[Beowulf] [tt] World's most powerful supercomputer goes online

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Mon Sep 3 11:42:19 PDT 2007

On Sun, 2 Sep 2007, Ellis Wilson wrote:

A very few things that I will reply to on list (really) and then I'll
quit, I promise.

> My friends also insist that I purport anarchist suggestions; rather, I
> feel that that the government is best kept as small as is possible.  The
> quote previously hints at the same.  As far as the rich and the strong,

Libertarian, not anarchist, although yes they blend together on one end
of the continuum where a "rabid libertarian" (as in foaming at the
mouth) meets the bomb thrower somewhere around the thinkings of Bakunin.
You don't sound like a Bakunite, though...:-)

> these are often not identical.  The rich enlist the strong (or more
> appropriately, the clever) and desire to do whatever it takes to
> continue in the path to money.  People (such as you and me) desire to
> use the Internet without great hindrance, and thus will either pay the
> government or a private organization (or do it ourselves, if the latter
> is possible) to secure our experience.  Last, plenty of people who don't
> deserve to get or be rich do (on and off the Internet) and thats a
> totally different argument.

Hmmm, so many things to address.  Darwin doesn't care about "deserve" --
that's an overlay of strictly human values on a natural stochastic
process that happens independent of human value or desire even as it
embraces them (they too arise out of a genetic optimization process, in
fact -- see "The Lucifer Principle" by Bloom for a lovely argument to
this effect).  As for the rich and the strong vs the people, well, how
much of Hobbes, Locke, John Stuart Mill should we work through?  Again
evolution as a mechanism doesn't care, but the optima being pursued are
natural self-consistent social constructs, not quite the "nature" Hobbes
was talking about, and they're pursued because they provide huge
evolutionary advantages compared to Hobbes's nature.  You may be much
bigger and stronger and meaner than I am as an individual, but mess with
me and you mess with my whole community and collectively we are vastly
stronger than ANY individual.  Ditto richer, ditto bigger, ditto meaner.
We the people are bad-assed tyrants whenever we choose to be.

So ultimately, philosophically the issue is our CHOICE as to just when
and where we wish to invoke the power of that community, that tyranny
over the individual.  One thing that makes the United States so
beautiful a country is its discovery that a balance that preserves the
lovely illusion of "human rights" that are held to be inalienable (which
is semantically null, of course, but near perfect poetry) and strictly
limits the power of the many over the few "works" amazingly well.  Well
enough to survive in a hostile world, if only by being able to remarket
this bit of seductive hogwash to many other competing culturals by means
of a bit of memetic sex and being lucky enough and strong enough and
rich enough to kick the butts of the handful of serious contenders for a
global social paradigm long enough to MAYBE have flipped the world into
the post-feudal era and into a state where nonviolent social evolution
is strongly favored over the violent kind.  I am unashamedly proud of my
country for this invention, and deeply revere Thomas Jefferson even as I
recognize up front that his declaration is ultimately a vision that
nucleates its own artificial reality, not the underlying reality itself.
No problem -- happens all the time in complex systems.

Nevertheless, from a purely pragmatic point of view the measure of
success is success, and Jefferson himself said not to get to attached to
any particular set of words representing lofty principles (not even
his), as he fully expected things to CHANGE -- he was perhaps unique
among all philosophers before and since in actually stating that up
front.  And so it is with the Internet.  It is what we make it.  By its
nature it cannot be linearly controlled as it is intrinsically a complex
landscape upon which individuals can seek personal advantage.  It has at
least some modes that are well-known to be self-destructing from e.g.
feedback (packet storms, anyone?).  It has more than enough resources
and complexity to enable nonlinear growth and chaotic dynamics.  It is,
in a word, potentially unstable, and there are a number of historical
cases that demonstrate that instability.

It can be DELIBERATELY destabilized by anyone that understands it well
enough and who controls more than a certain critical mass of attached
resources.  Morris did so accidentally but catastrophically.  Any number
of timed viruses since have done so deliberately but on a less
catastrophic scale.  At the same time, its growth has created an
environment where the "noise" (deliberately driven and random) has
increased fairly steadily as individuals seek any one of a variety of
personal advantages via exploiting it as a resource.  As I argued, the
deliberatedly introduced noise has become extremely expensive, in part
because a lot of it is engineered to be -- just like many creatures in
nature, it seeks to propagate itself and seek advantage at the expense
of others.

