Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Four Years Post-Bangkok, and Life Goes On

Wow, it's been four years since I moved back to the U.S. - to Oregon, specifically - and about that long since my last blog post.  In that time, I've bought a house, and had a second son!  After a couple jobs as Senior Software Engineer (at CarePayment) and then Principal Software Engineer (at Arris), I moved on earlier this year to Amazon Web Services (AWS), as an Enterprise Solutions Architect.

For the first time in my life, my primary computer (my work laptop) is a Mac, specifically a MacBook Pro, which is really nice hardware and a great (retina) screen.  It's pretty similar to working on a Windows 7 machine, really, although Microsoft Office (specifically, Outlook) is missing a lot of features.  And I've had to learn a bunch of new shortcuts, etc.  One thing I really missed was being able to create .NET apps, and using a nice IDE like Visual Studio.  Between that and the missing Office features, I started looking at buying my own ThinkPad, and getting it imaged with the Amazon corporate OS image (we can't hook it up to the network otherwise).  I also have an Amazon-provided virtualized Windows machine (via Amazon Workspaces) accessed via the RDP-like Workspaces client.  That's usually good enough if bandwidth is okay, and I installed Visual Studio 2015 Community edition on it, etc.

On my Mac, though, I installed Visual Studio Code, a stripped-down IDE, sometime in May I think.  But it wasn't until today that I decided to try out the new c# plug-in for it, and the .NET Core install for Mac OS X.  Along with a few other tools (Yeoman, installed via npm), it actually allowed me to create a new ASP.NET MVC project (complete with skeleton views and controllers, and HTML, and Boostrap for UI), and run it.  On a Mac.  If you remember Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft, you know why this sorta blows my mind.

Here's the screenshot (note the localhost URL):


Thursday, September 13, 2012

And.... I have moved back to America (to Oregon)

So, my blog's name is now a bit out of date.  Since the end of May, I've actually been in the United States (near Portland, Oregon), and in August, I finished purchasing a house here, so I'm no longer "hacking Bangkok".  Plus, as anyone who stumbled across this blog more than once probably noticed, I haven't been writing any new posts lately.  This is because I've been very short on time - I'm a new father, and we three just relocated here to Oregon from Thailand, and I've spent more time assembling annoying IKEA furniture than you'd believe (unless you, too, have shopped at IKEA).

Oregon is a beautiful place - I took this photo of Crater Lake on the last weekend in July (the file is wrongly named "crater-lake-august"), and the picture of Haystack Rock, which is near Cape Kiwanda, back in June. I live just over 90 minutes from the coast, and about 90 minutes from Mount Hood, and around 2 or 2 ½ hours from Mount Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in a massive eruption back in 1980.

There's a ton of news since my last post on topics I'd written about previously - especially in the Windows tablet space and the smartphone space.  Apple announced the iPhone 5 today, Android surpassed 50% market share worldwide this year, and Microsoft's "WinRT" tablets will be arriving next month.  It's been just over a year since I wrote my speculative piece about how Microsoft could end up "winning the great tablet wars".  I'm not so convinced they can do more than grab a share of the enterprise market being this late to the game - given that the tablet market grew a lot faster than I thought it would - but at least it should give them a foot in the door.

So I will be keeping this for the name of my blog, since (a) it's a cool name, and I like it and (b) who knows, we might move back to Thailand at some point.  Plus, no changing domain names.  When I do find time to post something relevant, if there's a Thai angle to it, I'll probably work that in as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Some Rambling about Windows 8 and the Developer Preview Tablet

I just wanted to show something interesting that I found in the Windows 8 Developer Preview.  I bought one of the prototype tablets (on eBay) that Microsoft gave away at the //build/ conference in September.  The main reason for getting one of the //build/ versions vs. just buying the Samsung Series 7 Slate (S7S), which is pretty much identical hardware, but sold with Windows 7 on it, is that the developer preview tablets came with WiFi + 3G + GPS integrated (in the form of an Option GTM671W card, which reports itself as a GMT661W), while the S7S comes with an Intel Centrino wireless card that is only WiFi + Bluetooth.  Even then, I would have just bought the GTM671W module and replaced the Intel one as some other people did, but you then lose the Bluetooth, and I haven't seen anyone post details of where and how to hook up a Bluetooth module to the S7S.  Whew!

