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If you didn't know it before, you probably know it now. After the recent ransom attacks on a US pipeline and a meatpacking plant, it's clear our economy is at the mercy of rogue cybercriminals. We know individual hospitals and other enterprises have been attacked in the past. Business is booming for these cybercriminals, whether they are working with the cooperation of foreign governments (Russia comes to mind) or not. Trains, planes, electric grids, all things military, medical systems, water, financial systems, you name it—if it's computerized, it's vulnerable.


Financial fraud and ransomware attacks have been around for a while. Individuals have been targeted for years, but ransomware attacks, in particular, are going after bigger and bigger targets nowadays. In such attacks, malicious software is injected into computer systems to steal and/or lock data. The good news is that unless you're Warren Buffet or the like, you don't have enough money to make extorting you worthwhile to the more sophisticated hackers, as long as the multi-million and billion-dollar industries are paying big bucks to cybercriminals.


How do we combat this serious threat? Forbid companies to pay ransoms, as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggests? Easier said than done. When faced with a company shut-down, I believe most company leaders would rather quietly pay the ransom without informing the government rather than risk having their data destroyed or their operations halted.


That's why I ask, WWED? If you don’t know what that means, here’s a hint: What Would Estonia Do? Yes, that country just south of Finland and bordered by Latvia, Russia, and the Baltic Sea appears to be way ahead of the US and most other nations when it comes to protecting themselves against cyberwarfare.


The reason for this expertise dates back to the 2007 Russian cyberattack on Estonia. You can read about the interesting history of Estonia elsewhere, but suffice it to say the Russian government's animosity towards that small country intensified when Estonians moved a monument dedicated to the Soviet Red Army away from the center of the capital, Tallinn, where it was erected by the Soviets in 1947, to the corner of a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.


Some Russian people living in Estonia were offended, and rioting took place in Tallinn. Over one hundred people were injured, and one person killed. The day after the disturbance began, Estonian banks, media outlets, and governmental offices were shut down by botnet cyberattacks that overwhelmed servers with spam and online requests. Estonia was a very digitally advanced country even then, and the attack left the populace without access to cash, online banking, news, or governmental services.


The attack was initiated by the Kremlin and magnified as malicious groups joined in. In the aftermath, Estonians became experts in cyber defense and established the Cyber Defense Unit, in which the country's leading IT experts volunteer to protect the nation's telecommunications infrastructure from cyberattacks. In addition, they work with youth groups and the public to promote best practices.


In 2008, The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) was established as a multinational organization that conducts "cyberdefense research, training and exercises covering the focus areas of technology, strategy, operations and law." The host nation for this organization is—you guessed it (or should have guessed it)—Estonia.


Every year CCDCOE organizes Locked Shields, the largest and most complex international live cyber-defense exercise in the world (won by Sweden in 2021). It is responsible for the Tallinn Manual 2.0, the most comprehensive analysis of how existing international law applies to cyberspace.


What, exactly, has Estonia done to strengthen the country's protection from cybercrimes?


For starters, they promote cybersecurity awareness in their general education. Proper computer "hygiene" is encouraged. This includes password management, use of multifactor authentication, and data backups (I'm feeling negligent just writing this).


They lead the world in encryption of personal data. The national cryptographic identification system is used by the public for virtually every transaction, including voting. Everyone has a smart card linked to two encryption keys: a private key for signatures and a public key for identification. Their encryption standard is very high, at 384-bits, and their national system is continually updated to protect against vulnerabilities.


In Estonia, the public and private sectors cooperate. They have systems in place to detect intrusions and provide protection, making use of blockchain technology and a central monitoring, reporting, and resolution system for cyber incidents. Vital service providers are required to assess and manage their cyber vulnerability.


What's going on in the US?


Digital Service (USDS) was established in 2014 in response to a Chinese government hack of the US government office of personnel management. It is in the executive branch and works across the federal government to bring modern digital solutions to services such as Medicare and veteran's services.


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was established in 2018 to defend against cyberattacks. Working under the Department of Homeland Security, CISA is responsible for improving the nation's cybersecurity and communications infrastructure. Legislation allowing data sharing between the US government and technology and manufacturing companies has been criticized by privacy advocates.


In 2020 the US army and Estonian defense ministry signed an agreement enabling the countries to collaborate in cyberdefense.


Currently, there are approximately 300,000 active cybersecurity-related job openings.


