Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's Time to Panic...Almost

If you're like most Americans, you found out you were the victim of the largest data breach (of its kind) in U.S. history.
Equifax is one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the world. It stores credit information on, essentially, everyone. Last week we were treated to the news of 143 million identities which had been compromised. Information includes, but is not limited to:
  1. Names
  2. Birth dates,
  3. Social Security numbers
  4. Drivers License numbers
  5. Home Addresses
  6. Credit Card numbers
Armed with this information, a person can steal YOU. Not in a physical kidnapping sense, but everything about you. Your good name, your house, your car, your money, your savings, your retirement, your tax refund...EVERYTHING.
This should have every American in near panic. Why? Because, the information is going for $30 a name on the dark web.
You can freeze your credit report, buy identity theft insurance, place a fraud alert, obtain your credit report, and sue Equifax into oblivion. None of that will solve the problem.
What people are just now getting is the longevity of this issue. It won't EVER go away. Unlike the Target, Adobe, Yahoo, or other hacks, this isn't about your password or credit card number. It gives the culprits everything they need.
It's literally the keys to your identity kingdom. Everything about you is out there for anyone to obtain. And, since it's on the internet, it's NEVER going to completely be safe again.
What makes matters worse is how Equifax chose to handle this problem:
  • It took them almost 2 months to know what was going on.
  • It took over a month to clue the public in.
  • The website Equifax created https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/ looks like a phishing scam. It's actually legitimate. 
  • Initially Equifax barred people from suing if they signed up for protection.
  • Equifax charges victims for protection (freezes and protection after 1 year).
  • Equifax never contacted victims directly, despite knowing who they are.  
  • The site for checking if you were impacted doesn't actually tell you if you are a victim.
Everything they have done SCREAMS "Sue me in a class action lawsuit".
I'm not a litigious person, but I DID contact an attorney today to see if I could sue them. Why would I do it? This is textbook negligence.
A tort (civil wrong that causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act.) of negligence requires 3 things:
  1. Duty to act.
  2. Failure to act.
  3. Harm caused by the failure to act.
Equifax did all three. Because the problem is a time-bomb, you probably won't know you're a victim until it's too late.
Let's face it, Equifax is in the business of handling sensitive information regarding your identity. They let lenders know what kind of a credit risk you are. In order to do that, they track every aspect of your life.
  • Do you pay your bills on time?
  • Do you have a job?
  • Do you have people suing you?
  • Do you spend more than you make?
  • How much do you owe?
  • Where do you or where have you EVER lived?
  • Have you ever declared bankruptcy?
These are all things that get tracked by the credit companies, and it's all the information you need to get a loan, job, or housing.
It's you - quantified. It has a long memory (up to 10+ years), and it reveals everything about you.
Why should you worry?
Criminals now have all the information they need to clone your ID. You could be on the hook for loans, debt, and crimes committed in your name. What is worse is that you have to PROVE that it wasn't you, and the burden is entirely on you. It also only counts once you file a complaint AFTER you're a victim. Don't count on any help clearing it up, because most law enforcement agencies don't really know how to handle these cases.
If a criminal wants your house, they can take it.
If they want you to take the rap for doing 90 in a 70, they show a driver's license with your name and their picture.
They can use your identity when committing a crime. It's up to you to prove it wasn't you.
If they want your tax refund, they can file with your name before you do.
If they take out a student loan your name, you might not know about for years. It happened to a co-worker of mine.
They can get a job in your name. Now the IRS thinks you earn more than you actually do.
If they want your Social Security, 401K, or pension, they can claim it.
If they want your life's savings, they can withdraw it.
They can cast multiple votes in an election under other people's names.
They can even get medical care and prescriptions with your information. If they shop around for opioids, you could be arrested for their drug habit. If they get a medication that interacts with your new prescription, you could be denied that therapy. They could also have expensive medical care, and you have to foot the bill.
You get the picture.
So, what do you do with this catastrophic problem? My advice is to handle this NOW and not wait until it's too late.
Pull your credit report for Free (annually) IMMEDIATELY and check for fraud.
File a complaint with the Internet Crimes Complaint Center at the FBI and a complaint with the FTC.
Go to all three credit agencies and file a freeze IMMEDIATELY! (there may be a fee)
Place a fraud alert with all three credit agencies.
Most of them have a credit monitoring service, Transunion is free (covering only the basics), but like the other agencies they have multiple plans.
Sign up for Identity theft insurance. (optional)
If you have children under 18, do the above for them as well.
Don't bother changing your passwords, they didn't take those - they took your identity.
If you're planning on suing Equifax, be advised: They are only a $15 Billion dollar company, and it's unlikely you will see enough of a payout to cover the expenses.
Some people have made a big deal about a report that managers from Equifax sold stock as soon as they found out about the breach, but I'm not worried about that. The Securities and Exchange Commission, and FBI will take care of the criminal aspect of this problem. It's outrageous, but they knew the laws regarding insider trading. Let them spend twenty years in federal prison with a $5,000,000 fine.
The most galling thing is the scope of the problem. The number of people affected, the type of data exposed, and the limited ability to cope with the problem. If you've ever had your identity stolen, it is devastating.
I can only imagine this will get much worse as time goes on. Identity thieves tend to wait until the uproar dies down before they strike. It's now up to you to monitor every account, every transaction, every inquiry, and every aspect of your life - every day for the rest of your life.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem with Climate Change Debate

The most critical issue facing our world is the threat climate change.