So anyway, the tablet is obviously an early, limited edition production run, but the hardware seems very well done anyway - it's ridiculously thin and light for a machine packing a Core i5, and a 1366x768 display. It also has a mini-HDMI port which works with the mini-HDMI to HDMI cable that came with my Motorola Atrix, which I think would be great for doing presentations - although the tablet supports WiDi (WiFi Direct), for connecting to compatible wireless displays/projectors that way.

But anyway - today I actually put it in the dock, hooked up the dock to my 22" monitor and set the desktop to "extend" (and plugged my big Microsoft ergonomic keyboard into the extra USB port in the dock, and a trackball into the USB on the tablet itself).  The dock has a full-sized HDMI port - for anyone else planning to use this combo, just note that seating the tablet in the dock disables the mini-HDMI port on the tablet.  When in the dock, the full-sized HDMI port on the dock is active.  So anyway.  I noticed an extra little icon on my taskbar (see below, I added the red arrow in the Paint utility program, since I haven't installed much else on this thing yet).
 If you click it, it moves the "metro" style screen to that display. So for example, I had the metro start-screen on my 22" monitor, so the "Move start screen here" icon appeared on the tablet screen. This is a pretty cool feature.  The metro start screen adjusts to show more rows of tiles on the bigger screen, which is nice (and expected).

Anyway - while the desktop mode isn't incredibly useful on the tablet itself when you're carrying it around (unless you have a stylus, and even then, if you try to type anything, the on-screen keyboard takes up half the screen).  But the metro interface is really slick for touch (tablets), I can see this potentially being huge, especially once Microsoft gets the OS onto nice ARM tablets (like that Asus Transformer Prime convertible tablet).  This Samsung hardware is amazing, don't get me wrong, but the fact that it has a fan (however quiet it may be), and gets about 4.5 - 5.0 hours of use, means it's still more of keyboard-less laptop with tablet mode than what people expect from tablets (8+ hours of use, and a sealed, fanless, silent body).  Maybe with the new Ivy Bridge CPUs coming out in a couple of months, Sammy can update the S7S for Windows 8 (whenever it reaches RTM) and squeeze an extra hour or two out of it. For me personally, an ARM version isn't useful, since it won't run Visual Studio, SQL Server, Expression Blend, or any of the other tools I use, but for a lot of people, a Windows on ARM (aka WOA) tablet with a "metro" style Office suite, including an Outlook equivalent, MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, would be pretty compelling.  We'll see in another six months or so (or eight months I guess).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How Microsoft could end up winning the Great Tablet Wars of 2010 - 2015

Conventional wisdom, judging from what I read in the blogosphere and even in respected techie magazines, is that Microsoft and its Windows operating system are in terminal decline, about to be eaten alive by Apple’s iPad (and iPad 2, etc).  Proponents of this view point to the exploding market for iPads versus the sluggish growth in the PC market overall, and to be fair, they do have some history on their side:  Microsoft has tried for years to sell consumers and businesses on the idea of tablet computers, even renaming them as “UMPCs” (ultra-mobile PCs) to try to undo the negative history that tablets had - due in no smart part to Microsoft’s own failures in creating a successful tablet.

So - why do I think Microsoft could end up “winning”, and grabbing the bulk of tablet sales? My view is that there are several converging trends that favor Microsoft:  notebook computers sales are still increasing rapidly, Intel has made immense progress in creating low-power x64 chips, Microsoft is releasing Windows for ARM architecture, and perhaps most importantly, Apple has shown them how to build a finger-friendly tablet OS.

Numbers first - according to figures put out by IDC and IC Insights, Apple sold about 15 million iPads in the year from its release (April 2010 - March 2011).  There were a total of 29 million sold by the end of June 2011, an incredible jump in sales numbers. Projections by IC Insights are that a total of 49 million tablet computers will be sold in 2011, with most (about 35 million based on market data I’ve seen) will be iPads. The remaining 14 million will be mostly Android tablets by OEMs like Samsung, Acer, HTC, Motorola, and Lenovo, along with a smattering of Chinese brands you’ve never heard of.  Oh - and perhaps ahalf- million TouchPads running WebOS, given HP’s recent (if puzzling) decision to make another batch of their loss-leading tablet. So clearly, Apple is selling waaay more iPads than most people - me included - thought they would.  They pretty much own the tablet market for now.

Then, there’s ye olde fashioned PCs and notebooks running Windows.  About 345 million were sold in 2010 [IDC], of which 160 million were notebook computers. For 2011, IC Insights projects that notebook sales will rise to 182 million; that’s only a 13.8% increase over 2010, but in units sold, it’s a jump of 22 million notebooks. 22 million is roughly two-thirds of the total projected sales of the iPad this year, and leaves “traditional” notebooks with sales of about 5x iPad sales this year. So my first point is that notebooks are hardly dead yet, and the endurance of their form-factor for over two decades shows me that, for many people, laptops are still their first choice for a computer.

