June 2008

I learned today there is a full scale cyberwar underway over Kosovo:

The rise of pro-Kosovo web site defacement groups was marked in April, 2008, with a massive web site defacement spreading pro-Kosovo propaganda. The ongoing monitoring of pro-Kosovo hacking groups indicates an ongoing cyberwar between pro-Serbian supporting hacktivists successfully defacing Albanian sites, and building up capabilities by releasing a list of vulnerable Albanian sites (remote SQL injections for remote file inclusion, defacements or installing web shells/backdoors) to assist supports into importing the list within their do-it-yourself web site defacement tools.

[From Pro-Serbian hacktivists attacking Albanian web sites | Zero Day | ZDNet.com]

Better keep your blogs patched folks!

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Food riots in a city near you?

by Limbic on June 12, 2008

The Telegraph had a grim story this week:

Food riots. Scores of panicked people protesting, burning effigies and chanting. Shops being ransacked, supplies running out as soon as they come in, and stricken communities stockpiling rice, bread and water for fear of going without. These have happened in Haiti and Egypt in recent months as the price of scarce food has soared.

But what if they happened on the streets of Bromley? Or Newcastle? Or Bath? As bizarre as this might seem, the prospect of UK food shortages has started to be taken seriously by food manufacturers and retailers

It really does seem that the Food Crisis may actually be coming to mean something real, even in the prosperous West.

Doomsayers have long noted that Just-In-Time food production systems currently used to server the food markets. Terrorism experts have warned that it is extremely easy to disrupt. Just a few days of, say, road disruption and shelves are empty.

The Telegraph article does a good job of looking at the causes, risks and remedies.

Other news is worrying though, particularly for Americans. The first problem is that the US Food Reserves are about to be completely depleted. Here is the American Agricultural Movement on June 6th 2008:

“According to the May 1, 2008 CCC inventory report there are o­nly 24.1 million bushels of wheat in inventory, so after this sale there will be o­nly 2.7 million bushels of wheat left the entire CCC inventory,…Our concern is not that we are using the remainder of our strategic grain reserves for humanitarian relief.  AAM fully supports the action and all humanitarian food relief.  Our concern is that the U.S. has nothing else in our emergency food pantry.  There is no cheese, no butter, no dry milk powder, no grains or anything else left in reserve.  The o­nly thing left in the entire CCC inventory will be 2.7 million bushels of wheat which is about enough wheat to make ½ of a loaf of bread for each of the 300 million people in America.”” [Source]

Everyone has been pinning hopes on a big global corn harvest this year to ease the shortages. It looks like a pipe dream. From The New York Times:

In a year when global harvests need to be excellent to ease the threat of pervasive food shortages, evidence is mounting that they will be average at best. Some farmers are starting to fear disaster.

American corn and soybean farmers are suffering from too much rain, while Australian wheat farmers have been plagued by drought.

“The planting has gotten off to a poor start,” said Bill Nelson, a Wachovia grains analyst. “The anxiety level is increasing.”

Apparently vast amounts of the US crops have been destroyed by rain:

Deluges of rain that keep pounding U.S. corn-growing areas and floods that have heavily damaged the newly sown crop already are making the government’s latest dire forecast for corn output look more like an optimistic Polyanna pronouncement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Tuesday shocked the corn market, revising its forecast for national corn output down 3 percent from last month’s prediction. But experts said the picture probably will get even bleaker because the bad weather will force the USDA to lower its estimate of corn acreage in addition to the lower yields per acre that were announced on Tuesday.

With demand for corn for food and fuel forging ahead while huge corn areas remain under water even as more rainstorms loom ahead, analysts see the threat of a perfect storm. [Source]

All of this is leading to soaring food inflation even in Britain .

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A very heartening report from the UN on crime in the Balkans shows that the region is considerably safer than Western Europe, crime is falling and that the real problem – as I have long argued – is organized crime and its links to corrupt officials.

Here is the press release that accompanies the report:

29 May 2008 – The Balkan area is, surprisingly, one of the safest in Europe. The report Crime and its Impact on the Balkans by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) belies enduring stereotypes of the region as a hotbed of organized crime and violence.   People are as safe, or safer, on the streets and in their homes as they are in most parts of the world. 

Released today, the study concludes that the Balkans have become a low-crime region after the decade-long turmoil that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. But italso warns that links between business, politics and organized crime continue to hamper the region’s path to stability.

