writing

Word of the day: Synecdoche

Adapted from Wikipedia’s “Synecdoche“:

Synecdoche is a figure of speech that presents a kind of metaphor in which:

* A part of something is used for the whole (“hands” to refer to workers, “head” for cattle, “threads” for clothing, “wheels” for car, “mouths to feed” for hungry people, “The Press” for news media)
* The whole is used for a part (“the police” for a handful of officers, “body” for the trunk of the body, the “smiling year” for spring, “the Pentagon” for the top-ranking generals in the Pentagon building)

Bruce Schneier on steganography

From Bruce Schneier’s “Steganography: Truths and Fictions“:

Steganography is the science of hiding messages in messages. … In the computer world, it has come to mean hiding secret messages in graphics, pictures, movies, or sounds. …

The point of steganography is to hide the existence of the message, to hide the fact that the parties are communicating anything other than innocuous photographs. This only works when it can be used within existing communications patterns. I’ve never sent or received a GIF in my life. If someone suddenly sends me one, it won’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there’s a steganographic message hidden somewhere in it. If Alice and Bob already regularly exchange files that are suitable to hide steganographic messages, then an eavesdropper won’t know which messages — if any — contain the messages. If Alice and Bob change their communications patterns to hide the messages, it won’t work. An eavesdropper will figure it out.

… Don’t use the sample image that came with the program when you downloaded it; your eavesdropper will quickly recognize that one. Don’t use the same image over and over again; your eavesdropper will look for the differences between that indicate the hidden message. Don’t use an image that you’ve downloaded from the net; your eavesdropper can easily compare the image you’re sending with the reference image you downloaded.

Stonewall Jackson’s respect for Sunday

From Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville (270):

Last but not least, this was the Lord’s day; [Stonewall] Jackson would not even write a letter on a Sunday, or post one that would be in transit then, fearing that Providence might punish the profanation.

The botnet hunters

From The Washington Post‘s “Bringing Botnets Out of the Shadows“:

Nicholas Albright’s first foray into some of the darkest alleys of the Internet came in November 2004, shortly after his father committed suicide. About a month following his father’s death, Albright discovered that online criminals had broken into his dad’s personal computer and programmed it to serve as part of a worldwide, distributed network for storing pirated software and movies. …

From that day forward, Albright poured all of his free time and pent-up anger over his father’s death into assembling “Shadowserver,” a group of individuals dedicated to battling large, remote-controlled herds of hacked personal PCs, also known as “botnets.” …

Each “bot” is a computer on which the controlling hacker has installed specialized software that allows him to commandeer many of its functions. Hackers use bots to further their online schemes or as collection points for users’ personal and financial information.

“I take my [handheld computer] everywhere so I can keep tabs on the botnets when I’m not at home,” Albright said …

On a Sunday afternoon in late February, Albright was lurking in an online channel that a bot herder uses to control a network of more than 1,400 hacked computers running Microsoft Windows software. The hacker controlling this botnet was seeding infected machines with “keyloggers,” …

Albright had already intercepted and dissected a copy of the computer worm that the attacker uses to seize control of computers — an operation that yielded the user name and password the hacker uses to run the control channel. By pretending to be just another freshly hacked bot reporting for duty, Albright passively monitors what the hackers are doing with their botnets and collects information that an Internet service provider would need to get the channel shut down.

Albright spied one infected PC reporting data about the online activities of its oblivious owner — from the detailed information flowing across the wire, it was clear that one of the infected computers belongs to a physician in Michigan.

“The botnet is running a keylogger, and I see patient data,” Albright said. …

“Anything you submit to law enforcement may help later if an investigation occurs,” he said. “Chances are, though, it will just be filed away in a database.”

Botnets are the workhorses of most online criminal enterprises today, allowing hackers to ply their trade anonymously — sending spam, sowing infected PCs with adware from companies that pay for each installation, or hosting fraudulent e-commerce and banking Web sites. …

… in the 13-month period ending in January, more than 13 million PCs around the world were infected with malicious code that turned them into bots.

