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Monthly Archives: November 2015

encryption is bad news for bad guys! (and other things we should keep in mind)

Once again, a senseless act of violence shocks us and enrages us. Prevention becomes a hot topic, and we end up having a familiar “debate” about technology, surveillance, and encryption, more specifically, how to either eliminate or weaken encryption. Other topics are mentioned in passing (somehow, gun control is not), but ‘controlling’ encryption seems to win the day as The Thing That Apparently Would Solve A Lot Of Problems.

However, as of now, there is zero indication that encryption played any part in preventing security services from stopping the Paris attacks. There wasn’t a message with a date and names and a time, sitting in front of a group of detectives, encrypted.

I feel obligated to mention this, even if it should be obvious by now. “If only we could know what they’re saying,” sounds reasonable. It ignores the fact that you need incredibly invasive, massive non-stop surveillance of everyone, but setting that tiny detail aside it comes back to the (flawed) argument of “you don’t need encryption if you have nothing to hide.”

First off, needing to hide something doesn’t mean you’re a criminal. Setting aside our own intelligence and military services, this is what keeps Chinese dissidents alive (to use one of a myriad examples), and I’m sure there are a few kids growing up in ISIS-controlled areas that are using encrypted channels to pass along books, movies (plus, probably some porn), or to discuss how to get the hell out of there. In less extreme territory, hiding is instrumental in many areas of everyday life, say, planning surprise parties. Selective disclosure is a necessary component in human interaction. 

There’s only one type of debate we should be having about encryption, and it is how to make it easier to use, more widespread. How to make it better, not how to weaken it.

Because encryption can’t be uninvented, and, moreover, widespread secure communications don’t help criminals or terrorists–it hurts them.

(1) Encryption can’t be uninvented

A typical first-line-of-defense argument for encryption goes: “eliminating or weakening encryption does nothing to prevent criminals or terrorists  from using encryption of their own.” Any criminals or terrorists (from now on “bad guys”) with minimal smarts would know how to add their own encryption layer to any standard communication channel. The only bad guys you’d catch would be either lazy, or stupid.

“Aha!” Says the enthusiastic anti-encryption advocate. “That’s why we need to make sure all the algorithms contain backdoors.” What about all the books that describe these algorithms before the backdoors? Would we erase the memory of the millions of programmers, mathematicians, or anyone that’s ever learned about this. And couldn’t the backdoors be used against us? Also get this: you don’t even need a computer to encrypt messages! With just pen and paper you can effectively use any number of cyphers that in some cases are quite strong (e.g., one-time use pads, or multilayered substitution cyphers, etc.) Shocking, I know.

The only way to “stop” encryption from being used by bad guys would be to uninvent it. Which, hopefully, we can all agree is impossible.

Then there’s the positive argument for encryption. It’s good for us, and bad for bad guys.

(2) Herd immunity, or, Encryption is bad for bad guys

Maybe we in technology haven’t done a good job of explaining this to law enforcement or politicians, or the public at large, but there’s a second, more powerful argument that we often fail to make: widespread secure & encrypted communications and data storage channels hinders, not helps, criminals, terrorists, or other assorted psychos.

That’s right. Secure storage and communications hurts bad guys.

Why? Simple: because bad guys, to operate, to prepare, obtain resources, or plan, need three things: money, time, and anonymity. They obtain these by leeching off their surroundings.

More and more frequently terrorists finance their activities with cybercrime. Stealing identities and credit cards, phishing attacks, and so forth. If everyone’s communications and storage (not just individuals but also banks, stores, etc) was always encrypted and more secure, criminals would have a much harder time financing their operations.

That is, to operate with less restrictions bad guys need to be able to exploit their surroundings. The more protected their surroundings are, the more exposed they are. More security and encryption also mean it’s harder to obtain a fake passport, create a fake identity, or steal someone else’s.

Biosafety experts have a term for this: Herd Immunity. Vaccines work only when in widespread use, for two reasons. First, the higher the percentage of immune individuals, the fewer avenues a disease has to spread, but, as importantly, the less probability that a non-immune individual will interact with an infected individual.

More advanced encryption and security also helps police agencies and security services. If the bad guys can’t get into your network or spy on your activities, you have more of a chance of catching them. The first beneficiaries of strong encryption are the very agencies tasked with defending us.


