Ken Steiglitz: It’s the Number of Zeroes that Counts

We present the third installment in a series by The Discrete Charm of the Machine author Ken Steiglitz. You can find the first post here and the second, here.

 

The scales of space and time in our universe; in everyday life we hang out very near the center of this picture: 1 meter and 1 second.

As we’ll see in The Discrete Charm the computer world is full of very big and very small numbers. For example, if your smartphone’s memory has a capacity of 32 GBytes, it means it can hold 32 billion bytes, or 32000000000 bytes. It’s awfully inconvenient and error-prone to count this many zeros, and it can get much worse, so scientists, who are used to dealing with very large and small numbers, just count the number of zeros. In this case the memory capacity is 3.2×1010 bytes. At the other extreme, pulses in an electronic circuit might occur at the rate of a billion per second, so the time between pulses is a billionth of a second, 0.000000001, a nanosecond, 1 × 10−9 seconds. In the time-honored scientific lingo, a factor of 10 is an “order of magnitude,” and back-of-the-envelope estimates often ignore factors of 2 or 3. What’s a factor of 2 or 3 between friends? What matters is the number of zeroes. In the last example, a nanosecond is 9 orders of magnitude smaller than a second.

Such big and small numbers also come up in discussing the size of transistors, the number of them that fit on a chip, the speed of communication on the internet in bits per second, and so on. The figure shows the range of magnitudes we’re ever likely to encounter when we discuss the sizes of things and the time that things take. At the low extremes I indicate the size of an electron and the time between the crests of gamma-ray waves, just about the highest frequency we ever encounter. The electron is about 6 orders of magnitude smaller than a typical virus (and a single transistor on a chip); the frequency of gamma rays is about 10 orders of magnitude faster than a gigahertz computer chip.

To this computer scientist a machine like an automobile is pretty boring. It runs only one program, or maybe two if you count forward and reverse gear. With few exceptions it has four wheels, one engine, one steering wheel—and all cars go about as fast as any other, if they can move in traffic at all. I could take my father’s 1941 Plymouth out for a spin today and hardly anyone would notice. It cost about $845 in 1941 (for a four-door sedan), or about $14,000 in today’s dollars. In other words, in our order-of-magnitude world, it is a product that is practically frozen in time. On the other hand, my obsolete and clumsy laptop beats the first computer I ever used by 5 orders of magnitude in speed and memory, and 4 orders of magnitude in weight and volume. If you want to talk money, I remember paying about 50¢ a byte for extra memory for a small laboratory computer in 1971—8 orders of magnitude more expensive than today, or maybe 9 if you take inflation into account.

The number of zeros is roughly the logarithm (base-10), and plots like the figure are said to have logarithmic scales. You can see them in the chapter on Moore’s law in The Discrete Charm, where I need them to get a manageable picture of just how much progress has been made in computer technology over the last few decades. The shrinkage in size and speedup has been, in fact, exponential with the years—which means constant-size hops in the figure, year by year. Anything less than exponential growth would slow to a crawl. This distinction between exponential and slower-than-exponential growth also plays a crucial role in studying the efficiency of computer algorithms, a favorite pursuit of theoretical computer scientists and a subject I take up towards the end of the book.

Counting zeroes lets us to fit the whole universe on a page.

SteiglitzKen Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include The Discrete Charm of the MachineCombinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ken Steiglitz: Garage Rock and the Unknowable

Here is the second post in a series by The Discrete Charm of the Machine author Ken Steiglitz. You can access the first post here

I sat down to draft The Discrete Charm of the Machine with the goal of explaining, without math, how we arrived at today’s digital world. It is a quasi-chronological story; I take what I need, when I need it, from the space of ideas. I start at the simplest point, describing why noise is a constant threat to information and how using discrete values (usually zeros and ones) affords protection and a permanence not possible with information in analog (continuous) form. From there I sketch the important ideas of digital signal processing (for sound and pictures), coding theory (for nearly error-free communication), complexity theory (for computation), and so on—a fine arc, I think, from the boomy and very analog console radios of my childhood to my elegant little internet radio.

