It used to be capitalism vs. communism, free markets vs. central planning
When people talk about ideologies and political beliefs, the mind usually goes to the left/right political divide, commonly referred to as the “political spectrum“. On one side -and I’m obviously oversimplifying here for the sake of brevity- are the proponents of ideas like central planning, social welfare, big government and redistributive taxation. Names like Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Olof Palme and many others come to mind. On the other side one can find ideas like free markets (and their invisible hand), the law of supply and demand, laissez-faire, entrepreneurship and, generally speaking, as small a government as possible. People mention names like Adam Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Milton Friedman and at the extreme end, Ayn Rand.
In addition to the above, if you follow a more holistic school of thought like e.g. the political compass, you would note that there’s more to politics than the way the state handles people’s money. The social behaviours that are or are not allowed are at least as important, if not more. On one hand you have progressive, permissive societies, like Denmark or the Netherlands, and on the other conservative, authoritarian ones like China or Russia.
So clearly both the economic and the societal dimensions of politics are important. People have not only hotly debated the differences between different forms of government, they have literally given their lives for it.
Today, it’s… a bit different.
It’s not that these differences do not exist, or have been ironed out. There are still people that believe that “workers should own the means of production” (a Marxist thesis), others that “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress” (an Ayn Rand thesis) and others of course everything in between.
But everyone that takes even a casual look at talk shows, or the social networks, actually any medium that hosts public discourse will note that the lines are increasingly being drawn in a different way: those that base their opinions on reason -or at least try- and those that advance or fall prey to conspiracy theories and other instances of unfounded beliefs.
I’ve first come to this realization some months ago, when I noted that, during discussions in a social network, I kept agreeing with a left-leaning doctor while being more of a free-market person myself (though I’m nowhere near to being an Ayn Rand fan). At the same time, the doctor kept disagreeing with people that belonged to the same party -or at least were clearly left-leaning. Why? Both of us were defending government policies that, no matter how much you liked or hated the current Greek government, were based on the medical research that was available at the time. The “others” were bashing the actions of the government… because they were followers of a different political party. Whether the actions of the government were right or wrong, it simply didn’t matter. For them, the opposing party will always be wrong.
I’ve since tried to follow this a bit more closely, and by now it’s clear to me. You see distinguished members of the US Republican Party distance themselves or even denounce Donald Trump. You have virologists that present solid, peer reviewed evidence on COVID-19, and others that rely on unscientific gobbledygook, even flat-out schoolboy math errors, just so they can advance that “COVID is mostly harmless” or “it’s no worse than the flu” (which it bloody isn’t).
Are there always two sides of the story?
Look, let’s be honest here: the last man described as “universalist”, an all-knowing polymath, was Henri Poincaré, and he died more than 100 years ago. Since then, all of us have to please our trust somewhere. We have to believe that someone, in certain areas, tells the truth -and build up on that.
But reducing the matter to just “I believe A, you believe B, why is your belief better than mine?” misses a very big point. At the very minimum, there are beliefs that are validated by reality and ones that are not. To take a simple example: many of us regularly use GPS to help us drive through our city. If you believe that earth is flat, it’s… a little strange to be able use the signal from satellites, isn’t it?
So the conclusion I’ve drawn from all this is the following: sometimes I find myself agreeing with people that normally don’t share my political opinions. Conversely, I might disagree with people that do. That’s fine. At the end, we share the most important political thesis of all: there exists an objective reality and the best way to discover it is to use the scientific method. And yes, reality imposes constraints on us, often unpleasant, and until we find a way to work around them, we need to accept them.
I’m not a fan of IT hubris. I cringe -literally- when I hear stuff like “let’s fight cancer (or whatever) with scrum”. You don’t fight diseases with IT; at best, you can help.
But help can be important. One problem that IT is very well suited to solve is understanding how viruses and bacteria behave under certain circumstances. The Folding@Home project explains:
WHAT IS PROTEIN FOLDING AND HOW IS IT RELATED TO DISEASE? Proteins are necklaces of amino acids, long chain molecules. They are the basis of how biology gets things done. As enzymes, they are the driving force behind all of the biochemical reactions that make biology work. As structural elements, they are the main constituent of our bones, muscles, hair, skin and blood vessels. As antibodies, they recognize invading elements and allow the immune system to get rid of the unwanted invaders. For these reasons, scientists have sequenced the human genome – the blueprint for all of the proteins in biology – but how can we understand what these proteins do and how they work?
