Two items of interest

Here are a couple of items of possible interest to some of you.

First, a group of companies, organizations, and notable individuals signed on to a letter to President Obama urging that the government not mandate “back doors” in computing products. I was one of the signatories. You can find a news account about the letter here and you can read the letter itself here. I suggest you read the letter to see the list of signers and the position we are taking.

Second, I’ve blogged before about the new book by Carey Nachenberg — a senior malware expert who is one of the co-authors of Norton Security: The Florentine Deception. This is an entertaining mystery with some interesting characters and an intricate plot that ultimately involves a very real cyber security threat. It isn’t quite in the realm of an Agatha Christie or Charles Stross, but everyone I know how has read it (and me as well!) have found it an engrossing read.

So, why am I mentioning Carey’s book again? Primarily because Carey is donating all proceeds from sale of the book to a set of worthy charities. Also, it presents a really interesting cyber security issue presented in an entertaining manner. Plus, I wrote the introduction to the book, explaining a curious “premonition” of the plot device in the book. What device? What premonition? You’ll need to buy the book (and thus help contribute to the charities), read the book (and be entertained), and then get the answer!

You can see more about the book and order a copy at the website for The Florentine Deception.

Musing on the Near Future

I read an interesting article online today. It is simply the latest in a long set of articles on related topics that have sparked some discussion with people over the last year or so.

I want to give this a little spin that I haven’t seen in the news or commentary, simply to provoke some thought. That, and I’m getting tired of all the Chik-fil-a discussions and yet more evidence of politicians being less concerned with the people than with (re)election. Here’s a chance to get some discussion on something else. (Yes, I suppose that makes this a long-winded troll.)

First, it is clear that Iran’s leadership is trying to push things as far as they can. In some senses, they do indeed have a right to enrich uranium so long as they allow international inspections and don’t head towards weaponizing it. After all, they have signed the non-proliferation treaty. However, statements and actions by the government there do not lead to any sense of calm and confidence that they would abide by the treaty, and to date they have violated it in several ways. They’ve repeatedly rejected attempts to resolve some of the issues.

So, the international community has pushed sanctions. The U.S. just ratcheted up the issue by setting indirect sanction in place on banks and firms in countries doing business with Iran.   

Some critics of the current U.S. administration have been claiming that the sanctions aren’t working, and we need a military option. In fact, reports out of Iran are that the sanctions are increasingly degrading the quality of life for common Iranians, and that is increasing their dissatisfaction with the government. That is precisely the plan. The more unrest and discontent in the populace, the more the government has to beat the drums about being under siege by the rest of the world because of their “righteous cause.”

OK, this isn’t news to anyone who has given it some thought, or thought about prior instances of countries under sanctions. However, given the sanctions, one wonders if they are likely to achieve the desired goals. The question is one of “what goals are those?

Here’s where some interesting events could come about, and may be the actual intent.

There have been repeated public claims by the Iranian government that it views the sanctions as hostile acts. There have also been statements about how they aren’t afraid to go to war and close the Straights of Hormuz, and will do so if provoked. There has been a fair amount of sword-rattling. This is one of the few ways they can really do anything militarily, because they really don’t have a strong navy or a lot of resources to employ.

Closing the Straights — or even trying to — would raise some panic among shipping companies that transit oil tankers through there. Loss of a big tanker would be very expensive, and insurance doesn’t normally cover acts of war. It would likely stop some of the tanker traffic, which in turn would raise the market price (and some availability) of oil, thus leading to strain on Western economies. The Iranians — and everyone else — knows this. That is why the threat has some impact.

However, quietly over the last year, various western powers appear to have been building up bases and anti-mine capabilities in the region, and are well-equipped to counter any Iranian moves to interdict naval traffic. There have also been some moves to change oil usage and flow, including a new Saudi pipeline that bypasses the Straights.

So, here’s how the scenario might well play out:

  • the new sanctions really hurt and the Iranian people are even more unhappy with the government
  • the Iranian government feels forced to make a public move to consolidate its position
  • the Iranian government makes some move in the Straights of Hormuz, and/or the Revolutionary Guards, under pressure, make some error that results in apparent hostilities in the Straights
  • given the excuse of threats to shipping in International waterways, NATO and/or other powers intervene
  • there is escalation until there is an actual shooting conflict involved

Again, that isn’t overly surprising. What I want to suggest, however, is that when this happens, it will also be perfect cover for launching an offensive against the nuke plants. Iran will have proven itself an aggressor, and will be in a pitched fight at sea — that will be perfect political and tactical cover for airstrikes, and maybe even deployment of some special ops teams to get things that airpower can’t.

