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Whit Diffie’s honorary doctorate at Holloway College

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Yesterday, I had the priviledge to attend the graduation ceremony at the Royal Holloway College as a guest of Whit Diffie who received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in the field of cryptography, namely, his pioneering work on the public private key. Wired article from 1994 on the topic sums it up:

Whitfield Diffie took cryptography out of the hands of the spooks and made privacy possible in the digital age – by inventing the most revolutionary concept in encryption since the Renaissance.

The ceremony started at 10.30am in the splendid college Chapel. Alas, as my flight from Boston was delayed by 3 hours the night before, I arrived too late to see whole thing. However, thanks to Alec I got there in time for Whit’s award and his acceptance speech and managed to record all but the first 10-15 seconds of it. Apologies for the quality, as this is recorded with my normal camera, from a screen outside the chapel.

…open to the opportunity to take risks and do things in unexpected ways and do what you want to but not what people recommend. On the other hand I think I can be said to have overdone this so they, when they give my resume, they normally, they gloss over details. I managed to graduate from MIT and I was later immatriculated at Standford university. Alumni register very tactfully shows me as having “graduated” in 1987, that is to say that have lost track of me. And I have two doctorates both kindly given by universities, both kindly given by universities that recognise quality of the work. And so, I find myself, you know, my work doesn’t seem that impressive to me, but fortunately it seems to have made a better impression on other people. So I found this eaxmple of the fact that it is possible to have a successful career without following the socially recommended paths. But I can also tell you that it must be much… easier to do it in the standard forms. As I can hardly say, I cannot say I don’t regret not having been more capable of a more sustained study and having been able to learn what I needed to learn rather than any given moment merely what I happened to be interested in. Thank you very much.

Diffie hasn’t just refused to fit into an educational system or innovate in structured ways. It was the thinking, Damned-if-I-follow-some-of-your-stupid-rules. Because some of them are stupid. As Steven Levy puts in his book Crypto:

Ultimately, it was only by questioning the conventional rules of cryptography and finding some of them “stupid” that Diffie made his breakthroughs. A case in point: the belief that the workings of a secure cryptosystem had to be treated with utmost secrecy. That might have held true for military organisations, but in the computer age, that didn’t make sense. There would be unlimited users who needed a system for privacy; obviously, such a system would have to be distributed so widely that potential crackers would have no trouble getting their hands on it and would have plenty of opportunity to practice attacking it. Instead, the secrecy had to rest somewhere else in the system.

The issue of privacy, boiled down for Whit Diffie to: How do you deal with a trustworthy person in the midst of a world full of untrustworthy people?

Diffie also believed in what he called “a decentralised view of authority”. By creating the proper cryptographic tools, he felt, you could solve the problem – by transferring the data protection from a disinterested third party to the actual user, the one whose privacy was actually at risk.

And this, in my view, applies not only to privacy and cryptographic tools but also to all the other tools that have made the web social and empowering to the individual. To that end, I want to look for ways to build tools that transfer the the data created by the individual in pursuit of his own goals (whether it involves conversations, relationships or transactions) from an abusive or exploitative party (vendor, platform and potentially any third party) to the actual user, the one who benefits from the data, communication and relationships directly.

Whit Diffie’s challenging of accepted rules, whether Doctor of Science or not, has been an inspiration to me, which couldn’t have come at a better time as I see several assumptions about the web ripe for such challenge…

Here are more photos from the event.

Whit Diffie in Holloway Chapel

Million-dollar Terry Pratchett

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This is an achingly wonderful speech. It comes from the other side of the healthcare divide – the person with illness that is disrupting his life, his mind and eventually his identity. This is not only about being a patient or about getting care from healthcare providers but about understand what it feels like from the human and personal perspective. Terry Pratchett gave the speech (and one million dollars) yesterday in Bristol at Alzheimer’s Research Trust Network conference.

Here is the full speech (link to pdf):

Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Terry Pratchett, author of a series of inexplicably successful fantasy books and I have had Alzheimer’s now for the past two years plus, in which time I managed to write a couple of bestsellers. I have a rare variant. I don’t understand very much about it, but apparently if you are going to have Alzheimer’s it’s a good one to have. So, a stroke of luck there then…

Interestingly enough, when I was diagnosed last December by those nice people at Addenbrooke’s, I started a very different journey through Dementia. This one had much better scenery, interesting and often very attractive inhabitants, wonderful wildlife and many opportunities for excitement and adventure.

Those of you who’s last experience with computer games was looking at Lara Croft’s buttocks might not be aware of how good they have become as audio and visual experiences, although I would concede that Lara’s buttocks were a visual experience in their own right. But in this case I was travelling through a country that was part of the huge computer game called Oblivion, which is so beautifully detailed that I have often ridden around it to enjoy the scenery and weather and have hardly bothered to kill anything at all.