Unfortunately, you can't point to a single event, or even series of events and say: "That is Climate Change".  It's far more generalized and gradual than a single event. There is no need for panic in the streets, not that you could run away from it really.

Usually when you talk about Climate Change, most people talk in terms of the misnomer: Global warming (see the excerpt from Futurama). The term Global Warming doesn't really describe the totality of the phenomena we are seeing today. Sure, the Earth is heating up at a much faster rate than we have seen in known history, but it's more than just added heat. The global scale of the environmental impact our society has is truly astounding. From deforestation around the globe to acidification which is destroying coral reefs at an alarming rate. Our planet is chemically, biologically, and physically sick.

Right now we see the symptoms of the illness: warmer weather, more severe storms, more frequent storms, widespread drought, depletion of aquifers, changing weather patterns, changing crop yields, receding glaciers, increased coastal erosion, and rising sea levels. The difficulty is altering the perception in skeptical minds. There are arguments on both sides leading to confrontations like this:

 No matter how correct Professor Cox may be, confrontation won't win a debate in the court of public opinion. I wasn't able to find the full debate, but from what the BBC posted both parties had equally valid points. Mr. Roberts' contention was that he believed the data was manipulated and faulty. Professor Cox's response was simply to chuck the data at him, not address the point of validity. If the scientific community really wishes to address the issue properly, they have to address the issue of credibility. That's a bit difficult when people point to problems with the system:

 Some of this has to do with the idea of mistaking correlation for causation, but a lot of it has to do with the funding the science receives. If the entity funding the research or the researcher has an agenda, then the data has a significant chance of being skewed in favor the the agenda. If any tampering exists, or is even perceived to exist, then it is nearly impossible to overcome the skepticism which should accompany any scientific research. This is where Professor Cox runs into problems. He believes the data is correct, but cannot provide sufficient proof to overcome the burden of proof required to sway others.
It is true that Mr. Roberts will probably never have sufficient evidence to convince him that Climate Change is real, but that stubbornness can't be debated away. He has to be receptive to the idea that his null hypothesis is wrong. Without an attitude change, there won't be any possibility of any meaningful action. 

This isn't an issue that is going away. This is something that will only get worse. While it slowly happens over the next few decades and centuries, it will cost staggering amounts of money and take a great toll on life. They won't be dollars spent on a single disaster or lives lost in a moment. It will be a slow and steady churn that will be ascribed to a storm like Katrina, or Winston. 

Of course, we could always have a bare-knuckles cage match between Mr. Roberts and Professor Cox. Somehow I don't think science would win with the skinny particle physicist taking on the lumbering conservative.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why the Media Needs to STOP using "Earth Like".

If you keep up to date on science issues, you are no doubt aware of the latest exoplanet discovery. Proxima Centauri A has a Earth size planet orbiting it. It is at the right distance and right size to support liquid water. Unfortunately, the press uses the highly inaccurate term "Earth Like" to describe wolds like Proxima Centauri b. I'll explain why I feel this is a terrible term for these planets. Although it's exciting to have a nearby (40,000,000,000,000 km) That will still take a spacecraft like New Horizons 18,000 years to get there. Nearby is relative if you use ice ages as a measurement. I like the sound of 1 ice age instead of several times longer than humans have had civilization on the earth.

Credit: Jean-Luc Beuzit, et al. Grenoble Observatory, European Southern Observatory

 Exoplanets are planets that have been located outside our solar system. They are found using a number of techniques, but only a handful have been directly observed. Beta Pictoris b is a planet observed by the European Space Agency's telescopes in Chile using infrared telescopes. Beta Pictoris b is a small smudge on the photograph pictured above.  An annotated picture with the planet highlighted can be found here. That is about as close as we can get to seeing a small dot of light in another solar system. A pixel or two.

Most of the time planets are located using a method called Transit Photometry, which detects the planet by measuring how dim the star gets when it comes between us and its parent star. There are other ways of detecting exoplanets, and none of them are easy. Although we can learn a lot from the information we do gather, we aren't able to tell if a planet actually can support life, at least not yet.

With all we do know, there's a lot we don't. As I've discussed in other blogs, magnetic fields, atmosphere, and the type of star system have a lot to do with the viability of a planet supporting life. It's not enough to have the building blocks of life to have a habitable planet. What bothers me most is that people impart the qualities found on Earth to distant objects that we know very little about. Earth-size is more accurate in this case, but not Earth-like.