Meanwhile, the US encryption standard is 128-bit to 256-bit (security increases exponentially with each bit). We still rely mainly on "wet" signatures. (How good is your signature on an iPad screen? I know mine leaves a lot to be desired.) We have quite a ways to go to catch up with Estonia.


What happened with Colonial Pipeline?


They were attacked by DarkSide, a Russian cybercriminal group that imitates legitimate businesses. DarkSide is one of many for-profit ransomware groups the Russian government allows, as long as they only attack foreign entities. DarkSide uses code resembling that used by REvil, another hacking group that was initially thought to be behind the Colonial Pipeline hack.


As I am writing this, it was announced that some of the money paid by Colonial Pipeline was recovered by federal authorities after the FBI got the private key to the DarkSide bitcoin wallet. How this was accomplished is not yet publicly known. This is the first recovery by the ransomware Justice Dept. task force. That's good news, but the problem is far from solved.

I think I'll back up my data now.







Are you ready for this: “Don’t miss this exciting new thriller, The Mount Rushmore Murders, by r2d2.”


It wasn’t terribly long ago that if you wanted to know something, you had to look it up in a book. Now we’re used to finding tons of information by doing a quick google search. If we’re too lazy for that, we might ask Siri, Alexa, or some other artificial intelligence (AI) creature.


In Project Debater, a computer, armed with a massive wealth of knowledge, went up against a champion debater. The computer clearly had more facts at its disposal than the human. The audience, however, declared the human as the winner, not because he won points on knowledge, but probably because he was able to make statements that were off-point yet seemingly meaningful, a tactic often used by politicians and TV pundits. If the audience had been more thoughtful, perhaps the computer would have won.


According to Moore’s law from 1965 (named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore), computing power doubles every twelve to eighteen months. This sustained increase in computing power has led many people to predict that one day a computer will pass the Turing test.


The Turing test was put forward in 1950 by the computer scientist, cryptanalyst, and mathematician, Alan Turing. He proposed it as a simple way to determine if a computer is truly intelligent, i.e., able to think like a human.


The test has taken on many forms but basically requires a questioner and a responder who are hidden from each other. The questioner interrogates the responder and is subsequently asked to decide whether or not the responder is the computer. This exercise is repeated a number of times. If the questioner thinks the computer is human in at least half of the trials, that computer is considered to have passed the Turing test. Turing had predicted computers would be able to trick humans into thinking they were real by the year 2000.


At first, the test was performed using yes/no questions about a specific subject, and all input and output were typed. The game was upped when output was changed to free-form answers. Now, the test can be performed using spoken language on the part of the interrogator and even, theoretically, the answerer.


A computer named Eugene Goostman is said by some to have passed the Turing test in 2014, using unrestricted conversation. However, the computer masqueraded as a 13-year-old non-native English speaker, so the judges excused some of its poor and/or illogical communication on the basis of the respondent’s immaturity and poor grasp of English. For that reason, not all experts agree that Eugene Goostman passed the test.


One may quibble over whether the Turing test has been passed, but there is no denying that the field of AI has taken off. This has led some, like Elon Musk, to fear where it may lead. While he may be worried about robots taking over our planet, other concerns are on the horizon.


In addition to accessing an enormous amount of information, calculating, making algorithmic decisions, and dominating in jeopardy and chess, computers are making inroads in the creative arts. Since the 1980s, neural networks have been developed to predict next notes (for music) or sketch lines (for art). Already, AI is being used to create original music and art, e.g., Google’s Magenta https://magenta.tensorflow.org/.


This brings me to an area of exploration I personally find disturbing. Computer scientists are now probing AI’s ability to write creatively. Will computers successfully write interesting TV shows, movies, and novels in the future? Will we be reading books created by a distant relative of Eugene Goostman in twenty years? Will there still be a market for fiction penned by mere humans? Are youth taking writing classes in the hope of becoming successful authors wasting their time?


Before all you writers out there start smashing your computers and typewriters, be assured that such a scenario is not just around the corner. But it may be around several corners.


I recently came across an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Review of Books by Patrick House, titled I, Language Robot. In it, the reader gets a glimpse of a language bot being developed by a San Francisco AI research lab. Basically, the computer fills in words according to how likely specific words follow or precede other words (a bit like the predictive wording used in instant messages that gets me in trouble now and then). As a reference, the bot uses about 8 million documents (written by humans, I assume).


