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Shawn's blog

Fascinating article on the psychology of marketing pop songs.


Music Companies are Brainwashing You to Like Bad Pop Songs



All scientific research taken as a whole is an attempt to reverse engineer the universe.


REVERSE ENGINEERING: BLACK BOXES 101


Reverse engineering, as you might suspect, is the reverse of engineering. 


Engineering is the art and science of creating something which performs a function: you need to hold up the weight of a bridge so you engineer a column with the right width and depth to hold the weight you need at the proper height.


Reverse engineering is the art and science of determining the structure which performs a function: you see the the bridge, know that something needs to hold it up, then look below and lo and behold there's a column. ( If you were monkey-wrenching, you'd then proceed to blow it up and see if the bridge comes down, but that's another post. )


There are two flavors of reverse engineering -- 'open box' and 'black box'. 


Open box reverse engineering is where you can see directly see the structure, either by looking directly at it or by having some other kind of direct perception -- a microscope, radio telescope, fMRI -- you get the picture.


In this kind of reverse engineering, you can just observe whatever it is in action and if necessary do some simple tinkering directly with it's structure to figure out how it works.


Black box reverse engineering refers to working with structure you can't see and have to work with it indirectly. (And this, my friends, is where it starts to get really fun. )


The academic black box is just a black box with any number of inputs and any number of outputs, usually pictured like this:


Inputs ---> [Black Box] ---> Outputs


In this post, I'm going to cover some well known black boxes which have only outputs. I'll cover inputs in a later post, because my main objective here is to give a clear idea about what a black box exactly is.


Astrophysicists mainly work with black boxes simply for the fact that most of what they study are at least several light years away and so there's no way to get to what they're studying and even if they did, it's impossible to get a look inside something like a star or a black hole.


Instead, they study the outputs of their black boxes, outputs like the qualities of light coming from a white dwarf and the gravitational pull of a black hole. 


( Actually, in the second case, it's a long chain of outputs. Since they can't measure the gravitational pull of a black hole they measure the mass and speed of the stars orbiting it. Since they can't directly do that, they measure the qualities of the light coming from those stars. The chain looks like this :


Light from the stars indicate

-- their mass and speed of orbit which indicate

---- the mass of the black hole [box] which indicates

------ something about the structure of the black hole itself )


In other cases, like the study of geologists, the black box doesn't exist as one whole thing in one place but as a series of processes over time, but luckily the outputs (rocks) are easy to study. For example, a geologist can look at a rock and tell you it was initially formed in a volcano, then moved by glaciers where it wound up under the sea for a few thousand years, finally to find itself in a desert, where you found it and brought it to him. ( If there's anything that geologists like to see it's not a new kind of rock, but an indicator of a process they haven't seem before. )


My favorite black box is the human mind. Everything someone says or does is an output, and as Banachek pointedly pointed out: "you can't not communicate". This leads into some seriously fun 'lesser magic' involving outputs few people pay attention to ( not body language, but that's fun too. ), but I'll have to leave that for another post.


MAD SCIENCE 101


Or, some things I consider the core skills and knowledge of that thing I sometimes refer to as 'mad science'.


REVERSE ENGINEERING


Reverse Engineering is a way of learning from experience. It's an application of the core scientific method to whatever thing you want to reverse engineer.


This isn't as amazing as it sounds. Just about everything scientists do under the name of "research" is an act of reverse engineering and anyone who learns primarily by "trial and error" uses the scientific method by virtue of their experimental approach ( contrasted by the method of repeatedly banging one's head against a wall ).


So, what I'm really talking about when I talk about reverse engineering is something that people tend to do anyway. The difference is that most people don't apply the skill to itself -- in other words, reverse engineer reverse engineering.


Why do that in the first place? Well, I'm glad that I imagined that you asked.  And the answer is -- the same reason anyone would want to reverse engineer anything -- to figure out how it works and improve or learn how to use or do it better. For me, it's all about getting better at what I do, and I see just about everything from either a reverse engineering / system hacking viewpoint. ( This is my blessing and curse,  folks. Like Crowley said the reason you learn about Magick is because you can't help but do it anyway, so the only real choice you have is to be a good at it, or bad at it. So, well... )


A related skill is monkey-wrenching, which is reverse engineering something by breaking it in ever more creative ways. ( And I do love the monkey-wrenching, as the only rules that matter...)


SYSTEMS AND SYSTEMS HACKING


A system is anything which is composed of different parts where those parts interact with each other in a way that each part of the system has an effect on the entire system. It requires a kind of thinking where you are looking through a microscope through one eye and the thing itself as a whole with the other.


For example, the flaps on the wing of an airplane cause the entire airplane to turn, and if the landing gear of an airplane were to fall off in flight, the entire plan would crash.


Hacking is simply getting a system to do something it doesn't normally do, and possibly hasn't ever done, but something it's capable of doing according to it's structure.


If someone were to hijack something on a plane which made an electric spark, say the wires of the bathroom light, and somehow fed it into the plane's fuel tank -- then it would be a reasonable assumption that the plane would explode when someone turned on the bathroom light. This isn't something planes are generally designed to do and it's something they typically don't do but it's something that it's capable of doing 'according to it's structure.'


CYBERNETICS


Cybernetics is the science of steersmanship, in other words, the science of controlling systems, and the foundation of whatever process which allows a system to do something on it's own. ( It's also the difference between a mere machine and a system, at least in my opinion. Though you'll often hear me refer to such things as rocks as systems. I'll explain later. :) ) 


The autopilot of an airplane is essentially cybernetic. It needs to know where it's going and keep it on course as the wind blows the airplane off course. If the airplane gets blown to the right, the autopilot turns the airplane back to the left -- not to degree it was blown right, but to the degree it's off course.


So, you could say that anything cybernetic is also intelligent to some degree, at least while performing the function it was designed for. The thermostat of a house is cybernetic -- it's good at keeping the house at a constant temperature but terrible at math.


The essential function of a cybernetic system is regulation, and this is where Mad Science becomes Mad Philosophy and more importantly, Mad Psychology -- as self-regulating creatures, we humans are a cybernetic system.


Additional Note: The legitimate reason I can call a rock is a system is because when you pick one up it becomes involved in your 'systemness' and you become it's cybernetic element. Systems are plastic like that: two people talking form one system.  The real reason I call things like rocks a system is because I'm lazy.


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