With that said - if Microsoft, Intel and the various PC makers don’t respond to Apple (and to a lesser extent, Google and the Android tablets), well, those tablets will get more powerful, and continue eat up market-share for mobile computers. One problem Microsoft always had with making a tablet was battery-life.  When Windows XP tablets came out, and later UMPCs, the battery-life was usually pretty dismal, even by notebook standards. Three to four hours was common. The iPad gets roughly 10 hours. Apple realized that people don’t use tablets they way they use notebook computers, so they built a custom version of their OS and run it on low-power ARM chips that can go all day. 

But Microsoft, along with server-makers, has been pressuring (haranguing?) Intel to concentrate on lower-power CPUs, and on integrating more functionality onto the CPU package. Intel has responded by integrating a GPU in the same package (with the Core i3/5/7 and newer chips), putting the memory-controller and other functionality directly on the chip, and lowering the core power-consumption (in part by reducing the average transistor size down to 22 nm for the next-generation). Intel has vast resources and expertise in microprocessor design, and they’re (slowly) driving the TDP (thermal-design power) of their integrated CPU/GPU down towards the ARM architecture’s power consumption. They’re not there yet - but with every iteration, Intel gets closer, and with ever year, batteries get better by about 10% in energy density. So my second point is that Intel and AMD are making x64 systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) - which run countless applications that businesses and people around the world depend on - ever more efficient, and ever more similar to the Snapdragons and Tegras of the ARM world.

Microsoft, though, is hedging its bets for the mid-term: the next version of Windows, called Windows 8, will run on ARM processors as well as x64 silicon. To top it off, Microsoft ported its biggest non-OS cash-cow, Microsoft Office, to run on Windows on ARM. They also looked very carefully at what Apple did with the iOS user interface, and created a new UI for Windows 8. There is precedent for this. When Apple came out with the original Mac OS, and Microsoft was still pushing DOS, Microsoft quickly copied (rather poorly at first) the new graphical UI that the Mac used, and launched it as Microsoft Windows. After three versions, it caught on: Windows 3.1 for Workgroups became a “business standard”, and Apple of course sued for it. Windows 95 pushed that even further, transforming Windows into a modern (or modern-looking) OS. So Microsoft is preparing, with its OEM partners, to launch Windows 8 tablets running on the same type of chips (ARM architecture) as Apple’s iPad, but which also run Microsoft Office, and probably other heavy-hitter apps that Microsoft has convinced developers to migrate to this version of Windows. Plus, if Microsoft is smart (and they seem to be), they’ll port the .Net framework over also, meaning that a ton of existing business apps will run on these ARM tablets also. That’s a compelling advantage for a lot of companies who buy tablets for their employees. It’s even pretty compelling for me, a software developer.

Finally, I could comment on Microsoft’s total failure to create a finger-friendly tablet OS, but anybody reading this probably already knows that sordid history all too well .  But - as I mentioned - Apple essentially created this market, and has shown how to create a user-friendly experience on a tablet. Just as Google/Android leveraged that knowledge (if “leveraged” is the right word) to vault Android to the market-leading smartphone platform, Microsoft is going to try to leverage Apple’s experience with the iPad, plus their own experience, to create a tablet-friendly Windows 8. From the early looks people have had, they’ve succeeded; Windows 8 looks good, and works well.

As the SoCs that ARM designs, and that Intel and AMD design and build, get more powerful, tablets are going to be able to do more and more serious work. It reminds me a bit of how notebook computers themselves were originally unsuitable for some jobs that you needed a “real” PC (that is, a desktop PC) to do, including gaming.  Modern notebooks can do pretty much everything a desktop can do, including play video-games (yes, I know, mobile GPUs aren’t nearly as powerful as the latest Radeon or Nvidia cards, but they’re good enough for most people). And tablets might (probably will?) follow the same route. The important thing is, this benefits Microsoft, since Windows is a large, full-featured OS compared to iOS, and requires a bit more oomph under the hood. 

What happens in five years, if ARM-based tablets have more computing power than high-end desktops have now?  Will Apple migrate Mac OSX over to ARM as well? Or merge Mac OSX with iOS (itself based on Mac OSX)? Microsoft will already be there, with Windows on ARM, and best-selling application suites running on it. What if Intel does manage to push x64 power-consumption down to tablet-friendly levels? Microsoft is there also, with Windows 8 for x64 running not only Microsoft Office, but almost every app ever written for Windows.