The question is whether or not the Iranian leadership is crazy enough, defiant enough, and/or desperate enough to create the incident. The problem is, they don’t have many options. If they don’t do something, it threatens long-term support from within. And ideologically, it seems unlikely they will back off on enrichment because that would show the world they submitted to demands from both the Little Satan (Israel) and the Big Satan (USA).

My prediction: conflict by early October.

As with anything else, however, there are secondary effects to consider. If the above scenario plays out in any way similar to the above, there are at least three probable secondary effects:

1) North Korea occupies a roughly similar political position as Iran in the world: nuclear capabilities, pariah state, erratic political behavior, population under stress from sanctions. There has been some apparent thawing beginning with Kim Jong Un’s consolidation in power. If shooting breaks out with Iran, expect North Korea’s military to gain ascendency. This is not likely to trigger a crisis, per se, but it will wipe out the chance of some reconciliation that appears to be appearing.

2) Any threat of conflict in the oil production zone or the shipping lanes will impact oil prices. If that happens for more than a few weeks, it will have a negative impact on many economies — especially within the EU. It will hasten defaults by several governments and the probable breakup of the Euro zone. (If there is no conflict, I expect the same to happen by the end of the year anyhow. Spain and Greece are going to go into default, and France and Italy may join them. The debt loads are unsustainable and default is inevitable. It is simply a matter of time, and an oil crisis would move it forward.)

Fallout of European defaults will not be pretty. It will cause significant hiccups in both the Chinese and US economies. It might be enough to trigger a slide into a global depression.

3) Depending on timing, this will have an effect on the US elections. Late in the fall, it will likely aid in Obama’s re-election as the decisive commander-in-chief will be the image voters will have going to the polls. Between now and late September will give time for the economy to slide, and that might well be in Romney’s favor.

Black swan events could change a lot of this, of course. My personal “favorites” involve major earthquakes (California, New Madrid fault, Istanbul, China); major eruption of Katla in Iceland, shutting down air travel across Europe; conflict involving Pakistan (accidental war with India or internal rebellion); major solar storm that damages electrical transmission systems in North America or Europe. There are undoubtedly others (that is part of the definition of Black Swan!), but any one of those would be sufficient to make the world situation much more complicated.

There are also the troubling issues of what happens if the al Assad regime uses its chemical weapons, or allows them to fall into the hands of jihadists. Or any scenario with Iran where they start lobbing ballistic missiles into Israel, even if only armed with conventional warheads. The results of either would be very ugly: Israel does allegedly have nuclear weapons, and the hardliners in charge will strike back, hard, at any perceived existential threat. The follow-on to something like that would be very bad.

Overall, I expect the rest of this year to be interesting.

My sincere hope is that I’m totally wrong. After all, my day job is computing. But if not, you read it here.

You may now return to your lolcats, Pinterest, and competing rants about the economy. 🙂

Being Prepared

Several events over the last few weeks have presented some scary scenarios for family and acquaintances. In one recent case, a co-worker died from smoke inhalation in a house fire that she probably should have survived. In the northeast, several friends lost power, had flooding, and had house damage from tree falls. I previously blogged here about the burglary we had at our house. And last night I had to take my daughter to the E.R. (she’s fine now).

Living in the real world means things happen. Sometimes, things happen suddenly and unexpectedly. We have systems in place (police, fire departments, etc) to respond, but it is important to note that it takes time to get them there, and sometimes that interval between discovery of a problem and getting resolution is critical.

It is a good idea to be a bit proactive to know how to respond in general ways to crisis situations. Advanced preparation can make all the difference. I had training as an EMT first responder (long ago) and taught for the Red Cross (long ago), plus my work in security has made me a little more paranoid. But there are some basic things each and every one of us can do to make us less likely to be a victim and more likely to be able to help others until more professional help is available.

The following are bare-bones basic things worth trying to do to prepare for a real emergency. (I started to write this as email to a couple of friends and it sort of grew into this longer post. Additions and suggestions welcomed in the feedback.)


Take a basic CPR course from the Red Cross or American Heart Association. These are often free or low cost (make a donation if you can), and only take a few hours. Even if you don’t have time to renew it, make the time for a class. I know of a few cases where this resulted in saving a life.