Parts of known literary works have been changed by the computer and given to literary experts. They have failed to identify the computer-generated passages. One of the literary works was from Shakespeare’s King Lear. So far, the bot is more of a writing partner than a sole author.


In a 1958 interview, Ernest Hemingway was asked about how he rewrites. He gave the following answer:


“Most of the time I just sit down and write the lines on the piece of paper. If there are any changes I make I usually go back over it and rewrite the line until I get it exact the way I want it.”


When asked about the function of his art, he answered:


“I’m afraid to answer that for fear of being laughed at. To answer that, you have to get at the heart of how a writer creates reality. It is a question I always have to ask myself: ‘Who, exactly, is doing the authoring?’ The answer to that question is usually not me. It’s the readers. It is the readers who author the work, who create the truth.”


Actually, the above are the bot’s answers. Hemingway’s answer were:


“I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite. When someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.”


and


“Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?”


Did the bot fool you?


If it did, and you’re a writer, perhaps you should be worried. I predict it’s only a question of time before these bots start generating original ideas and plots. Most would agree that computers today cannot actually think. But what about five or ten years from now? Will we be reading novels created by r2d2, Eugene Goostman or some other computer? Stay tuned.

Like many of you, I watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Overall, I found it very entertaining but was bothered by a few of the details, so I decided to investigate, i.e., I read the novel The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983. As is usually the case, there were differences between the book and the film version, although, for the most part, the series was faithful to the book. Some of the events which I predicted would be different in the novel had indeed been changed or added in the series. Other events, to my surprise, were presented in the film as written.


The filming of The Queen’s Gambit was smartly done, with appealing visuals. As a writer, I appreciated the film editing, as there wasn’t any superfluous footage in the series.


The book was shorter than I expected, at 243 pages. The writing struck me as skillful, without wasted words. I noted increased artful descriptions as the story progressed.


For those of you who have not seen the Netflix series but plan to do so, I issue this warning:


Spoilers Ahead


Rather than rehash the story here, I will mention only those areas of the Netflix series I found worth delving into.


1. In the series, I found the indifference of Beth’s biological father disturbing and wanted to learn more about her mother’s suicide by traffic accident. While watching the film, I expected more information about Beth’s mother, while anticipating her estranged father would re-surface into Beth’s life after she achieved fame. Surely, if he hadn’t been able to find her before, he could have later.


In the book, Beth’s father had died from poor health several years before Beth was orphaned. Her parents were not estranged at the time. While Beth’s mother died in a car accident, Beth was not in the car. Her mother may have been intoxicated, but it wasn’t clear at all that she committed suicide.


2. I was bothered throughout the series that Beth never paid back the ten-dollar loan from Mr. Shaibel, the janitor who first played chess with her. The loan allowed Beth to enter her first tournament. I figured that in the book, she would have paid him back.


I was wrong about that, although Beth had plenty of time to repay him. In the book, after she attained fame, Beth spoke with the orphanage administrator, Mrs. Dearborn, and learned that Mr. Shaibel was still working there. Even then, she wasn’t interested in reconnecting with him. Only later, when she attended Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, did she mention regret for not paying him back. I wish the author had given the reader an explanation. Better yet, I wish Beth had repaid the ten dollars.


3. In the Netflix series, when Beth showed up to defend her title at the Kentucky state championship, she was hungover and left before playing, seemingly on a whim after Harry Beltik, her former trainer and lover, told her she needed help. If she played a game before leaving, it wasn’t shown.


In the novel, although she hadn’t had alcohol for a day, she was so mentally dulled by her drinking that she lost her first game and left immediately afterward, humiliated. That struck me as being sadly realistic.


4. The Netflix series opened in Paris, where Beth was hungover from partying the night before with Cleo, a woman she had met in New York. She overslept and rushed to a chess tournament game where, due to her altered mental state, she was beaten by the world champion and, as she saw it, her chief rival, Vasily Borgov. I was very uncomfortable with the depiction of Cleo leading Beth astray so easily at such a crucial moment. Was Cleo the worst person in the world, and was Beth the weakest?


I was glad that in the book, that never happened. Cleo and Beth did not meet in Paris, Beth had not used drugs or alcohol before the match, and she didn’t oversleep. Beth was simply outplayed by Borgov, as she should have been. He was the world champion, after all. That takes some work, more work than Beth had put in so far. Realistic. I like that better.


5. In the series, Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene, showed up at her door just as she was hitting rock bottom from alcohol. I wondered how Jolene knew Beth was in need of support at that time. Her alcoholism hadn’t been publicized in the news as far as I could tell.


