Saturday, August 28, 2021

Vietnam and Afghanistan

I have had two brushes with Vietnam during my life: one was serving in the Army artillery in Vietnam during the war, the second was overseeing databases of Vietnamese who wanted to go to the United States after the war. 

When I was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, I had very little interaction with the Vietnamese. I was in a heavy artillery battery that supported American Army soldiers on the ground.  Most of the time we were stationed at firebases in the middle of nowhere, with no Vietnamese around.  A few times we had Vietnamese units on the same firebase, but we did not interact.  They supported Vietnamese units and we supported American units.  We were in northern South Vietnam, which the Army called I Corps.  Occasionally I would ride into town with supply trucks; so, I occasionally saw Hue and Quang Tri. At Firebase Barbara, on a lonely mountaintop not too far south of Khe Sanh on the Laotian border, all of our resupply was done by helicopter.  When Saigon fell, I had no personal connection to any South Vietnamese left behind. 

At the American Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1984 to 1986, I was in charge of the embassy’s computers.  I was primarily responsible for the computers in the embassy, which mainly handled administrative tasks like maintaining personnel and financial records.  However, as the senior computer person in the embassy, I had oversight responsibility for several other computer operations.  One of them handled data for the Orderly Departure Program for Vietnamese still in Vietnam who wanted to leave the country.  The Orderly Departure Program had been established to try to stop the dangerous exodus of Vietnamese “boat people.” Another handled data for Vietnamese refugees who had already escaped across Laos or Cambodia to Thai refugee camps and who wanted to go to the United States.  This was about ten years after the fall of Saigon, but I don’t know how many of these people had worked for the US during the war. 

According to Wikipedia, from 1980 to 1997, 623,509 Vietnamese were resettled abroad under the Orderly Departure Program, of whom 458,367 went to the United States.  As I recall, a friend at the embassy in Bangkok who worked in the Orderly Departure Program went to Vietnam about once a week to process a planeload of Vietnamese going to the US.  Outside of the Orderly Departure Program, the number of “boat people” leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totaled almost 800,000 between 1975 and 1995.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea without reaching their destination.  About 40,000 Vietnamese refugees were held in Thai border refugee camps until they could be resettled. 

If Vietnam is an example, there will continue to be many refugees fleeing Afghanistan for years to come. 

 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Bitcoin

Cybercurrencies are here to stay.  Maybe Bitcoin is too, but not at the levels it currently holds.  Tulips are still here, but the tulip mania of the 1630s has passed.  Bitcoin was originally intended to be a medium of exchange that would be insulated from almost all external control.  This anonymity made it an excellent means of exchange for illegal activities, most recently illustrated by the fact that most of the ransomware attacks on private data have demanded payment in Bitcoin. 

Bitcoin transactions are recorded by blockchain, which is like an old accounting ledger.  It contains every Bitcoin transaction, although looking at blockchain from the outside, you can tell that a transaction is verified, but you cannot tell who the parties were or how much Bitcoin was involved.  As one of the parties to the transaction, however, you can pull out the specific information.  So, if Elon Musk for example says you never paid him for your Tesla, you can prove that you did using blockchain. 

The Economist magazine recently explored what would happen to the financial markets if Bitcoin went to zero.  It illustrates how far Bitcoin has come from mainly being a payment mechanism for drug dealers and other criminals to store of value rivaling gold bullion.  Many old school financial institutions -- banks, hedge funds, and payment systems like PayPal -- have begun to invest in and accept Bitcoin.  The Economist speculates that a Bitcoin crash would also crash the broader financial markets, and the more widely accepted Bitcoin becomes, the bigger the crash would be.  Because there is so much speculation today in Bitcoin, much of the investment is leveraged, likely leading to margin calls and liquidations in the event of a Bitcoin crash. 

The Economist says that “because changing dollars for bitcoin is slow and costly, traders wanting to realize gains and reinvest proceeds often transact in stablecoins” pegged to the dollar, like Tether.  The fact that traders think Bitcoin transactions are slow and costly is ironic, since Bitcoin was conceived as a payment mechanism.  But the reliance on Tether and other stablecoins creates problems for these currencies, which are somewhat like money market funds that are vulnerable if they are insufficiently backed, which many regulators believe they are. 

It is ironic that as Bitcoin has become seen as a store of value, it has become less used as a transaction mechanism, which was its original purpose.  But many Bitcoin proponents tout Bitcoin as a way for the poor, unbanked people around the world to participate in the financial system with their wealthier cohorts. 

Because of that prospect of some kind of cybercoin becoming a worldwide medium of exchange, central banks around the world, like the US Federal Reserve, are looking a creating cybercurrencies that would not have some of the negative aspects of Bitcoin.  If cybercurrencies become widespread, will that take some of the luster off of Bitcoin. 

Bitcoins will always represent the massive amounts of energy that were required to produce them.  This unenvironmental aspect of Bitcoin is supposedly what make Elon Musk change his mind and refuse to accept Bitcoins for Teslas.  If Bitcoin were to go to zero, that would be an awful lot of wasted energy and greenhouse gases. 

Bitcoin will have to find its long-term value.  When it was first being mined, it was worth a few thousand dollars.  I would guess that in the long term, it will return to something like that, less than $10,000 per Bitcoin.  It will retain some value as a medium of exchange for criminals, since national cybercurrencies will be more traceable.  Also, national central banks will probably be able to print their new cybercurrencies like the Fed now prints paper dollars, making the new currencies less valuable as a hedge against inflation. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

AdSense Not Working

I am trying to install GoogleAdSense on my Computer Handyman website, but all I get is a blank, blue space where the ad should go. I guess the problem has something to do with the way my CSS is set up, but AdSense says it may take 48 hours to start working properly. So, I will give it some more time.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

GoDaddy ftp Problems

 

GoDaddy’s ftp connection for their websites does not work like most ftp connections do.  For most ftp connections, the address starts with ftp, as in ftp.website.com, but GoDaddy wants you to leave off the ftp prefix. 