If you can spare more time, take the Red Cross Basic First Aid course. It might be a weekend, or a few nights, but you’ll learn the really basic issues of how to respond to injuries. (There is an advanced course if you have the time.)

A more advanced step would be to take any courses offered via employer or community group on handling violence in the workplace, R.A.D. (rape avoidance and defense for women), and general self-defense and protection. (Note: mace, a knife or a gun requires training to use properly, and have legal implications. Research those carefully if you are considering them.)

Most basic concept for critical support is A-B-C — airway, bleeding, circulation. Check and clear the airway (and do artificial respiration if needed), stop severe bleeding, and give CPR if necessary, in that order. Anyone not needing one of those three will probably last at least 30 minutes for an ambulance. Without aid for those 3, however, and there is little hope for survival to the 5 minute mark.

Basic idea for bleeding is to apply direct pressure on the wound with as clean an item as you can quickly grab; stopping the bleeding is more important than finding something sterile. Your bare hand will do if nothing else is available, although if you have any open wounds and you don’t know the medical history of the person bleeding this is not a good idea. If it is an extremity, elevate it. If there is a bone broken, try to keep the break immobilized. If someone may have a neck or back injury definitely keep them immobilized! Keep an injured person warm as shock will set in — this means blankets or other cover if you have them, and something other than cold ground or concrete under them (if you can move them).


Try to have a stock of basic first aid supplies on hand. The most important ones for emergency use are sterile pads (gauze not cotton) and some pressure bandages or ties. Having sterile saline solution to flush out eyes or animal bites is useful, too. Beyond that, you don’t need a lot more unless you’ve got training how to use it in a significant emergency.

Having a couple of flashlights with charged batteries is important with spares nearby.

Having enough drinking water on hand for a day or two generally isn’t a big concern until you need it after the power goes out or there is a break in the water supply. Having some sealed bottles is maybe not a bad idea. However, if you keep in mind that you can immediately shut off the gas/electricity to your water heater, and shut off the water supply into the heater, that will reserve 20-50 gallons of clean water. (You will have to open a tap and take the water out of the drain on the heater, using gravity, but that isn’t too bad. Be sure to shut off the inflow from the water supply to prevent contamination from a break, etc.)

Have smoke detectors in each bedroom and in the halls/rooms outside the bedrooms. One in the kitchen is also good. These are not that expensive, but lives are precious.

Consider a carbon monoxide detector too, with the same comment on cost.

Get a home fire extinguisher for every floor of your home, at least 10 A-B rated. Make sure everyone in the family knows how to use them. You can find these at moderate to low cost, too.

Planning Ahead

Know the phone number for your emergency response. In most places in the US that is 9-1-1.

Consider having your cell phone in reach of where you sleep so you can call if you need to without even getting out of bed. A flashlight should be kept at hand, too.

Check that the batteries in your smoke alarms work. If you don’t have smoke alarms, get some! Mark your calendar to check the batteries in these at least once a year.

Check the charge level in your fire extinguishers at least once a year. Get recharges or new ones if needed.

Know how to exit wherever you sleep using at least 2 different routes. If one path is blocked by a fire or structural problem you will need the other. Think how you’d do it if there was smoke and you could not see (you should always crawl if there is a fire — smoke rises and the better air is near the floor). In airplanes, know where the exits are ahead and behind you. In a restaurant or theater, know where the exits are.

Know the way to a nearby clinic with a doctor, and to the nearest hospital ER. Make sure you know how to get there if you must drive. Generally, for really critical events you are better off waiting for an ambulance with a trained crew if you are more than 10 minutes away from the hospital, including worse-case traffic and traffic lights IF they will respond quickly.

Consider having a home generator (at least a small one), fuel to run it, and a long outdoors-use extension cord. How much fuel? Enough to run the generator, at least off-and-on, for the longest you might be without being able to get more fuel. Be sure the fuel is stored in safe containers designed for such storage. Extension cord length? Long enough so you can run the generator OUTDOORS (avoid carbon monoxide risk and possible fire risk when refueling) and still have the cord reach anywhere indoors you might need the power. (You might want to consider a chain and padlock to secure the generator, too — if you need it, others might too, and it could disappear when you aren’t watching it.) Uses: sump pumps, power saw, medical equipment, electric griddle to cook food, radio/TV for information, chargers for cell phones, electric space heater, etc.

