The Rise and Fall (?) of Bitcoin Price

Well, it has been a fun party. Here is a chart of Bitcoin prices over the last year or so. Folks that bought in before December were up X4 or more by April. Woo-hoo! But prices have dropped by half in the past two months. Many articles were published over the winter justifying ever greater heights for Bitcoin. It was to be the digital equivalent of gold as a store of value. Also, it is touted as being decentralized and free of government manipulation – – a global, privatized people’s currency. What happened?

Source: Seeking Alpha
Continue reading

Composting Toilets May Help Save the World

A key discovery of nineteenth century science was that diseases can be transmitted via pathogens in human waste.  In regions of high population density, this can lead to epidemics if adequate sanitation facilities are not available. A milestone in epidemiology was the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. A physician named John Snow analyzed the incidence of the disease and concluded that the Broad Street public water pump was the source of infection. Even though he had no explanation in terms of germ theory at that time, he persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of that pump. This stopped the cholera epidemic. The well from which this pump drew had been dug a few feet away from an infected cesspool. A replica of this pump still stands in London:

Continue reading

DarkSide Goes Too Far with Colonial Pipeline Ransomware Attack

The ransomware attack on the Colonial fuel pipeline that supplies the U.S. East Coast is such a rich story it is hard to know what to discuss in a brief blog post. As anyone who gets news feeds knows, the software that took out Colonial is supplied by a (probably Russia-based) criminal enterprise called DarkSide. DarkSide’s business model is called “Ransomware-as-a-Service” (RaaS). They partner with affiliates who use the software to perform the actual attacks. The affiliates get paid something like 10-25% of the ransom money.

An article by Sophos Labs, a company that fights ransomware, gives details on how these attacks work. Typically, an attacker gets initial access to a company’s system by tricking some employee into revealing passwords or other critical information (“phishing”). The attacker then spends two or three months roaming around inside the systems, building up credentialling to get more and more access. They steal (“exfiltrate”) sensitive information like accounting, personnel, and R&D. This table shows some of the “tools” used in these attacks:

When it’s showtime, they encrypt the information on the company computers, which typically makes operations grind to a halt. They then demand ransom (in the form of Bitcoin). If the ransom is paid, they will send the victim a decryption program to allow them to decrypt their files.  If their demands are not met, they will publicly release the stolen, sensitive information. So this extortion is a double threat, to both operations and information exposure.

Here is an example of (I believe) an actual ransom demand note:

(Sorry, the text is hard to read).  DarkSide is professional in their own way. They assure their victims that they really will get their data restored if the ransom is paid: “…We value our reputation. If we do not do our work and liabilities, no one will pay us. This is not in our interests. All our decryption software is perfectly tested and will decrypt your data. We will also provide support in case of problems.”   Think of that, a help desk for your ransomware.

DarkSide likes to align themselves with Robin Hood, kind of: “Take from the rich, and give to the poor  keep it”. They claim to be apolitical, just in it for the money, and to not target nonprofits. They even offer to donate money to charities, so we can all feel good about this. (Charities typically refuse to accept stolen money, though).

In most cases, it is far cheaper for the victim to pay the ransom than to tough it out and try to scramble to restart their systems cold and to risk exposure of sensitive information.  DarkSide, after all, has its reputation to protect, so they scale the ransom demands accordingly, but make sure the victims hurt if they do not pay.

Forbes cybersecurity expert Davey Winder explains that with the Colonial hack, however, Darkside (and the affiliate who did the actual hacking) stirred up something of a hornet’s nest.

If you cut off gasoline supplies to the Washington, D.C. area, you better think through the consequences. I am sure that top national security officials were grilled by top top government officials as to “How could this happen?”, and, “You aren’t going to let them get away with this, are you?”. After some days of public waffling on the issue, it seems Colonial did pay DarkSide some $5 million. But..apparently DarkSide did not get to keep the loot, though it is hard to know what is real and what is public theater.

