Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Four Horsemen of Digital Apocalypse

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

I have just survived the worst and most insidious 'virus/trojan' attack since I got my first PC. Despite the fact that I was loaded to the gills with anti-malware, this attacker ran and survived the gauntlet, set up shop and had the nerve to threaten to shut me down. The ensuing epic struggle was a 'virtual' Armageddon, a final, desperate battle between me and the Four Horsemen of Digital Apocalypse.

The offending malware pretended to be a Windows alert. It informed me that my computer was 'unprotected'. It demanded that I 'download' their latest whatever. To do so, I was required to click on an "I AGREE' button. I could not click that button in good conscience. I rarely agree with anything --let alone a 'button', let alone a button that was daring to 'threaten' me.

Never, ever click on a button unless you know where it comes from and trust it. Likewise, suspect any prompt that does not give you a 'I DECLINE' option.

Given the deceptive nature of these programs, I am suspicious of 'any' label given a button. Many are indistinguishable from legitimate 'windows' buttons. In this case, no alternatives were given me. No 'X' in a corner; no 'decline' option; no 'maybe later'; no way to get out! Even CTRL-ALT-DELETE had apparently been disabled. There seemed to be no way to get this piece of crap off my screen and out of my computer.

In the conditional logic of this rudimentary program, you are simply not given an exit from the loop. It is this fact that gives the game away. Only a crooked or incompetent (or both) programmer would write such a conundrum. It was deliberate. It was crooked. It was intended to wrest from me control over my computer.

I found in this experience a parable and a rule of thumb. Any proposition (save life itself) is an evil bargain if there is no escape save death. From a programmer's standpoint, the 'logic' of this code was a very simple matter of omitting a critical 'else' or 'else/if' statement here and there. If you click 'agree', you allow this 'trojan' free reign over your computer. But --there is no 'decline' or 'later' button of any kind. Doing nothing at all is, likewise, not an option. Your computer is effectively lost to you.

This 'spammer' --whom I suspect resides in either China or Florida --has much in common with the mob. It's an offer, you cannot refuse. It might have been worse. At least, I didn't awaken in bed with a dead horse. "Offers that cannot be refused" are commonly used not only by spammers but politicians and, most insidiously, religions. The Christian religion, primarily, puts a 'box' on the computer screen of your mind (or soul) with a choice: hit the 'accept' button or lose the use of your 'computer', in this case, your 'soul'.

Elsewhere in Christianity, however, it is said that such a choice must be made freely. But a coerced choice is anything BUT free! Thus --Christian theology --by enforcing a decision through blackmail --has 'spammed' your mind, denied you free will. By definition, there is no free will without choices. Christianity, by violating its own principles, nullifies itself as valid religion, philosophy, or moral guide. As a theology, as a philosophy, as a 'program', it is, therefore, fallacious and, perhaps, deliberately misleading. Any 'formal system' in violation of its own premises is false! I daresay most religions are of this form. Most, if not all, theology is false.

Decisions made under threat of death are not morally valid. Even 'confessions' made under the threat of death are not admissible in court. In the case of the Christian religion, the threat is not merely one of death, but after death an everlasting hell fire the existence of which no one can prove. No wonder much of the history of the human race is a record of bad decisions and equally bad consequences. Though I am no expert on the fine points of every religion on earth, I will venture this: of the world's major religions, only Buddhism seems free of indefensible and unsupportable dogma. I have yet to hear anyone threaten me with eternal hell fire should I decide not to follow the 'path' of the Buddha.

Of a slightly different logical structure was the 'indulgence' scam perpetrated by the Catholic Church, nothing more than Pope Leo's scheme to raise enough money to pay off his debts, build the new St. Peter's, finance his orgies, underwrite the art. Life is always a mixed bag. Amid the waste, evil, and debauchery, the monies raised by this criminal fraud paid for the lasting works of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Historically, 'religion' purports to explain everything. Those observed phenomena not explained by science or common sense are 'explained' theologically, in terms of the 'supernatural'. But a 'supernatural' explanation is, in fact, no explanation at all. Something is unexplainable if it cannot be explained in terms of 'natural' phenomena. There are, therefore, by definition, no 'super natural' explanations, only natural ones. Thus religion is tautological in its inception. Scientific explanations are only 'natural', by definition, not 'super'! Put yet another way: 'supernatural' is an oxymoron.

Interestingly, there is salvation of sorts to be found in the limits of logic itself. Rudy Rucker, a mathematician gifted with a redeeming sense of humor, wrote of Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem that it was '... so simple, and so sneaky, that it is almost embarrassing to relate.'
His basic procedure is as follows:
  1. Someone introduces Gödel to a UTM, a machine that is supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly answering any question at all.
  2. Gödel asks for the program and the circuit design of the UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth Machine.
  3. Smiling a little, Gödel writes out the following sentence:"The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will neversay that this sentence is true." Call this sentence G for Gödel. Note that G is equivalent to: "UTM will never say G is true."
  4. Now Gödel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is true or not.
  5. If UTM says G is true, then "UTM will never say G is true" is false. If "UTM will never say G is true" is false, then G is false (since G = "UTM will never say G is true"). So if UTM says G is true, then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.
  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So "UTM will never say G is true" is in fact a true statement. So G is true (since G = "UTM will never say G is true").
  7. "I know a truth that UTM can never utter," Gödel says. "I know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal."

    With his great mathematical and logical genius, Gödel was able to find a way (for any given P(UTM)) actually to write down a complicated polynomial equation that has a solution if and only if G is true. So G is not at all some vague or non-mathematical sentence. G is a specific mathematical problem that we know the answer to, even though UTM does not! So UTM does not, and cannot, embody a best and final theory of mathematics ..

    Although this theorem can be stated and proved in a rigorously mathematical way, what it seems to say is that rational thought can never penetrate to the final ultimate truth ... But, paradoxically, to understand Gödel's proof is to find a sort of liberation. For many logic students, the final breakthrough to full understanding of the Incompleteness Theorem is practically a conversion experience. This is partly a by-product of the potent mystique Gödel's name carries. But, more profoundly, to understand the essentially labyrinthine nature of the castle is, somehow, to be free of it.

    --Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind
The work of Alan Turing proving that certain propositions in a 'closed logical system cannot be proved within that system' is, of course, a corollary to Kurt Gödel's famous proof. Both have had enormous consequences in academia, computing and philosophy. It is hoped that one day, the impact of this work will be felt in the field of politics.

Both Gödel and Turing were concerned with the inherent flaw in any formal system. The question raised is this: if a single trojan could very nearly take over my computer, might a much better, wider and highly co-ordinated attack seize the internet itself. Is our salvation to be found in Gödel and/or Turing? What lesson is learned by the defeat of Chess genius Gary Kasparov by IBMs 'Big Blue'.
Chess is a game of guile and strategy. Chess means putting your emotional engines out of sight and choosing moves with cold calculation. In the end, Kasparov's cool cracked. He angrily resigned -- charging, at first, that IBM had let a human call the moves. I doubt anything of the kind, just because the computer's eventual victory was predictable.

Two generations ago, Alan Turing gave us an important thought model for all this. Turing said, suppose you go into a room with a keyboard and a monitor. You type in questions and receive answers. Then you try to determine whether the answers are being given by a human or by a machine. Ever since then, we've said that a computer which can't be told from a human passes the Turing test.

Most of us have assumed that no one could ever create a Turing Machine because that veers close to creating sentient intelligence. Here the argument over Deep Blue heats up because of Kasparov's initial belief that he was dealing with humans. Deep Blue really did pass the Turning Test as far as Kasparov was concerned.

That's why I think this strange little chess game was significant -- not because the outcome was a surprise, but because Kasparov thought Deep Blue might be human.

--Dr. John Lienhard: Kasparov and Deep Blue
It does not follow, however, that because Big Blue defeated Kasparov, that computers will eventually render the human being obsolete, that eventually there may be no defense against a computer generated 'virus' or trojan by which a 'federation' of networked computers will assume complete and total dictatorial control and thus rule the world.

I love Gödel's proof and as well the related work of Alan Turing. The very language of computers is like that of human beings --'flawed' or, more precisely, incomplete. We need never fear computers taking over. But it is not only because Gödel's Proof is 'logical' that it is compelling. It is positively liberating. 'Incompleteness', itself, is liberating. 'Incompleteness' should be celebrated. In 'incompleteness' is our salvation from a dictatorship imposed upon us by computers and/or inflexible systems.

Whenever a fundie, or a Nazi, or a Republican comes peddling an all-embracing system or purports to have all the answers, a complete and unassailable ideology, system or weltanshauung, or tries to blackmail me into swallowing it, I have Gödel's proof that NO system is complete, that NO one person or organization has all the answers.

There is no holy writ!

There is no voice high or low that will replace my own conscience and my own abilities to work out the truth as best I can. There is no way that I may be blackmailed with offers I dare not refuse for fear of either hell fire or, worse, the loss of my computer forever!

There is no blackmailing me into any system or cult that, like the GOP, presumes to have all the answers but is, in fact, wrong about everything! I am a free man! I make my own choices and live with the consequences.

I am immune to coercion. No one living can make meaningful statements (let alone truthful ones) about an after life that may or may not exist. Therefore, I choose to base the only life of which I have knowledge upon matters about which meaningful knowledge is, at least in theory, obtainable. It is nonsensical to base my life upon the expectation of an after life about which no meaningful statement can be made whatseover.
"Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"

--Character of St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Robert Bolt
I submit that it profits one nothing to compromise his/her integrity in this life in the expectation of rewards in a hypothetical afterlife the existence of which may not be known and about which nothing meaningful may be said.

For those interested in avoiding 'armegeddon' with Trojans:
As that very real war goes on in the Middle East, back here at home we continue to wage a virtual war against a different kind of spam. And of course, it's not just in the U.S. Just a few days ago, the French government announced a new project by which Internet users could alert their ISPs when they receive spam messages:

And we're hearing that Japanese users are getting an increasing amount of spam mail from Chinese servers, most of it advertising online dating services and adult-oriented web sites:

Spam web sites are causing trouble for Google, as many of these sites are coming up in search results and some of them are downloading malware onto users' computers when they follow the links.

Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is cracking down on the recent deluge of "pump and dump" spam messages that attempt to inflate the prices of stocks issued by small companies. Recently this has become the second largest category of spam, with as many as 100 million of these messages being sent every week, many of them in the form of PDF attachments. The SEC has reported a 30 percent drop, however, since they initiated an aggressive program that includes freezing the trading on some of these companies

Another, more malicious variety of spam that has popped up in the last few months exploits the popularity of social networking. These messages claim to be from an "old school friend" or a "childhood friend" and contain a link that's supposedly for the sender's MySpace (or other social networking) homepage. However, clicking the link takes you to a site that downloads a Trojan which can gather personal information such as account numbers and passwords and send them back to the spammer:

Spammers and email scammers are great at taking advantage of whatever's currently in the news and trends in public opinion. Shortly after September 11, there was a spate of spam messages appealing to Americans' patriotic feelings. As the public tide turned, we now see spam messages that hook into anti-war sentiments. The recent downturn in the housing market and the subprime loan scandals have resulted in a new flood of spam messages pertaining to home financing.

You might even be a spammer yourself and not know it. Thousands of computers are infected with malicious software called 'bots that turn them into "zombies" that can be controlled by spammers and used to send spam messages (and hide the true origins of the spam).

--War Against Spammers Goes On
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