Dictatorships and other oppressive regimes hate encryption for a reason. Secure, widespread communication also strengthens public discourse. It makes communication channels harder to attack, allowing the free flow of information to continue in the face of ideologies who want nothing less than to shut it down and lock everyone into a single way of thinking, acting, and behaving.


(Postscript) Dear media: to have a real conversation we need your help, so get a grip and calm down. 

The focus on encryption is part of looking for quick fixes when there aren’t any. In our fear and grief we demand answers and “safety,” even to a degree that is clearly not possible. We cannot be 100% safe. I think people in general are pretty reasonable, and know this. But it’s kind of hard to stay that way when we are surrounded by news reports that have all the subtlety and balance of a chicken running around with its head cut off. We are told that the “mastermind” (or “architect”) of the attack is still at large. We hear of “of an elaborate international terror operation.” On day 3, the freakout seems to be intensifying, so much so that a reporter asks the President of the United States: “Why Can’t We Take Out These Bastards?

The Paris attacks were perpetrated by a bunch of suicidal murderers with alarm clocks, a few rifles, bullets, and some explosives. Their “plan” amounted to synchronizing their clocks and then start firing and/or blow themselves up on a given date at roughly the same time, a time chosen for maximum damage.

“Mastermind”? Reporters need to take a deep breath and put things in context. This wasn’t complicated enough to be “masterminded.” We’re not dealing with an ultra-sophisticated criminal organization headed by a Bond villain ready to deploy a doomsday device. This is bunch of thugs with wristwatches and Soviet-era rifles. They are lethal, and we need to fight back. But they are not an existential threat to our civilization. We are stronger than that.

With less of an apocalyptic tone to the reporting we could have a more reasonable conversation about the very real and complex reality behind all of this. Naive? Maybe. Still —  it doesn’t hurt to mention it.



totally like whatever, you know?

Something that continues to resonate, years after I first saw it: Taylor Mali‘s “Totally like whatever, you know?”. Spend 3 minutes and check it out, you won’t regret it. (Clip from HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry)

I implore you, I entreat you,
and I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You gotta to speak with it, too.

And here’s the original version, slightly different than the one in the video.

Bonus: something I wrote a couple of years ago “honestly, let’s unpack this: it’s like, you know…very unique?”

all your tech are belong to us: media in a world of technology as the dominant force

Pop quiz: who held the monopoly on radio equipment production in the US in 1918?

General Electric? The Marconi Company?

Radio Shack? (Jk!) 🙂

How about the US Military?

The US entered World War I “officially” in early April, 1917. Determined to control a technology of strategic importance to the war effort, the Federal Government took over radio-related patents owned by companies in the US and gave the monopoly of manufacturing of radio equipment to the Armed Forces — which at the time included the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

This takeover was short-lived (ending in late 1918) but it would have profound effects in how the industry organized in the years and decades that followed. The War and Navy departments, intent on keeping the technology under some form of US control, arranged for General Electric to acquire the American Marconi company and secure the patents involved.

The result was Radio Corporation of America, RCA, a public company whose controlling interested was owned by GE.

Newspapers had been vertically integrated since their inception. The technology required for printing presses and the distribution networks involved in delivering the product were all “proprietary,” in that they were controlled and evolved by the newspapers themselves. Even if the printing press had other uses, you couldn’t easily repurpose a newspaper printing press to print books, or viceversa, and even if you could secure a printing press for newspapers (a massive investment) you could not hope to easily recreate the distribution network required to get the newspaper in the hands of consumers.

This vertical integration resulted in a combination of natural and artificial barriers of entry that would let a few key players, most notably William Randolph Hearst, leverage the resulting common economic, distribution and technological foundation to effect a consolidation in the market without engendering significant opposition. Later, Movie studios relied on a similar set of controls over the technology employed — they didn’t manufacture their own cameras but by controlling creation and distribution, and with their aggregate purchase power, they could dictate what technology was viable and how it was to be used.

