I recently wrote about ransomware and paid some attention to the British Library's current problem with this scourge. Well, a BBC article (Why some cyber-attacks hit harder than others) returns to the scene and covers the continuing issues and costs being borne. It's a sorry state of affairs. Looks like people are having to order books with paper forms and the digital media is still offline.
The Russian hacker group Rhysida claimed responsibility, and demanded a ransom of 20 bitcoin (equivalent to £600,000 at the time). After the British Library refused to pay up, and following an online auction of stolen data, the hackers leaked the nearly 600 GB of private information on the dark web.
Of course, Russia. The country has long been a center of criminal "hacking", state sponsored and private enterprise. Russian authorities look the other way as long as these groups don't attack Russia itself; maybe the state will co-opt or sponsor the activity. China is another major offender. The New York Times via the archive site:
The Chinese government’s use of private contractors to hack on its behalf borrows from the tactics of Iran and Russia, which for years have turned to nongovernmental entities to go after commercial and official targets. Although the scattershot approach to state espionage can be more effective, it has also proved harder to control. Some Chinese contractors have used malware to extort ransoms from private companies, even while working for China’s spy agency.
The problem we have is that computer and network security is hard. As well as the actual "technical" mitigations we can use (e.g. spam filters, firewalls), people themselves are usually a weak link. Anyone can be misdirected or scammed, even "experts". And almost everything is connected to the internet today, including everything that keeps civilisation actually "civilised" and people alive. Let's hope things don't get worse. And to be clear, I don't think ransoms should be paid because it just encourages these attacks.
Comics are still a big industry and the largest in the world is in Japan, followed by France and the USA. Japan has a long history with comics (Manga) and the market there is huge with lots of physical comic books sold and massive Manga shows. I've been watching the Cartoonist Kayfabe YouTube channel and my eyes have been opened to just how big comics are over there.
France is the second largest market for comic books (called "Bande Dessinée" or "BD"). The Guardian have a decent article online about the large comic convention held in Angoulême, France, every year:
Like the Japanese, the French do comics differently to us in the UK. Whereas the UK public has mostly seen "comics" as a form of entertainment for children, the French have seen comics as an art form and, as such, given them much more respect. The gap in perception has narrowed over the past two decades but I suspect it is still there. When I first looked at French comics the difference in the culture was like night and day. In the 1980's I started to read BD by the likes of Moebius, Bilal and Druillet: the French magazine Métal Hurlant was seminal at this time (and its American cousin Heavy Metal). Manga has made big inroads to the French market over the past few years: over half the market according to The Guardian article.
With manga, I certainly looked at it back in the day (mid-80's) but I think this was just before of the good sort was available. I just couldn't get past the way faces and eyes were drawn, or the often childish looking characters. Looking back now, I know I jumped to entirely wrong conclusions, but with so many other great comics coming online to me at the time, I never found time to take another look.
One of the best known Japanese comics, and perhaps the biggest hit of them all, is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, first published in Japan in 1982 with a first edition in English (Marvel's Epic line) in 1988. To many, this was the book that completely changed their perception of manga.
I might have glanced at Akira years ago but it would have been a superficial look. The guys on the Kayfabe channel are massive fans of Otomo and have been going through his comics and paying serious and deserved attention to their quality. It's been enough to have me taking a proper look. I've been lucky that my library (Edinburgh Central) has a fairly decent selection of comics and graphics novels so, when I saw they had the first few Akira volumes on the shelf, I knew what I had to do.
I've now read volumes one and two, and have three and four out on loan to read. Each is a thick black and white book but not heavy going in any way and the story moves along briskly. It's set in a near future "Neo-Tokyo", rebuilt a few decades after a World War and after massive devastation caused by a "new type" of bomb dropped at its center (see top image). A cyber-punk type future we've seen a lot more of now but here is a well paced story, fresh and well written, with great art. Otomo excels at detailed buildings and backgrounds, machines and action.
The comic reads surprisingly well and looks beautiful too: I am ashamed I took so long to pick it up but would recommend it to anyone.
My tablet has taken to telling me something I am painfully aware of. The Economist android app crashes. A lot. In fact, it crashed over ten times for me at lunchtime yesterday. Given that it is also very slow, it takes a long time to start it up and get to a point I can attempt to read something again (it also loses the current article). It might crash again before I even get to the article again, if I can find it (it sometimes rearranges the home page and hides stuff). This is the way it is every day now.
