Thursday, November 29, 2018

Charles Babbage: Codebreaker

Few names stand out in the history of computing as do Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was only a demonstration model in his lifetime. Larger more complete engines have been built in our time by museums. He also proposed a more complex and sophisticated Analytical Engine, again, never built at all in his own time but constructed in our time by museums from his plans. You may also know about his work with Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace. The daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, she was arguably the first computer programmer. What you may not know is that among Babbage’s hobbies were cryptology and lock picking. He said that lock picking and cryptology were very similar pursuits intellectually. 

(This is based on a presentation to the Austin OWASP Crypto Party held at National Instruments Bldg. C, January 23, 2018.)

At this time – we are talking the middle third of the 19thcentury, say 1823 to 1868—codes and ciphers were all the rage. In America, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” laid bare for public consumption the means for breaking any mono-alphabetic substitution cipher. 

Newspapers ran columns known as “Miseries.” They were Lonely Hearts messages by which lovers set up rendezvous, and they typically relied on some kind of encryption, most often single alphabet substitutions, sometimes transpositions. 
This is where Babbage comes in and wherein lies some mystery about his work. The polyalphabetic cipher goes back to the late Renaissance. We call them Vigenere ciphers. They are commonly attributed to Blaise de Vigene in the year 1585. However, the first publication can be attributed to Gian Battista Belaso in 1553. In fact, the means of breaking monoalphabetic ciphers also goes back to this time, but was not widely known outside of the black chambers of governments.

This is a 26x26 Vigenere Table. German with its umlauts would have 29 letters. Greek would have 24 letters. You encipher your message down the rows, the 13th letter being encrypted against the 13th row.

As you can see, the two Es are enciphered differently. The consecutive Rs in MARRY are enciphered to different outputs.

The man sees the end of the line.
The most common letter in English is E. The most common trigraph is THE. As you can see, the letters E all are encrypted differently. The three instances of THE have different outputs. It is for this reason that for 300 years, the Vigenere cipher was called the indecipherable cipher. It could not be broken.

But there was a war on.  The Crimean War saw Russia pitted against the UK, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Secret codes were essential to military communication. 

Enter Babbage.

First of all, Babbage promised but never published his treatise on cryptanalysis. That was unusual because he had an ego big enough to fill this room. Babbage was one of a handful of liberal scientists who purposely and purposefully restructured their society. Among them were Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace and Charles Darwin, William Herschel, and William Whewell. It was Whewell who coined the word scientist in an ad hoc debate with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on June 24, 1833. 

Several scholars today theorize that Babbage was working for the War Department. So, he did publish some insights and suggestions in his autobiography of 1864. But he never let the cat out of the bag.

Babbage created a massive set of dictionaries of the English language organized by word length and then sorted by initial letters and then printed up by their second letters. He made tables of common digraphs and trigraphs. He listed all of the words with repeated letters. He could do this because he was independently wealthy, having inherited from his father an estate valued at £100,000, call it $50 million in our money. All of that just prepared his mind to attack the unbreakable cipher, which he did.

Not Babbage but a hacker at DefCon 512
Like all codebreakers, Babbage attacked the human element. We say in hacking that amateurs target systems while professionals target people. Babbage’s study of language and cryptography opened the door … and we do not know for sure just what door that was. He kept it secret. But he did mention it in passing in his autobiography. As big as his ego was, he was a man of his word. He meant what he said and proved it with mathematics. He held the same Lucasian Chair at Cambridge as Sir Isaac Newton.

The way the Vigenere worked in practice is that each agent, each minister or other user would be given a word, preferably a long word, and ideally with no repeating letters.

In the example above…

The message was I LOVE YOU. MARRY ME and the key word was UNPREDICTABLY which gave us 13 different ciphers. However, the longer the message the more likely that you will cycle through the key and eventually encipher the same words or at least the same letters with the same keys. 

Babbage figured out that you do not need to find the key of you can find the length of the key.
 “It may have been as efficacious as it is formidable,
but neither an index to its symbolism,
nor any clue to its purpose exist.” 

David Kahn, The Codebreakers, Chapter 6,
“The Contributions of the Dilettantes,” pg. 207
Babbage had a lifelong interest in cryptology and cryptanalysis. He and his friends William Whelwell and William Herschel among other savants of the day all dabbled in it. Babbage and his nephew exchanged challenges, which Charles Babbage deconstructed to its table based on the word SOMERSET by guessing that it began with DEAR UNCLE and ended with NEPHEW HENRY. That was in 1846. Babbage later took apart another small Vigenere that a dentist, John Thwaite, was attempting to get patented in 1854, shortly after the start of the Crimean War. Babbage broke that cipher, and though he promised to publish fully, he never did.
Passages from The Life of a Philosopher
Edited autobiography of Charles Babbage
Unfortunately, all we have is tantalizing scraps from his personal notes and notebooks. He never published a definitive treatise.

