Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recursion: The Story of 'Transistor'

This post will be a little bit different.

I recently finished the game 'Transistor' by Supergiant Games. Actually, I finished it twice, because the game immediately invites a second playthrough. This is primarily because of the nature of its story. SuperGiant has chosen to parcel out the story through nudges and hints rather than spoon feed it to us as most games do. This is a story that invites discussion. What does the ending mean? What is the nature of the world the game takes place in? Having completed a second playthrough, I thought I had the basics, but I headed to the forums in hopes of filling in some gaps in my knowledge.

But for once the collective wisdom of forumers failed to inform. There is a lot of speculation about the story and the significance of the ending, some of which I found helpful, but generally I think players who have finished the game are confused. There are some relatively straightforward clues that I think most players are missing. So in this post I'm going to set my thoughts on Transistor's story down in writing. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I hope I can nudge people in the right direction. I think this is the rare game that will reward deep and meticulous analysis, and I have faith that fans of the game will provide that in the future and have a great deal to add to this.

But first, let me start with a brief overview of the beginning of the plot for the uninitiated. This is the plot as it can be gleaned from the first fifteen minutes of the game:
Transistor begins with a woman named Red kneeling next to the body of a man impaled with a giant sword. The sword lights up and says, "Hey Red, we're not gonna get away with this are we?" We quickly learn that Red is a pop singer who lives in a futuristic city named Cloudbank, where the citizenry vote on everything, including the weather, the color of the sky and the layout of the city itself.
Red has survived an assassination attempt by four individuals who call themselves the Camerata, however her voice has been stolen. The sword that they attempted to kill her with is known as 'the transistor'. When Red retrieves the Transistor she discovers it gives her special powers, including the ability to absorb what appear to be the souls of dead people. Red sets out looking for answers as a mysterious, robotic force known as 'The Process' pursues her. 
So much for what you might call 'the known world'. We now set out for the speculative edges of our map, emblazoned with the dread words Here be spoilers!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, May 5th, 2014. Pop quiz time! Clear your desks and take out your number two pencil and a sheet of scratch paper. Your time starts now.

Once you've put down your pencils and turned in your answers you may enjoy this tongue-in-cheek scientific paper illustrating the limits of randomized controlled trial. Or these pictures of bicycle taxidermy.

Friday, May 2, 2014

English vs. Mandarin Chinese

The curious thing about English's status as the global lingua franca is that it is not in fact the most widely spoken language in the world. That honor goes to Mandarin Chinese, which clocks just over a billion speakers. English is only the second most widely spoken, and it has barely half the number of native speakers that Mandarin has. This would not appear to be bode well for English, right?

With the 'news' this week that China has surpassed the US as the world's largest economy by certain, highly specific measures, a person might reasonably wonder if Mandarin Chinese won't soon become a threat to the privileged status of English.

Over at Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum says, Sorry, not a chance:
Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.
I've previously written about language longevity and how some languages survive for millennia even as most die off. Linguist Nicholas Ostler contends that strongly centralized societies with high population densities are the most likely to preserve their languages for the long term. The poster children for this are Egyptian and, yes, Chinese. Chinese has been spoken in some form or other for at least 5,000 years. It seems very well positioned to continue to be spoken within eastern Asia for another few thousand.

But the requirements for being a successful lingua franca are quite different. Virtually every lingua franca has started as a language of trade and commerce, or sometimes religion. First the British and then the Americans have been busily colonizing and exporting for the last few centuries, taking English with them wherever they went. Even when they have left a place the inhabitants have often found it convenient to continue using English to communicate with other colonial nations.

This is all to say nothing about how English speakers found themselves sitting on top of the explosion of mass communication technologies during the 20th century.

Meanwhile, one might say, the Chinese have been mostly concerned with the enigma of being Chinese. There hasn't been any big push to bring Chinese religion, Chinese technology, Chinese movies or Chinese thinking to the rest of the world. Perhaps the Chinese feel that mastering their own society is difficult enough without also trying to foist it on the rest of the world. Or perhaps the sheer gravitational pull of one-and-a-half billion people and five thousand years of history makes it difficult for them to escape their own cultural orbit.

We would have to see a pretty serious change in China's outlook for Mandarin to have any real prospects as a global lingua franca. In the meantime, English's dominance only continues to grow.