However, only knowing this sequence tells us little about what the protein does and how it does it. In order to carry out their function (e.g. as enzymes or antibodies), they must take on a particular shape, also known as a “fold.” Thus, proteins are truly amazing machines: before they do their work, they assemble themselves! This self-assembly is called “folding.”
WHAT HAPPENS IF PROTEINS DON’T FOLD CORRECTLY? Diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, BSE (Mad Cow disease), an inherited form of emphysema, and even many cancers are believed to result from protein misfolding. When proteins misfold, they can clump together (“aggregate”). These clumps can often gather in the brain, where they are believed to cause the symptoms of Mad Cow or Alzheimer’s disease.
The project has made it very easy for anyone to help. You just download and install their software, and your computer starts calculating, solving math problems -essentially, you’re giving your computer’s processing power when you don’t use it. You can see your -and other’s- contribution in the project stats.
Last night I helped a close friend: I successfully fought off a Facebook account takeover. It wasn’t easy. I sweated for a couple of hours until I got it done. And I even had to face a rather unsophisticated, or maybe just lazy, enemy. Here I’ll recap what happened and give some easy but effective advice that you can easily use .
As it happens with many IT professionals, I’m the go-to person for any computer related problems for family and friends.
My friend called me, frantically trying to explain that someone, using his Facebook account, was using Messenger to send personal messages to all his contacts. The message was in casual language, like you would talk to a friend, claiming that he had lost his wallet and asking if the friend has an account in a certain bank (obviously the bank had nothing to do with this). Most importantly, the message didn’t look obviously fake.
Mitigation: informing people
To avoid people actually sending money, I logged into Messenger with my friend’s credentials and started sending messages to people that were replying, concerned about what had might have happened to their friend. I opted for something short, clear and alarming: “I’VE BEEN HACKED PLEASE IGNORE IT’S A VIRUS” (yes, I know that technically speaking that’s not especially accurate)
But the enemy was active and chatting with 2-3 of the contacts. In these cases, I saw my message being deleted.
I noticed that all his messages were more or less the same; he had some kind of playbook and was copy-pasting text, maybe slightly changing the text to fit the conversation.
And in one case he came close to being victorious: before I could sent the “please ignore” message, one of the contacts sent him some bank details -not sure what exactly as the message was deleted by the enemy, presumably after copying it. The contact then saw my message and replied alarmed “I sent him, what do I do now???” to which I replied “Call your bank NOW and lock your account and credit card”. I hope that helped; I’ll definitely follow up on that.
Taking back control of the account
The enemy hadn’t changed any password, so I was able to log in. Remember that Messenger accounts are controlled in Facebook (unless you have a Messenger-only account, which was not the case here). So the first thing I checked was the active sessions in Facebook (Settings > Security and Login Settings > Where You’re Logged In). That was what I got:
Unfortunately I didn’t know at the time that you can hover over the session with the mouse and get more info, like the session’s IP address. Had I done that, we could have a chance to retaliate -like going to the police.
My friend uses an Ubuntu laptop (which I set up for him), a Windows PC at work and a Samsung mobile where he uses Facebook and Messenger through the apps. So the first 3 sessions were almost certainly the enemy. I immediately disconnected him. Then I changed the password.
But we were not out of the woods yet.
The Empire Strikes Back
After changing the password and believing that I had locked him out for good, I continuing notifying people in Messenger. But after a few minutes, I suddenly saw a fresh batch of the same message being sent. My friend has around 500 contacts (“friends”) and I suppose there’s some limitation from Messenger so the enemy wasn’t able to send his message to everyone at once.
How was this possible? I had changed the password and disconnected his sessions. I glanced at Facebook Settings (“Where You’re Logged In”) and, sure enough, new sessions of the Huawei Mate 8 were there. He couldn’t have guessed the new 18-character completely random password I had set. I tried logging into Facebook from a private browser window and I got “Wrong password”. Hmmm… the options I had from Facebook for changing a forgotten password was 1) SMS 2) email 3) recognize people in pictures. Until that point, I had used SMS. So how did he do that?
