The Power of Passwords

Encryption technology has just become a political battleground. It should have been obvious that, like powerful weapons, it can be used to do bad as well as good.

Here is the stark reality of this technology. One of the two radical Islamic terrorists in the Garland, Texas incident, who attempted to massacre participants at a “Draw Mohammed Contest” (and who were not known terrorists then) communicated with another, known terrorist using encrypted messages. As part of its criminal investigation after the fact, the FBI wanted to read those messages. A federal judge allowed the FBI to retrieve these messages, but because of encryption, such order by the judge was meaningless. The FBI could not read the encrypted messages. Even the NSA, with all their computing capability, could not read the messages. Neither could the company that built the phone used by the terrorists. In fact, not even the programmer or chip designer himself, who built the encryption program or chip, can read the messages. NO ONE could read the messages except the two terrorists who exchanged the encrypted messages.

Why? Because modern encryption is designed to be so: unintelligible except to individuals who have the decoding key. That key, that password, if kept secret and known only to you, grants you enough power that not even the most powerful country in the world can take from you. May be in the future we can invent a computer powerful enough to crack your password, but for now it’s practically impossible.

The downside is that this thing, this encryption technology that grants you such power, is also available to terrorists.

The only chance that the FBI can read encrypted messages exchanged among terrorists is to somehow obtain the password or key used to encrypt such messages. People often make the mistake of writing passwords somewhere, may be in a note app, because difficult passwords (by definition) are difficult to remember. Terrorists can make this mistake also. If I were an FBI agent given the task of deciphering the messages, the first thing I am going to do is look for any password in the notes files stored in the smart phones used to encrypt and transmit the messages. May be such password was not used directly to encrypt the messages; it could be a shorter password used to the encrypt or hide a longer key or password, but the point is that any password found in the notes files or other kinds of files written by any terrorist should be useful.

We are all scared because what happened in San Bernardino is just too close to home. Politicians are fooling us by implying that the government can “work with” technology companies to prevent terrorists from encrypting their messages. The are implying that this technology, which you and I use whenever we sign-in to our bank accounts using the internet, can be kept away from terrorists. Here is the bad news: the Apples and Microsofts and Facebooks of the world cannot do it. How can they determine who, among their billions of users, are terrorists? Even the government cannot determine beforehand who the bad guys are, how can we expect high tech companies to be able to do it? There is nothing in a terrorist’s account that would indicate that he is a terrorist, unless it’s a Facebook account and he announces his intentions or allegiance to ISIS.

When modern encryption technology was just being standardized, there were certain camps who wanted to add a second decoding key to any encrypted message, kind of a “god key”. So called because whoever has this key can decipher any message. In practice, of course, each encrypted message can have a unique god key. Before internal use, such key can be produced by the encrypting machine itself (in addition to the user key), according to some algorithm, and the idea was to give the capability only to the authorities to know this algorithm. The idea eventually did not win out because it introduced more problems than it solved. Chief among these problems was the question: what if the algorithm was leaked? Then the whole encryption scheme would be “open” and useless.

The public needs to understand that modern encryption standards are designed to be almost impossible to decipher by anybody except the individual who  encrypts and sends a message, or by the intended recipient who can read such message (using their respective passwords). Encryption is a powerful weapon; and, just like any other weapon, it is available to both ordinary citizens and terrorists alike. Powerful weapons in the hands of bad guys make it very difficult to fight them, and there’s no magic bullet that can keep these away from the hands of terrorists. We just have to fight more intelligently because these days, what appears to be asymmetric warfare may not be so.

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Communism, Islam, and Political Correctness

What is Religion?

Let’s first clarify what is religion. Religion should be personal. It is a set of personal beliefs about why we are here in this world, where we are going, and how we should behave with respect to this philosophical foundation. It is a worldview that guides our everyday decisions and actions on a personal level. Religion can also mean the congregation of a group of people (“organized religion”).

In the past, even within Western Civilization, religions have been used to justify rule by hereditary succession. Most governments have progressed beyond this kind of rule. The world has mostly become democratic. Even in Sharia (Muslim Law) countries, democracies have sprouted and grown. Nowadays, the only remaining religious monarchy is Saudi Arabia. However, in many countries even today, government rule is still justified and founded on religious grounds. I include communist countries in this list.

Communism as Religion

Is communism a religion? As defined above, religion is a set of beliefs. One characteristic of a belief is that by definition it is faith-based: you continue to believe in it even though it has been amply proven otherwise. Communism is violently anti-religion, but it has religious characteristics itself. Case in point: China.