“The vicious circle of political instability leading to crime, and vice versa, that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s has been broken”, said the Executive Director of UNODC Antonio Maria Costa at the launch of the report. Yet, he warned, “the region remains vulnerable to instability caused by enduring links between business, politics and organized crime”. The report makes three main points.

A safer region 

The UNODC report shows that, in general, levels of crime against people and property (like homicide, robbery, rape, burglary, and assault) are lower than in Western Europe, and the number of murders is falling throughout the region.

In fact, regional murder rates fell by almost a half from 2185 in 1998 to 1130 in 2006.  Or consider these trends in violent crime: Albania’s 2002 murder rate of six per 100,000 was about the same as the United States while Croatia had a lower murder rate than the United Kingdom. Romania was safer than Finland or Switzerland.

If we look at property crime, Western Europe has twice the rate of burglary and fifteen times as much robbery as South-East Europe

This positive trend has been particularly noticeable in the past few years. Even the number of Balkan nationals being held in Western European prisons has gone down.

Low vulnerability to crime 

This progress is likely to continue since the region lacks the usual vulnerabilities that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty, income inequality, run-away urbanisation and large-scale youth unemployment.

Other factors also come into play. Greater regional stability and democracy have put an end to war profiteering. Assistance from the international community, particularly the European Union, has helped place the region on the path to a fast recovery. Closer integration with the rest of Europe has opened borders and reduced the lure of illicit trans-frontier trade.

Organized crime is also receding as a major threat. The smuggling of drugs, guns and human beings through the region is in decline, although the Balkans remain the premier transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe (about 100 tons each year). 

Dangerous links between business, politics and crime

The UNODC report shows that serious challenges persist, particularly due to links between business, politics and crime. “The more that social and political conditions normalize, the more stability there will be within and between countries, and the more criminal groups will lose their grip”, said Mr. Costa.

“Politics and business need to be better insulated from the corrosive influence of crime, especially economic crime”, said Mr. Costa. Victim surveys indicate that, on average, South East Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world “Corruption should be treated as public enemy number one in order to strengthen integrity and justice, and increase political legitimacy and investor confidence”.

He urged countries of the region to strengthen the rule of law, and called on the international community, particularly the European Union, to provide the support needed to further reduce vulnerability to crime and instability. He said that UNODC would increase its engagement in the region through technical assistance.

Yet, the study concludes: “Barring another major crisis, the trajectory is distinctly upwards”.

You can download the report from the UN (or if that link stops working, from me here).

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A recent Scientific American reviews of  “Rethinking Expertise” by Harry Collins and Robert Evans got me thinking about the problem of “experts” and expert advice.

From the review:

This slim book by Harry Collins and Robert Evans offers a conceptual typology of “expertises.” The au­thors invent a plural form of the word to suggest that more than one type exists. They also identify a core or central type—contributory expertise, which they define as the possession of sufficient skill and tacit knowledge to participate fully in an activity; the prototype is the ability to perform experiments in a specialized science.

…The book’s central focus is inter­actional expertise—a “parasitical” form characterized by an ability to “talk the talk” without being able to “walk the walk.”…[the Interactional Expert] has acquired an ability to discuss that subject in a way that passes for expertise, even though he is unable to perform the relevant experiments or work through the mathematics…Interactional expertise sometimes proves adequate for practical communicative purposes. In other words, it is sometimes possible to know (or at least to speak in a way that seems knowledgeable) without possessing the relevant know-how.

Taken by itself, this insight might seem unremarkable, but it does have implications for public and organizational efforts to understand, regulate and manage specialized knowledge. It also can shed light on methodological problems that sociologists and anthropologists face when they study practices with which they are initially unfamiliar.

Many modern social institutions rely on expertise, and difficulties can arise when nonexperts are charged with making important legal, political, medical or economic decisions on the basis of expert advice. Jurors, government officials, voters, consumers, patients and, at some point, all of us can be puzzled about what to think or do when faced with confusing, often contradictory, expert claims about environmental and safety hazards, climate change, healthful diets, possible remedies for disease, and many other personally and politically consequential matters.” From: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/content2/2008/4/know-how 

The review goes on to severely criticise the book, but I am intrigued that there is serious work on classifying types of experts, and I now hope, perhaps some tools and best practices being defined to help with the problem of non-experts having to made decisions based on expert advice.

This problem arises daily in the business work, typically when technical experts advise on what is and is not possible, usually in response to sales and marketing questions.

