Best Entries

Security & Technology

The other day, I was looking around for some new information on Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson’s new novel, a follow up to Cryptonomicon) and I came across Stephenson’s web page. I like everything about that page, from the low-tech simplicity of its design, to the pleading tone of the subject matter (the “continuous partial attention” bit always gets me). At one point, he gives a summary of a talk he gave in Toronto a few years ago:

Basically I think that security measures of a purely technological nature, such as guns and crypto, are of real value, but that the great bulk of our security, at least in modern industrialized nations, derives from intangible factors having to do with the social fabric, which are poorly understood by just about everyone. If that is true, then those who wish to use the Internet as a tool for enhancing security, freedom, and other good things might wish to turn their efforts away from purely technical fixes and try to develop some understanding of just what the social fabric is, how it works, and how the Internet could enhance it. However this may conflict with the (absolutely reasonable and understandable) desire for privacy.

And that quote got me to thinking about technolology and security, and how technology never really replaces human beings, it just makes certain tasks easier, quicker, and more efficient. There was a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the early 90s, when certain security experts were promoting the use of strong cryptography and digital agents that would choose what products we would buy and spend our money for us.

As it turns out, most of those security experts seem to be changing their mind. There are several reasons for this, chief among them fallibility and, quite frankly, a lack of demand. It is impossible to build an infallible system (at least, it’s impossible to recognize that you have built such a system), but even if you had accomplished such a feat, what good would it be? A perfectly secure system is also a perfectly useless system. Besides that, you have human ignorance to contend with. How many of you actually encrypt your email? It sounds odd, but most people don’t even notice the little yellow lock that comes up in their browser when they are using a secure site.

Applying this to our military, there are some who advocate technology (specifically airpower) as a replacement for the grunt. The recent war in Iraq stands in stark contrast to these arguments, despite the fact that the civilian planners overruled the military’s request for additional ground forces. In fact, Rumsfeld and his civilian advisors had wanted to send significantly fewer ground forces, because they believed that airpower could do virtually everything by itself. The only reason there were as many as there were was because General Franks fought long and hard for increased ground forces (being a good soldier, you never heard him complain, but I suspect there will come a time when you hear about this sort of thing in his memoirs).

None of which is to say that airpower or technology are not necessary, nor do I think that ground forces alone can win a modern war. The major lesson of this war is that we need to have balanced forces in order to respond with flexibility and depth to the varied and changing threats our country faces. Technology plays a large part in this, as it makes our forces more effective and more likely to succeed. But, to paraphrase a common argument, we need to keep in mind that weapons don’t fight wars, soldiers do. While technology we used provided us with a great deal of security, its also true that the social fabric of our armed forces were undeniably important in the victory.

One thing Stephenson points to is an excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Holmes argues:

…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful country-side…The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish…But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the


Once again, the war in Iraq provides us with a great example. Embedding reporters in our units was a controversial move, and there are several reasons the decision could have been made. One reason may very well have been that having reporters around while we fought the war may have made our troops behave better than they would have otherwise. So when we watch the reports on TV, all we see are the professional, honorable soldiers who bravely fought an enemy which was fighting dirty (because embedding reporters revealed that as well).

Communications technology made embedding reporters possible, but it was the complex social interactions that really made it work (well, to our benefit at least). We don’t derive security straight from technology, we use it to bolster our already existing social constructs, and the further our technology progresses, the easier and more efficient security becomes.

Update 6.6.03 – Tacitus discusses some similar issues…

To hit or not to hit, that is the question

Gambling is a strange vice. Anyone with a brain in their head knows the games are rigged in the Casino’s favor, and anyone with a knowledge of Mathematics knows how thoroughly the odds are in the Casino’s favor. But that doesn’t stop people from dropping their paychecks in a few hours. I stopped by Atlantic City this weekend, and I played some blackjack. The swings are amazing. I only played for about an hour, but I am always fascinated by the others at the table and even my own reactions.

I don’t play to win, rather, I don’t expect to win, but I like to gamble. I like having a stack of chips in front of me, I like the sounds and the smells and the gaudy flashing lights (I like the deliberately structured chaos of the Casino). I allot myself a fixed budget for the night, and it usually adds up to approximately what I’d spend on a good night out. People watching isn’t really my thing, but its hard not to enjoy it at a Casino, and that’s something I spend a lot of time doing. Some people have the strangest superstitions and beliefs, and its fun to step back and observe them at work. Even though I know the statistical underpinnings of how gambling works at a Casino, I even find myself thinking the same superstitious stuff because its only natural.

