NSA CryptoKids (The Narrative takes a day off…)

There is nothing like talking to a kid to bring you right down to Earth.

After all the noisy “disclosures” about the NSA in the last year, it is amusing to look back at the NSA’s site for kids (which has been there for quite a while).

The site is a decent summary of the NSA’s mandate, and so boring it is reassuring.

I note the site has a strong element of safety/security on the Internet–a very difficult part of NSA’s mission.  If this web site gets kids to be a bit more alert and intelligent about using the Internet, so much better for everyone (though I sincerely doubt this, or any site, will have much impact.)

I took a look at the recruiting section, which describes career paths, with suggestions for how to prepare.  This looked pretty sensible to me, and anyone who followed their suggestions would be well qualified for lot’s of good jobs.

There was at least one controversial bullet, in list of “Do you like to…”

“Do you enjoy finding the limits and holes in computer systems?”

“If so, working as a Computer Scientist at the National Security Agency might be the job for you.”

(Most of the other “Do you”s were about problem solving and similar generic skills.)

Despite my best efforts, I can’t really tie this site to The Narrative except the most generic way. I suspect it is just what is seems to be: a feeble, bureaucratic PR activity.

Horowitz on Freelancers Pyramid

From the Freelancer’s Union, an interesting piece by Sara Horowitz, titled “THE FREELANCERS PYRAMID OF SELF-ACTUALIZATION”. Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union are probably one prominent represenation of “the future of work”, so I think this is worth a careful look.

She explicitly refers to Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” (1943), one of the most influential psychological theories of the 20th century.

In this case, she’s unpacking the definition of “success” for today’s freelancers.  This is a valuable idea, especially since there is a lot of blither-blather these days about how cool it is to be self-employed–though it looks pretty darn scary and difficult to me.

Her basic approach is to look at a sequence of “levels” in a freelance career, which unfold as the person works and learns, and which provide deeper and better rewards.  Importantly, she gives advice for how to move “up” the pyramid.

This is an interesting piece, and has a lot of honesty about it.

The lower levels of the pyramid (“Unfree Freelancer”, “Hustling Freelancer”) are absolutely horrible, with no security, and certainly no pleasure. As she says “This still isn’t a real job….

Why would anyone want to do this?  The only reasonable answers are, “I have no other chioce” or “I want to get to a higher level”.

If you hustle enough, and your luck holds, you may pull together a solid collection of gigs, regular income, and, ta-daa, health insurance. She calls this “Empowered Freelancer”, though it is, of course, what we used to call “the first day of work”, back when there were “jobs”.

At this point you can actually have a family, and participate in the community, and have a certain confidence that you aren’t going to be wiped out at any second.

From here, you may grow more confident in your own skills, develop extensive networks, and gain the esteem of your colleagues and clients. This is “the influential freelancer”, and you are proud to be a successful independent.  Things are starting to feel good–finally.

As in Maslow’s hierarchy, at the highest stage we depart the Eartly plane, achieving “360”, essential “New Mutialism”.  Changing from “I” to “We”.

Many people, including myself, have experienced the first couple of levels, and a few have achieved the mid-levels.That means that most of the freelancers I’ve met are not really “free”, but mostly just struggling and hustling to eke out a survival. Not cool at all.

I can’t really say anything about the final two levels, because I don’t think I’ve met anyone there.  They probably live in California.

I kind of like this piece, because it has a pretty steely-eyed look at what “success” (and pure survival) might mean, and recognizes a lot of different ways you can go.  The advice about how to move “up” looks OK to me, but I can’t judge from personal experience.

The final stage is a bit new-agey for me, I’ve always been shooting for a home, family, and community; not personal glory or actualization. My personal identity and worth has never, ever been defined by my work (not that I haven’t had some achievements and colleagues that I”m proud of.)

I think Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union are talking about one important face of “the future of work”, and I take their advice with respect. I’s like to encourage academics to investigate these concepts, and the social psychology of this way of work.

(Personal note: this whole approach terrifies me–a shy person like me would quickly starve to death at the “unfree” level.)

More on Andreessen/Bitcoin: End-to-end issues

Last week I commented about Marc Andreessen’s piece to the NYT, explaining why BitCoin is The Next Big Thing.

