When Does Code-Breaking Matter?

I recently read a book about the Enigma code machine that the Germans used in World War II (Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes by David Kahn). Famously, the British cracked this code and used the information gained thereby to help win the war. That’s the shorthand version of the story, anyway. But the long version of the story is, as you might expect, more subtle. Did cracking Enigma really shorten the war? Here’s a related but little-known fact: The British and US navies often used shoddy encryption that German analysts cracked on a regular basis. Why didn’t that help Germany win the war? Why aren’t there movies and museums about clever German analysts?

It turns out that much of the initial work cracking Enigma was done by some brilliant Polish mathematicians early in the war, before Poland was invaded and defeated. This work was eventually passed on to the British to jumpstart their own cryptanalysis efforts. On the eve of the German invasion of Poland, Polish cryptanalysts were essentially reading the German battle plans and sending them to the Polish high command. Why didn’t it help?

It’s easy to think that accurate information is the only thing that matters. But it’s one thing to possess information. It’s another thing entirely to be able to capitalize on it. The Polish army was so weak relative to the Wehrmacht, that even perfect information about the motives and dispositions of their enemy was ultimately of little use. They lacked the ability to capitalize.

Some information is trivial. You can act on it, but it doesn’t matter. Some information is vast. Knowing about it doesn’t allow you to take action that matters. Only in the small subset between these extremes can you change the world. There is a “Goldilocks Radius” for information. Too small, too big, too bad. It needs to be just right. What do you know that matters, given your ability to act right now?

Boil it down, and you end up with something like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The value of what you know depends on the nature of what you can do. Whether you view this with serenity or wretched angst is something else entirely.

Did cracking Enigma shorten the war? It certainly made a difference. But the final answer is more equivocal than you might expect. The most important factor is that Allied force of arms put them in the position for that secret knowledge to make a difference.

My Journey with Sudden Hearing Loss

They say that people like writing where the author reveals vulnerability. I would like to do that, but I just HATE revealing vulnerability. It probably has something to do with my Y chromosome. Deep in my tribal ape chest, there is an instinctive voice that calls out, “Fool! Don’t!” That voice knows what happens next. You’re telling them how to take you down. The alpha chimps will see their advantage, and all will be lost.

I mean, I’m guessing it works something like that. But who knows? The subconscious doesn’t like giving up its secrets. Anyway, I’m willing to admit this approach is not wise.

By contrast, let me tell you how impressed I am with my wife. When something is going badly for her, the first thing she does is talk to her friends about it. This has a number of benefits. It draws her closer to her friends. It helps her process the trouble. It opens doors for things that might help that she wouldn’t have otherwise known about. It helps her heal. I need to learn from my wife. Because alpha male nonsense leaves me ruminating in dark, lonely circles.

So here is my vulnerability. Here is the pain which I reveal against instinct. I was recently diagnosed with something that goes by the sinister name of Sudden Hearing Loss (or more dramatically, Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss). Sometime in September, after a shower it felt like I still had some water in my ear. The feeling wouldn’t clear, no matter how much I blew my nose or shook my head. The ENT doctor who saw me a few weeks later only needed thirty seconds to diagnose me. It wasn’t fluid in my ear. It was Sudden Hearing Loss. He put me on a course of prednisone, which sometimes helps if you catch it early and you’re lucky. But I was either too late or unlucky. The condition is almost certainly permanent.

Sudden Hearing Loss sounds pretty awful, right? It can have varying severity, but in my case I have decreased hearing in some frequencies in my right ear. It’s noticeable, but it’s not like it made me deaf. It could have been worse. It can always be worse. But that’s not the end of the story. That lost hearing wasn’t replaced with silence. It was replaced with a high-pitched whine. Or sometimes a hiss. You probably know the fancy name for this: tinnitus. It makes my fingers twitch just to type that word.

And where does Sudden Hearing Loss come from? What causes it? Shrug. Nobody knows. They kind of guess, working backward, that it’s probably a virus. No idea which one. This scene pops into my head. There I am, showing a policeman my house. The attic has been ransacked, and a cruel wind is whistling through the shattered window. “Yep,” says the policeman. “You’ve been robbed.” He closes his notepad and makes for the door. I call out, “Wait! What are you going to do about it?” He says, “Nothing to do.” Following him, I persist: “Who do you think did this?” He puts on his hat and shrugs as he gets into his cruiser, “Maybe a virus?”

I’m so tired of viruses.

