The Mars Shortlist, The Equation Group, and Whitewashing “Ghost in the Shell” | Vol. 2 / No. 17

Photo: USDA, CC BY 2.0
Photo: USDA, CC BY 2.0

The Short List

The Mars One folks are at it again.

If you need reminding, Mars One is the peculiar, not-for-profit (yet strangely commercial) brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who’s trying to send people on a one-way trip to the red planet. Yes. you read that right: one way. We don’t have any way to get people back from Mars at present (hell, we probably don’t have any way to get people there at present either) so Lansdorp and his compatriots have decided we just won’t. In his wild, wild dreams, we’ll be sending people to Mars to live, forever, like pilgrims sailing to America and trying to survive the winter.

Except in this case swap out “America” with “planet 140 million miles away” and “winter” with “so little air that your blood boils if you don’t wear a spacesuit.” But other than that it’s totally the same.

Who would sign up for this? Turns out, over 200,000 people would. Did. And now they’ve narrowed the list down to one hundred brilliant, educated, and/or charismatic people with death wishes, like 24-year old British astrophysics doctoral candidate Maggie Lieu, 31-year old American musical-comedian Benjamin Alan McLain, and 27-year old German DIY tinkerer Robert P. Schroëder.

You can see everyone who made the cut over at Mars One’s website, but the articles it’s produced in the media this week are more interesting. The best, in this blogger’s humble opinion, is in The Guardian, a piece on the five UK nationals to make the list, so check that out if you can. For me, it’s the justifications, like it’s something great for humanity, that boggle my mind. A well-funded, international effort by engineers and scientists to get humans to Mars that has a very high chance of survival? Great. But a competition funded by a reality TV show?

Colour me skeptical. I guess we’ll see.

Ominous hacker shot, Photo: "Hacker Rene" / Flickr user Ivan David Gomez Arce, CC BY 2.0
Ominous hacker shot, Photo: “Hacker Rene” / Flickr user Ivan David Gomez Arce, CC BY 2.0

Equation Group

This week, the Russian and British security firm known as the Kaspersky Lab released a report on what may be the single greatest SIGINT group they’ve ever seen, something they’re calling the Equation Group but which, let’s give credit where credit is due, is probably tied to the NSA. For the past fourteen years they’ve been infecting hard drives with software that hid so well you could wipe the drive and it’d just reinstall itself quietly when you were done. I can’t even begin to describe the ingenuity and intelligence of these hackers — what they did was hard — but at the same time, everyone’s just a little wary of just how good they were. So let’s be clear: at this point, if they want your data, and are willing to commit the time and energy needed, they’ll get it. In some cases they’ve even managed to get past the “air gap,” so let’s just say that if you want your data truly safe, don’t digitize it. At least then they’ll have to break into your house to get it. If you’re only going to read one article about it, The Observer has an incredible one you need to see. Beyond that, you can check out Ars Technica’s coverage of the latest developments.

And if that’s not enough, the news also broke this week that American and British intelligence officers may have stolen thousands of security keys to cellphone SIM cards before they were ever installed in phones, so they could access those phones without leaving any footprints. Here’s the full, totally insane, story.


A live-action version of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell has met with increasing opposition after it was revealed that the main character would be played by a caucasian actor, Scarlett Johansson. As The Mary Sue reports, the petition to correct this — many fans are adamant that the character is Japanese — has been gaining traction. In the wake of travesties like the live-action film adaptation of Nicolodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (which, aside from the “Racebending”, was also the very worst movie I have ever had the terrible misfortune of seeing), it’s hard not to see their point. White people often mistake anime characters for white because to them that’s the default. This post over at Sociological Images does a bit of explaining. And if that one’s a little short on citations (it is), here’s a study that seems to show the same thing. What do you think?


Me, I think that in the absence of any “white” markers, maybe someone named Motoko Kusanagi in a story set in Japan should be assumed to be Japanese. No? Here’s the petition.

Nature Goes Double Blind

The journal Nature is now offering the option for submitters to have their articles judged using a double blind system, in which neither the submitters nor the reviewers are aware of who each others’ identities. Typically in a science journal, it’s common for the reviewers to know the authors’ identities, but not the other way around. It’s been argued that this may lead to unconscious bias against articles by women and minorities, given the prevalence of older, successful white men in most fields of science. Those who oppose the double-blind move seem to be in two camps: either they think it’s impossible to hide the author’s identity, because the writing gives it away, or they think it should go the other way, and both sides should just know each others’ identities. As it stands, the power differential is quite high between researcher and reviewer, and Nature is trying, it seems, to correct it. AAAS Science magazine has the full story.

Drug-Resistant Malaria

In terrible news this week, BBC is reporting that a new strain of the parasite infection Malaria seems to have developed a resistance to one of the two main drugs used to fight it. In a possible repeat of a similar incident in 1957 when the parasites became resistant to chloroquine, a strain found in southeast Asia seem to have built a resistance to artemisinin, and is on the verge of entering India. At this point all we can hope is for the discovery of a new drug, or containment long enough for plans to alter the mosquito genome to prevent them carrying the parasite to come to fruition. Check out BBC for more on the story.

Best of the Rest

Here are the stories that are still totally worth knowing about, even if I didn’t get to them this week:

That’s all for today. Have a great week.