Sunday Nerding: The Birth of BASIC

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Many people working in the Information Technology industry today, probably started their journey when they learnt the computer language BASIC – (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) – on computers such as the Apple II or the Commodore 64.

What many people won’t know is the fascinating story of how BASIC started, at Dartmouth College in 1964. In today’s “Sunday Nerding”, learn about the origins of this once ubiquitous programming language.


References

Turnbull’s NBN Legacy of Failure

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Malcolm Turnbull has left Australia with quite a legacy with the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Back when the NBN was first mooted in 2008 – (though one could argue its origins go back the OPEL Networks plan from 2006) – everyone was supposed to be on one of three different technologies – 93% of the population with Fibre-to-the-Premise (FTTP, with up to 100Mbps), 4% with Fixed Wireless (FW, with up to 25Mbps), and 3% Satellite Broadband (SB, with up to 12Mbps).

Tmthetom [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

When then Communications Minister Stephen Conroy cancelled the OPEL plan in 2008, what has become known as the NBN was formulated, with the 93/4/3% split described above.

Enough capacity was to be put into the ground in the FTTP footprint to support 6 separate services – (4 data, and 2 voice) – in every single premise in those areas. The fibre going into the ground was to support services of up to 40Gbps.

To achieve those speeds – (over and above the standard 100Mbps offered initially) – all that would be required is an update to the electronics at each of the fibre connection.

Yes – the original 2008 NBN plan would have allowed for 40Gbps, dependent on CVC and backhaul capacity to be provided by individual ISPs.

Leading up to the 2013 election – and the change of government – then opposition communications spokesweasel, Malcolm Turnbull, and opposition leader Tony Abbott had other ideas.

Simply to oppose on politically ideological grounds, they decided that Conroy’s plan was “too expensive”, and would take “too long”.

Their alternative was to be “cheaper” and “faster to deliver” – neither which has been proven, and has in fact been widely debunked. Their plan called for all areas in which FTTP had not already been deployed, to change to Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN, with up to 100Mbps), using existing copper.

The status of the existing copper was questionable at best.

The rollout has proven to be no faster to deliver – (and in fact has taken longer) – and sustainable speeds of 100Mbps have been so difficult to reach that most ISPs no longer even offer 100Mbps plans – including on the parts of the network that are deployed with FTTP.

What we in fact end up with is what Turnbull called the “Multi Technology Mix” (MTM) – which would leave Australia covered with FTTP in areas where it had already been rolled out, Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) cable in areas where HFC was already rolled out, FTTN in the remaining areas where FTTP had not already been committed and there wasn’t already HFC, and finally FW and SB in much the same areas as originally planned.

The FTTN areas were later broken up further to include some Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) deployments when they realised FTTN, in particular, wasn’t cutting it. Many areas which they earmarked for existing HFC later switched back to FTTN or FTTC, because many of the existing HFC networks they purchased couldn’t be made suitable.

And 100Mbps? Not even remotely likely unless you’re in an FTTP area, and with an ISP that has purchased enough CVC and backhaul capacity.

Rare.

So what does the MTM end up looking like? Take a look at this small area in the western part of Geelong, Victoria, with mapping provided by NBN MTM Alpha:

The purple dots represent locations that are serviced by FTTP; the yellow dots locations that are serviced by FTTN; the green dots locations that are serviced by FTTC; the pink dots locations that are serviced by FW; the orange dots locations serviced by SB; and finally the blue dots locations that are serviced by fibre from a non-NBN provider.

This is pretty stunning – and stunningly stupid.

You’ll see in the bottom right a patch of FTTC – (green) – where some premises right next door to green dots are getting FTTN – (yellow).

In the same street.

In the middle of the map, you’ll see the hamlet of Fyansford – where at the southern end of town you have a non-NBN fibre provider – (blue) – and at the northern end of town you have FTTP – (purple) – with a blob of FIXED WIRELESS in between. This band of fixed wireless is about 10 house blocks wide – or around 120 metres.

Apparently nobody thought that this area – (which is the newest part of that residential estate) – right next door to two fibre areas should get any kind of fixed-line service – not even FTTN or FTTC.

Stupidity.

Finally, zooming into the area just to the right of Fyansford – (which is on the side of a hill) – we see this:

Locations on the eastern side of Hunt Road get FTTN – (yellow) – locations on the western side get SATELLITE – (orange) – and just a little way down the hill, locations get Fixed Wireless – (pink).

And just to the north? A purple dot of FTTP.

I mean, what the hell?

Australia will one day rue this shemozzle of a “multi-technology mess”.

Trouble is, that day has already come, and Turnbull should hang his head in shame.

Sunday Nerding: Getting To The Moon

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the first moon landing, and that one small step for mankind that changed the world forever.

Apollo 8 Crew
Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman.

In 1961, President John F Kennedy had set his his nation the goal of “landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth“.

A while back I wrote about the amazing – (and ongoing) – restoration of an Apollo Guidance Computer – one of the very first digital computers, developed at MIT for NASA, which was crucial to achieving the goal.

While everyone remembers Apollo 11 – (and to a lesser extent Apollo 13, due to the problems it struck) – very little is thought about with respect to Apollo 8 – the mission where NASA figured out how to do two of the four main important tasks of a successful moon landing – getting there and getting back.

The following video discusses the pivotal role Apollo 8 played in making Apollo 11, and all of the subsequent moon landings possible.


Further Reading:

Sunday Nerding: The Clock That Changed The World

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Before there was GPS, people still needed to sail the oceans of the world and know precisely where they were.