Yet the path through the book is not quite so breezy and trouble-free. In the final three chapters we encounter three mysteries, each progressively more fundamental and thorny. I hope your curiosity and sense of wonder will be piqued; there are ample references to further reading. Here are the problems in a nutshell:

  1. Is it no harder to find a solution to a problem than to merely check a solution? (Does P = NP?) This question comes up in studying the relative difficulty of solving problems with a computing machine. It is a mathematical question, and is still unresolved after almost 40 years of attack by computer scientists.
    As I discuss in the book, there are plenty of reasons to believe that P is not equal to NP and most computer scientists come down on that side. But … no one knows for sure.
  2. Are the digital computers we use today as powerful—in a practical sense—as any we can build in this universe (the extended Church-Turing thesis)? This is a physics question, and for that reason is fundamentally different from the P=NP question. Its answer depends on how the universe works.
    The thesis is intimately tied to the problem of building machines that are essentially more powerful than today’s digital computers—the human brain is one popular candidate. The question runs deep: some believe there is magic to found beyond the world of zeros and ones.
  3. Can a machine be conscious? Philosopher David Chalmers calls this the hard problem, and considers it “the biggest mystery.” It is not a question of mathematics, nor of physics, but of philosophy and cognitive science.

I want to emphasize that this is not merely the modern equivalent of asking how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. The answer has most serious consequences for us humans: it determines how we should treat our android creations, the inevitable products of our present rush to artificial intelligence. If machines are capable of suffering we have a moral responsibility to treat them compassionately.

My first reaction to the third question is that it is unanswerable. How can we know about the subjective mental life of anyone (or any thing) but ourselves? Philosopher Owen Flanagan called those who take this position mysterians, after the proto-punk band ? and the Mysterians. Michael Shermer joins this camp in his Scientific American column of July 1, 2018. I discuss the difficulty in the final chapter and remain agnostic—although I am hard-pressed even to imagine what form an answer would take.

I suggest, however, a pragmatic way around the big third question: Rather than risk harm, give the machines the benefit of the doubt. It is after all what we do for our fellow humans.

SteiglitzKen Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include The Discrete Charm of the MachineCombinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

 

Ken Steiglitz: When Caruso’s Voice Became Immortal

We’re excited to introduce a new series from Ken Steiglitz, computer science professor at Princeton University and author of The Discrete Charm of the Machine, out now. 

The first record to sell a million copies was Enrico Caruso’s 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba.” There was nothing digital, or even electrical about it; it was a strictly mechanical affair. In those days musicians would huddle around a horn which collected their sound waves, and that energy was coupled mechanically to a diaphragm and then to a needle that traced the waveforms on a wax or metal-foil cylinder or disc. For many years even the playback was completely mechanical, with a spring-wound motor and a reverse acoustical system that sent the waveform from what was often a 78 rpm shellac disc to a needle, diaphragm, and horn. Caruso almost single-handedly started a cultural revolution as the first recording star and became a household name—and millionaire (in 1904 dollars)—in the process. All without the benefit of electricity, and certainly purely analog from start to finish. Digital sound recording for the masses was 80 years in the future.

Enrico Caruso drew this self portrait on April 11, 1902 to commemorate his first recordings for RCA Victor. The process was completely analog and mechanical. As you can see, Caruso sang into a horn; there were no microphones. [Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons]

The 1904 Caruso recording I mentioned is perhaps the most famous single side ever made and is readily available online. It was a sensation and music lovers who could afford it were happy to invest in the 78 rpm (or simply “78”) disc, not to mention the elaborate contraption that played it. In the early twentieth century a 78 cost about a dollar or so, but 1904 dollars were worth about 30 of today’s dollars, a steep price for 2 minutes and 28 seconds of sound full of hisses, pops, and crackles, and practically no bass or treble. In fact the disc surface noise in the versions you’re likely to hear today has been cleaned up and the sound quality greatly improved—by digital processing of course. But being able to hear Caruso in your living room was the sensation of the new century.The poor sound quality of early recordings was not the worst of it. That could be fixed, and eventually it was. The long-playing stereo record (now usually called just “vinyl”) made the 1960s and 70s the golden age of high fidelity, and the audiophile was born. I especially remember, for example, the remarkable sound of the Mercury Living Presence and Deutsche Grammophon labels. The market for high-quality home equipment boomed, and it was easy to spend thousands of dollars on the latest high-tech gear. But all was not well. The pressure of the stylus, usually diamond, on the vinyl disc wore both. There is about a half mile of groove on an LP record, and the stylus that tracks it has a very sharp, very hard tip; records wear out. Not as quickly as the shellac discs of the 20s and 30s, but they wear out.