According to Winder,

DarkSide was effectively forced into retreat by alleged law enforcement or unspecified government disruption of the publicity blog and the ransom negotiation dark web site.

The main Russian-language criminal forum that acted as a recruitment post for potential affiliates banned all ransomware groups from advertising. The cryptocurrency wallets used by DarkSide were, it has also been said, found and funds exfiltrated.

You can follow some of the links in the paragraph above for more of the details here. (Most people may not realize the Bitcoin is not as private as imagined. Every transaction is out in public view; although technically the identities of transactors is cloaked behind anonymous user’s ID numbers, sophisticated data analysis programs can be used to trace transactions pretty reliably).

DarkSide has announced some “nicer” guideline for its further extortions. It seems like the good guys at least partially won that battle, but the war goes on. Winder further comments:

The business model will change, just as it has always evolved, but it won’t go away. Why would it when there are so many big corporate targets out there continuing to make the mistakes that let these attackers onto their networks?

If I were king, this is what I might do: Sentence the CEO of any company which is successfully hacked to six months in prison. Overnight, you would see corporate priorities magically realigned, necessary resources allocated, internal security protocols enforced, and so on. I predict the incidence of such hacking would drop by an order of magnitude within three months of such an “executive order”.

Bracing for the Swarm of “Charismatic” Cicada Bugs

In the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., there are two basic types of cicadas. One type appears every year, but in small numbers. One bug up in a tree can fill a whole block with its buzzing sound. But every seventeen years, the periodic cicadas, also (incorrectly) called “17-year locusts”, emerge and drown out every sound but their own. They can make a residential neighborhood sound like an airport. The seventeen year swarm is due to emerge any day now.

Continue reading

Was “World War II” Just a Myth?

May 5, 2415

[To:] Mark Livingstone,

25 The Standards,

Verneville, Alassippi

Dear Mark:
in your last letter you made one palpable hit, but only one: I admit that the atomic wars of the Twenty-first Century and the cataclysms of the Twenty-second Century destroyed so much of our cultural inheritance, including nearly all our Nineteenth and Twentieth Century history, that there is very little we can turn to of those times that is authentic. Apparently that is the only point we will be able to agree on.

I cannot possibly believe, for instance, as you do, that there ever did exist an Abraham Lincoln as so glowingly portrayed by our two or three surviving “history” digests; nor can I believe there ever was a World War II, at least such as they described. Wars, yes – there have always been wars, and a World War II may have occurred – but certainly not with such incredible concomitants.

In short, your history is much too fictional for me.

Continue reading

Stoned Age Cave Paintings

It has long been argued that many of the artists drawing on cave walls were not merely trying to draw the external world as accurately as possible. Rather cave art was:

A deliberate mix of rituals inducing altered states for participants, coupled with brain chemistry that elicits certain visual patterns for humanity’s early chroniclers.

The cave painters had rituals that involved taking drugs (undoubtedly plants) that they consumed in a frenzy to get to this creative state. This behavior and the same results were noted by 1960s-era academics studying the effects of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus found in North America.

Some drawings which illustrate these patterns are:

There seem to be a number of geometric patterns like honeycombs, tunnels and funnels, cobwebs, and spirals which show up repeatedly across different continents. This has fueled speculation that those prehistorics were tripping out on veggies like peyote and magic mushrooms. In his “Stoned Ape” theory, the late Terrence McKenna proposed that consumption of shrooms gave the earliest humans higher energy and group cohesion and helped humanity to evolve the use of language.

A more recent study by Tel Aviv University researchers suggests that another way that Stone Age artists got into an altered state was plain oxygen deprivation. Many sites of cave art, particularly in France and Spain, are at the end of long, narrow passages. If a couple of guys got into one of those rooms, with a blazing torch or two, the oxygen level would soon be significantly depleted:

They found that oxygen concentration depended on the height of the passageways, with the shorter passageways having less oxygen. In most of the simulations, oxygen concentrations dropped from the natural atmosphere level of 21% to 18% after being inside the caves for only about 15 minutes. 