However, it is NOT nature, or rather it is an artificial nature.  If you
analyze the nature of the threat, you can see that one reason these
threats and annoyances are enjoying strong growth is because there is
little disincentive to bad practices.  Basically, if one abuses the hell
out of the network, nothing happens to you.  Even if you get caught.
With a tiny handful of noteworthy exceptions -- kiddie porn, overt
identity theft, identifiable fraud, stealing credit card numbers.

I personally do not think that this can be solved as a problem in
engineering, which is what everybody is trying.  Some aspects of it,
sure.  RSA helps.  Closing e.g the hole that permitted the Morris worm
to self-propagate certainly helped.  Antivirus software "helps",
although it is always behind the threat by its very nature and is a very
costly bit of engineering that clearly has not been successful (in part
because it isn't intrinsic and software engineering itself is inevitably
flawed).  People have been trying to solve it with engineering almost
from the beginning, some of them very bright people, and it isn't
working.  If anything, we're losing relative ground.  If it weren't for
Moore's Law, the network would probably have crashed to the ground long
ago, in fact -- we get by by growing the resource at a rate competitive
with the growth in the destructive noise (yes folks, another major

Faster computers and network just mean faster bots, after all.  And
bot-coders and virus hackers and system crackers, whether they are
motivated by personal chops or a real dollar payout (and oddly enough
from a strictly evolutionary point of view, there are both kinds) are
hardly devoid of talent, and it is easier to destroy than it is to
build, easier to introduce noise and entropy than to filter it or reduce
it.  Second law, no free lunches.

So yeah, I think the engineering problem needs a bit of help to shift
the Darwinian "fitness" of negative activities from a gently graded
plateau where one can simply step from one point to another instead of
being penalized even as those activities are locally blocked to at least
a possibility of a really strongly negative outcome.  A sucker rod
upside the head.  Loss of freedom and fortune.  Social condemnation.  I
say so not out of malice -- it isn't about getting even.  It is pure
control theory.  As a parent of three boys, I learned long ago that
there comes a point in the middle of a chaotic spiral of argument,
fighting, and openly dangerous behavior where a single swat on the
bottom is worth a million words of persuasion in the absence of
sanction, entire vials of Ritalin, any amount of love or trying to
protect your head as balls start to knock vases off the shelves and
onto it.

There is an additional non-engineering dimension that can be used for
control that we are not using and that is KNOWN to be the only workable
control dimension for many closely related problems. There are costs to
using it, as well as benefits, but as with most human affairs the costs
are not all black and the benefits aren't all white and human judgement
can radically alter the ratio of one to the other as well.  We've tried
the Internet without meaningful sanctions for a rather long time.  Sure,
we can probably just muddle on through.  At the moment it is killing
only 1% of me, 2% of you, half a percent of that guy (given that the
life lost hitting "d" keys or clicking delete checkboxes is a form of
death, the loss of a bit of that precious freedom we all cherish).  I
can tolerate it, just like I can tolerate cancer and taxes.  But I have
long since reached the point where I think that our lives would
radically improve if a number of the worst offenders in this
life-sucking s**t-parade of SPAM and viral botware were tracked,
arrested, fined, and put prominently in jail.

Human judgement can easily titrate -- there is no need to crush teen-age
lives with felony raps here.  However, there is nothing wrong with stern
warnings, hefty fines, and jail as a final sanction if nothing else
works, and making the punishment in some measure proportional to the
cost and damage done (no matter who the doer) is also not unreasonable.

> Indeed, and such continues the power struggle, or more appropriately,
> the power balance, between invented "human rights" and basic human
> instincts.  Let one or the other grow too massive, and it will cause
> enslavement to ourselves or complete chaos.

Exactly.  Human judgement and balance is everything, and in the end (as
things change!) one has to remember the words of Jefferson and not get
married to any particular schema.  Maybe we have too few sanctions right
now.  Maybe trying to add some, we overcompensate and are too draconian.
Maybe we then correct again and again until we find something that
"works" -- isn't too costly, preserves function.  We all have the right
to bear arms, just not strapped to our belts when we ride on planes, not
fully automatic weapons we have mounted to the roofs of our SUVs when we
drive our kids to school.  We have the right to freedom of speech, but
not to shout fire in a theater or to express that freedom by publishing
photographs of children having sex with adults ("consensual" or not).
We have the right to liberty, but not if we use that liberty to rob, to
rape, to murder, to injure others.  I give up MY freedom to rob, rape,
or murder you if I can get away with it (always possible in the state of
nature, and we ALWAYS live in a state of nature!) in exchange for not
being robbed, raped, or murdered in exchange, and we agree to get
together and beat up anyone who tries to rob, rape or murder either one
of us (whether or not they are "stronger") because together we are
stronger and potentially meaner than they are.

