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Flame on

Understanding arduously complex topics is a joy in itself. I’ve been, by professional necessity, recently working on 3D visualization technologies. Matrix rotations, vector mathematics, and linear algebra are old topics that I’ve encountered now and again, but to be pushing towards a deadline and peeling the onion layers back in support of a specific goal makes each improvement as triumphant as those early summer mornings at the tender age of fourteen when “Hello World” in machine code first ran on my Commodore 64.

Understanding is a joy.

The “Flame” malware infecting computers in the Middle East is another example. This collection of tools and technologies embeds itself in Microsoft Windows (XP and up) and monitors various actions by the users. From what is currently understood it is therefore spyware, but there may be additional functionality hidden in this huge collection of software.

There is some remarkable research already on Flame, like this 64-page report from an academic laboratory in Budapest, Hungary that shows the detailed machinations working in a modern spyware system. At heart are exploits of the Windows OS, of course, but the cleverness is magnified by some of the approaches that are applied: decrypting code resources and overlaying other running programs, multiple compression and encryption algorithms, spyware databases, kernel patching to hide running processes, and even an embedded scripting language for providing versatility in the face of new challenges.

This is l33t stuff, but it is still dependent on legacy features of the Windows OS. And don’t take that as suggesting that Linux or Mac OS X are somehow immune. They aren’t. The exploits were just targeting the OSes relevant to the task. Could OS creators fix the problem? Yes, they could, through process isolation, access control, and monitoring principles, and they have started doing so, but legacy software needs to be updated, too, or abandoned.

The Comets of Literary Cohesion

Every few years, with the hyperbolic regularity of Kahoutek’s orbit, I return to B.R. Myers’ 2001 Atlantic essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, where he plays the enfant terrible against the titans of serious literature. With savagery Myers tears out the elliptical heart of Annie Proulx and then beats regular holes in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo in a conscious mockery of the strained repetitiveness of their sentences.

I return to Myers because I currently have four novels in process. I return because I hope to be saved from the delirium of the postmodern novel that wants to be written merely because there is nothing really left to write about, at least not without a self-conscious wink:

But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

Myers’ essay hints at what he sees as good writing, quoting Nabakov, referencing T.S. Eliot, and analyzing the controlled lyricism of Saul Bellow. Evaporating the boundaries between the various “brows” and accepting that action, plot, and invention are acceptable literary conceits also marks Myers’ approach to literary analysis.

It is largely an atheoretic analysis but there is a hint at something more beneath the surface when Myers describes the disdain of European peasants for the transition away from the inscrutable Latin masses and benedictions and into the language of the common man: “Our parson…is a plain honest man… But…he is no Latiner.” Myers counts the fascination with arabesque prose, with labeling it as great even when it lacks content, as derived from the same fascination that gripped the peasants: majesty is inherent in obscurity. Anyone who has struggled with trying to translate foreign prose or tried to transcribe music from one instrument to another rapidly understands why the problems are unassailable cliffs to the outsider. So it is with literary prose. The less I understand, the more I feel it.

But what more is there to this? We break now away from literary criticism and to the psychology of text comprehension itself, bobbing and weaving a bit to avoid falling into the cliché of the postmodern novel. First, we know that reading comprehension is affected by two obvious factors: (a) our background knowledge of the topic, and (b) the cohesion of the text. We intuitively understand (a) when it comes to scientific texts. If we have a degree in the topic we have more background knowledge than if we don’t, for instance. (b) requires defining “cohesion” a bit. Cohesion can be measured by looking at repeated nouns and bridging concepts from one paragraph to another. Highly cohesive texts tie concepts together across sentences and paragraphs, reinforcing the relationships that are expressed in one sentence with those in others, forming semantic bridges to enhance the text. Less cohesive texts are more scatter-shot, leaving the reader to infer the relevant bridging principles.

The interaction between (a) and (b) could hardly be more interesting. When (a) is high, readers learn better and retain more when (b) is low. Repeat: low coherence texts are better for high knowledge learners. If one knows a lot, one gets easily bored by all the carefully chained concepts of high cohesion texts. Or, as a friend once said about software and hardware manuals, “They are for the weak of mind.” The opposite is obviously true. If you know little about a subject, the semantic bridges help get you from knowledge Midgard to Asgard, but they are just road noise for the knowledgeable.

It is aspirational, then, when obscurantist language and metaphors pile up like proton parts in the Large Hadron Collider. The authors are asking their readers to search for the God Participle. They want to be Latiners. They want Cormac McCarthy to transform the bloody mess of westward expansion into Exodus. They want it because they want low cohesion texts and the feeling of sailing through the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, like Leary on acid, like penitentes against the whip, like gurus stinking of enlightenment. Then the gentle readers can finally bask among the deconstructed mists after the dream has faded, waiting for the next cycle of literary critics to anoint the next round of elaborated prose and, as Kahoutek returns, so the gentle rush of spring will come again to the countryside.

The Unreasonable Success of Reason

May 2012 eclipse refracted through a lemon tree

Math and natural philosophy were discovered several times in human history: Classical Greece, Medieval Islam, Renaissance Europe. Arguably, the latter two were strongly influenced by the former, but even so they built additional explanatory frameworks. Moreover, the explosion that arose from Europe became the Enlightenment and the modern edifice of science and technology

So, on the eve of an eclipse that sufficiently darkened the skies of Northern California, it is worth noting the unreasonable success of reason. The gods are not angry. The spirits are not threatening us over a failure to properly propitiate their symbolic requirements. Instead, the mathematics worked predictively and perfectly to explain a wholly natural phenomenon.