In short - if Microsoft doesn’t screw up (and granted that’s an “if”), I think they could end up doing to Apple what they did two decades ago: mimic their UI/UX in Windows, and let the giant OEMs put out hardware that competes with Apple spec-for-spec. Apple knows this, and isn’t going to just sit and roll over - they’re trying to tie every cloud-based service they can think of to iOS. But the big companies that drive a lot of PC sales aren’t generally early adopters, and by the time they’re ready to buy tablets for most of their mobile staff - in 2013 or 2014 - tablets that are every bit as capable as iPads, but which run the main applications they use and have developer environments (like Visual Studio) that their in-house developers know, will be available from the vendors they have long-standing relationships with. That’s going to be a very compelling argument to go with Windows 8 (or 9) tablets.
-        Kirk Davis

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Android 2.2.1 Update - Exchange Security Policies Now Enforced?

When I turned on my Nexus One this morning, I had a happy message on my screen - the "System Update Available" notification. It took all of about five seconds to download over my home's WiFi connection, and then rebooted to install.

I had seen on Gizmodo (or was it Engadget?) that the update was rolling out, but I hadn't read what it included. Well, one thing it definitely includes is a more business-oriented Exchange security policy enforcement. There was a new message in my status-message tray that said, "Security Settings Update", next to the email icon. Tapping that brings up the screen (shown in two shots below, since it scrolls some). The long and short of it is, in order to use your phone with an Exchange account with a version of Microsoft Exchange configured with security policies, you have "activate device administrator". This allows remote wipe, password policy enforcement, monitoring failed login attempts, and remote force lock.

The small text at the bottom of the second screen shot says, "Enables server-specified security settings". So, this update appears to be aimed squarely at the enterprise market - now corporate IT managers will be able to enforce corporate security policies for their drones' Android mobiles. Oops, did I say drones? I meant, happy, productive workers!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An idea for a Short Story, or Maybe "novella"

Okay, so I'm just going to toss this out here into the ether, and see if anybody even notices. I had an idea - a sort of concept, really - for a science fiction story. Now, as anybody who's even vaguely familiar with how often I post on this blog already knows, I'm congenitally lazy, and writing takes a lot of time, and thought. I actually was drawing plots of variable-time flows, and background notes before I even managed to kick the following out of my head and onto (virtual) paper.

So if anyone has any thoughts, comments, constructive criticism (or the other kind, really), let me know. I'm deciding whether or not to try to flesh this out into a full-fledged "short story" or novella, and if so, what to do with it then (so, if my writing really just sucks, let me know, so I don't waste too much time on another lost cause). If it's too long or boring to bother, feel free to mention that in the comments also :-)

Untitled - and unfinished - Short Story

Aidan hated throwing things away - especially old computer equipment. But his growing collection of 1980s and 1990s server carcasses, old iOmega zip drives, and automated tape drives was spilling out of the spare room and advancing on his living-room couch.

“Ooof! Heavy piece of… oh, hi Morgan!”, he waved as he hauled an old Sun SPARCstation through the morning sunshine, out towards the green plastic dumpster.

“Hey Mister Kumar, what’s that? Finally cleaning out your closet? Is that like, an antique?”

He sighed inside - if the old Sun machine was an antique, what did that make him? He remembered playing with one almost like this at his dad’s work, back in the early 90s. Or maybe it was 1990. Morgan was 15, and sometimes far too cool to say hello - especially if any of her friends were around. Today, though, she seemed harmless enough.

“It’s an old server - a workstation actually - from about 1990. I hate to get rid of it, but I just don’t have room for it anymore, and I’m going to another auction tomorrow.”

“Oh, cool! It’s even older than me! Well, are you throwing anything else out? I can help you carry some stuff if you want”, she said, looking hopeful. He nodded, and grunted as he heaved the SPARCstation into the dumpster’s maw.

“Sure - just make sure you only take the stuff I pulled into the living room.” Morgan followed him through the front door, and picked up some old backup tapes.

“Are these VHS? God, my mom still has some of those. What’s on ‘em? Old movies?” Morgan spied another on the floor, and laughed. “Did you write this? It says ‘WTF’. Does that mean what I think it means?”

