Turing Award To Lamport

It is just announced that the 2014 Turing Award goes to Leslie Lamport.

This is pleasant news, and a well deserved recognition.  Lamport’s papers had deep and long lasting impacts on my own understanding of distributed systems.  The fact that I still remember them 30 years after first reading indicates their importance.

The worst thing about this award is that they are starting to “Turing-ize” people around my age, indicating we are becoming treasured, but ancient artifacts.  Sigh.

Congrats and well done, Dr. Lamport.

Cryptocurrency Narratives, Healthy and Growing

Cryptocurrency narratives continue, many people are enjoying this participatory theater.  So many narratives created and performed, using the same technology!

On the Bitcoin front, I note that many are having fun playing the role of “savvy contrarian investor”, endlessly pumping a narrative about the historic inevitability of Bitcoin, which is the WWW of money.  This is occurring against a bleak background of collapse, probably fraud, lawsuits, hacking, and the arrival of the grownups, who are sure to ruin the innocent fun with regulation and taxation.

In keeping with the nearly religious quality of Bitcoin origin story, Newsweek published a bizarre “unmasking” of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, the creator of the protocol.  This weakly sourced story is heavily disputed, and denied by the individual in question.

The Dogecoin narrative sees its share of play acting.  Some are playing the story dogecoin is “just as good” as its older brother, Bitcoin.

We also see a (literal) Robin Hood play enacted:  someone using the moniker “Savethemhood” is giving away Dogecoins to feed and cloth the poor, including a $40M DC contribution to Doge4Water, funding water projects in Africa.  This performance could have used any of dozens of cryptocurrencies, but chose Dogecoin. Presumably, Savethemhood felt simpatico with the Dogecoin narrative. Such charity.  Much performance art.  Woof.

Other cryptocurrencies are enabling people to perform yet other narratives. Sexcoin builds the narrative of servicing “adult content” providers and consumers.  Ever innovative, this community values privacy and participatory theater, and has historically led the development of digital technology and commerce.

I’ve already mentioned MazaCoin, which lays a story of Lakota culture and sovereignty on top of a cryptocurrency. Heralded as a historic move, “the Oglala Lakota Nation has chosen to enforce their 1868 treaty rights by issuing their own currency“, can it be long before every nation, people, and tribe have their own currency?

No, it won’t be long.  SpainCoin has launched, to enable Spaniards “to get back his freedom and have 100% control over his money and assets, breaking free from the shackles of central banks.” (As far as I know, Spain’s troubles are due partly or largely to capital flight out of Spain, which cryptocurrencies could well accelerate.)

And so on.

Apparently, everyone and anyone can have their own currency, and live out their own stories.

This is a fascinating fluorescence, all emerging from pretty much the same technology.  I note that many of these currencies are basically reskinning other currencies.   For example, HoboNickels consciously reports its family tree,

It could be said that on the family tree of coins, Bitcoin would be HBN’s great grandfather, PeerCoin the grandfather, NovaCoin the father, and similar coins like BottleCaps and BitGem are siblings.”

It is more difficult to trace the memes and narrative themes, though I think there will be a similar family tree. We know that everyone views Bitcoin as the patriarch of the family, and most narratives both copy and compete with the father-figure.

More work is needed to document this unfolding creative impulse.

Seafloor Explorer: Do Some Real Science

This is pretty cool:  citizen science to assist in the analysis of ocean imagery.

Specifically, the task is to identify and classify the surface and life from images collected by the HabCam project at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. (I visited the institute last December.)

This project collects zillions of images of the sea floor, which, when processed, are yielding a detailed and continuing picture of the variety and flow of life in the sea.

One of the key steps is to identify interesting objects in the images.  Computers are only so good at this task, humans are usually very fast and accurate.  But who can afford to pay someone to look at millions of images all day?  Or at least, we can’t pay very many people to do it.

This web application “crowd sources” this problem, letting everyone take a turn to look at some images, mark various objects and make notes, which are saved back to be combined into a huge database.

This is pretty easy to use, though I warn you that the task isn’t always trivial.  Many of the organisms are camoflaged–they don’t want you to see them easily–and otherwise obscure.

Check the web site for more information about the science, and then try it.


More Revelations from NSA Powerpoints

The NSA narrative is back in the news.

At SXSW Edward Snowden boasted that his cryptography is so good the NSA still doesn’t know what he stole.  Actually, all we know is the NSA says they don’t know, and are performing a theatrical “investigation”.  But, both Snowden and the NSA want you to believe that your cryptography “protects” you from their snooping, so the uncritical reporting was a blessing to both.

The same week saw a new drop from Snowden’s powerpoint collection. It is impossible to verify these artistic powerpoints, but it all makes sense. The question is, is this information part of NSA’s Narrative:  “we are watching you, so stay off the Internet”.