Radio, early on, presented the possibility of a revolution in this regard. It could have allowed consumers to also be creators (at least in a small scale). The ability to broadcast was restricted by the size and power of the transmitter at your disposal, and you could start small. It was the first opportunity for a new medium to have the evolution of the underlying technology decoupled from the content it carried, but WWI and the intervention of the US government ensured this would not come to pass. The deal that resulted in the creation of RCA created, in effect, a similar vertical integration in Radio as in other mediums (in Britain, a pioneer of broadcast radio and later TV, the government had been largely in control from the beginning through the BBC, and so already was “vertically integrated”).

This is a way of thinking that became embedded into how Media companies operated.

RCA went on to be at the center of the creation of the two other subsequent major media markets of the 20th century: music and television, and in both cases it extended the notion of technology as subservient to the content that it carried.

For every major new medium that appeared until late in the 20th century, media companies could control the technology that they depended on.

Over time, even as technology development broke off into its own path and started to evolve separately from media, media companies retained control of both the standards and the adoption rate (black and white to color, vinyl to CD, SD to HD, etc.). Media companies selected new technologies when and how they wanted, and they set the terms of use, the price, and the pace of its deployment. Consumers could only consume. By retaining control of the evolution of the technology through implicit control of standards, and explicit control of the distribution channels, they could retain overall control of the medium. Slowly, though, the same technology started to be used for more than one thing, and control started to slip away.

Then the Internet came along.

The great media/technology decoupling

TV, radio, CDs, even newspapers are all “platforms” in a technical sense, even if closed ones, in that they provide a set of common standards and distribution channels for information. In this way, the Internet appears to be “just another platform” through which media companies must deliver their content. This has led to the view that we are simply going through a transition not unlike that of, say, Vinyl to CDs, or Radio to TV.

That media companies can’t control the technology as they used to is clear. What is less clear is that this is a difference of kind, not of degree.

CNN can have a website, but it can neither control the technology standards or software used to build it or ensure that the introduction of a certain technology (say, Adobe Flash) will be followed by a period of stability long enough to ensure recouping the investment required to use it. NBC can post shows online, but it can’t prevent millions of people from downloading the show without advertisement through other channels. Universal Studios can provide a digital copy of a movie six months after its release, but in the meantime everyone that wanted to watch it has, often without paying for it. These effects and many more are plainly visible, and as a result, prophecies involving the death of TV, the music industry, newspapers, movie studios, or radio, are common.

The diagnoses are varied and they tend to focus, incorrectly, on the revenue side of the equation: it’s the media companies’ business models which are antiquated. They don’t know how to monetize. Piracy is killing them. They can’t (or won’t) adapt to new demands and therefore are too expensive to operate. Long-standing contracts get in the way (e.g. Premium channels & cable providers). The traditional business models that supported mass media throughout their existence are being made increasingly ineffective by the radically different dynamics created by online audiences, ease of copying and lack of ability to create scarcity, which drive down prices.

All of these are real problems but none of them is insurmountable, and indeed many media concerns are making progress in fits and starts in these areas and finding new sources of revenue in the online world. The fundamental issue is that control has shifted, irreversibly, out of the hands of the media companies.

For the first time in the history of mass media, technology evolution has become largely decoupled from the media that uses it, and, as importantly, it has become valuable in and of itself. This has completely inverted the power structure in which media operated, with media relegated to just another actor in a larger stage. For media companies, lack of control of the information channel used is behind each and every instance of a crack in the edifice that has supported their evolution, their profits, and their power.

Until the appearance of the Internet it was the media companies that dictated the evolution of the technology behind the medium and, as critically, the distribution channel. Since the mid-1990s, media companies have tried and generally failed to insert themselves as a force of control in the information landscape created by the digitalization of media and the Internet. Like radio and TV, the Internet includes a built in “distribution channel” but unlike them it does not lend itself to natural monopolies apportioned by the government of that channel. Like other media, the Internet depends on standards and devices to access it, but unlike other media the standards and devices are controlled, evolved, and manufactured by companies that see media as just another element of their platforms, and not as a driver of their existence.

This shift in control over technology standards, manufacture, demand, and evolution is without precedent, and it is the central factor that drives the ongoing crisis media finds itself since the early 90s.

Now what?

Implicitly or explicitly, what media companies are trying to do with every new initiative and every effort (DRM, new formats, paywalls, apps) is to regain control of the platform. Given the actors that now control technology, it becomes clear why they are not succeeding and what they must do to adapt.