Aidan looked at the tape. It was actually labeled, ‘WTF!?’ with a black magic marker on the label. It was an old 20GB tape, which fell out of a tape-carousal system he picked up at an auction in 2002, after a dot-com storage company went bust. “No, it’s not a movie; it’s a back-up tape for a computer. Actually, I have no idea what’s on it, probably nothing, or some old bank data or something.”

Morgan looked intrigued. “So, why does it say ‘what the eff’ then?” she asked. “Can we check it - maybe it’s somebody’s diary or something?” She looked down long enough to update her location, talking quietly to her phone, “Helping Mister Kumar take his old computer junk to the trash”. Pause while she made sure everything was spelled right. “So, how can we check?”

He had wondered about that tape before, but never enough to check. But what the hell - it was a long weekend, he had nothing else to do, and doing some snooping through somebody else’s old files seemed - barely - more interesting than throwing away more old equipment. “This is going to take a few minutes to set up, I need to hook up a tape-reader to my computer that can read this.” he said. It actually only took him five minutes to get everything ready, but five minutes, it turns out, was about the attention-span of a 15 year old. Morgan’s phone was chirping and buzzing - clearly she had important places to be.

“Let me know what you find, okay? And do you think you can help me with my history homework tomorrow? We’re supposed to write an essay on India’s independence, and… “. She just smiled hopefully again.

“You do know I’m only half-Indian, right? I mean - I’m ‘Swindian’ - my father’s Swiss, and my mother’s from India, but I’m not exactly an expert, Morgan”. He wondered if Morgan’s offer to help was a plan to get his help with her paper all along, not that he would have said no anyway - her father was something of a friend.

“Well, that’s half an Indian more than my dad! Anyway, I bet you know tons, my dad says you’re really smart.” Morgan was an expert at manipulating grown-ups, and Aidan knew it, but found himself saying “Ok, ok, stop by tomorrow and I’ll help. But write a draft first, ok?” He said down and popped the tape in the drive.

After an hour, thought he knew why somebody had written ‘WTF’ on the tape. What the fuck indeed? The tape had two files - and one of them shouldn’t have been there. He turned to his notebook, and did a quick search on AES encryption. AES, or “Advanced Encryption Standard” was announced by NIST in November 2001, and he had bought a crate of equipment - including the tape - at an auction in 2002. The company that had once owned it went bust in 2001. But one of the files was encrypted with AES, and the date-time stamp on the file was from February of 1993. Impossible. It must have been encrypted with AES in 2001, on a computer with the date set wrong. Probably just an accident, but it still didn’t explain the second file. It was also dated 1993, but looked to be encrypted with DES, the old encryption standard that dated back to the 1970s, and the file was almost 4GB. If you had access to AES, which had never been broken, why would you bother using DES on another file, which could be cracked in an hour?

He decided he’d crack the DES file, and spent the next few hours downloading open-source cracking software, copying files to his home server, setting up the brute-force attack. It would take up to five hours, according to the readme, and in the meantime, he had to eat. He headed out for a very late lunch, or early dinner. Pinching some fat that was slowly growing around his midsection, Aidan made the decision to aloud: “Let’s call it early dinner, and not eat anything after that, right?”

Chapter 2

The last bite of the enormous burrito was barely settling into his stomach, when his phone chirped. It was an automated email from his home server: the cracking software had guessed the right key to decrypt the DES-encrypted file. Looking at his watch, it was barely two hours since he’d pulled up the terminal window and started it.

Back home, he flipped on the TV in his home office, and toggled back and forth between the History Channel and the news. The news, as usual, was uniformly bad. History Channel it is, then. He turned to his keyboard and display, and opened up the folder. Oh good grief - the cracking software had spit out the encryption key, but didn’t actually decrypt the file. He used a free utility to do the actual decryption using the key - another 15 minutes put into what was probably a gigantic waste of time. His TV droned on, detailing the super-weapons of the Nazis. “World War II history never really got old”, he thought to himself. Then he laughed at his own pun.

Finally - the progress bar reached 100%, and he had his prize - with the filename, “20231117-1755.MTS.” MTS was a video format , and the file’s properties showed it was a pretty run-of-the mill 1080p video, shot with a Sony DSX-S6. And again with the screwy dates - the “date recorded” metadata showed November 17, 2022, which matched up with the obviously-wrong filename. “Curioser and curiouser, cried Alice”, he muttered. So far, he had two encrypted files that had date-time stamps from 1993 - one of which was encrypted with an algorithm that wasn’t available until 2001, and the other a video shot from a camera whose date was set to 2023. He double-clicked the file, which started playing in a window, and on his other screen, google’d the camera’s model number. No matches, although a lot of models that were close.