So now I’m trying to reach an accommodation with this unrelenting phantom noise. It is not fun. It tends to amplify other stress and rumination cycles. Which I don’t recommend, but there it is. The good news is, I’m told by other sufferers that things do get better. Over time. So that’s where I am. Letting cool time wash over my abused ear and vibrating brain, that it might bring lasting peace. May it be so!

That leaves me here, face to face with you, dear reader, dear friend. I have always disliked solicitous pity. I have always wanted to be the strong one, the non-broken one. Who doesn’t? But this is where I am. This is my vulnerability. Whether you sympathize, help, or just listen to my story, it’s good for me to share. If you have experience or recommendations regarding Sudden Hearing Loss or tinnitus, drop me a line! I am, as they say, all ears.

Making Robots That Matter

The phrase “home robot” famously makes people think of Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. Rosie is a humanoid drop-in, a one-for-one replacement for a competent human housekeeper. That’s what people want. But they’re not going to get that anytime soon.

Rosie can do it all

Rosie is too ambitious for the real world. Consider one basic task: folding a t-shirt. From a robot’s point of view, this is nightmarishly complex, something that only a dedicated expensive research robot can manage (see New research helps robots fold laundry faster than ever before).

Willing to pay for this and a dedicated post doc just to fold your t-shirts?

So is the whole field of domestic robotics a bust?

When we look around the corner, we often look too far. What happens instead is generally limited and in a different direction. The good news is that there has already been a successful domestic robot. It succeeded by being just cheap and competent enough at one narrowly defined skill: vacuuming. Roomba isn’t Rosie, but it’s real and it’s here.

The phrase “robot for seniors” also conjures up images of a Rosie-like entity doing many useful things for compromised seniors. But Labrador Systems may have hit on the right mix of useful, not too expensive, and achievable. They sell a robot that is essentially nothing more than an end table that can move itself autonomously between various defined “bus stops” in your house. For someone who is mobile but compromised in their ability to carry, this simple device can make all the difference between independent living and needing expensive in-home care.

It’s just a self-driving table.

Is it even a robot? Who cares? It doesn’t matter if it’s useful.

Labrador Systems deploys its first assistive elder-care robots | TechCrunch.

C-SPAN and Soccer

On an ordinary day, the C-SPAN cameras in the U.S. House of Representatives focus on a solitary speaker behind the podium, droning on about something not terribly interesting. If the camera did bother to show the floor of the House, you would see that it was almost empty.

But these are not ordinary days. The process of selecting a speaker has the place in disarray, and the C-SPAN cameras are off the leash, panning across the floor like a sports arena.

When I saw this video of Jim Jordan’s conversation with Kevin McCarthy, it occurred to me that these guys aren’t used to conferring on camera. Not when the sausage is being made. C-SPAN has put us in, as Hamilton says in the musical, the room where it happens.

Kevin McCarthy chats with Jim Jordan

Maybe Kevin and Jim should take a tip from athletes that confer on field. Soccer players know: cover your mouth when you’re discussing whether that next kick is going left or right.

The lads from Glasgow Celtic have a chat

I’m no lip-reader, but I’d say the next play in the House is going right. Just a hunch.

Charge Your Car Wirelessly

Every time I get rid of a wire, it makes me happy. My home has become steadily more unwired over the years. The rat’s nest of cables around my computer has become much more manageable since my mouse, keyboard, headphones, and printer all went wireless. But of course that’s just for the data signal. The printer still plugs into the wall, and the others need batteries. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dispense with power cables too? We’re already used to wireless charging for electric toothbrushes and phones. How long until we’re scarecely using wires at all, whether for power or signal? It’ll probably be a while, but one item in particular surprised me by how much progress it’s made.

An electric car is the highest power electric device you’re ever likely to own. It draws, let us say, significantly more juice than your Apple watch or your electric toothbrush. And yet the clever folks at Witricity are convinced they have an efficient way to charge your car wirelessly. I’m partial to Witricity for a few reasons. For one thing, they’re based in Watertown, Massachusetts, my hometown. And they’ve taken a wise approach to popularizing their technology. Rather than trying to be the only vendor of new and unproven tech, they’ve worked to establish an automotive industry charging standard (SAE J2954) that anyone can license. It’s a strategy that seems to be working. They recently secured a bunch of new funding (WiTricity Raises $63 Million In New Funding Round (With Video) – CleanTechnica). As the owner of an electric car, I wish them luck! Every time I get rid of a wire, it makes me happy.

