Spies amongst us

It’s fairly common knowledge in certain professional circles that Huntsville, Alabama is a hotbed of espionage activity. It has been said that we have the second greatest concentration of “spies” in the Country lurking about. Many of them are registered foreign agents. Until recently the community at large has not been aware of it. A few weeks ago a Huntsville Times reporter ran this article. From it, the community learned:

“Huntsville is a major target for foreign nationals (spies) working to obtain classified information,” FBI spokesman Paul Daymond said. Daymond was asked about security and the agency’s anti-spy operations in Alabama after U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, held a press conference and alerted authorities in early March to what he called suspicious access to potential secrets at two NASA centers in other parts of the country.

Now granted, few people actually read the paper nowadays, so this mention may have escaped the attention of many residents in the community. One of the local TV stations, however, has remedied the matter, I suppose:
WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

The most amusing part for me is that the reporter got the quote wrong. I was present when the interviews were conducted and what the reporter was told was that this area has the second highest concentration of spies in the United States (consistent with the Times article), but somehow that got interpreted as cyber-espionage for the actual report. Maybe we have the dubious honors of that “achievement” as well, but if so, I am unaware of it.

There is a big difference between spy “boots on the ground” and a hacker army on the other side of the world compromising a particular regions cyber defenses. Being a spy target is “cool”, however, actually having your network compromised is not.

Below is another clip that was filmed at the same meeting. My bald head made a cameo in this one: WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Save Tesla’s Lab

No, this isn’t related to the eighties hair band, but to the man that enabled much of what we take for granted today:

Save Tesla’s Lab:



         You may have noticed the name “Tesla” trending on twitter lately, or heard something about the campaign to save his lab. Unfortunately many people still don’t know who Nikola Tesla was. Let’s put it this way. If it weren’t for Tesla, you wouldn’t be on this blog, you would be reading a book by candle light. So who is this Tesla we speak of, and what has he got to do with steampunk?

            Here at the Punkettes, we love our mad inventors, and Nikola Tesla was the father of mad inventors. He was also responsible for a huge amount of the technology we’re using today.

           Unfortunately, Tesla had one recurring theme in his life aside from brilliance. He got screwed over. Again and again. You’ve all heard of Thomas Edison, yes? He was the main culprit for plenty of Tesla’s suffering. For a little while Tesla worked for Edison. Edison promised him a huge sum of money if he fixed the problems with his direct current generators and motors. Tesla did it, spending hours and hours of his time and brain power. When he asked for money, Edison laughed at him. Tesla quit and ended up digging ditches for two dollars a day.

           At the time Edison was attempting to package and sell his direct current and when he heard Tesla was working on an alternate current electrical system, he ran a smear campaign that consisted of hiring kids to steal people’s pets and displaying them in his lab. He would then electrocute the pets in front of everyone, in an attempt to show them that Tesla’s current wasn’t safe for the home. What a stand-up guy!

            Ever hear of Robert A.Watson-watt? He was credited for RADAR. Want to know who came up with the idea eighteen years earlier? You guessed it! Tesla pitched it to the military at the height of world war one. The head of the R&D for the US Navy shot the idea down. Can you guess who that was? Thomas Edison! He keeps popping up like a bad penny.

            How about the name Marconi? He’s famous for inventing radio. What most people don’t know is that all his work was based on Tesla’s.
 Wilhelm Rontgen claimed to invent the XRAY. Only wait, who invented it before he did? Are you seeing a pattern here?
Other amazing discovers of Tesla include: Building the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, experimenting with cryogenic engineering half a century before invention, being the first to record radio waves from space, discovering the resonant frequency of the earth, the modern electric motor, wireless communications. Also, Tesla built an earthquake machine that nearly took out an entire New York city block when it was turned on! Mad inventor? I think so!

The case is simple. Tesla was simply a genius in the wrong time. He was a revolutionary. Back then, people weren’t interested in revolution. Like Edison, they just wanted something they could package and sell. Tesla wasn’t aggressive enough, he wasn’t meanenough, so he got ripped off repeatedly.

Over the course of his life, Tesla held over one hundred patents. He spoke eight different languages and was able to memorize entire books. He lived to the old age of eighty-six, and was celibate all his life because he was too wrapped up in his work. Sadly, he died alone and broke in a hotel room. He is said to have been quite mad, apparently firmly convinced that he was in love with one of the pigeons he often fed in the morning.
Now, his final life’s work, is up for sale. Wardenclyffe, his lab in Shorehan, New York. There he tried to build a tower that would provide free wireless energy for the world. The project was never completed, since the man funding it realized there would be no way to harness it and make money from it.

