What is Brian Krebs’ True Name?

I’ve recently heard a talk by Brian Krebs, an investigative journalist specializing in cybercrime. The most interesting part of his talk to me was the one in which about his OpSec. It struck me how much it resembles the True Names story.

In Brian Krebs’ case, it is critically important to him that bad actors that he has contact with inline can’t track him down and physically attack him. To achieve that, he goes to great lengths to ensure his physical home address is not connected to any of the online accounts. This means not having a title or mortgage in his name, no deliveries in his name to his address etc. Setting all of this up is not a trivial matter, obviously, but such is the life of a warlock.  

True Names is Vernor Vinge’s early 1980s novella that is regarded as the founding work of cyberpunk genre and the first description of cyberspace. In that book, the protagonist runs afoul of government busybodies in the cyberspace. He can play all kinds of games online and can stay safe as long as his adversaries don’t figure out his real life identity (true name). Once they do,they can simply visit his home  and voice their demands.

As you can see, the situations are similar, although there is a twist. In Krebs’ case, his real name is known, so his last line of defense moves from the name to location. When your adversaries aren’t your own government, jumping from name to address is not necessarily trivial. For someone concerned about doxxing, there is a good lesson here.  


Dystopian show comes to life in Florida

Arkangel is an episode of Sci-Fi TV series “Black Mirror”, available on Netflix. In this episode, a young child is implanted with a chip that allows parents to instantly monitor her location, vitals, see through her eyes and even blur undesired views. No spoilers, but it didn’t end well.

This episode certainly provided some food for thought. And some people concluded that Arkangel was a great business idea! There is now a company offering this kind of service (within the limits of modern technology): a tracking bracelet for your child that is as good as what parolees wear, so the child can’t take it off. So far, the device can’t mess with what the child sees or even record video, but it does record audio and allows a parent to speak to the child. It’s enough to reproduce much of the plot of Arkangel already.

With all the control freakery of Arkangel, I was surprised by 2 things in that episode. First, early elementary schoolchildren are allowed to walk to and from school. This could be problematic at least in some places in US today. I think there are signs that public opinion is becoming less extreme and free-range kids will eventually win.

Another interesting thing was that “emergency contraception” pill was available over the counter. And it appeared to be not simply a morning-after pill, but an euphemistically named early-term abortifacient because it worked several days later. That’s hard to imagine in today’s America.

Why longevity treatment might be invented on Mars

One of the curious developments in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”, a great fiction book about colonization of Mars is the development of longevity treatment by the small group of the earliest settlers on Mars. It sounds incredible that a tiny group (just several people of the First Hundred) could achieve such a breakthrough before it is done by the much larger scientific and pharmacological community on Earth. Sure, they’ve been selected from the best of the best and count a Nobel laureate among them, but still, why?

Elementary, my dear Watson! They did it on Mars because such research is banned everywhere on Earth. Even in the book, Earth governments don’t want this discovery to be made public because the Earth is overpopulated and they don’t want people to stay alive longer yet. Thankfully, we don’t have to fear “Population Bomb” any more – population growth is slowing everywhere. But innovative genetic research gets banned right and left regardless. Just look at the reaction to the announcements this past week by Chinese bioengineer He Jiankui that he used CRISPR gene-editing to alter the genes of embryos that have been born as twin girls. It was met with wide condemnation. New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan declared He’s experiment a “moral monstrosity.” CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang is now calling for a global “moratorium on implantation of edited embryos”. China banned the researcher (although it’s not unclear to me what exactly was banned) and a government official claimed that such experiments have already been illegal since 2003. And that’s China! Western countries are even more given to the precautionary principle.

Fast forward a 20-30 years and it’s easy to see that researchers might develop advanced ideas in their minds, but doing any lab work would be impossible anywhere on Earth. But Martian labs are out of sight and out of reach of the Earth nannies, so they just might be able to do the necessary work. Martians may truly learn to live longer!

Humans to Mars: I’ve got the power!

In my previous post, I mentioned that the biggest technical challenge of human exploration of Mars – super heavy launcher – is on its way to be solved and promised to discuss the next key item: power.