I read through about a dozen books – 14 in all, I think – by and about Babbage. You can get lost in his work. Because of his wealth and station, he was involved in almost every aspect of this revolutionary time from the most advanced mathematics to the most advanced manufacturing. Of all those books, The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder (Broadway Books, 2011) is the one volume that I recommend as the best overview. 


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thoughts on "Soldier’s Heart"

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Randall Jarrell’s poem reocurs as do several of the author's West Point cadet students and a few of her faculty colleagues. Of the students, Samet dubbed three “the Musketeers” for their inseparability. Throughout, she uses pseudonyms, and it is telling that she called one of the Musketeers Grant. Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs affected her. Samet says that we know how to honor the dead but we do less well with and for the wounded. We do not think of Grant as wounded. But I do. 
Solider's Heart: Reading Literature
Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

When I worked for Coin World, I was assigned Grant as a feature story. There’s the $50 bill, of course, but quite a bit more is known to the numismatist. Today’s fifty goes back to 1914. In addition to those Federal Reserve Notes are the $50 gold note of 1922 and its companion $50 silver certificates. Before them were the $5 silver certificates of 1886 and 1891. Grant also was honored with a Memorial Half Dollar of 1922 and its companion $1 gold coin. I bridled at the assignment: Grant was a drunken general who ordered other people to kill and die. However, it did not take much research to learn that he was significantly deeper than that. He would have preferred to teach mathematics at a girls’ school. And so, he understood the unremitting arithmetic of the War Between the States: The South simply could not keep paying the price. The price that Grant paid can only be guessed at.

A far less weighty consideration is Prof. Samet’s solution for the problem of the pronoun. For myself, in technical writing, I choose “they” for everyone. Samet’s choice is to go back and forth between he and she, usually with the masculine, as most of the people in her life are men but often using the feminine as neutral for everyone or anyone.

When a firstie (senior class) once asked a colonel what he needed to succeed in the Army, the officer replied, “Show up on time and stay in shape.” (page 196)  I think that promptum et salutem makes a good motto. 

Prof. Elizabeth D. Samet’s In-Text Recommended Reading
(This is just some of it.) 
Wilfred Owen
Edith Wharton
Li Po (Tang Dynasty poet)
Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
Anne Sexton
T. E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Edgar Allen Poe Poems, especially “The City in the Sea”
(That anthology was paid for by his West Point classmates.)
Antoine Saint-Exupéry
Ulysses S. Grant Personal Memoirs 
Artist Savile Lumiey
Alexander Pope Essay on Man
Jane Hirshfield
Jorie Graham
Shakespeare “Sonnet 73”
Shakespeare Henry V
Tennyson “Ulysses”
Ambrose Bierce, especially "One Kind of Officer"
Frost “Road Not Taken”
Attar** Parliament of Birds
Wallace Stevens
Movie: Jacob’s Ladder
Movie: The Four Feathers
Movie: The Roaring Twenties.
**(Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm c. 1145 – c. 1221; 
better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn and ʿAṭṭār—

Samet wrestles with the ethos of the military, especially when the military is set apart from the general public. “The rhetoric of the War on Terror has been from the first deeply inflected with messianic vocabulary that makes it easy for soldiers to conflate military and spiritual missions and that complements the military’s own sense of itself as a noble profession and a higher calling.” (page 158) 

Between the time he retired from the Marine Corps and became the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis directed a statistical survey of public attitudes about the military. His team found that across all sectors of America, only the “elites” believe that the military should share the same values as society at large. Most people across the political spectrum believe that the military has a different value system than everyone else in America–and this is good. (NecessaryFacts here.) 

I like to think that I have no illusions about human nature, but the fact is that when on base, I never lock my car; and if it is hot—as it often is here in Texas—I leave the windows rolled down. Samet herself reflects at length at how like a small town West Point is. This is good and bad, depending on the context. 