Now people are finally starting to recognize Tesla and everything he did for the world. There’s a valiant effort to save up enough money to purchase the lab and turn it into a museum. BUT, there’s another offer on the land. Someone who wants it for retail! Someone who wants to tear down his lab and stick another strip mall in the spot. We cannot let it happen! Who needs another mall? We want a museum! Finally his life’s work would be honoured. And it’s about time.

Donate three dollars: http://www.indiegogo.com/teslamuseum

The real-world ramifications of cyberwarfare

The following essay by Bruce Schneier has me thinking about the physical impact of cyberwarfare:

Cyberwar Treaties:
We’re in the early years of a cyberwar arms race. It’s expensive, it’s destabilizing, and it threatens the very fabric of the Internet we use every day. Cyberwar treaties, as imperfect as they might be, are the only way to contain the threat.

If you read the press and listen to government leaders, we’re already in the middle of a cyberwar. By any normal definition of the word “war,” this is ridiculous. But the definition of cyberwar has been expanded to include government-sponsored espionage, potential terrorist attacks in cyberspace, large-scale criminal fraud, and even hacker kids attacking government networks and critical infrastructure. This definition is being pushed both by the military and by government contractors, who are gaining power and making money on cyberwar fear.

The danger is that military problems beg for military solutions. We’re starting to see a power grab in cyberspace by the world’s militaries: large-scale monitoring of networks, military control of Internet standards, even military takeover of cyberspace. Last year’s debate over an “Internet kill switch” is an example of this; it’s the sort of measure that might be deployed in wartime but makes no sense in peacetime. At the same time, countries are engaging in offensive actions in cyberspace, with tools like Stuxnet and Flame.

Arms races stem from ignorance and fear: ignorance of the other side’s capabilities, and fear that their capabilities are greater than yours. Once cyberweapons exist, there will be an impetus to use them. Both Stuxnet and Flame damaged networks other than their intended targets. Any military-inserted back doors in Internet systems make us more vulnerable to criminals and hackers. And it is only a matter of time before something big happens, perhaps by the rash actions of a low-level military officer, perhaps by a non-state actor, perhaps by accident. And if the target nation retaliates, we could find ourselves in a real cyberwar.

The cyberwar arms race is destabilizing.

International cooperation and treaties are the only way to reverse this. Banning cyberweapons entirely is a good goal, but almost certainly unachievable. More likely are treaties that stipulate a no-first-use policy, outlaw unaimed or broadly targeted weapons, and mandate weapons that self-destruct at the end of hostilities. Treaties that restrict tactics and limit stockpiles could be a next step. We could prohibit cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure; international banking, for example, could be declared off-limits.

Yes, enforcement will be difficult. Remember how easy it was to hide a chemical weapons facility? Hiding a cyberweapons facility will be even easier. But we’ve learned a lot from our Cold War experience in negotiating nuclear, chemical, and biological treaties. The very act of negotiating limits the arms race and paves the way to peace. And even if they’re breached, the world is safer because the treaties exist.

There’s a common belief within the U.S. military that cyberweapons treaties are not in our best interest: that we currently have a military advantage in cyberspace that we should not squander. That’s not true. We might have an offensive advantage­although that’s debatable­but we certainly don’t have a defensive advantage. More importantly, as a heavily networked country, we are inherently vulnerable in cyberspace.

Cyberspace threats are real. Military threats might get the publicity, but the criminal threats are both more dangerous and more damaging. Militarizing cyberspace will do more harm than good. The value of a free and open Internet is enormous.

Stop cyberwar fear mongering. Ratchet down cyberspace saber rattling. Start negotiations on limiting the militarization of cyberspace and increasing international police cooperation. This won’t magically make us safe, but it will make us safer.

This essay first appeared on the U.S. News and World Report website, as part of a series of essays on the question: “Should there be an international treaty on cyberwarfare?”



Mr. Schneier is without a doubt one of the experts in this field, and I have no desire to analyze his comments which I believe to be spot on. I do want to ponder, however on the impact that unmitigated cyberwar would have on modern society, which ties in neatly with my technophobe, luddite stance.

First off, in cyberwarfare, the entire Internet is potential battlefield. There is no Bull Run, there is no Flanders field, there is no Iwo Jima, there is no DMZ and there is no line of demarkation. The battle is anywhere and everywhere in nanoseconds. Cyberwarriors do not march for weeks or even days to an enemy’s digital citadel and lay siege. The enemy’s stronghold is simultaneously in the midst of its capital and on its borderland. The cyberwarriors emerge from the ether and disappear equally instantaneously. There are no signs of encampment, and only rarely do any of the individual combatants leave any footprints behind. On both sides, the most frail mage is the most powerful warrior.