The video itself was a bit odd - it was a man who was obviously filming himself, standing in some kind of long hallway. The background panned wildly to the left, until the side of the hallway (tunnel?) was showing. It was black and reflective, like glass, so you could see the man’s head, with a couple of bright pin-pricks off to one side. Marks on the glass? Aiden turned up the audio.

You can see the system is completely clear behind me, and there are only four stars visible. There are dozens of dwarfs that are visible in IR, but even those are mostly cold. I can communicate with some of the other sophonts, there’s some sort of automated translation going on.” The man turned again, and started walking down the hallway. Something about the perspective was off, like a cheap 3D movie, somehow. And what’s a sophont? He paused the video and looked up the term - the word meant an intelligent being, as smart as a person or smarter. It also turned up in some reviews of books by Poul Anderson and Vernor Vinge, and some medical terminology that he’d never heard of.

An hour later, Aiden didn’t have much more of a clue as to what the tape was, but it seemed like it might have been some low-budget sci-fi movie that never made it to editing. But it was shot in 1080p, so how low-budget could it have really been? In 2001, that would have been a really expensive camera. Maybe this really was from some abandoned film project - something along the lines of Cloverfield, with that first-person video “feel” to it. Somebody must know something - he decided to post some clips and find out.

“Great,” he thought. It’s Saturday night, and instead of going out with friends to DC for a drink - and some small chance of meeting a girl - he was exporting clips from a decade-old video and uploading them to YouTube. He put up two 20-minutes clips in 720p, and posted a plea for anybody who knew where it came from to let him know, in the description section. Maybe there was time for a beer anyway - Jay had sent him a couple of sms messages while he was working. It was definitely time for a break from the mystery of the files, and he wasn’t going to get any further tonight.

Chapter 3

Somewhere between his fourth whiskey-and-coke, and his last, uncounted one, the Gmail icon on his phone showed up. And then the envelope icon that signified his work email appeared. He slid down the notification area - two unread messages in each account.

“Aiden, what are you doing - it’s Saturday. Plus, that really cute girl over there keeps looking at us”, Jay nagged. She was cute, or really, more pretty than cute. His phone buzzed - an sms from an unknown number. Spam again? He tapped his phone, and read the sms: “Read your emails - hurry.”

“Sorry Jay, somebody’s trying desperately to annoy me.” He tapped onto his work email, and read.

“Aiden - I’ve just sent this same message to your gmail account. You need to take down the videos you put up on YouTube, and if you’re home, leave as soon as you get this. I don’t know how you got that video - you have no idea what you’ve done. Don’t reply to this message, it’s a dummy account I created to send this email. Take down the video, and if you’re smart, you’ll delete any copy of it that you have and forget it.

- Xie (not my real name!!)”

A chill started creeping up his spine. Xie, or whatever his name was - sent this to his work email. And sent him an sms.

“What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something”, Jay asked. Aiden showed the message to Jay. “What video? Did you post some pics of you and that girl from last year? What was her name, Mira something?”

Aiden explained, in his best semi-drunken slur, the story of the encrypted file on the old tape, and the video. “1080p my ass, nobody was recording that with a camcorder back in 2001, I think your neighbor, what’s her name, Morgan, is playing a joke on your or something. Maybe the video is a school project?”

He considered that for a second - would Morgan play a joke on him? No, but that didn’t explain the emails, and the sms. Not that it would be that hard to get his contact info, it was spread all over the web, but still. Morgan would never carry a joke this far.

“I’m gonna head home, Jay, and we’ve pretty much killed this bottle anyway.” Jay tried to cajole him into staying longer, and tried - unsuccessfully - to rally the cute girl from the end of the bar to his cause. Aiden ended up calling a taxi, and leaving his car parked at the bar. Later, much later, he realized that might have been the best decision he’d made all day.

Chapter 4

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. A giant mosquito seemed to be circling his head. Buzz. Buzz. Finally, he opened his eyes, and turned his head towards the sound. Turning was not something his head was quite up for, and the dizziness almost made him sick. His mobile was still ringing, on vibrate mode, on the glass coffee-table. He didn’t even look at his watch - morning sunlight was trickling in through his living-room window and onto the couch, where he evidently decided to sleep last night.


“Is this Aiden Kumar?” a man with a very slight eastern European - maybe Russian - accent asked.

Aiden tried to remember if he had given a card out last night. He didn’t remember anything, and his head felt like somebody smashed it with a velvet-covered brick. “This is me, can I help you?”

“Mister Kumar,” the man said very formally. “I believe you might have something - a data backup tape - that belongs to me. I’d like very much to get it back, and I’m willing to pay you for the trouble.”

Memories of the odd sms messages, and the emails from last night, drifted up from the fog of last night.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hack the Planet - Surviving Global Warming

With every year's scientific measurements and observations, the reality of our planet's slowly-rising temperature becomes more undeniable: glaciers are melting, the polar ice is melting, ocean temperatures and levels are rising, atmospheric water-vapor is rising, and the average "coldest" temperature - especially in cold parts of Earth - is rising. So far, the "mean" (average) rise for the whole planet is only about 1.5° F, but the average coldest temperature in some places is up by 5 - 10° F. The science behind climate change is pretty solid, but it's boring, and way beyond the scope of a blog entry (at least, one by me!).

By now, pretty much everybody knows what the "doomsday" scenario is - if you ever sat through Kevin Costner's "Waterworld", then you know the Hollywood version. In real life, the ocean might, at worst, rise by something like a half-meter to a meter (roughly 20" to 3 feet) by 2100. Which is 90 years away. So, it's worth doing something about now - like moving from dumping hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 into the air - but we're not all going to be growing gills and living on boats, either.

So the likely "worst case" scenario is going to involve a long, boring (to most people) shift away from burning coal and oil for power - which is a waste of good oil in any case - to energy sources for buildings, cars and industry that doesn't dump as much exhaust into the air (and prop up Middle-East autocracies, for that matter). Sure, a lot of the world's poor will be adversely affected - since a lot of them live in coastal areas that already flood a lot (read: Bangladesh, India, parts of Africa), but if you're reading my blog, well, that's more of a moral issue than it is something that's going to ruin your life, personally. Not that I don't care, or you shouldn't, but if the sea does rise 20" over 90 years, I have no doubt that the world's middle class isn't going to suffer horribly.

That brings us to the outlier scenarios - the ones that are really unlikely to actually happen, but which make for a lot more interesting thinking! Sort of like the "zombie apocalpse" - sure, I know it's not really gonna happen, but I love every variation on that theme, from "28 Days Later" to "I Am Legend". So - what are these outlier scenarios? I thought you'd never ask ;-)

One of the things that makes climate change so hard to predict, is that the environment has so many variables, and lots of them interact. And sort of like a snowflake (or any other fractal), the closer you look, the more variables there are. On top of that, sometimes two or more different variables affect each other in what's called a "positive feedback loop", so that as variable A increases, it increases variable B. And as variable B increases, it pushes A up even more - until you get some crazy runaway affect that goes unchecked until some other fact - call it variable C - intervenes. Then the whole system - in this case our climate - settles into a new stable pattern... maybe unlivable for us, but still, stable. Look at Venus (depicted above/right) - you could melt lead on the surface, but it's stable. The whole shebang is called a non-linear system, since a small change in A (like, 5%) might lead to a much larger change in B, and in A itself, much much higher than 5%. In a linear system, on the other hand, if A increases by a certain amount, B increases by some other amount - and if you increase A again, B increases by the same amount again. So non-linear means "harder to predict" for our purposes.

Okay - so there are some different feedback loops we know about. One of them is the melting of polar ice and glaciers. Ice is really shiny and white - so it reflects a lot of sun back into space. But when ice melts due to rising temperatures, the darker ocean (or land) that's left behind soaks up more sunlight than the ice did - which raises the temperate a little bit more. Which melts more ice, and so on. Another feedback loop is frozen tundra, aka "permafrost"; it turns out that there are literally billions of tons of CO2 gas and methane (which is even better at trapping heat). Permafrost gets its name because (duh), it's usually frozen. But in the past decade, some of the permafrost in Siberia, and Canada, Alaska, etc., has started to permanently thaw - see photo - which releases all that frozen gas. And the newly-liberated gas goes straight into the atmosphere, which raises the temperate a little bit more. You can see where that's heading.

The upshot of all this is that, while scientists are pretty confident it'll take centuries for it to really jack up the temperature, they're not 100% sure. So it's just barely possible that some tipping might might be reached in 10 years, or 20 years, or maybe even it already happened. Let's say it's happening right now - and that a combination of thawing permafrost and a melting antarctic polar cap starts increasing our world's temperature at a rate of about 1° F every other year, or ten degrees over the next 20 years. That would be a catastrophe, as crops failed, coasts flooded, and mass migrations of people started heading towards the poles (and most of the world's rich people live in the very spots that everybody else is going to be heading for). Do I panic yet? Not really...

Rich countries (including soon-to-be rich countries, like China) don't have any interest in seeing a global catastrophe like this, and - this is the key part - they have lots of money. Look at how much the U.S. alone spends on its military every year (about $700 billion). Granted, that's like 40% of the world's total "defense" (cough) spending, but either way, the planet could - in a pinch - cough up a half-trillion USD a year for a decade if we really needed to. And in our hypothetical runaway-warming scenario, we'd really need to.

Past mega-projects that were done in a hurry - things like the "Manahatten Project", or the Apollo program to put men on the moon in 10 years, would pale in comparison to the effort that would go into a last-ditch "save the world" project. And there are things that we could do to cool the planet down quickly - they're what scientists call "geo-engineering". For a long time, climate scientists didn't even want to talk about geo-engineering, since they were afraid that would make people, and governments, lazy about changing their coal & oil habit by making it seem like there was some technological "fix" down the road. Where the scientists were wrong, of course, was in thinking that humans wouldn't be lazy about changing anyway. This is where "hacking the planet" literally would happen. We might:
  • Paint a huge area of uninhabited land with reflective white or silver paint, to do what the glaciers and polar caps were doing before (reflect sunlight)

  • Intentionally dump tons of sulfur compounds into the air, continuously, to help block the sun's rays from reaching ground (where they would warm it up).

  • Build thousands (or tens of thousands) giant CO2-scrubbers that would operate night and day, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, and then compressing it into a liquid, and storing it - someplace. Maybe pumping it down into the empty oil-wells that started a lot of the mess in the first place

  • Genetically engineer some super-algae or super-plant that grows ultra-fast, and so uses lots of CO2. Plants suck CO2 out of the air (during photosynthesis) in order to get the carbon, which makes up most of the plant. So, imagine some super-kelp or algae that we'd grow in an area of ocean the size of the Mediteranean sea, busy sucking CO2 out of the air. Even better if the plant is engineered to sink to the sea-floor when it does, taking the carbon with it.

  • Build thousands of "cloud generators" that take water-vapor, and shoot it high enough into the air that clouds would form. This would help, because clouds are white - and reflect sunlight. On the downside, there would be a lot fewer nice "picnic" days...

  • Deploy a set of enormous, orbiting reflective mylar sheets. These would have to be either very huge, or very numerous, in order to reflect enough sunlight away to have any effect. Depending on where in orbit we put them, we'd have a whole new set of shadows drifting across the sky, but on the plus side, they wouldn't involve us mucking about with the make-up of the air or the sea. Downside is never a perfectly sunny day again, until we fix the long-term problem and can take them down.
The problem with all these is that they're stop-gaps. That is, these all treat the symptom, but not the underlying problem - which is that humans like to burn stuff, and we burn a LOT of it. And no matter how far-out some of these sound, if push comes to shove, we'd probably end up using a combination of them to keep the Earth's temperature in check, while we finish our transition from burning stuff for energy to some other source. Whether the other source is solar, or fission, or fusion, or magic pixi dust doesn't really matter, as long as it's cheaper and less risky than the geo-engineering projects.

The only real scenario I can see where we're all gonna die (except me, of course!), is if our civilization falls while in the middle of viscious warming circle, where the Earth ends up like Venus (and the surviving humans would be underground in Antartica with nuclear-powered air-conditioning). And that would mean some all-out global war that destroys our ability to do a mega-project (like, an all-out nuclear war, or a bio-war that kills off enough people, etc), or else some other unlikely catastrophe, like a killer asteroid or solar flare - in which case, our goose is pretty cooked anyway. And the odds of us having two planet-threatening disasters at the same time, one of which prevents us from handling the other one, seem pretty low. I'm not losing any sleep.

If things do start getting toasty, though, definitely look into property in Canada, anywhere near the Rocky Mountains, or the Urals, or Finland, anywhere that's cold and not right on the beach, really. New Zealand might be good - the last thing you want is a horde of fleeing refugees from central America or South Asia over-running your "global warming last stand", and New Zealand has high mountains, is cold, and far, far from anywhere else.

Okay, so, none of that is very likely to happen. Yes, the planet is warming, and yes, we (as a species) need to change our energy sources, but it's looking like we've got decades to get the transition done before "we're all gonna die!", so it'll probably be boring, and most of us will be dead of old age before it's done. But you just never know....