Saturday, November 7, 2009

Human Evolution and Prehistory

A significant majority of this blog is dedicated to history. A history student once told me history was a literary science, but the podcasts begin to teach me differently. Obviously, textual sources are extremely important for history, but more and more I see that it is interdisciplinary and it borrows from any other science it needs. Not only is this sociology and economics, but also natural sciences - as shown in the case of environmental history (podcast review). Most inevitable this is for prehistory.

Anything we know about humanity and the world before man produced texts we can read, must come from archeology, paleontology and more. If one follows courses about the earliest human history such as MMW 1 at UCSD (which offers this semester no less than 3 different ones), the road leads through all fields that touch on the emergence of man and culture. This is not only archeology and paleontology, this is also geology, biology, medicine and notably anthropology. Berkeley had a course in biological anthropology (review) that taught the human evolution as part of a biology course.

As said, at UCSD the course is part of history. It comes as the entry point in the Making of the Modern World cycle and among the three courses that are offered, I have chosen to follow the one by Tara Carter (feed). My choice was informed by the reviews delivered by the DIY Scholar: Two Great New Anthropology Classes and Why we stopped Foraging And Started Farming. She can be trusted as she claims that Carter's course is the best and she praises Carter for being contagiously excited about her subject. By  now I can fully agree.

And so, on offer are two long university courses and you may have wanted to get some smaller bits. For that purpose I want to turn you to the podcast by the Scientific American Science Talk (feed). Recently Science Talk had two consecutive issues offering three short interviews with researchers. A double feature about Lucy and about the Neanderthals, which is about the early human development. After that appeared a talk about later human evolution, which teaches what is more extensively explained in the university courses, that evolution keeps on going.

Although some would expect evolution to stop as soon as the species covers all the planet and has been adapted to all environments. This is not the case and an example that is used to show this is Sickle Cell disease. This is a blood disease that would have evolved away had it not been advantageous in areas with Malaria. Another podcast that discussed this in a short episode was Moments in Medicine (review).

Social Engineering for hackers

When I studied Sociology and Law, the term social engineering was used to designate all such activity, mostly instigated by the state, that attempts to steer society to develop in particularly desired direction. Social engineering was a macro-subject and entailed among others the study of Karl Popper's plea for piecemeal engineering. Anything on a micro-level I would have called applied social psychology.

The latest edition of the excellent Hebrew podcast Making History with Ran Levi (עושים היסטוריה! עם רן לוי), however speaks of social engineering (הנדסה חברתית) in this applied micro-context. The object of the show (מה מסתתר בתוך הטלפון של פריס הילטון) is to show how hackers succeed in what they do, more thanks to the application of social psychology than their wizardry in computer programming or other outstanding technical ability. Several examples are delivered to show how this has played out and they all show the same pattern. Technical and procedural shields against security breaches are in place and functioning well, yet the hacker acquires a crucial entry into the system by manipulating the weakest link in the chain: people.

One of the most eloquent examples is that of a failed hacking attempt. The user was aware that he was subject of a hacking attempt and fenced it effectively off. Yet, the hacker made a follow-up attempt by impersonating a security officer and approached that same user to report on the attempted security breach. "Oh and by the way, what was the info the hacker was after," he asked, upon which he immediately received the answer.

Apart from being informative and entertaining as this podcast always is, in this particular subject it is also very useful. The episode provides for one of the best training sessions everyone could get in order to be better prepared for hacking attacks.

More Making History with Ran Levi:
Ran Levi, then, now and about the Long Now,
Of nightmares and sleepwalking,
Mass Extinctions,
Making History with Ran Levi - עושים היסטוריה! עם רן לוי,
From Pavlov to Milgram.