I’ll close with this video from Matt Ferrell’s excellent Undecided YouTube channel.

The Wicked Problem of Obesity

Here is a statement with a lot of truthiness: if you eat fatty food, you will get fat. What could be simpler, right? Lard goes in the piehole and then the tummy gnomes paste it to your thighs. It seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe that it’s completely wrong. But biochemistry is not straightforward, and it’s insanely difficult to work out the relationship between what you eat and how much weight you gain. Things that have been asserted for years as dogma turn out to be not so well supported.

Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, knows this beat well. I enjoyed this podcast interview with him by medical podcaster Peter Attia: Bad science and challenging the conventional wisdom of obesity. Part of what makes Taubes an entertaining character is his background studying pathological science. Having written a book on cold fusion, he knows bad science when he sees it. And, in his telling, the science of nutrition is full of it.

The scientific gold standard is Popperian falsifiability. You always want decisive experiments with clear outcomes. If I announce a new comet in Sagittarius, then within a day or two astronomers in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bratislava should be able to confirm or refute my claim. But what if there’s no good way to test my claim? Suppose the people in Bratislava think my telescope has comet-shaped spots on the lens, and I in turn refuse to endorse their obviously defective non-comet-spotting telescope. How can we resolve our dispute?

Debates like this happen all the time in science, and they can take years to unravel. The surprising thing about the obesity story is that the question being debated is so fundamental that it feels like two physicists arguing about which way is up. In the interview, Taubes and Attia muse about whether ANY feasible experiment could break the deadlock between competing nutritional camps. It’s almost as if the problem of obesity lives in a shadowed region beyond the reach of science.

If that sounds incredible, then I agree. That’s why the interview is worth your time. Science is hard. Truthiness, on the other hand, is like a Cool Ranch Dorito. It tastes so good, but it can be bad for your health.

The Coming Age of Mechanical Savants

By now you’ve likely seen images conjured up by DALL-E2 or Stable Diffusion. These are neural networks that can draw pretty much whatever you want. As far-fetched as this sounds, it seems to be true. You want teddy bears shopping for groceries in 19th century Japan? No problem.

Courtesy of DALL-E2

The list of outrageous prompts and resulting images is endless. It is at once exhilarating and exhausting and terrifying to see how well it works. You may enjoy browsing through the various related subreddits.

As remarkable as these tools are, the funny pictures are distracting us from the bigger story: we will soon be adding a natural language layer to EVERY user interface. Certainly everything that is generative. It’s going to be transformative because deep technical competence tethered to natural language will release you from the shackles of craft. Let me explain.

DALL-E2 is a graphical tool, but the key thing is how you talk to this graphical tool. It’s really more of a language tool. You’re carving pixels with words. It’s as if you’re talking directly to Photoshop. But that’s still not quite it. It’s as if you’re talking to a brilliant digital artist, and they do all the pixel pushing. Click once on the mountain top and say “Put a castle here.” And it will instantly happen. You might then say “No, I’d like it to look less like Neuschwanstein and more like Carcassonne.” And it will happen instantly.

Do you see? The new thing here is not a castle-making tool. It’s the ability to talk to a skilled digital artist about anything at all. You no longer need to spend years getting good at Photoshop. The new thing here is the ability to talk to an always-on expert in ANYTHING. What we’re building is a generation of mechanical savants. You talk to them with natural language. They don’t talk back to you in natural language. They have deep knowledge of a subject area, and their reply is a concept that they think matches your prompt.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s imagine you want to build a house. You have a vague idea what you want, but you need to talk to an architect. They’re the ones with the expertise needed to turn your hunch into something realizable. You give them a naive prompt and they reply with a realizable concept. It’s not quite what you wanted, so the two of you go back and forth. Over time you develop intuition about what you like, what can be built, and what you can afford.

The problem is that architects are expensive. Only rich people can afford to play this game. But the game is changing now, because you can replace the architect with a mechanical savant. In the diagram below, you’re the one with the desire and the initial prompt. But now your prompt goes to a machine, a mechanical savant, to generate the concept. The bot has deep knowledge that frees you from years of studying a craft. You don’t need to go to architecture school. You don’t even need to hire an architect. You just need to discern the bot’s latest concept and modulate your next prompt.

