Weekly Mail

I receive regularly a lot of red hot tips from regular readers, but as the week goes on they are often buried by newer mail. Thus I will try out a weekly link compilation post. Beware that the links might show up used in a regular post later. Anonymity will be honored for those who want it.

Inside Story of the HBGary Hack

Fascinating write up of how Anonymous broke into security firm HBGary, from Ars Technica. A clearer introduction to basic computer security I have never seen. Read this and you’ll be prompted to change your passwords. Also a good plea to change to that most secure (and superior!) of operating systems, Linux.

Thanks to Eric Dailey, who was referred by cryptome.org.

House votes 244-179 to kill U.S. funding of UN IPCC

Defund IPCC ‘amendment was sponsored by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri), who read aloud on the floor from the 2009 U.S. Senate Report of more than 700 dissenting scientists! (Written by Climate Depot’s Morano) — Luetkemeyer: Americans ‘should not have to continue to foot the bill for an (IPPC) organization to keep producing corrupt findings’

Thanks to Marc Morano.

Dawkins’ Genes Encode Memes

From “gene machine” (edited for length and to restrict content to memes, our subject of last week):

Did you read the book?…

If I remember correctly, Dawkins hypothesised that other natural replicators would have a similar selection for “phenotypes” which aid their replication. The only other example he could find in the natural world were “memes”. A fair point, in that we do copy behaviors/words/ideas of other people (they are replicators) and we’re more likely to copy someone rubbing 2 sticks together if it creates something useful like fire (there is a selection of “good” ones). There are important differences too, but it is interesting to note that they are another class of natural replicator and to look at what they have in common with genes.

Up to this point, has Dawkins said anything disagreeable? This is his “bizarre thesis”.

Some of your comments:

>Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication.

You may find it trivial, and it is obvious when you think about it, but there is something that is transmitted when one copies another. If Dawkins is going to discuss this then he might as well give these replicators a name and existing words such as “ideas” don’t quite describe the more general class of replicators he is discussing. Boring? that subjective, but not incorrect.

>it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies

No, but it is possible for rubbing sticks together to be more popular than rubbing stones when there is the reward of fire. On average, most ideas should be selected to not harm their own existence such as the “jumping off the cliff meme” and to fit into the ecosystem of memes they compliment or contradict. I don’t think Dawkins, if he used the word, meant “benefit” in the way that you facetiously imply he does.

>Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes.

Yeah and people only doubt that CO2 will destroy the universe because they are evil capitalist bastards. This is not an argument, this is just an insult.

>These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.”

I’m not aware of anybody is making an argument not to punish criminals (I’m including containment, along with attempted rehabilitation in punishment here) , isn’t this just a popular parody made of people who believe in causality? Genes, cultural influences, childhood brain injuries, experiences and the current situation all play a role in how we act at any moment, are you proposing that there is a supernatural input too or that some kind of quantum dice constitutes free will? The existence of free will depends on the details of the definition used.

Anyway, Dawkins was right-on with the genetics, this is rightly the most iconic popularisation of the, sometimes under appreciated, modern synthesis. Dawkins was right to look for other replicators to see how the ideas of the book could be generalised. Memes are not a bad label for these replicators. Personally I did not take too much from the memes part of the book, other than to ponder how (other!) stupid ideas can become popular. The real meat of the book, for me, was giving a foundation for understanding animal (and human) behaviors including sex differences, cooperation and deceit.

So, do the decent thing, go read the book if you have not already, and get your apology written. If you like I will buy you a copy.

Now, now, and tsk, tsk, Mr gene machine. It is rude to suggest that I have not read Dawkins. Proof that I have is evidenced by my surly attitude whenever his name is mentioned; after effects of exposure to poor arguments. I await your apology from your ungentlemanly accusation.

And I’ll bet that you have not read (much of) Midgley and none of Stove. Tell you what. Take the money you would have donated to me (see the upper left corner of this page) and use it to buy Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. Read that with a clear eye and then report back to me.

