On Technology Nostalgia

I watched Midnight in Paris over the weekend.  It was quite a good Woody Allen movie, but not a good as Matchpoint and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the other stops on his recent grand tour around Western Europe.    Anyway, the central character Gil played by Owen Wilson, is a hack screen writer on holidays in Paris who longs to be a literary novelist.   A dreamer who longs to live not just in Paris, but Paris of the 1920s, when it was a city so many great literary and musical emigrants called home – Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and company.  He dreams of hanging in clubs with this sort of crew crew, while Josephine Baker dances in the background and Cole Porter plays the piano.  The best character in the piece is Paul, a obnoxious know-it-all intellectual friend of his fiancee who shoots down Gil’s nostalgia for a particular epoque:

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present”

Which I found a powerful statement.  I don’t really suffer nostalgia, in the sense of dreaming of living in the 1960s like Don Draper or something.  But I suffer a terrible nostalgia for old technology.  A perfect example is books.   I love books, looking at the covers, reading the notes and revision details, the smell of fresh paper when it arrives in an amazon box or in the shop.  Collecting them and putting them in a bookcase.  The latter probably really so all can admire at how well read I must think I am.

Amazon Kindle - War on paper

And then we have the Kindle and iPad.  Within a generation, I expect reading paper books to be something only old people do, along with pining for the day of vinyl. But why do some of us long for a crackling analog vinyl record, or a paper book that can only ever show you one novel and will yellow and decay as it sits on the shelf.   The replacements are superior in every functional metric – cost, longevity, choice, quality – but still my dream persists on having endless bookshelves of vinyl and books.  Giving up atoms for bits is a fundamental shift, not easy for a generation that has grown up hoarding atoms.  Even our initial steps into digital music involved hoarding endless gigabytes into a music collection onto a physical disk , when the obvious solution is a streaming on-demand music service, where the collection lives in the ether of the cloud in a physical form the user cannot see.

Technology nostalgia can be fatal for technology companies that fail to move with the disruption.  The big example recently was Kodak, declaring bankruptcy finally after failing to embrace the digital revolution in the photography market that  left their unwanted film undeveloped on the floor.  Another pending example is RIM, who is struggling to leave behind their signature QWERTY keyboard in favour of the touch interface so prevalent on smartphones today.  For people, technology nostalgia is no so fatal, but they might be left behind as outsiders, not exposed to the information wave that is engulfing most of society today.  Although is that a bad thing?

I spent yesterday in an airport book shop frustrated at not being able to find the book I was wanted, yet for $100, I could buy a kindle that could solve this problem forever.  One fear I have is because there would be access to any book at my fingertips, books would be started but never finished.  Likewise with music, when I bought albums on tapes and CDs back in the day and brought then home, I would spend hours playing them through, reading the cryptic liner notes and imagining what led the artist to write the songs.  With access to a streaming service,  the album concept breaks down, and  access to endless information on each song erodes some of the musicians mystique.

Now I better go read the book that I wasn’t really looking for but bought because the shop did not have the one I wanted because there is a limit to how much paper can be stored in an airport bookshop.  It’s the Outsider by Albert Camus, chosen because I recalled  Eamon Dunphy mentioning it was his favourite book in an interview,  I know nothing else abut it.  I don’t think it about an outsider who sherked the technology of his era, but soon the lovely crisp pages will reveal it’s plot without distraction.




On Osirak Redux: Zero-Day or Day-After problems for Israel?

Last week President Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a carefully choreographed press day announcing further advancement of the Iranian Nuclear programs and was adament their progress would continue:

“The era of bullying nations has passed. The arrogant powers cannot monopolise nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed… our nuclear path will continue.”

The  EU and US sanctions are beginning to bite but the day Iran possesses a nuclear weapon appears to get ever closer.  The general consensus by western analysts and media is that the chances of Israel bombing Iranian Nuclear facilities is relatively low, as the cost benefit analysis of limited damage and delay versus inevitable blow back would be just  too costly.   If it does happen at all, it will likely be this year, before the Iranians can move sufficient enrichment facilities in their mountain bunkers, so goes the story anyway

The Fordow enrichment facility buried deep in the mountains (Google Earth)

The Fordow enrichment facility buried deep in the mountains (Google Earth)

What is interesting is the possible logistics and mechanics of it, along with the decision process in giving it the green light.  Israel’s famous bombing run of Saddam’s Osirak reactor in the early 80s is legendary, and the bombing of the Syrian reactor in 2007 was relatively straight forward.   But they were mere cakewalks compared with trying to bomb the fortified enrichment floor in Natanz, and the deep mountain bunkers in Fordow.  Everything just seems  much more difficult compared to those previous missions if they were to try a conventional air attack.  Some MIT researchers have written an interesting paper on the subject entitled Osirak Redux?.

For starters, the 1700KM distance to Iran is beyond the range of Israel F-15s and F-16s without mid-air refueling.  And no matter what route they pick, the airspace of multiple neighbouring countries needs to be flown through, with not just jets but also possibly with the tankers.  The have a reasonable chance of success, anywhere between half and all the Israeli air force would need to be deployed in the one mission, risking their military resources for any follow on conflict. Not only does the number of fighters deployed need to be high for success, but to puncture the roof of Natanz would require back to back bunker busting bombs hitting the same area, one on it’s own would not be sufficient.  Combine those hurdles with the fact there is no element of surprise, the Iranians preparing for an attack.  Iranian air defences, while not cutting edge, are more than capable of spotting the Israelis jets lack of stealth.

Israel has other options of course.  They have ballistic missiles with suitable range that could be launched from Israeli soil, along with submarine based missiles that could launch from the Gulf.  Although, unlike the bunker busting bombs, neither of these are designed to penetrate concrete bunkers.   They could also combine all three approaches, combined with some commandos on the ground.  This is all assuming conventional weaponry.   But would Israel rally use their Nuclear weapons or Iran, thus justify a reason for Iran to require them.

Even if they did use any of these approaches and were successful in destroying the nuclear complexes, they have a “Day After” problem.  They would have just bombed a soveriegn nation without UN approval, and strengthened it’s unpopular regime .  The disgruntled Iranian populace could easily begin to rally around their embattled leadership once images of blood spattered centrifuge technicians get broadcast on state media.  Iran could easily kick of a proxy war via terrorists in Lebanon and Palestinem, that would see rockets shower down upon Tel Aviv and Haifa.  The diplomat bombings of the last few days could go into overdrive and Iran currently has the capability to deliver ballistic missiles to Israel should it choose that path to retaliate.

Now imagine a weapons system that could destroy the target, but not be traced back to Israel.  This would eliminate the “Day After” problem, and make the decision to attack a much easier one.  Well it turns out Israel may have already attacked Iran with such a weapon, but the perpetrator can’t be determined for sure.

A computer worm called Stuxnet was released in late 2009, targeting specifically computers in Iran, and more specifically computer running Siemens control software that manage specific industrial processes, namely spinning centrifuges.  The worm infected hundreds on computers at the Natanz site, with the intention of changing the speed of the centrifuges rapidly, which would in turn cause their destruction.  While it is not clear how much damage was done, the Iranians have admitted damage was caused by the incident, and their Nuclear program was delayed in some way.

Centrifuges were damaged by changing their speeds of rotation rapidly

However, while this weapon eliminated the “Day After” problem, is has a different  problem.  Since it was not a knockout blow, ideally the Israelis would liked to have hit reload and tried again, exposing the same vulnerabilities in the Iranian computer systems to cause more damage.

However, to pull-off the initial Stuxnet attack, the creators utilised no less than four Zero-day attacks.  Zero-day software vulnerabilities are so named because no one is aware of them at the moment they are used, and the developer of the original software has no opportunity to distribute a fix.  However, once the attack is detected, a fix can plug the hole forever more. For that reason they are highly prized by hackers, and used sparingly.  Further vulnerabilites in the software used by the Iranians becomes harder to find, and follow-on attacks become more difficult to create or impossible.

So this type of cyber weaponry solved one problem, but has it’s own inherent problem, the inability to attack more than once with the same weapon.  It would be like only having 4 F-15s, and never being able to buy more once they were destroyed in combat.

Back to the conventional military attack, who knows what decisions the Israelis will come to over the coming months, what form the attack will take, and what the consequences will be.  The consensus view of analysts in that the chances of an attack are low.  I disagree, and believe it is highly likely based on their  leadership and recent history.