Age Fourteen: An Unrelenting Finality


189. Indie music

Indie music refers to two different concepts in pop music. First, it signifies independent music, meaning music produced without the backing of major record labels. Sometimes indie music is distributed through smaller commercial record labels, and in other cases it is entirely produced and sold by the musicians themselves. In the second sense, indie music refers to a genre whose style is inspired by the artistic freedom and do-it-yourself ethos of artists operating outside the major record labels.

The indie genre of music became widely popular in the early 2000s, as it grew out of the alternative rock genre. Indie rock is generally characterized by several features, although not all indie music shares all of these features. It is notable for its simple and lyrical guitar melodies, typically on acoustic rather than electric guitars. Its instrumentation and playing style tends to be more experimental than the more formulaic pop music usually produced by major record labels. In contrast to the cynicism common in grunge rock, indie lyrics tend to favor authenticity and quirky and highly personal perspectives. While commercial pop focuses on a few main themes, typically based on young heterosexual romance, the indie genre frequently explores other issues with greater psychological complexity such as identity, belonging, irony, and alienation. Some examples of artists in the indie genre include Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and the Moldy Peaches.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, after Danielle is signed to Columbus Records, she programs an online service of her own called Danielle Music. Columbus sues Danielle when it realizes that she is inducing other musical artists to break their contracts and sign up with Danielle Music instead. Danielle launches the service anyway. Thanks to its artist friendly contracts and policies and innovative distribution system, it quickly becomes the dominant force in the music industry. With Martine Rothblatt’s help, Danielle gets Columbus to back down.

When Danielle Music tries to expand into country music, it hits a negotiating snag with Baylor Sweet. In response, Danielle decides to focus on new indie artists. She also produces a studio album herself, which is influenced by the indie genre.

See entries for Martine Rothblatt and Music streaming.


190. Arterial calcifications

One process underlying heart attacks and a common form of stroke is the buildup of deposits of arterial calcifications in the arteries. When this happens in the coronary arteries which feed the heart, can restrict the passage of blood to the heart resulting in heart failure. If the artery becomes completely blocked, this can result in a heart attack, which is the death of heart tissue. When this process occurs in the cerebral arteries feeding the brain, the result can be death of brain tissue, which is a common form of stroke.

This buildup of calcified plaque in the arteries is one form of atherosclerosis. In addition to being a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, it is also an aging process which can cause impotence in men, claudication of the limbs, and other symptoms of aging.

There is another form of atherosclerosis which is known as soft, or vulnerable, plaque. In this case, excessive levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, the so-called “bad” cholesterol) accumulate inside the artery wall in the intima, the layer of the blood vessel closest to the blood, where it undergoes chemical changes including oxidation. These modified LDL molecules now look like foreign invaders to the immune system. The result is that immune system cells, including monocytes (white blood cells that ingest dead or damaged cells) and T lymphocytes (white blood cells that attack and destroy foreign substances and pathogens such as bacteria) respond by invading the intimal layer of the artery to do battle with the now-pathological LDL molecules. Chemicals called chemokines and other molecules secreted by both the endothelial cells and the muscle cells in the vessel wall cause the monocytes to multiply and turn into macrophages, which are the fully matured fighters of the immune system. The macrophages become filled with fatty LDL. These “stuffed” macrophages are known as “foam cells.” The result of this process is the accumulation of a soft plaque made up of these foam cells along the wall of the artery. The immune system also responds by forming a fibrous cap over the foam cells essentially to wall them off from the bloodstream. The fibrous cap can rupture, however, as a result of further inflammatory changes. The result of such a rupture can be the formation of a blood clot called a thrombus. If the thrombus is large enough, it can completely block the flow of blood in the artery which is a form of heart attack known as a coronary thrombosis.

There is a hypothesized connection between this vulnerable plaque formation and calcified plaque in that the body forms calcified plaque to protect itself from the vulnerable plaque by walling it off.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, after Danielle develops the Danielle Cancer Protocol to cure cancer by targeting cancer stem cells, she has a realization. She notices that arterial calcifications are not simply deposits of calcium, but, rather, are structures of a primitive bone tissue found in fetuses. In other words, calcified plaque in the arteries is essentially fetal bone tissue growing inappropriately in an artery. Because this is a case of fetal tissue arising in an adult, it is the same process in which formerly fetal stem cells (in a mature individual) cause cancer. Based on this insight, Danielle infers that her cancer treatment might also work to reduce atherosclerosis and the heart disease it causes. She realizes that she will need a different delivery mechanism because of the high pressures found in the coronary arteries. She decides to raise money to perfect this new approach to preventing heart disease and to bring this treatment to market.

See entries for Fetal bone, Fetal organ, Bond offer, and Atherosclerosis.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help cure heart disease.


191. Fetal bone

According to recent research by scientists such as John Dick, Elena Gostjeva, and Bill Thilly, there is an important connection between stem cells and cancer. As explained more fully in the entry for Cancer stem cell, a type of cell that Gostjeva and Thilly call metakaryotes is the stem cell responsible for fetal organogenesis (creation of organs in a fetus), but in an adult can give rise to cancer tumors which are essentially aberrant fetal organs.

There may also be a connection between metakaryotic stem cells and the calcified plaque that builds up in arteries as a result of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis causes occlusion (blockage) of arteries which in the case of the coronary arteries (arteries that provide blood to the heart) can result in a heart attack, in the case of the cerebral arteries (arteries that provide blood to the brain) can result in a stroke, and in the case of other arteries can cause a range of problems including impotence in men, pain in the extremities, and other symptoms of aging.

Research by Gostjeva and Thilly has also suggested that calcified plaque in the arteries may also result from metakaryotic stem cells, that arterial plaque is essentially fetal bone tissue growing inappropriately in a mature artery.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle provides evidence of this linkage of cancer stem cells to calcified plaque. She infers that her cancer treatment could be modified to reduce atherosclerosis by targeting the stem cells that cause atherosclerosis. This takes significant funding, so Danielle decides to raise money with a bond offer.

See entries for Fetal organ, Logarithmic scale, Drug cocktail, Orthogonal approaches, Chemotherapy drugs, Cancer stem cell, Anaerobic conditions, Food and Drug Administration, and Eukaryotic cancer cells.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help cure heart disease.