I called my friend:
Me: please tell me that you don’t have the same password in your email as in Facebook (note: his password was something like “oldman53#”) Friend: no I don’t Me: so what’s your email password? Friend: The same but without the # at the end
NICE. Well that’s really damn secure I thought to myself, though I didn’t say anything -didn’t want to castigate my beleaguered friend, I’m saving that for the weekend 🙂
So first thing, as people were already replying in Messenger and there was real danger of someone sending money, I had to stop him getting in. So I went to Facebook settings to change the email.
The thing is, with the password already changed and unknown to me, I had to reset the password first. And Facebook wouldn’t send an SMS anymore, after having used it a few times already.
Return of the Jedi
So I had to resort to face recognition. The process presented me with 3 photos at a time, for a total of 5 people, and a list of possible names from the friends list. There was the option “I don’t know”, but you could use it only twice -then you were out.
Obviously these people were unknown to me, so I had to send them through What’s App to my friend. It took us around 10 precious minutes but at the end it worked. I immediately changed the email to one that I own (and has a decent, unique password and multi-factor authentication!).
After that, I disconnected his sessions and that was the end of it, I didn’t see him again. I quickly headed over to outlook.com, where his email is hosted, changed the password there and added two factor authentication by SMS.
I anxiously kept monitoring Facebook’s sessions in case he somehow came back on one window and at the same time continued to notify the hundreds of people he had sent his message to. At the same time I tested, with a private browser window, that I even knowing the password I couldn’t login to Facebook or outlook.com without an SMS to my friend’s phone.
After around half an hour had passed, I felt the worst were behind us. I called my friend and told him to log in to Messenger and continue talking to people.
To be clear, the reason this happened was because my friend, like many, many people, had bad password hygiene. He was using relatively easy (for a machine) to guess passwords but most importantly, he was reusing passwordsbetween web sites. And web sites get passwords stolen. A lot.
What can you do to avoid this happening to you? Start from the low-hanging fruit. You get very decent security with very little effort.
So here’s a small TODO list:
UPDATE: I wrote a blog post explaining how to install and use a password manager. You can read it here.
Use random long (18 character or more) passwords. If it’s really random (e.g zGasd6t7a6tgQaERys6Ld5AoVF567) you don’t even need symbols. Don’t create them by hand, use a password generator (like this).
Use unique passwords. Every site or service you use needs to have its own. It will get stolen, eventually, but the damage will be contained to this site only. And no, oldman53 and oldman53# are NOT really different.
The two points above are basically impossible for a human to do. So you need to use a password manager. I use LastPass and I’m very happy with it. It costs around EUR 35 a year. If you want a free alternative use either Bitwarden or Firefox Lockwise.UPDATE: I’ve moved to Bitwarden Premium (just $10/year) and I’ve never been happier. I also recommend Bitwarden Free (+ Authy for 2FA) for my friends that don’t want to pay a cent.
When available, use two-factor authentication (2FA); you might also see it named as multi-factor authentication (MFA) or two-step validation (2SV, that’s what Amazon calls it). This is an absolute must. 2FA is when, in order to login to a service, you need a username, a password plus something more. Usually it’s an SMS, and that’s fine, but even better you can use an authenticator app. LastPass has its own, and its backed up in your LastPass account, but if you want a free alternative get either Authy or the one from Microsoft which is backed up in your Microsoft account. Obviously your authenticator backup needs to be well protected, so use two-factor for this as well -but a different one in case you lose access to it, so here SMS is better. UPDATE: Bitwarden Premium (not Free) can store 2FA in the same record where you store the site’s username & password. What’s really really really convenient with this is that, as soon as it fills in the password, it auto-copies the 2FA token to the clipboard, saving you the hassle. It doesn’t sound much but if you login to many different sites every day (as I do), you’ll love it.
How much effort is this?
I did this with my friend so I got a taste. Note that I’m in Switzerland and he’s in Greece, so he did the whole process with me giving instructions on the phone -which slowed us down considerably. But on the other hand I knew what had to be done, while less experienced users might be not so comfortable when doing this for the first time. We used Bitwarden + Authy.
It took us around 90 min to set up Bitwarden and Authy, and then add all his passwords there. We set it up on his laptop and two mobile phones.
