Saturday, June 30, 2012

How quantum computing will change security

Today, most password protected systems have fairly strong encryption and security features. The time it would take a traditional computer to crack the encryption of a network would be so long the network would have already changed its password and any data gained from previous communications would be too old to be worth anything.

Quantum computers are set to change all of that in a drastic way. As an example, forms of RSA are used in secure websites and email systems (notice the https:// instead of http:// on these pages). RSA is based on how difficult it is for computers to factor integers, and is used in almost all public-key cryptography (cryptography that is used across an open network). Quantum computers are adept at factoring integers and if the problems holding them back were solved they would quickly make RSA obsolete, compromising one of the most popular forms of secure communications over the Internet.

Rather than using security that is based off of the difficulty of factoring integers, other lattice-based cryptography or systems based on problems in coding theory. Quantum computers are not yet known to crack those systems easily, but quantum algorithms have far more potential than classic algorithms for problem solving.

While effective quantum computing may not arrive for some time, when it does land it will completely alter the security landscape.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The day a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner called me a racist

I noted with some pleasant surprise and amusement the news late last month that President Obama presented an old acquaintance, Dolores Huerta, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mrs. Huerta and I crossed paths a few times back in the early '80s when I was the agriculture editor of a small Central California daily newspaper and she was a high-profile farm worker rights advocate.

If anyone deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it's Mrs. Huerta. Although we agree on few things politically, she has my deep respect for her passion and hard work promoting fair treatment of those who harvest our nation's crops -- often by hand while stooped over in the open where temperatures well exceed 100 degrees.

I'll never forget the day I met Mrs. Huerta; it was at a Fresno, Calif., TV station where she and I were taping one of those early-Sunday-morning public affairs shows as panelists discussing farm issues. It was in the station lobby after that taping, during what I thought was a light, innocuous conversation, that Mrs. Huerta called me a racist.

Did I deserve it? I didn't think so at the time, and now nearly 30 years later I can hardly remember the details of what we talked about. It wasn't an interview; it was one of those 'nice-to-meet-you' type of conversations before parting.

I was the farm editor at The Hanford Sentinel then, and in my work I certainly had more routine encounters with farm owners than I did with farm workers. I think I made some comment about the labor needs of farm operators, and Mrs. Huerta drilled me with a glare, and said, "How can you say that? I think you're a racist."
At that, she stood up, turned on her heel, and left the building. I was a 24-year-old kid at the time, who probably didn't belong on any TV public affairs program, and I was pretty stricken. I had no idea what I had said to offend her. She was well-known, I was not, and offending her was the last thing I wanted to do.

She had an impressive resume even then. Mrs. Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with labor icon Cesar Chavez back in the early '60s. During agricultural strikes and other labor unrest she always was one of Chavez's principal lieutenants.

She was a firebrand three decades ago when I was passing acquaintances with her, and more than a little rough around the edges. She'd get in your face in a moment, no matter who you were, if she detected anything less than full support for her labor causes. I saw it happen to plenty of other people, before and after it happened to me. In her work Mrs. Huerta has been arrested 22 times.

She's lived her life in a "you're-either-with-us-or-against-us" world, and I think she considered me to be on the other side. I was, after all, making my living covering the farm business, where conflicts with organized labor are routine -- particularly there in California's Central Valley, a UFW stronghold. I'd never met Mrs. Huerta before, and had no idea what might set her off.

Later on, when I told the story to other UFW organizers, one of them just shook his head and chuckled, saying, "Yeah. That's Dolores."

Mrs. Huerta is 82 now and I haven't encountered her since my early days as a newspaper reporter. She's won the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award and the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which along with the Congressional Gold Medal is our nation's highest civilian award.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors."

Mrs. Huerta also has been an elementary school teacher, and is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield, Calif., which advocates for health, environmental, education, economic, and youth issues. She also is an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America -- the largest socialist organization in the U.S. and principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International.

Mrs. Huerta is a mother to 11 children, and grandmother to seven, and considers her proudest accomplishments to be, "Spanish-language ballots for voters, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the fields, drinking water protection from pesticides," and an immigration act that gave legal status to more than a million farm workers, according to The Daily Beast. To call Mrs. Huerta formidable is an understatement.

So there I was standing flat-footed in a Fresno TV station, a fuzzy-faced kid just a couple of years out of college, who had just offended Mrs. Huerta enough for her to call me a racist. Crestfallen? You could say that.

Then I noticed it; in her haste, Mrs. Huerta had left her purse behind. I picked it up and went looking for her in the parking lot, where I found her, searching for that lost purse. I handed it to her, and she gave me a thank-you and a sheepish little smile. We ended up parting on reasonably good terms ...