I have repeatedly witnessed technologists discouraging product development proposals or denying technological capabilities, often just because they did not approve of of the proposal or it was not easy, not because it was really undoable.

The best work around I have found so far when dealing with Geeks is to appeal to Geek pride and get fellow Geeks – often from another team or company – to demonstrate or testify that the “impossible” is in fact easy for them to do.

It is a form of Peer Review, but applied to Technical Operations. In its simplest form it is known as getting a second opinion.

Whilst you are there, you might also want to check out their review of “Objectivity” by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison.

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A recent Scientific American reviews of  “Rethinking Expertise” by Harry Collins and Robert Evans got me thinking about the problem of “experts” and expert advice.

From the review:

This slim book by Harry Collins and Robert Evans offers a conceptual typology of “expertises.” The au­thors invent a plural form of the word to suggest that more than one type exists. They also identify a core or central type—contributory expertise, which they define as the possession of sufficient skill and tacit knowledge to participate fully in an activity; the prototype is the ability to perform experiments in a specialized science.

…The book’s central focus is inter­actional expertise—a “parasitical” form characterized by an ability to “talk the talk” without being able to “walk the walk.”…[the Interactional Expert] has acquired an ability to discuss that subject in a way that passes for expertise, even though he is unable to perform the relevant experiments or work through the mathematics…Interactional expertise sometimes proves adequate for practical communicative purposes. In other words, it is sometimes possible to know (or at least to speak in a way that seems knowledgeable) without possessing the relevant know-how.

Taken by itself, this insight might seem unremarkable, but it does have implications for public and organizational efforts to understand, regulate and manage specialized knowledge. It also can shed light on methodological problems that sociologists and anthropologists face when they study practices with which they are initially unfamiliar.

Many modern social institutions rely on expertise, and difficulties can arise when nonexperts are charged with making important legal, political, medical or economic decisions on the basis of expert advice. Jurors, government officials, voters, consumers, patients and, at some point, all of us can be puzzled about what to think or do when faced with confusing, often contradictory, expert claims about environmental and safety hazards, climate change, healthful diets, possible remedies for disease, and many other personally and politically consequential matters.” From: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/content2/2008/4/know-how

The review goes on to severely criticise the book, but I am intrigued that there is serious work on classifying types of experts, and I now hope, perhaps some tools and best practices being defined to help with the problem of non-experts having to made decisions based on expert advice.

This problem arises daily in the business work, typically when technical experts advise on what is and is not possible, usually in response to sales and marketing questions.

I have repeatedly witnessed technologists discouraging product development proposals or denying technological capabilities, often just because they did not approve of of the proposal or it was not easy, not because it was really undoable.

The best work around I have found so far when dealing with Geeks is to appeal to Geek pride and get fellow Geeks – often from another team or company – to demonstrate or testify that the “impossible” is in fact easy for them to do.

It is a form of Peer Review, but applied to Technical Operations. In its simplest form it is known as getting a second opinion.

Whilst you are there, you might also want to check out their review of “Objectivity” by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison.

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A very heartening report from the UN on crime in the Balkans shows that the region is considerably safer than Western Europe, crime is falling and that the real problem – as I have long argued – is organized crime and its links to corrupt officials.

Here is the press release that accompanies the report:

29 May 2008 – The Balkan area is, surprisingly, one of the safest in Europe. The report Crime and its Impact on the Balkans by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) belies enduring stereotypes of the region as a hotbed of organized crime and violence.   People are as safe, or safer, on the streets and in their homes as they are in most parts of the world. 

Released today, the study concludes that the Balkans have become a low-crime region after the decade-long turmoil that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. But italso warns that links between business, politics and organized crime continue to hamper the region’s path to stability.

“The vicious circle of political instability leading to crime, and vice versa, that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s has been broken”, said the Executive Director of UNODC Antonio Maria Costa at the launch of the report. Yet, he warned, “the region remains vulnerable to instability caused by enduring links between business, politics and organized crime”. The report makes three main points.

A safer region 

The UNODC report shows that, in general, levels of crime against people and property (like homicide, robbery, rape, burglary, and assault) are lower than in Western Europe, and the number of murders is falling throughout the region.

In fact, regional murder rates fell by almost a half from 2185 in 1998 to 1130 in 2006.  Or consider these trends in violent crime: Albania’s 2002 murder rate of six per 100,000 was about the same as the United States while Croatia had a lower murder rate than the United Kingdom. Romania was safer than Finland or Switzerland.

