Monthly Archives: September 2010

Daemon

On the plane to and from Colorado I read Daemon, a recent novel about … well it’s complicated. I guess the biggest theme is the potential for new technologies to force dramatic changes in the whole structure of a society. It’s unabashedly science fiction, but with a writing style occasionally cribbed from Robert Ludlum, and a crime-solving plot structure that brings to mind The Westing Game.

On the whole, it’s a disquieting book. The author, Daniel Suarez, has constructed an obsessively plausible scenario in which a single dedicated engineer, armed with technologies that are already nearly mature today, can silently overthrow the world’s governments and gain a degree of power never before attained. I spent quite a few hours after I put it down trying to poke holes in Suarez’s construction, but in truth I think there are very few. The greatest flaw with this plan, it seems, is that it can only be executed by an evil genius billionaire.

I’m increasingly mindful of, and thankful for, the incredible rarity of evil people.

Wedding

I spent the weekend in Colorado for my brother’s wedding. The ceremony and reception were held at Della Terra, a newly constructed venue at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes. The location is exquisite, on the side of a valley at an altitude of 8200 feet. Della Terra was built on the realization that this place is specifically perfect for weddings, with its predictably beautiful weather and views to awe-inspiring granite peaks. They built their non-denominational altar with its stadium seating facing a sheer rock face that towers over the wooded landscape. I’m told a fawn ambled by during the ceremony.

The wedding was a great chance to meet people, especially my new sister-in-law’s family and my brother’s friends, some of whom last saw me when I was in elementary school. Everyone seemed to be doing remarkably well.

In a few free hours on Saturday, my parents and I drove through the park and up a long winding dirt road to the visitors’ center, overlooking an enormous bowl at 11,796 feet. I took a panorama there (merged with the lovely Hugin), which is now the site header. I especially like the piles of snow, visible on the right even at the end of summer.

Education, Geek to Geek

Monty of Xiph.Org just put out a new video on the fundamentals of digital multimedia, hopefully the first of many. It’s a fun intro for anyone who’d like to know more about the foundations of modern audio/video technology, especially students. I think it’s a good example of how the geeks of the world can and should work to raise new generations of geeks, worldwide.

Wedding

My brother is getting married this weekend, so I’m flying out to Colorado with my family on Friday morning. I’ve never tried to fly with a tux before, but I can’t say I’m terribly concerned about it.

I’ve mostly spent this week on dull administrative/paperwork stuff, so I have very little of interest to mention. That’s why I’m going to tell you to read about SIGSALY. SIGSALY was a digital voice codec running at 1600-2400 bps, together with an unbreakable encryption scheme. It was built for the US military … in 1942! It weighed 50 tons and drew 30 kilowatts of power.

Today we can do the same thing with a device that weighs about one millionth as much, and draws about one millionth as much power, which is pretty cool. (It’s called a mobile phone.) What’s impressive to me, though is the other piece: after 68 years, we are still doing the same thing.

It’s surely not a surprise to learn that Alan Turing was involved in its design. Some people are so awesome that it kind of makes me angry.

ToR

I went to a talk/discussion this afternoon led by Nick Mathewson, Chief Architect of Tor. It was really cool. I didn’t know Nick before, but talking to him nonetheless felt like a familiar experience because he embodies my archetype of the MIT man. He’s also exactly the sort of person I had always hoped was steering Tor.

I learned a lot about Tor, much too much to summarize here. We talked about the theory of its threat models, the overall design, the cryptography on each link, the inclusive approach to marketing, and a hundred other things. It’s truly an impressive project, especially as it spans the gulf between active use (it has a huge number of users, though their anonymity makes them hard to count) and academic research (researchers often use it as a target in security analysis papers).

I don’t have much use for Tor myself, but with what I know about it today, I wish I did!

Adolf Sannwald

The Harvard Reform Minyan’s Yom Kippur services were held, as usual, in Memorial Church. I was a bit early, and started perusing the southern wall, which is tiled with 697 names of Harvard men who were killed in World War II. Most sound like the names you would expect of Harvard men in 1940. Statistically many might have been famous, but none lived long enough to get the chance. One alumnus stands out from the others. His name is listed as “Adolf Sannwald (enemy combatant)”. I carried his name with me on the walk home, and looked him up.

As it turns out, Sannwald’s name has been creating controversy from the very beginning. A Crimson article from 1951, 10 days after the memorial was completed, complains

why did the Corporation approve the inclusion of the name of Adolf Sannwald, a chaplain killed in the service of the German Army? Whatever were Sannwald’s motives for fighting in the Nazi cause, it is obvious that he was not defending in any way the principles of freedom that have so nourished Harvard.

An article from the same student paper in 1995, finds a surprising answer with the benefit of historical perspective

…closer inspection shows that the German whose name appears on the Church wall, Adolf Sannwald, was drafted against his will into the Nazi forces. He was a minister who opposed the Nazis and helped to shelter Jews. He tried to serve as a chaplain but was forced to carry out non-combatant jobs such as janitor and clerk.

Sannwald was a special case…

Sannwald, according to this account, was a “righteous gentile” in the Jewish terminology of the Holocaust. To me that makes his inclusion in a memorial plaque wholly appropriate. The picture, however, is not quite so clear. A 2003 Crimson article notes that

In January of 1952, the Alumni Bulletin published an article that quoted the Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing boards, as releasing the following statement: “The inclusion of the name of an alumnus who served in the German Army was an error and will be corrected.”

It seems, then, that the compilers of the plaque included his name without knowing much about him. If he was indeed “righteous”, then it seems his name was added in a sort of lucky coincidence, by people who put him on the list despite their assessment of his allegiance. In fact, the article argues further that his biography was not so saintly after all.

Early letters indeed indicate that he was flatly opposed to the Nazi regime. But there is no conclusive evidence that this was why he died.

Prompted by this writer’s curiosity, a recent investigation into Sannwald’s archived file by The Crimson complicates Sannwald’s presumed blamelessness. In a letter dated July 1946, Dean Sperry wrote to Grabau that he had heard from Sannwald in either 1936 or 1937. He wrote that Sannwald invited him to Germany to see “the wonderful rebirth the nation was having under Hitler.”

This is second-hand, of course, and the “invitation” has never been found. The article also argues that Sannwald “would not have been drafted as a common soldier, but most likely as a pastor”, indicating a greater level of support for Nazism than a forcibly conscripted foot soldier.

Some of these details are contradicted by a 2008 newspaper column in support of Sannwald:

When Hitler sought control of the Protestant churches through his German Christian Movement, which forced Protestant churches to merge and support Nazi ideology, Sannwald joined the confessing church, an underground Christian resistance movement that opposed the German leader.

In 1934 he wrote in a pamphlet, “God did not choose his children on the basis of race. We may not and will not confuse faith in Jesus Christ with some other faith in a religious or political world view.”

Warned that the Gestapo had ordered his arrest, Sannwald accepted a call to a tiny church in the Black Mountains where he felt his family would be safe. He protected local Jews by sheltering them in the church rectory.

By 1942 the government had located him. In January he was drafted as a common soldier, and three days later he was on a train to the Russian front. He was never allowed to serve as a chaplain because he refused to join the Nazi Party and was permitted to preach only once to his fellow soldiers. After earning a medal for rescuing a fellow soldier, being slightly wounded and badly frostbitten, he was killed in an air raid.

A book referencing a 1995 article on Sannwald in Harvard Magazine adds a few choice details that, on top of all the other claims, are enough to convince me that Sannwald deserved his (qualified) place on the memorial.

Banished to an obscure village, in the late 1930s Sannwald and his family sheltered fugitive Jews. But this Christian rescuer never became a military chaplain. In fact, Sannwald had only one opportunity to preach to his fellow soldiers, at an Easter service in 1943. He chose as his topic “the Resurrection and collective guilt.” No existing records suggest that any “real” chaplain dared preach on such a provocative theme.

EDIT: I found at least one famous name amidst the men killed in their youth: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harvard class of 1904.

19

I had a pretty quiet weekend, just paying bills and running errands. Today was the first VoiceLab rehearsal where we had something close to the whole group. There were 19 people present. It was huge. It sounded pretty good.

Slow weekend

I had a nice relaxing weekend, which has been rare lately. I ran errands, watched some tennis on TV, and generally tried to take care of business. At no point can I recall leaving the city limits since coming home from work on Friday.

L’Shana Tova

It’s 5771, and hooray for that. I took the day off, went to services and spent the day talking about Jewy stuff with friends. It was a good day, and hopefully a good start for the year.

Taking Thursday off does do funny things to one’s internal calendar though. Going back to work tomorrow seems a bit odd.

Whirlwind

I just got back to Boston after spending the long weekend at home in CT. I was home for a party in celebration of my brother’s upcoming wedding. The party itself was epic, with 60 guests, a live band, and a full dinner party, arranged and largely catered by my mother. It was quite a feat, and a good time too.

The party was surrounded by a halo of other social events, and the gaps between them were filled with hard work setting up and tearing down. It was an unbroken whirlwind of activity.

Tomorrow: first VoiceLab rehearsal with new group members.

P.S. planet.sugarlabs.org is misconfigured, and should not be showing this post.