Second, cyberwarfare is the most unhuman form of conflict yet invented by mankind. There is no adrenaline-charged rush toward an enemy that is just as real and scared as one’s self. There is only the anonymous clatter and click of the keyboard and mouse, with its own source of adrenaline, which can be felt when playing a first-person shooter, such as America’s Army. The same can be said of robot proxy (drone) warfare, a physical/cyber hybrid. One can engage and kill an enemy and the enemy can engage and kill the drone, but the enemy cannot engage and kill the pilot flying the drone from the other side of the planet. The enemy can smell the iron from the spilling blood of his comrade, but the pilot only sees a pixelated image on his screen, if he sees the dead at all. While this is advantageous as long as it is asymmetric, once hybrid warfare is conducted on mass scale by both sides, it will be the most horrific thing we have ever seen. Assume that drones are just as susceptible to compromise as any other computer system and then imagine a malware like Stuxnet that targets UAVs. As horrible as nuclear warfare is with its ability to wipe out entire cities in seconds, how much worse would be a squadron of drones flying slow and low picking off civilians and combatants alike?

Finally, our global society depends on a stable cyber infrastructure. Destroy cyberspace and you destroy Western civilization, or at least set it back a couple hundred years. We live in an electron-driven society. No Internet means no international commerce, which means no local commerce. If the entirety of cyberspace is a battlefield, since you can’t designate war zones in an abstract realm that has no borders, then you can’t keep the battle out of your front yard, and everyone who is resident in cyberspace is victim in cyberspace. Everything is intensified because it is omnipresent and instantaneous. The collective intelligence of mankind is weaponized and can be turned against anyone by a small set of bad actors. Since bots are set-and-forget, taking out the general, the lieutenant, the sergeant, or the private, does nothing to slow the tempo of battle. The conflict destroys reactors in the Middle East and in nanoseconds, turns across the ocean to down the electrical grid in New England. Insert your own catastrophe here.

What we end out with is societal collapse because of an over-reliance on tech. Many parts of the world may not be impacted at all, and those societies may rise over ours. Such is the cycle of human cultures. But the question I would pose is this: can we not re-cork this genie before he gets all the way out of the bottle? I don’t suggest we eschew all the wonderful advances we have made, but as a culture, we need a robust backup plan that depends a little less on what our grandparents didn’t have and a little more on what our great-great-grandparents did have.

Caution Towards a Cashless Society

I am always leery of proposals for a cashless society:

IEEE Spectrum Digs Into the Future of Money: First time accepted submitter ArmageddonLord writes ” Small, out-of-pocket cash exchanges are still the stuff of everyday life. In 2010, cash transactions in the United States totaled US $1.2 trillion (not including extralegal ones, of course). There will come a day, however, when you’ll be able to transfer funds just by holding your cellphone next to someone else’s and hitting a few keys — and this is just one of the ways we’ll wean ourselves off cash. In ‘The Last Days of Cash’, a special report on the future of money, we describe the various ways that technology is transforming how we pay for stuff; how it’s boosting security by linking our biometric selves with our accounts; and how it’s helping us achieve, at least in theory, an ancient ideal — money that cannot be counterfeited.”

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I don’t know if its my inner luddite or my inner libertarian that makes me hesitant of digital-only transactions. Historically, there have always been some type of physical medium used to facilitate the exchange of goods, whether it was a direct barter of something you want from someone else for something you have that they want, or money, whether a hard currency such as gold or silver, or a fiat currency such as Federal Reserve Notes (dollars). Even with a fiat currency such as the US Dollar, you have a failsafe; with dollars in hand, you can buy something when the digital infrastructure goes down. The same cannot be said of a cashless system. Granted, most transactions today do not involve real money; they are just bit transfers from your account to another account in the global banking grid. This requires a fair amount of confidence in the banking system’s ability to maintain systems integrity. Using the Slashdot example of fund exchanges via personal tech, you have to have stronger faith in another set variables:

  • Cell phone providers, acting as clearing houses for transactions, will maintain systems integrity at least as well as traditional banks have.
  • Their tech doesn’t fail (i.e. transactions process when signal is lost)
  • Malware won’t be able to intercept your transactions and steal your identity
  • All devices are compatible
This system is fraught with problems. For one, search for some of the problems people have had with PayPal (Disclosure: I’ve never personally had any problems with PayPal) freezing their accounts. Many people, myself included have used Paypal as a bank. Money comes and goes entirely as bits. If you account is frozen, access to your funds is non-existent. So, what if your phone provider freezes your account? How will you access your money?
Or what about when Big Brother (pick a nation, a specific one is irrelevant for this argument) decides to perform a 100% audit of all financial transactions conducted by its citizens? I would assume that even most honest, free people don’t want their governments knowing *everything* they spend their money on. Nothing in anonymous in a digital system. Tie all this in with online medical records and such, and you can see where your local dietary enforcement officer would contact you to find out if you really needed that greasy cheeseburger you just bought, given you’ve already been flagged as obese and a health cost risk on the social healthcare system.
And in a TEOTWAWKI situation, you’re even further up a creek than you would be with fiat currency. You don’t even have paper that someone might be willing to trade goods for. To paraphrase Cypress Hill, when the bits go down, you better be ready.
I guess this is just my pessimistic nature. To quote Solomon from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. (ASV). Not that I think all tech has existed in the past, just that history repeats itself; only the specific details change. Roman civilization believed it was the apex of society, had great plans, and collapsed. The Greeks likewise before them. All their knowledge was lost of centuries. Are we that much greater than those great cultures? Is our tech more robust? No, I would say that we have the most fragile tech that has existed in human history. A thousand years from now what tangible parts of our culture will archaeologists have to assess us? If we go the route of digital currency, it sure won’t be our money.
So I call on you, my fellow compatriots of anachronism, to stand up for the cause of physical money and resist the perceived convenience of all-digital currency. Jingle the coins in your pocket with pride. Pay cash when conducting business with humans. Barter for goods (but don’t evade taxes). Obey Gresham’s law. And last but not least, let you wallet be made of dead cow and stuffed with dead presidents, not made of lifeless plastic and stuffed with negative electrons.

Firearms and the KISS Principle.

The following article is a great example of why sometimes it pays to practice the KISS Principle:

Electromagnetic Interference caused K-11 KABOOM:
A Korean news website has revealed that in October last year a S&T Daewoo K11 exploded after one of its 20mm grenades was prematurely detonated. The soldier who was operating the gun suffered cuts on his hands and face. Ironically another problem with the gun, the poor lethality of the small 20mm grenades, saved the solider life.


The Korean Department of Defense attributes the problem to electromagnetic interference from the Fire Control System. Reading between the lines, it sounds like it may have been a software bug with the FCS.

I am troubled that it was even possible for the grenade to detonate. The grenade it supposed to be spin-armed, ensuring it has been fired a certain distance before detonating. Maybe a bug in the software (either on the grenade or on the FCS or both) allowed the grenade to be armed at a distance of zero, allowing it to be detonated in the barrel.

Kindly translated from Chosun.com by Uribury …

Electromagnetic wave interference caused K-11 rifle explosion

October 14th, 2011. A K-11 rifle exploded during field test.

Shooter, private second class Lee of ROKA 32nd div suffered some cuts and scrapes on his hands and face but not life threatening injures

This accident caused another delay of K-11 rifle production.

Early 2011 K-11’s poor quality control and lack of reliability caused production delay, after trouble shooting and more field test, it was said to begin production in november 2011.

And this accident messed all up.

Department of defense made a team to inspect this accident and recently announced electromagnetic wave interference between rifle FCS and 20mm ammo fuse caused the accident.

This is what happened. The transmitter which sends trigger signal to ammo fuse was not properly fixed because of design defect.

And the shooter squeezes trigger a little before fire, it interact with not properly positioned transmitter and send wrong signal to 20mm ammo fuse.

It caused 20mm round explosion in the barrel.

Fortunately K-11’s titanium barrel or 20mm ammo’s lack of lethality saved the soldier.

An official of DEPA(Defense Acquisition Program Administration) which under DOD said that all 246 already produced K-11 will be recalled and will change triggering system design, FCS program.

Plus, there will be improvement on short battery life in cold weather and laser range finding trouble on rainy day will be fixed on next version of the rifle.

Until June all the improvement will be examined through performance test and confirmation of technology study committee then will judge field the weapon or not.

[ Many thanks to uribury871 for emailing us the link and translation. ]

Advanced technology is great until it (literally) blows up in your face. Given the increase in solar activity and such, maybe this type of weapon should be TEMPEST rated.

How to tame terra nullius

From Slashdot:

Wind Turbine Extracts Water From Air: An anonymous reader writes “Getting access to enough water to drink in a desert environment is a pretty tough proposition, but Eole Water may have solved the problem. It has created a wind turbine that can extract up to 1,000 liters of water per day from the air. All it requires is a 15mph wind to generate the 30kW’s of power required for the process to happen. The end result is a tank full of purified water ready to drink at the base of each turbine.”

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Now take this, some solar panels, and other assorted life-sustaining tech (and a small private army) to Bir Tawil, and voilà: instant nation in an otherwise unclaimed wasteland. Unfortunately, your southern neighbors might Sudan-ly be interested in annexing your freshly-minted home-sweet-home…