For more thoughts on English as a global language, see these posts:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, March 17, 2014. Medical science will some day instantly diagnose disease, cure illnesses painlessly and make us smarter and fitter human beings. Someday. In the mean time, we have this:
Also, there's bad news for corporate good old boys: booth babes don't work. And, infrequently asked questions: are there any super bad-ass Catholic weapons? And, you can't dig a tunnel straight through the earth and come out in China. This map shows why.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings, traveler, and welcome to Friday, January the 31st 2014. Technology is doing weird stuff to us, traveler. Weird stuff.
In case that wasn't silly enough for you, here are cats taking selfies. Also, a hilarious write-up of the latest questionable Japanese invention: a bra that can only be opened by 'true love'.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Should Genetic Testing Be Required After Successful Fertility Treatments?

That's the question one family is asking after learning that their daughter Ashley is genetically unrelated to her father Jeff. Accidental specimen mix up at the University of Utah fertility clinic where Ashley was conceived? Nope. It appears to have been the deliberate work of a troubled but intelligent clinic employee named Tom Lippert.
Paula discovered that after marrying his third wife and being released from prison, Tom had lived in Minnesota for a few years. He eventually moved to Salt Lake City, taking classes at BYU, and his first job was working in the Reproductive Technologies fertility clinic where he was employed for nine years from 1986-1995. This begs the question: Could he have fathered hundreds of children? Paula realized that those dozens of photos that Tom so proudly displayed behind his desk may have been his biological children.
You can read the whole, bizarre saga here. The story appears on a geneology and genetic testing website and has a strong slant in favor of services like 23andMe, but is fascinating nonetheless.

The University of Utah's refusal to follow up on the Lippert case and see if he may have surreptitiously fathered children for other clinic patients is troubling, to say the least.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Snowden Affair

The New World

The world changed in 2013. There was the time before Edward Snowden, and there was the time after Edward Snowden. We live in the time after, and we can never go back to the way things were.

On May 20th, 2013, Edward Snowden, a geeky young NSA contractor, boarded a flight from Hawaii to Hong Kong, knowing that he would probably never be able to return. Snowden had already sent some or all of a massive document cache to Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian and Barton Gelllmen at the Washington Post. Those documents described the inner workings of a suite of immense surveillance programs run by the NSA. By June 6, the Guardian and the Post had published their first stories on an NSA program named PRISM, designed to capture, in bulk, the internet activity of users around the globe; and another program which collected the metadata for all phone calls made in the US.

These would be only the first in a series of continuing revelations. Before Snowden, any one of these news stories on its own would have been front page news for weeks. But what has really been exceptional is that the stories have kept coming, headline after headline, a relentless onslaught of disturbing revelations. The waves of leaks have become a flood,  smashing to pieces our naive pre-Snowden view of the world. Before Edward Snowden we believed that people mostly go about their lives unsurveilled, unnoticed by the intelligence mechanisms of the state. Now we know the opposite is true.

The State of Surveillance

Western governments, spearheaded by the United States’ National Security Agency, are systematically vacuuming up the internet history, call logs, emails, Skype calls, IMs and GPS location of entire nations*. They siphon data from the corporations that control the internet; both overtly, via National Security Letters, and covertly, tapping into the data streams flowing between servers. Where information is encrypted, they work to break that encryption. They store all of this information in huge data centers. And once they have this data, they can search through it effortlessly.

This didn’t happen overnight of course. Like most sea changes, it was going on right under our noses for years. June of 2013 is simply when the public began to wake up to what had already happened.

For years, the conventional wisdom within IT circles was that although the government theoretically could conduct mass surveillance using the tools of the information age, in practice it would be swamped by the sheer volume of data. Even if the practical details could be ironed out, conventional wisdom said, it would be too sophisticated an operation for a government agency to undertake. To understand the reasoning here, one need only look at the hash the Department of Health and Human Services has recently made of the rollout.

But government agencies are not all alike, and the NSA is one of the world’s foremost employers of mathematicians and cryptographers, respected even by the private sector. Meanwhile, over the last fifteen years private companies like Google and IBM have invested extensively in tools that can make sense of vast reams of data. These tools have the capability to mine enormous quantities of information for correct answers to specific queries. The NSA simply borrowed these tools and modified them to meet its needs.

There’s nothing obviously sinister about a simple Google web search or IBM’s Watson beating Ken Jennings at Jeopardy. Yet these are the foundational technologies that the NSA’s surveillance apparatus is built on. They have enabled the government to build a bulk surveillance system that made the contents of every email sent around the globe available to NSA operatives at a keystroke.

As a bonus to the NSA, those same companies don't simply develop tools, they provide services to the world's internet users. Billions of searches go through Google. The bulk of all emails are sent from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo addresses. People map out their social connections on Facebook. And the NSA has front door and back door access to all this data.

The NSA can do much more than passively scoop up data - they also have sophisticated tools of spycraft for targeting individual systems.Targeted hacks are known as Tailored Access Operations (TAO). NSA hackers can take advantage of the NSA’s collection of publicly un-identified software exploits, which the agency apparently purchases on the black market (the vulnerable software companies are not informed). Or they might just intercept that new computer you ordered and bug your USB cables.

Of course TAO is closer to the kind of activity people might expect of the NSA, targeted operations designed to conduct surveillance on specific persons of interest. But the NSA has also helped tap cell phones and setup fake internet cafes to capture diplomatic secrets. It has used its on-the-ground operatives to tap into undersea cables and data trunklines between tech company servers. Apparently deciding its power to compel these companies to turn over data was too limited or slow, the NSA has compromised them in secret.

The idea of omnipresent government surveillance is not a new one. George Orwell famously presaged it in his novel 1984. But to call the NSA’s various programs ‘Orwellian’ is actually selling them short, as Snowden himself noted: “The types of collection in [Orwell's] book—microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us—are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. “

The Machine in the television show Person of Interest is perhaps closer to the mark on surveillance tech: it listens to phone calls, watches CCTV cameras and tracks cell phones to identify threats. But Person’s fictional Machine is a black box that cannot be accessed by the government or any other third party. The NSA operates under no such restrictions.

In his book on the end of World War II, Retribution, Max Hastings notes that President Truman never gave an order to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Undoubtedly he could have given an order to stop it, but he did not, despite private misgivings. It seems that once we had the bomb, it was inevitable that we would use it on our enemies.

There is a lesson to be learned here about bureaucracy and technology.

The Bomb

Neither George W. Bush or Barack Obama, as far as we know, every instructed the intelligence community to build a surveillance state. But the tools were available, and after 9/11 the need was there, so it simply happened. And no one gave the order to stop it.

Some of the Snowden papers have revealed that the NSA tapped the cellphones of allied leaders and collected bulk data on friendly nations. The political fallout from these revelations has been substantial. The question has been asked, “Why would they do this?” The answer is simple: because they could, and no one told them not to.

The development and use of atomic weapons lead directly to the Cold War, which had an outsized effect on geopolitical events for the next forty years. Like atomic weaponry, the existence of bulk surveillance technology is a genie which cannot be put back in a bottle.

Even if the United States entirely dismantles the NSA’s surveillance programs, other countries will now build their own and probably already have. The question going forward is not whether these tools should exist. It is how to control them while safeguarding essential liberties.

Remember, during the 2012 presidential campaign there is no question that the government must have collected data on President Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, in its bulk data sweeps. There is no evidence that this information was used, but it was there. Preventing the abuse of the surveillance apparatus for personal gain or political power will be the story of the coming decades.

It’s impossible to know the long term effects of bulk surveillance tools today. But in the short term we are already seeing the fallout: the erosion of trust, both in government, in tech corporations and in the technology of the internet itself. The internet, the most important tool for economic growth and technological innovation of the past few decades, is built on trust. This open philosophy has enabled its wild, unfettered growth. But Snowden’s revelations have undermined that trust.

Private companies like Google and Facebook have been the gatekeepers of the open internet. Networking companies like Cisco have built the internet’s backbone. But we now know that the government goes in through front doors and back doors to access all the information we give to Google and Facebook. And the hardware that Cisco and other companies build has vulnerabilities intentionally built into it to give the government access to the data flowing through it.

The implication for other countries is immediate and dire: to use Google’s search, Facebook’s social network or Cisco’s routers is to hand your information over to the American government. Therefore, other countries will race to develop their own, safer, controlled search engines, social networks and network infrastructure. American technology companies will be hurt, badly. In the long term this is likely to lead to the Balkanization of the internet, as global inter-connectivity gives way to local, nationalized networks.

We already see this happening with non-democratic, authoritarian regimes. These developments will make this approach more attractive to democratic governments as well.

Revelations that the US has spied on nominal allies like Brazil, France, Germany and Spain have sparked predictable outrage from those countries. But its extremely likely that those countries have developed or are developing surveillance capabilities similar to the NSA.

And almost certainly there is some level of information exchange going on between the intelligence organizations of allied countries. We already know that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have a close working relationship. Among other advantages, relationships between intelligence agencies allow the agencies to off-load some of the more odious aspects of their surveillance while maintaining plausible deniability.

Re-thinking Edward Snowden

Some people see Edward Snowden as a traitor for revealing these kinds of ‘national security secrets’. In their view, no one was being harmed by these programs except for ‘bad guys’. The revelation of the existence of these programs has caused the real harm, not the programs themselves.

This is extremely short-sighted.

The NSA and other agencies may have found ways to scoop up private information en masse from the internet, but they have not stopped the internet from doing what it does best: spreading information. In the 21st century, the music and film industries have learned the hard way that the spread of data is virtually impossible to control. If you attempt, for instance, to release a film in one territory but not another, viewers in the excluded territory will simply download it for free. Albums by popular artists invariably leak before their official release dates.

The government appears to have believed it could keep its secrets forever, or at least long enough that it wouldn't matter. Any record exec could have told them differently: it was only a matter of time before those secrets leaked.

If leaks were inevitable, Edward Snowden may actually have been the best possible leaker the government could hope for. Young, American, ostensibly patriotic and certainly not leaning towards leftist politics, he has overseen the release of information in a way that has not compromised the identities of embedded agents or revealed the targets of anti-terror intelligence gathering operations. Snowden claims that his goal is to reform US intelligence agencies, not tear them down.

Compare this to the WikiLeaks document dumps where un-redacted State Department cables were accidentally released into the wild. Snowden and his journalist contacts have learned their lessons from WikiLeaks. The NSA documents have mostly been leaked as news stories, with very few of the original sources (believed to be up to 20,000 separate classified documents) surfacing.

If Snowden had been a radical activist similar to Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning he would not have been so circumspect about what documents he released, likely causing real, harmful damage to intelligence operations and operatives.

But that wouldn’t even begin to compare to an infiltration by a foreign agents. In the worst case scenario, a hostile intelligence agency could turn the NSA’s own tools against it, completely compromising their operations without them knowing. Indeed, we have no way of knowing that this hasn’t happened.

The NSA has tapped into trunk-lines, siphoned up emails and bugged the cellphones of foreign dignitaries. Who is to say that someone else hasn’t done the same thing to them?

The greatest damage Snowden’s leaks appear to have done is to the reputation of the NSA and the US government. But in many cases the government has undertaken actions without any consideration of the risk of those actions coming to light. For instance, the NSA tapped the cell phone of the German prime minister, Angela Merkel, an action that probably yielded little useful intelligence. Yet its revelation has had disastrous political ramifications. Is this Snowden’s fault for revealing it, or the NSA’s for undertaking it without considering the risks?

Once again, the availability of advanced surveillance technology has lead inevitably to its use, without any consideration for the consequences.

It is clear that within the bureaucracy of the intelligence community there has been a headlong rush to get their hands on every piece of data possible. Not just the NSA, but the FBI, the CIA and even the DEA are making use of bulk surveillance data. This has lead to the creation of a vast surveillance apparatus with very little real oversight. There was next to no discussion of the ramifications of this apparatus in terms of its political consequences, its threat to personal liberties, its potential economic impacts, or its dangers to our own national security.

At least, there was no discussion until June 2013.

The story of the 21st century may well prove to be the story of our attempts to control the myriad tools that now exist for monitoring our activities, our speech, our purchases and our friends.We have, in a sense, submitted to constant surveillance by a myriad of phones, tablets, laptops, web cams, CCTVs and other devices. In an eerie echo of 1984, even our TVs have the capability to spy on us. And the US government has taken full advantage of this.

In the pre-Snowden world, if you had told this writer that the government might be spying on him through his television, he would have written you off as a paranoid. Now he knows better. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we all know better.

This brave new world will have dangers unlike any we have faced before. We need to discuss it rather than heedlessly plunging into it without considering the consequences. In 2013, Edward Snowden started that conversation.

For that, we should thank him.

* This is just a partial list. At this point, it's safe to assume that if personal information is available in digital form, the NSA is collecting it.