A long article in “The Intercept” gives many new purported details of NSA technical capabilities which enable them to penetrate computers and networks.  Most of the capabilities have been reported before, in that they are used by hackers.  It is slightly newsworthy to read the description of the “expert system” allegedly built by the NSA, which effectively automates the (not especially deep) thought processes of a teenage hacker.  This makes sense to me, from the technical standpoint.  (The dollar amounts mentioned in the article seem low to me—if accurate, this program is an absolute steal, financially.)

The article enjoys name-dropping, giving us a list of Bond-movie code names that are too good to be true.  A module to covertly turn on the camera and microphone?  The plugin is said to be called “CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE”.  Really?  Etc.

The purpose of this tool kit is—wait for it—to “own the net”.  Where NSA once literally owned the net (through tight collaboration with telcom companies), it must now use the toys of teenage hackers to maneuver at will through computers and networks.

While the “NSA watching you through your webcam” claim has captured the public imagination through its vividly memorable mental image; I think the most important use of these implants is to capture passwords and thereby subvert cryptography.   The article explains scenarios which make clear the reason NSA would want to do this:  the easiest way to monitor an encrypted channel is to monitor the endpoints where the data isn’t encrypted.  (By the way, this is another example of the “end-to-end” principle: a communication system is only as secure as its least secure link.)

The article also reports NSA using versions of common net hacking techniques, including phishing and false servers.  Of course, the NSA has resources beyond those available to the kids down the block, including, we assume, sophisticated taps deep in the network infrastructure.

As the reporters are careful to point out; it is one thing if these techniques are used selectively, for highly justified cases.  The “shocking” part is that the NSA is clearly positioned to penetrate thousands of computers with a simple command, anywhere in the world.  This mass surveillance is, at least psychologically, quite another kettle of fish.

Are these revelations authentic?  They seem nicely calibrated to benefit the NSA without serious damage.

My own assessment is that the NSA cannot be too unhappy with this article.  It is extremely valuable that “everyone knows” what the NSA can do, and behaves accordingly.

Savvy competitors and adversaries would surely already understand these techniques.  The rest of us are provided with graphic, James Bond-y images, which remind us of just how insecure the Internet is, and perhaps how “magical” the NSA (and GCHQ) is.

This narrative has two benefits for the NSA:  it motivates friendlies to be more sensible and careful, and it deters adversaries from freely using the Internet.

The harder you have to work to use the Internet, the less value it provides. As I have said, every minute spent dinking around with (civilian grade) cryptography and putting your phone in the refrigerator; is a minute not spent on malicious or dangerous activities on the Internet. (It is moot whether any of these precautions have much impact on NSA’s actual activities.)

So—did Snowden “find” a deliberately planted honeypot?  Did the NSA hope these carefully crafted half truths would come out?  Is the chase and condemnation of Edward Snowden (and the Guardian) political theater intended to bolster the credibility of the “leaks”?

I don’t know (how could I?)  But this theory fits the case, and might even explain the inexplicable “blundering” that led to the leak and escape, and the subsequent ineffective and counterproductive countermeasures we have seen.

Related Story:

An unintentionally comic sidebar arose from the Intercept story: Mark Zuckerberg publicly beefed about the “damage the government is creating for all of our future”, by which he means, the damage to Facebook’s business.  It is widely assumed that this incoherent complaint was triggered by the report that NSA has used false “Facebook” servers to hack into network connections.

How dare the US government conduct covert ops that take advantage of Facebook’s covert commercial operations?

The NSA can’t “own the net”, because Facebook already “owns the net” (in their own heads).

Review of “Social Physics” by Alex Pentland

Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons From A New Science by Alex Pentland (The Penguin Press, 2014)

Sensor rich mobile devices meet Big Data.  The result:  awesome new social science. Also, opportunity for massive hubris.

Sandy Pentland has been doing fascinating research for decades now, from early wearable computing through his previous book, Honest Signals (2008).  He updates this work with even more massive datasets. Really, really massive.  And really, really personal.

Pentland is deeply concerned with data privacy issues, and has long been active in promulgation of what he calls a New Deal for Data.  He wants people to shared data in public “commons” that benefit everyone.

Pentland has a clear vision of how this technology should be used to make the world better.  His benign goals are admirable, but neither the technology nor its possible uses are beyond criticism.

[Read entire review]

link: MIT “Reality Commons”.


Happy Birthday WWW

This week marks the 25th Anniversary of the World Wide Web.

An occasion to recognize what we have accomplished.  You’re, welcome.

This landmark is sort of weird to me, of course.  I was there.

The awkward part is that the “Web” is basically a collection of features (and omission of other features) that were created in the 1980s.  TCP/IP packet switched networks. Network services (Telnet, FTP, Gopher). Network enabled operating system (UCB Unix) Bit-mapped screens and mice. DNS. Text markup. Digital images (GIF, JPG).  All build with inexpensive chips and freely available compilers and debuggers.