The noise problem for analog recordings is exacerbated when many tracks are combined, a standard practice in studio work in the recording industry. Sound in analog form is just inherently fragile; its quality deteriorates every time it is copied or played back on a turntable or past a tape head.

Everything changed in 1982 with the introduction of the compact disc (CD), which was digital. Each CD holds about 400 million samples of a 74-minute stereo sound waveform, each sample represented by a 2-byte number (a byte is 8 bits). In this world those 800 million bytes, or 6.4 billion bits (zeros or ones) can be stored and copied forever, absolutely perfectly. Those 6.4 billion bits are quite safe for as long as our civilization endures.

There are 19th century tenors whose voices we will never hear. But Caruso, Corelli, Domingo, Pavarotti… their digital voices are truly immortal.

SteiglitzKen Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include The Discrete Charm of the MachineCombinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Browse our 2019 Computer Science Catalog

Our new Computer Science catalog includes an introduction to computational complexity theory and its connections and interactions with mathematics; a book about the genesis of the digital idea and why it transformed civilization; and an intuitive approach to the mathematical foundation of computer science.

If you’re attending the Information Theory and Applications workshop in San Diego this week, you can stop by the PUP table to check out our computer science titles!

 

Mathematics and Computation provides a broad, conceptual overview of computational complexity theory—the mathematical study of efficient computation. Avi Wigderson illustrates the immense breadth of the field, its beauty and richness, and its diverse and growing interactions with other areas of mathematics. With important practical applications to computer science and industry, computational complexity theory has evolved into a highly interdisciplinary field that has shaped and will further shape science, technology, and society. 

 

Steiglitz Discrete Charm of the Machine book cover

A few short decades ago, we were informed by the smooth signals of analog television and radio; we communicated using our analog telephones; and we even computed with analog computers. Today our world is digital, built with zeros and ones. Why did this revolution occur? The Discrete Charm of the Machine explains, in an engaging and accessible manner, the varied physical and logical reasons behind this radical transformation, and challenges us to think about where its future trajectory may lead.

Lewis Zax Essential Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science

Discrete mathematics is the basis of much of computer science, from algorithms and automata theory to combinatorics and graph theory. This textbook covers the discrete mathematics that every computer science student needs to learn. Guiding students quickly through thirty-one short chapters that discuss one major topic each, Essential Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science can be tailored to fit the syllabi for a variety of courses. Fully illustrated in color, it aims to teach mathematical reasoning as well as concepts and skills by stressing the art of proof.

Browse our 2018 Computer Science & Information Science Catalog

Our new Computer Science & Information Science catalog includes an accessible and rigorous textbook for introducing undergraduates to computer science theory, a fascinating account of the breakthrough ideas that transformed probability and statistics, and an amazing tour of many of history’s greatest unsolved ciphers.

If you’re attending the ITA Workshop-Information Theory and Its Application conference this week, please stop by our table to browse our full range of titles.

What Can Be Computed? is a uniquely accessible yet rigorous introduction to the most profound ideas at the heart of computer science. Crafted specifically for undergraduates who are studying the subject for the first time, and requiring minimal prerequisites, the book focuses on the essential fundamentals of computer science theory and features a practical approach that uses real computer programs (Python and Java) and encourages active experimentation. It is also ideal for self-study and reference.

Throughout, the book recasts traditional computer science concepts by considering how computer programs are used to solve real problems. Standard theorems are stated and proven with full mathematical rigor, but motivation and understanding are enhanced by considering concrete implementations. The book’s examples and other content allow readers to view demonstrations of–and to experiment with—a wide selection of the topics it covers. The result is an ideal text for an introduction to the theory of computation.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gamblers and mathematicians transformed the idea of chance from a mystery into the discipline of probability, setting the stage for a series of breakthroughs that enabled or transformed innumerable fields, from gambling, mathematics, statistics, economics, and finance to physics and computer science. This book tells the story of ten great ideas about chance and the thinkers who developed them, tracing the philosophical implications of these ideas as well as their mathematical impact.

