Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The skeleton key

Why is every single scene involving a computer on a television show or a movie mind-bogglingly dumb?

Blacklist, a decent program, has an episode where the NSA is developing a "skeleton key": it can instantly hack into any computer system. That idea is just as silly as that of a single physical key that can open every lock.

Even worse, the skeleton key itself, which looks like an iPad, actually has commands built-in for every device you can hack into. So, for instance, when someone uses it to take control of a DC metro train, it actually has "open door" and "close door" commands available, as well as a "hazardous speed" warning! So we cannot only get you into any device, it apparently also contains some sort of universal menu reader.

But even, even worse: the criminal who steals the skeleton key is named "Ivan." He left his digital signature at the crime scene, and here is the thing: it took him 32 bytes to spell his four-character name. (To be fair, maybe the writer meant the actor to say "bits," and actually understood a plausible length.)


  1. Maybe it's meant to be like a sonic screwdriver.

  2. The writer must have been thinking that he left a SHA-256 hash of his name, which would have been 32 bytes.

  3. Well, as for the name Ivan, that is EASY to explain. Ivan's brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When he introspects and seems to find that ghostly thing -- his name in a few bits -- his cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property, "IVAN" and why it cannot be encoded in just a few bits. And there is no way for his brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information.


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