NIST hash competition

Several times, the American government has held open competitions to create new cryptographic standards. Important examples include the Data Encryption Standard (DES) selected in 1976 and the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) chosen in 2001. As mentioned before, the hunt is now on for a new hash function. These are one-way forms of encryption that play a number of vital roles, such as making it possible to save only encrypted versions of passwords in password databases that might be compromised.

Bruce Schneier, who made an unsuccessful bid for his TwoFish cipher to be accepted as the AES, is now part of the team that has created the Skein Hash Function for the ongoing National Institute of Standards and Technology competition. The function is based around a successor to TwoFish called, unsurprisingly, Threefish. All entries must be submitted by tomorrow and will be publicly scrutinized over the next four years or so. The result should be a more secure successor to the SHA hash functions.

Pick your poison: nuclear or ‘clean coal’

One issue raised at the conference I recently attended was this: both Ontario and Germany are in the position where they want to phase out coal-fired power plants. In addition, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power, whereas Ontario is strongly considering maintaining and expanding existing facilities. In order to phase out nuclear without continuing to rely on dirty coal, one presenter asserted that carbon capture and storage (CCS) on coal plants is the only feasible and politically acceptable option.

Assuming for the moment that maintaining adequate energy supplies in the near-term requires one or the other, which is the more suitable choice? With nuclear, the risks are largely known and the biggest uncertainties relate to costs. With CCS, there are huge uncertainties about cost, alongside big uncertainties about safety, scale, and feasibility. The worst you get with nuclear is a lot of wasted taxpayer money, more nuclear proliferation, contaminated sites, and some accidents. The worst you get by relying on CCS is wasted money, accidents, proliferation of coal plants, and the extension of the high-carbon phase in whatever countries bet wrongly that it will work.

To me, if the choice is exclusively between nuclear fission and CCS right now, it seems that nuclear is the most risk-averse option. That being said, the calculation may change a great deal when you factor in opportunities for conserving power, using it more efficiently, and generating it using renewables. That won’t make CCS more attractive, relative to nuclear, but it may mean we are presented with a less stark choice than was assumed at the outset of this discussion.

Defending the Netherlands from flooding

Among rich states, none is more threatened by sea level rise than the Netherlands. Their plans are reflective of this. Following the terrible flood of 1953, they began their Delta Works scheme for protection against storms. Now, they are contemplating how to modify that system to deal with at least 200 years of rising sea levels.

As such, they are planning to deal with 0.5 to 1 metre of sea level rise by 2100, and by 2 to 4 metres by 2200. The scheme to deal with this is expected to cost 1.2 to 1.6 billion Euros a year, between now and 2050. One can only speculate about the human and material costs of extending such defences to all the areas around the world that would be affected by such climatic changes.

Insurance, liability, and climate change adaptation

Yesterday, I saw a fascinating presentation by Dianne Saxe: a lawyer who explained the legal liabilities that could arise as the result of climate change. The particular focus was on the government, and ways in which failure to effectively adapt to climate change could produce a legal risk. For instance, the government might be sued for failing to establish building standards that reflect our understanding that extreme weather events will get worse.

Legal liability and insurance are definitely very important elements of the climate change problem. Insurance companies probably have the most reason of anyone to get the most accurate and precise estimates about the various future impacts of climate change. In a world where mitigation does not occur rapidly enough, they will certainly find themselves with a lot of extreme new risks threatening their profitability: especially given how many of the probable impacts of climate change are included in existing property insurance. Climatic change that produces more intense windstorms is a major issue for you if you insure millions of houses and your policies include coverage for wind damage.

Arguably, the insurance industry and society-wide concerns about liability could be a good motivating force for making society more resilient to climate change. That is especially true when there is an opportunity to create price incentives: charging more (or refusing to offer coverage) for houses in hurricane zones, offering reduced premiums for houses built to withstand projected changes, and so forth. Of course, lots of ethical issues arise in connection with the governmental role. Sometimes, it is quite legitimate for government to step in and mandate that insurance be provided to a certain group, or for a reasonable price. At other times, such interventions undermine the ability of insurers to encourage sensible behaviour.