I was there.  We built every piece of the WWW long before it was packaged and sold.  Look it up.

Important civics lesson:  the WWW was invented in the public sector (against fierce opposition by existing telcom and IT companies), through two decades of public R&D investment.  These investments paid off big time, but it took 20 years.  Also, many of the specific investments did not pan out, though even failures contributed to what became the Web.

There has been basically no equivalent investment for 15 years now.  Most of the “R&D” has gone into what are essentially trivial refinements and applications of the great breakthrough technologies.  Even the great flourishing of mobile and handheld devices is really just recapitulating the original web, lain on top of alternative network connections.

This lack of deep research leads me to predict that 10 years from now, the “web” will be stagnant, and there will be no new technology bursting out to replace it.

If you want breakthroughs in 2025, you need to triple or quadruple the NSF’s funding, NASA’s funding, and get DARPA back in the infrastructure business.





Wearable/Personal Tech Concepts

I’ve been sounding off about the paucity of good apps for wearable computing technology.  It’s not really fair to beef about other people’s work, if I don’t have anything positive of my own to offer, is it?

So let me throw out some concepts I may develop any day now. I admit these are pure vaporware at this time, but we have to start somewhere. If you steal these ideas, please be so good as to let me know how they work out, and perhaps credit me. (I leave out the many obvious “dildonic” applications.)

My main point in previous comments, of course, is that it is early days, and no one really knows what this tech is for or how to use it really well.  (We had hand held computers for 15 years before we started getting decent apps for them–and we still have very few really good apps for handheld computers.)

One design principle to note:  A lot of my thinking is about socially aware apps that detect (promote, invite) the face-to-face presence of very specific people, i.e., significant friends, lovers, family members, etc. (The more general principle:  wearable computing occurs in a real world social setting, and must be something other than a web-browser-on-m-watch.)

Detection of nearby devices is certainly possible, as is networking to phones and other devices when needed.  Face and body detection can be assumed, and probably voice detection as well. So the key design problem is to figure out what sorts of enhancements are valuable (ideally, in a novel way) in this context, and how to customize for each individual/dyad/etc.

“Look at me, not my outfit” clothing & makeup

Lots of smart clothing creates displays to show off and attract attention-to the clothing. Let’s turn that around.  When two lovers/whatever are together, they want to look each other in the eye, and otherwise attend to the person, not the clothing.  (And if he/she is more interested in your outfit than you, maybe there is a problem, no?)

So, my outfit features flashy colors, LEDs, etc, which make a bold “look at me” statement. (This might include smart makeup, and personal projectors.)  But when I sit down with my special someone wearing her/his similar outfit, the clothing fades back, easing toward similar neutral state, bringing out our faces, hands, and so on.  Note that this is particularly relevant for “smart makeup”, which should alter from “look at my makeup” to “look at me” mode.

Depending on the design, there might also be subtle enhancements. A collar that gently lights up your face, especially your eyes. Patterns that draw the eyes up to the face.  Etc.  Potentially, this could be aware of the position of the “target” other, knowing when the front, rear, or profile is in view.

“Our fantasy world” 2 Person AR

Forget mass market, this is a 3D immersive world with only two (or some small number) of people who can enter and who build the story together. Just as important the world is only accessible via tabletop (or other intimate) Augmented Reality, and only if the 2 (or whatever) people are present F2F. The interface assures that whatever happens in this world is only available to the small number of people it is for.

This doesn’t have to be wearable, but wearables would be very useful for detecting the “togetherness” state, and for the individualized interface. I.e., there are only two devices (wrist band? pin? key fob?) that have the data for this shared world, and both have to be within 2 meters to activate it.

The AR enables the “world” to be visible (but only to “us”) anywhere, not just on screen. Thus, on the table at a coffehouse, for instance.

Possible cool feature.  “Handing” a piece or the whole world to the other person.

Usage:  part of creating a personal story together. Invisible friends. Salted with memories, shared fantasies, dreams for the future.

PA Raptor, AKA “Eric”

Not exactly wearable, but certainly personal tech.

I’ve always wanted one (or more) of those robot raptors. But I want mine to imprint on me and follow like a baby bird.  I mean, as I waltz into the meeting, there is an entourage of raptors at my heals!  They follow as a flock, ignoring everyone but me. Awesome!

I also imagine that these are my PAs.  They carry my phone and other stuff for me,  When the phone rings I reach down and Eric (the raptor)) trots over and hands it to me. It could run out for coffee!  Whisper in my ear about upcoming appointments. Hold the door for me.  Save my seat–you aren’t going to mess with a raptor, are you?

Worst case, Eric could fight other PAs to assure my own priority, and chase off paparazzi and their robots.  (If I’m going to have a PA, why not endow myself with robot enhanced media stalkers?)

The imprinting and following would be helped by a wearable beacon for Eric to follow me.

A personal blog.

%d bloggers like this: