Archive for July, 2010

Spy vs. Spy

The only convincing explanation I have heard of the recent USA-Russian Federation espionage scandal, where Russian sleeper agents were living underground in the USA this last decade, deeply embedded in American suburbia, and regularly sending useless (and mostly already-public) information back to Moscow Center is this:  That this was an elaborate financial scam with the sleeper agents being children of the KGB nomenklatura, and that embedding them in the USA as “spies” was a way to transfer state funds to them, in hard currency, legally.  Of all the explanations I have heard, this is the only one which explains how the operation could have continued so long without people at the Center raising objections to the poor quality and low frequency of the information being transmitted.   This explanation also perhaps explains the relatively muted reactions of both administrations  – the USA and the RF – over the case:  If these people weren’t real spies, Moscow would not be upset at them losing their cover.  If Washington also knew that they weren’t real spies, and knew that Moscow believed them not to be real spies, then Washington would not be too upset at learning of their long undercover presence.




Art: Katie Allen at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno

At the fine Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno, Wales, there is currently an exhibition of various contemporary artists, We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau.  By far the most interesting works there, and the only reason for my visit, are some paintings by Katie Allen.

Allen paints intricate landscapes with acrylics, making use of the key features of these paints:  that they are water-resistant when dry, and dry quickly, so can be over-painted on one another.  Her paintings involve intricate borders and highlights, each flower and leaf bordered, with little dots of colour inside every one, an effect which must take hours of tedious, careful, mind-numbing work to produce.   A reproduction of her Autumnal Arboretum (2009, Acrylic on Board, 153 x 122 cm) is shown here (courtesy of the artist’s website), although no reproduction can do justice to the intricacy of the actual painted work:

I find Allen’s work reminiscent of that of Peter Doig in its intricate representation of a landscape; I am reminded of paintings such as Doig’s White Canoe (1991), with its detailed lake-surface reflections of scrub and trees.   Both are modern-day descendants of the carefully-observed landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  As with Doig’s work, I feel Allen’s efforts and skill are wasted on representational art.   With such facility, intelligent imagination, and obvious energy, she could produce very fine abstractions.

Of course, all art is abstract, even fully representational art, since art is a manifestation of what is in the artist’s mind, of what the artist sees, not what exists in the world outside his or her mind.   Clearly what is in Allen’s mind is a distortion – to me, a very attractive and compelling distortion – of the real landscapes that the paintings point to.  Despite being representational, her work is much closer to the abstract end of the spectrum than to the realistic, pictorial end.  By being very nearly, but not actually, abstract, her work unsettles me.  In other words, her methods and  technique are highly abstract yet still the paintings point to some real-world landscapes, and these two – the methods and the semantic signified – are in conflict.

How much stronger and more compelling Allen’s work would be if her paintings did not point to anything ostensibly real and external, but were pure abstractions.  As with all purely abstract art (for example, music, islamic tilings), the paintings could well still point somewhere, but precisely where would only emerge with the act of painting and the act of viewing.   Allowing the meaning of the work to emerge rather than pre-defining it, however, is so contrary to what most of us moderns think artists are doing (that they are communicating a message to us, and that message is pre-existing in themselves) that doing this requires some courage.  The strength of Allen’s existing work shows that she has this quality.

POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-23):  More on the abstract nature of all art, and the relationship between object, eye, mind, and hand,  here.

Reference:

Anon [2010]: We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau.  Exhibition Catalog, Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, Wales. 2010-05-22 to 2010-09-04.




By their voice ye shall know them

Effective strategies are often counter-intuitive.  If you are speaking to a large group, some of whom are speaking to each other, your natural tendency will be to try to speak over them, to speak more loudly.  But doing this just encourages the talkers in the audience to increase their levels of speech, and so an arms race results.   Better for you to speak more softly, which means that audience talkers can hear themselves more clearly over you, and so typically, and unthinkingly, drop the levels of their own speech.

A recent issue of ACM Transactions on Computer Systems (ACM TOCS) carries a paper with a wonderful example of this principle.  Faced with a denial-of-service attack, they propose that a server ask all its clients to increase their messages to the server.  Most likely, attackers among the clients are already transmitting at their local full capacity, and so are unable to do this, which means that messages from attackers will form a decreasing proportion of all messages received by the server.   The paper abstract is:

This article presents the design, implementation, analysis, and experimental evaluation of speak-up, a defense against application-level distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), in which attackers cripple a server by sending legitimate-looking requests that consume computational resources (e.g., CPU cycles, disk). With speak-up, a victimized server encourages all clients, resources permitting, to automatically send higher volumes of traffic. We suppose that attackers are already using most of their upload bandwidth so cannot react to the encouragement. Good clients, however, have spare upload bandwidth so can react to the encouragement with drastically higher volumes of traffic. The intended outcome of this traffic inflation is that the good clients crowd out the bad ones, thereby capturing a much larger fraction of the server’s resources than before. We experiment under various conditions and find that speak-up causes the server to spend resources on a group of clients in rough proportion to their aggregate upload bandwidths, which is the intended result.

Reference:

Michael Walfish, Mythili Vukurutu, Hari Balakrishnan, David Karger and Scott Shenker [2010]:  DDoS defense by offense.  ACM Transactions on Computer Systems, 28 (1), article 3.




Berger on drawing

Following Bridget Riley on drawing-as-thinking, I have been reading Jim Savage’s fascinating collection of writings by John Berger on the topic of drawing.  Although Berger does not say so, he is talking primarily about representational drawing – the drawing of things in the world (whether seen or remembered) or things in some imagined world – not abstract drawing.  Some excerpts:

  • “For the artist drawing is discovery.  And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true.  It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.” (page 3)
  • “It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking.  A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.  Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it.  Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it:  the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.  Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical.  Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you.” (page 3)
  • “A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – seen, remembered or imagined.” (page 3)
  • “A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at.  . . .  Within the instant of the sight of a tree is established a life-experience.” (page 71)
  • “All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand.  Eloquent because it touches something fundamental.  How do we know?  We do not know.  We simply recognize.”   (page 80)
  • “Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious.  What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.”  (page 80)
  • “The pen with which I’m writing is the one with which I draw.  And there are times, like tonight, when it won’t flow and when it demands a bath or a hand moving differently.  All drawings are a collaboration, like most circus-acts.” (page 110)
  • “where are we, during the act of drawing, in spirit?  Where are you at such moments – moments which add up to so many, one might think of them as another life-time?    Each pictorial tradition offers a different answer to this query.  For instance, the European tradition, since the Renaissance, places the model over there, the draughtsman here, and the paper somewhere in between, within arms reach of the draughtsman, who observes the model and notes down what he has observed on the paper in front of him.   The Chinese tradition arranges things differently.  Calligraphy, the trace of things, is behind the model and the draughtsman has to search for it, looking through the model.   On his paper he then repeats the gestures he has seen calligraphically.  For the Paleolithic shaman, drawing inside a cave, it was different again.  The model and the drawing surface were in the same place, calling to the draughtsman to come and meet them, and then trace, with his hand on the rock, their presence.” (page 123)

Reference:

John Berger [2005]:  Berger on Drawing.  Edited by Jim Savage.  Aghabullogue, Co. Cork, Eire:  Occasional Press.  Second Edition, 2007.

I have written more on the relationships between hand and mind and eye and object here.




Concat 2: Art criticism

Here a concatenation of various recent articles on art which have interested me, and a reproduction of International Klein Blue, Yves Klein’s patented colour.




Poem: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

An excerpt from Walt Whitman’s superb Sea-Drift, written in 1859, about alone-ness and becoming a poet.

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child
leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they
were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.


Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing
them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun.’
While we bask, we two together.

Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.

And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.

. . .

Previous poems are here.

Reference:

Walt Whitman [1982]:  Complete Poetry and Collected Prose.  Selected by Justin Kaplan. New York, NY, USA:  The Library of America.




Strategy vs. Tactics

What is the difference between strategy and tactics?  In my experience, many people cannot tell the difference, and/or speak as if they conflate the two. Personally, I have never had difficulty telling them apart.

The 18th-century British naval definition was that tactics are for when you can see the enemy’s ships, and strategies are for when you cannot.  When you can see the enemy’s ships there are still important unknown variables, but you should know how many ships there are, where they are located, and (within some degree of accuracy) what hostile actions they are capable of.  If you are close enough to identify the particular enemy ships that you can see, you may also know then the identities of their captains.  With knowledge of past engagements, you may thus be able to estimate the intentions, the likely behaviors, and the fighting will of the ships’ crews.   None of these variables are known when the ships lay beyond the horizon.

Thus, tactics describe your possible actions when you know who the other stakeholders are in the situation you are in, and you have accurate (although not necessarily precise) information about their capabilities, goals, preferences, and intentions.   To the extent that such knowledge is missing is the extent to which reasoning about potential actions becomes strategic rather than tactical.  These distinctions are usually quite clear in marketing contexts.  For instance, licking envelopes for a client’s direct marketing campaign is not strategic consultancy, nor is finding, cleaning, verifying, and compiling the addresses needed by the client to put on the envelopes. (This is not to say that either task can be done well without expertise and experience.) Advising a client to embark on a direct marketing campaign rather than (say) a television ad campaign is closer to strategic consultancy, although in some contexts it may be mere tactics. Determining ahead of time which segments of the potential customer population should be targeted with an advertising campaign is definitely strategic, as is deciding whether or not to enter (or stay) in the market.

The key difference between the two is that articulating a strategy requires taking a view on the values of significant uncertain variables, whereas articulating a tactic generally does not.




Writing Shakespeare

Since the verified facts of Shakespeare’s life are so few, even a person normally skeptical of conspiracy theories could well consider it possible that the plays and poetry bearing the name of William Shakespeare were written by A. N. Other. But just who could have been that other?

Well, even with few verified facts about Shakespeare’s life, we can know some facts about the author of these texts by reading the texts themselves.  Whoever was the author must have spent a lot of time hanging about with actors, since knowledge of, and in-jokes about, acting and the theatre permeate the plays.  Also, whoever it was must have grown up in a rural district, not in a big city, since the author of the plays and the poetry knows a great deal about animals and plants, about rural life and its myths and customs, and rural pursuits.  Whoever it was also had close connections to Warwickshire, since the plays contain words specific to that area.

Also, whoever it was must have had close personal or family connections to the old religion (Catholicism), since many of the plays make detailed reference to, or indeed seem to be allegories of, the religious differences of the time (Wilson 2004, Asquith 2005). Whoever it was was close enough to the English court to write plays which discussed current political issues using historically-relevant allegories, yet not so close that these plays themselves or their performances (with just one exception) were seen as interventions in court intrigues.

Whoever it was also knew well the samizdat poetry of Robert Southwell, poet and Jesuit martyr, since some of the poetry and plays respond directly to Southwell’s poetry and prose (Wilson 2004, Klause 2008). To have responded to Southwell’s writing before 1595, as the writer of Shakespeare’s narrative poems and early plays did, required access to Southwell’s unpublished, illegal, dissident manuscripts.  Southwell and Shakespeare were cousins (Klause 2008 has a family tree).

And finally whoever it was was not a playwright or poet already known to us, since these texts differ stylistically from all other written work of the period, while exhibiting strong stylistic similarity among themselves.

There is only one candidate who fits all these criteria, and his name is William Shakespeare. Anyone seriously proposing an alternative to Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry needs to explain how that person could have written poetry and plays with all the features described above. Every alternative theory so far advanced – Kit Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, et al. – falls at the factual hurdles created by the texts themselves.

Note: Klause [2008, p. 40] presents a genealogy which shows that Robert Southwell and William Shakespeare shared a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Sir Robert Belknap (c. 1330-1401, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of England, 1377-1388) – Southwell through his mother, Bridget Copley, and Shakespeare through his mother, Mary Arden.  In addition, the great-great-grandfather, Sir John Gage, of Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, was also grandfather to Edward Gage, husband of Margaret Shelley, Southwell’s mother’s first cousin and, like his mother, a descendant of Sir Robert Belknap.  In the extended families of Elizabethan society, all three – Shakespeare, Southwell and Wriothesley – would have been seen as, and would have known each other as, cousins.   The bonds across such extended family relationships were strong.   Having lived in contemporary societies (in Southern Africa) where extended families still play a prominent role (Bourdillon 1976), the strong loyalty and close brotherhood engendered across such apparently-distant connections is perfectly understandable to me, if not yet to all Shakespeare scholars.

References:

Clare Asquith [2005]: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  UK: Public Affairs.

Michael F. Bourdillon [1976]: The Shona Peoples: An Ethnography of the Contemporary Shona, with Special Reference to their Religion. Shona Heritage Series. Gwelo, Rhodesia (now Gweru, Zimbabwe):  Mambo Press.

John Klause [2008]:  Shakespeare, the Earl and the Jesuit.  Madison, NJ, USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Anne R. Sweeney [2006]: Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia:  Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape 1586-1595. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.

Richard Wilson [2004]: Secret Shakespeare:  Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.




Concat 1: The GEC

A post to concatenate interesting material on the GFC and the GEC:




Informatics

A recent issue of the Communications of the ACM has an interesting article about degrees in Informatics, by Dennis Groth and Jeffrey Mackie-Mason.  They present a nice definition of the subject in this para:

The vision for informatics follows from the natural evolution of computing. The success of computing is in the resolution of problems, found in areas that are predominately outside of computing. Advances in computing—and computing education—require greater understanding of the problems where they are found: in business, science, and the arts and humanities. Students must still learn computing, but they must learn it in contextualized ways. This, then, provides a definition for informatics: informatics is a discipline that solves problems through the application of computing or computation, in the context of the domain of the problem. Broadening computer science through attention to informatics not only offers insights that will drive advances in computing, but also more options and areas of inquiry for students, which will draw increasing numbers of them to study computation.

Sadly, these views are not uncontroversial, as the online experiences which motivated my parody here illustrate.  The interesting experience of Georgia Tech, where the School of Computing is split into three parts  – Computer Science; Interactive Computing; and Computational Science and Engineering, –  is described here.

Reference:

Dennis P. Groth and Jeffrey K. MacKie-Mason [2010]: Why an Informatics degree?  Isn’t computer science enough? Communications of the ACM, 53 (2):  26-28.  Available here.

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