February 5, 2016

Marvin Minsky and his gizmo

Marvin_Minsky_at_OLPCb.jpgThe obits for artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who died on January 14, have generally focused on his extraordinary work.The following, written for the Guardian in December 1995, captures a little more of the man. The piece was for a series called "Me and My Gizmo", in which well-known people discussed their favorite gadgets. I approached Minsky after a tip-off during a similar interview with John Perry Barlow, who told me that in a gizmo throw-down they were evenly matched until Minsky mentioned his belt. I've reprinted it here as I submitted it, with added hyperlinks (while we still can). If I remember correctly, Minsky later learned (with great satisfaction) that the knot he discusses here was indeed original.

"I don't have any gizmos," Marvin Minsky said at first. Then he turned them all out, one by one. He has a compass embedded in the strap of his Timex watch.He has a folding pair of pliers in his pocket that also contain a saw, a file, and a knife.

He doesn't really think of this as a gizmo. "If you don't have a pliers and a screwdriver and some knives, you can't fix things, and I can't see how anybody could ever get through a day." Minsky is best known as the father of artificial intelligence, but he's an engineer first and foremost:he holds patents on an industrial robot arm. These days, he researches little-investigated topics like why humans like music and teaches students at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One current project is the Brain Opera, due to premiere at New York City's Lincoln Center this summer.

He kept looking. There was a tiny camera in a pouch attached to his belt, and he was wearing his many-pocketed fishing vest, which he likes because one of the interior pockets is big enough to hold a copy of his book Society of Mind, which is printed on US letter-sized paper. When he tried, my Compaq Aero subnotebook fit into the pocket alongside the book.

Minsky's crowning gizmo, though, is his belt, a 30-foot rope that he's crocheted and knotted so that it will stay fastened under most circumstances but come completely undone if he pulls on one end. The current version, which he acquired in the late 1980s, is made of kevlar, which makes the rope very strong (8,000 pounds' worth of strength) but inflexible, as kevlar doesn't stretch. Previous models were made of nylon. It takes about half an hour to crochet it back together.

Minsky acquired the habit of wearing the rope on a skiing trip on Mont Blanc with fellow scientist Seymour Papert and some friends during a visit to Jean Piaget's Geneva research lab. When one of their group was afraid to ride on the ski lift, Minsky, who happened to have a rope, rigged it up so that the rope, attached to the lift, pulled her up the mountain. He decided then that he'd always have a rope, and crocheted his first belt - he has always been interested in knots, and believes that the knot that holds the belt closed is his own invention.

He'd like to verify that it's his invention, but "I can't think of where to publish it. There must be a knot journal." He stopped to investigate an unfamiliar way of tying shoes with a double bow that holds all day but that you can still pull out from one end.

Minsky was very glad of his rope belt when he and his family were visiting Norway in the late 1960s and stopped at an attractive field. When it was time to go, his daughter Margaret, now a scientist at the Media Lab but then eight years old, told him she couldn't get out. She was, it transpired, sinking into quicksand.

"She was very calm," Minsky said. "I realised I couldn't get there without sinking into whatever this was without sinking into it myself. So I undid the belt and threw an end to her and managed to pull her out. Her shoes are still there." Minsky tells this part of the story completely calmly. But when he asked in the nearby village why there was no sign warning about quicksand, they told him there was no quicksand in Norway; no one believed him. Some satisfaction creeps into his voice when he tells the aftermath: 15 years later, an article in Science about soil liquefaction vindicated the Minskys.

"It described how some little village in Norway had suddenly disappeared, because what happens is you get some kind of soil that's an unstable mixture of water and other stuff, and if there's a little seismic shock it can suddenly change its state. I should have felt sorry for them, but of course one could only think, 'I told them, and they wouldn't listen.' They're quite rare, but I was very pleased when I saw this article."

Minsky's new book is a sequel to The Society of Mind - "new ways to think," he describes it. If that sounds intellectual rather than practical, he says, "The mind is a big, complicated gadget. That's why I'm good at it. I think of it as a large collection of tricks. "The new book's title is The Emotion Machine, and it will lay out Minsky's theories about how feelings work.

"It's a kludge," he says."The reason why philosophers and people like that never got anywhere is that they had the idea that there's fundamental things - that consciousness is a mysterious thing, and it's really about 20 things which have not very much in common. It's called 'physics envy' - they looked for a few simple principles, and there aren't any."