… Shadowserver locates bot networks by deploying a series of “honeynets” — sensors that mimic computers with known security flaws — in an effort to lure attackers, allowing the group to capture samples of new bot programs. …

Shadowserver submits any new or undetected specimens to the major anti-virus companies. Andrews said he is constantly surprised by the sheer number of bot programs that do not get flagged as malicious by any of the programs. …

In Andrews’s experience, by far the most common reason criminals create botnets these days — other than perhaps to sell or rent them to other criminals — is to install online ad-serving software that earns the attacker a few pennies per install. …

Even after the Shadowserver crew has convinced an ISP to shut down a botmaster’s command-and-control channel, most of the bots will remain infected. Like lost sheep without a shepherd, the drones will continually try to reconnect to the hacker’s control server, unaware that it no longer exists. …

“Bot hunting can really take over your personal life, because to do this right you really have to stay on top of it — it can’t just be something you do on the weekends,” he said. “I guess it takes a special type of person to be able to sustain botnet hunting. … I don’t know anyone who pays people to do this kind of work.” …

Albright said that while federal law enforcement has recently made concerted efforts to reach out to groups like Shadowserver in hopes of building a more effective partnership, they don’t have the bodies, the technology, or the legal leeway to act directly on the information the groups provide. …

“Sadly, without more law enforcement support this will remain a chase-your-tail type game, because we won’t ever really shut these networks down until the bot master goes to jail, and his drones are cleaned.”

Architecture & the quality without a name

From Brian Hayes’ “The Post-OOP Paradigm“:

Christopher Alexander [a bricks-and-steel architect] is known for the enigmatic thesis that well-designed buildings and towns must have “the quality without a name.” He explains: “The fact that this quality cannot be named does not mean that it is vague or imprecise. It is impossible to name because it is unerringly precise.”

Bertrand Russell on writing well

From Bertrand Russell’s “How I Write“:

Until I was twenty-one, I wished to write more or less in the style of John Stuart Mill. … I had, however, already a different ideal, derived, I suppose, from mathematics. I wished to say everything in the smallest number of words in which it could be said clearly. … I would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.

At the age of twenty-one, however, I came under a new influence that of my future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. He was at that time exclusively interested in style as opposed to matter. His gods were Flaubert and Walter Pater, and I was quite ready to believe that the way to learn how to write was to copy their technique. He gave me various simple rules, of which 1 remember only two: “Put a comma every four words”, and “never use ‘and’ except at the beginning of a sentence”. His most emphatic advice was that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time. I do not, of course, apply it to the substance, but only to the form. When I discover an error of an important kind I re-write the whole. What I do not find is that I can improve a sentence when I am satisfied with what it means.

… In fact, all imitation is dangerous. Nothing could be better in style than the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible, but they express a way of thinking and feeling which is different from that of our time. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. But although direct imitation is always to be deprecated, there is much to be gained by familiarity with good prose, especially in cultivating a sense for prose rhythm.

There are some simple maxims-not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me-which I think might be commanded to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.

A living story, tattooed on flesh

From The New York Times Magazine‘s “Skin Literature“:

Most artists spend their careers trying to create something that will live forever. But the writer Shelley Jackson is creating a work of literature that is intentionally and indisputably mortal. Jackson is publishing her latest short story by recruiting 2,095 people, each of whom will have one word of the story tattooed on his or her body. The story, titled ‘Skin,’ will appear only on the collective limbs, torsos and backsides of its participants. And decades from now, when the last of Jackson’s ‘words’ dies, so, too, will her tale.

As of November, Jackson, the Brooklyn-based author of a short-story collection called ‘The Melancholy of Anatomy,’ had enrolled about 1,800 volunteers, some from such distant countries as Argentina, Jordan, Thailand and Finland. Participants, who contact Jackson through her Web site, cannot choose which word they receive. And their tattoos must be inked in the font that Jackson has specified. But they do have some freedom to bend and stretch the narrative. They can select the place on their bodies they want to become part of the Jackson opus. In return, Jackson asks her ‘words’ to sign a 12-page release absolving her of liability and promising not to share the story with others. (Participants are the only people who will get to see the full text of the story.) They must also send her two photographs — one of the word on their skin, the other a portrait of themselves without the word visible — which she may later publish or exhibit.