But why should the mathematics work so exceptionally well? It could be otherwise, as Eugene Wigner’s marvelous 1960 paper, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, points out:

All the laws of nature are conditional statements which permit a prediction of some future events on the basis of the knowledge of the present, except that some aspects of the present state of the world, in practice the overwhelming majority of the determinants of the present state of the world, are irrelevant from the point of view of the prediction.

A possible explanation of the physicist’s use of mathematics to formulate his laws of nature is that he is a somewhat irresponsible person. As a result, when he finds a connection between two quantities which resembles a connection well-known from mathematics, he will jump at the conclusion that the connection is that discussed in mathematics simply because he does not know of any other similar connection.

Galileo’s rocks fall at the same rates but only provided that they are not unduly flat and light. And pieces of paper and feathers definitely do not, but instead drift insouciantly along the channels of heat and air towards the ground. Yet we assume the laws apply and a secondary explanation (air resistance) is applied to compensate for the central tendency that is expressed by a relatively simple proportionality. But what of the geographical variations in the gravitational field of the Earth? This was mapped extensively during the Cold War to improve the reliability of ballistic missiles. Another complex suite of variables that we ignore until the swamping effect of the noise is overridden by the requirements of the specific technological application.

And it all works well enough that we soldier on, our television signals carried from perfectly still geosynchronous satellites that are actually sliding through their orbits at a breakneck speed in order to preserve the illusion of absolute stillness. It even leads to an additional question concerning whether there are phenomena that are so complex that we cannot easily characterize their underlying mathematics or that are simply uncharacterizable in terms of analytic formulations?

From Smith to Darwin

The notion that all the contingencies of human history can be rendered down into law-like principles is the greatest reflection of the human desire for order and understanding. Adam Smith appears in that mirrored pool alongside Karl Marx and, in his original form, even Charles Darwin. That’s only the beginning: Freud, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, and a host of others are reflected there in varying, and transitory clarity.

Adam Smith is a iconic case, as I discovered reading Adam Smith’s View of History: Consistent or Paradoxical? by James Alvey. The paradoxical component arises from a merger of a belief in the inevitability of commercial society and, at various points in Smith’s intellectual development, a cynicism about the probability of forward progress towards that goal. Ever behind the curtain, however, was the invisible hand represented by a kind of teleological divine presence moving history and economics forward.

The paper uncovers some of the idiosyncrasies of Smith’s economic history:

[T]he burghers felt secure enough to import ‘improved manufactures and expensive luxuries’. The lords now had something beside hospitality for which they could exchange the whole of their agricultural surplus. Previously they had to share, but ‘frivolous and useless’ things, such as ‘a pair of diamond [shoe] buckles’, and ‘trinkets and baubles’, could be consumed by the lords alone. The lords were fascinated with such finely crafted items and wanted to own and vainly display them. As the lords ‘eagerly purchased’ these luxury items they were forced to reduce the number of their dependents and eventually dismiss them entirely.

The lords ultimately have to trade off economic freedom of the artisans in exchange for more diamond shoe buckles. Odd, but perhaps reflective of the excesses of the wealthy in Smith’s era–something that needed explanation.

And what is the connection to Darwin? Darwin, in the automaticity expressed by that invisible hand (and the progress of history), saw a way to explain the natural order of the biological world, and this argument has continued to this day.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Statistics of Mortality

I spent a few minutes calculating my expected date of death today since I just turned 45. It turns out that I am beyond the half-way point in this journey.  I’ve created a spreadsheet that you can use to calculate your own demise and produce charts like the one above. The current spreadsheet uses the US Male/Female mortality numbers from the World Bank dataset and then a linear regression for future gains in life expectancy. Other country sets can be easily incorporated.

Enter your year of birth in the yellow box and it will create a plot of how long you can expect to live, as well as the transition point from green to red in your, eh, lifecycle.  Don’t forget to get your trusts, wills, organ donations, and directives in order.

Of course, there are no more compelling lies than statistical ones, and yet there are no other ways to guess the future than to extrapolate from the past.

Trust in What?

Slate’s Ankita Rao reports that American’s trust in science has remained largely unchanged for liberals and moderates over the past 40 years, while that same trust has eroded among political conservatives from 63% to 35% during the same period. Rick Santorum epitomized this attitude when he suggested that Obama was a snob for thinking college education was an inherent good.

Rao’s article blames the interactions between science and policy as driving this distrust, where snobbery is interchangeable with an educated elite that is overwhelmingly politically liberal and therefore the enemy. The “reality-based community” (quoting Karl Rove) must be tied to science and therefore untied from pure oppositional ideology. Science and technocracy is polarized against populism and manipulation.

What are we left with? What do we trust in? We can choose raw religious feeling, but then there is the problem of reconciling those feelings with religious freedom, religious pluralism, and the vast secular reality that we confront on a daily basis. We can pick and choose ideologies, tying our fate to Ayn Rand, to Code Pink, or to Cato.

Better still, we should simply not engage in trust. That is the secret. Epistemological doubt is the critical initial step that leads, in turn, to the dissolution of the expectation that trust is intrinsically valuable. American democracy, developed from Enlightenment ideals, was conceived as opposed to trust in individuals by juxtaposing aspects of government against one another. This was unprecedented, of course, and was coincident with the growth of science as an explanatory framework that drained the authoritative institutions of their power.

Similarly, we might be able to reestablish trust in science by educating the anti-elitists about the inherently contingent nature of scientific reasoning. Science is flawed, but it is our best hope for knowledge. And, simultaneously, we should make sure that policy-making that is based on scientific arguments is plodding and slow, allowing for the careful evolution of opposition, challenge and, ultimately, synthesis.