Earth is, as far as we KNOW, the only place where life is known to currently exist. It's thought that bacteria was once found on Mars, but we haven't found any evidence of it existing there now, or even in the distant past. Earth has life in abundance. Life has existed and survived several extinction events that have wiped out countless species over billions of years. Still this world persists in supporting life. I am certain that there are other worlds that ARE like Earth, and support bountiful life. However, people should avoid placing qualities on anything with no way of supporting that claim. To do so is sensational, inaccurate, misleading, and tabloid in nature.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Warning Fatigue

The City of New York has a new regulation for purveyors of food in the city. They are now requiring a warning label, in the form of a salt shaker icon, on menus in the city. This is for foods that contain more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium (currently 2,400 mg). This is under the guise of informing consumers about eating too much salt in their diets, with the hopes that it will curtail the number of people with high blood pressure and heart disease.

While we Americans consume far too much that is bad for us: sodium, fats, sugars, and (more importantly) calories. It's important to know what we put into our bodies, and understand how it effects us. Knowing what to eat regularly, and what to save for special occasions is one of the more important things we can learn about life, but it's typically not something we're taught well enough. It doesn't help that eating at restaurants is becoming the rule, and not the exception.

When I was young, it was a rare thing to eat at a restaurant. Big Macs were not a regular item on the menu, and generally saved for when we were traveling. Today, however, people will eat fast food several times a week. I am as guilty of this as anyone. My excuse tends to be that I'm too busy, or that I forget to take food with me. I also tend to eat what sounds good at the time and not what is healthiest. My point is not to show that I'm a fat slob (although there are people who could argue that I am), but that I, unlike most people, have learned about nutrition, yet I still choose to eat unhealthy foods.

The crux is that I get to choose what I eat and where. That choice can depend on a lot of factors like the amount of money I have, the amount of time I have, and the kinds of foods available, but in the end it's my choice.  It isn't up to government to decide what I eat, or when, or where.

However, this poses a problem for society, and that problem is the health problems caused by food. What we eat is a large part of how healthy we are. People who eat a lot of red meat, sugary drinks, and fat laden  food have a higher incidence of diseases that tend to be caused by, or made worse by the foods we eat. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and the list goes on and on and on.  This isn't including all of the food borne illnesses that can range from heartburn to a severe case of deadness.  One of the most recent is the Costco E. coli poisoning. It wasn't the chicken that caused the issue, but the celery. Not every farm worker washes their hands after defecating while harvesting produce. It's cringe worthy, but true.

If you're a public health professional trying to reduce the medical costs brought on by food related health issues, where do you start? How do you tackle educating the public on making healthier choices that will reduce the amount of money spent caring for people sickened by obesity and other food related health issues?  In short, you can't.  You can't dictate how other people live their lives.  You can educate and inform, but you can't dictate.

In this case, warning the public about the sodium content is somewhat misguided.  The problem with having warnings plastered everywhere, is that people get tired of them. Despite the good intent of the regulation it will likely prove as ineffective as the soda regulation New York unsuccessfully tried in 2014. It just comes off as "the boy who cried wolf".  The problem in this case is that even when there is a wolf, unless he's attacking, you don't really care as long as it stays that way.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I haven't written in a long time

Sometimes things get left by the wayside.  Sometimes things just get set to the back burner.  This is true with this blog, but I have been trying to rectify that.  In addition to continuing my education (more science classes), I've been educating myself in Family History, editing the next book in the saga (I swear it's coming), refining the science behind a new series, and resetting my life to day-time shifts.  Things have gotten in the way.  It takes time to properly formulate an argument, so I haven't been diligent at getting to this rarely visited blog.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi Day!!!!

3/14/1(4)----I realize that this isn't quite pi (not until next year), but why not celebrate with the Numberphile video on Pi.  This is a music video composed using the digits of Pi.  Enjoy!

p.s. I know I haven't posted in a while.  More on that later.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Engineering Fail

Architecture is perhaps the most beautiful form of engineering.  When done properly, it’s a sublime art form that can last for thousands of years.  When it isn’t, it can be disastrous.  It was interesting to read an article about a building in London that has a bit of a problem. 
The building has a rather innocuous name of 20 Fenchurch Street.  The locals refer to it at the Walkie Talkie because its shape resembles an old handheld two-way transceiver.  The problem is the building’s south facing exterior.  Like most modern buildings, it’s mostly a highly reflective glass.  That highly reflective surface has caused problems on the street below.
This isn’t the first time a building has had problems with the physics of light.  The Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles had a similar problem.  The swooping, highly polished exterior looked good on paper, but they hadn’t considered the effect sunlight has on the surrounding buildings when it is magnified by the stainless steel exterior.  The solution was to dull the finish on the building, so it wasn’t as reflective.
courtesy Wikipedia
Obviously, at this stage in construction, it’s far too late to alter the exterior to correct the problem.  It would be prohibitively expensive to correct the curve, so they will have to change the reflective properties of the windows.  It will change the overall intended look of the building, but I imagine that solving this problem could make the building more attractive.
This is the big problem of aesthetics over function.  There is a huge drive to make skyscrapers a distinctive monument.  Even though most are privately owned, they are seen as a source of national pride.  With all the emphasis placed on design, it’s tough to make a functional building that stands out from the crowd.  You hope that this type of death-ray building won’t happen again, and this will be an example to future architects of what not to do.