Complete with a brief probability refresher, Ten Great Ideas about Chance is certain to be a hit with anyone who wants to understand the secrets of probability and how they were discovered.

Unsolved! begins by explaining the basics of cryptology, and then explores the history behind an array of unsolved ciphers. It looks at ancient ciphers, ciphers created by artists and composers, ciphers left by killers and victims, Cold War ciphers, and many others. Some are infamous, like the ciphers in the Zodiac letters, while others were created purely as intellectual challenges by figures such as Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. Bauer lays out the evidence surrounding each cipher, describes the efforts of geniuses and eccentrics—in some cases both—to decipher it, and invites readers to try their hand at puzzles that have stymied so many others.

Craig Bauer on unsolved ciphers

In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried—and failed—to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In Unsolved, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why focus on unsolved ciphers?

They’re much more intriguing because they could be concealing anything. Some might reveal the identities of serial killers. Others could unmask spies, rewrite history, expose secret societies, or even give the location of buried treasure worth millions. This sense of mystery is very appealing to me.

Did you try to solve the ciphers yourself first?

There are so many unsolved ciphers that I realized I would never finish writing about them if I kept stopping to try to solve them. There’s one that I’m confident I could solve, but instead of doing so, I simply presented the approach I think will work and am leaving it for a reader to pursue. I expect that several of them will be solved by readers and I look forward to seeing their results!

Does someone who wants to attack these mysteries need to know a lot of mathematics or have computer programming skills?

No. Many of the ciphers were created by people with very little knowledge in either area. Also, past solvers of important ciphers have included amateurs. One of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers was solved by a high school history teacher. Some of the ciphers might be solved in a manner that completely bypasses mathematics. A reader may find a solution through papers the cipher’s creator left behind, perhaps in some library’s archives, in government storage, or in a relative’s possession. I think some may be solved by pursuing a paper trail or some other non-mathematical avenue. Of course, there are mathematical challenges as well, for those who have the skills to take them on. The puzzles span thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to today’s online community. Twentieth century challenges come from people as diverse as Richard Feynman (a world-class physicist) and Ricky McCormick (thought to have been illiterate).

Are all of the unsolved ciphers covered in the book?

No, far from it. There are enough unsolved ciphers to fill many volumes. I limited myself to only the most interesting examples, and still there were too many! I originally set out to write a book about half the size of what was ultimately published. The problem was that there was so much fascinating material that I had to go to 600 pages or experience the agony of omitting something fabulous. Also, unsolved ciphers from various eras are constantly coming to light, and new ones are created every year. I will likely return to the topic with a sequel covering the best of these.

Which cipher is your favorite?

I’m the most excited about the Paul Rubin case. It involves a cipher found taped to the abdomen of a teenage whiz-kid who was found dead in a ditch by the Philadelphia airport, way back in 1953. While I like well-known unsolved ciphers like the Voynich Manuscript and Kryptos, I have higher hopes for this one being solved because it hasn’t attracted any attention since the 1950s. The codebreakers have made a lot of progress since then, so it’s time to take another look and see what can be learned about this young man’s death. I felt it was very important to include cases that will be new even to those who have read a great deal about cryptology already and this is one such case.

Should the potential reader have some prior knowledge of the subject?

If he or she does, there will still be much that is new, but for those with no previous exposure to cryptology, everything is explained from the ground up. As a teenager I loved books at the popular level on a wide range of topics. In particular, the nonfiction of Isaac Asimov instilled in me a love for many subjects. He always started at the beginning, assuming his readers were smart, but new to the topic he was covering. This is the approach that I have taken. I hope that the book finds a wide readership among the young and inspires them in the same way Asimov inspired me.

Is there anything that especially qualifies you to write on this topic?

Early work on this book was supported by the National Security Agency through their Scholar-in-Residence program at the Center for Cryptologic History. They wanted me in this role because, while I have a PhD in mathematics and have carried out mathematical research in cryptology, I also have a passion for history and other disciplines. In fact, both of my books have the word “history” in their titles. The journal Cryptologia, for which I serve as the editor-in-chief, is devoted to all aspects of cryptology, mathematical, historical, pedagogical, etc. My love of diverse fields allows me to write with enthusiasm about ciphers in music, art, criminal cases, ancient history, and other areas. The broad approach to the subject is more entertaining and ensures that there’s something in the book for nearly every reader.