… Mothers and daughters are requesting consecutive words. So are couples, perhaps hoping to form the syntactic equivalent of a civil union. For others, the motives are social: Jackson is encouraging her far-flung words to get to know each other via e-mail, telephone, even in person. (Imagine the possibilities. A sentence getting together for dinner. A paragraph having a party.) …

… when a participant meets his or her demise, Jackson vows, she will try to attend that person’s funeral. But the 41-year-old author understands that some of her 2,095 collaborators, many of whom are in their 20’s, might outlive her. If she dies first, she says, she hopes several of them will come to her funeral and make her the first writer ever to be mourned by her words.

3500 forgotten cans

From “Mental Health Association of Portland“:

Over 3,500 copper canisters like these hold the cremated remains of patients of the Oregon State Hospital that went unclaimed by their families and friends. They sit on shelves in an abandoned building on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital. They symbolize the loneliness, isolation, shame and despair too many patients of the hospital experienced.

Our members are helping find a final resting place for the remains. We have helped families find their lost relatives. We’re pressing the hospital and the state to create a suitable memorial. We’ve demanded former, current and future patients be advised and consulted about the creation of a memorial, its site, design and any ceremony.

oregon_cans.jpg

From The New York Times‘ “Long-Forgotten Reminders Of the Mentally Ill in Oregon”:

Next to the old mortuary, where the dead were once washed and prepared for burial or cremation, is a locked room without a name.

Inside the room, in a dim and dusty corner of one of many abandoned buildings on the decaying campus of the Oregon State Hospital here, are 3,489 copper urns, the shiny metal dull and smeared with corrosion, the canisters turning green.

The urns hold the ashes of mental patients who died here from the late 1880’s to the mid-1970’s. The remains were unclaimed by families who had long abandoned their sick relatives, when they were alive and after they were dead.

The urns have engraved serial numbers pressed into the tops of the cans. The lowest number on the urns still stored in the room is 01, the highest 5,118. Over the decades, about 1,600 families have reclaimed urns containing their relatives’ ashes, but those left are lined up meticulously on wood shelves. Short strips of masking tape with storage information are affixed to each shelf: ”Vault #2, Shelf #36, plus four unmarked urns,” one piece of tattered tape says.

Most of the labels that once displayed the full names of the dead patients have been washed off by water damage or peeled away by time. Still, a few frayed labels are legible: among the urns stored on one shelf are a Bess, a Ben and an Andrew.

Blogs as patio space

From Jim Hanas’ “The Story Doesn’t Care: An Interview with Sean Stewart“:

I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, during the winter. There are two very essential conditions in Edmonton. There’s inside and outside, and there’s no real doubt about which is which. There’s a sharp line preserved between the two.

I now live in California. California is an interesting place to me—and reminds me a bit of the South, where I spent my summers—because in California, what with the weather being clement and the price of real estate being high, you spend a lot of time in this hybrid space. We could call it patio space or—if you’re in the South—front porch space. It’s clearly inside in some ways, but it’s public in other ways.

The world of the blog clearly exists in patio space, in porch space, in that “I’m going to invite you into a level of intimacy not usually accorded to strangers, and yet you’re still a stranger. I’m going to write a blog, and you and I will communicate with one another, sometimes with startling candor, and yet in this mixed, hybrid place.”

New communication, new art forms

From Jim Hanas’ “The Story Doesn’t Care: An Interview with Sean Stewart“:

I think that every means of communication carries within itself the potential for a form of art. Once the printing press was built, novels were going to happen. It took the novel a little while to figure out exactly what it was going to be, but once the press was there, something was going to occur. Once motion picture cameras were around, the movies—in some format or another—were going to happen.

I modestly or immodestly think that [developers of alternate reality games] got some things fundamentally right about the way the web and the internet want to tell stories in a way that not everyone had gotten quite when we lucked into it. What people do on the web is they look for things and they gossip. We found a way of storytelling that has a lot to do with looking for things and gossiping about them. …

Suspension of disbelief is a much more fragile creation in the kinds of campaigns we’re doing right now than it is in novels, where everyone has taken the last two hundred years to agree on a set of rules about how you understand what’s happening in a book. That hasn’t happened here. Right now, this is at an unbelievably fluid and dynamic stage—a whole bunch of things that have been figured out in other art forms, we’re working them out on the fly.