I like The Economist magazine in general and have been a subscriber for many years now. I still find the writing good and explanations of current affairs and business excellent, even if I am a bit less aligned with it on some issues than I used to be. However, given the problems reading it, I will not extend my subscription again later this year.
I am also far from the only one having a problem. If you head over to the Google Play Store and look up the Economist App, you will see many people saying very similar things. This needs to be addressed or people will stop buying it. Fundamentally, what do we have here? A collection of text and images on pages wrapped in a "magazine". How hard is this? It is a solved problem.
I read on a Samsung Galaxy Tab A, from 2018. It has 3 GB RAM and 32GB storage. I use it only for the Economist app now. I see no reason why the Economist app should not work on this. If they really need to stretch the limits of what this tablet supports (but why?), give us a "lite" version. I refuse to buy another tablet just to read a "magazine".
I have tried a factory reset of the tablet. Things improved for a few days but started getting bad again soon after.
Here are some of the things wrong :
So, I have just about had enough. My subscription is good until the autumn but I will not pay money again for this horrible, frustrating experience. I will call their help center and let them know. I'd like my money back.
I've just done another factory reset, reinstalled the app from thePlay Store and logged in. I used it at lunchtime and, although the app was a bit slow and unresponsive to "clicks", it behaved better. It didn't crash once, which is the most important thing to me. I actually managed to read a few articles and not feel angry or frustrated at the end of my lunchtime. I'll see how it goes for the next few days.
The British Library has had a big problem recently, as they were saying throughout their web site :
We're continuing to experience a major technology outage as a result of a cyber-attack. Our buildings are open as usual, however, the outage is still affecting our website, online systems and services, as well as some onsite services. This is a temporary website, with limited content outlining the services that are currently available, as well as what's on at the Library.
This has been the case for weeks although it appears they are restoring some services now.
I've been reading about "ransom ware" cyber-attacks for a few years now: this is when an attacker gets access to a computer system, server or network and encrypts (scrambles) the files and data so the systems are unusable. They then demand money to unlock the data. Perhaps money not to leak the data online in public. This sort of attack has affected hospitals, businesses and government. It's getting worse. So bad in fact, that people are waking up to the National Security implications.
The Economist had a recent article about the problem (How ransomware could cripple countries, not just companies) and one of the things it mentioned was the fact that Bitcoin, a hard to track anonymous digital currency, is one of the things that made the problem much worse. In fact, Bitcoin is a major enabler of the crime :
The hardest part of a ransomware attack was once cashing out and laundering the ransom. Attackers would have to buy high-end goods using stolen banking credentials and sell them on the black market in Russia, losing perhaps 60-70% of the profit along the way. Cryptocurrency has enabled them to cash out immediately with little risk.
With everything increasingly connected (think "5G"), and network and computer security so poor (for many reasons), it might get very bumpy. Let's not talk about war.
Last week I came across yet another media report of ransonware : infecting a Bosch Torque wrench ("Handheld Nutrunner NXA015S-B 3-15NM"). This was detailed in a post on ArsTechnica.
My initial reaction was a bit of amusement: an internet connected wrench? But maybe a modern manufacturing business has a good case for logging or setting all sorts of things over a network: this was even part of the case for "5G" networks. But if so much of modern life is now network connected, how screwed will we be if it is attacked, compromised and rendered unusable?
By Chris Miller
I've finished reading Chris Miller's Chip War, the history of the semiconductor industry. This is one of the best books I've read for a long time. It is much more than just a history though.
Semiconductors are a (perhaps the) foundation of modern life and are now present in almost everything manufactured, not just computer processors (CPU's). Also chips for networking (including wifi), communications, manufacturing, medical, power. And weapon systems.
So from the physics, to the engineering, manufacturing, supply chains and logistics, we have an essential technology, globalised and now wrapped up in "Great Power" competition. The book is almost up to date and climaxes with the US/China rupture over trade and technology, with the US now awake to the Chinese threat to their continued technological domination. It is almost gripping.
The technology now used to create these devices is breathtaking. Arthur C. Clarke's said :
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Reading this book, particularly the chapter on the Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) Lithography process, brought this old quote to mind on a few occasions. The world is full of "magical" technology today but we barely recognise it as such because we are so used to it.