China has clearly gone capitalist, but its communist leaders still deny this. The Chinese communist leaders have proven, by their own actions, that communism just won’t work, but they can’t admit it. They cannot admit the failure of communism most especially to their own people. This kind of behavior is no different from that of religious leaders when faced with scientifically-proven facts about the fallacies in their beliefs. Faced with the problem of a popular but blasphemous book, religious leaders ban the book or at least prohibit the faithful from reading it. Likewise, faced with the popularity of playing in the stock market, communist party leaders in China have admonished the faithful (communist party members) from engaging in stock trading.

Why even be a communist party member when you know that your core beliefs have been blown to smithereens? Because there are practical and immediate benefits to being a communist party member. Party members are first-class citizens, everyone else is second-class, a phenomenon in China which parallels a similar observation in countries like Saudi Arabia. In the Kingdom of Saud, there are clear advantages to being Muslim, especially about getting the best jobs and best positions within a job category. This explains why it is not uncommon for Filipinos who have worked in Saudi Arabia for several years to convert to Islam.

Islam as Ideology

If you agree that communism is just another religion, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to understand that Islam is an ideology, at least partly. What makes Islam an ideology is that, just like communism, it includes a belief in an inevitable historical destiny for the world. Communists believe that the natural state of the world is communist, just as Muslims believe that our final destiny is Islamic. Islam (just as communism), therefore includes a “master plan” for how humanity can reach the final state. Never mind that the historical path to the final state of utopia is forced on people violently: for both communism and Islam, the end justifies the means. The objective is not justice in the here and now, but rather the objective is that one final state of society.

Communists believe that the inherent contradictions in capitalism eventually lead to the emergence of communism. Muslims believe that religions other than Islam eventually lead to the one true religion. For Muslims, we are all Muslims inside us; it’s just that we either don’t recognize it or we refuse to see the essential truth. We have been led astray by minor religions. We just need a little push to lead us to the one true religion that lies dormant within us. That “little push” could be violent, but what difference does it make to kill a few hundred or even a few thousand non-combatant people against the good of all humanity?

For us infidels, it remains difficult to accept that Islam is the one true religion, and rightly so. In return for our intransigence, we non-believers are at best second-class citizens in Sharia countries. At worst, killing innocent, civilian Christians and peoples of other faiths can be justified on the same basis. I realize this is a strong statement that I am sure liberals would deem “biased”. It is most definitely politically incorrect. Is it even plausible? It most definitely is, considering the influence of Wahhabism in most of today’s Muslims. There are two observations that support this assertion:

  1. From Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, it is very rare to find Muslims who condemn the killings; and
  2. In fact, most Muslim communities honor as martyrs those who die killing people of other faiths.

Political Correctness

If Muslims themselves are not going to protest against the radicals, we non-Muslims should at least not acquiesce to Islamic ideology. The problem is the perversity of neo-liberal attitude and irrational views on religious diversity and racial discrimination.

Liberals either don’t understand or their fear is clouding their understanding. If we don’t at least denounce what is clearly very bad behavior and point to its cause, we would be encouraging Islamic radicals and those who quietly believe in them.

Religious freedom does not mean tolerating very bad behavior. It does not matter what religion you have, if your religion teaches you to kill innocent people, then there is something wrong with your religion. If you put that “religious” teaching into practice, justice requires that you and the Imam who taught you be put down or banished from civil society.

Neo-liberals have been blaming all religions whenever an outburst of violence against civilians occurs, even in the face of statistical preponderance of Muslims committing those crimes. This indefensible liberal view is exemplified by Obama’s statement that “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ …” Never mind that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression and Christianity and its teachings are now way past the despicable phase that was the Inquisition. Never mind that Muslim ideology and nothing else (not “injustice” against Muslims, not the “lack of opportunity” for Muslims) is to blame for all jihad attacks.

Real leaders point out an unmistakable lie when they see it. Political correctness, especially when practiced by no other than Obama himself, makes a mockery of the truth. Political correctness allows and even encourages the abdication of leadership.

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What is Missing from the HyperLoop

Travelling in a semi-vacuum tube offers two very significant advantages:

  1. speed that is several multiples of jet-plane speed, and
  2. low energy required per kilometer travelled, per kilogram of transported mass.

However, the HyperLoop as currently envisioned does not take advantage of another source of potential savings in energy: namely, by travelling non-stop. All else being equal, as much as 90% of energy can be saved per trip by not stopping, and this benefit is free, thanks to the law of conservation of kinetic energy. How can passengers get aboard and get off the HyperLoop modules that do not stop? Here is a scheme.