So what I'm basically saying here is that I'm perfectly happy to give up
my rights to spam people and infect their systems with viruses and
spybots of my own design if they'll give up theirs, and I'm to the point
where I'm willing to get together with you and agree to take a sucker
rod to the head of anyone who disagrees enough to do it anyway.  A bald
statement, but true enough anyway (well, I wouldn't REALLY hit them with
a blunt instrument, I'd hit them with a bill).

I proposed that they make this a part of Duke's AUA, by the way,
although I was unable to sell it here either.  Long, long ago I thought
that the best way to deal with student crackers who waste a lot of
sysadmin and network resources with silly games is to just bill them.
If they trash their dorm rooms we just bill them.  If they crash their
car into J.B. Duke's statue we'd bill them.  If they steal or deface or
lose library books we bill them.  So if they manage to crack some
hapless user's account and we catch them -- just assess them a few
thousand dollars and add it to their bill... loudly and publically.

This IS still an attractive non-governmental solution.  If every ISP out
there added a clause that certain kinds of unacceptable use would be
greeted with a bill of up to $500 (that had to be guaranteed up front
with a lock on a credit card, say, or some other form of collateral if
only your credit rating should you fail to pay it off) then it wouldn't
take a whole lot of occurrences of that clause being triggered for the
problem to damp right down.  But alas, those clauses only exist BETWEEN
ISPs (where they DO exist) -- ordinary users inherit them but don't know
it and it would never be enforcable.

> Also remember a great number of "private" resources are gained via
> advertisement on the Internet, and also protection from the abuse
> advertisement on the Internet.

Embedded advertising on the internet is fine.  That's a consensual
agreement between users and providers of resources.  I choose to visit
websites, and have to accept the content I find, within limits, when I
arrive.  They do not seek me out and force them into my browser.  On the
same note though, pop up advertising that creates unsolicited new
browser sessions (sometimes five or ten at a time, sometimes looping)
that trigger when I visit a website offered up for some other purpose
I'd outlaw in a heartbeat.  This just sets up the rules for the
resource -- things would "work" either way.

Passive OK, active bad.  I seek it out OK, it seems me out bad.  Simple
enough rule, actually.

> The simple reality is that human nature will continue to attempt to
> steal or misuse resources that you purchased.  The trick is to pay as
> little possible to make your resources safe and your experience sane.
> The question is:  One government to put our combined faith in (and faith
> in common ass) or many private companies to compete to gain our trust
> and business.

So I assume that you hire pinkertons to guard your house at night?
Again, one end point of rabid libertarianism is that we abolish the
police, after all, and let people hire private police if they can afford
them or want them.  And armies are just plain silly -- each of us is
perfectly capable of defending ourselves in the event that the US is
ever invaded.

Again, in common law for some three or four thousand years now, coveting
thy neighbor's ox has for all practical purposes been regulated by
government with only a few exceptions, and most of those exceptions are
horror stories.  I also disagree that the issue is one only of cost.
Jefferson's lovely words (or the words of the Old Testament, for that
matter) create a higher level ethical construct regulating the law.  The
cheapest way to make my resources safe is to kill anyone who attempts to
steal them, or maybe just chop off their hand.  If that sort of thing
appeals to you, there are countries where this is still the basis of
law.  Low cost, efficient, effective (I guess).  And personally I find
it repellant.

Private police protect only those that can afford them, often badly and
unfairly.  It is precisely because I'm viewing theft of my personal and
internet resources (or indirectly, Duke's resources that are paid for
out of grants or the tuition stream) as THEFT instead of some crazy
Russians just having fun, some enterprising Koreans seeking to make a
few dollars, some US pornographers trying to get the word out, some
mischievous college kids trying to show how good a coder they are that I
advocate invoking the same mechanism that we use, in general, to control
theft.  That is, the law.  Not me coding mail bombs or trying to "get
even" with my would be attackers by getting into THEIR system, not by
finding out where they live and firebombing their houses (ahhh, precious
dream:-).  Not by ignoring it and hoping it will go away.  Not by
building up elaborate and expensive walls at great personal expense that
end up not working anyway.

