Friday, January 29, 2010

No more cheap stuff from China?

Back in the 1950s, Japan was considered a source of "cheap junk".

Everything from tin-plated metal toys to low-cost electronics began to pour out of that country as it recovered from the devastating effects of World War 2.

For a while, it looked as if the enviable Japanese work ethic, a willingness to toil long hours for low wages and a near-worthless currency would see Japan forever at the bottom of the economic heap.

However, three or four decades later, Japan was a totally different economy.

And now, the cars, electronics and other items that proudly carry the "Made in Japan" label are considered to be of the highest quality, often setting new benchmarks for performance as well.

Gone is the stigma of "cheap" formerly associated with Japanese-made goods; replaced by an aura of quality, dependability and reliability -- albeit with a much higher price tag. Japan has also moved from a war-ravaged minor nation to a very important player in the 21st century's global economy.

Now to China...

China is currently where Japan was in the 1960s. It has made a reputation for building very cheap and often shoddy products on the back of a low-wage labour force.

Our homes and businesses are filled with consumer electronics that carry the "made in China" label and, whereas we once paid over $1,000 for a DVD player manufactured in Japan by a brand-name like Sony or Pioneer, I purchased a Sino DVD player in the Warehouse for just $19 over the Christmas break.

Initially I thought we'd see China follow the same path as Japan and Taiwan -- slowly moving from a reliance on low-prices to sell their products to an investment in quality that would allow higher prices and profits to be had.

But something might just change the way that would have otherwise played out.

What's happened to change the natural progression of events is the electric-power revolution.

With ever-rising oil prices and the looming spectre of heavy carbon taxes, a very rapid and massive shift is underway towards renewable power sources and carbon-free transport technologies.

Pivotal to these emerging technologies are two key ingredients: lithium batteries and very efficient electric motors based on rare-earth magnets.

China has found itself in the enviable position of already being the world's leading supplier of both these highly sought-after products. Even better (for China) they also have the world's largest resources of the raw materials required to make those rare-earth magnets.

In fact, 97% of all the rare earth elements are mined from within China's borders, effectively giving them a virtual monopoly on this increasingly valuable raw material.

With this in mind, China no longer has to travel the slow route from low-wage economy to high unit-value manufacturing, and they know it.

In fact, China is preparing to halt the export of all rare-earth elements by 2012. They will use their entire output of these valuable materials to feed their own electric motor production lines, effectively cementing their monopoly in this area.

If the world is going to covert its vehicle fleets to electric power in any numbers then China holds all the aces. They have the largest production of lithium batteries and a strangle-hold on the raw materials for the motors.

One only has to look at what the automobile industry did for Japan's fortunes to realise that China is sitting on a goldmine, and clearly intends to capitalise on that fact.

This leaves me wondering if we're currently living in "the golden era of cheap Chinese products".

Once China's reliance on making dirt-cheap toasters, irons, kettles, DVD players, power-tools, etc is no longer essential to their economic wellbeing, we may see those low-wage resources redirected to meeting the demand for batteries and motors.

What's more, the Chinese currency will almost certainly get a huge boost, once analysts and traders realise that neodymium, lanthanum and terbium are "the new oil". The shift of manufacturing emphasis, combined with the rocketing currency may mean that all that cheap stuff we buy at The Warehouse will suddenly become far more expensive.

And as a final sobering note it's worth remembering that many wars have started over far less valuable resources than rare-earth minerals.

As the Chinese say, "may you live in interesting times".

Friday, January 22, 2010

Be an instant expert, courtesy of the internet

Today a friend rang me up and said "come get some fish, I've just got back from the coast and have a chilly-bin full of schnapper".

Almost before he'd hung up, I was at his back doorstep, clutching a fist-full of plastic bags in which to carry off these tasty creatures.

With fresh fish costing over $50/kg in the supermarket, there's no way I was going to turn down the chance to get some for free -- but there was one problem. These weren't supermarket fillets, they were "real fish" -- with heads, tails, fins, skin and bones, albeit without their guts.

Now I'm not the least bit squeamish, my father taught me to gut fish when I was just a kid and I've never forgotten how to do it -- but I've never actually filleted one.

"Hmmm" I thought to myself, "how will I learn to fillet fish?"

Then it dawned on me, this is the 21st century and just about every thing you could ever want to know is available online -- so off to YouTube I went.

Within a few short minutes, I'd watched several "how to fillet..." videos and grasped the basics. Now we'll be having some rather nice boneless fish fillets for our Saturday night dinner.

How on earth would I have managed in pre-internet times?

I'd probably have had to trot off to the local library and find a book on the subject. Then I'd have to come home, read it and try out the lessons -- without getting my fishy fingers all over the pages. That's nowhere near as easy or effective as just watching a video.

When my wife had an accident a few months ago, I used YouTube to teach me how to cook some basic (but tasty and nutritious) meals. It was like having my own private cooking instructor right there at my fingertips.

Next week I have to change the cambelt in my aging Toyota ute -- or pay a mechanic a king's ransom to do the same.

So what did I do?

Simple, I jumped on the net and found a wealth of information that shows me exactly what's required, how long it will take and even includes videos of other people doing exactly what I'll have to. Again, in the pre-internet era I'd have had to fork out for a Haynes manual or some similar chunk of tree-flesh to guide me through the process.

So really, there's very little you can't learn by spending a bit of time behind a keyboard these days.

There are some places that even offer full degree courses through YouTube. These cover a huge range of disciplines including civil engineering, physics, chemistry, electronics and a raft of other subjects.