... and I can't recall that she ever called me a racist again.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Look up in the sky! It's a helicopter, it's a plane, it's...the X3!

An aircraft that can hover, take off and land like a helicopter but cruise through the air like a jet sounds more like a GI Joe toy than an actual aircraft, but the Eurocopter X3 demonstrator is coming to the United States to show that it's more than just a good idea for a toy.

The X3 is a hybrid aircraft that looks an awful lot like a helicopter that somebody decided to photoshop stubby wings onto while removing the tail rotor (replacing it with a cool tail) and giving it a pointy nose. It really does look like something a 10-year-old drew on the back of his notebook, right next to Iron Man.

Well, that 10-year-old must have grown up and became an engineer, because the X3 is exactly that machine. Far from being a wild and crazy design, it has been shattering the speed goals that have been set (it has now reached more than 264 miles per hour) for it while operating at under maximum power. The aircraft, called a hybrid aircraft since it is a cross between a jet and a helicopter, will be flying around the United States in 7 days!

I'm excited to see how well it is received. It has obvious applications in the military for support missions, and I'd like to see how commercial and business operators could use it. While there is currently no plan to release hybrid aircraft until 2020, the technology is there and will be at Eurocopter's U.S. headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas, soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Normandy Invasion that opened the Allies great crusade in Europe happened 68 years ago today

"And then as the last formation flew over,
an amber light blinked down through the clouds
on the fleet below. Slowly it flashed out
in Morse code three dots and a dash:
V for Victory."

-- Cornelius Ryan
   The Longest Day

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 6 June 2012. The invasion of Europe 68 years ago today began with the turning of an airplane propeller. Then the engine of that Douglas C-47 coughed to life, followed by another, and another ...

Soon the engines of thousands of aircraft roared all over England, ready to carry airborne soldiers, tow gliders, haul ammunition and food, drop bombs and shoot bullets to support the Allied invasion of Normandy -- still to this day the largest amphibious military landing in history.

The Normandy invasions of five beaches in Western France on June 6, 1944, opened a western front in Europe during World War II, which not only relieved soldiers of the Soviet Union, who had been slugging it out with forces of Nazi Germany for three years, but also hastened an end to World War II's chapter in Europe. Germany would surrender 11 months later.

More than 550,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in the Normandy Invasion -- 320,000 Germans, 135,000 Americans, 65,000 British, 18,000 Canadians, and 12,200 French.
Just that number of CASUALTIES is more than three times the total number of soldiers -- Union and Confederate -- who were involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. In one cataclysmic battle, it's almost 90 percent of the total number of American casualties in the entire Civil War.

It was a big battle, as the silent rows of white headstones in Allied military cemeteries around Normandy will attest. No need here to recount the details or emotional impact of the battle. We've seen numerous accounts in books and movies to give us an idea of what those soldiers went through 68 years ago today.

The books The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan and The Steel Wave by Jeff Shaara come to mind, as do Steven Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan, and his TV series Band of Brothers, based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose.

In my life I've met and written about veterans of the Normandy Invasion. I sat one afternoon with a former paratrooper from the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted behind the lines early the morning before the first soldiers hit the beaches.

He described such a scene of crying, vomiting, praying paratroopers waiting their turns to jump that morning, flak bursting around them, their faces lit by burning and exploding aircraft close by, that my interview concluded when this brave veteran simply couldn't go on describing the scene.

Another Normandy veteran who went ashore after the first wave showed me a mutilated wallet wrapped in plastic. The wallet was his, and it was mangled by a piece of shrapnel that sliced open his chest during the fighting. He said he could look down and see his beating heart before he lost consciousness.

All of us reading this column will see a day in the not-too-distant future when all the veterans of World War II will be gone. I remember growing up when these veterans seemed like they were on every street corner.

I lost touch with those guys I met who fought at Normandy, and I suspect they have passed on by now; I did those interviews 28 years ago, yet I still think of them from time to time.

Today I'm thinking about them a lot.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vietnamese Government opens more sites to POW/MIA investigators

Not long after Memorial day, we may be finding out more about the fate of more soldiers who were declared MIA in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government is now allowing three new areas that were previously off-limits to American personnel. The sites that were opened are the Kontum province, where a soldier was lost in 1968; the Quang Binh province where a F-4C Phantom II jet crashed with two personnel in 1967; and the Quang Tri province where a F-4J Wild Weasel aircraft was lost and one man was rescued from the site while another was declared MIA.

The Vietnamese government is supporting the searches in these areas with personnel and information.

It's always good news when countries assist each other, hopefully there will be some more news as to the fate of the soldiers who were involved in these accidents. While 45 years may be a long time to wait, the phrase no man left behind comes to mind. No matter how long it takes, the U.S. will eventually find its soldiers.