Allow terminals along the reduced-air or vacuum tube track. The tube track itself is a closed loop in which a number of trains travel non-stop. Each terminal  along this closed loop is designed to allow a car to be added and removed from the train, while the train is running at high-speed. In between terminals, passengers are free to move from one car to another, just as in normal (“ancient”) trains. This allows every passenger to start her trip from any terminal and end her trip at any terminal (including the one she started from). To end your trip, simply walk to the car that is to be ejected at the next terminal.

High-speed travel

High-speed travel

The above diagram shows how a car can possibly latch-on and -off the train. Each terminal is a car insertion and ejection point. The bottom of the diagram details how a terminal allows the insertion car to be accelerated up to train speed, and how the ejection car can be decelerated to zero speed (stop). Because the train is travelling at high speed, the insertion/ejection segment should be long enough to give time for a car to insert and another car to get off the train. (The diagram is not drawn to scale, so the length of the insertion/ejection segment is not obvious.)

Each terminal forms a much smaller loop in itself. This smaller loop is divided into segments, color coded in the diagram. The white segment at the bottom is where the insertion car starts and the ejection car stops. The yellow segment to the left is where the insertion car enters through an airtight door. As soon as this airtight door closes, air is pumped out from this chamber while inside the car normal barometric air pressure is maintained. When enough air has been pumped out and air pressure is low enough in the depressurization segment to match that in the main tube track, another airtight door is opened. (This door separates the yellow segment from the green acceleration segment.) In the green segment, the insertion car accelerates until its speed equals the constant train speed. The whole sequence of passenger boarding, depressurization, and acceleration is timed such that, at the same time that the car enters the insertion/ejection segment, the train arrives and is running parallel to it.

At the same time that the insertion car latches itself onto the train, another car forward it is removed from the train. This car slows down as it enters the orange deceleration segment. The yellow segment to the right is already depressurized by the time the ejection car enters it. An airtight door closes behind the car as it enters the yellow pressurization segment. As the car continues to decelerate, the yellow segment is filled with air. By the time it reaches the other airtight door ahead of it, pressure in the yellow segment will have equaled one atmosphere. Passengers can then get off in the passenger unloading segment.

Would you believe I drew the above diagram in April, 2009? I have been thinking about air-friction-free transportation before Elon Musk first published the idea.

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Girl, You’re Special

(A rap song for my little girl, Kristin.)

Hey, girl, you tell me you’re not special?
I’ve got your number girl, and I’m talking to you right now.
Imagine that, girl.
I’ve got your number.
Your number out of billions of other numbers.
I could be talking to a billion other girls right now, girl.
I’ve got your number and I am talking to you!

Look at your number girl.
It’s got a country code.
That country code is 1, number one.
After that country code girl, your number has an area code.
And in that area code, out of millions of other numbers, I’ve got yours.
No other number but yours.
Imagine that.
Girl, I could have called a billion other numbers around the world.
I’m talking to you now, girl!
When I call your number,
I first key in your country code, out of hundreds of other countries, I touch your country.
I then touch that one area code in your country, out of hundreds of other areas,
I touch that one place where you live, girl.
And within that area, I touch your number, and now we’re talking.
Out of millions of other numbers in your area, I touch one number, your number girl.
And you say you’re not special?

Hey girl, look, there are billions of conversations going on around the world right now.
Billions of conversations, billions of connections, right this minute.
Out of all those billions of connections, girl, there’s one and only one that connects me to you!
So now you see, girl, how special you really are.
And you say you’re not special?

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Incantation Programming


The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be…. The computer resembles the magic of legend in this respect, too. If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn’t work. Human beings are not accustomed to being perfect, and few areas of human activity demand it. Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is, I think, the most difficult part of learning to program. ~Frederick Brooks

Are systems becoming easier to use?

I remember when I assembled my first PC a long time ago. There was no operating system, just a brick with switches in front, and inside was a very simple 8-bit processor. To program, I had to enter one eight-bit code using the switches, one byte at a time. Nobody else at home could use it except me, and its usefulness for anything other than assembly programming fun was dubious at best. I was so proud of the day when I programmed it to play the bumble-bee tune.

Fast forward to today, and I am typing on a respectable Surface tablet, whose usefulness cannot be doubted. The difference between that old 8-bit system and the Surface is mind-boggling: 8 bits versus 64, 1 kilobyte of main memory versus 2 gigabytes, front-panel switches versus a full keyboard that also doubles as a cover, 10 kilograms versus less than a kilogram in total weight, LED lights versus a high-resolution screen, and on and on.