This opens the door to more of my own beliefs. I stood mute and smiled when a sergeant to whom I reported found by surfing that I posted to the Military Atheists website. (Foxhole Atheists here.) My certainty that the universe had no creator comes from the philosophical objectivism (with a capital-O) of Ayn Rand. Predicated on that metaphysics and epistemology, the ethics of egoism are not consonant with the warrior’s way. (How I correlate them is discussed elsewhere.) Based on Soldier’s Heart, I expect that Elizabeth Samet does not explicitly practice the virtues of selfishness. Neither is she a postmodernist. At least, she does not speak their vernacular of “trajectories” and “projects” and “giving voice.” And while she is scrupulous about not forcing her own morals on her students, she clearly has them; and as subtext they seem traditionally American. 

So, I agree with her that mixing the language of missionaries with the goals of military missions is highly problematic. At the same time, I found unsatisfying her apparent belief that civil law is the highest law. She is uncomfortable with the fact that as citizens our soldiers hold the state subservient to religion. I get her point. But I also see a profound and deep philosophical foundation to the fact that in customs and courtesies, the chaplain’s pennant can fly above the American flag while services are being held. Conquering as we must is predicated on our cause being just. The just war doctrine is another of the threads in this book. 

Though rejecting religion as a foundation for morality in Chapter 5 “Bibles, Lots of Bibles,” Samet does not follow that with anything as substantial. Chapter 6 “The Courage of Soldiers” is about the strength of will to stop and consider the hard choices and then select the right one. But all she offers, quoting Hemingway, is that doing the right thing makes you feel good (page 180). Citing Grant, Samet wonders about those “moments when moral courage comes at the expense of an opportunity to demonstrate physical valor.” (page 203)

Steadfast in her role as a civilian, Samet could not avoid assimilating military dialect and the thinking that requires it. Following 9/11 West Point operated under force-protection orders—without quotation marks or explanation (page 5).  Her prep school reunion was “garrisoned by white-gloved waiters” (page 96). She does explain “suspense” as the word for a deadline or expiration (page 229). Most consequentially, throughout, but explicitly in Chapter 6, Samet reflects on the fact that she shares the role of an officer in directing the actions of those under her command and holding herself responsible for the acts and the people who perform them. 

In that, Prof. Samet hints at much struggling, but has no final words for what affected her most to that time: the deaths of her colleagues, one by suicide; and the combat deaths of her former students. Ultimately, the entire book is all about that.


Monday, November 19, 2018

Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet

One of her cadets, now an officer, wrote to his former professor about his experience in the active military preparing for his combat assignment and wondering if his lack of faith in the mission was a sign of disloyalty. “When I decided to teach English, I did not anticipate that I would be in the business of dispensing this sort of advice—on scanning Alexander Pope, perhaps, or unpacking a metaphor in an Elizabethan sonnet—but not this.” (page 163)

I found the book in the used book sales racks of the Brigadier General John C. L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin. After finishing it the first time, I read it again, making extensive notes, both on stickies and as marginalia. There’s a lot to think about.  On almost every page, I found something to underline.

picture shows soldier in combat uniform laying down, relaxing, reading a book
 Dr. Elizabeth Samet (b. 1969) finished a BA in English at Harvard (1991) before earning her Ph.D. at Yale. She then joined the faculty of English and Philosophy at West Point (1996) and is now the chair of the English side of that department. The latest entry in her bibliography is an annotated edition of the The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Liveright Norton, 2019). She says in Soldier’s Heart that Grant’s Personal Memoirs was her gateway to the military. “I don’t remember who introduced us [in 1994 or 1995], but I can recall what an inspiring companion he proved to be after a few years on the obligatory graduate school diet.” (page 35)

At the end, she offers several pages of recommended reading. But recommended reading is actually the superstructure of the narrative, the framework of her coursework for West Point cadets. And she tells her story from several perspectives: Not Your Father’s Army; “Books are Weapons”; Becoming Penelope, the Only Woman in the Room; To Obey or Not to Obey; Bibles, Lots of Bibles; The Courage of Soldiers; The Anatomy of Sacrifice. Those spaces are arched by a Prologue (Year of the Plague) and an Epilogue (Ave Atque Vale). The stories stand alone, though some characters re-appear. 

