Things CS people don’t understand: Strong Encryption

Very very smart people can be very very wrong.

I’m listening to a recent podcast by Sam Harris, who is a very smart, very rational, very open-minded person. And also a completely wrong person.

He proposes an interesting analogy: Do you have the right to build an impregnable room in your house, that nobody can enter or break into without your permission?

I think that many layman think of encryption like they think of the locks on their door. Unfortunately layman don’t realize that the only reason to lock your door is to keep a confused neighbor from wandering in accidentally, and that locks are incapable of stopping anyone. They offer a feeling of security, but no actual security.

You can make your door perhaps more difficult to break into by adding 27 locks, a bar across the back, steel screens, etc. This will make your door “more secure”, and increase the amount of work an attacker must undertake to be able to get through.

“Strong encryption” is not like this. There is no “variable difficulty level” possibility. You build an impregnable room, and hand out keys, and now ONLY the people who have the keys can get in. (Or someone who has access to trillions of times more computing power than the entirety of the earth combined, but we’ll ignore the ‘attacks by god’ case.)

Sam thinks about things in terms of morality and philosophy rather than technology, which is understandable as that is his field. Unfortunately this means his arguments come off as a philosopher arguing that gravity must be incorrect because they feel it is morally incorrect to constrain people to the ground.

I would actually love for Sam to understand this, and then to get his thoughts on the moral and philosophical issues. (Assume that in 2050 we have the capability to upload your mind into a computer. Do you want Apple or the government having the decryption key to your brain?)

What this made me wonder is how incredibly smart people can have such incredibly wrong ideas. The only thing I can come up with is that they’re getting bad information.  I’m not willing to just say “blame the media” on this one. I think it’s a matter of how we communicate. It’s difficult to find information that doesn’t attempt to wrap up the technology, the morality, the legality, and the author’s opinions. What source could Sam go do that would educate him about encryption that did NOT attempt to make any argument about reasons behind it? (Not everyone can get a computer science degree just to try and understand a single issue!)

It makes me wonder about how I communicate ideas, and how I can do it better. How can I tag certain parts of what I’m saying as “philosophy”, but then tag another part of it with “provable science”?  How can I make you, the reader, understand which parts of what I’m saying I’m an expert in, and about which parts I’m just an interested laymen?

We’ll start with this: Computer Science is my field. Morality/Ethics/Philosophy is a hobby. Speaking from the computer science front: either you have digital secrets, or you have none at all. Philosophically: I am for this. Morally: Uncertain.

Spooky fun at a distance.

A little while back we got a WiiU, mainly because of the game Splatoon. We have some other games, but splatoon sucks up a LOT of our gaming time. Splatoon is a super fun game, with one amazing feature that I just can’t figure out: Splatoon is a very bad game.

The programming of the game is bad: The fact that it’s multiplayer-only is unbelievable considering how bad the netcode is. There are lag bugs, terrible server problems, lots of random disconnects (blamed on *my* internet connection, which I can assure you is untrue, I have logs to show it.) and so many fine-tuning issues in the UI that one or three lines of code could’ve made better.

The game-mechachnics are bad:

  • It’s unbalanced as hell (one weapon can act as both a sniper rifle and an alley-sweeper, all at the same time!)
  • the scorekeeping and matchmaking algorithms are not well defined, and easily lead players to feel like the game is “cheating” by manipulating the players onto the teams it wants or making what appear to be rather arbitrary judgments about who won
  • there’s functionally no ability to communicate with your team or even to choose your teammates, so it almost always devolves into every-squid-for-themselves.
  • the game modes are simple and skewed towards meet-in-the-middle gameplay which SHOULD keep everything evenly balanced but which can easily lead to one side utterly dominating the other if the matchmaking is unbalanced. (This has a couple of easy fixes. Multiple spawn points or unlimited ammo while on your spawn are my first ideas.)
  • There’s no compensation for the fact that if one of your teammates disconnects you WILL lose, 3-on-4 is just not going to be possible in almost any circumstance. (A team that’s suddenly 25% missing should get some sort of compensation in points or stats, or the game should kick a random person from the other team maybe?)
  • In ranked mode a win earns you 8 points. A loss subtracts 10.  This makes losing very discouraging, and that’s ignoring the fact that your “rank” is based on how well your randomly chosen team did, and is no measure at all of your personal performance.
  • Stats are “fuzzy”, with no numerical values. Which is better, “use less ink” or “recover ink faster”? Dunno, you’ll just have to try out both and do whatever feels better. (Hint: It’s use-less-ink, we did the tests, you come out ahead for almost all weapons.)

The game feels like a really good idea, with everything else tacked on as an afterthought, beta-tested on the public.


This has lead me to wonder about the phenomenon of Spooky fun at a distance. The IDEA of the game is enough to keep pulling you in, even if the game is irritating once you’re there. I experienced this phenomena personally with both WoW and Eve years ago, where I really wanted to play the game, but by time I was actually playing it the game just seemed like a lot of work. In my head I know I don’t want to play, and I can enumerate the reasons why, however I really want to play!