In terms of software, the contrast is even more mind-boggling: no operating system versus one that is more complicated than that run on mainframe systems a couple of decades ago. A programming system that makes it easy to churn apps for any task imaginable.

Clearly we have progressed so far. Or have we? Sometimes I have my doubts, like when I was explaining to my sister (who is almost as old as I am) over the phone how to drag-drop a file from a folder to She got it done, but I felt that the only proper way to teach her was for me to take control of her PC remotely. Why can’t she just do it using voice commands? “Move file X from PC folder to”

Voice commands now work too, but there is a catch. You have to be very precise in your “incantation”. Wrong incantation, and you get the wrong results. This makes our computer manuals no different from sorcery books. May be there’s a better way to communicate with computers, but for now precision of language is most important.

Of course precision of language is also important in the practice of law. I believe this is why lawyers love their laptops and tablets too.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments

What is the 51% Problem?

With the sudden rise of as the number one mining pool, the 51% “problem” has again come to the forefront of people’s attention. It’s about time we pay attention ourselves and think clearly about this issue. At the outset, I have to say that I think this is a non-issue. What is surprising to me is how it is even an issue in the minds of the leaders of the Bitcoin movement themselves.

Now why do I think it is a non-issue?

Technically speaking it is clearly a problem: whoever controls the simple majority of hashing power CAN control the network. The question is, will the individual or group of individuals who gain such control ruin themselves? In the end, that is precisely what it means to bypass the rules that the network enforces on everybody: if you control the simple majority of hashing power, bypassing the rules is tantamount to ruining yourself.

Say you own 51% of a successful company. Will you do anything to ruin that company? I am not surprised that a lot of people think so. A lot of people think that capitalists are prone to fool people by building up the reputation of that company thereby increasing its price, and then all of a sudden sell its shares just to make a profit. Well, this does happen sometimes, but it very rarely happens to companies with a solid reputation.

The fact is that, in the short history of Bitcoins, one mining pool or another has been the number one. Previously the number one mining pool was I believe that Btcguild could have attained 51%, but the Bitcoin community urged them not to, and Btcguild heeded the call. I had no problem with Btcguild gaining 51% or even more, and I don’t have a problem with gaining such control now.

I believe that attaining 51% is untenable anyway. The natural tendency is for there to be several business entities (not a single entity) who dominate any sector of the economy by more than 50%. Such is the nature of competition when prices are in equilibrium: if attaining 51% is so profitable, the second best entity in the race won’t be far behind.

Looking at it from a philosophical perspective, in the long history of capitalism, the issue of 51% has always been there. It has come in several forms, but this persistent fear of a dominant force has appeared now and then. It has been a central thesis of most philosophers who have come and gone to attack capitalism, foremost among them being Karl Marx.

This fear of a dominant force is now even part of the body of ineffective laws that big companies in the U.S. have to comply with, in the form of the so-called Anti-Trust laws. I call these laws “ineffective” because these have been used mostly by lagging competitors to bludgeon highly successful companies. These laws have mostly not accomplished what these were intended for.

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The Concept of “Pure Money”

Recently I read about Alan Greenspan’s comments about Bitcoin to the effect that it’s nothing but a bubble phenomenon. Crypto-currencies are a bubble because these things have no “backing”.

What Alan fails to understand (and what I failed to understand back in 2011) is that money does not need backing. It used to be that fiat money was indeed backed by the government that issued it. It used to be backed by gold, and gold has its natural value as metal. Nowadays, which country can claim that its fiat currency is backed by gold? In reality, fiat currencies are just like any crypto-currency in this regard: no backing.

Ludwig von Mises, in his magnum opus, “The Theory of Money and Credit” teaches that there are two important components in the value of money: its natural use value (i.e., gold *as* metal), and its value when used as a medium of exchange. When gold deflates, its natural value diminishes with respect to its value as medium of exchange. When it inflates, its value as money can decrease to the point that people start using it more for filling teeth and as conductors in integrated circuits.

Crypto-currencies have no natural use value. Crypto-currencies are just numbers stored in their respective networks. They’re not worth anything. They have no “backing”. It does not mean however, that they have no money value. In fact, they are very useful as media of exchange. And therein lies their value: Crypto-currencies are a form of “pure money”.

It’s interesting to note that Ludwig von Mises himself did not conceptualize such “pure money” to be possible. I can’t blame him because computers and the internet have not come of age in his time. I do fault Alan Greenspan, though, for not understanding what crypto-currencies are. I expect more from him because he used to be the Fed Chairman.

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