Tuesday 22 March, 2022

The Elf’s-eye View

Seen on a woodland walk yesterday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”If I were Ukrainian, I would feel insulted. If I were British, I would feel ashamed. As a French diplomat, I will not comment on Twitter.”

  • Philippe Errera, political director at the French foreign ministry, commenting on Boris Johnson’s likening of Ukraine’s battle against Russian aggression to the Brexit campaign.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Shaun Davey | The Winter´s End | Uilleann Pipes (Walter Lelle) and Organ (Stefan Max Bergmann)


Long Read of the Day

Gus Simmons’s memoir

The cryptographer Gustavus (Gus) Simmons was the chief mathematician at Sandia National Laboratories for many years who worked primarily on authentication theory, developing cryptographic techniques for solving problems of mutual distrust and devising protocols whose function could be trusted, even though some of the inputs or participants cannot be. In that context he invented a lot of critical things to do with nuclear command and control, as well as related mathematics such as secret sharing and subliminal channels.

Gus came from a grindingly poor background in rural West Virginia and enlisted in the US army air force at the age of 18 to be a radar techician — and ended up a thought leader in cryptography with medals and honorary degrees. Among other things he was the Rothschild professor at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1966 when university cryptographers and security experts ran a Newton Institute program on computer security, cryptography and coding theory. All of which is by way of saying that, in a ferociously arcane field, Gus is a big deal.

Over three decades, though, he was quietly compiling a distinctive kind of memoir of his childhood in West Virginia. It takes the form of 30 stories, all of the kind that — as the grandson of a peasant farmer in early 20th-century rural Ireland — I recognise. They are the kind of compelling, quirky, amusing and occasionally shocking fireside tales that story-tellers in isolated rural villages used to tell before the age of radio and television. During the lockdown, Gus assembled them into a book which he self-published, sending a few copies to the distinguished cryptographers who are his peers and friends.

One of them — my friend and colleague Ross Anderson — persuaded Gus to release it as a pdf so that this remarkable piece of social history history could be more widely read and appreciated. It can be downloaded from Ross’s website here. I’ve been reading and really enjoying it. Here’s a sample that gives a good flavour of it:

It is not news that votes are bought and sold in West Virginia. It would be news if they weren’t. Anyone who has read The Dark Side of Camelot knows that in the 1960 democratic primary in West Virginia Bobby and Teddy Kennedy were handing out cash in large amounts well in advance of the election, which their brother Jack won easily.

How much of that cash trickled down to individual voters is anyone’s guess? The Kennedys bought elections wholesale. But anyone who grew up in West Virginia during the depression knew about buying elections retail.

A common sentiment in those days, at least on Frog’s Creek where I grew up, was; Whut’s the point in voting if you don’t get paid fur it. And lots of people got paid. Since times have changed so much, even in West Virginia, in the last seventy years, it is worth digressing to give the reader some insight into how voting was regarded and done in those days. The biggest surprise would be that not many women voted in West Virginia back then. Women’s suffrage had come into effect with the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution a decade and a half before, but almost all of the men and many of the women viewed voting as “men’s business”.

My mother voted, but then she had been a nurse before she met Pop, so she had seen more of the world than most of her contemporaries on Frog’s Creek where we lived. But even so, whoever got Pop’s vote got hers as well, since as they often said, there was no point in them voting if they just cancelled each other out. They would talk over who they were going to vote for in each position on the ticket—but it was always “two-for-one” so far as their voting was concerned.

But the main thing the reader needs to know to appreciate this story was that most families had fixed political allegiances that spanned generations. If someone’s daddy had been a Democrat, it was a matter of family pride and honor to vote the same way—and virtually everyone voted a straight ticket. Of course, that was necessary since roughly half of the adults in the community were totally illiterate so all they could do was to have someone show them where to put their X and vote a straight ticket.

The going rate for a straight ticket vote was two dollars cash and a pull of bottled in bond whiskey—a pull being what you could gulp in one large mouthful from a bottle. That may not seem like much to a modern reader, but you need to remember that the going rate for a day’s manual labor—hard labor—was one dollar and found; found being the midday meal; dinner as we called it then, the evening meal being supper. So, two dollars was the equivalent of getting paid for two days labor that you didn’t have to do and couldn’t get anyway. Almost all of the men drank; some a little, some a lot. Since the depression was hard on and cash money almost nonexistent, for the main part they drank moonshine…

If this sounds like your kind of thing, download the book, pour a glass of whisky, put another log on the fire and be transported to West Virginia long before any of us were born.

It’s not Cancel Culture, it’s Cancel Technology 

Social ostracism is as old as the hills. Social media is not.

Really perceptive essay by Noah Smith.

As anyone who either was alive before 2010 or has read a book about the period will remember, people got socially ostracized all the time before Twitter and Facebook and Google existed. The things they got ostracized for have changed over the years — maybe before it was cheating on your husband, or saying you didn’t believe in God, or being disabled, or being a communist, or whatever. Ostracism is a consistent feature of human societies, and relabeling it “Cancel Culture” is fine with me I suppose.

The really interesting question is whether ostracism has changed in important and substantial ways in the age of social media and the internet. Even if human nature doesn’t change over time (and I think the jury is still out on that one), the tools we have access to do change, and that allows society to reshape itself in new ways. (That’s what I mean when I semi-ironically call myself a “technological determinist”, by the way.)

What does the internet do? Lots of stuff, but the two things I want to focus on here are distribution and memory. The internet:

  • allows a very very large number of strangers to see what you say and do, and

  • keeps a record of most of the things you say and do online.

Terrific essay.

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