess what?  Smartphones. 

Examining the correlation between smartphones and teenage depression and suicide more closely, Twenge noted that longitudinal and causal-link studies point to smartphones as a likely cause, and not just a correlated effect of depression.  That eliminates a problem you often have with studies like this, where you find that the factor you're interested in happens alongside some other factor, but there's no obvious causal connection between them.  Basically, they found that when people became more unhappy, they didn't use smartphones a lot more, but when otherwise normal people began to use smartphones, they had a tendency to become less happy.

Twenge speculates about exactly why smartphones tend to do this to teens, and some of the answers are pretty obvious, at least to those of us who don't use smartphones much.  Every minute a teen is in the presence of another live person, and instead stares at a smartphone, there is an opportunity lost for direct human interaction, which both psychology and common sense say is one of the most beneficial things you can do to avoid depression.  And although she doesn't mention it, I will add that the image-maintenance which keeping up one's Facebook page requires would give even a professional media manager of the 1960s nightmares.  But playing that game requires teens to be constantly checking out what their peers (I won't call them friends) are doing and trying to be equally impressive by means of one's own online persona. 

Here we have a fairly new technology which seems to have an objective negative effect on the health and lifespan of a certain class of people.  If this were a different kind of problem, I can tell you what would happen from here, drawing from examples like the "radium girls" episode of the 1920s, when women who painted radium-dial watches and instruments started dying off.  Survivors of those who fell ill and died called for legislation, which was first opposed by the manufacturers, but eventually government public-health agencies got involved, and the dangerous manufacturing practices were banned.  Today nobody even manufactures radium anymore—it's just too dangerous.

The trouble with the smartphone-teen-depression issue is, you can't point to a chemical or physical cause that smartphones are guilty of.  But it's pretty obvious that something about the way teens use them affects their minds and leads to depression and suicide.  We know that much, but what do we do to fix it?  Twenge ends her article with a halfhearted call to limit smartphone use to two hours a day, but that might not be enough to make a difference.  And how can parents do that without following their kids around all the time?  I suppose there's an app for that, but if there is, there's also an app for evading the time limits imposed by the first app.

I'd like to add a couple of examples of people I know whose lives are relevant to this issue.  One is an example of what happens to a person when most of his social action is lived online, and another example of more or less the opposite. 

The first example is a relative of mine.  After working in a professional career, in his forties he got tired of dealing with people in person on his job—not particular people, really, just people in general.  He had accumulated enough money to live on without working if he lived very frugally, so he just quit. 

This was about twenty years ago, when the Internet was just beginning to take off.  He discovered chatrooms, and developed online relationships as time went on.  For the last ten or fifteen years, his days have scarcely varied.  He sleeps until early afternoon, gets up, makes breakfast, I guess you'd call it, and logs on.  Then maybe he watches television some, but from what he tells me (I keep in regular phone contact with him), most of his time is spent in online contact with people around the world, in Alaska and Wales and other English-speaking regions.  He stays up till three or four in the morning doing this sort of thing, then goes to bed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  As far as I know he still goes grocery shopping, but that is about his only live human interaction.  And that is just the way he likes it.  He recently bought his first smartphone, but I don't think it can do him any more damage than he's already sustained.  I think talking with me is about all he uses it for.

He's an example of what can happen to someone who indulges the fantasy of an all-online life. 

The other example is a person I know a lot less about.  She's a young woman who attends a local church we know of.  She is one of a family of eight or so children.  The father is a doctor and the mother has homeschooled the entire family.  The woman is now ninenteen and holds down a job and I think is attending community college.  In the last year or so, she got her first smartphone.  Not only did she survive most of her teenage years without it, she has turned out better than a lot of kids who had them.  So in the right circumstances, it is possible in 2017 to raise teenagers and not give them smartphones.  I've seen it done.  But whether smartphones are so bad for teens that we should enact a minimum phoning age of 21, I can't say.  All I will say is, there's something bad going on with smartphones and teenagers, and if we care, we should do something about it.

Sources:  Jean Twenge's article "With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit" appeared on Nov. 14, 2017 at  I have changed a few details to preserve anonymity of the individuals discussed. 

Monday, December 04, 2017

North Korea and the Paradox of Nuclear Weapons

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, North Korea launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Analysis of the flight path and other data indicates that the new model, called the Hwasong-15, can probably reach any point in the continental U. S.   And last September, Kim Jong-un ordered a successful underground test of a thermonuclear weapon whose yield exceeded 100 kilotons of TNT, the standard measure of nuclear-weapon power.  While North Korea has yet to demonstrate the ability to deliver nuclear weapons with its ICBMs, that is clearly its intention, and the latest ICBM test shows it is farther along that road than many people thought.