In the past, they may have attempted to purchase the companies involved in technology, fund competitors, and the like. Some of this is going on today, with the foremost examples being Hulu and Ultraviolet. As with past technological shifts, media companies have also resorted to lobbying and the courts to attempt to maintain control, but this too is a losing proposition long-term. Trying to wrest control of technology by lawsuits that address whatever the offending technology is at any given moment, when technology itself is evolving, advancing, and expanding so quickly, is like trying to empty the ocean by using a spoon.

These attempts are not effective because the real cause of the shift in power that has occurred is beyond their control. It is systemic.

In a world where the market capitalization of the technology industry is an order of magnitude or more than that of the media companies (and when, incidentally, a single company, Apple, has more cash in hand than the market value of all traditional media companies combined), it should be obvious that the battle for economic dominance has been lost. Temporary victories, if any, only serve to obfuscate that fact.

The media companies that survive the current upheaval are those that accept their new role in this emerging ecosystem: one of an important player but not a dominant one (this is probably the toughest part). There still is and there will continue to be demand for content that is professionally produced.

Whenever people in a production company, or a studio, or magazine, find themselves trying to figure out which technology is better for the business, they’re having the wrong conversation. Technology should now be directed only by the needs of creation, and at the service of content.

And everyone needs to adapt to this new reality, accept it, and move on… or fall, slowly but surely, into irrelevance.

the planet remade: now, with asteroids!

the-planet-remade-book-coverLet me begin with a book recommendation: The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change The World by Oliver Morton.

I would change the title of this book to “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Has Changed The World And Will Continue To Change It As Long As Humans Are Monkeying On It, In It, and Around It.” But I understand that might be a less catchy title.

Look, I accept the distinction Morton makes between ‘willful change’ and not, and he needs to establish some boundaries for the discussion. It’s pretty clear we’ve already created massive changes in the planet’s systems. We have altered its features, most obviously by redirecting rivers, creating dams, digging giant tunnels into mountains, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles with concrete, cement, asphalt and all kinds of other crazy stuff (like, say… putting golf courses in the middle of deserts), and (mostly for bad reasons) blowing up lots and lots of different places. We have pumped and continue to pump trillions of tons of gases and chemicals into the biosphere. Geoengineering is already happening, so how about we do it for something other than manufacturing complicated barbeque grills, phone cases and christmas tree decorations?

The book’s discussion on the transformation of the nitrogen cycle is particularly interesting, since this was a key factor in making Norman Borlaug’s high-yield dwarf “superwheat” a feasible crop at large scale (dwarf wheat consumes more nitrogen). Much is frequently said of Borlaug’s work and the Nobel prize he got for it (and with good reason) but less is known about the massive geoengineering activity that started before that work and made it possible.

Geoengineering will be a key element in reversing some of the effects of climate change, since it is pretty clear that “just” reducing emissions won’t cut it.

Just sulfate it.

If I had to bet on a method for climate engineering that’s going to be used in the next few decades, I’d go for stratospheric sulfate aerosols — which the book covers well. Why? As The Joker in TDK said of gasoline and dynamite: “They’re cheap!” If none of the world powers is going to do it, any one of a number of other countries will eventually decide that it’s time to stop the ocean from erasing their coast sooner rather than later. The consequences of this could lead to (surprise!) war, perhaps even nuclear war, which Morton discusses as well. Nothing like some optimism about saving the planet sprinkled with apocalyptic thinking. Just kidding, that’s something important to discuss too. (Nuclear winter is also discussed in terms of its climate impact).

Near the end the book spends a good amount of time talking about asteroids, but not in the way I thought would be … kind of obvious. It focuses on asteroids as an Extinction Level Event. Dino-killer, etc. The point he makes is that the various ideas discussed around how to stop an asteroid from crashing to earth are in a way similar to the idea of using geoengineering to save us from a different kind of cataclysm.

This is an interesting argument but….

Asteroid Mining + Stratospheric Aerosols = Profit!

Fine… maybe not profit, just saving the world. My point is, what the book doesn’t discuss is the use of asteroids for geoengineering… and not as an argument. It mentionsasteroid wranglingbut all hope is dashed when we see that it’s talking about moving an asteroid off-course to prevent it from hitting earth. Ridiculous. We have Bruce Willis for that!