Further, I repeat that to call “behaviors/words/ideas” “replicators” is an unnecessary complication and is false. Ideas do not replicate, people may or may not pass on ideas. To stick just with ideas, these can be passed on regardless whether they are harmful or useful to people, in any dimension, or to the ideas themselves. Take socialism. A lovely but murderous idea. Yet it survives, even as “it” kills off its hosts.


  1. I think it would be more fun to defund Dr. Hansen at NASA. Did you know that in the early 1970s Dr. Hansen worked for Dr. Rasool at Columbia and Rasool was a member of the global cooling disaster crowd? He was sure we were all going to die from global cooling. When the wheels came off that bandwagon the zealots all hopped onto the global warming bandwagon. Now that the wheels seem to be coming off that bandwagon, they are all jumping on the climate change bandwagon. You have to be intellectually agile to keep up with the latest disaster du jour.

  2. The hacking story was more breathless than breathtaking. Perhaps breathtaking only to the extent that Republican politicians get caught in sex scandals and get beaten up for being hypocrites.

  3. A meme like Christianity is successful is lots of people are Christian. People are successful if there are lots of people. A flue virus is successful if lots of people have the flu. A gene is successful is lots of species carry that gene.

  4. Sorry for the long reply, I did not have time to write something shorter.

    You recommend I read Midgley? As far as I can tell her only claim to fame is that she misunderstood The Selfish gene and wrote a rather insulting review of the book.

    Here are a couple of quotes from the first page of her article on “Gene Juggling”:

    “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.”

    “His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not self-interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculation about the emotional nature of genes.”

    I’m still not sure if she even read the same book as I did. Since you endorse her writing on Dawkins, perhaps I should take these to be your views too.

    You have criticised the concept of memes but do you think he has made significant mistakes in the other chapters? Do you consider that the ideas of Fisher, Haldane and Hamilton have been refuted or that Dawkins description of them is incorrect?

    As I said in the email I sent:

    “His definition for “selfish genes” is, roughly, genes which help produce more copies of themselves. The phenotypes of most genes will have this property, or did, on average, in the bodies of this organism’s ancestors. I do not think that you should consider this controversial. It’s very much the orthodoxy, and for good reason.

    If we want to be picky and argue words, this is not “true selfishness”. In the above paragraph I did not mean the word “help” in a literal sense either, but “help” is an apt metaphor for what I am describing and so is the selfish gene for describing the property that cause mutations to change in frequency. The book goes on to describe the implications of the calculus of genetic “self-interest” and is an excellent foundation for understanding evolutionary psychology.”

    This is what I took to be his central point and the implications of this is not that the “emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested”, it’s more the opposite; the theory lays a foundation for why emotions such as love and compassion exist, why we cooperate with non-kin, why we have an innate concept of fairness, and why ruthless selection on the genetic level DOES NOT lead exclusively to ruthless emotions and behaviors.

    Have I read more Midgely than her attacks on Dawkins? I’ve not. Every few years someone seems to resurrect the old crone to attack Dawkins once more. It’s a career I suppose.

    I’ve not read much Sloan either, as I understand it he’s big on the role of altruism in group selection. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”. Very good, but if between-group competition is part of the environment of a gene then genes will be selected to have phenotypes optimised for these conditions and this contradicts nothing of the “selfish gene”. I’ve not read of how Sloan deals with the problems of cheaters within a group, but I assume it’s nothing revolutionary. I don’t think that “everything else is commentary” either. Similar stuff to Goulds’s writings.