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series.Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


January 29, 2016

The power of us

power of privacy (guardian, cropped).pngIn her new memoir, Life on the Road, the long-serving equity feminist and campaigner Gloria Steinem writes that decades of campaigning have taught her that, "Voting isn't the most we can do, but it is the least. To have a democracy, you have to want one."

Something similar could be said about privacy. Steinem never directly discusses it, but her many stories of collaborating with and listening to other people could provide lessons to any campaigner in any field. "Divide and conquer" works as well now as ever. That being the case, we might do better at achieving change if we define privacy less as individuals' boundaries and more as a collaborative social compact.

256px-G_steinem_2011.jpgThis came into focus for me because I was in the middle of Steinem's book when I saw The Power of Privacy, produced by Guardian, in conjunction with Silent Circle. Part of a series, the short film provides a quick introduction to the basics: data collection, hacking, surveillance, encryption, and future challenges such as the Internet of Things. It ends with an invocation that we should be more responsible about privacy and less...inert.

The problem is that the movie neither provides ideas for what "more responsible" would look like nor drives home why it matters. I know it's a short film, but like much privacy material it assumes that people will be creeped out just by seeing all the personal information about them that's being hacked into, collected, and ransacked by unknown strangers with uncertain motives.

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice a little convenience for safety," a hacker at Defcon advises presenter Aleks Krotowski, who has just been sufficiently willing to look stupid in public that she has unquestioningly inserted the USB stick he's handed her into her laptop's port. OK: don't take USB sticks from smiling strangers. Anything else?

The reality is, it's no longer sufficient to rely on the "yuck" factor. Today's world is a far more safety-conscious, closely monitored, and publicly shared environment than anyone over 30 grew up in. That doesn't mean younger people are all brainwashed , but "normal" has significantly altered. We see that Krotowski's computer has been hacked, and we see the reputation detective's phone book of data about her - but we don't see consequences accrue. What exactly is the harm?

This question matters because people do ask it, and we - privacy advocates - have to have some meaningful response ready for those who say, "I have nothing to hide", "They already know everything about me anyway", and "So? They just want to sell us stuff". To the first, bank statements have long provided a reasonable answer. Thumbnail image for cfp-malkia--cyril.jpgFinancial disclosure seems to be where everyone in most cultures draws the line. Even so, Malkia Cyril's response to that at last year's CFP seems much more true: "Everyone has something to hide because we all have lives".

Steinem also makes me dubious about another frequently heard claim, which also appears in the Guardian's movie. Privacy, Krotowski explains, was non-existent before the 1600s, when the chimney enabled people to live in their own homes instead of communally. This conflates privacy with physical space, isolation, and anonymity, not with mental freedom, tolerance for differences, or simply being beneficially ignored some of the time. The Japanese may lack a word for privacy, but they are masters of tacitly agreeing to block each other out. See also Manhattan subway cars, where the person plastered against you nonetheless maintains psychic distance by not speaking or meeting your eyes. I bet in those medieval villages, and even in the teepee-covered holes in the ground that I was told housed Native Alaskans for thousands of years, people found ways to create that same distance. As I said in 2008 of the movie Erasing David, privacy is about lack of fear, not isolation.

The second response is easily read as apathy or cynicism, but it's as reasonably a symptom of disempowerment (MP3): people who believe they have no ability to effect change figure they might as well lie back and think of England. Give them alternatives or usable tools that allow people to make genuine choices and then we'll see.

But it's the third question, which is really "where's the harm?". that's the hardest. We habitually invoke Orwell, the Nazis, and the Stasi, but these are all fading into the historical past. We need, as Steve Song wrote a couple of years ago, new metaphors.

Two possibilities that Song discusses are public health and environmental pollution. In both cases, as with privacy, each individual's decision has a wider social impact: your decision not to vaccinate your child may leave a vulnerable neighbor open to illness; my decision to operate a wood-burning stove forces you to breathe the resulting particulates and smoke. I like the public health one especially because you can enhance the analogy by imagining global air travel as the broadband that makes it scale.

I would never want to say that feminism or matriarchy has all the answers. But reading Steinem has made me consider that perhaps all those early 1990s gun metaphors (particularly about encryption) and rights-of-the-individual were a rhetorical wrong turn. It was easy to do, since we were responding to controls that saw these technologies as military weapons in the first place. Maybe instead of telling people about privacy we should be asking what it means to them. People will fight for the privacy they want.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.