BauerCraig Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.

Joshua Holden: The secrets behind secret messages

“Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical.”

In The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital EncryptionJoshua Holden provides the mathematical principles behind ancient and modern cryptic codes and ciphers. Using famous ciphers such as the Caesar Cipher, Holden reveals the key mathematical idea behind each, revealing how such ciphers are made, and how they are broken.  Holden recently took the time to answer questions about his book and cryptography.


There are lots of interesting things related to secret messages to talk abouthistory, sociology, politics, military studies, technology. Why should people be interested in the mathematics of cryptography? 
 
JH: Modern cryptography is a science, and like all modern science it relies on mathematics.  If you want to really understand what modern cryptography can and can’t do you need to know something about that mathematical foundation. Otherwise you’re just taking someone’s word for whether messages are secure, and because of all those sociological and political factors that might not be a wise thing to do. Besides that, I think the particular kinds of mathematics used in cryptography are really pretty. 
 
What kinds of mathematics are used in modern cryptography? Do you have to have a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand it? 
 
JH: I once taught a class on cryptography in which I said that the prerequisite was high school algebra.  Probably I should have said that the prerequisite was high school algebra and a willingness to think hard about it.  Most (but not all) of the mathematics is of the sort often called “discrete.”  That means it deals with things you can count, like whole numbers and squares in a grid, and not with things like irrational numbers and curves in a plane.  There’s also a fair amount of statistics, especially in the codebreaking aspects of cryptography.  All of the mathematics in this book is accessible to college undergraduates and most of it is understandable by moderately advanced high school students who are willing to put in some time with it. 
 
What is one myth about cryptography that you would like to address? 
 
JH: Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical. In the Renaissance it was associated with black magic and a famous book on cryptography was banned by the Catholic Church. At the same time, the Church was using cryptography to keep its own messages secret while revealing as little about its techniques as possible. Through most of history, in fact, cryptography was used largely by militaries and governments who felt that their methods should be hidden from the world at large. That began to be challenged in the 19th century when Auguste Kerckhoffs declared that a good cryptographic system should be secure with only the bare minimum of information kept secret. 
 
Nowadays we can relate this idea to the open-source software movement. When more people are allowed to hunt for “bugs” (that is, security failures) the quality of the overall system is likely to go up. Even governments are beginning to get on board with some of the systems they use, although most still keep their highest-level systems tightly classified. Some professional cryptographers still claim that the public can’t possibly understand enough modern cryptography to be useful. Instead of keeping their writings secret they deliberately make it hard for anyone outside the field to understand them. It’s true that a deep understanding of the field takes years of study, but I don’t believe that people should be discouraged from trying to understand the basics. 
 
I invented a secret code once that none of my friends could break. Is it worth any money? 
 
JH: Like many sorts of inventing, coming up with a cryptographic system looks easy at first.  Unlike most inventions, however, it’s not always obvious if a secret code doesn’t “work.” It’s easy to get into the mindset that there’s only one way to break a system so all you have to do is test that way.  Professional codebreakers know that on the contrary, there are no rules for what’s allowed in breaking codes. Often the methods for codebreaking with are totally unsuspected by the codemakers. My favorite involves putting a chip card, such as a credit card with a microchip, into a microwave oven and turning it on. Looking at the output of the card when bombarded 
by radiation could reveal information about the encrypted information on the card! 
 
That being said, many cryptographic systems throughout history have indeed been invented by amateurs, and many systems invented by professionals turned out to be insecure, sometimes laughably so. The moral is, don’t rely on your own judgment, anymore than you should in medical or legal matters. Get a second opinion from a professional you trustyour local university is a good place to start.   
 
A lot of news reports lately are saying that new kinds of computers are about to break all of the cryptography used on the Internet. Other reports say that criminals and terrorists using unbreakable cryptography are about to take over the Internet. Are we in big trouble? 
 