192. Fetal organ

Soon after an egg is fertilized by a sperm, cell division begins. Within days, this developing blastocyst forms stem cells, which are capable of producing the many other kinds of tissue that make up the body. To do this, stem cells have two key properties. First, they can undergo symmetric reproduction, where a stem cell divides to create copies of itself, and therefore more stem cells. Second, they can undergo asymmetric reproduction, where the stem cell specializes, or “differentiates,” into a particular type of bodily tissue. For example, a stem cell can become a brain cell or a liver cell. Through a combination of these processes, the stem cells of the fetus multiply and specialize throughout gestation, gradually developing all the organs that the baby will need throughout its life.

Although the differentiation of stem cells to form fetal organs is necessary for human life, research suggests that this process sometimes goes awry after birth, leading to cancers. In 1876, Julius Friedrich Cohnheim and Rudolf Virchow observed the cellular organization and growth rates of solid tumors and found that they were about the same as those of fetal tissues. From this, they theorized that cancerous tumors are basically erroneous growths of fetal organs in humans that are older than the fetal stage. Recent science has supported this view.

In the 1990s, University of Toronto scientist John Dick first demonstrated the link between stem cells and leukemia, a nontumor cancer. In 2003, MIT biologist Elena Gostjeva discovered what appears to be a type of stem cell that produces both fetal organs and cancer tumors. The cells serve their purpose during gestation, but then keep reproducing symmetrically to stay in a person’s body after birth. When cells divide, they transcribe their DNA to the new copies, and if the DNA may become corrupted during this process—if the genetic instructions are encoded incorrectly—the defective stem cell may start forming a new “fetal organ.” Because fetal organs are programmed to grow in the very specific conditions of a fetus in the womb, the different hormonal environment of a mature person causes this tissue to grow in an uncontrolled manner and become a cancer tumor.

As explained more fully in the entry for Cancer Stem Cell, Gostjeva and her colleagues found that these cells have characteristics between those of primitive prokaryotic cells and the eukaryotic cells that make up normal mature tissues. Thus, they call these cells “metakaryotes.” This poses a challenge for cancer therapies. Many chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells by depriving them of oxygen thus creating anaerobic (free of oxygen) conditions. Metakaryotic stem cells thrive in anaerobic conditions and require different drugs to either kill them or disrupt their reproduction.

From 2005 to 2012, I worked with Elena Gostjeva, Bill Thilly (her colleague and husband), and fellow MIT researchers on a project to identify drugs that can target metakaryotic cancer stem cells. I served as a director of the biotechnology company United Therapeutics, which funded the research during that period. Our goal was to prevent cancer stem cells from creating or regenerating tumors.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle develops her cancer cure, she thinks about the problem by imagining herself giving a speech in the future about how she solved the problem. She realizes that it will likely require two cocktails of drugs—one to kill the bulk of the cancer cells, with another to either kill cancer stem cells or block their attempts to establish new fetal organs. If these two things can be accomplished at the same time, a tumor can be destroyed in a way that prevents its return. She also realizes that these combined cocktails must not be too toxic to the patient. Further, the cocktails must combine a group of different mechanisms for fighting these cells. As explained in the entry for Orthogonal Approaches, this helps ensure that cancer cells immune to one kind of drug don’t survive and rebuild a more drug-resistant tumor. Ultimately, Danielle finds a cocktail of three different orthogonal approaches that can successfully stop the reproduction of cancer stem cells and thereby eradicate tumors. When it proves difficult to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, she uses a creative approach to help patients access the treatment.

See entries for Fetal bone, Logarithmic scale, Drug cocktail, Orthogonal approaches, Chemotherapy drugs, Cancer stem cell, Anaerobic conditions, Food and Drug Administration, and Eukaryotic cancer cells.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help cure heart disease.


193. Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which the arteries’ inner walls thicken and harden due to deposits of substances called plaques. This is a primary feature of coronary artery disease and can lead to heart attacks, strokes, claudication of the limbs, impotence in men and other negative effects.

If plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that feed the heart, the muscle of the heart can be gradually weakened and damaged. When this happens, the heart may start to beat irregularly, and become unable to properly pump blood to the rest of the body’s organs. In some cases, a plaque can break open, spilling material that has lodged deeper in the artery, triggering blood clotting that can block the artery entirely. If this happens to an artery feeding the heart, the tissue beyond the blockage will be suddenly starved of oxygen and begin to die. This is known as a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. This can be fatal, but even if a person survives, the heart tissue killed in a myocardial infarction does not grow back, leaving the heart permanently injured and more vulnerable to another heart attack in the future. Recently developed experimental therapies using stem cells injected directly into the heart have shown an ability to reverse this damage.

Another risk is blockage of blood vessels supplying oxygen to the brain. When this happens, brain cells quickly start dying. This is the most common form of stroke.

Plaque formation in atherosclerosis

Plaque formation in atherosclerosis

The main form of atherosclerosis involves the buildup of a soft type of plaque known as vulnerable plaque. As described more fully in the entry for Arterial Calcification, this may be triggered by excessive levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, or “bad” cholesterol) in the blood. As LDL accumulates, it oxidizes and attracts white blood cells. White blood cells that have consumed fatty LDL until “stuffed” are known as “foam cells.” The presence of foam cells can trigger the immune system to begin a cycle of inflammation that causes more vulnerable plaque to accumulate. The immune system will create a fibrous “cap” over the vulnerable plaque to wall it off from the bloodstream and contain the problem. The cap is primarily made of collagen and calcium. This capped plaque is called an atheroma.

Yet formation of a fibrous cap over a plaque does not end the danger. As the plaque grows on the artery’s inner wall, it makes it harder for blood to flow through. Over time, the arteries stretch and expand to accommodate this blood flow, and in the process become hardened. This makes them less flexible to expand and contract with each heartbeat. If someone has high blood pressure, such as when doing strenuous work, the extra tension can cause a fibrous cap to rupture. The contents of the plaque then travel through the artery and cause a blockage, or spur formation of a blood clot called a thrombus that comes loose and causes a blockage itself. Depending on where the blockage occurs and how severe it is, this can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Sometimes, calcium deposits build up in the arteries without the accompanying soft plaque. As these calcifications develop, they stiffen the arteries much like soft plaque does, leading to symptoms including congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, male impotence, and limb pain. If the calcified plaque completely blocks an artery, this is another form of heart attack. Research by MIT researchers Elena Gostjeva and Bill Thilly have hypothesized that calcified plaque is actually fetal bone growing inappropriately in an artery in a process not dissimilar from the growth of a cancer tumor.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle comes to a similar conclusion and devises a new way to treat atherosclerosis, based on this connection between cancer and arterial calcification. Since her Danielle Cancer Protocol cured cancer by targeting cancer stem cells, Danielle realizes that a modified form of this treatment could reduce atherosclerosis. Based on this insight, she raises money to complete the development of this new approach to treating calcified plaque.