If we look at property crime, Western Europe has twice the rate of burglary and fifteen times as much robbery as South-East Europe

This positive trend has been particularly noticeable in the past few years. Even the number of Balkan nationals being held in Western European prisons has gone down.

Low vulnerability to crime 

This progress is likely to continue since the region lacks the usual vulnerabilities that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty, income inequality, run-away urbanisation and large-scale youth unemployment.

Other factors also come into play. Greater regional stability and democracy have put an end to war profiteering. Assistance from the international community, particularly the European Union, has helped place the region on the path to a fast recovery. Closer integration with the rest of Europe has opened borders and reduced the lure of illicit trans-frontier trade.

Organized crime is also receding as a major threat. The smuggling of drugs, guns and human beings through the region is in decline, although the Balkans remain the premier transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe (about 100 tons each year). 

Dangerous links between business, politics and crime

The UNODC report shows that serious challenges persist, particularly due to links between business, politics and crime. “The more that social and political conditions normalize, the more stability there will be within and between countries, and the more criminal groups will lose their grip”, said Mr. Costa.

“Politics and business need to be better insulated from the corrosive influence of crime, especially economic crime”, said Mr. Costa. Victim surveys indicate that, on average, South East Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world “Corruption should be treated as public enemy number one in order to strengthen integrity and justice, and increase political legitimacy and investor confidence”.

He urged countries of the region to strengthen the rule of law, and called on the international community, particularly the European Union, to provide the support needed to further reduce vulnerability to crime and instability. He said that UNODC would increase its engagement in the region through technical assistance.

Yet, the study concludes: “Barring another major crisis, the trajectory is distinctly upwards”.

You can download the report from the UN (or if that link stops working, from me here).

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Acid cloud engulfs Belgrade

by Limbic on June 9, 2008

Last Wednesday as my cycling partner rounded 25th may sports centre on our way to our Ada circuits we both noticed a yellowish type mist hanging over the Danube near Zemun.

I remember thinking it was either smoke from a fire in Zemun or dust thrown up by a cement barge. Little did we know that it was in fact a cloud of poisonous gas from the nearby industrial hell-hole town of Pancevo, east of Belgrade. A mistake at the Azotara nitrate factory led to the release. During the bombing NATO hit the same facility causing a massive environmental crisis in 1999.

Pancevo is the most polluted place in Europe, where they actually have sirens to warn people of Pollution Alerts.

Belgrade is not much better. Atmospheric pollution, heavy metal pollution in the rivers and severe noise pollution in the city are all critical environmental issues blighting Belgrade.

The air, land and water in Serbia is full of ammonia, iron, manganese, methane, carbons and carbon dioxide, say experts.

Chemistry expert Rade Biočanin says that the causes of pollution are numerous—from local ecological disasters, to the global situation.

“We can start first and foremost with urban pollution, such as traffic, and physical pollutants, such as noise. Then production—sadly, our factories don’t work as well as they once did, so there’s less industrial pollution, but there’s waste. We need to keep an eye on that in terms of the ratio and parameters that affect us,” Biočanin explained.

The most common consequences of pollution are lung problems, allergies and a rise in malign illnesses.

Waste, whether it’s chemical or nuclear, is one of the most serious pollutants and is a problem that requires an urgent solution, thinks Miodrag Pantelić, a professor at the Technology Faculty in Čačak.

“I think we devote very little attention to this, we leave it to the next generation. They should solve the problem of nuclear waste, we’ve not done anything there. That sort of waste is harmful in terms of both bacteria and viruses, pollutes our land and water, and enters our bodies via the food chain, so that our bodies are polluted,” Pantelić said. [Source]

[From B92 – News – Society – Press: Acid poisons Belgrade air and Belgrade 2.0 ]

PS. That same day there was an attempted suicide. We cycled past people videoing the incident, but could not see what they were filming. I presumed it was the poison cloud,but it was the jumper, who thankfully did not jump.

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Acid poisons Belgrade air

by Limbic on June 9, 2008

Last Wednesday as my cycling partner rounded 25th may sports centre on our way to our Ada circuits we both noticed a yellowish type mist hanging over the Danube near Zemun.