How a 75-year-old jewel thief did it

From MSNBC’s “75-year-old jewel thief looks back“:

When Doris Payne went to work, she stepped into her fancy dress, high heels and donned a wide-brimmed hat. Her creamy, mocha skin was made up just so, her handbag always designer. Sometimes a pair of plain gold earrings would do. Always, she looked immaculate, well-to-do. …

New York. Colorado. Nevada. California. They all beckoned, and so did Greece and France, England and Switzerland as she plied her trade over five decades. …

There was the February day, eight years ago, when she strolled into the Neiman Marcus store on the Las Vegas Strip and asked to see a pair of diamond earrings. …

Employee Linda Sbrocco showed her several — this one … no, this one … how about that one? Soon Sbrocco was swapping jewelry in and out of cases at a dizzying pace. Payne slipped rings on and off, and had Sbrocco do the same.

Then Payne was gone. And so was a $36,000 marquis cut, 2.48-carat diamond ring.

This was how Doris Payne went about her work as an international jewel thief. …

Every month or every other month — no one knows how many times over more than 50 years — she strolled into a jewelry store and strolled out with a ring worth thousands of dollars.

Occasionally, she was caught. Mostly, she was not. …

She grew up in Slab Fork, W.Va., where her daddy worked in the coal mines and her mother sewed dresses and did alterations for extra money. Payne was the baby, the youngest of six who liked school and loved to show her illiterate father places on the world maps she made out of salt and flour, places she would someday visit. …

“It’s not stealing because I’m only taking what they give me,” Payne said. …

The Jewelers Security Alliance, an industry trade group, got on to Payne in the 1970s. Bulletins went out, warning jewelry stores about a slick, well-dressed black woman who was stealing diamond rings.

Where others might hit a store for several pieces of jewelry, Payne only took one or two expensive rings at a time. But what really made Doris Payne different was that she was so prolific and so good. …

In the early 1970s, Payne tried her skills overseas. First Paris. Then Monte Carlo, where she flew in 1974 and paid a visit to Cartier, coming away with a platinum diamond ring. When she got to the airport in Nice, custom agents suspected she had the ring and stopped her. The ring was never found.

During the investigation, Payne says she was kept in a “fifth-rate motel” by the Mediterranean. One day she asked the woman in charge for nail clippers and for a needle and thread to mend her dress. She used the clippers to pry the ring from its setting, sewed the diamond into her girdle and then tossed the setting into the sea, she says.

She wore her girdle day and night, even when it was wet from washing. Her room was searched every day, but the diamond remained hidden.

She wasn’t always so lucky. She’s been arrested more times than she can remember. One detective said her arrest report is more than 6 feet long — she’s done time in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin. …

Through the decades, she has used at least 22 aliases, among them Audrey Davis, Thelma White, Sonya Dowels, Marie Clements, Donna Gilbert.

Still accessible after 1000 years

From BBC News:

In fact, it turns out that images stored electronically just 15 years ago are already becoming difficult to access. The Domesday Project, a multimedia archive of British life in 1986 designed as a digital counterpart to the original Domesday Book compiled by monks in 1086, was stored on laser discs.

The equipment needed to view the images on these discs is already very rare, yet the Domesday book, written on paper, is still accessible more than 1,000 years after it was produced.

The innovation of the margin

From InfoWorld:

In chapter 4 of Klaus Kaasgaard’s Software Design and Usability, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) alumnus Austin Henderson says that “one of the most brilliant inventions of the paper bureaucracy was the idea of the margin.” There was always space for unofficial data, which traveled with the official data, and everybody knew about the relationship between the two.

A walkway of the dead

I was walking around on Wash U’s campus a while back – I don’t remember where, exactly – when I looked down and noticed that I was walking over bricks that had been “donated” by folks who had given money to WU. This is standard practice a lot of places: donate $$$, get a brick with a message on it written by you.

As I walked, I was struck by the idea that many of the bricks were dedicated to people who had died. Further, one day all of the people listed on those bricks would be dead. Although it was a macabre thought, I realized that this was a walkway of the dead.