Category Archives: The Virtual World

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

Featured Blog: MJF Images

By Vladimir Brezina

One of the pleasures of blogging is seeing what your fellow bloggers are up to. Some blogs are quite spectacular. We’ve long wanted to start a series of posts featuring those blogs, the blogs that we particularly admire. So, here goes!

There’s a particular reason just now (read on!) to start our series with MJF Images. It’s a landscape and nature photography blog by Michael Flaherty. But it’s a photography blog with a difference:

Instead of a strict focus on photo how-to, gear and the like, I pass on knowledge about the places and people pictured. That means tips and recommendations from an experienced adventure traveler. It also means learning about the geology, nature, wildlife and cultural history of the photo destinations, all from a long-time teacher & earth scientist. And since I am a working photographer as well, I’ll pass on ways you can successfully capture the atmosphere of a place or the essence of a person or animal.

Michael tells you about his favorite photo locations (many of them in the American Pacific Northwest, where he is based) and how to get there. He tells you about the best angles, the best light and time of day. And yes, he does tell you,  in his Friday Foto Talk posts, how to use photographic techniques—both equipment and elements of composition—to capture the scene in front of you the way you imagine it in your mind’s eye. I myself have certainly learned a lot from a careful reading of Michael’s posts!

And of course, the blog, and the associated galleries, are full of beautiful images. Here is just one (reproduced with Michael’s permission):

Spotlighted

Michael has been photographing, seriously, for about five years now. His aim is to become a professional photographer. It’s not a matter of photographic quality—his photos are already there—but, as usual, of supporting himself through photography. (Many of his photos are for sale.)

But just about a month ago, disaster struck. In scrambling about for the best shot, a momentary lapse—and his camera, a year-old Canon 5D III, tumbled down a waterfall. Although, at some risk to himself, Michael was able to retrieve it, it was waterlogged and totalled.

It was his one and only good-quality camera. In an instant, a whole promising career gone? No. Michael started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to get back on his feet. Contributors get a choice of Michael’s photos, as well as his forthcoming e-book, “a comprehensive look at the art of nature photography”.

The campaign is doing well—but it could do better.

So, take a look at Michael’s photos, and, if the spirit moves you, do help him get back to what he does so well!

Book Review: From Pigeons to Tweets

By Johna Till Johnson

From Pigeons to TweetsFrom Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.

Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.

The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).

Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.

That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)

What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)

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One Year of Wind Against Current

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has gone by since we published  our first post on May 9, 2011.

We have to credit Tugster with the idea. He’d asked us for a guest post about a kayaker’s-eye view on maritime traffic and life on the water. We still haven’t written that one (one day soon, Will, we promise!).

But we pondered the idea…  And meanwhile, Vlad kept taking photos, and Johna kept writing essays, until the idea of a blog was born.

Blogs are harder than they look, as anyone who writes on a regular basis knows well.

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Beauty and Censorship

By Johna Till Johnson (with Vladimir Brezina)

Shortly after I landed in Cleveland this morning, I drove by a sight that made me gasp with excitement: The Detroit Superior Bridge. Despite the name, it’s actually in Cleveland, and was built in 1914-1918.

Why am I so excited? Regular readers of this blog might recall that I love the shape of the Hell Gate Bridge, and its sister the Bayonne Bridge. And the Detroit Superior Bridge has the identical double arches, although it’s more than a decade older than the other two.

It’s like discovering an older half-sibling you never knew existed—and learning she’s not only beautiful, but graceful and accomplished, and living in a city you’d never have expected.

You might also notice that the above link is to About.com, rather than Wikipedia. Why? Today (Wednesday, January 18), Wikipedia has joined other sites around the Web in a blackout protesting the proposed SOPA /PIPA antipiracy bills currently in front of the U.S. Congress.

If you’ve somehow missed the controversy, here it is in a nutshell: SOPA/PIPA (the acronyms stand for Stop Online Piracy Act, the House version, and Protect IP Act, the Senate version) is intended to protect against online piracy by granting broad new powers to the U.S. Government when it comes to blocking access to sites that deliver pirated content.

That all sounds good, and you’d expect that I, as a founder of a business based on intellectual property, not to mention a regular recreational blogger, would be strongly in favor of strengthening protections against  piracy—as, in fact, I am.

But SOPA/PIPA goes too far—way, way too far. There is plenty to hate about these two proposals, but the main issue is that, should they pass, the government could shut down sites that have not been proven to deliver pirated content.

Instead, all that’s required is an allegation.

That’s wrong for all sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that in a free country, I shouldn’t be able to stop you from exercising your rights by alleging that mine have been violated. A court of law has to agree with me that my assessment of the situation is, in fact, accurate.

Moreover, consider the potential for abuse: How long before, say, Americans United for Life and the National Abortion Rights League begin accusing each other of posting pirated content? About a New York nanosecond.

Sure, the bills’ drafters say that the laws aren’t intended to be used that way, that they’re primarily focused on offshore sites, yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah.

The reality is that, regardless of intention, the  proposed legislation can easily be abused. And even if used properly, it’s far too broad and needs to be re-thought from the ground up.

By all means, let’s protect intellectual property. But doing it with vague laws that introduce worrying new powers is the wrong way to go about it.

If you agree with us, please write your Congresscritters and advise them to do the right thing when it comes to SOPA/PIPA: Vote ‘em down.

Versatile Blogger Award

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

We’ve received a Versatile Blogger Award! This award, which is passed on from blogger to blogger, honors “the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the subjects covered, the level of love displayed in the words on the virtual page…(and)  the quality of the photographs and the level of love displayed in the taking of them.”

Composer in the Garden has passed the award to us, and we’re thrilled and honored by this recognition by a fellow blogger, particularly one whose own blog we follow and admire. And now we need to pass the award on in our turn…

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Spam Poetry

By Vladimir Brezina

As surely as a flame attracts moths, a comment box attracts spam—with pretty much the same results. WordPress has an excellent spam filter that kills most spam outright. But occasionally it presents a particularly delectable piece of spam, under quarantine, for our enjoyment.

These spam comments, which the filter has quarantined but not killed outright presumably because it’s not quite sure whether they are spam or not, have a distinctive tone. They are, indeed, like real comments—but from some kind of mad dream.

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