See entries for Fetal bone, Fetal organ, Arterial calcifications, Drug cocktail, Cancer stem cell, and Bond offer.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help cure heart disease.


194. Bond offer

A bond offer occurs when an organization issues bonds as a way of raising money. A corporate bond is essentially a financial arrangement where a company sells an IOU to third parties. The company agrees to pay interest on the bond, and usually pay back the full principal amount at a specified date. This final repayment is called maturity, and usually occurs after one to three years. Bonds provide a structured way for companies to receive loans from members of the public, instead of needing to go to banks.

Bonds have advantages and disadvantages for both the companies issuing them, and the investors who purchase them. For a company, bond offers are a way to raise money without selling off partial ownership in the corporation in the form of stock. For example, if a company issues a bond to raise money to invent a new product, no matter how much money the company makes from the product, it only owes the value of the bond plus interest. Yet this feature can also be a disadvantage. If the company’s investment fails to make any return, it still owes payments on the bond. If it cannot make these payments, the company may be forced into bankruptcy.

A benefit of bonds to investors is that they tend to be a safer form of investment than stocks. Even if the company does poorly, it still owes payments on its bond. If the company goes bankrupt and has its remaining assets divided up, bondholders have a higher priority than stockholders.

Bonds are referred to as being “senior” to stock. This means that a bankrupt company’s assets will be sold off to repay bondholders before stockholders receive money toward the value of their shares. In practical terms, this means that bondholders are less likely to lose their assets if the issuer goes bankrupt. On the other hand, bonds do not have as much potential for gains as stocks do. If a company sells stock and then uses that money to create a product that triples the value of the company, the stockholders see their investments triple. By contrast, if a company uses the proceeds of a bond offer to create a product that triples the value of the company, the bondholders only get back their original investment plus interest.

Even though bonds tend to be safer than stocks when all other factors are equal, they are by no means free from risk. There is always a chance that the company issuing a bond will be unable to pay back the debt. To compensate them for this risk, they demand interest payments proportional to the perceived risk, relative to other possible investments. The perceived risk of a bond mostly depends on two primary factors. The first is the financial health of the company. The second is the length of time before the bond matures. Credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch Ratings evaluate the company offering the bond. They take into account information such as the company’s assets and liabilities, profits and losses, and its track record of paying debts in a timely way. Based on these factors, they issue credit ratings that tell investors how likely the company is to default, or fail to pay its debts, before the bond matures. Bonds with long maturity times are riskier because there is more uncertainty about business conditions that far in the future, and more chance for something to go wrong.

Bonds that have high credit ratings are considered very safe investments. For the corporate bonds with very high ratings, like AAA, a default occurs less than one percent of the time. Thus, corporations don’t have to pay much interest to attract investors, and as such the bonds are considered low-yield. On the other hand, some bonds are extremely risky, and are known as “junk bonds.” For the lowest grades of junk bonds, like C, more than two-thirds default. In order to sell their bonds, companies with lower creditworthiness must pay more interest, so they are considered high-yield. For example, a stable company might sell bonds for $900 each, promising to pay bondholders $1,000 each when the bonds mature. The bondholders only make $100, but they face little risk of losing their money. Meanwhile, a company in serious financial trouble might only be able to get $600 for bonds worth $1,000 at maturity; the bondholders need $400 to compensate them for the higher risk.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, When Danielle realizes that stem cell malfunctions contribute to both cancer and atherosclerosis, she has an idea. Her company Danielle Stem Cell has already commercialized the Danielle Cancer Protocol for curing cancer, and she realizes that with some modifications, the treatment could be modified to fight the calcified form of atherosclerosis and thereby reduce heart disease. She decides to hold a bond offer to raise the money that will be needed to perfect this new treatment and bring it to the market. She runs the idea by her business mentor, Martine Rothblatt.

See entries for Securities and Exchange Commission, Simple preferred stock, Atherosclerosis, Drug cocktail, and Cancer stem cell.

How You Can Be a Danielle and start your own company.


195. Neocortex

The neocortex (“new rind”) emerged 200 million years ago in mammals. These early mammals were rodents and their neocortex was a thin structure, the size and thinness of a postage stamp which wrapped around their walnut-sized brains. This made them capable of a new type of thinking. Whereas nonmammalian animals had fixed behaviors, the neocortex gave mammals the ability to invent new ones. It was organized as a hierarchy of modules and was therefore capable of understanding the natural hierarchy of the world.

It is sometimes said that human-level artificial intelligence is the last invention that humans need to make. Similarly, the last invention that biological evolution needed to make was the neocortex.

Small mammals prospered and diversified, but it was the Cretaceous-Paleohene extinction event about 65 million years ago that enabled mammals to take over the ecological niches for medium and large animals. Scientists are still arguing whether that mass extinction resulted from one or more meteors or asteroids or volcanic eruptions, but the thin band of characteristic sediment all around the world that corresponds to this time period shows that something dramatic happened that radically disrupted the environment at that time. Those animals that relied on evolutionary learning—that is, learning new behaviors over thousands of generations—could not adapt quickly enough. Mammals, on the other hand, with their evolutionary innovation of a neocortex that could learn in days or weeks what other species required thousands of years, took over.

neocortex in three mammalian species

The neocortex in three mammalian species

The neocortex allowed mammalian animals to learn new skills, to predict the future (albeit linearly), and to understand the inherently hierarchical nature of the world. It was inevitable that the neocortex would then expand from the flat postage stamp size in a rodent to the deeply convoluted architecture in a primate.

The neocortex is organized as a hierarchy of modules. Research by the European brain reverse engineering project led by Henry Markram has shown that these modules have on the order of 100 neurons each, and as humans we have about 300 million of them. Each module can learn a pattern. As one goes up the hierarchy of neocortical modules, the types of pattern become more abstract and more sophisticated. At the bottom of the hierarchy, for example, modules may determine that a visual image has a straight line or a circle. At the top of the hierarchy, modules trigger that something is funny, or ironic, or beautiful.

Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago in Africa with a large forehead, allowing for an even bigger neocortex that now comprises 80 percent of the human brain. Evolution recognized that the neocortex was useful for survival, so the primary innovation in humanoids was basically more of the same.