At the same time as I began exploring the wonderful Kingdom of Dementia, which is next door to the Kingdom of Mania, I was also experiencing the slightly more realistic experience of being a 59 year old who finds they have early onset Alzheimer’s. Apparently I reacted to this situation in a reasonably typical way, with a sense of loss and abandonment with an incoherent, or perhaps I should say, violently coherent fury that made the Miltonic Lucifer’s rage against Heaven seem a bit miffed by comparison. That fire still burns.

I want to go on writing! Admittedly, that means I have to stay alive. You can’t write books when you are dead, unless your name is L. Ron Hubbard. And so now I’m a game for real. It’s a nasty disease, surrounded by shadows and small, largely unseen tragedies. People don’t know what to say, unless they have had it in the family

People ask me why I announced that I had Alzheimer’s. My response was: why shouldn’t I? I remember when people died “of a long illness” now we call cancer by its name, and as every wizard knows, once you have a thing’s real name you have the first step to its taming. We are at war with cancer, and we use that
vocabulary. We battle, we are brave, we survive. And we have a large armaments industry.

For those of us with early onset in particular, it’s more of a series of skirmishes. My GP is helpful and patient, but I don’t have a specialist locally. The NHS kindly allows me to buy my own Aricept because I’m too young to have Alzheimer’s for free, a situation I’m okay with in a want-to-kick-a-politician-in-the-teeth-kind of way But, on the whole, you try to be your own doctor. The internet twangs night and day. I walk a lot and take more supplements than the Sunday papers. We talk to one another and compare regimes. Part of me lives in a world of new age remedies and science, and some of the science is a little like voodoo. But science was never an exact science, and personally I’d eat the arse out of a dead mole if it offered a fighting chance.

Fortunately, I have the Greek Chorus to calm me down

Soon after I told the world my website fell over and my PA had to spend the evening negotiating more bandwidth. I had more than 60,000 messages within the first few hours. Most of them were readers and well-wishers. Some of them wanted to sell me snake oil and I’m not necessarily going to dismiss all of these, as I have never found a rusty snake. But a large handful came from ‘experienced’ sufferers, successfully fighting a holding action, and various people in universities and research establishments who had, despite all expectations, risen to high places in their various professions even while being confirmed readers of my books. And they said; can we help? They are the Greek Chorus. Only two of them are known to each other and they give me their advice on various options that I suggest. They include a Wiccan, too. It’s a good idea to cover all the angles.

It was interesting when I asked about having my dental amalgam fillings removed. There was a chorus of “Hrumph, no scientific evidence, hrumph…., but if you can afford to have it done properly then it certainly won’t do any harm and you never know.”

And that is where I am, along with many others, scrabbling to stay ahead long enough to be there when the Cure, which I suspect may be more like a regime, comes along. Say it will be soon – There’s nearly as many of us as there are cancer sufferers, and it looks as if the number of people with the disease will double within a generation. And in most cases you will find alongside the sufferer you will find a spouse, suffering as much.

It’s a shock and a shame, then, to find out that funding for research is three per cent of that which goes to find cancer cures. Perhaps that is why, for example, that I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumours but no-one who has beaten Alzheimer’s… although among the Greek Chorus are some who are giving it a hard time.

I’d like a chance to die like my father did—of Cancer, at 86. (Remember, I’m speaking as a man with Alzheimer’s, which strips away your living self a bit at a time). Before he went to spend his last two weeks in a hospice he was bustling around the house, fixing things. He talked to us right up to the last few days, knowing who we were and who he was. Right now, I envy him. And there are thousands like me, except that they don’t get heard.

So let’s shout something loud enough to hear. We need you and you need money. I’m giving you a million dollars. Spend it wisely.

The Largest Model of the Universe

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Hans Rosling on beauty of statistics

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(I came across this a couple of months back and moving my blog I discovered it sitting in draft! Well worth posting even if this late.)

Hans Rosling’s talks about numbers at the OECD World Forum in Istanbul. He is an amazing speaker, so the video is well worth watching.

Those who know me know that I am no friend of metrics and statistics as most mislead by omission. What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get noticed and therefore understood etc etc. Even in his example, Hans Rosling says that people need to hear the music that the notes signify. Only a few musicians can tell it is a beautiful music. True, but the musician playing that music is important and there is no measurement for the beauty of the artist’s rendition, the joy of listening to a favourite version of a piece and for impact it has on our soul. You won’t find that embedded in the script. Similarly, this could apply to business – the numbers show revenue, profit or investments but in their current form they do not reflect the human aspect of the enterprise, the misery wrought on those crushed by the corporate systems, the souls sucked out by the mindless processes or the love that leads to innovation, collaboration and new ways of doing things.

via Tim O’Reilly

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