Such low levels of oxygen can induce hypoxia in the body, a condition that can cause headache, shortness of breath, confusion and restlessness; but hypoxia also increases the hormone dopamine in the brain, which can sometimes lead to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, according to the study.

Drawings like the following from the Altimira cave are pretty impressive under those circumstances:

Chip Shortages Shutting Down Auto Assembly Lines; Buy Your Car Now Or Else

Global supply chains and just in time inventory work great – – until they don’t. Every car these days is a rolling computer, with semiconductors in every vehicle. No chips, no cars. For various reasons, there is a big worldwide shortfall in the chips needed for cars and trucks, which is causing auto assembly lines to shut down for extended periods. Car prices are already rising in response.

Chip production as a whole was slowed down this past year because of Covid effects at the factories. More importantly, chip production was switched away from automobiles to lighter consumer products. Auto assembly lines were curtailed due to the virus, resulting in reduced demand for those specific chips in 2020. The thinking among chip makers was that in the midst of a deadly pandemic, consumers would be sitting home ordering goodies from Amazon or Alibaba, rather than cruising car dealers or spending on travel. Indeed, U. S. spending on durable goods exploded in 2020, fueled in part by generous unemployment and stimulus payments, and this has soaked up existing chip production.

However, car buying has come back earlier than expected. Chip manufacturing is a lengthy process, taking some 26 weeks from start to finish. Chip makers are scrambling to add new capacity and to reconfigure their manufacturing lines for autos, but this shortage will not resolve until later in the year.

Continue reading

New Dead Sea Cave Finds: Scrolls, 10,500-year Old Basket, Lice Comb, etc.

The original 1947-48 finds of scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea were a huge sensation. Preserved by the aridity of that region in the southwestern part of Israel, these scrolls dated back to around 100 B.C.-100 A.D.  They included Hebrew texts of much of the Old Testament, which were about a thousand years older than previously known Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts. There were also other writings peculiar to the Jewish community that lived near those caves, which gave new insights into the religious and social currents of that day.

The last of those manuscript finds by scholars was in 1961. Since then, there has been only trickle of artifacts from looters who have dug up items to sell, but with no proper historical context. In the last few years, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has mounted an exhaustive survey of every nook, cranny, and hole in that Judean Desert area, in order to forestall further loss of ancient artifacts. The IAA has now announced some finds from that survey. They include further Bible texts (in Greek), the oldest known woven basket (10,500 years old), and a 6,000 year old mummified skeleton of a child, covered with a cloth. The searchers also found arrow and spear tips, coins, sandals and even lice combs, all from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (133-135 A.D.).

Continue reading

Cryptocurrencies 3. Blockchain: The Ingenious Basis of Bitcoin

Most of our financial transactions are managed by centralized institutions like banks and credit card companies. We trust that these companies will properly manage transactions, so no one can spend the same dollar twice. In other words, if you have $300 in your checking account, you can’t use your debit card to buy a $300 message chair, and then quickly purchase a $300 patio furniture set before the first purchase clears.

Satoshi Nakamoto, the enigmatic inventor of Bitcoin, wanted to set up a digital currency which would not be controlled by or dependent on any central institution. Rather, there would be a big network of thousands of independent computing nodes, which collectively would record and vet financial transactions. A big problem he faced was how to prevent the sort of double-spending described above. With a decentralized system, it was possible that one node, or a couple of nodes in cahoots, could quickly enter two transactions which would spend the same chunk of digital currency twice, before the rest of the nodes could catch the error. And without a central authority, who would have the authority to correct such errors?  

Nakamoto’s solution was the blockchain. He defined and implemented it specifically for Bitcoin, but the concept is so elegant and powerful that hundreds of other digital coins were quickly set up also using blockchains. This in turn has spawned a whole multi-billion dollar “decentralized finance” industry around these blockchain based currencies.

Continue reading