It took another hour to change the password for the most important services (Gmail, Outlook.com, Paypal and Facebook) and to set up two-factor authentication.
Add to that another 45 minutes of training, for him to learn to use a password generator, the password manager and 2FA. Basically how to use really long and random passwords when signing up to web sites, how to save the passwords in Bitwarden, how to log in from the laptop or phone without having to type the password and how to add 2FA (where available) in Authy.
So that was, what, almost three and a half hours in total. It’s not trivial. But trust me, if you find yourself in his shoes you’ll wish you had done it already. It’s time well spent 🙂
Είμαι σε διακοπές, και όπου βρεθώ μια αγαπημένη συνήθεια είναι η επίσκεψη στο τοπικό βιβλιοπωλείο. Πάνω πάνω στα ευπώλητα ήταν το “Η τελευταία μπλόφα” της Ε. Βαρβιτσιώτη και Β. Δενδρινού. Το ειχα δει και τρέντινγκ στα σόσιαλ, ε το πήρα.
Το ρούφηξα σε λιγότερο από 24 ώρες. Και δεν είναι τόσο καλό όσο λένε, είναι ακόμηκαλύτερο.
Παρότι ήξερα την ιστορία, σε ικανοποιητικό βαθμό, ως οικονομική και πολιτική, το βιβλίο την εξιστορεί από την προσωπική ματιά των πρωταγωνιστών. Αποτυπώνονται στιγμές που, για προφανείς λόγους, δεν είδαν το φως της δημοσιότητας όπως σύμβουλοι να απελπίζονται, πρωθυπουργοί να κοιμούνται σε καναπέδες, ο Ρέντσι να βάζει τις φωνές στη Μέρκελ και ο Ολάντ να πηδάει μπαλκόνια (!)
Αλλά δεν είναι κουτσομπολίστικο βιβλίο. Ίσα ίσα που δίνει την πίεση που είχαν όλοι -ή σχεδόν όλοι- να βρουν μια λύση σε μια κατάσταση που χάρη στην καταστροφική ανωριμότητα της τότε ελληνικής κυβέρνησης πήγε από το κακό στο χειρότερο σε χρόνο μηδέν.
Καταγραφω 2-3 σκέψεις, ιδέες και απορίες που έχω, τόσο για την ιστορία όσο και για το βιβλίο:
Η πρώτη και σίγουρα η σημαντικότερη: φαίνεται στο βιβλίο, αλλα ήταν και προφανές σε όσους παρακολουθήσαμε(*) αυτή την ιστορία, από τις αρχές μέχρι το φθινόπωρο του 2015, ότι η συμπεριφορά των εταίρων της Ελλάδας (χώρες ΕΕ, ΕΚΤ, ΔΝΤ κλπ.) ήταν πολύ ελαστικότερη προς την νέα τότε κυβέρνηση (ΣΥΡΙΖΑ-ΑΝΕΛ) παρά προς τις προηγούμενες (ΠΑΣΟΚ & ΝΔ-ΠΑΣΟΚ-ΔΗΜΑΡ). Κι αυτό όχι μόνο στην αρχή αλλά ακόμα και αργότερα, όταν είχε ήδη φανεί καθαρά ότι οι περισσότεροι άνθρωποι της νέας κυβέρνησης ήταν ιδεοληπτικοί, ανίκανοι για οποιαδήποτε σοβαρή εργασία τέτοιου μεγέθους και πολυπλοκότητας.
Το βιβλίο δεν δίνει κάποια απάντηση. Σε κάποια σημεία μόνο διαφαίνεται, αν το ερμηνεύω σωστά, ότι με τις προηγούμενες κυβερνήσεις οι εταίροι είχαν αφενός μπουχτίσει με την απροθυμία τους να κάνουν τις επώδυνες αλλά αναγκαίες μεταρρυθμίσεις και αφετέρου τις θεωρούσαν -σωστά- υπεύθυνες για το χάλι της χώρας. Αν ισχύει αυτό, είναι στην ουσία παρόμοια λογική με το “τους είδαμε τους παλιούς, ας δοκιμάσουμε κάτι καινούριο” που έλεγαν αρκετοί πολίτες πριν τις εκλογές του 2015(**).