Mars mission using modern or near-future rocket technology requires ISRU (In-Situ resource utilization). In simple terms, we need to produce fuel and oxidizer for the return trip from Mars to Earth – on Mars. Interplanetary travel in the foreseeable future will be done by using chemical rockets. They work by burning propellant (fuel+oxidizer) and throwing it out of the engine nozzles at high speed. It takes a lot of propellant to get anything to Mars. And it takes quite a bit to take stuff back from Mars to Earth. If we had to bring to Mars all the fuel needed to travel from Mars back to Earth, we’d need many flights of the most powerful rockets. And we’d need to somehow collect all that fuel in one place for the return flight – far from a trivial task. With current or near future technologies, such a mission to Mars would be flatly impossible.

This means we need to produce propellant on Mars. For that, we need power – quite a bit of it. Because oil has not been found on Mars, our best bet is to use CO2, which makes up 96% of Martian atmosphere. There are different ideas about possible chemical reactions and processes, but they all require some energy input. One estimate puts power requirements at 17 MWh per metric ton of propellant mix. Given that the mass of propellant needed to send a human mission  on a return trip from Mars to Earth is over 100 metric tons, we need to expend over 2,000 MWh of energy. We can’t count on more than a few year time to produce the propellant; realistically, it needs to be done in one two-year launch window period, which comes to 17,520 hours. This requires 100 kW power at near 100% availability.

Where will the power come from? Currently available technologies are solar and nuclear. Producing enough solar power would require shipping a large mass of solar panels and installing them. 

According to Tom Muller (CTO of Propulsion at SpaceX), the present plan is to power ISRU efforts with solar. He says “If you try to do it with solar; it’s extremely difficult, but doable. To get one ship back, you need about eight football fields worth of solar cells on Mars.”

Making this work is indeed very challenging. To start this effort, we need to install and deploy all those solar panels. Up to now, heavy duty industrial machinery has not been run in space. Several robotic rovers have travelled on Mars, but they have been very slow and lightweight rovers, traveling on average not more than 30 meters per day and moving no load other than themselves. To deploy 8 football fields of solar panels the rovers need to be able to transport those panels and also to travel faster than they’ve been doing. And faster and stronger rovers mean their own mass, plus the mass of propellant to move them.

Solar power has serious limitation – it can only be produced during the day. But running chemical plant 50% of the time means doubling the time needed to produce propellant. And this limitation becomes even more serious when we talk about power needs of the actual human expedition. An extended dust storm might exceed the storage capacity of the expedition and kill the crew. Add more batteries? But what if the storm arrives before those batteries are fully charged? And existing batteries are very heavy. Specific energy of the best lithium ion batteries (amount of energy per unit of mass) is roughly 50 times lower than that of typical rocket fuels such as methane and RP-1 (kerosene). This means that storing energy to keep Martian base working  for 1 day would require as much mass as fuel that would be enough for tens of days (even after accounting for less than 100% efficiency of fuel-burning process). Since we’ve already concluded that delivering fuel to Mars from Earth is prohibitively expensive, delivering enough batteries for energy storage is also a non-starter.

Nuclear power is a much better solution. Back in the 1950s people were optimistic about the nuclear-powered future, despite the fears of radiation. In the present, space nuclear power has 2 major shortcomings: it is politically difficult and it doesn’t exist (there are no space-rated nuclear reactors). The latter seems to be a major downer, but we have hope! NASA has designed and tested prototype of what is called “Kilo Power” – a series of nuclear reactor design for space applications with peak electric output range from below 1 kW to 10 kW. The design is amazing. Until started, the reactor is safe. This means that even in case of a launch failure, there will be no radioactive fallout. And reactor is designed to be self-regulating, automatically throttling down if little power is drawn from it. Of course, 10 kW is not enough to satisfy ISRU requirements of a human mission or a permanent base on Mars. For that, we’ll need something in the range from 100 kW to 1 MW, but that sounds like a manageable engineering problem once Kilo Power is proven.