I remember thinking it was either smoke from a fire in Zemun or dust thrown up by a cement barge. Little did we know that it was in fact a cloud of poisonous gas from the nearby industrial hell-hole town of Pancevo, east of Belgrade. A mistake at the Azotara nitrate factory led to the release. During the bombing NATO hit the same facility causing a massive environmental crisis in 1999.

Pancevo is the most polluted place in Europe, where they actually have sirens to warn people of Pollution Alerts.

Belgrade is not much better. Atmospheric pollution, heavy metal pollution in the rivers and severe noise pollution in the city are all critical environmental issues blighting Belgrade.

The air, land and water in Serbia is full of ammonia, iron, manganese, methane, carbons and carbon dioxide, say experts.

Chemistry expert Rade Biočanin says that the causes of pollution are numerous—from local ecological disasters, to the global situation.

“We can start first and foremost with urban pollution, such as traffic, and physical pollutants, such as noise. Then production—sadly, our factories don’t work as well as they once did, so there’s less industrial pollution, but there’s waste. We need to keep an eye on that in terms of the ratio and parameters that affect us,” Biočanin explained.

The most common consequences of pollution are lung problems, allergies and a rise in malign illnesses.

Waste, whether it’s chemical or nuclear, is one of the most serious pollutants and is a problem that requires an urgent solution, thinks Miodrag Pantelić, a professor at the Technology Faculty in Čačak.

“I think we devote very little attention to this, we leave it to the next generation. They should solve the problem of nuclear waste, we’ve not done anything there. That sort of waste is harmful in terms of both bacteria and viruses, pollutes our land and water, and enters our bodies via the food chain, so that our bodies are polluted,” Pantelić said. [Source]

[From B92 – News – Society – Press: Acid poisons Belgrade air and Belgrade 2.0 ]

PS. That same day there was an attempted suicide. We cycled past people videoing the incident, but could not see what they were filming. I presumed it was the poison cloud,but it was the jumper, who thankfully did not jump.

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Mark Shuttleworth’s on the ZA tech Show

by Limbic on June 9, 2008


Image via Wikipedia with thanks

I have been raving recently about a new technology podcast from South Africa that is absolutely superb, called The ZATech Show. It is one of the very few podcasts that has me actually say “yay” when I see it is updated.

I am not sure why I find it so compelling, but the format just works. A group of South African technology journalists sit around and chew the fat about tech stories from that week, but the rapport between them, informal style and the fact that these guys really know what they are talking about makes it a pleasure to listen to.

Their last show featured a surprise guest, none other than Mark Shuttleworth, first African in space and man behind the Ubuntu Linux phenomenon.

He comes across as both extremely nice and utterly brilliant. His interview is a fine way to get introduced to the ZA Techcast

Pay attention to how Mark and these other very knowledgeable men speak to each other. Their manner and vocabulary are ideal for constructive group discussion.

Mark introduced me to he term Delta, used in a specific context. I had to look up what he meant, and oddly the Microsoft Lexicon site came to the rescue:

Delta: The distance, or period of time, between where a project or item is and where it should be. Derived from the mathematical term (as opposed to river mouth, Greek alphabet, or fraternity usages) describing “an incremental change in a variable.” Used in reference to all manner of things—”testing delta,” “production delta,” or “stock delta,” defined as the difference between an employee’s “strike price” (the lowest price of MS stock during the first 30 days of the blue badger’s employment) and the current price, often a figure inspiring boisterous gloating.  [From Microsoft Lexicon A-F ]

The ZATech Show is available here: http://zatechshow.co.za/ (iTunes and other feed links at the URL)

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WASHINGTON (Associated Press) – A little strategically placed makeup quickly turns the wimpiest of male barn swallows into chick magnets, amping up their testosterone and even trimming their weight, new research shows. It’s a “clothes make the man” lesson that — with some caveats — also applies to human males, researchers say.

Using a $5.99 marker, scientists darkened the rust-colored breast feathers of male New Jersey barn swallows, turning lighter birds to the level of those naturally darkest.

They had already found, in a test three years ago, that the marked-up males were more attractive to females and mated more often. This time they found out that the more attractive appearance, at least in the bird world, triggered changes to the animals’ body chemistry, increasing testosterone.

Marked-up birds become sexier, exude testosterone – Los Angeles Times

So here we see a classic cascade: Increased attractiveness leads to organic changes that lead to even more attractiveness.

The lesson here is arrest and declines (in status or attractiveness) early and forcefully. Otherwise fake it until you make it.

The “seduction community” to their credit has been saying this for years regarding inner game. 

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