In the book, Beth realized on her own that she needed help but couldn’t think of anyone to ask. She decided to find Jolene, whom she hadn’t spoken to since she was adopted. Not finding her phone number easily, she called Mrs. Dearborn (the call mentioned above when Beth learned Mr. Shaibel was still working at the orphanage), who gave her Jolene’s number. Beth called Jolene, who was an immense help getting Beth physically fit and off alcohol and drugs.


6. In the series, Beth’s government escort in Russia, Mr. Booth, asked Beth to let him know if a Russian chess player gave her an indication he might want to defect. That kept me looking for Borgov to send her a message. Neither he nor any of the other Russians ever did.

In the book, Mr. Booth never mentioned any such thing. Adding it to the series subtracted from the experience, in my opinion.


7. In Russia, the Netflix series showed Beth reconnect with Townes, the object of her crush from years earlier. She was helped by a phone call from her old chess buddies Benny Watts, Harry Beltik, Matt, Mike, Hilton Wexler, and Arthur Levertov.


In the book, Townes did not show up in Russia. He didn’t reappear after they parted ways in Las Vegas (and, by the way, there wasn’t any hint that Townes was gay in the book). We never found out if Townes was interested in Beth romantically, and if not, why not. The phone call Benny made to Beth when she needed help in Russia did happen but involved only Benny, Arthur Levertov, and Hilton Wexler.


8. In the series, Beth was an ugly duckling who grew into an attractive woman and fashionista.


In the book, Beth no longer perceived herself as ugly as a grown woman, although there was no indication that she was beautiful. Her clothes were rarely mentioned. Although she seemed to admire the look of Parisian women and may have aspired to have fine clothes, the novel didn’t describe any shopping sprees to high-end stores or striking fashions on Beth’s part. Beth’s focus was on chess.


9. While the Netflix series was able to capture the tension of chess matches and showed some of the moves, I didn’t gain much of an appreciation for the thought processes of serious chess players. Neither did I learn much about Beth’s thoughts from watching her play.


The novel gave a better depiction of strategy, although I didn’t make an effort to follow all the moves described. Many specific moves were mentioned, something that might be of particular interest to chess aficionados.


10. I was disappointed that neither the series nor the book enlightened us as to the behavior of Beth’s adoptive father, Mr. Wheatley. He remained a bit of an enigma, inexplicably sleazy.


Overall, as to be expected, the book did a better job than the film when it came to describing Beth’s thoughts. For example, before she became a full-blown binge drinker, the author wrote: “She flirted with alcohol for years. It was time to consummate the relationship.”


In the novel, as she was losing the Kentucky state championship, Beth became fearful that she may already have irreversibly harmed her brain. “She hadn’t had a drink for a day and two nights. What was wrong? In the pit of her stomach she was beginning to feel terrified. If she had somehow damaged her talent…”


After she lost the game, she worried, “What if she had already done it to herself? What if she had shaved away from the surface of her brain whatever synaptic interlacings had formed her gift?. . . She imagined the surface of her own brain with the talent for chess wiped away.” She thought of a pop artist who had purchased a Michelangelo drawing and erased it, analogous to erasing her talent.


The Netflix version did a good job describing Beth’s final game with Borgov, using the announcers to reflect a lot of what the author described in the book. In the end, however, the words of the author give more insight. “She steeled herself…and played the best chess she knew, developing her pieces, defending everywhere, watching every opportunity for an opened file, a clear diagonal, a doubled pawn, a potential fork or pin or hurdle or skewer…she saw the whole board in her mind and caught every change of balance in the power that shifted over its surface. Each particle of it was neutralized by its counter-particle, but each was ready to discharge itself if allowed and break the structure open. If she let his rook out, it would tear her apart. If he allowed her queen to move to the bishop file, his king’s protection would topple.”


In the novel, after Beth turned down Borgov’s offer for a draw, the reader is privy to her thoughts and how she reasoned through iterations until she finally came up with the solution—with mate in nineteen moves. “If she made an error, there would be no time for a new strategy. She reached forward and moved . . . ” Alas, she had made no error.


If I could change two elements of the series, I would eliminate the suicide of Beth’s mother and the drunken night before the Paris tournament. That said, I found the series entertaining and exciting, well-paced, visually rich, and well-done. I would recommend reading the book over watching the series only for serious chess devotees.




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