When primates developed the additional neocortex contained in the frontal cortex (most of which developed when we became humanoids two million years ago with some additional amount when we became Homo sapiens), we were already doing a very good job of being primates, so what we did with the additional neocortical modules was to put them at the top of the hierarchy. This was the enabling factor for our species to invent language, art, science, music, and humor. Language, which is itself hierarchical, allows us to take an idea, which consists of a hierarchy of symbols in one neocortex, and transmit it to another neocortex.

The other significant evolutionary advance in humanoids was an opposable appendage (the thumb) that allowed our species to translate the ideas in our neocortex to actual changes in the environment. So if you touch your thumb to your forehead, you are highlighting the two anatomical features that enabled our species to dominate our ecological niche.

This combination of the ability to think in hierarchies and an opposable appendage resulted in the creation of tools which have undergone their own evolutionary advance which now runs about a million times faster than biological evolution. These tools are now enabling us to understand the neocortex itself and to vastly expand its reach. We are already well on this path—consider how much more effective we are today in essentially every intellectual domain through the use of the mind expanders now at our conceptual fingertips.

The last invention that biological evolution needed to make, the neocortex, is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make: truly intelligent machines, and the design of one is inspiring the other. Both biological evolution and technological evolution are still hard at work but the latter is moving a million times faster than the former.

We are already expanding the powers of our natural neocortex with brain extenders that reside just outside our bodies. In my view, we will ultimately expand the power of our neocortex through wireless connection from within our neocortex to synthetic neocortex in the Cloud. This is a 2030s scenario. Our thinking then will be a hybrid of our biological neocortex with its nonbiological extension in the Cloud. Keep in mind that the nonbiological portion of our thinking will expand exponentially in accordance with my “Law of Accelerating Returns” (See the entry for Artificial Intelligence).

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when fourteen-year-old Danielle mourns Liu’s death, she speaks with Dr. Sonis, her therapist, and asks what part of the neocortex Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was referring to when he talked about concepts such as the unconscious. Dr. Sonis replies that the neocortex was unknown during Freud’s time.

See entries for Ego, Sigmund Freud, Fruit of Knowledge, Artificial Intelligence, and Plasticity of the neocortex.


196. Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian neurologist and author, most famous as the father of psychoanalysis. Freud developed a complex and original theory of human psychology, which asserted that much of a person’s behavior occurs for reasons they are not consciously aware of. Freud termed these hidden thoughts and motivations the “unconscious.” He proposed a structure for how different parts of the unconscious mind interact with the conscious mind, and proposed that sexual urges are key to this interaction. Freud claimed that these urges develop very early in childhood, and that problems with this process were the cause of most psychological problems later in life. Unlike most of his predecessors, Freud based his theory on clinical observations.

Sigmund Freud - 1925

Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, in 1925

This theory could not have been more radical to Freud’s peers in late nineteenth-century Europe. That most human decisions and behavior are rooted in an unconscious process that is dominated by sexual urges and that these urges and feelings originate in childhood was a drastic departure from the nineteenth century perspective of people being fully rational beings. This can be viewed as part of the uprooting of the logical thinking of the nineteenth century across all of the arts and intellectual fields. This included the transformation of the logic of nineteenth century mathematics to the inherent uncertainty of Gödel; of the orderly physics of Newton to the bizarre conclusions of relativity and quantum mechanics and the uncertainty of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; of the realism of nineteenth century art to the cubism and expressionism of the twentieth century; and of nineteenth classical and romantic music to Stravinsky’s and Schonberg’s atonality.

For much of the early twentieth century, Freud’s work dominated psychology. Although psychology has evolved beyond Freud’s original theories, his concepts of the unconscious, the id, the ego, and the super-ego (See entries for the unconscious, Id, Ego, and Super-ego) remain enormously influential.

Freud grew up in Vienna when it was still capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He trained as a neurologist at the University of Vienna, and went to work at Vienna General Hospital. At the time, most people working in neurology believed that all human behavior could be traced to chemical balances in the brain. Thus, Freud’s contemporaries thought that if a person suffered from a psychological problem, this stemmed from a hormone imbalance, an inflammation, or other brain defects. As a result of his clinical work, including with mental asylum patients, Freud came to reject this idea. He observed that patients under hypnosis would often have their psychological problems and physical symptoms transformed and even to a degree temporarily relieved. This suggested to him that deeply buried thoughts play a large role in mental disorders.

Freud’s contemporaries did not share the perspective that thoughts they were unaware of could be the cause of their troublesome thoughts and behaviors. Freud’s thesis was that a large portion of the mind operates without our conscious awareness. Calling this the unconscious, he hypothesized that the mind represses unfulfilled desires and traumatic experiences, banishing them from conscious thought where they can result in psychological problems of seemingly mysterious origin, like a hidden and untreated infection.

In Freud’s view, the psyche has three parts. The Id is the center of primitive impulses, especially the sex drive and aggression. The id is driven by what Freud termed the Pleasure Principle—a compulsion to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in the immediate moment. For example, if a person sees a stranger walking past with an ice cream cone, the person’s id would want to steal and eat the ice cream because that is more pleasurable than going without it. The Super Ego is the seat of conscience, guilt, morality, and aspirations. Some of the super-ego operates on a conscious level, such as a motivation to obey the laws forbidding stealing someone’s else’s possessions. But some of the super-ego does not operate on the level of conscious thought, such as having learned in childhood to feel bad about stealing, or having been taught that ice cream makes people fat and lazy.

Between the Id and Super Ego is the Ego, from the Latin for “I” (in Freud’s original German, das Ich or “the I”). The ego houses identity, planning, and decision making. It has the task of mediating between the id and super-ego, which are often in conflict, and making the person’s actions conform to the reality of the situation around them. For example, the ego might try to satisfy both the id’s desire for ice cream and the super-ego’s desire to avoid stealing and obesity. The ego would also recognize that even though stealing would provide momentary gratification, in reality it would lead to embarrassment and punishment, and less pleasure and more pain in the long run. Therefore, the ego might decide to go for a run and then buy an ice cream cone as a reward. In Freud’s model, the conscious mind resides in the ego, but the ego also has some unconscious functions.

The most important unconscious function of the ego is reducing the anxiety that comes from taboo thoughts and experiences. As explained further in the entry for the unconscious, the ego uses “defense mechanisms” to bury these thoughts in the unconscious mind. Freud argued that a major source of such anxieties is problems that occur during a person’s sexual development in childhood.