Your key competence here is your relationship to the savant-bot (since it’s the one doing all the generation). Your competence is in the articulation of desire and discernment. Your new craft is iterative prompt refinement. This is the skill that you must never trade away. Knowing what you want, and knowing that you know what you want… these will be the instruments of power. All else is leverage, getting cheaper every day.

The Titanic Sinks, In Realtime!

I don’t know how YouTube got the idea to recommend it to me, but I was recently introduced to a video genre that I never knew existed: realtime sinking ship videos. Specifically, there are videos of the sinking of the Titanic in which one minute equals one minute. You see a steady annotated video of the events from iceberg strike to final plunge. Here’s one example.

I am reminded once again that everything about the Titanic conspires for storytelling perfection. The unsinkable ship! The plutocratic passenger list! The calm, cloudless night illuminated by desperate flares, and of course the band playing until the Atlantic lapped at their cellos. And incredibly, the whole thing took place in one cinematic sitting, something less than three hours. Usually movie drama is compressed, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass, as Shakespeare observes. But in this case it’s already there, pre-packaged in the hourglass.

What the realtime video does is strip away all the fictitious drama. What you’re left with is an inconveniently long and slow-moving story, something that couldn’t have existed before YouTube. All the drama is provided by the actual events at the rate they transpired. No editing out the slow bits. It would be boring if it wasn’t so spellbinding. Details are layered on top of the video. You hear the actual Morse code communications at the moment when they occurred. You hear the music that would have been heard. It must have been hard for the players to make Alexander’s Ragtime Band appropriately jaunty.

This video trend will continue, I’m sure. There are already realtime videos about the sinking of the Britannic and the Lusitania (which went down in a mere 18 minutes). It’s interesting to think about how modern media gives us new ways of thinking about time. There was a Twitter account, for example, that did realtime accounts of World War I one hundred years after the fact. What’s next? A three day video of Realtime Gettysburg? Or the final few decades of the Fall of Rome?

My question for you is this: Is the modern attention span growing or shrinking? Narrowing or broadening? In this era we have hyperfast editing that will give you ADHD whiplash. But now we also have slow-moving, focused video like the RMS Titanic Realtime Sinking (and the Apollo Saturn V Launch Camera E-8). I think it’s a welcome trend.

Birding with Jay

We’re all familiar with the concept of pandemic hobbies by now. You have yours and I have mine. But now, as we edge into a post-pandemic world (knock on wood!) we’re going to see how many of those hobbies actually stick. That is, will you still be making sourdough this time next year? I confess that my ukulele is pretty dusty these days, fun though it was when I was in full lock-down.

Birdwatching, as it happens, was one of the more popular pandemic hobbies, and I’d be willing to bet that it will persist for a lot of people. With that in mind, I am so happy to introduce today my very good friend Jay Czarnecki. Jay is a genuine birder from way back. I even went birding with him once when we were in college, so I can vouch for his old school credentials. Jay has agreed to write a guest post here where he talks about why you might want to take up birdwatching even if it isn’t already one of your pandemic hobbies. Take it away, Jay!

The Pleasures of Birding

by Jay Czarnecki

It’s been well-observed that during our time of forced isolation during the pandemic, many people sought out the comforts of new hobbies: knitting, language learning, baking. It seems one of the most popular ones is birdwatching, or birding. I’m writing today primarily for those who have joined this rewarding hobby, or those who have a passing interest in the birds around them, or those who are simply bird-curious. In other words: everyone! And after a little introduction, I’m going to leave you with some real news-you-can-use.

Birding is such a rewarding hobby. In 2006, a blogger memorably offered her personal Seven Pleasures of Birding:

1. The beauty of the birds
2. The beauty of being in a natural setting
3. The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed
4. The joy of collecting (day lists, life lists)
5. The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications)
6. The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.)
7. The Unicorn Effect: Learning about a fascinating bird that captures your imagination…and then one day, seeing it in the wild. What a thrill!

I agree with all those and would add an overarching eighth: enjoying all seven with people you love. A couple of my best unicorns was a snowy owl, sighted on a wintry and isolated New Jersey beach with my Dad, and a pileated woodpecker, so evocative in miniature of its pterodactyl ancestors, in the Maryland woods with my wife Nancy.