JH: Probably not. As you might expect, both of these claims have an element of truth to them, and both of them are frequently blown way out of proportion. A lot of experts do expect that a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics will “soon” become a reality, although there is some disagreement about what “soon” means. In August 2015 the U.S. National Security Agency announced that it was planning to introduce a new list of cryptography methods that would resist quantum computers but it has not announced a timetable for the introduction. Government agencies are concerned about protecting data that might have to remain secure for decades into the future, so the NSA is trying to prepare now for computers that could still be 10 or 20 years into the future. 
 
In the meantime, should we worry about bad guys with unbreakable cryptography? It’s true that pretty much anyone in the world can now get a hold of software that, when used properly, is secure against any publicly known attacks. The key here is “when used properly. In addition to the things I mentioned above, professional codebreakers know that hardly any system is always used properly. And when a system is used improperly even once, that can give an experienced codebreaker the information they need to read all the messages sent with that system.  Law enforcement and national security personnel can put that together with information gathered in other waysurveillance, confidential informants, analysis of metadata and transmission characteristics, etc.and still have a potent tool against wrongdoers. 
 
There are a lot of difficult political questions about whether we should try to restrict the availability of strong encryption. On the flip side, there are questions about how much information law enforcement and security agencies should be able to gather. My book doesn’t directly address those questions, but I hope that it gives readers the tools to understand the capabilities of codemakers and codebreakers. Without that you really do the best job of answering those political questions.

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. His most recent book is The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Ben Peters: Announcing “555 Questions to Make Digital Keywords Harder”

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

I have relatives who joke that our family motto ought to be “if there’s a harder way, we’ll find it.” Like all jokes, this one rings true–at times painfully true. Everyone, of course, seeks convenience and yet we discover so often the opposite—new hardness, challenges, problems—that prove both uncomfortable and useful. Perhaps (if you’ll forgive the perverse suggestion!), critical digital teaching and scholarship should be harder as well.

How should we make digital technology criticism harder? How should critical engagement with tech discourse best carry on? What intellectual challenges does it currently face? What challenges must it face?

If you haven’t already seen it, Sara Watson released her new and significant report on the state of tech criticism last week. I am excited to announce the release of another kind of resource that just might help us keep after such questions—especially in our classrooms.

Please enjoy and share this freely downloadable, 35-page teaching resource now available on the Princeton University Press website:

“555 Questions to Make Digital Keywords Harder: A Teaching Resource for Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture

555 questions image 2Use this document as you will. Many may use it to support preexisting courses; a bold few may organize critical responses to it. The questions that prompted its creation are straightforward: Is it possible to gather enough material to generate and sustain a semester of discussion in undergraduate and graduate courses based on or around the volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture? Can this document, paired with that volume, sustain a stand-alone course? Whatever the answers, the document’s purpose is to complicate—not to simplify—keyword analysis for all. Keywords are supposed to be hard.

Each essay in the volume receives four sections of notes. (1) Background music suggests music that could be played in the classroom as students shuffle in and out of class; the music is meant to prompt students’ talking and thinking about the topic at hand. (2) What can we learn from the contributor listing? fosters the vital habit of learning to understand not only the reading content but also the author and his or her background. (3) Exercise suggests an activity to prompt discussion at the start of a lecture or seminar—and to be shared at the end of a class in order to encourage sustained thinking about a given keyword essay in the next class. Students may also be asked to bring prepared lists with them at the start of a class. Finally, (4) discussion prompts are meant to raise one thread of harder questions, not easy answers, for classroom debate. Most of these 555 questions are meant to model conversation pathways that elevate the theoretical stakes of thinking with and in language.

This document is in some ways an antidote to the editorial instinct to consolidate, polish, and finalize the topics raised in this volume. As the editor of this fine volume, I stand convinced that these twenty-five essays constitute state-of-the-art and definitive scholarly approaches to significant keywords. In fact it is because I am convinced of the volume’s virtues that I seek here to test them—and I know no better way to do that than to ask questions that unravel, challenge, and extend the threads of thought woven together in the essays themselves. I am sure I join my fellow contributors in inviting readers, students, and scholars to do the same with these essays.