With a sextent, you could figure out your latitude, but not your longtitude. Enter the Longitude Rewards, a British government program to encourage someone – anyone – to find a accurate way to determine longitude.

Enter John Harrison, and his incredibly accurate clock.

Russian GNSS Spoofing

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A recently released report from C4ADS following a year of research, appears to confirm the hacking and/or spoofing of GNSS transmissions by Russia’s Federal Protective Service (FSO).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CYGNSS_concept_art.jpeg

GNSS is the collective term for “global navigation satellite systems“, of which the common GPS system is one. Russia and China are known to operate their own GNSS systems, alongside the GPS system developed by the US military.

The activities of the FSO – (in which it is apparent that false signals are deliberately broadcast to confuse GPS receivers, such as those you might have in your car, or those found in commercial ships or commercial aircraft) – are reputedly designed to keep attack drones away from Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

While this might seem like a not unreasonable use of such techniques, the report presents evidence that they are also using these techniques in Syria, possibly to confuse enemy military systems. There is of course a long running military conflict in the region.

It is therefore logical to assume that such techniques can and have been used all over the world at some time – past, present and future.

These techniques could be used to disrupt navigation in all sorts of transportation systems and infrastructures.

Russia shot down a Korean Air passenger jet in 1983 after an issue with the configuration of the navigation system on that Boeing 747. While this was found to be the fault of the pilots at the time, faulty navigation data could be used to initiate similar incidents, but with plausible deniability.

Quoting the report’s Executive Summary:

In this report, we present findings from a year-long investigation ending in November 2018 on an emerging subset of EW activity: the ability to mimic, or “spoof,” legitimate GNSS signals in order to manipulate PNT data. Using publicly available data and commercial technologies, we detect and analyze patterns of GNSS spoofing in the Russian Federation, Crimea, and Syria that demonstrate the Russian Federation is growing a comparative advantage in the targeted use and development of GNSS spoofing capabilities to achieve tactical and strategic objectives at home and abroad. We profile different use cases of current Russian state activity to trace the activity back to basing locations and systems in use.

The full report can be found here.

DARPA’s Open Source eVoting Initiative

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I’ve never been a fan of the concept of electronic voting. I’m still not a fan of electronic voting.

For the most part the idea that I might cast my vote, walk away from the machine that contains my vote, and not know what happens with that machine afterwards scares me.

How do I know my vote eventually gets counted?

It could be argued that a paper ballot in a ballot box might “go missing” too. Most systems have certain kinds of vulnerabilities, whether they be electronic or otherwise.

But can eVoting be made reliable and verifiable?

With this initiative from DARPA, I’ve moved into the “maybe” column. I’m not convinced, but this is the best concept I’ve heard to date.

It’s worth discussing, and we do need to understand that DARPA is part of the US Department of Defence. How much can we trust that?

As an open source initiative, their work would be able to be closely scrutinized by any interested party. This perhaps means the eventual product they develop can be trusted.

It contains a lot of verification mechanisms to instill confidence in it.

Here is their plan as discussed on the most recent episode of Security Now!


References

Sunday Nerding: Apollo Guidance Computer

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Like many a nerd, not only do I love computers and computing, I also love space exploration.

Today I present a magnificent combination of the two, as a group of what can only be described as massive enthusiasts, work at getting an actual Apollo Guidance Computer – (which hasn’t been powered up in around 50 years) – up and running, and executing actual NASA Apollo code.

While this particular unit was never flown into space – (it is understood to be serial number 14, which was used in LTA-8) – it is basically an almost flight-ready prototype.

Is it Huawei or the Highway?

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately around whether allowing Huawei telecommunications equipment into major infrastructure is a good idea or not.

Given the company has strong and proven ties to the Chinese military, I don’t think it is even unreasonable to have an honest discussion about the security implications of using their equipment.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/11/HuaweiCanada9.jpg/1280px-HuaweiCanada9.jpg

However, if we’re going to have such a discussion about their equipment, we should have the entire discussion.

An excellent example is the common HG659 modem/router, in use all over the world, including extensively in Australian premises as part of the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout.

The HG659 is an extremely popular modem with ISPs, because it is an extremely versatile modem.  It supports both ADSL and VDSL connections, and FTTP connections.  For this reason it is widely deployed in Australia as part of the “multi-technology mix” hodge-podge Malcolm Turnbull turned the NBN into for political reasons, rather than for technology reasons.

Australian ISPs using the HG659 therefore only have to stock one type of modem, and you as the end user just plug it into whatever NBN technology is serving your premises, and the modem self-configures to suit.

Done!

A great number of Australian ISPs use it – (and brand it with their own logos) – see a selection below:

ISPs in other countries also use it:

The use of the HG659 modem is widespread worldwide – including in jurisdictions where the lawmakers are seeking to ban the use of Huawei equipment in telecommunications systems, such as Australia and the United States.

I’ve even read of instances where one Australian ISP appears to have an active backdoor into their private customer’s networks, using the custom firmware in their supplied HG659 modems.

But why ban Huawei in the implementation of 5G networks, but happily welcome them into other significant network infrastructure?

One might argue that having a footprint inside millions of homes is a bigger concern than having them in mobile phone towers – (which can be and are actively monitored by the carriers operating them, and suspicious activity might be detected) – as the vast majority of home users get the modem from their ISP, plug it into the wall and never think about it again.

Monitoring?  Yeah, right.

I think the politicians are clearly – (as is often the case) – trying to make a political point without having any real understanding of what they are talking about.

Huawei may or may not present information or national security issues, but if you’re going to take a stand against them, you cannot and should not be so selective.

Ban them or don’t ban them – but just don’t half-ass your decision.

Further Reading: