Encryption and the Digital Age

I, unlike most of my generation, grew up in a family far removed from the reaches of technology. My parents didn’t believe that too much media was good for kids. I lived in constant admiration as a kid of my friends, who had TV’s, gameboys, and (amazingly!) cellphones. What little computer time I did have was spent, 15 minutes a day, on a relatively ancient Windows 95 computer—without internet, of course. While other kids were enchanted with the newest adventures of Pokemon, and the seminal mobile web, I could be found in a corner of our laundry room, enthralled by screen savers and minesweeper. But I never felt deprived. Instead, I learned to probe the computer, how to create and how to manipulate files. And I was still pretty young when I first discovered how to manipulate hidden files to change computer settings. I thought that that was just great.

Hidden files are a lot like classical physics: not overt and obvious, but not hard to find once you know where to look. And just like the basic laws of physics, they provide the underpinning of the computer operating system. Usually, they are made hidden so that they can’t be changed by an inexperienced end user, and in the same way, physical laws have taken a lot of time and a lot of study to to investigate, and even more time to probe their limitations. After all, between Aristotle’s writings on the actions of falling bodies and the legendary experiment in which Galileo found that all objects fell at the same speed, regardless of mass, almost two thousand years had passed! And yet it is a concept that gives few of us pause today. It might not be obvious, but it’s not hidden, unencrypted. It just slides under the radar of most of our everyday consciousness, and takes time to learn.

For me, encryption was a problem. I never understood, as a young boy, why a file could be opened and be nothing but a jumble of meaningless letters and numbers, any one of which

would make a program crash if deleted, and then could be run in the right program, or with the right password, and would suddenly cause the computer to belt out the Star Wars theme song. I spent fruitless hours on running these files over and over again, trying to manipulate it, hoping that my randomly typed letter combinations would magically cause a change in the file that would morph it into some homemade video game. Of course, I now know the futility of that endeavor, but it seemed like a distinct possibility then. Once I learned about the first atomic models I thought wryly back to those days; they too were simplistic, and completely disprovable. And yet one cannot blame the scientists—they were, after all, acting to the best of their knowledge, as I was. As the old saying goes, “It’s all in knowing how.”

The atom is, in its way, the first layer of encryption. Encryption is, of course, the process of imposing a code onto a piece of information so that one must discover the key to the code before the information can be read. It’s not impossible, if one is an outsider, to crack a code, but it is difficult: a lot of time and computing power must be used to discover the pattern that is created by the code. The atom, too, is not directly observable. Time and care must had to be put in to determine its structure, its components, and the mathematics that make it tick. Yet, when all is said and done, it can be described quite nicely; consult any periodic table and you will see the pattern emerge—orbitals, protons, neutrons, electrons. Easy.

I began to become interested in the deeper principles of physics as I got older. The theory of relativity was especially exciting. Time and space were no longer the simple “if-then” statements of classical physics—they were relative, and ruled by some maddeningly unbreakable constant, the speed of light. The mass, velocity and energy of objects were now not absolutes, but rather defined by their relation to other objects. At the same time, the deeper structure of the atom was described to me: electromagnetic charge, color charge, subatomic particles, elemental particles that can morph into each other—so many different definitions that it almost seemed hopeless to remember them all. A sneaking suspicion started creeping over me. It all looked like a massive encryption scheme to hide some kind of information. Every layer a set of definitions, each one with a code to discovering its inner workings. Every time one layer of information was discovered and decrypted, a new one would be found underneath the surface. It’s almost as if matter doesn’t exist except as information, encrypted with laws to prevent a probing mind from finding out too much. Why? And who could be the master programmer?

 

There is an old story, scoffed at by some, revered by others, that speaks of a moment. The moment when a programmer defined the first command—“let there be light”—and there was light. A simple beginning, and interestingly enough, the first command defined was one of the only ones now thought to be unbreakable, the speed of light. The story goes to list the commands that created all the other things we know, line by line; and all of it created from nothing. It only retains meaning, it would seem, by the sheer infinity of the definitions that comprise it. All speculation of course, and thus bad science.

But after all, not all science is definite. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle demonstrates that one cannot know both the position and velocity of a particle definitely; instead, all one can speak definitely about is its probability to be in any one place. Yet we rely daily on the simple classical laws which we “know” to be true. It’s frustrating to many scientists to be unable to figure out the problems of the universe, and to have unsolvable problems, but if the last few thousand years of science are any indication, it’s all a matter of time and computational power until the next secrets of the universe are figured out. As the layers of encryption are peeled away, it’s anyone’s guess what we will find. Will we finally lay bare the elemental secrets of the universe? Or has some mysterious programmer created an ultimate encryption, an eternally complex one, that protects the basic workings of the universe? It’s something to think about, and science is up to the task. But for now, we still get excited by simple things, like gyroscopes and chemical reactions. And maybe they prepare us for important discoveries in the future, like my old Windows 95 prepared me.

 

-Jimmy Buchanchan

The Temple Tiles

A team of archeologists have reportedly uncovered the original floor tiles from the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, dating from around 100 BC. According to the BBC:

“Experts reassembled pieces of tiles found amid tons of earth from the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

They say the tiles date from the period of the Second Temple, during the time of King Herod about 2,000 years ago.

The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during a Jewish rebellion.

Some 600 segments of coloured stone floor have been found since archaeologists began examining the debris from the hilltop site in 2004.

The plateau where the temples stood is the most sacred site in Judaism. It is joined by the Western Wall, venerated by Jews as part of the original supporting wall of the temple compound.”

Check out this Haaretz article for photos:

Amazing. And it’s been 2000 years. Looking forward to a new temple there someday…

-Jimmy

A few thoughts from old sci-fi writings

I am a big sci-fi fan. I don’t watch a lot of Syfy, and I am not into The Walking Dead or anything like that; I love the old time science fiction, with the radioactive mutants and gooey aliens and a dystopian future that nowadays looks more like the past. Over the weekend, I had been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and while some of it seemed antiquated, I was struck with the cogency of Bradbury’s predictions of the future. No longer is TV the opiate of the masses, no longer are people glued to their radios; even so, his predictions were astonishingly accurate, given his perspective long before the true dawn of the computer age.

The story chronicles a man living in a future in which all people are happy. Controversy is dead, censorship produces media which can be agreed upon by all–unbiased– and most importantly, books are banned. After all, no one reads them, they are inflammatory, and anyone can get more entertainment from TV, anyhow. The man’s job, a fireman, is to burn books. His awakening comes in the form of a neighbor, a young girl, who astonishingly enough, is not glued to her TV. She notices things. She teaches him to see the world for what it really is, a beautiful place almost destroyed by the consumerism of man. The fireman finds a book at one of his burning jobs, and due to the influence of the girl, begins to read. Soon, he is the sole possessor of the book of Revelation from the Bible, and is hunted by his former friends, co-workers, and even by his wife because of his books.

On the surface, it doesn’t look a lot like our world. But Mr. Bradbury’s description of the fireman’s wife, a woman glued to the TV and her in-ear radio, is a very familiar picture to me. After all, I listen to music half the day through a set of wireless headphones, and my friends talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode or movie release, while a friend who works in the library faces budget cuts and broken light fixtures and no way to pay for new.

When will libraries be considered obsolete? Due to our constant flow of information from countless internet-connected devices, we have all the learning, entertainment, and record-keeping we can handle. And already, books–indeed any media–that have a controversial or obscure message are frowned upon. Even Fahrenheit 451 itself was censored because of language in the 1970-80’s printings. And nowadays, you can’t turn on a TV, can’t watch a movie, in which the values of the characters don’t line up with the popular conception of “good” and “non-controversial.” Quick, name one non-kid movie in which the housewife doesn’t liberate herself from the burdens of oppressive family life, where the guy hero doesn’t have the scruffy beard, and the violence and sexual content ensure that the movie has at least a PG-13 rating (not that that even means anything anymore). All this goes to show how homogenous our society has become, how the media is controlled by only a few companies with similar agendas. And the age of the book, not the dime novel, but the real book, seems dead.

But there are still those that read. If that is you, congratulations. If you haven’t done it in awhile, go to your local library and pick up a book. Maybe an old sci-fi book, Asimov or Bradbury or Orwell. Sure, it’s fantasy. But the book is a medium in which the writer’s intuition about our existence can be portrayed and transmitted to future generations. If you will, the authors have passed their opinion on into the future, where we can learn from them. If this still isn’t your thing, just find a book at random, an old book, and crack it open. You might be surprised at what you read. Maybe something you have never heard, something to pointed or too plain to be portrayed on makeup-addicted television shows.

While I’m lecturing you, I’ve been sitting at my computer and filling up on the media I’ve been bashing. I’ll get back to work–and find a good book for reading tonight.

 

-Jimmy Buchanchan

This week on The Motherlode: 4-4-1

Among other things played this week on The Motherlode, here is a progressive rock group that broke into the Christian Contemporary Music world back in 1985. Their song, “Mourning into Dancing,” was featured this week, and here is a version:

Hope you enjoy it…leave your comments below.

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To My Julianna

This story is featured this week on the Motherlode. I encourage you to visit this blog and read the story of young Julianna, who fought a brave battle against CMT with love and unbounded optimism. R.I.P. Julianna.

Julianna Yuri

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This is the letter I read to Julianna at her Tea Party Celebration of Life. I am usually a nervous (i.e., avoid it like the plague) public speaker. This time, it was not an issue. (J would have said “Don’t freak out!” or “Relax, princess.”)

As I wrote this letter, I felt her presence and the peace of God.

17 June 2016

Dear Julianna,

My darling girl, how I miss you. I can’t believe you are gone.

I sit here in your princess room, in the familiar chair. It has all of your things, the stuff I once thought of as clutter and now consider treasure, because you loved it all. If there is a way to truly love inanimate objects, I believe that you did, because your love is just that strong.

I knew this day would come. I tried to deny it for the longest time, but I…

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