Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Ukrainians From ZRus Who 'Read' My Blog

If you are a fellow user of Blogger or a similar platform, then you have probably noticed that you get a significant amount of traffic from websites in Ukraine or Russia, many with the specific domain name zrus.org.  You're probably curious about who these Ukrainians linking to your blog might be.  You may even be a little bit flattered that your tiny blog is getting international recognition.

Don't get excited, and whatever you do, do NOT click any link to these websites.  This is a well-known scourge on the blogger community, and clicking the links could infect your computer with malware.

These sites are a malicious scam.  Let me explain how this scam works.

In your Blogger dashboard, under the "stats" tab, you can see a list of referring traffic.  This might be from twitter, facebook, reddit, other blogs, maybe even news publications depending on how popular your site is.  It will also show a number of hits from each source.

Most bloggers on Google's service use this built-in feature to check their blog's traffic - sometimes obsessively.  When you see someone linking to your blog, you want to know why.  You want to click the link there to see what they may have said about your blog post.  And the scammers know this.

They create a webpage, and from that page they generate re-directions to your blog. This is done with computers, and does not mean any actual person in Ukraine ever saw your blog.  I've noticed sites like zrus.com and the rest of the Russian cottage-industry of reverse-traffic scamming like to use exactly three page views.  Some days, I have a long list of zrus.com sites, each with exactly three pageviews.  (After this post they may change the number to obscure themselves.)

I'v never clicked any of these links, and neither should you.  Here's why.

When you click the link, you will be redirected to a page that is an advertisement (usually for pornography).  The page also usually contains malware such as trojans or worms that will embed in your computer if you aren't careful.  Nowhere on the website will there be any mention of your blog post, or any link to it, or any people commenting or discussing what you said.

It's just an advertisement with some malware attached.

This is an old scam.  Before zrus.org, the leader was vampirestat.com, which thankfully has been staked to death.  They then spawned a number of others, such as zombiestat, uglystat, mobsterstat, etc.  It was exceedingly frustrating, and many bloggers (myself included) complained loudly to Google for continuing to show these malicious links in our stats menu.

Eventually, Google fixed the problem.  I don't know if they blocked those sites from trafficking their users' blogs, or if they just stopped showing the links in their users' stats pages, but eventually the scourge of vampirestate went away.

However, in the past year, I've been seeing it return (with new domain names), and it's just as annoying as always.

The problem continues to spread because people continue to click on the pages.  Unless you have admin control over your server and domain, there's not much you can do to stop them from creating malicious traffic to your blog.  So here are some things you can do:

1. NEVER, EVER CLICK THEM!!!  This is the most important thing I can say.  For one, for the health of your computer.  For two, because this only works because people keep clicking the links in their stats page.  If we stop clicking the links, this technique will become less successfuly and thus less common (like Nigerian princes, it will probably never truly go away).

2. Always search for unknown domain names before clicking any link in your stats page.  Because of my blogs one (1) popular post, I sometimes get traffic from strange places I've never heard of before.  I never, ever click the link in my stats page, and instead look up the domain first to be sure this is an actual website and not scammers in Ukraine.  If the search shows nothing but whois requests or visitor reports or the domain itself entirely in Russian, then you can bet the ranch you aren't getting legitimate traffic from them.  DO NOT CLICK THESE LINKS even in your search results.  Don't click so-called traffic verifiers about these links either.

If you can't tell what these referring sites are from a quick Google search, then there is no reason to open them at all.

As an example, here is what my traffic looks like at the time of writing:

You see some zrus.org sites on there.  Those are entirely malware reverse-traffic scams.  An internet search for zrus.org will show only the main domain, and lots of lists of referral traffic on other websites or sites claiming to tell you who zrus.org is (don't click those either).  However, also in thus result is Yandex, which is Russian language, but a search of Yandex will show you a nice Wikipedia page explaining that Yandex is a search engine -- basically the Russian Google.  That's a legit hit (though there still isn't any reason to click it).

You'll also see some legitimate traffic there, such as google, facebook stumbleupon, the Brazillian-language blog  showdomedo.blogspot.com.br, as well as strangerdimensions.com.  For both of those last two sites, I actually verified through a search beforehand that they were legitimately citing my blog before I ever clicked on them (and they are, and are both neat sites -- if you like science fiction or multiverse ponderings, check em out!).  [Edit: I unlinked the links to there when I realized it would show up in their reports as referral traffic when it wasn't really relevant, but do check them out]

The point is that not every unknown source of traffic is bad, but some of them are, so you should verify first before clicking a link.