It will be a very interesting area to watch: both in terms of the commercial decisions taken by insurance companies and in relation to court cases and new precedents that arise.

Ethical meat

Many times before, I have written about the ethics of meat consumption. Critical issues include the health and environmental impacts of factory farming, greenhouse gas emissions, and the perverse ways in which animals are made to live contrary to their natures. All that being said, I think it is actually more ethical to spend the time and money to seek out ethical meat, rather than simply choosing not to eat it at all.

Agriculture is an industry in which a whole range of choices exist: from the solar-powered grass-based agriculture so well advocated by Michael Pollan to the hydrocarbon-fueled and unsustainable forms that dominate in most of the world today. While choosing vegetarianism means taking a stance against the former, it seems likely to be more positive overall to provide active support to a positive alternative. The pike Emily and I enjoyed while canoe camping partially embodied this approach – though there is a difference between seeking ethical self-sufficiency and trying to help the emergence of ethical industries.

Do readers agree? Does anyone have experience trying to acquire ethical meat in Ottawa?

Feynman on bad science

A serious section concludes Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, in which he denounces various forms of bad science. He talks about the pseudoscience of UFOs and reflexology, but also about problems with the work done by credible scientists, such as the bias towards publishing positive results and ignoring negative or inconclusive ones. He raises issues about the quality of school textbooks and the ethics of those who publish and select them. He stresses the importance of retesting your assumptions, properly calibrating new equipment, and providing detailed information on the sources of error you think exist within your experiments. He also provides an important example of scientists fudging their numbers so as not to contradict a famous result.

At the very end, he gives some advice to those who are called upon to provide scientific advice to governments:

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

It is a warning that is especially pertinent today – particularly where science and politics collide in relation to environmental issues. The temptation to manipulate the science can be extreme. At the same time, the importance of transmitting scientific conclusions in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible is considerable. Maintaining scientific integrity while also providing accurate and applicable advice is a key ethical and professional requirement for today’s scientists, as well as those on the political and bureaucratic side who work with them.

Three more days in the big T

Until Wednesday evening, I will be in Toronto for a conference. Does anybody know about any interesting plays, shows, art exhibitions, and so forth that are ongoing in the city now or happening during that timespan? Options that are inexpensive and unusual would be preferred.

My days will be full, but the evenings are pretty much completely free. Photos from the expedition will emerge when next I can bring my camera and my main computer into contact with one another.

Environmental ‘extremism’

Sometimes, living up to one’s ideals requires becoming an extremist. That is to say, speaking and acting in a manner very different from what is normal within the population. Not doing so risks being a hypocrite, since you would be telling others to take actions that you are personally unwilling to take. At the same time, the connotation of ‘extremist’ is almost entirely negative. People have a general feeling that there is an acceptable range of thoughts and behaviour and that those on or beyond the edges are dangerous.

Consider the issue of Al Gore’s (non) vegetarianism. He has resisted calls to follow the actions of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pauchauri and renounce meat, as a means of reducing carbon emissions. At the same time, he is calling for people to make large lifestyle changes for the sake of the planet. Not going vegetarian leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy, even from those who oppose his position on what should be done about climate change. At the same time, choosing lifestyle options like vegetarianism risks getting him branded as an ‘environmental extremist’ by the political mainstream. Environmentalists who have been calling for the issue of climate change to be pan-ideological would likely regret seeing him thus marginalized.

There are generally good reasons to feel nervous about thinking or acting far outside the mainstream. In many cases, it suggests that you have made a serious error in your thinking. That being said, it must be acknowledged that there are situations when mainstream thinking is based upon serious errors of information, judgment, or understanding. In these cases, one is presented with the challenging question of whether it is best to be principled yet easy to ignore or more influential and somewhat hypocritical.