In developing his methods of treating patients, Freud sought to bring unconscious anxieties into the conscious mind, where they could be dealt with directly. To do this, he developed a form of psychotherapy that came to be popularly known as the “talking cure,” in which a psychoanalyst would encourage their patient to speak without inhibition in free association. Freud believed that through these associations, the hidden workings of the unconscious mind would rise through a layer called the preconscious where they would become accessible to the conscious mind. The psychoanalyst would help the patient review their formerly repressed thoughts and understand how they relate to the conflicts in Freud’s id-ego-super-ego model. They would also talk to the patient about their dreams, looking for symbolic content that could reveal repressed thoughts hidden in the unconscious.

As an author, Freud is most famous for Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), expanding his model of the id to include not only sex drive but also a self-destructive “death instinct.” He also wrote Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), a hugely influential work about the tension between the inner drives of the individual and society’s pressure to conform and moderate those drives.

In the last several years of his life, Freud was threatened by the rise of Nazism. As a result of Freud’s Jewish ancestry and the content of his ideas, the Nazis opposed his writings, and burned his books. In March 1938, in an event known as the Anschluss, Hitler and the Nazis entered Freud’s native Austria and annexed it. Many of the Austrian people enthusiastically welcomed Hitler. With his personal safety in jeopardy, Freud allowed his supporters to get him out of the country. He went into exile in London, and died there of cancer of the jaw in September 1939.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, as Danielle mourns Liu’s passing, her therapist Dr. Sonis comes to Danielle’s family home. She sees that Danielle has ripped apart some of her dolls and thrown them on the floor. When Dr. Sonis comments on this, implying that Danielle was acting out in a way that she may be unaware of, Danielle asks what part of the brain’s neocortex contains what Freud calls the unconscious. Dr. Sonis answers that the neocortex was not well known in Freud’s time. As I explain in my 2012 book How to Create a Mind, the neocortex is actually home to what Freud would call the ego, although the inclinations of the super-ego also reside there. Meanwhile, the id is housed in the evolutionarily older “old brain” around which the neocortex is wrapped.

See entries for the unconscious, Id, Ego, Super-ego, Neocortex, Plasticity of the neocortex and Salvador Dalí.


197. The unconscious

In Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) theories, the unconscious refers to the parts of the mind that a person is not actively aware of. Freud argued, contrary to what most people believed at the time, that a person’s behavior and mental health can be influenced by hidden thoughts and motivations. He proposed that the psyche works through the interaction of three theoretical constructs: the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

As explained more fully in the entries for id, super-ego, ego, and Sigmund Freud, these three constructs are in a tense relationship. The id is unconscious and represents the primal instincts within a person, especially the sex drive and aggression, but also including the satisfaction of other physical needs. The id demands instant gratification. The super-ego is partially conscious and represents conscience, morality, guilt, and conformity to social pressure. In between them, the ego is the center of judgment, planning, and reason. The conscious mind mainly resides in the ego, which tries to satisfy the often-conflicting demands of the id and super-ego, and also accommodate the constraints imposed by external reality.

According to Freud, the conflict between the id, ego, and super-ego leads to anxiety. When the id demands that a person gratify an impulse immediately, and their ego and super-ego overrule that impulse, the unfulfilled desire causes psychological distress. There is a wide range of unpleasant or taboo thoughts and experiences that can generate such anxiety.

Although the ego is mostly conscious, it has some unconscious functions as well. One is rationalization. If the conscious mind gives in to the id’s demands, the unconscious parts of the ego may try to find justifications other than primitive instinct, so as to avoid guilt from the super-ego. For example, a person who breaks their diet to eat a rich dessert would feel shame and anxiety if they admitted that they failed to keep to the diet. So instead, they may convince themselves that they deserved the dessert as a reward for previously keeping to the diet.

One of the ego’s most important unconscious jobs is finding ways to repress anxiety-causing ideas and push them down into the unconscious mind. Freud classified a number of “defense mechanisms” used to do this. For example, denial is an attempt to avoid psychological discomfort by simply insisting to oneself that something negative isn’t true. A person who was abused as a child might convince themselves that the abuse never happened.

Another defense mechanism is regression. At moments of intense anxiety, an adult might revert back to childlike behaviors like thumb-sucking, which remind them of a time in their development that seemed safer.

Projection is also a common defense mechanism, wherein a person shields themselves from uncomfortable feelings by attributing them to another person. For example, someone who feels guilty about cheating on their spouse might concoct a fantasy that their spouse is actually the cheater.

When a person has negative feelings that they cannot safely express, they may resort to displacement. For example, a student who is bullied in school but cannot fight back may deal with the anxiety by beating up a weaker child as an unconscious stand-in for the bully.

Not all defense mechanisms are harmful. Sublimation is the transformation of anxiety-producing feelings into something healthy. Someone going through the anguish of rejection might channel their pain into writing a beautiful song. Someone angry at their absent father might redirect this aggression into athletic training or playing a contact sport. Freud saw sublimation as key to the development of culture and civilization.

Another key area of Freudian theory is psychosexual development. In Freud’s view, the development of a person’s sexuality is expressed in a series of distinct stages. In the oral stage, Freud said, a baby gets sexual pleasure from breastfeeding. In the anal stage, a toddler expresses the libido through controlling bowel movements. In the phallic stage, according to the theory, the young child is sexually attracted to their opposite sex parent. For boys, Freud called this the Oedipus complex, named after the mythic Greek king who accidentally married his own mother and blinded himself in shame when he realized what he had done. For girls, he called it the negative Oedipus complex, but this was renamed by his collaborator Carl Jung who named it the Electra Complex, after the fifth century BC Greek mythology character Electra, who plans revenge against her mother Clytemnestra.

Freud suggested that, because the child cannot compete with the father for the mother’s sexual affection, boys may develop an anxiety that their father might castrate them, and girls may develop envy of their father’s penis. Following this stage, a child would enter a period of sexual latency until puberty, during which their sexual desires are not expressed. Finally, in the genital stage, normal adult sexual attraction would form. Freud believed that trauma during any of these stages could prevent proper maturation. A person could become “fixed” at one of the early stages and suffer from psychological problems that symbolically related to that stage. For example, someone who was weaned too abruptly in the oral stage might form a smoking addiction because cigarettes symbolically replace breastfeeding.