Here's another list for completeness:
 

You see another zrus.org site, but also some weirder ones, like wttavern.com and your-bearings.com. Both of these are reverse-traffic scams, though perhaps more benign ones.  For instance, your-bearings is apparently some kind of store for bearings, and there's no reason for them to be linking to a blog about fantasy and science.  These may be part of a traffic-direction campaign -- don't click on those sites either, since it only encourages them.

(Side note: I also see half a Google search result, and it's so frustrating these get cut off.  I have had some very intriguing things show up there before.)

3. This problem is not Google's fault, and they can't stop it, but they can take steps to mitigate its effect on their users.  Report the sites as malicious and ask if they can be removed from your blog's stats reports.  They were able to shut down vampirestats somehow, so they should be able to stop ZRus.

Short story is, ZRus.org is a reverse-traffic scam site, they are not actually visiting your blog, you should not give them the satisfication of ever clicking on them, and they may infect your computer with malware.  Further, some companies (perhaps unknowingly) hire traffic campaigns that end up using the same reverse-traffic scam to generate webviews for obscure commercial sites, so be sure to verify any new pages you see in your traffic results before ever clicking them.

A good rule of thumb may be -- just don't click links in your stats page, and go to the source from a search engine instead if you want to see why you're linked.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why does so much time pass in Interstellar?

While on a quest to save the human race, astronauts in the film Interstellar travel to a foreign planet orbiting closely around a supermassive black hole.  Due to the strong gravity, time on the planet is distorted, being artificially compressed.  Seven entire years here on Earth are squeezed down to just one hour of time on the planet.

This is one of the many bizarre effects of Einstein's general theory of relativity, referred to as gravitational time dilation.  I had some students from my physics class recently ask me to explain this phenomenon.  So I prepared what I think is a fairly straightforward explanation of the phenomenon, assuming only a knowledge of 1st semester physics and some simple calculus.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Past Two Years of My Life

I was looking just now, and realized it's been two years since my last update.

This blog is kind of a weird thing. It started as a way for me to vent my thoughts on fantasy and science fiction books, then got kind of science-y. At one point I had a spike on my post about the vampire movie Let Me In.  Then I had that viral Berenst#in Bears post that got passed around the web a lot, inspiring lots of kookiness. I was getting lots of traffic for a while -- until Vice basically rewrote my same idea but on their own website with their names attached.

Since then my traffic has slowly dwindled down to numbers that actually make sense for what my blog is.

Really, what gets me isn't that another site gets my traffic, but that in all the traffic that I got, almost none of them read what I think are some of my coolest posts -- the stuff about using Gauss' Law to calculate the width of Narnia, or using volume contracting spacetimes to travel to other dimensions, or why everything cool in physics is impossible, or how time travel is understood to work within physics.

I haven't posted much (anything) since things sort of died down. I still check in frequently, but never find the impetus to start to writing. Maybe it's the weight of former glory intimidating me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Effective Mandela Theory


There are at least hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of people around the world who were shocked to hear that Nelson Mandela died recently.  Their shock wasn't that a world-famous civil rights advocate had passed away.  They were shocked because they thought
the man had died thirty years ago!

According to an impressively large number of people, Nelson Mandela originally died back in the 80s when he was in prison.  They remember seeing it on the news and hearing about riots that broke out all across South Africa.  It's a very specific memory, and a lot of people share it.  It didn't happen (apparently, anyway), but thousands and thousands of people insist on remembering Mandela's death in prison and the resultant riots, and their accounts are fairly uniform (as uniform as memories ever are, anyway).

Now, people misremember things all the time.  And usually, people can be pretty stubborn about what they remember, especially when it's two memories against each other.  But when presented with something like every single newspaper ever printed that contradicts their claims, most people relent and admit that they're wrong.  With Nelson Mandela's death, the people who swear he died earlier believe this memory so strongly that they will not let go of it, despite being contradicted by every relevant fact in existence.  It isn't because they're just that stubborn, or that stupid.  The memory has a certain quality to it.  For whatever reason, their brain refuses to discard it.

This sort of phenomenon has become known (for better or worse) as the Mandela Effect.  It is when a large number of people share and insist on a fairly cohesive counterfactual memory.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The fallacy of 'billions of billions', or: Why popular arguments that aliens must exist are bogus.