In my comments, I overlooked something worth discussing in more detail. In his rendition of the benefits of BC-like systems, MA endorses “public payments”.  He cites the case of someone holding up a sign on TV that says, “Please send me Bitcoins”, which accrued a haul of coins.

This looks to me like a combination of a tip jar and a Nigerian email scam.  But Andreessen sees this as a wondrous new thing.  Oddly, he suggests that it will somehow be useful for “protest movements”.  I get that the “untracability” of Bitcoin might be attractive for a “hardened anticapitalist political organizer”.  But wouldn’t you say that your basic con artist will be more likely to benefit?  And how does this scale up, when everyone in the crowd is holding up their own QR code?  It’s just silly.

Frankly, I think the point and click feature of BitCoin will not be popular for long.  By design, you simply have no clue where the coins are going. Who put that QR code there?  How do you know if if has been tampered with? This is one feature that is less evil and more just-plain-boneheaded.

As an engineer, I’ll point out that there is an end-to-end argument here, which is pretty deep:  just because the transaction protocol is designed to be “trusted”, that doesn’t mean that the whole system, end-to-end, is trusted.  In most cases, the goal is for me to trust that the money goes to you, which involves a lot more than BitCoin.  I need to know you are really you (even if I don’t know who you are), and specifically, I need to know that the opaque target address actually goes to you.

All of the supposed application of BC-like technologies need to deal with this End-to-end question.  Hand waving and jargon are hardly sufficient here.

Clearly, Marc has done a service with his article, by clearly stating these issues.  He will be fondly remembered for being so brilliantly mistaken on this topic.

Science Education: Natural Food Ingredients

Through a chain of blog posts, I encountered this great popular science post by James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Austrailia:  the ingredients label for some natural foods.

Really cool poster (which required quite a bit of work). Nature is the best chem labs there ever was, humans are just chasing the leader.

“Big Data” is about “Clairvoyance” and “Prophecy”

I went back to read through Cathy Gere’s excellent book, Knossos And The Prophets Of Modernism (The University Of Chicago Press, 2009), which I mentioned last week.  This is a superb book, in which she confronts “the extensive catalog of extravagant reconstructions, outright forgeries, invented traditions, and false memories that litter the record of Greek Bronze Age archaeology….” (p. 207-8).  She deploys a wide view of these “dishonest” practices, commenting that “It turned out that my attempts to “unmask” this reconstruction as yet another narcissistic interpretation of a fake only ended up strengthening its claim to be read on its own mythic terms.” (p.230)  A highly recommended read.

One of her points struck me in a broader context. She remarks on how scientific and logical methods are often used as secular “clairvoyance” (seeing something hidden, including the deep past) and “prophecy” (predicting the future).  Think Newtonian orbital dynamics, and Sherlock Holmes’ detection.  These are “magical” in the sense that knowledge and skill are applied to produce a “wondrous” result, not obvious prima facia, nor necessarily obviously linked to the (completely natural) methods.

It is easy to understand the thrill of performing such feats of “magic”, and also why popular culture is fascinated by it. Who doesn’t love stories which feature the wise wizard eminent scientist, whose arcane knowledge provides meaning and guidance.

What struck me is how this helps explain the current popular fascination with “Big Data“. The data analytic methods have always been largely prosaic, indeed old hat.  The news, if there is any, is that we have the technical ability to acquire and deal with lot’s and lot’s of new data, enabling even old methods to produce “wondrous” results (i.e., not obvious from our previous experience).

There are many variations of this fascination.  Some of the wonders are about “prophecy”, guessing the future with reasonable accuracy. The whole phenomenon of High Frequency Trading is all about this kind of technological “prophesizing”.

Other variations are more like “clairvoyance” and even mind reading.  The “Amazon Trick” (“people who bought this book also bought these other books”) is a data-based magic trick.

Much of the interest in wearable computers and the “Internet of Things” comes from the “clairvoyant” applications that can see what is otherwise unseen (e.g., what you “really want”), as well as “prophetic” guesses about what you will want next.