Just think about it -- if you're ever at a loss for something to do (if only!), you can now plonk yourself down in front of your computer and actually learn something new and interesting -- at no cost!

Although I do it often, I still marvel and chuckle with delight every time I use the Net to help learn a new skill or assimilate new knowledge.

While some may use it solely for online gaming, downloading ripped CDs/DVDs or searching for somewhat less savoury content, I think the smarter folks amongst us know that time spent learning from the material that's online is an investment which can pay huge dividends.

This is better than having the world's biggest library in your own living room.

Now that you've finished reading this, go hunt out some information or an educational video on a topic you've always had an interest in but never actually gotten around to studying. You might be surprised how quickly the time passes and how much you enjoy the process.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New zero-day vulnerability might sink IE

Is the end in sight for Internet Explorer?

Browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera have all be slowly chipping away at Microsoft's Internet Explorer's (IE) dominance, as each seeks to gain the title of "world's most poplar browsing software".

To date, although it has lost ground to its rivals, IE has remained the most popular browser in cyberspace (over 60%) -- however the writing may now be on the wall in the wake of the most recent vulnerability in Microsoft's product.

According to reports now circulating on the Net, it was a zero-day flaw in IE that enabled Chinese hackers to target Google this week -- an attack that ultimately saw the search-engine giant back out of an agreement to censor its content in that country.

The bug that allowed hackers to gain access to some users' systems affects versions 6 through 8 of IE on most versions of Windows (including XP, Vista, Windows 7, Server 2003/2008 and even legacy systems such as Windows 2000).

It wasn't just Google who fell prey to this concerted attack via the zero-day vulnerability though.

Some 30 hi-tech companies throughout Silicon Valley were targets and big names such as Grumman, Dow Chemical, Yahoo, Symantec and Adobe were also in the hackers cross-hairs.

The effect of the bug was to allow a hacker to seize control of a computer if the user encountered a suitably crafted webpage loaded with malware that exploited the hole.

Unlike many previous attacks based on a zero-day vulnerability, this one seems to have been extremely well organised and precisely targeted at individuals and organisations that were known to have significant amounts of "high value" data on their systems.

Microsoft has acknowedged the bug, describing it as taking advantage of an invalid pointer reference. Unfortunately, despite the magnitude of the problem and the fact that it's already being widely used to launch attacks, no date has been confirmed for the release of a patch.

Given the scope, sophistication and (in some cases) the effectiveness of the attacks that were based on this browser bug, I suspect that many IT managers who haven't already opted to ditch IE in favour of another option might well be spending the weekend weighing up the pro's and con's of Microsoft's browser offering.

Of course switching to an alternative may provide at best, only a temporary respite from the exploitation of such vulnerabilities.

No software is perfect and there are some who claim that IE receives more than its fair share of bad press simply because it is the largest target in the market. Whichever browser takes IE's crown will then become the primary focus for the attention of hackers and malware purveyors -- so will anything really change?

Such a move will certainly represent a huge challenge for the creators and maintainers of Firefox, the most likely candidate to wrestle the crown from IE.

As the Chinese would say -- we live (and browse) in interesting times.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Encryption.. an asset or liability?

When the GSM digital system replaced early analog technology in the cellular phone market, one of the biggest features touted by the new networks was the security that GSM encryption offered.

Old analog calls could be intercepted and monitored by anyone with a scanner or purpose-built receiver and indeed, I recall the odd occasion when something went awry and I could hear parts of other people's conversations on my own Motorola Beige Brick from time to time.

GSM was, they said, virtually unbreakable and offered such a strong level of encryption as part of its basic functionality, that all your private conversations would at last be free from prying ears.

And so it was, until a couple of years ago when a German security expert announced that he'd cracked the GSM code.

Fortunately, the "cracker" didn't go blabbing about exactly how he'd managed this feat and, even if he had done so, there was no really practical way to implement the crack in a way that would provide third-parties with the ability to monitor other people's conversations in realtime.

But now, Karsten Nohl has released code that he says will allow GSM voice calls to be decrypted.

In response, James Moran, the head of security for the London-based GSM Association has told the media that it's a fairly trivial task for network operators to thwart Nohl's code by "tweaking existing features in the technology".

The Association has also said that it will be implementing a new, harder to crack and more resilient form of encryption within the next couple of years.

That may sound re-assuring, but only someone rather naive would believe that their conversations on any mobile or internet phone system are truly private and protected from being overheard by others.

On one flank we have governments that are increasingly granting themselves the right and power to intercept private conversations at will -- in the name of national security.

On the other, we have massive increases in the levels of computing power available to individual computer users. Often, this power comes not in the form of a faster Intel or AMD CPU, but by way of insanely powerful GPUs found in relatively low-cost video cards.

The ability of these cards to manipulate massive arrays of data at lightning speeds lends itself very well to the task of breaking complex encryption schemes.

Those of us who have worked in the computer industry for a long time will know that hard-encryption technology is (or at least was) classified as a kind of "arms" and severe restrictions placed on its sale and dissemination.

The same was true for many different super-computers, the fear being that enemies of the West would turn such power against the countries who made them.

I wonder now, in the current paranoid climate of fear brought about by "The War Against Terror", whether we'll see similar sanctions being reintroduced -- so as to ensure that insurgents can't communicate using virtually uncrackable cyphers powered by the latest and greatest video processing chips.

Could the most useful weapon, in the hands of extremist terorrists be, not a kilo of C4 but a small cluster of PS/3s that is used to create a totally secure communications channel between various operational "cells"?

How long before you need a licence to buy or own the latest ultra-powerful games console or gamer PC I wonder?