One of my personal obsessions is the topic of asteroid mining. Yes, within the next few decades we will begin mining asteroids, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. And it seems inevitable to me that we’ll also be using some of the results of that for climate engineering via the stratosphere (and later to create massive structures in orbit around the planet).

Why? because the biggest cost in seeding the stratosphere is energy, specifically, the kinetic energy you need to spend to move millions of tons of what essentially is dust from the ground (where it is manufactured cheaply) to its stratospheric destination over 8-10 kilometers above the surface of the earth, depending on latitude. This “cost” is more of a logistical cost rather than a pure energy cost. How so?

Option A: Airplane!airplane-movie-poster

(Not the movie). Let’s say we are going to seed a million tons of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.

The energy required to lift a mass of a million tons of material to a height of 10,000 meters would be ~98.1 terajoules (give or take a Joule, E = x x h) = ~27 GWh (gigawatt-hour) = 27,000,000 kWh. In the US (with average energy cost of 12c/kWh) just lifting the dust would cost at minimum 2.7 million dollars. Add to that the necessary costs for stamps, copy paper, printing receipts and office parties, copies of Microsoft Windows, safety goggles, and such, and the cost would rise by several million more. So round it up to 10. 10 MM USD = 1 million tons of material at stratospheric height.

Now, the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 is estimated to have injected 20 million tons of sulfates and resulted in an estimated 0.5 C cooldown across the planet within a year. This cooldown dissipated as quickly as it arrived (at least in geological terms) so a long term geoengineering operation would require adding sulfates for several years, perhaps decades.

With this we could derive a “baseline cost” of 200 million dollars to make global temperatures drop half a degree centigrade within a year. Sounds cheap! We could have a 2×1 offer and make it an even degree cooler.

The energy transfer, sadly, is not “pure”, and so, therefore, neither is the cost. If you are spreading the material from, say, a plane, the weight of the plane, the fuel, transport to airfield form the factory and so forth also comes into play. The logistics chain and equipment required becomes really complicated, really fast. Not impossible by any means, just complicated and much more costly, running into billions. For a less hand-wavy (and more systematic but way longer) analysis, see Geoengineering Cost Analysis and Costs and economics of geoengineering.

Here’s where asteroids come into play.

Option B: Asteroids!asteroids-arcade

(Not the game). Using asteroids for this purpose seems to me like a perfect match. Any nasty by-products of the mining and manufacture remain in space, where hazardous chemical waste is not a problem since a lot of the stuff out there is already hazardous chemicals, plus no one can hear you scream.

Asteroids contain enough material to either obtain what you need directly or by synthesizing what you need using micro factories landed/built (by other micro-factories landed on the asteroid) for that purpose.

The energy required for the deployment of the material will be far lower (you’ll always need some amount of energy expenditure in the form of thrusters and the dispersion device), but you would be able to rely on gravity to do most of the work (if the asteroid in question has been captured and placed in orbit around the earth, even better). Instead of fighting gravity, we’d use it to our advantage.

Most of the maneuvers involved in transferring material would rely on gravity assist rather than rockets (plus aerobraking for atmospheric reentry when needed) which makes them cheaper, and, something that is hardly ever mentioned, less prone to failure simply because there are fewer components in the system, particularly components of the very large, very explosive kind, like the Saturn V’s S-IC of the Space Shuttle’s SRBs.

Now that people are excitedly talking about the possibility that we may have found a Dyson Sphere in our own neighborhood (KIC 8462852 FTW – only 1,480 light years away!) talking about these types of projects could sound to people more like science and less than science fiction. As a bonus, this gets us closer to a Type II civilization. We’ll definitely need to throw a party when that happens.

TL;DR go read this book. It’s very likely that stratospheric sulfate aerosols will be used for climate engineering within the next few decades. But why wouldn’t we use asteroid capture and mining for that? Can this possibly be a new idea? Also: Dyson Spheres!

PS: I haven’t found discussion of this type of sourcing of material for geoengineering, so should this be a new idea I fully expect my fair share of the massive profits. Just let me know and I’ll send my bank information. Can’t send funds myself though, most of my money is in the hands of a nigerian prince who is using it to process an inheritance.

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