Have a basement that might flood with no power? Consider getting a hand-powered pump, or have a Bernoulli water-powered siphon pump installed as a backup. Electric pumps only make sense if you have an emergency generator.

Rent a safety-deposit box at a bank and put your important documents there rather than in a safe at home. The bank vault is fireproof and floodproof (if they have done it right). In the US, a deposit box rental fee is tax deductible.

If Something Happens

The first rule is always — don’t panic! If you act without careful consideration you might become a victim too, and that makes things worse. Mentally ask yourself what you are going to do first, then second, then next. Ask yourself what would be the outcome if those steps don’t work or go bad, and adjust the outcome accordingly. You probably have a shot of adrenaline, so force yourself to be deliberate. Your single biggest tool is thinking carefully!

If your smoke alarms go off, don’t rush through closed doors — feel them first to make sure there is no flame on the other side (don’t touch a metal handle first!). Note that opening the door may let in a cloud of smoke, so stay close to the floor if you open the door. If there is heat and you can’t get out another way, try to jam things along the bottom of the door to keep smoke out, and hang a sheet out the window to mark it for attention when the fire department gets there.

If you have power out and flooding in a basement, remember that water and electricity don’t mix well — especially if you are using a generator for a pump. Don’t let cords drop into the water. Instead, locate the pump in a higher area and put the intake down into the water.

Someone complaining of pressure in the chest or pains in the chest, neck or arms should get to a hospital right away to be checked for heart problems. Loss of coordination, speech, balance may be signs of a stroke and require immediate attention. Sudden confusion or disorientation can be the result of extreme fever, stroke, heart problems, or diabetic reaction — all of which require emergency medical involvement. Don’t be talked out of it — let trained, responding personnel decide. Any significant blow to the head, especially if it causes any loss of consciousness should be evaluated at an ER. Sustained fevers above 102 warrant at least calling a doctor (104 and above should be immediate), as does continuous vomiting or diarrhea for longer than about 6 hours.

Get everyone to a safe place before calling 9-1-1 if it is a fire. It is a risky idea to return into a burning building to try to rescue people you think may be inside — they might have left through a different exit, or they might be safe (for now) in a closed room waiting for the fire department. Rushing inside without proper breathing equipment may get you injured or killed.

If you have an emergency and called for an ambulance or police, have someone turn on exterior lights, and if the weather and conditions warrant it, stand outside to signal that it is the right place and guide them in. This is especially good if you want to get someone out from underfoot in dealing with the problem, but don’t have children do it.

If something has happened that power lines are down, be sure to tell that to the 9-1-1 operator so the power company can be dispatched. And always stay well away from the lines.

If you smell gas, exit immediately and leave the door open. Do not turn on lights or use your phone until you are outside. If you are at a wooden window, open it before you exit, but don’t waste time opening lots of them. Get away from the building.

If you see an accident occur while driving do NOT jam on your brakes. Instead, pull well off the side the road to a safe location. Call 9-1-1 and give preliminary information (location, direction of travel, number/type of vehicles). Only approach the accident site to render aid if you are COMPLETELY sure that you can do so safely without danger from oncoming vehicles. Do NOT attempt to move unconscious or badly injured people from a wrecked vehicle unless there is a fire in progress or similar immediate threat, or if you cannot otherwise render A-B-C first aid — many crashes involve head and neck injuries and movement makes them worse. Try to check the condition of everyone (including some who might have been thrown from vehicles) before rendering direct first aid — the first person you come to is not always the most badly injured. Often the best thing you can do is get everyone away from the roadway and the wrecks to a safer location to await professional response.

Most people have no idea what to do in an emergency, and are often stunned. Take command if you know what to do. Someone without a clue will often listen to someone with the air of authority. But remember, if you start giving directions you are taking responsibility, too, so be sure you know you are doing the right things and there is no one better qualified at the scene,

Other tips?

If you have other tips you think are worthwhile, post them in the comments.

And the next time you encounter a first responder — police, fire, rescue, ambulance, and others — consider saying thank you. They train a lot, work long hours for lousy pay and benefits, and sometimes put themselves in harm’s way to be sure we don’t have to cope with all of life’s disasters on our own. They often see us when we are most distressed and we take them for granted. I know they appreciate kind words during more “normal” times.

Have a safe and uneventful springtime.

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