I can’t figure out what the secret sauce is, but I’d sure like to, if only so that I could immunize myself somehow. Usually reason and logic are enough, but some things just manage to sneak through… Spooky.

The freedom to listen…

“Free Speech” is a hot topic. Can you say what you want, when you want, to whom you want? If you’re in somebody else’s house can they kick you out if you represent an opinion they don’t like?

Well known link aggregation site Reddit has answered that question with a resounding yes. Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with them, however with the caveat that if you do that sort of thing I won’t (nor should anyone else) come to your house anymore, and you’re welcome to live a long, happy, and friendless life all alone in that house.

So the question is: Should they?

It’s long been known that certain subreddits (user defined areas of the site) have a variety of opinions about this issue. Some are a free-for-all, and some are well known to remove any comment or content that the subreddit mod team doesn’t approve of. This is an extremely dangerous line to tread however. When the “technology” subreddit decides to ban any content with the word “tesla” in it, it happens in such a way that nobody knows that the topic is banned, it just… vanishes.

If you kick me out of your house, the rest of the guests get to see it happen, and then get to make their own decisions about what sort of person you are. This is the step that is vital. Controls can be put in place and exercised, but it has to be done transparently. Removed content should have a placeholder left that says “Removed due to references to banned word ‘Tesla'”.

How can people make informed choices otherwise? How can behavior deemed negative by the community be corrected? Shadowbanning, the practice of “banning” a user in such a way that they believe they’re not banned, but their content never appears to any other user, is a vile practice as it prevents both the user being banned from understanding that they did something wrong, and from the rest of the users understanding what the rules of the space are. The way the term “safe space” has been co-opted is worthy of an entire discussion on it’s own, but suffice to say that I define a “safe space” as one in which people who have a problem with me are able to talk to me about it rather than arbitrarily punishing me as they see fit. I will not willing place myself into the hands of a capricious wannabe deity.

One thing I know about control, it either has to be exercised fully and completely, or it is utterly useless. Reddit acts as a landlord for individuals, who can throw parties in their apartments in whatever manner they please. To then come to these parties, kick out individual users, and even shut down some parties entirely, after allowing the illusion that the renters have autonomy, is simply pathetic bullying and an abuse of power. If you want to run a “safe space” you must run that space. You must set individual rules at each party, be constantly present in ALL the parties to enforce the rules, and make sure everyone understands your application of justice in the space. You cannot choose to enforce some of the rules, some of the time, or descend from the digital heavens whenever your messiah complex demands; that isn’t control or justice, it’s terrorism.

A lot of people will talk about “free speech”, but that’s not what this is about. I do NOT have the freedom to walk in to your house and demand that you allow me to spew hatred about your family. However, if your neighbor is having an open-door party about a topic that you disapprove of I absolutely have the freedom to listen. Attempting to control my freedom to listen is far worse than attempting to control my freedom to speak. Controlling somebody’s freedom to listen is an attempt to control their freedom of thought. Preventing information from reaching me is preventing me from thinking about something, and that is an intolerable evil.

Creating an echo chamber where differing opinions are simply banished, rather than discussed and debated, is one of the most dangerous things that a community can do, and yet it is something that every community tries to do. The ones that succeed with near complete success are usually labeled “cult”.

Any tool, institution, or community that is attempting to control your freedom of thought should be banished from your life without delay or regret. Protect your freedom to listen.

Twitter? What is it?

It’s a place where people shout at each other and try very hard to be right all the time, but that’s not important right now! (With apologies to Airplane for not being witty enough to think up my own jokes.)

Meta-analysis of self as you get older is a fun project. I’ve certainly become more social as I get older. As my poor homeschooled social-situation-hating self moved through the world it seems that I internalized the value of having people around you, especially people with other ideas about the world, and other ways of looking at it. I do truly enjoy talking to people about issues where we disagree on. Talking to people who aren’t like you is the only way to learn something new!

Occasionally I wander back to Twitter as a possible way to engage with some people. It seems that this desire comes from an interest in lasting, long-term relationships? If you’re a person I’ve spent time talking to in the past then I’m interested in what you’re doing now, and in the different paths we’ve taken through life. If we grew up together and ended up in drastically different places, that’s fascinating. If we had a relationship in the past and don’t anymore, thinking about if that was for better or for worse is fascinating. If we worked together knowing where you went vs where I did is fascinating.

The problem is that twitter is uniquely unsuited to this, and I believe this amplifies people’s natural urges towards voyeurism, identifying with like-minded people, and showing that they’re as right as possible! I could go on for quite some time about this, but it’s already all been done I think, and I’d probably only be talking to myself anyway. I’m not going to try and indict Twitter here, others have done that well enough. It’s possible that I just don’t understand it. Maybe the whole problem is with my antisocial self. (The irony of the antisocial guy being frustrated by the lack of social interaction created by modern social tools is pretty sweet though.) Perhaps this is the unusual part, but if we were ever friends then I still consider you a friend, at least in potentia.