DNA sequencing is a foundational (big data) technology that is revolutionizing the biological sciences.  But most of the popular images involve “clairvoyant” readings of human nature and “prophesies” of personal destiny.

This observation helps me understand some of the anxieties surrounding stories of NSA’s supernatural spying techniques. Every cop show features magical feats of “clairvoyance” and even “prophesy” that would make Sherlock Holmes green with envy.  Through DNA, the tiniest fragments of biological material, the lab can reconstruct the unknown person and his life. Through big data, The tiniest bit of evidence can, in seconds, lead to identification of the person and reconstruction of the whole life.

In fiction, no one can hide from these amazing, literally supernatural, powers. No wonder people are nervous about the government collecting their phone bills.

With this concept, we can see why climate change deniers have expended so much effort on story telling to counter and undermine the “prophesy” generated by analysis climate data. In this sense, the ideological denialists have a point when they complain about the “religious” nature of popular views of predicted climate change. There is, indeed, a significant element of secular “prophesy” going on in Gore and others.

I confess that, for me, part of deep joy of programming computers has been the opportunity to create “magic”. The greatest demos are truly magical, and much of what I helped invent was wondrous when we first made it work.  I assure you that the first time I was able to connect across a computer network–with largely home brewed software–it was intensely magical.  At that moment we knew that we could and would connect everyone in the world. Phew!

I’m still hanging around the edges of current technology where the magic lives. I’ve pointed to Augmented Reality, which is flat out magic when it works. I’ve also enthused about how Personal Fabrication is putting the (magical) tools in the hands of the (young) people.

I haven’t drawn any conclusions from these ideas, other than this is a pretty clear psycho-cultural observation that explains a lot about the content and tone of some contemporary technology trends. (File this under, “something I learned this week”.)

No, I’m not saying it’s all imaginary!  Of course not.  This stuff is the real deal.  But the real knowledge and understanding is so wonderful, that it fits right into this comfortable cultural narrative, and feeds emotions that are the motivation for our age-old concepts of supernatural abilities.

Oh, and I definitely believe data-based “clairvoyance” and “prophesy” more than any other kind. Though we always need to look at the data and methods, and check the arguments–because the data and inferences are not always correct.

Congrats: Champaign Urbana One-to-One Mentoring at Twenty Years

Our local one-to-one mentoring program is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. Well done, all. I’m proud to be associated with you.

This month our local program had its annual lunch for mentors. For those who might be interested, video is here. (You’ll see me in part of this video.)

January is National Mentoring Month. I encourage you to look for mentoring programs in your local area.

IEEE Spectrum on NSA Wireless Hacking

Earlier this month I commented on the Der Spiegel and NYT breathless reports on NSA’s capability to hack computer that are not connected to any network.

This week Jeremey Hsu has an excellent piece in IEEE Spectrum that gives an informed and intelligent survey of this Buck Rogers stuff. It’s really, really cool, but, as Hsu makes clear, this stuff is “retail” spying, very targeted. (This is in line with my own comments about the numbers reported.)  The IEEE Spectrum has a long history of solid reporting on this kind of extrapolating-from-civiian-to-secret-military technology stories.

The information that has been leaked is pretty old, so we can assume that NSA has even better capabilities now.  I suspect that defending against these threats will do little good against today’s methods (though it will help defend against lower grade adversaries, such as private security and college students.)

I agree with Hsu that these methods are really useful only for particular targets that are deemed worth extraordinary effort (and risk).

Of course, Hsu’s calm, reasonable article is just as valuable to The Narrative as the NYT’s unsourced storytelling, but for different audiences.  Hsu will be read and understood in the worldwide nation of geekistan, where it will inspire yet higher levels of paranoia and irrational defensive measures.

“Oh my gosh!  The NSA might have planted a bug in my computer while it was being shipped!” ” Oh no! There might be a transceiver in that rock over there!”

As I have noted, sewing this kind of suspicion is a tremendous asset for NSA’s implicit goal to deny adversaries access to networks and IT. The more effort spent trying to evade the methods we know about from leaks, the less effort that is spent on plots, weapons development, and industrial espionage.

Bottom line:  really interesting technical note, and probably valuable to the NSA for it to appear.


A personal blog.

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