The world has lived under the threat of nuclear weapons since the first atomic bombs were exploded over Japan in 1945.  Fortunately for all concerned, the threat has never been carried out since then, although the 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the U. S. and the former Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than anybody ever wants to get again. 

Despite the best efforts of both the U. S. and the Soviet Union to keep nuclear-weapons technology secret, the physics behind the bombs is well known, and it was only a matter of time until more countries built their own weapons.  As of today, at least eight nations possess nuclear weapons, and probably nine (Israel has never publicly admitted to having any, but is widely believed to have components ready for rapid assembly and use in an emergency).  North Korea is both the newest member of the nuclear club and the one that is most worrisome.

Since the development of the modern nation-state, the question of what kind of defenses to use and what proportion of a country's wealth to devote to armaments have been perpetual issues.  During the Cold War era, many countries such as Japan maintained only nominal armies and sheltered under the guarantee of protection by the U. S.  But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, a sense has arisen that it's every nation for itself now, and North Korea has bought into that mindset wholesale.

In individuals, the mental state known as paranoia can be debilitating and lead to bizarre and even violent behavior.  I am neither a psychologist nor an expert in international affairs, but paranoia at the highest levels of government seems to account for many of North Korea's actions better than most other explanations.  Its rogue actions and hyperbolic threats have isolated it to the extent that its people are severely impoverished, but the nation's governing class continues to devote absurdly large amounts of money and resources in pursuit of militarization, and in particular its nuclear arms race. 

A report on the latest ICBM launch on the Wired website says that North Korea probably imported the rocket engines used in the latest launch.  Despite international sanctions, critical military hardware such as rocket engines finds its way to North Korea, and it's probably vain to think that attempts to blockade such hardware could stop their progress toward fully functional nuclear-tipped ICBMs.  Whoever sold them those rockets should take a share of the responsibility for whatever disasters result.

The paradox of nuclear weapons mentioned in our headline is simply this:  with the exception of World War II, nuclear weapons have proved to be useful only to the extent that they weren't actually used.  Even Kim Jong-un probably understands that if he were to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on the U. S., the consequences for his country, and him personally, would be dire.  So despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, there is probably a practical endpoint to North Korea's nuclear ambitions:  to have a few missiles poised and ready to threaten whoever might offer to overthrow the regime.

In a way, it's silly to worry about a potential nuclear threat from North Korea that isn't even real yet, when the leftover nuclear weaponry of the former Soviet Union is still owned by Russia and numbers in the thousands.  The difference is that Russia does not seem inclined even to use its weapons as threats against the U. S., preferring to interfere with our affairs by other means, while North Korea's leaders seem to thrive on the attention their country receives every time they launch a new missile or explode a new bomb underground. 

The technology North Korea needs to become a full-fledged member of the nuclear-ICBM club is probably only a matter of a few years away.  Even Kim Jong-un would probably not risk the international scorn he would get if he tried to demonstrate an air burst from a nuclear-tipped rocket over an isolated part of the ocean, but logically, that's probably the only way he can convince the world that he has a fully-operational system.  We may just have to take his word for it.

What then?  Well, we in the U. S. have made it from 1949 (the year the USSR demonstrated a nuclear weapon) to 2017 while living under the threat of thousands of nuclear bombs, and a few more in North Korea probably won't make much practical difference.  If we demonstrate that our anti-ballistic-missile systems could take down a North Korean missile before it did any harm, and there is some evidence that this is true, it will vitiate but not eliminate North Korean threats in this area.  The problem is that we're fighting probabilities with probabilities, and appearance in such a game can be more influential than reality.

The consensus of historical opinion is that Ronald Reagan's Star Wars proposals played a significant role in the eventual demise of the USSR from within.  The case of North Korea is very different.  Being smaller and more insular, Kim Jong-un can probably squelch any signs of dissent before it turns into a major internal threat to his regime.  But once he has nuclear-capable ICBMs, he will learn that the power of nuclear weapons is best used by not using them.  And that won't be nearly as much fun as developing them.  But even dictators have to grow up sometime.

Sources:  Wired's website published "North Korea's Latest Missile Test Was Even Scarier Than It Seemed" on Dec. 1, 2017 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on nuclear weapons states and the number of nuclear weapons owned by each state.