I could not connect by ftp to my GoDaddy website, it-handy.com.  I tried for a long time to figure out what was wrong – my password, my user id, etc.  Nothing was wrong except the address of the ftp connection. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Russian Hacking

The media is overly excited about the Russian hacking using the SolarWinds update process. 

First, was it Russia?  It seems likely that it was Russia, but not certain.  Anyone who is good enough to develop the SolarWinds hack would be smart enough to cover his tracks.  He may not have covered them perfectly, and we may be able to track down the hacker, but he may also have successfully covered his tracks.  He could be a Chinese hacker who copied the trademark signatures of the Russian hackers and who routed his hacks through Russian servers or websites.  It could be a hacker anywhere who did the same thing.  It requires computer expertise, but there are a lot of computer geniuses out there, including in the Middle East and Latin America.  I am surprised that no one has mentioned Edward Snowden in connection with the hacking.  He is a computer genius living in Russia who knows American computer security extremely well.  Is it possible that the Russians have gotten some help from him? 

Second, I think that whatever this was, it was not an attack or the start of a war.  It looks more like intelligence gathering and testing of hacking techniques.  The test worked pretty well, since it went undetected for six months, but of course there may be other hacks out there that have been even more successful and have still not been detected.  In any case, nothing major has been damaged.  They have not even emulated the ransomware hackers, who have captured and held important data from hospitals and government offices for ransom.  They have not shut down the electric grid or turned off the water or sewage treatment in any cities. 

I doubt that the hackers knew exactly what organizations they were going to be hacking into.  They knew that SolarWinds had lots of important clients, but they probably weren’t sure exactly which ones they would end up getting access to.  They may have succeeded far beyond their expectations, or it might have gone exactly as planned.  We don’t know.  Were their main targets government agencies, or private companies?  We don’t know.  The fact that the hackers did not steal money indicates to me that they were probably government-backed, and not private citizens hacking for fun and profit. 

Sen. Mitt Romney compared the hack to the US invasion of Iraq, when we took out many of Iraq’s communications hubs with our missiles.  I do not think this is an appropriate comparison.  The hackers did not use their weapons, if indeed they have weapons that could bring down facilities in the US.  It was like developing and demonstrating new missiles, putting the enemy on notice that you have these capabilities and can use them if you choose to.  But they (whoever they are) have not chosen to.  But just as Saddam should have been wary of provoking the US, we should beware of provoking these hackers. 

As nations develop new weapons they often turn to arms control to prevent the new weapons from leading to war.  We don’t have much experience with arms control type agreements for computer hacking, but some of the same principles apply, like Reagan’s maxim, “Trust buy verify.”  I am not sure how you verify an agreement to control hacking.  Bombs and missiles usually need to be tested in the open, where detection by satellites or other means is often possible.  Hackers can experiment on their own internal networks, which may be difficult or impossible for outsiders to monitor.  Of course the best test would be to see if you can penetrate the actual defenses of the country or business you might want to attack in the future. 

Nevertheless, arms control agreements are like speed limits.  Not everyone obeys them, but they set standards of behavior and provide a basis for at least discussing violations, if not definitively proving and punishing them. 

Another complication is non-state actors who hack for their own personal purposes.  It is a lot easier for an individual or small group to hack into a network than it would be for them to develop a bomb or missile.  Governments have developed systems for dealing with violent terrorists that are different from those for dealing with other governments.  We already have criminal penalties for individual hackers although they may be hard to apply to hackers operating from foreign countries. 

I think it is worthwhile to begin discussions of some kind of arms control agreement covering hacking to get some idea of what’s possible and what’s not.  In an ideal world leading tech countries would work together to control individual bad actors and well as to monitor each other’s conduct. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

5G Cellphone Upgrade

The 5G upgrade still has a long way to go.  This Wired article explains that 5G operates in three different radio frequency ranges, basically low, medium, and high.  The real, revolutionary changes expected from 5G really come from use of the high frequency ranges, in the millimeter band.  The higher the frequency, the higher the rate of data transmission, and 5G is all about fast data. 

The problem is that shorter wavelengths have shorter ranges and cannot penetrate much of anything, like walls.  To get the higher speeds, there would have to be cell towers very close together, many more than we have now, and very close to the people using their phones.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the new cell towers are already running into resistance as they are installed across the US.  The Journal also reports that in one of the countries most wired for 5G, South Korea, it doesn’t work that well.  One place 5G is supposed to be available is in NFL stadiums. This is partly because there are no walls blocking spectators off from the 5G cell transmitters.  Even there, it sounds like the coverage is not universal, as Venturebeat reports. 

5G will probably work in the lower, slower parts of the new 5G wavelength spectrum, but that does not offer the quantum leap in capability that the high end offers.  And you wonder, if 5G receptivity is spotty, can you depend on it to drive your AI car?   Venturebeat reports that Qualcomm has doubled its 5G mmWave range to 2.36 miles for broadband modems, but the announcement says it is specific to broadband modems, not to smartphones.  Current 5G might be more suitable to small, compact facilities, like college campuses or industrial parks, rather than to general public use.  Perhaps further breakthroughs in mmWave technology will make it more generally available.