For instance, a lot of people think that if a player sitting at their table makes incorrect playing actions, it decreases their advantage. Statistically, this is not true, but when that guy sat down at third-base and started hitting on his 16 when the dealer was showing a 5, you better believe a lot of people got upset. In reality, that moron’s actions have just as much a chance of helping other players as hurting them, but that’s no consolation to someone who lost a hundred bucks in the short time since that guy sat down. Similarly, many people have progressive betting strategies that are “guaranteed” to win. Except, you know, they don’t actually work (unless they’re based on counting, but that’s another story).

The odds in AC for Blackjack give the House an edge of about 0.44%. That doesn’t sound like much, but its plenty for the Casino, because they have an unfair advantage even if the odds were dead even. Don’t forget, the Casino has deep pockets, and you don’t. In order to take advantage of a prosperous swing in the game, you need to weather the House’s streaks. If you’re playing with $1000, you might be able to swing it, but don’t forget, the Casino is playing with millions of dollars. They will break your bank if you spend enough time there, even if they didn’t have the statistical advantage. That’s why you get comps when you win. They’re trying to keep you there so as to bring you closer to the statistical curve.

The only way you can really win at Blackjack is to have the luck of a quick streak and the willpower to stop while you’re up (as I noted before, if you’re up a lot, the Casino will do their best to keep you playing), but that’s a fragile system – you can’t count on that, though it will happen sometimes. The only way to consistently win at Blackjack is to count cards. That can give you the advantage of around 1% (more on certain hands, less on others) – depending on the House rules. This isn’t Rain Man – you aren’t keeping track of every card that comes out of the deck (rather, you’re keeping a relative score of high value cards to low cards), and you don’t get an automatic winning edge on every hand. Depending on the count, the dealer can still play consistently better than you – but the dealer can’t double down or split, and they only get even money for Blackjack. That’s where the advantage comes.

Of course, you have to have a pretty big bankroll to compensate for the Casino’s natural “deep pockets” advantage, and you’ll need to spend hundreds of hours practicing at home. Blackjack is fast and you need to be able to keep a running tab of the high/low card ratio (and you need to do some other calculations to get the true count), all the while you must appear to be playing normally, talking with the other players, dealing with the deliberately designed chaotic distractions of the Casino and generally trying not to come off as someone who is intensely concentrating. No small feat.

I’m not sure if that’d take all the fun out of it, not to mention draw the Casino’s attention on me (which can’t be fun), but it would be an interesting talent to have and its a must if you want to win. At the very least, it’s a good idea to get the basic strategy down. Do that and you’ll be better than most of the people out there (even if you just memorize the Hard Totals table, you’ll be in good shape).

Chef Wars

Call Me Lenny by James Grimmelmann : Taco Bell is running a new ad called “Chef Wars” and it is an Iron Chef parody. The commercial is pathetic and James laments that Iron Chef is no longer considered to be a piece of elite culture. Essentially, Iron Chef is no longer cool because it has become so popular that even culturally bereft Taco Bell customers will understand the reference.

As a long time fan of Iron Chef, I suppose I can relate to James. Several years ago, a few drunk friends and I discovered Iron Chef one late night and fell in love with it. In the years that followed, it has grown more and more popular, to the point where there was even an pointless American version (hosted by Bill Shatner) and a rather funny parody on Saturday Night Live. Seeing those things made it less fun to be an Iron Chef fan, and to a certain extent, I agree with that point. But in a different way, Iron Chef is just as cool as it ever was and, in my mind, a genuinely good show is well… good, no matter how popular it is.

As commentor Julia (at the bottom) notes, there are two main issues that James is hitting on:

  1. The watering down of concepts from 30 minutes to 30 seconds completely distorts and lessens the impact of the elements that make the original great.
  2. The idea that a cultural item becomes less “cool” when it goes from 1 million to 100 million consumers.

Certainly, there is truth in those statements, but that is not all that is at work here. Iron Chef is a great show, and will always be so. After a while, a piece of culture will lose its “new and exciting” flavour, but if the show is good, its good. James gives away how uncool he really is when he admits that he’s only seen 6 episodes or so. Isn’t it just a sham then? A facade? A ruse? Of what use is the cool if you never really enjoy it?