> Hahaha.  I personally enjoy watching windows users go through pain
> (and pay a stupidity tax), don't you?

Not really.  I don't like my state's lottery (an even more overt
stupidity tax, if you like) either.  Most of them have no choice, after
all.  That's what "monopoly" is all about.  Try buying a PC over the
counter without Vista-of-Evil.  Can't be done, really -- or rather it is
terribly difficult and requires a lot of work and expertise.  Remember,
roughly half the population has an IQ of less than 100 (by definition).
Do I think that they should be punished for this?  Of course not.

What I resent is the way the laws permit Microsoft to basically lock in
those VENDORS so that they cannot afford not to offer alternatives as
this is anti-competition, and we've learned the hard way that
robber-baron capitalism has a nasty self-perpetuating attractor in
social space when that sort of thing is permitted.  I resent the fact
that my state thinks that it is fairer to tax the poorest and stupidest
of people by exploiting their dreams of striking it rich and their
addiction disorders.  I resent the fact that the massive publication
industry has managed to get truly absurd copyright laws passed that give
them (the publication companies) a monopoly on books and movies and
other content long after the author is dead and the author's heirs grown
up and die in turn, and the collusion that is gradually building
electronic controls right into the very hardware we use to access it.
Even as the Internet created an explosion of information that promises
to fuel a golden age, this sort of wickedness could easily end it, meter
it, mete it out for money, monitize it, and create an entire generation
of self-perpetuating fortunes that exist to do NOTHING but control how
and what we think while forcing us to pay for the privilege.

> The wild wild west is an interesting example; and so is Britain or
> France in the feudal era (or even just before the revolution with regard
> to the latter).  Plenty of law existed then, it just was abused and
> convoluted.  My choice is that of moderation.  Public when it is most
> absolutely necessary; private otherwise.

I agree with the moderation part.  I just think that history has
repeatedly proven that the "libertarian dream" is as silly and
dysfunctional as the "communist dream".  On paper either one sounds
simply lovely.  When you factor in human nature and the distribution of
abilities, what works better (which is all that really matters, not the
idealism expressed either way) is a constitutional democracy with a
strong bill of rights and a vigilant and educated population exercising
the franchise.  Our "Jeffersonian ideals" or concept of federalism and
centralization can betray us either way.  The main idea is to preserve
enough freedom for people to get things done without overt control all
of the time (avoiding the "tyranny of the majority" along with other
tyrannies) and yet have enough controls and sanctions to prevent the
slide into anarchy.

Our fundamental problem is that in opposition to this we have a global
culture that lacks a common center.  There is, really, no widely
accepted ethical standard, no single set of axioms that we all agree
should be the basis of "society".  Hence we muddle along, some people
adopting a "Christian" point of view, others revering Jefferson and the
Bill of Rights and libertarianism, still others wishing for socialism or
communism, then there is Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and heck, there are
still dictatorships and feudal societies and don't even get me STARTED
on women.  The lack of any such center creates a condition of perpetual
cultural/memetic war that breaks out in real wars, of ethical chaos that
breaks out as SPAM and viral bots as much as in senators that are closet
gays even as they vote against gay issues.

Do I trust Our Government?  Of course not.  However, I do recognize it
as the most important, and often the most efficient, vehicle for getting
a lot of things that need doing done.  Public debate (like this one) on
just where one should draw the line and whether or not to create a
government sanction for any particular kind of behavior is a sign of a
HEALTHY democracy, one that should be able to try things out and then
change its mind and try something else.  In the present case we've tried
out the alternative for a long time.  Perhaps we should continue in this
manner, but (as a reasoning being) I'd like some TECHNICAL reason to
believe that this is a feasible alternative, that there is some hope of
my recovering my wasted life without legal sanction.

I'd certainly be pissed if somebody broke into my bank and stole 1-2% of
my life savings.  I'd guess that you would be too (depending on just how
big those savings are at this point:-).  I'd think that it is perfectly
justifiable to spend public monies and energies to find, fine and punish
the individual that commited this theft, both to recover my direct
damages and to create a social construct that deters others from doing
the same (a recipe for social and economic chaos).  Why is somebody
"stealing" my lifeforce by filling minutes to hours of my week, week
after week, with spam-control measures and other crap any different?
Why should I "just live with it"?


Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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