“This is a story about my intellectual and emotional connections to military culture and to certain people in it, but the real drama lies in the way the cadets I teach and the officers with whom I work negotiate multiple contradictions of their private and professional worlds. … Because they serve at the bottom of a hierarchy not especially interested in their opinions, cadets, especially plebes, at once crave and fear the freedom to wonder. … Few people know this part of their story: the courage with which they challenge accepted truths; the nuanced way they read literature and culture; and the ingenious methods they have for resisting conformity in lives largely given over to rules and regulations. Our national fondness for celebrating the physical heroism of soldiers—the apparent readiness with which they sacrifice their lives to larger causes—eclipses the far less romantic displays of moral and intellectual fortitude that also distinguishes so many of them. In turning them all into heroes, we have lost the sense of the individuality they also fight to preserve.” (page 13) 

The title comes from one of the earliest descriptions of what we now call PTSD. It has been termed shell shock and battle fatigue. The diagnosis “soldier’s heart” followed the American Civil War. It mimicked cardio-vascular disease but insightful practitioners recognized that the problem was psychological, not organic. Samet extends that meaning by recording, reflecting on, and honoring the emotional hearts of soldiers. Though she does invest much in our unresolved relationships with and distinctions between the wounded and the dead (Chapter 7), this book is really a celebration to the living. It honors the young officers who choose the difficult and sometimes impassable roads to the moral high ground in a morally ambiguous world. 

“I often get the feeling that these officers have something they want to say but can’t. Perhaps they simply want to acknowledge the change, to resume a normal acquaintance, or to tell me about something that happened in the desert. Whatever they know cannot be pried loose by a lot of questions. It has to come voluntarily and perhaps only much later, when distance permits reflection. More often than not we end up talking about where they read a particular book and what they found in it that helped them better understand what they have been asked to do. Thus when people ask me about my ‘function’ I can’t answer so glibly because when I look out at those newly shorn plebes who appear so eager to please on the first day of the semester, full of good faith and idealism, I see not simply students of literature or numbed soldiers but citizens who are willing to make a very real sacrifice.” (page 15)

Writing in 2007, she called it the Long War (page 11). Soldiers now call it The Forever War after Haldeman’s book. In 2016-2017, the Texas State Guard assigned me a fulltime opportunity to work in the Domestic Operations Task Force of the Texas Military Department. My commanders included young lieutenants who never knew a time of peace and now are not likely to as they mature up the ranks. Consequently, this is a book for everyone who wants to understand their responsibilities as citizens in a republic that chooses to go to war.

Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America : 1776-1898, Stanford Univ. Press, 2004. (This grew out of her doctoral dissertation.)
Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Picador, 2008.
Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers: A  Norton Anthology, 2015.
No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America, Picador USA, 2015.
The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Liveright W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 

Thomas Jefferson's Military Academy: Founding West Point by Robert M. S. McDonald, University of Virginia Press, 2004.
Tolstoy on War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in "War and Peace" by Rickie Allen McPeak, Cornell University Press, 2012.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Veterans Day 2018 on Martha's Vineyard

Visiting family ahead of the Thanksgiving travel rush, I celebrated Veterans Day on Martha's Vineyard. My first undergraduate school was the College of Charleston, founded 1770. But despite Rutledge, Heyward, and Lynch, among many others including the humble Jackson family, conservative Charleston was mostly Tory during the Revolution. If you want to start a revolution, you need to go to Massachusetts.

His marker was added for the SAR by the DAR. Hers was from the
Coastal Defence Chapter of the DAR.
“Early in the Revolution Island attitudes were at least neutral if not favorable toward the Crown. The Islanders’ unmatched whaling skills were prized by the British, as they watched lucrative profits return to England. As such, the Vineyard enjoyed an administration of benevolent neglect from abroad. As early as 1775, however, as the British began closing nearby ports and occasionally coming ashore to requisition livestock, Islanders hardened their hearts towards the lobsterbacks.”

Oak Hill Cemetery was the scene of a morning memorial.
“The most infamous and humiliating chapter in Vineyard history occurred on Sept. 11, 1778, the terrible Grey’s Raid, when ruthless British Maj. Gen. Charles Grey unleashed the full brunt of British Naval intimidation on the beleaguered Island with nearly 40 ships and over 4,000 troops. It was a bloodless pillage but a pillage nonetheless, as Islanders were forced to march 10,574 sheep, 315 cattle, innumerable bales of hay and 229 arms to present-day Vineyard Haven. Unsatisfied with these ill-gotten spoils, Grey’s men then scoured the countryside, looting house and field.”