With extra heavy lift launch vehicle and space-proven nuclear reactors, in the next decade we will have solved the 2 major problems standing in the way of human exploration of Mars. There are other things that require engineering work (space suits, proving ISRU and so on), but they are lesser challenges. On to Mars!

Mars InSight mission and what’s next

InSight is a robotic mission to Mars that’s launched on May 5th, 2018. InSight lander is equipped with drilling equipment that will enable it to penetrate 15 feet into Mars, much deeper than was done before.


The mission will cost about 1 billion dollars. Is it money well spent?

Here’s the key quote:

“If you have an astronaut on the planet, you can do this in maybe 20 minutes or half an hour,” Banerdt said of the heat flow experiment. “But if you want to do it robotically, you have to get a little bit more clever.” Banerdt is InSight’s principal investigator from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So the mission’s designer concedes that crewed mission would be much more productive. This means one thing: let’s focus our energy (and NASA’s budget) on preparing for a human mission to Mars! InSight gets a pass because it was planned about a decade ago and was almost ready to fly in 2018. But from now on, NASA should send robotic missions to Mars only with the goal to prepare a crewed mission. Any incremental science done by robots in the coming decade will be nothing compared to what a humans will be able to do. Continuing robotic exploration of Mars is wasteful.

This is not 1990s any more. Practical blueprint for a mission has been laid out by Dr. Zubrin more than 2 decades ago. We now understand what is required to make this mission a reality. The biggest technological challenge was believed to be a super heavy lift launcher. Now, not one but two firms are working on those (SpaceX’s BFR and US Government-funded SLS). SpaceX’s “aspirational goal” is to launch BFR to Mars in 2022 and crew in 2024. SLS is expected to fly in 2020. There will be the usual project delays, but it seems likely that within a decade, one or both will fly. This will solve problem #1. Next item: power. I’ll address it in the next post.

Half SQL: semi-opaque tables reduce developer effort

Your relational data design could steal a trick from NoSQL: database representation of your application objects doesn’t need to be broken down to primitive values. Some opacity of relational data is beneficial.

Relational databases impose rigid structure on the data: data is organized in tables, which are made up of columns. Traditionally the columns could only be of primitive types (numeric or alpha), although opaque types (BLOB, CLOB) and XML are now universally available. The rigid structure makes it easy to reason about data, to guarantee data quality in the database layer and to build tooling on top of the database. Querying based on values of individual columns is well defined and highly efficient. Downstream usage (reporting, analysis) becomes easier. Relational structure works well when you need referential integrity across entities that are not updated together.

But relational databases have downsides. One of the downsides is the notorious difficulty of changing the database structure. Martin Fowler wrote: “A lot of effort in application development is tied up in working with relational databases. Although Object/ Relational Mapping frameworks have eased the load, the database is still a significant source of developer hours”. Guy Harrison blogging for Tech Republic: “Change management is a big headache for large production RDBMS. Even minor changes to the data model of an RDBMS have to be carefully managed and may necessitate downtime or reduced service levels“. There is “impedance mismatch”  between RDBMS and application layer: “Application developers have been frustrated with the impedance mismatch between the relational data structures and the in-memory data structures of the application”. Even a change confined to a single table (e.g. adding a column) requires significant effort and synchronizing rollout of database and application layers.

The frustration with the amount of developers’ effort that the relational databases required was one of the drivers behind the rise of NoSQL starting about a decade ago. NoSQL databases differ from the relational in many other ways and switching to NoSQL is not an easy step. Fortunately, you can solve some of your problems by using just one item from the NoSQL bag of tricks. You can greatly reduce the impact of single-table changes (such as adding a new column, the most frequent type of change) by making your table definition semi-opaque. Don’t throw away your old and trusty RDBMS. Turn it into a Half SQL data store: in each table, select a small number of key columns that may be used in indexes and keep them. Hide all other fields from RDBMS by placing them into an opaque container field of a BLOB type. As a simplified example, Orders table may look like this:


Your application will be responsible for serializing and deserializing those blobs. Adding a new object field will be invisible to the RDBMS. When you need to add a new field, you will only need to change the code in the serializer/deserializer. And if you use a good serialization library (if your application is written in Java, please, don’t use built in serialization; there are many libraries that are faster and more flexible), even those changes in most cases will be NOOP because your library will take care of those automatically. No data migration will be needed. You will be able to write test to verify that your logic works before and after the change. And you retain the RDBMS goodness of referential integrity and super-fast queries over the indexed columns.

