Monthly Archives: May 2006

Computers – Science or Magic?

In a discussion of what it takes to be “computer literate” – ie. having sufficient computer skills to manage – one slashdot poster noted the following:

Just for fun consider this: Computer support technicians and doctors are similar in many ways. They are both supposed to be highly paid, highly trained, highly skilled, and highly knowledgeable about an extremely complex machine that they did not design or create and of which cannot possibly know everything about. Often, they rely on their limited experience to make a best guess about the root cause of the machine’s particular problem and then follow up with lots of testing to see if they are correct or not.

In my readings, I’ve several similar parallels between expert computer users and scientific communities, and the comparison to doctors is no unusual. Famous computer scientist Fred Brooks wrote a similar comparison in his classic “The Mythical Man-Month“. Brooks specifically made the analogy between a computer programming project team and a surgical team at any big hospital. Featuring only one chief programmer or “surgeon” holding the scalpel, and all the others supporting him. Though not everyone agree that this is the best way to develop software. Brooks’ idea is a remnant from an old-fashioned corporate mentality that has since been left behind.

But the parallels with science continue, not just in Brooks’ work, but also in anthropologist Chris Kelty’s more recent examination of how Open Source reputation economy works.

I find the parallel to doctors quite telling, though. Both groups have immense technical vocabularies and authority to know and do right. To a certain degree, their understanding and work appears as magic for the casual observer. As Science Fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke noted:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There seems to be little difference in eating the pill the doctor gave you, and magically feeling better; and having the computer support guy magically connect you to the Internet or restore your deleted files.

Of course, we know that there’s a perfectly valid technical explanation behind all of these instances, but sometimes even the experts have a hard time understanding or explaining them. A good account of this can be found in Ellen Ullman’s book “the Bug” in which an apparently inexplicable program bug slowly drives a software engineer insane as he tries to solve it.

This also goes a bit of the way to explain the frequent use of jargon such as “automagically“, “casting the runes“, “black magic” and “Wizard“.

I recently read Erik Davis’ “Techgnosis” which tries to fuse technology and mysticism together. He has a few interesting points, including some of the above, but mostly he seems to be a little too fascinated with random loonies. I’m still looking for a good discussion of this subject.

The Mobile Generation

My friend and fellow anthropological fieldworker, Geraldine, is currently doing her graduate fieldwork in Toronto, studying how young Canadians use mobile phones to manage social relations and the culture that arise around that piece of technology. After having some initial trouble getting access to the field (some bureaucracy and permit-juggling had to be negotiated), she’s entered the field proper.

She’s put up a blog about her fieldwork and it will be interesting to see where it’ll take her. Exciting stuff.

New phone, new id

I’ve received my new SIM-card, and have plugged it into an old phone I’ve borrowed from my friend Stefan. That means I’m back in the mobile phone business. Unfortunately, I’ve lost all your numbers, so send me text message to make it easy for me to get back in touch! Thanks!

Also. all of my id cards that were stolen have resurfaced. Of course, now I’ve ordered new versions of most of them, so it’s not really that helpful, but nevertheless. It’s good to know people won’t be abusing my identity out there.

Jodido pero acostumbrado

I’ve been robbed. No really. Returning home late Thursday night after having been to a theatre festival in Malmö, I went to bed dead tired. I didn’t lock my door. I never lock my door when I’m home because what are the odds that somebody would try to steal stuff from a 11 m2 room with somebody sleeping in it?

Apparently, the odds are not that bad at all. There was a big party at my hall of residence on Thursday night. Lots of strangers about, and unfortunately, some of these had figured out that you can sneak upstairs and take stuff from people’s rooms. So they went to my room after the party had died down, sneaked in and grabbed my mobile phone, my wallet and my mp3 player.

I didn’t notice anything at all. They’d probably just been in there for like 30 seconds, but it’s still all kinds of creepy. So yesterday I went through the motions, reporting the crime, blocking my credit card and my phone, ordering a new SIM card and various other ID cards, feeling slighted in a rather unspectacular way.

It seems my insurance most likely won’t cover this, because I should have locked my door. It isn’t a case of “breaking-and-entering” it is merely “simple theft” which I should have been able to prevent myself. So now I’m trying wrap my head around the fact that people are in fact crazy enough to bluff their way into a hall of residence, wander up to the 4th floor and into a random room to search through people’s coat and jeans pockets to make away with stuff that most of all has value for me.

Especially losing my mobile phone is a kick in the teeth. If you’ve been trying to get in touch with me, then I’m sorry: I can’t come to the phone. I’ll have to start all over with my collection of phone numbers as I naturally didn’t bother to do a backup of my SIM card.


A password lesson learned

Since most hackers use PGP encryption keys to sign their mail to prove their identity, I decided that I probably should have an encryption key pair to sign my communications in hacker circles. So a few weeks back, while on Easter vacation, I found a nice guide describing the use of PGP (which stands for Pretty Good Privacy) and their Free Software alternative GPG (which is an acronym for GNU Privacy Guard), and created my own key pair.

The basic idea is that you have a public key which people can use to encrypt messages to you, and which only you can unlock by using your private key. Thus public and private keys fit together in pairs. One locks, the other unlocks. You use a passphrase to decrypt mail with your private key. The guide I used describes the passphrase thus:

A passphrase is like a password, but is longer, can contain spaces, and is supposed to be impossible to guess. Think of a passphrase as a super-password. Use a long sentence, or a line from one of your favorite songs, spaces and punctuation included. Oh, and if you ever forget your passphrase, there is NO way to get it back.

In order to encrypted mails to somebody else, you need their public key, and generally, most security-aware people on the net prefer to sign their emails with their key to casually prove their identity. These identities are trusted through a mechanism called a Web of Trust which depends on other people signing your key, assigning trust to the validity of your key and the identity that it represents (ie. you!).

All of this is pretty important stuff, since these keys can quickly come to represent your identity on the net – especially if you’re signing all you emails with it.

Anyway, I created a key pair in order to sign the Ubuntu Code of Conduct to show my good will towards the project I’m participating in. I managed as much, with a bit of trial and error, and was quite pleased with myself, having succeeded in creating my online signature.

Now, three weeks later, I realize to my horror, that I’ve forgotten my passphrase, having only used it once! I’ve spent a fair while trying to remember it but to no avail. It seems gone for good! Having carefully crafted a digital proof of my existence, I promptly manage to forget it!

And since I didn’t read the instructions that carefully, I didn’t make a Revocation Certificate, so now there that public key is irrevocably out there, since it is so secure that nobody else will be able to decrypt it!

I realize that this is the totally obvious newbie mistake to make, but there’s nothing to do but swallow my pride and try again. So this time, I’ve picked passphrase I can remember – honestly! – and will try out using it straight away. I’ve added my new key to my Launchpad account and this key (dated today, the 1st of May 2006) is the one that I’ll be using.

While this one, dated April 11th 2006, is less than useless. A classic case of the human element in computing being a little too weak.

This raises the interesting question of how we should save these passwords now safe-keeping so much of our correspondence and personal data. In the future, will biographers get access to – for instance – Salman Rushdie’s hotmail account? What happens to your passwords when you die?