“555 Questions” is also something of a methodological extension of Williams’s keywords project—that is, these 555 questions are meant not to provoke particular responses so much as, in admittedly sometimes slapdash and zigzag ways, to model the type of language-based discussion that all sensitive users of language may engage in on their own terms. In other words, most of the questions raised in these pages require little more than taking language and its consequences seriously—at least initially. I am sure I have not done so in these pages with any more fertility or force than others; nevertheless, I offer these pages as a working witness to the generative capabilities of language analysis to get along swimmingly with both the real-world empiricism of the social sciences and the textual commitments of the humanities. I have not questioned my own introduction to the volume, which I leave to others, although I’ll leave off with this quote from it:

“No one can escape keywords so deeply woven into the fabric of daily talk. Whatever our motivations we—as editor and contributors—have selected these keywords because we believe the world cannot proceed without them. We invite you to engage and to disagree. It is this ethic of critical inquiry we find most fruitful in Williams. Keyword analysis is bound to reward all those who take up Williams’s unmistakable invitation to all readers: Which words do unavoidably significant work in your life and the world, and why?”

Peters

Digital Keyword: “Hacker”

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

digital keywords peters jacketGabriella Coleman critiques the stereotype of a hacker as a white male libertarian. In its place, and through a rich history of its varied sources and expressions, she uncovers an underlying hacker commitment to what she calls “craft autonomy,” or the freedom to do technical work that motivates contemporary classes of computing experts. In this, Coleman’s essay engages in productive conversation with Christina Dunbar-Hester’s equally superb essay on geeks, Adam Fish’s mirror, and John Durham Peters’ cloud in the computer classes.

Hackers, among other actors in the technical classes, are not as we may have thought.

Gabriella Coleman: Hacker

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

From “Brexit” to “dumpster fire”: Benjamin Peters on why digital keywords matter

petersIn the digital age, words are increasingly important, with some taking on entirely different meanings in the digital world. Benjamin Peters’ new book, Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture  presents modern humans as linguistic creatures whose cultural, economic, political, and social relations are inseparable from these “keywords”. Recently, Peters took the time to answer some questions about the book:

Why digital keywords? Why now?

BP: “Brexit” and “Trumpmemtum.”

What are these but marked keywords that—together with, say, the trendy new phrase “dumpster fire”—trigger anxieties very much alive today? What work do such words do?

40 years ago, in 1976, the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams published his classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, establishing a critical and ongoing project for taking seriously the work of over 100 words in postindustrial Britain. This book, taking Williams as its (all too) timely inspiration, seeks to refresh the keywords project for English-language information societies and cultures worldwide.

This book seeks to change the conversation about the digital revolution of language at hand. The real world may not be made out of language but our access to it surely is. Modern humans are linguistic creatures: our cultural, economic, political, social, and other relations cannot be separated from the work our words do. And as everyone who has ever put pencil to paper knows, our words do not always oblige. This is especially true in the age of search. Digital keywords are both indispensable and tricky. They are ferociously important and often bite back.

Digital Keywords also seeks to offer a teachably different approach to “digital keywords” than currently championed, as a simple Google search will reveal, by the meddling reach of search engine optimizers (SEO). No older than the OJ Simpson trial and valued at no less than $65 billion (about the economy of Nebraska), the SEO industry is arguably the dominant approach to taking keywords seriously online at the moment: and yet reason strains at the massive capital flows that, say, the term “insurance” alone commands. SEO, with its shady markets of pay-per-click advertising and results manipulation, cannot be the best approach to working with digital keywords.

How else might we begin (again)?

I’m hooked. So which keywords does the book take up? And what makes those words key?

BP: Let me answer that in reverse. As editor I figured I had a choice: I could either start by choosing the words I thought were key for the information age and then find people to write about them, or I could invite the best contributors to the project and then let them choose their keywords. As it happens, this volume does both. On the one hand, the appendix lists well over 200 candidate keywords—from access to zoom—and we’ll be soliciting other keywords to that growing list on the scholarly blog Culture Digitally this July.

On the other hand, the 25 words featured in this book are “key” simply because the scholars that populate this book demonstrate that they are. That may sound tautological, but I actually uphold it as the high standard in keyword scholarship: a word is key because it does meaningful social work in our lives. It is the task of each essay to prove such work. The reader too is invited to take up Williams’ search for themselves and to test these essays accordingly: do they convince that these terms, once understood, are somehow tectonic to the modern information society and culture—and why or why not? Which words would you add—and why?