Although Freud argued that people are not normally aware of these thoughts in the unconscious mind, he believed that its contents can be brought up and examined by the conscious mind, and that this settled unresolved issues from earlier psychosexual stages. For example, by using free association, psychoanalysis patients could reveal the connections that their unconscious naturally makes between certain concepts. If the person being analyzed makes a connection between fish and fear of death, the Freudian psychoanalyst might infer that there is a traumatic unconscious memory that links those two concepts.

Freud also argued that the unconscious could be revealed through dreams—often via symbolic events and images. Finally, Freud noticed that people sometimes make revealing slips of the tongue, which came to be called Freudian slips. A patient might accidentally refer to his sister as his wife. Freud inferred that this could be because the patient had an unconscious attraction to his sister that was influencing his actual words.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle first discusses the Freudian unconscious when she is three years old. In her Cinematic Visions class, her teacher Vivian Sobchak asks the class for thoughts about the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). Danielle answers that the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow represent the main character Dorothy’s id, super-ego, and ego, respectively. This sophisticated answer astonishes the teacher and bewilders the other children in the class, who are many years older than Danielle. Years later, when Danielle is in grief, she asks her therapist Dr. Sonis what part of the brain’s neocortex contains what Freud calls the unconscious. As I explain in my 2012 book How to Create a Mind, the unconscious does not reside in any single structure or region of the neocortex.

See entries for Sigmund Freud, Id, Ego, Super-ego, Neocortex, Plasticity of the neocortex, and Salvador Dalí.


198. Plasticity of the neocortex

The neocortex is the center of most higher brain function in humans and other mammals. Neocortex means “new rind” and it takes the form of a thin sheath around the “old brain,” which is evolutionarily older, and handles basic functions like breathing and heartbeat. The neocortex is divided into four lobes: occipital (vision), temporal (hearing, memory, some language), parietal (touch and sensory input), and frontal (language, knowledge, reasoning), although due to the uniformity and plasticity (changeability) of the neocortex, these usual functions can change.

Unlike the old brain, the neocortex can learn new skills and new areas of knowledge and can enable us to reflect on our experiences. As described in the entry for neocortex, it is organized hierarchically and can adaptively reflect the natural hierarchical structure of the world.

The neocortex emerged 200 million years ago with mammals and has grown steadily in size and capability over that time. The primate neocortex has many curvatures and folds to increase its surface area though it is still a thin structure. If you took the human neocortex and stretched it out, it would be the size of a table napkin and just as thin, but due to the curvatures it comprises 80 percent of the brain by weight.

I estimate that the human neocortex consists of about 300 million modules, each of which is capable of learning, remembering, and recognizing a pattern. The European Brain Reverse Engineering Project under Henry Markram has found that the neocortex is indeed comprised of repeating modules.

Each module is an arrangement of interconnected neurons that can recognize a basic pattern of information and, given the right set of inputs, react appropriately. The modules are connected hierarchically, proceeding from the simplest patterns all the way up to sophisticated and abstract reasoning.

As you are exposed to new patterns, these hierarchical connections change to make sense of them more effectively. Thus, your own thinking and experiences literally rewire your brain. The more you learn a skill, the more your neocortex will adapt to process the related patterns faster, and more accurately.

If the neocortex determines that a new pattern of information is not properly modeled by the current organization of neocortical modules, another brain region called the hippocampus will assess its significance and if it deems this new pattern to be significant, will direct the neocortex to assign a new pattern module to learn this new pattern. It will also try to properly connect it to other modules to reflect its position in the hierarchy.

At the lowest levels of the neocortical hierarchy, we can recognize simple features such as lines and curves in visual images and certain frequency combinations in sound. At the highest level, we can recognize concepts like humor and irony or musical motifs.

Different people develop very different neocortical hierarchies depending on their interests, areas of expertise, and the information and experiences they are exposed to.

The neocortex is capable of adapting regions to process different types of information than they may have been originally exposed to. For example, the fusiform gyrus is a region of the neocortex that usually recognizes faces. If that area is damaged due to injury or stroke, people will lose the ability to recognize faces, but are often able to relearn that skill by adapting another region of the neocortex.

In my thesis on how the neocortex works and in my 2012 book, How to Create a Mind, I describe the structure and algorithm of the neocortex as uniform. All modules and regions use essentially the same method to learn, remember, and recognize patterns. Another finding of the brain reverse-engineering project is that the organization of neurons within each module is relatively fixed, whereas the wiring between modules (which represents the hierarchy) changes with our experience. This wiring is actually already present when we are born but the connections are not activated until the hippocampus and neocortex, working together, make them active. Thus if the hippocampus and neocortex decide to connect two modules, the already present horizontal and vertical connections connecting those two modules will become activated.

Stroke victims may suffer sensory impairment or difficulties with speech and cognition as a result of damage to the areas that process those functions. Yet it is sometimes possible to regain those functions through therapy designed to retrain the neocortex—to use different regions to relearn these skills.

As another example of neocortical plasticity, blind people may learn to use echolocation (using sounds and echoes to determine the location of objects in three-dimensional space). Recent research has shown that although the echoes are heard with the ears and processed by the lower levels of the auditory neocortex, those using echolocation are activating the parts of their brains that usually process vision.

I expect that by the 2030s, nanotechnology will allow us to wirelessly link our neocortices to the Cloud (computation accessible through wireless communication). Blood-cell sized robots that enter the brain through the capillaries will allow our brains to access simulated neocortical modules in the Cloud. Our thinking then will become a hybrid of biological and nonbiological thinking. The nonbiological portion will allow downloading of knowledge as well as the ability to be backed up. The nonbiological portion will also be subject to the law of accelerating returns meaning it will expand its capabilities exponentially over time.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, at fourteen, Danielle talks to her therapist Dr. Sonis about the relationship between Freud’s model of the unconscious mind and the biological neocortex. Danielle comments that because of the plasticity of the neocortex, it is probably not possible to identify regions within the frontal cortex that firmly correspond to the unconscious. The frontal cortex is associated with functions including language, knowledge, reasoning, and planning, but all of these have both conscious and unconscious aspects.

See entries for Artificial Intelligence, Neocortex, Sigmund Freud, the unconscious, and Plasticity of the neocortex.


199. Equanimous

“Equanimous” is the adjective form of the word “equanimity.” Equanimity refers to the state of being calm and composed, even in the face of difficulty. It comes from the Latin word aequanimitas, which was used by Roman Stoic philosophers to describe the desirable state of being free from passions and destructive emotions. The Stoics taught that the proper source of human fulfillment is virtue. Even if someone suffers personal misfortune, Stoics believed, they should maintain equanimity by taking satisfaction in acting rightly, regardless of the consequences.

Many of the world’s religious traditions teach similar ideas—notably including Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The ideal of equanimity is particularly important in the meditative traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Monks and other vowed holy people in these traditions dedicate their lives to spiritual contemplation. They seek to transcend the cares of the world and not get involved in emotions such as jealousy, fear, and anger. For example, a key element of the Buddhist concept of equanimity is upekkha. This is a Pali word which roughly translates as “seeing with patience.” Buddhists strive to understand upsetting situations in their larger spiritual context. This does not mean they ignore people suffering around them, but equanimity means having the stability and freedom of mind to act deliberately instead of reacting with base emotions.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Claire returns Danielle’s missing Liu doll, Danielle curls into a ball on Claire’s lap like she did when she was younger. Claire tells Danielle how peaceful she looks and Danielle replies: “Equanimous.” Claire says that it’s “a very nice word.” In response, Danielle jokes that it is another example of onomatopoeia. Danielle is trying to maintain her composure despite having suffered a devastating loss.

See entries for Tibetan Buddhism, Qur’an, and Onomatopoeia.


200. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a common psychological phenomenon where people tend to notice a newly learned word or concept unusually often once they have become aware of it for the first time. It was named in 1994, by a commenter on the online message boards of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The commenter observed that he had just seen, in rapid succession, two separate references to the Baader-Meinhof Group, an organization of left-wing German terrorists, that he had not previously been aware of. Fellow posters generalized this as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which spread across the Internet as a meme. The phenomenon is an example of a cognitive effect called the frequency illusion.

Every day, we are inundated with massive waves of information—social media posts, magazine articles, news broadcasts, chatter on the radio, overheard conversations. Because our neocortex (the part of our brain that thinks) is naturally adapted to recognizing patterns, it filters out information that it does not recognize as relevant. For this reason, we are unlikely to notice passing references to unfamiliar names, or count how often you hear about an unfamiliar city. However, once an unfamiliar idea finally does catch our attention and we learn what it is, the pattern recognition modules in our neocortex recategorize it from something that should be filtered out to something that should be noticed and remembered. Once this happens, we get the illusion that it magically appears with remarkable frequency despite the appearance that it had never occurred before.

I’d venture to guess that even if you are not familiar with the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon you have nonetheless been exposed to the term repeatedly but just didn’t notice it. Now, by reading this entry, it has become a meaningful term, so the next time you see or hear it mentioned, the pattern recognition modules in your neocortex will be activated and you will consciously notice the mention. See for yourself!

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle tells Claire about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and predicts that she’ll notice hearing about it again very soon.

See entries for Neocortex, Plasticity of the neocortex, and Artificial Intelligence.


201. Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek in 1943

Chiang Kai-shek in 1943

Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) was the nationalist leader of mainland China from 1928 to 1949, and then of Taiwan until his death in 1975. Born in Fenghua along China’s eastern coast, Chiang came of age during the turbulent final years of the Qing dynasty. He wanted an army career, but the country was unstable and in economic crisis, so he left to study in Japan. He returned to China in 1911 to take part in the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew Qing rule and sought to establish a Western-style republic.

Chiang soon became a friend and protégé of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), who founded the Republic of China in 1912. He supported Sun through more than a decade of successes and failures, during which time Sun lost and regained power several times. Chiang rose to become one of the most powerful members of Sun’s Kuomintang party, and when Sun died in 1925 he sought to take control.

At the time, the nationalist Kuomintang was in a fragile alliance with the Communist Party of China called the First United Front. This was possible because Sun Yat-sen was well respected by both sides. But Chiang Kai-shek was a staunch nationalist, while his rival, Wang Jingwei, was more sympathetic to the communists. In a 1926 incident called the Canton Coup, Chiang muscled Wang out of power and sent him abroad. With Wang out of the way, in 1927 Chiang conducted a purge of communists from the Kuomintang. He sent troops to arrest or kill communist leaders and sympathizers, and this conflict escalated into a bloody civil war between the two sides.

In 1928 Chiang led a large military campaign called the Northern Expedition, and defeated the remaining independent warlords who still controlled large swaths of China. The expedition reunited the country, and Chiang turned his attention to stamping out the communist insurgency and modernizing the country. During this time, he also converted to Christianity, influenced by the faith of his wife Soong Mei-ling (1898–2003), also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. She lived to the age of 105.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek, with Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin Roosevelt

Soong Mei-ling, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, with Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943

By late 1934 Chiang and his generals had almost defeated the communists. Nationalist troops encircled and defeated communist armies one by one, and Chiang tried to get his armies in position to annihilate them completely. However, Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976), the communist leader, managed to escape the trap. He led his men on a desperate retreat called the Long March, traveling about 5,600 miles on foot. The civil war continued.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Japanese controlled a puppet state in Manchuria called Manchukuo, and were preparing to invade China itself. At the end of 1936 Chiang was in Xi’an in central China when he was arrested by one of his marshals, Zhang Xueliang. Zhang forced Chiang to agree to a truce with the communists, and the two sides formed a Second United Front to resist the Japanese invasion.

The modern Imperial Japanese Army poured into China, and despite an advantage in numbers, the Chinese suffered heavy defeats. Chiang lost many of his best troops in an extremely bloody battle for Shanghai, and the Japanese conquered his capital at Nanjing and massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Chinese armies retreated deep into the interior to wage a war of attrition against Japanese forces. Millions of civilians died.

When the Japanese launched surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong in December 1941 they brought America into World War II. The Allies saw China as a natural partner in their fight. Chiang was given the status of an important leader of the Allies, who sent military aid to help him repel the Japanese.

While the war raged, Chiang’s troops also engaged in border clashes with Tibet to the west. He even considered invading the young Dalai Lama’s mountain kingdom, but decided against it. The campaign against the Japanese was going poorly, and Chiang clashed bitterly with Joseph Stilwell, the general in charge of American efforts in China. Chiang felt that Stilwell was unhelpful and incompetent, and Stilwell regarded Chiang as smug and corrupt. Partly because of this bad personal relationship, American-Chinese cooperation was ineffective. By the time the war ended in 1945 Mao Tse-tung and the communists were in a stronger position than Chiang’s nationalists.