Previously on Necessary Facts

Sunday, November 4, 2018


“Why My Brick” by Michael E. Marotta on behalf of SFC Edward M. Marotta 

I was drafted. They called it the peacetime Army, but the Korean armistice had just been signed and the Russians occupied Eastern Europe. They say that conscripts do not make good soldiers but I served nine years active duty and 15 years in the reserves. I was an average soldier. My medals were for good conduct and component readiness. My only war story is how a non-judicial punishment led to a promotion and assignment to be a colonel’s driver. In my off-duty time on base, I trained Soldiers in hand-to-hand combat and sent two to the Olympics to compete in boxing. My longest billet was to be a trainer in race relations and equal opportunity. For me, a trade school graduate, with no special purpose or direction, the Army was my equal opportunity to earn maturity, learn teamwork, and help to build the next generation of Soldiers. -- For the "Buy a Brick" campaign of the National Museum of the Army (here) of the Army Historical Foundation (here).

(The photograph is the only artifact of Dad in uniform in the possession of his second family. His DD-214 cites the second rocker for Sergeant First Class, not shown here. After his first re-enlistment expired in 1958, Dad's 15 years in the Ohio National Guard came only after the second set of boys was grown up and mostly gone. We all support our men in uniform; we do not all encourage them to join. "Why did you go, Michael? It was not your fight," said Don Corleone.)

Soldiers of Peace 
Wooden Ships 
Leaders are Readers 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Cleveland, Ohio, and the Gates of Argonath

"Two pairs of entrance pylons on both the west and east ends of the Hope Memorial Bridge (formerly the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge) have figural reliefs symbolizing the development of road transportation. These stylized 43-foot high pylons, carved of Berea sandstone, are well-preserved examples of Art Deco figures, all holding examples of road transportation." --

The Argonath, also known as the Gate of Kings or the Pillars of the Kings, was a landmark on the northern edge of Gondor. The Argonath consisted of two enormous rock pillars, carved in the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion facing to the north. Placed upon huge pedestals, each of the two figures held an axe in its right hand and its left hand rose in a gesture of defiance to the enemies of Gondor. The two statues stood upon either side of the River Anduin at the northern approach to Nen Hithoel. --

"The Argonath, also known as The Gates of Argonath or The Pillars of Kings, was a monument comprised of two enormous statues carved in the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, standing upon either side of the River Anduin at the northern entrance to Nen Hithoel. It marked the northern border of Gondor, as nearby down south were previous outposts, Amon Hen and the Amon Lhaw.
The Argonath was originally constructed about TA 1340 at the order of Rómendacil II to mark the northern border of Gondor, although the realm was greatly diminished in size by the time the Fellowship of the Ring passed the monument on February 25, 3019. Each of the two figures was shown wearing a crown and a helm, with an axe in its right hand and its left hand raised in a gesture of defiance to the enemies of Gondor."  --

"Perhaps the most memorable features of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge are the 43-foot tall “Guardians of Transportation” which line its sides. These four huge double-sided pylons, carved out of sandstone from nearby Berea, Ohio, represent technological advances made in transit, with each Guardian holding a different kind of vehicle in its massive hands. Frank Walker designed the pylons and Henry Hering did the actual sculpting with the help of a number of local stonecutters."

"In the 1970s, Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert Porter wanted to tear down the pylons in order to add lanes to the bridge. He did not get his way. So, when the bridge reopened in 1983 after nearly three years of repairs, the Guardians of Transportation were still in place. The bridge was renamed at this time, becoming the Hope Memorial Bridge, in honor of actor Bob Hope and his family - English immigrants who came to Cleveland in 1908. William Henry Hope, Bob’s father, was a stonemason who worked on the construction of the Guardians in the 1930s."

"Henry Hering is well known for his work as an architectural sculptor. Much of his work consists of allegorical figures done in the Beaux-Arts tradition, although a few of his later works, such as the detailing in Severance Hall and the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, were done in the Art Deco style. Hering's reputation as a sculptor decreased as International Modernism dispensed with architectural, figurative and allegorical work. As with many other such artists Hering's oeuvre is now being reexamined in a more positive light. In 1928 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member and became a full Academician in 1937."

"Hering is further remembered in relation to the unfortunate crash of an American B-25 military airplane into New York City's Empire State Building on July 28, 1945. The largest sections of the plane remained lodged in the building, or fell directly to the streets below. However, one engine ripped from its wing and traveled some distance away, regrettably landing in Hering's top floor penthouse studio, located in a building near the crash. At the time, newspaper coverage of the accident reported that, although the artist was not in his studio at the time, about $75,000 worth of his work was destroyed." --


Superheroes Live in Cities
Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographics
The Wizard of Oz and the Anti-Intellectual Tradition
The Akkadian Roots of Modern Semitic Languages