Fair enough. Can you give us a sample of what the authors claim about their keywords?

BP: Sure thing. The freely available extended introduction critically frames the project as a first step toward a grammar for understanding terministic technologies; it also summarizes each essay and draws critical connections between them, so I won’t do any of that here. Since the book itself is organized alphabetically by keyword, I’ll list the essays alphabetically by author last name. Rosemary Avance critically reclaims community online and off, Saugata Bhaduri risks the collective action baked into gaming, Sandra Braman tackles Williams’ keyword flow in information systems, Gabriella Coleman decrypts hackers and their crafts, Jeffrey Drouin takes on document surrogates in copy cultures, Christina Dunbar-Hester critically appraises the gender in computing geeks, Adam Fish reflects on what mirror is doing in data mirroring, Hope Forsyth grounds the online forum in ancient Rome, Bernard Geoghegan telegraphs back the origins of modern information, Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the omnipresent algorithm, Katherine D. Harris unpacks the digital archive, Nicholas A. John rethinks sharing cultures online, Christopher Kelty unearths root causes and consequences of participation, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen separates democracy from digital technologies, John Durham Peters seeds an outpouring of the cloud in cloud computing, Steven Schrag reworks memory and its mental and mechanical discontents, Stephanie Ricker Schulte repossesses personalization, Limor Shifman reanimates the meme online, Julia Sonnevend theorizes events beyond media, Jonathan Sterne and I, separately, deconstruct the analog and digital binary, Thomas Streeter pluralizes the internet, Ted Striphas rereads culture alongside technology after Williams, Fred Turner goes Puritan on the Silicon Valley prototype, and Guobin Yang launches the book with the de-radicalizing of activism online.

Who is the audience for this book? Who are you writing for?

BP: Students, scholars, and general interest readers interested in the weighty role of language in the age of search in particular and the current information age in general. Ideally, each essay will prove plain and short enough (average length 3000 words) to sustain the attention of the distracted undergraduate, substantial enough to enrich the graduate students, and pointed enough to provoke constructive criticism from the most experienced scholar. Of course this ideal will not hold uniformly across this or any other volume, but perhaps this group of contributors delivers on the whole, I must say, and that is enough for this editor.

I’m also excited to note that later this year Princeton University Press also plans to release for free download my teaching notes for this book. These notes aim to offer in an easily editable format enough material to teach the book as the main course text for a semester-long undergraduate or graduate course in media and communication studies. We hope this will benefit courses worldwide. Meanwhile, the scholarly blog Culture Digitally maintains, with Princeton University Press’ generous support, the early drafts of fair share of the published essays here.

Benjamin Peters is assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

 

 

 

Language in the age of “search”

digital keywords peters jacketHow does language function in today’s information revolution? Keywords, and these days, “digital keywords” organize research, teaching, even thought itself. In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, Benjamin Peters compiles essays on keywords by major digital media scholars, as well as an extensive list of these keywords themselves. Here’s a look at five words that have completely changed in today’s search-driven culture.

1. “Activism” has become one of the most popular terms found on the internet and it’s nearly decimated the use of “revolution”.

On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms . . . On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.

2. “Archive” is a word that has had its concept completely re-imagined as each person can individually decide what is important to them and should be saved permanently through digital means.

An archive is less about the printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding–even the reader herself.

3. “Cloud” today does not only invoke images of nature, but streams of data held and protected somewhere.

Perhaps it is exactly their apparent blankness, mutability, and vanishing mode of being that makes them such a ripe canvas for human creativity and criticism.

4. “Meme” is an exception in that its meaning hasn’t changed so much as its relevance has. It is a word that was largely ignored when it was first conceived and now is in common use on the internet.

While researchers continue arguing about the usefulness of this construct, netizens have delivered their verdict. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term Meme had become an integral part of online vernacular.

5. “Sharing” is a huge part of media and social relations on computers today, between friends or between millions of people who have never met each other except over the Internet. This concept has challenged concepts about copyright and how criminal activity can be conducted online.

However, while the term data sharing would not appear controversial in any way . . . File sharing . . . is not sharing, but rather theft.

Learn more about Digital Keywords this summer as we share a series of posts from Culture Digitally.