Tag Archives: complexity

Security through Obscurity

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There was a time when computer programmers on IBM’s midrange platform joked about “security through obscurity.” The data and programs were safe mainly because so few people knew how to get into them. Even if a hacker found a way to connect, the platform architecture was unique and the boxes were priced out of reach for the hacker demographic, preventing experimentation.

The low-hanging fruit for the hackers was on a different platform, machines running Microsoft’s Windows. They knew those machines well enough.

And so programmers didn’t worry as much about security on the IBM midrange machines as the programmers on other, better-known machines did. The lack of public knowledge served for purposes of security and virus prevention.

There was a downside to obscurity though. The midrange programmers watched as sales of their machine stagnated and companies switched to the more popular Windows based systems in spite of security concerns. The job market for midrange programmers shrank and wages fell.

Obscurity turned out to be just another word for unpopular.

Image: “Cavern carved by the sea in an ice wall near Commonwealth Bay, 1911-1914”
Source: State Library of New South Wales

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It was All Too Complicated for Anyone to Understand, Ctd

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‘Never invest in a business you cannot understand.’ – Warren Buffet

Over-Simplified Solution, meet Over-Complicated Problem.

Marketers have known this forever. The key to selling a solution is to create a problem for it to solve. Hence, the mundane everyday realities of being human: dandruff flakes, under-arm odor, imperfect teeth, are portrayed as monstrous things that could get you shunned. No one will date you, mate you, hire you. You could be voted off the island. The quality of your character is as nothing compared to these superficialities. If you suffer from anything that may impair your attractiveness, you must correct this problem now, if it takes the last cent you have! Even if you have to access credit and take out a 2nd mortgage on your home.

After all, the solutions to these suddenly enormous problems are so simple. It’s merely a matter of money.

In the buildup to the financial crisis, the simple solution for the risk-averse and fudiciarily responsible was the Triple A rating. Any bond with such a rating was certified gold. No further investigation would be necessary. Behind the rating on a mortgage-backed bond was a world of complicated calculations. The truth of the bonds would not yield to any but the most dogged, possibly emotionally disordered, financial detective with weeks or months to spend digging.

Almost no one bothered.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet has famously advised to never invest in anything that you don’t understand.

Thousands (millions?) of investors substituted ratings for understanding, having no idea that the ratings agencies didn’t understand either.

The bonds appear to have been designed that way.

Image from Flickr commons – Professor Phillips and his machine to model an open economy