Η δεύτερη είναι οτι πρέπει να θυμόμαστε, όσοι δεν ασχολούμαστε ενεργά με την πολιτική, ότι η πολιτική κρίνεται από τα αποτελέσματά, όχι από τα λόγια. Είναι χαρακτηριστική η εικόνα της Μέρκελ που επισκέπτεται την Ελλάδα προ των εκλογών του 2015, βλέπει τα συνθήματα (“go back” κλπ) και, μετά τις εκλογές, δεν έχει κανένα πρόβλημα να συνεργαστεί με τους ίδιους που την καθύβριζαν.
Και η τρίτη, για το βιβλίο: θα ήταν χρήσιμο, σε κάποια επανέκδοση ίσως, να μπει ένα timeline, μια χρονική γραμμή που να δείχνει την αλληλουχία των γεγονότων. Ίσως ακόμα και δυο: μια από το 2009 ως το τέλος του 2015, που να δείχνει τα μείζονα γεγονότα (εκλογές 2009, Καστελόριζο, μνημόνιο 1, κυβέρνηση Παπαδήμου κλπ) και μια να κάνει ζουμ από την αρχή του 2015 ως το φθινόπωρο, με τα πάμπολλα Eurogroup, τα capital controls κλπ.
(*) την ελληνική κρίση την έζησα “άμεσα”, ζούσα και εργαζόμουν δηλαδή στην Ελλάδα, μέχρι την άνοιξη του 2012. Ήδη στα τέλη του 2011 είχα αποφασίσει ότι το ρίσκο για μένα, είτε λόγω grexit είτε πολύ απλά ότι μπορεί να έμενα άνεργος λόγω ύφεσης, ήταν πολύ υψηλό. Έτσι τον Φεβρουάριο του 2012 ξεκίνησα να ψάχνω για δουλειά στο εξωτερικό, και τέλη Απρίλη έμπαινα σε μια γκαρσονιέρα της Ζυρίχης. Από το φθινόπωρο 2012 και πέρα, παρότι φυσικά παρακολουθούσα τα πάντα με λεπτομέρεια, οι εξελίξεις δεν είχαν πάνω μου τις άμεσες συνέπειες που είχαν για τους φίλους μου -όσους δεν είχαν ήδη βγαλει εισητήριο χωρίς επιστροφή.
(**) το κυριότερο επιχείρημα όλων όσων τους έλεγα ότι οι ισχυρισμοί ΣΥΡΙΖΑ ήταν ανεδαφικοί (“θα καταργήσω τα μνημόνια μ’ένα νόμο κι ένα άρθρο” και άλλα ανεκδιήγητα), παρότι το καταλάβαιναν και το δεχόταν, ήταν “έστω και τα μισά από αυτά που υπόσχεται να κάνει, πάλι καλά θα είναι”. Αυτό… όπως είδαμε όλοι, δεν πήγε και πολύ καλά.
Hoaxes, myths, fake news. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which is mildly unlikely given you’re reading a blog right now) you’ve encountered at least one, probably many. Is fluoridated water a plan to impose a communist government in the US? (no). Do airplanes spray us with chemicals to make us obedient? (no). Are the members of the UK Royal Family lizards? (no). Do vaccines cause autism? (hell no).
Over the years, the issue has gotten me both fascinated and to the brink of despair. I’m genuinely fascinated in the way people think –or, as is unfortunately often the case, don’t. And I frequently despair when witnessing how easy it is for people, even ones that I think very highly of, to fall victims to the stupidest of conspiracy theories.
Hard as I try, I’m not immune to this myself –why would I? As a recent example, when reading that “people who curse are smarter” (yes I’m painfully aware of the irony) I immediately fell for it. It was only later that I found out that this is an existing but brutally misrepresented piece of research [link, in Greek].
Many times, when discussing with friends or family, I’ve heard yet another hoax, myth or conspiracy theory. I have then tried, and completely failed, to make my friend or relative aware of the misinformation or fallacy; and not for a lack of well-founded arguments. So I started looking for a way to effectively communicate science and, ultimately, truth.
That’s how I found the Debunking Handbook and skepticalscience.com. Upon reading it, in English, I immediately knew that that’s what I was looking for. The decision to help this effort by translating the handbook in Greek was almost a no-brainer.
That’s a piece of news, tweeted by a random guy, that went viral. It’s false, but it didn’t matter at all.