I do wonder though: what might a social platform for discussion look like? Mostly I want to discuss issues of some kind. Mostly I want to know what people I know and/or trust think about these issues. I know the terms “civil” and “internet” don’t often go together, but this is why I’m attracted to Twitter: I have access to people who I already trust, and who’s backgrounds and intentions I understand. Much more valuable than internet strangers. I don’t really care if we haven’t talk to each other in 5 years, we should, and this platform should encourage it.
Moreover, it should encourage connecting people who might have opposing values and bringing them all into the same discussion. Unfortunately twitter seems to be quite good at allowing people to filter-bubble themselves and only expose themselves to people they agree with, while feeling good that they’re shouting out their opinion to all and sundry. Almost all of us need our minds changed in some way or another, and hanging out with people who think like us isn’t going to help that. As someone with a strong interest in education and learning this self-imposed mental and emotional isolation is worrying.

There’s one thing twitter definitely excels at, and that’s voyeurism. Very handy to keep an eye on people and vicariously imagine that you’re still part of their life in some way. A better platform should find a way for you to be part of their life in some way. The internet gives us a powerful tool to bring people together and keep them connected, at many different levels of effort. Emailing someone directly and saying “Hey, how’s your life?!” is a fairly high level of effort, and something that we seem to feel a bit squicky about. Following someone on twitter is the lowest level of effort, and gives the false sense of being involved. What can we create that goes in the middle? If some social platform for discussing ideas/issues/etc says “hey, that girl you used to date knows about this, let’s bring her into the conversation” I’m probably okay with that if we’re not actively hostile towards each other! (We’re not, at all.) If a former co-worker happens to be interested in the subject matter the platform should provide a convenient way for us to discuss it (regardless of if we agree) without having to necessarily go through the awkward “well hey, how are you? We haven’t talked in 2 years” stuff. Create the common ground, break the ice, make it easy for us to talk. These are things a particularly good host at a party is traditionally there to facilitate, and perhaps the apparent loss of that role/responsibility is what has caused us not to try and build any tools including that.  (There’s an interesting idea for a future blog post: Do we not have robot butlers because nobody wants butlers anymore?)

If this platform already exists then I’d love to hear about it! Otherwise maybe someday I’ll be socially smart enough to understand how to build it, or possibly why it shouldn’t/can’t be built. In the meantime though I suppose I’ll go on wondering what it’s all for and how to create and maintain connections outside of meatspace.

Who wants to achieve things when all you have to do is think about them?

Once a year I work towards a singular goal:

Finding a goal.

When that doesn’t work, I often turn to that stuff in the cupboard that looks like butter and is made of peanuts. What’s that called again?? It’s the one thing that can wrangle my focus away from those blurry objects that just refuse to sharpen up, dammit!

One day, after all of this is over I will finally have some peace. Let’s just hope that on that day we’re in the kind of world where Hostess cupcakes still exist.

Thoughts on a Saturday about a Tuesday

Once an occurrence has occurred, it occurs to me that occurrences are often… occurrent… with other occurrences.

This thought lead me to the idea that:

1. Snails sneak more than most non-marine life,
2. Wind power isn’t as useful when you’re trying to invigorate your local quern stone.

Well done all! Back to work.

Save the internet, or: How I learned to stop reading BoingBoing and love the blog.


Wow! Big deal! Hugely important! And one of the biggest “blogs” on the internet decided to talk about it!
You’re one of the biggest blogs around, commanding giant respect and readership. It’s great that you decide to talk about issues, but where’s the “Click here to find out how to contact your representative”? Apparently you care enough to copy-paste content from another blog, (At least that’s what I think you did? But you didn’t link to it so I’m not sure.) but not enough to help your giant readership figure out what to do to help? I call that failure.

Let’s hit that other point a bit more too. I don’t know what content on this page is actually Cory Doctorow’s writing and opinion and what is simply a copy-paste from someone else. I’m pretty sure that the dark background is the “block quote” style, so I think this entire article is simply a copy-pasta job.

Maybe there’s a place for something like boingboing, something that’s more stream-of-consciousness blather than actual blogging. Being considered one of the “big blogs” though and then doing crap like this just leeches respectability from every blog out there that’s trying to be significant, newsworthy, or relevant. Not that I don’t believe there’s a place for stream-of-consciousness, but take a look at something like Scalzi’s Whatever blog for an example how you can be a serious blogger as well as do things like post pictures of bacon taped to cats. I’m just not sure I’ve ever found enough redeeming value in boingboing to offset the damage I think they do. Dear boingboing: You are the reason the internet generation is ADD and apathetic. Stop it.

tl;dr: I actually stopped reading BoingBoing a long time ago. You probably should too. 🙂 Now go write to your representative and save the internet!

Also, yes, I know that I didn’t post a “how to take action” link either. But this post isn’t a call to action for anything other than unsubscribing from boingboing so I think I get a pass. I may try and write more about saving the internet later.