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Cryptography August 14, 2008

Filed under: Everything — Jason Olson @ 9:15 am
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I just completed watching the bonus features of National Treasures, Disc 2, where there was a featurette on cryptography. While it didn’t do the field much justice, it did a wonderful job of explaining the science of cryptography to the average person, along with a brief history lesson.

What disturbed me the most was a single statement which was used repeatedly as if it was fact, “current cryptography will never be broken”. Reiterated several times by several “experts”. However, if the “history” of  cryptography has taught us anything, it is that all codes can be broken, given enough time and resources. And while today we do not see the computing power to break current ciphers, if we look at the computing advances in the last 50 years, we can see the quantum leaps forward in computing capacity. If that trend continues virtually every cipher today is doomed for cracking.

Some of you may remember the Oracle advertising campaign that their database was “unbreakable” — touted very strongly after Microsoft’s Secure Computing Initiative. However, it wasn’t long before it was broken, and they ceased that campaign. Anyone who tells you that something is unbreakable, doesn’t really have a full understanding of the situation. There are strong, as well as stronger security mechanisms, and there are systems which have yet to be broken…yet. But the fact that it hasn’t been broken, doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically safe.

I remember when the Mac OS X came out, and one of the false arguments to purchase a Mac was that it didn’t have any viruses written for it…yet… But today there are several. So does that argument of switching to a Mac hold true? How about Firefox (versus Internet Explorer)? Choose it because it’s faster and has no major flaws, less updates? Today we see that there are several vulnerabilities and has more patches required that Internet Explorer on a monthly basis, and it’s slowing down as it receives more patches and becomes more compatible with other websites. These arguments of “more secure” have fallen flat over the years.

Something new always promises to be better, until given the opporunity to be broken.

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Bad Science?! August 13, 2008

Filed under: Everything — Jason Olson @ 10:45 am
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I recently heard on NPR radio that there is a growing problem with the way studies are conducted on TV viewership of certain programs. The problem is the research firm is still only surveying about 1,000 people nationwide for what programs they are watching. That is significantly too small a sample size, especially as we evaluate that there is nearly 500 different TV channels available today. Because of this, some regional favorite ‘prime time’ network shows have been canceled, because while they were extremely popular in a particular market, they were not within the very small sample size of 1,000 users. This returned me to my thoughts on Carbon Dating…

While I do not have a degree in science, of any kind, there is something fundamentally flawed in the way we use carbon dating to ‘date’ things millions of years old. The basis for carbon dating is that we know the rate of decay. However, it is impossible to assume the rate of decay over a period of time hundreds of thousands of times longer then we’ve been able to observe that decay. We have only been able to reliably observe carbon decay for a few decades, and can infer over a couple of hundred years, but beyond that, it is simply a guess that it is a predictable rate. However, this would be similar to measuring the height of a person over a period of days, or perhaps hours and using that to infer the rate of growth of a person. No mater how constant you observe that rate over a set of people in that same age range. We know that kids go through growth spurts. So if we evaluated a child between 23 and 24 months, when we look at someone who is 80 years old, but we’re using the data collected from months 23 to 24 months, we would ‘date’ that person to be 14 years old or so. Moreover, go the other way around, evaluate the growth of a 40 to 41 year old, the growth (or reverse growth) is taking place at an almost immeasurable rate — if we were to simply use that sample, how old would we ‘date’ that person to be?

Absurd? Yes! So how could we use data from such a small period of time, to infer out to millions of years? If we cannot reliable observe, test and repeat this, over a meaningful sample size, how can we accurately use this information? This is simply bad science!

 

Environmental Impact August 10, 2008

Filed under: Everything — Jason Olson @ 6:15 pm
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I was wondering the other day about the total environmental impact of many of the “green” products we’ve seen recently. I am overwhelmed with the concept a good friend of mine at Ernst & Young say… let me know what you want the numbers to say… that is, depending on how you report the figures, you can make the same research say different things. A good example of short-sightedness would be back to the MTBE fuel additive that was mandate in California to help protect the environment. While it did as advertised with regards to air pollution, it failed to protect the water supply which it polluted. So much they decided to reverse the requirement for MTBE. To go a step further, another flaw with MTBE was that it caused the deterioration of rubber seals inside many automotive engines, specifically those used in the fuel delivery system. There was an increase of car fires as a direct result. Infact my own vehicle burned to the ground because of MTBE. It caught fire during rush hour, on a major freeway and still, by the time the fire department showed up, it was way too late… And I wondered as my car spewed tons of smoke into the air, how much damage is being done here.

The point is, have we really evaluated the total impact of the changes we are making today in the interest of being environmentally friend?

Think of your basic CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) which is being sold like crazy in California. And the energy companies are even providing rebates… While there is no doubt that it uses less power than conventional incandescent lamps, which will reduce in a lower electricity bill and therefore less demand on power output, and finally less pollution from those power plants…

Consider:

– The environmental benefits are significantly reduced as clean power comes online (wind, solar, water, etc).

– CFL’s contain very hazardous materials which must be recycled, to avoid pollution. Yet, we can only begin to guess how many of these are ending up in the landfill and the potential problems with mercury in the water table.

– Incandecent dimmers must be removed – so that means calling out an electrician (vehicle emissions), disposing of these old dimmers and installing new switches.

– Power factor, the efficient of CFL is very poor compared to incandescents, and while you will not be charged for this different directly (i.e. more kw/h) it does affect the demand on the power grid and power station, which will result in their operating costs increasing – which will increase their environmental output, not only from their power stations, but the need to increase the distribution system; A 10 watt CFL, with a typical power factor of .52 will draw 19 watts of power from the power station (but you will only be charged for 10 watts) – an incandescent is a 1:1 power factor, so 40 watts is 40 watts;

– Inrush current (power demand when switched on) can be upwards of 100 times the actual operating wattage.

– Poor life span when used in real world situations; in the theoretical environments a CFL will last 10x longer than an incandescent, but CFLs are much more prone to premature failure with each on/off cycle – and when pushed to 5min on/off cycles, a CFL will last only twice as long as an incandescent.

– Environmental impact of other components used in manufacturing, many of which are not recyclable.

– How much energy and environmental impact is taken in the production of these lamps which include PCB and fine electronics, hazardous gas, and other materials?

Have the total environmental impact from development to disposal really been taking into consideration? While there does appear to be some benefit to CFLs their environmental impact (or the positive) I believe has been exaggerated.

However, why would the local power companies be offering incentives… Simple, CFLs do draw less power than incandescents, even with the poor power factor. So it does reduce their need to upgrade the power grid as we add more and more electronics into each home and community. It is a small step towards saving energy. And that is a good thing, but that has become the focus of CFL instead of environmental stewardship.