Stashing all “other” object fields into a BLOB column could save you quite a bit of effort.

The Mandibles – a story of a human impact of government finance

This review was posted at Amazon.

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles is a dystopia focused on financial issues, but you won’t find Wall Street or government characters in it. It shows how overly simple – and popular! – government decisions ruin the lives of the regular people. It makes an argument that federal government debt is a serious threat to our society and an attempt to get out of debt easily by renouncing it would be a disaster, collapsing the economy and plunging the whole country into dire poverty. In the ensuing economic collapse, shortages of all goods rival what is reported out of modern-day Venezuela. Homelessness is massive. The chilling perspective surely provides some food for thought. The book is well written, with likable characters and vivid scenes.

There are some decidedly Randian notes in the book: the spirited defense of free markets, extended dialogue on economics, cartoonishly negative and arguably mean-spirited depiction of socialists. There is even something like a Galt’s Gulch that I liked better than the original. Rand’s Galt’s Gulch was a utopia and the weakest part of Atlas Shrugged, in part because utopias are generally boring. Shriver’s version is decidedly bleak and thus more realistic. And the whole book is written mostly from a “little man” perspective, which was severely lacking from Rand’s writings.

The book covers 2 distinct time periods: first two thirds of the book are set in the late 2020s – early 2030s, when US is spiraling into collapse. The events of the last third of the book occur in 2047, when the situation is not quite as dire on the level of basic necessities, but federal government reasserted itself and became an oppressive monster. Punitive taxation inhibits economic activity. Government controls every little transaction, down to a parent giving her child a small allowance. Life becomes even bleaker than in the first part because there seems to be no future to hope for. Yet both parts of the book are united by an uplifting thread: spirit and resourcefulness of two persons, a young and an old, finding answers to the toughest challenges.

I found the first part of the book plausible. The events in the book are set off by a decision of a large group of countries to introduce a common currency backed by hard assets. This particular event may be unrealistic, but it doesn’t really matter. Anything could serve as black swan and the book would work with only minor changes if the triggering event was different.

The second part of the book appeared to me to be more schematic and less persuasive. The 2047 period echoes the key element of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End: government insisting on inserting itself into everything people do through electronic chips they own and control. While Vinge focuses on technological aspects of this arrangement, Shriver’s book is mostly about routine daily transactions. Interestingly, Vinge expected strict government chipping rules to be flouted and chips hacked, and his society, while not clearly described, was broadly functional. In the Shriver’s book, government control is inescapable and the resulting society hopeless. On this, it’s a bit hard for me to believe Shriver. There is another example of the similar absolutism in the book that sounds dubious. US state of Nevada breaks away from the totalitarian USA. The landlocked territory named USN badly need trade because it is too small to manufacture all the different goods available in the modern economy. US government prohibits any relations with the enemy territory and advertises dire consequences for seditious noncompliance, but doesn’t physically enforce the border. And in the book a spirited smuggling economy does NOT emerge! This makes no sense: while US people are under the spell of government propaganda, the Nevadans know that the border is non-existent and have all the incentives to make trade work. The lack of smuggling is decidedly strange for a book that extolls free markets. Black market is relatively free because it is remarkably difficult to regulate: government doesn’t do that and various non-government strongmen can only do so much. Smuggling and black markets have always existed where governments attempted to restrict trade – just look to Prohibition and the War on Drugs as examples.

The author also makes an astute observation that in a severe depression our entitlements system will lead to a bizarre phenomena where elderly would be the only people with meaningful income. They would become the anchors of their families. Woe to a family in which no one draws a Social Security for they will not know where their next meal will come from. This picture, while dystopian, is not a figment of author’s imagination: it would be familiar to people from former Soviet bloc who lived through internal conflicts and USSR breakup wars. Those government retirement checks were meager indeed, but amid civil wars and economic collapse there were often no jobs to be had.