I suppose it all comes down to exclusion. Things are cool, in part, because you are cool enough to recognize them as such. But if everyone is cool, what’s the point? Which brings us to Malcolm Gladwell and his Coolhunt:

“In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes it to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermenuetic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot be even adequately described to them.”

But is it cool to just recognize something as cool? James recognized Iron Chef as cool, but he didn’t really enjoy it. So I guess that we should seek the cool, but not be fooled into thinking something is cool simply because it is going to be big one day…

The Fifty Nine Story Crisis

In 1978, William J. LeMessurier, one of the nation’s leading structural engineers, received a phone call from an engineering student in New Jersey. The young man was tasked with writing a paper about the unique design of the Citicorp tower in New York. The building’s dramatic design was necessitated by the placement of a church. Rather than tear down the church, the designers, Hugh Stubbins and Bill LeMessurier, set their fifty-nine-story tower on four massive, nine-story-high stilts, and positioned them at the center of each side rather than at each corner. This daring scheme allowed the designers to cantilever the building’s four corners, allowing room for the church beneath the northwest side.

Thanks to the prodding of the student (whose name was lost in the swirl of subsequent events), LeMessurier discovered a subtle conceptual error in the design of the building’s wind braces; they were unusually sensitive to certain kinds of winds known as quartering winds. This alone wasn’t cause for worry, as the wind braces would absorb the extra load under normal circumstances. But the circumstances were not normal. Apparently, there had been a crucial change during their manufacture (the braces were fastened together with bolts instead of welds, as welds are generally considered to be stronger than necessary and overly expensive; furthermore the contractors had interpreted the New York building code in such a way as to exempt many of the tower’s diagonal braces from loadbearing calculations, so they had used far too few bolts.) which multiplied the strain produced by quartering winds. Statistically, the possibility of a storm severe enough to tear the joint apart was once every sixteen years (what meteorologists call a sixteen year storm). This was alarmingly frequent. To further complicate matters, hurricane season was fast approaching.

The potential for a complete catastrophic failure was there, and because the building was located in Manhattan, the danger applied to nearly the entire city. The fall of the Citicorp building would likely cause a domino effect, wreaking a devestating toll of destruction in New York.

The story of this oversight, though amazing, is dwarfed by the series of events that led to the building’s eventual structural integrity. To avert disaster, LeMessurier quickly and bravely blew the whistle – on himself. LeMessurier and other experts immediately drew up a plan in which workers would reinforce the joints by welding heavy steel plates over them.

Astonishingly, just after Citicorp issued a bland and uninformative press release, all of the major newspapers in New York went on strike. This fortuitous turn of events allowed Citicorp to save face and avoid any potential embarrassment. Construction began immediately, with builders and welders working from 5 p.m. until 4 a.m. to apply the steel “band-aids” to the ailing joints. They build plywood boxes around the joints, so as not to disturb the tenants, who remained largely oblivious to the seriousness of the problem.

Instead of lawsuits and public panic, the Citicorp crisis was met with efficient teamwork and a swift solution. In the end, LeMessurier’s reputation was enhanced for his courageous honesty, and the story of Citicorp’s building is now a textbook example of how to respond to a high-profile, potentially disastrous problem.

Most of this information came from a New Yorker article by Joe Morgenstern (published May 29, 1995) . It’s a fascinating story, and I found myself thinking about it during the tragedies of September 11. What if those towers had toppled over in Manhattan? Fortunately, the WTC towers were extremely well designed – they didn’t even noticeably rock when the planes hit – and when they did come down, they collapsed in on themselves. They would still be standing today too, if it wasn’t for the intense heat that weakened the steel supports.

The Dune You’ll Never See

Dune: The Movie You Will Never See by Alejandro Jodorowsky : The cult filmmaker’s personal recollection of the failed production. The circumstances of Jodorowsky’s planned 1970s production of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune are inherently fascinating, if only because of the sheer creative power of the collaborators Jodorowsky was able to assemble. Pink Floyd offered to write the score at the peak of their creativity. Salvador Dali, Gloria Swanson, and Orson Welles were cast. Dan O’Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star) was hired to supervize special effects; illustrator Chris Foss to design spacecraft; H.R. Giger to design the world of Geidi Prime and the Harkonnens; artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud drew thousands of sketches. The project eventually collapsed in 1977, subsequently being passed onto Ridley Scott, and then to David Lynch, whose 1984 film was panned by audience and critics alike.