Before all the Japanese troops in China could even surrender, nationalist-communist fighting broke out again. This second phase of the civil war was disastrous for the Kuomintang, and in 1949 Chiang and many of his supporters fled to the island of Taiwan near the mainland. Chiang’s government-in-exile intended to take back control of the mainland, but those hopes gradually faded. Chiang died in 1975, and four years later the United States formally recognized the communist People’s Republic of China as the legitimate ruler of the mainland.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when twenty-two-year-old Claire and the fourteen-year-old Danielle traveled to Taiwan, they stayed at a hotel in Taipei across the street from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Claire visited the hall each day, admiring the large bronze statue of Chiang there. She read an inscription with his quote: “The purpose of life is to improve the general life of humanity. The meaning of life is to create and sustain subsequent lives in the universe.”

Claire thinks Liu would approve of that sentiment.

See entries for Kuomintang, Mao Tse-tung, Chinese Communist Party, Mao’s Long March, Shanghai, the Tibet Question, Han Chinese, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Liberation Army, and Chairman of the Communist Party of China.

How You Can Be a Danielle and promote democracy in China.


202. N bit encryption keys

One of the main concerns of digital technology is how to make sure that the transmission of information stays private, which is primarily accomplished using encryption algorithms that take your data and scramble it up in precise ways that can be reversed only by the intended recipient. If someone eavesdrops, they’ll only see meaningless scrambled data. But those who know the formula underlying the scrambling can reverse that process. These formulas are called keys.

A simple example of an encryption key is a constant shift of all the letters in a message. For example, if you shift all the letters eight places further down the alphabet, “APPLE” becomes “IXXTM.” The problem is that this is so simple that you can crack the code by hand with a pencil and paper. If you get a message like “IXXTM” that has been coded with a constant shift, you could just try every possible shift until you crack the code, starting with a shift of one letter back (“HWWSL”) and then two, or three, or at most 25, which includes all the possibilities in the alphabet.

Codes get much harder to crack when you shift different letters by different amounts. For example, if your key is 8-2, you shift the first letter of your message forward by eight letters, and then the next letter by two, and then repeating this process until the whole message has been encrypted. With just two shifts in the key, someone trying to break the code by trying all the possibilities has to try 675 variations (26 for the first, times 26 for the second, minus 1 because the 0-0 combination where neither letter is shifted at all wouldn’t generate a nonsense word like “IXXTM”). According to this pattern, you multiply the number of possibilities by 26 for each additional letter in the key. If a key has just five different shifts, there are 11,881,376 possible combinations.

Conceptually speaking, this is what digital devices do when they encrypt your data. A message you write is represented as 1s and 0s, and then the encryption key is used to convert the original data, called the plaintext, into the scrambled form, called the ciphertext. A recipient with a copy of the key can use this to easily convert the ciphertext back to plaintext.

This method raises an important question: How does the legitimate recipient get the key to decrypt your message? If you send the key as plaintext and someone else eavesdrops on your message, then they could decrypt the whole message. If you encrypt the key for sending to the recipient, you’ll need a second key to decrypt that message, which doesn’t solve the problem.

Instead, a common solution is to use “asymmetric” keys. In this system, a computer algorithm creates two keys: a private key and a public key. A basic example of how this works is called a Diffie-Hellman key exchange. Let’s say that the computers of Alice and Bob (two standard characters in cryptography examples) are trying to establish secure communications with each other.

They start by agreeing on two numbers, called a modulus and a base. The modulus is a large prime number, usually hundreds of digits long. The base is a smaller number that must meet certain mathematical conditions with relation to the modulus. A modulus is a number that another number “wraps around.” For example, on a standard analog clock, the modulus is twelve. At the thirteenth hour of the day, it shows one o’clock, because thirteen “wraps around” twelve once and comes back to one. Thus X modulus Y is the remainder after you divide X by Y.

Then, Alice’s computer will select an integer called the private key. Without telling Bob’s computer what this integer is, it will raise the base to an exponent with the value of the private key, using the modulus. This results in another number called the public key. Meanwhile, Bob’s computer will select a private key of its own, which will yield a different public key.

Even if a third-party eavesdropper (by convention, we call her Eve) reads all these communications, she will not be able to figure out what the shared secret key is. As long as the two private keys remain secret, Eve can know the base, the modulus, and both public keys, without compromising the privacy of Alice and Bob’s data. This is because when a large enough modulus is used, it is physically impossible for a digital computer to try all the combinations needed to figure out what exponent (private key) a given base must be raised to with a given modulus to yield that public key.

Alice and Bob can now send each other their public keys. Alice’s computer raises Bob’s public key to the exponent of Alice’s private key. Likewise, Bob’s computer raises Alice’s public key to the exponent of Bob’s private key. These will both equal the same number, which is a shared secret key. They can use this shared key to establish communication over a symmetrical-key system.

Common symmetric-key algorithms include Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), RC2, and Twofish. Unlike asymmetric keys, in which public and private keys must be related to each other through complex mathematical relationships, symmetrical keys can be totally arbitrary strings of data. Yet no matter how well designed an encryption algorithm is, if an attacker can guess the key, the data can be stolen. Because digital computers represent all data as 1s and 0s, if the key is only one bit long, there are only two possibilities: 1 or 0. If the key is two bits long, there are four possibilities: 11, 10, 01, or 00. For each bit added, the number of possible keys doubles. This doubles the amount of operations that a computer must perform to find the right key by trying every possibility, which is known as a brute-force attack.

In the 1970s, the Data Encryption Standard (DES) used 56-bit encryption keys. This meant that there were 72 quadrillion possible keys. Although that provided excellent security at the time, today’s technology can test billions of possible keys every second, and can thus be expected to crack a 56-bit key in days or hours. Now, 128-bit encryption keys are the common standard. With over 300 million million billion quadrillion possible keys, there’s simply no way for even a supercomputer to check them all by brute force.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Claire gets a message summoning Danielle to an urgent and secret meeting in Shanghai, she notices that the message has been triple-encrypted with 200-bit keys. This means the data was encrypted with a key so long that it is effectively immune to brute-force attack, and then the encrypted data was encrypted again, and then that data was encrypted a third time. Claire asks why the message came to her instead of directly to Danielle, and Danielle observes that it is “just another layer of obfuscation.” That is, the people sending the message wanted to confuse possible eavesdroppers as to both the content of the message and its true recipient.

For her own data privacy, fourteen-year-old Danielle develops a quantum encryption code, which is even more secure than a regular digital encryption system with a long key. For reasons explained further in the entry for Quantum encryption code, it is theoretically unbreakable.

See entry for Quantum encryption code.



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