The universe is an awfully big place.  Granted, most of it is empty space.  But within that empty space, there are trillions of stars.  Maybe more.  At least some of those stars have planets around them, and some of those planets are the kind that could give rise to life.  That's still hundreds of billions (at least) of planets that can support life out there.  And so, the popular argument goes, even if the odds of life arising on another planet are very small, there are so many planets that it is bound to happen.  Thus, there almost certainly exist extraterrestrial life forms.  It isn't a matter of if, but of when we find them.

Here's a video of Dr. Carl Sagan presenting a more sophisticated version of this (with actual numbers) to estimate the number of inhabited planets in our galaxy.  Or try this worksheet on the Drake Equation on the BBC website.

It's a common argument.  And it sounds pretty convincing.  If you keep trying over and over, even though something is unlikely, eventually you will succeed.

It's common and convincing, but it's also fallacious.  Here's the problem: How many times do we have to try before we're guaranteed to succeed?

The mathematical answer is infinitely many times.

But that's to guarantee we succeed, with 100% probability.  So a better question might be: what happens to the probability of success as we keep trying?

Let the probability of a success be very low, set to $10^{-X}$, where $X$ is some large number.  This makes $10^{-X}$ a very small number.  Then let the number trials be $10^{Y}$, where $Y$ is some large number.  This makes $10^{Y}$ a very large number.  Now we define a quantity $P_0$, which is the probability of never succeeding, even after $10^Y$ trials.  (If you can't see my math, check your browser's plugin settings)


Assuming whether we succeed or not on a given trial is a simple coin flip with probability $10^{-X}$ of success, then the probability of failure in a single trial is $(1-10^{-X})$.  The probability of never succeeding after $10^{Y}$ trials is just the product
$$P_0 = \left(1-\frac{1}{10^{X}}\right)^{10^Y}.$$

We have said that $X$ is large.  Maybe you remember from algebra learning the formula for continuously compounded interest, where you ended up with an exponential, like so:
$$e^{x} = \lim_{n\rightarrow \infty} \left(1 + \frac{x}{n}\right)^n.$$

Well, in our case, if $X$ is large, then $10^{X}$  is really large, and
$$\left(1 + \frac{-1}{10^{X}}\right)^{10^X} \approx e^{-1} \approx 0.36788$$

If we re-write our expression for $P_0$, then, we find
$$P_0 = \left(1-\frac{1}{10^{X}}\right)^{10^{X + Y-X}} = \left[\left(1+\frac{-1}{10^{X}} \right)^{10^X}\right]^{10^{Y-X}} \approx = \left[e^{-1}\right]^{10^{Y-X}} = e^{-10^{Y-X}}.$$

Now, $e^{-1} \approx 0.36788$ is less than one, so squaring it or tripling it will make it even smaller.  However, taking the square root of it will make it larger.  The resolution comes down to: how does $X$ compare to $Y$?

Consider a simple case, where $X=Y$.  Then $10^{Y-X} = 10^0 = 1.$  So $P_0=e^{-1} = 0.36788.$  That is, there is only about a 37% chance of there being no successes, or in other words, there is a 63% chance of a success happening at some point.  It's not a guarantee, but it's more likely than not.

Now suppose that $Y = X+1$.  This means that we do ten times as many trials as our inverse probability; if the probability is a 1/10, do 100 trials, if the probability is 1/2, do 20 trials, etc.  Then $10^{Y-X} = 10^{1}= 10$, so $P = e^{-10} = 0.0000454$.  That is, the probability of success is 99.995%.  As we increase $Y$, this probability gets even closer to 100%.  Success is all-but guaranteed.

However, now suppose that $Y = X-1$.  This means that we only do a tenth as many as the inverse probability; if the probability is 1/10, do 1 trial.  If the probability is 1/20, do 2 trials, etc.  Then $10^{Y-X} = 10^{-1} = 0.1$, so $P_0 = e^{-0.1} = 0.9048.$  That is, the probability of success is down to a measly 9.516%.  As we increase $X$, this number gets even closer to 0%.

As we can see, our confidence of success depends drastically on the value of $Y-X$.  Even slight differences here can mean huge changes in the probability of success, $P_{\geq1} = 1-P_0$.

Simple graph showing the steep rise from 0 to 1 in the probability of success.