Note that this is NOT a typical fake news case. The “guilty” guy -the one who tweeted the wrong info- actually did some effort to verify if his claim was true. Not that much; but this is totally understandable given that he had, like, 40 followers (basically his friends). And when his tweet went viral and was shared 100s of 1000s of times, he tried to find the truth. When he did, he admitted it, deleted the original tweet and posted the fact that it was false.
It didn’t matter.
It immediately became, and still is, “proof” for a lot of people, asserting a fact that never happened.
I’m becoming increasingly desperate. There really doesn’t look any way out of this mess. People will believe anything if they want to believe it. And through the internet, it’s all too easy to find it. True or not; it doesn’t matter.
Yesterday (Mon 16-May-2016) a court in northern Greece convicted, for the first time, a journalist/blogger for spreading a hoax.
A hoax is a piece of fake and (usually) emotionally charged news item. The usual drivers behind this is “like farming” (earning a small amount of money for every ‘click’ via Google ads) and selling bogus “health” products on the side. It’s very common for hoaxes to go hand in hand with conspiracy theories, like “chemtrails” (“we are being spreyed with chemicals from airplanes!”) or, as in this case, “harmful vaccines” (“vaccines cause autism”, “pharma companies spread cancer through vaccines!”).
Until now, the economics were firmly on the side of the scammers propagating the hoaxes: there was only profit to make, no real cost and, more importantly, no risk. So they would (and are) spreading whatever b*****t they can think of, with no or fake proof but lots of emotional content (“cancer to children!!!”) and pocket the profits.
The hoax of this specific case was titled “Shock: See how companies are spreading cancer through a vaccine”. It was about a girl which is not named other than by first name who supposedly received the MMR vaccine and then died from a brain tumor.
The story is full of sh*t. It was very well researched here.
This conviction is the only one I’m aware of globally (I do hope there are more, but I haven’t heard of any). And it may be, however slowly, a turning of the tide. Organized society needs to fight against this, and such cases are long overdue.
Ακόμα και σε ένα έγκριτο μέσο, όπως η Ναυτεμπορική, βρίσκεται που και που δημοσιογράφος να γράφει για θέμα με το οποίο η σχέση του είναι… πλατωνική:
“Λαμβάνοντας υπ’ όψιν τις οικονομικές και γεωπολιτικές εξελίξεις, και έχοντας επίγνωση των νέων μέτρων νομισματικής στήριξης και του «πακτωλού» ρευστότητας που προετοίμαζε η ΕΚΤ -πρόγραμμα ενός τρισ. ευρώ- η ελβετική κεντρική τράπεζα προτίμησε την τακτική της υποχώρησης στον συναλλαγματικό πόλεμο που είχε ξεσπάσει τότε, αντί την τακτική της άμυνας, γνωρίζοντας πολύ καλά ότι η υπεράσπιση του ανώτατου ορίου με αλλεπάλληλες παρεμβάσεις θα οδηγούσε με μαθηματική ακρίβεια στην «εξαφάνιση» των συναλλαγματικών της διαθεσίμων.”
Απλή λογική: όταν μια κεντρική τράπεζα θέλεις να στηρίξει (ανεβάσει) την τιμή του νομίσματος, αγοράζει το νόμισμα ξοδεύοντας συνάλλαγμα –συνήθως δολλάρια. Έτσι τα αποθέματα μπορεί να τελειώσουν κάποια στιγμή. Όταν όμως θέλει να ρίξει την τιμή, όπως η ελβετική κεντρική τράπεζα, τότε “τυπώνει” (στην πραγματικότητα πιστώνει ηλεκτρονικά λογαριασμούς τραπέζης) το δικό της νόμισμα. Και αυτό δεν “τελειώνει” ποτέ.
Αυτό δεν σημαίνει ότι η ενέργεια αυτή δεν έχει προβλήματα (όπως εξηγούν οι FT) ή ότι μπορεί να συνεχίζεται επ’ άπειρον. Αλλά οπωσδήποτε δεν θα “εξαφανιστούν τα συναλλαγματικά αποθέματα”, όπως διατείνεται ο συντάκτης της Ναυτεμπορικής.
Software, Greece, Switzerland. And coffee. LOTS of coffee !