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The Issue of Engineering Perfection As Art

A tongue and cheek commentary on why you sometimes just might need to meet the Rolling Stones in your dreams to express the nature of Cryptography.

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII

March 24, 2003

Teaching intelligent students makes one think about what is said.  A good Professor is concerned about giving students enough meat in their educational diet.  Good Professors are concerned about the way that students think.  This years first class for one of my courses began by my explaining the justifications of pointers.  That leads to the conceptual differences between rational and irrational pointers, which in turn leads me to the irrational ideals of mathematics with respect to physical reality and the importance of managing these differences.  It becomes pretty much a maze of discussions that hopefully leads to the ultimate conclusions that to do things better in cryptography, it is necessary to go back to the rational fundamentals of why we want and need cryptography.     

Over the past several days I have written several messages to people that I did not send.  I often am guilty of that.  It usually starts by my answering a simple student question, but before I know it, many hours have passed and I find that I have written pages of advanced technical thoughts.  I then begin to search for ways to explain in less convoluted ways those things that I wanted to say.  More hours pass.  I usually end up trashing all but the first two paragraphs before I drifted and just sending that.  But there are other times where I am not certain that what I have written is what the student can accept without understanding many other things first. It is then that I might decide to not reply at all.  I might tuck that kind of problem away for a later time.  Somewhere, on a lower background priority, my mind continues to consider it, relative to all of the other things that come up during the day.  Over my life I have learned to accept this as beneficial aspect of my way of thinking creatively.  Sometimes this means that whole complex solutions occur to me in a flash. The interesting thing is that I also tend to process some of my deepest thinking in the background as I sleep at night, so that I sometimes remember that process as a dream.  

This morning I woke up from just such a dream.  I dreamed that I talked with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.  Actually it was really more of an audience than a meeting.  There was a velvet rope, the kind that you see in old movie theaters, between him, his entourage and mine.  For some reason I had been brought in to support his musical efforts through engineering.  As I understood it in my dream, for some reason he wanted a more perfect sound from his guitars.  He particularly wanted them to be perfect while he was recording.  I suggested several things and he just listened without expression.  I suggested that we could nearly perfectly tune his instruments using the best available calibration standards.  More than that, I suggested that given enough money we could design a "perfect" room that would have perfect acoustics.  The guitars would not only be in perfect tune, they would always sound in perfect harmony.  In my dream, Mick just frowned and started doing other things, walking out of the room.  When he did this, my people jumped on me.  "What in the hell was I doing?  Now Mick will not listen any more."

My dream continued.  Mick soon came back into the room and in spite of the noise I made myself be heard.  I shouted, "The problem with my ideas is that you are not really interested in the mathematical perfection of your music, isn't it?  When you are asking for perfection, you really meant the perfection of your music as art."  Unlike the previous time that I talked to him, people were now moving in and out of my line of sight to him, but for a moment there was a lull and through the crowd I was once again face to face with his enigmatic face.  Mick looked straight at me and smiled and nodded in a way that told me I was correct.

Awake, I frankly could care less that Mick Jagger had been represented to me in my dreams.  It could have been anyone. While I have always enjoyed much of the music of the Rolling Stones, I have never entertained any internal need to actually meet him.  What is so significant is that fully awake I realized that I had communicated with my subconscious about the problem that I had posed to myself the previous days.  What is significantly practical about this is that I now have a way of discussing the problems that I have been teaching.  The dream was a connection between my ideas as a creative artist and as a scientist.  I have long understood that Cryptography involves both Art and a Science, but there is a reason why it has been called "The Black Art."  The Art of cryptography involves the techniques of obscurity and misdirection with respect to permutation.  When applied appropriately, even the most mundane and simple cryptographic algorithms can be enough to satisfy problems, but when applied inappropriately, even the strongest and most powerful algorithms are not enough.

What I had not considered discussing is that there are definitive balance within the Arts and Sciences.  When we concentrate and depend too much on the perfection of mathematics for our cryptographic purposes, we compete that against the the Art of what we must do.  We are fail to recognize the importance, objectives and purposes of the Art of Cryptography.  We fail to understand the reasons why cryptography can not simply be mathematics.  We fail to come to terms with the fact that cryptography has its foundations on the poorly definable, forever shifting sands of change. The perfection of that would otherwise seem to be calculated in terms of the absolute probabilities of mathematics within cryptography is actually based on the foundations of imperfections arising from the non-absolute realities of "context in transition."  

 Where flexibility to match reality is required, perfection often becomes the antithesis of doing good "Art." Just as a recording and performing artist like Mick Jagger will not concentrate all of his efforts toward absolute mathematical perfection, cryptographers also should not.  If Mick were to do otherwise, his creative works would be rigid, stilted and would crack.  His audiences would not buy his records or come to his performance because his music would no longer be relevant. When such things happen to the users of cryptography it is they and not the cryptographers who must sing, " I can't get no.... satisfaction."  Cryptography is then no longer relevant.     





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