I have a perhaps an idiosyncratic personal history with birding. It all started when I was very young in the 1970s. Ours was a generally outdoorsy family (car camping, campfire programs, a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine), but my entry into birding had a very distinct start, when one day my Dad spotted an unusual bird through the back window in the distant field behind our house. It was brownish and stout, standing quite still, its body low to the ground but with a long tail, black head and red about the face. As curiosity grew after multiple sightings, my Dad purchased binoculars and a birding field guide, and we made the ID: it was a ring-necked pheasant. Many people have a memorable sighting, like our pheasant, that sparks their life-long interest in birding; it’s called a “spark bird”.

I say idiosyncratic because while I’ve been actively birding my whole life, and am always “bird-aware” in my everyday doings, there have definitely been periods of long hiatus. I also kept to the easier identifications and didn’t invest time and energy in the challenging ones (I’m looking at you Empidonax flycatchers). When the pandemic hit, I joined the many people taking up the hobby – in my case it was getting active again and trying to level up a little. So I have a unique perspective to observe developments in the hobby while I’ve been away. As you might guess, these developments often involve the availability of internet-powered knowledge sources and other tools.

And now here’s the news-you-can-use: whether you’re already started up with birding or if you have a vague passing curiosity, after you finish reading this post, go download the smartphone app called “Merlin”.

The Merlin app was developed by the geniuses at one of the centers of excellence for ornithology (the scientific study of birds) in the US, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It works like this: when you hear some interesting birds, you open the app, hit the button, and it identifies the bird based on its song. If you read that sentence and thought “like Shazam”, the popular app that does the same thing for the unknown song you’re enjoying sitting in Starbucks …bingo! Merlin is Shazam for birds.

Identifying unseen birds by their song (“birding by ear”) is hard, an advanced skill painstakingly developed over many years. I am at the very beginning of my birding-by-ear journey. That’s why I’m very excited about Merlin. Not only do you get immediate identification help, you also get learning reinforcement right in the moment, the best kind – yes that song you hear that sounds like a drunk playing a broken flute really is a bald eagle (the militant screech you almost always hear from eagles in the movies is an overdubbed red-tailed hawk). But even better: it can improve the way you bird too. Out birding, I’ve lingered at a spot full of intriguing birdsong, fired up Merlin, and decided based on the results to stick around longer and try to put eyes on something interesting that Merlin says is nearby.

And for those who aren’t yet dedicated birders journeying into the field, just use it in your backyard or urban park! You’ll be surprised at what will turn up. You know you’re curious what that hyper little brown busybody nesting in your flowerpot is (spoiler alert: it’s probably a Carolina wren).

And here’s the deeper payoff: once you become familiar with the most common birds that are around you, you start to mentally check in with them as you go about your business outside. You soon come to learn the comings and goings of our migratory friends who are with you for short stretches of the year, an enriching addition to the anticipation that many of us enjoy as one season yields to the next. You’ve become “bird-aware”. That’s something that I think is rewarding enough in its own right, but also leads to becoming more “wildlife-aware” and “environmentally aware”, and I think only good can come from that. At least that’s what I learned from Ranger Rick.

Here’s the link: https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Happy birding!

Vowel-rich Novel Titles

My friend Nicki is a novelist. She once wrote a novel called I, Iago in which that Shakespearean bad boy gets to tell his side of the story (she wrote a bunch of other novels too!). You can imagine her delight upon learning that her novel was a clue in last Friday’s crossword puzzle for the New York Times. That’s some serious cultural credibility, right there. I like the idea of being that well known for a non-felonious accomplishment.

Anyway, it occurred to me that employing so many vowels in your novel’s title could really make your name in the crossword cluing business. I wrote Nicki a short note: “You should write more novels with 4 vowels in 5 letters. Could be a real money-spinner in after-market crosswords.”

I even included a few suggestions of my own. That’s the kind of helpful friend I am. Here they are.

“O, Ahoy!” – Sailor ashore finds love, or something close enough.
“Eli II” – An account of inventor Eli Whitney’s forgotten heir.
“Aiean” – A plucky native of Oahu builds Hawaii’s largest watercress farm.
“Id Eau” – A Freudian thriller set on the banks of the Seine.
“I, Ilie” – A faux-memoir of Romanian tennis star Ilie Năstase.
“A Roué” – A debauched cleric’s inconclusive collision with redemption.

There! I’ve done the hard work. All you have to do is write the novel and crossword fame will be yours, assuming you can escape oblivion, find a few readers, and endear yourself to aspiring cruciverbalists.

But maybe you don’t want to write a novel. I understand. Not all of us are novelists. In that case, I challenge you to come up with a 5-letter 4-vowel title (and summary) of your own. Leave some winners in the comments!