What this comes down to is whether $X$ is greater than or less than $Y$.  Put differently, does the probability of a single success compare to the number of trials?  Or put in terms of aliens, is the number of planets out there that can give rise to life close to the inverse of the probability of life actually arising?

And the answer is: no one knows!

We do not know how many planets there are.  If we estimate this as $N_p = 10^Y$, then $Y$ might be off by 2 or 3 in either direction.  There might be a thousand times as many as we think now, or there might be only a hundredth of our current guess.  As we just saw, for a fixed $X$, changing $Y$ even by 1 can drastically affect our confidence of extraterrestrial life existing.

Way more crucially, we have no idea how likely it is for life to occur on a planet that can give rise to life.  Think about this.  We have only ever observed life arising on a planet once.  This means that we don't have a very good definition of a planet where life can arise (see above), but it also means that we have a single data point upon which to base a probability.  If I were a pollster, and I went out on the street and asked a single person who they were voting for, and from that concluded that 54\% of voters supported the candidate, you would rightly question my methodology.  If we estimate this probability of life arising on a planet as $p_L = 10^{-X}$, then we don't even know what $X$ is.

Since we do not know what $X$ is, then we don't know what $P_{\geq 1}$ is.  This is a simple model, but it makes its point: Even small differences between $Y$ and $X$ can lead to very different predictions.

Consider again what it would mean for $Y=X-1$.  Take $10^Y$ to be the total number of planets what ever exist or will exist in our universe's lifetime.  Take $10^{-X}$ to be the probability of life ever arising on any given planet in our universe other than our own.  Then if $Y = X-1$, as above, we have $P_{\geq1} \approx$ 10% as the probability of extraterrestrial life ever arising in this universe.  This means that we'd need roughly 10 other universes just like our own before we can be back at roughly 63% probability of life arising again.

The popular statement that the universe is so big that there must be life in it somewhere is a false one.  The universe is quite big, but the probability of life arising can also be so small as to negate this bigness, and we have no way to know if this is the case or not.

The universe can still be as big as it is, and yet still not be big enough for life to arise anywhere else within it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Faeries in Phase Space

A few weeks ago, Professor Ben Zuckerman spoke at my school. He is one of the editors of the popular book "Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?" which explores in part the Fermi paradox: Why haven't extra-terrestrials tried to contact us yet? While he gave two lectures, I only attended one, where he went over many of the ideas in his book, explaining the rarity of technological life and the improbability of us ever making "contact".

I went to the colloquium talk rather interested. In honesty, I kind of misunderstood the intention of the talk (I thought he was going to be arguing against the existence of extraterrestrial life), but I was not disappointed. There were a lot of interesting ideas brought up about how to make contact or about what sorts of development projects we should pursue. And while I think some of them were really bad, they were thought-provoking. (Dr. Zuckerman of course recognizes the flaws of these, saying they are just stage 1 prototype designs).

The talk was very well done and I won't touch on it too much. What I really wanted to address was an audience question asked by one of the professors at my university. First let me provide some background.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How To Read the Voynich Manuscript

In case you aren't familiar with it the Voynich Manuscript (pictured at left) is currently one of the bigger linguistic mysteries out there .  It is a set of some 240 hand-illuminated pages, bound in codex form, making what appears to be a reference work on such topics as herbalism, biology, and astronomy.  Many of the illustrations are of plants and flowers that do not actually exist or cannot be precisely identified.  Most puzzling is the text, which is written in an unknown and undecipherable script that bears no relation to any known language or script.  You can see high-quality scans of the book here, courtesy of the Yale Library.

It is believed that the manuscript is a pharmacopoiea, as it bears some similarities to other such works.  However, much of it is puzzling, and incomprehensible.  Some scholars have proposed the manuscript to be a fake, one of a number of herbals made in the Middle Ages by alchemists and charlatans to impress simple people with the possessor's supposed knowledge.  The text is gibberish, mere squiggles on a page, meant to look like writing and yet containing no message.  That's one proposal.

Yet, the script looks intentional.  The same letters are repeated, and even specific ligatures are discernible.  The letters are repeated in such a way that shows consistency, as though the author were writing in an actual script, and not merely scribbling.

There are all kinds of hypothesis about how and why the manuscript was authored.  The most plausible is probably that the text is an invented script meant to write an East Asian tonal language.  Other theories are that it is a secret script or language invented by the author to hide his writing, or that the script is a code, containing information in some secondary feature of the words.

Those are the best theories.

But I want to propose a crazy theory, and a way to test it.