Interestingly enough, this failed production has been suprisingly influential. “…the visual aspect of Star Wars strangely resembled our style. To make Alien, they called Moebius, Foss, Giger, O’Bannon, etc. The project signalled to Americans the possibility of making a big show of science-fiction films, outside of the scientific rigour of 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In reading his account of the failed production, it becomes readily apparent that Jodorowsky’s Dune would only bear a slight resemblance to Herbert’s novel. “I feel fervent admiration towards Herbert and at the same time conflict […] I did everything to keep him away from the project… I had received a version of Dune and I wanted to transit it: the myth had to abandon the literary form and become image…” In all fairness, this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in the case of Dune, which many considered to be unfilmable (Lynch, it is said, tried to keep his story as close to the novel as possible – and look what happened there). Film and literature are two very different forms, and, as such, they use different tools to accomplish the same tasks. Movies must use a different “language” to express the same ideas.

I find the prospect of Jodorowsky’s Dune to be fascinationg, but I must also admit that I, like many others, would have also been aprehensive about his vision. Would Jodorowsky’s Dune have been able to live up to his ambition? Some think not:

Theory and retrospect are fine and in theory Jodorowsky’s DUNE sounds too good to be true. But then again, anyone that reads his desrription and explanation of El Topo and then actually watches the thing is going to feel slightly conned. They might then come to the conclusion that Jodorowsky says lots, but means little.

Having seen El Topo, I can understand where this guy’s coming from. I lack the ability to adequately describe the oddity; the disturbing phenomenon that is El Topo. I can only say that it is the wierdest movie that I have ever seen (nay, experienced). But for all its disquieting peculiarity, I think it contains a certain raw power that really affects the viewer. Its that sort of thing, I think, that might have made Dune great.

In case you couldn’t tell, Alejandro Jodorowsky is a strange, if fascinating, fellow. He wrote the script and soundtrack, handled direction, and starred in the previously mentioned El Topo, which was hailed by John Lennon as a masterpiece (thus securing his cult status). His followup, The Holy Mountain, continued along the same lines of thought. It was at this point that the director took the oportunity to work on Dune, which, as we have already found out, was a failure. Nevertheless, Jodorowsky plunges on, still making his own brand of bizzare films. As he says at the end of his account of the Dune debacle, “I have triumphed because I have learned to fail.”

Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln

I attended a lecture at Villanova University last night which was quite interesting. The speaker was Mike Reiss, one of the writer/producers of the Simpsons (among various other stints at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the ever-popular Alf). He doesn’t work at the Simpsons as much as he used to, but still hangs around the offices occasionally. Some interesting tidbits* from the lecture:

  • On Maude Flanders death: “The character just sucked. She sucked and the woman who voiced her wanted a raise… so we killed her.”
  • On the rumored Simpsons Movie: “Its in the contract that a Simpson’s movie must be written by Matt Groening himself.” Apparently, Matt Groening doesl literally nothing with the show anymore, and he never has done much, so Mike said we shouldn’t expect movies anytime soon.
  • Since the Simpsons, he has had a few pet projects, one of which was two series of cartoons for the now defunct The animated shorts were called “Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln” and “Queer Duck”. They were quite entertaining. (sorry, but I couldn’t find any of them online)
  • In the Q & A, someone from the audience asked if the Simpson’s writers (and the way they used to shock people in earlier episodes) were influenced by the Dada movement of the early 20th century. Mike laughed and said “We’re just dirty”.
  • Mike was one of the creators of Troy McLure; You might remember him from such movies as “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel” and “‘P’ is for Psycho”.
  • Mr. Smithers was originally black (observe the first few episodes closely, and you can see the “black” Smithers), but they thought having him be the servant of an old, rich, white guy could be offensive. So they made him white, gay, and in love with Mr. Burns.
  • Mr. Burns’ character wasn’t always supposed to be evil. The evil parts are based on Fox president Barry Diller.
  • How could they get away with [insert offensive antics here]? “Hey, we work for Fox.”
  • Conan O’Brien is funny (even after a 16 hour workday).

Theres lots more that I can’t remember at the moment, but it was a good time and I enjoyed myself immensely. If you ever get a chance to see this guy speak, check him out.

* – I’m going from memory here, so some of the quotes might be a little off, but you get the gist of it.