    I looked up a few extracts from the book you recommended, in the chapter “Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins” Sloan says “it is not really open to doubt that it was the ordinary sense of the word which, though repeatedly disavowed by the author, really ‘carried’ Dawkins’ book with his readers” and “it is the ordinary psychological sense of ‘selfish’ which gives his book its interest”. Well, not this reader, I was quite interested in the science and it was my first foray into the mathematics of evolutionary psychology. He then goes on to compliment a book with similar science in it. It seems that it’s the metaphor of the word selfish and what he thinks other people will read into it that upsets him. Good for him. He later likens the idea that genes have a strong influence on animal behavior to astrology and other “pupperty theories”and that these “deny, at least by
    implication, that human intentions, decisions, and efforts are among the causal agencies which are at work in the world.”. I did not notice Dawkins denying that these thing have effects on the world, but he would say that the minds making these decisions have been shaped by evolution.

    I think Sloan sounds a bit jealous, and maybe he is, as he fails to show how Dawkins is wrong 30 years after the book was Written. At least, like Midgely, he’s making some money off Dawkins. I hope I’ve not been too unfair on his views or taken these quotes too far out of context.

  5. Got caught reading Governor Palin’s latest book while waiting for my take-out. This frumpish woman asked what I was reading, and as I live in Oregon, I shared the cover with her. Her reaction was, “well, I don’t want to tell you what I think of that.” To which I responded, “was that based upon some sort of process or study?”

    I guess I should have also asked, “based upon what you’ve heard?” since she didn’t reply, and left.

  6. Linux is the most secure? Mine (one of them, anyway) has had more crashes and lockups than the Windows machines. Happened to my Droid, too. Besides, it’s constantly looking for affirmation and validation. Today before downloading updates it waited until I pushed the ‘OK?’ button even though I had already told it to do the download. If it were really secure, it would take charge and solve my little problem without asking.

  7. @DAV

    Crashes are not usually indicative of bad security, more likely driver problems.

    The confirmations are probably there to guard against malicious way of triggering an install. You want the apps to be able to download files but not to install new apps. So downloading and installing an app or operating system upgrade may require 2 clicks. Seems pretty reasonable considering that an update is like open heart surgery on your phone/PC.

    I feel your pain though; click, download, click, install, or click, download, leave phone, return to phone, find phone disobeying orders and idle, click install, spend quality time looking at stupid unresponsive phone.

  8. “Use Linux, it’s security is excellent” is definately the wrong message to take from this article.

    On the second server it was absolutely Linux that was compromised. The site admin seems to have had too much faith in the Linux OS to worry about every single trivial patch.

    I did not see what OS their first webserver was running, I’d assume it was Linux but this time it was the CMS to blame. It was vulnerable in 2 ways; SQL injection and unsalted md5 password encryption.

    One thing about CMS is that everyone makes mistakes; third-party, popular frameworks, and commercial offerings. Apps by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all been vulnerable to XSS and XSRF which can be just as serious as SQL injecton. That said, I’m sure this SQL injection could have been avoided with a simple tool to scan for such vulnerabilities or any 14 year old hacker. The unsalted md5 should have been uncovered in any code review and it must have seemed almost too convenient for the hackers.

  9. genemachine,

    bad security, insecurity … wish mine wouldn’t need constant attention. It’s why I like cats. They don’t require constant attention. Take care of themselves.

    Still haven’t located the source of the problem. It could be Firefox which was being used at the time in all cases. Or it could be that I’m using the version named after a hat. I think that’s the real problem. Who ever heard of Open Source with a lid on it? Some people around here like fedoras and even wear them occasionally though so I must be circumspect.

  10. @DAV

    I’ve tried to love Linux, its a beautiful system for a programmer. What stopped me is that playing a simple Flash video on youtube would not run smoothly on my install.

    On cats, if they could run LAMP/Webbrowser/Flash, had a decent text editor, and I did not have a fear of toxoplasmosis gondii, I’d seriously consider installing one.

  11. genemachine,

    I had a problem with Flash and discovered it’s their darn (to put it mildly) LSO cookie jar. Mine was write protected. Too many places are using LSOs to avoid letting them in anymore. I keep track and delete them occasionally but it’s a bloody nuisance.

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