One scientist called the development of EUV as "what felt like infinite money for solving an impossible problem". This research had been going on for decades and some people didn't think it was actually possible. The scale of the latest transistors (the building block of everything) was getting so small (tens of nanometres (nm)) that the wavelength of light needed to "etch" them was also getting so tiny that quantum effects can cause problems. Some very advanced science is needed today at the cutting edge.
For instance: just producing the light needed for the process now is very difficult. This development originated with a US company called Cymer; experts in laser light sources. From the book :
The company's engineers realised the best approach was to shoot a tiny ball of tin measuring thirty-millionths of a meter wide moving through a vacuum at speeds of around two hundred miles per hour. The tin is then struck twice with a laser, the first pulse to warm it up, the second to blast it into a plasma with a temperature around half a million degrees, many times hotter than the surface of the sun. This process of blasting tin is then repeated fifty-thousand times per second to produce EUV light in the quantities necessary to fabricate chips.
Approaching magic? Well, we're certainly getting close.
This laser had to be designed and built: it didn't exist. This in itself is a marvel of engineering. The people that built it: a German company called Trumpf. Their web site includes a picture of this (shown on the right).
The actual EUV machine itself is built by a Dutch company called ASML. The technology involved is well described on their own page. It is one of the most complex machines ever built and not only very expensive (we are talking hundreds of millions dollars) but increasingly wrapped up in the new hard rules on export imposed by the US.
Below: The ASML EUV Lithography system :
Although the likes of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) are the undisputed kings of silicon chip fabrication in 2023 (and this is unlikely to change in the near or even medium term), the USA still has a huge amount of leverage over the industry and many chip "choke" points. The dilemma is that Taiwan, like South Korea and Holland, are allies of the US, so to target China or claw back manufacturing onshore, means treading a very fine line.
The consequences of a Chinese war for Taiwan would likely be absolutely disastrous for the world due to the impact on the the silicon chip supply. Not just logic chips, but memory and NAND (flash) as well. A severe impact which will affect everyone very badly. This is a dangerous piece of history playing out right now, and as Miller says in the book, Taiwan is the "beating heart of the digital world".
Over the years, you see and recognise the same painters and can watch them get better over time. Some artists paint in a very realistic style, which is impressive from a technical point of view and sometimes also produces a beautiful work of art. Occasionally, a "hyper real" style can seem too much like a photograph and this is probably a common criticism. My take is that the ends justify the means and if the ends look like this work by Lucy McKie then I'm very glad to see it. Colour, composition and technique come together to create something beautiful.
I'm reading the book Chip War by Chris Miller, about the history of the semiconductor industry. It looks at technology, logistics and at the increasingly fraught politics of the manufacture of advanced computer chips.
I know some of the history here, especially from a Silicon Valley and USA perspective, but there's plenty I'm learning (and I am only a quarter of the way through the book). A trivial example: I'd never thought of the origin or meaning of the term computer "chip". It turns out that it's from the way the integrated circuits were all created on a single piece of silicon and then each individual circuit was "chipped" off the whole to make the part.
A huge amount of very innovative work was done in the semiconductor and transistor field in the fifties and sixties and it continues to this day. The technology is, in some ways, almost indistinguishable from magic.
I went to see the new National Gallery of Scotland exhibition The Printmaker's Art | Rembrandt to Rego. Printing is both art and craft, and here you often need to make the tool to then make your art. For instance, etching a copper plate or sanding a stone block for lithographic printing. The exhibition has some good videos showing a few of the printing techniques available to an artist (the videos are also on their YouTube channel).
There are some very good prints on display here, some phenomenally good. An example of the latter is Claude Mellan's Head of Christ, an engraving printed on paper.
As the information in the gallery box says :
"Incredibly, this entire image has been formed using a single engraved line swirling outwards from the tip of the nose."
Right: Face of Christ on St. Veronica's Cloth, Claude Mellan, 1649. Engraving; second state of two.
NOTE: The image is taken from The Metropolitan Museum in New York. To properly see the amazing print, you need to see it in person or, at least, go to the Met link.
There is a whole other side to Rembrandt's artistic output: printmaking. He was a master of the art and the exhibition has an example of this in his print Christ Presented to the People ('Ecce Homo'). The gallery shows two versions, a later one he reworked, showing his mastery of the Drypoint printing technique. The print is made by using a needle or sharp object to directly incise the lines in a metal plate. The Met Museum has an essay about this.
The image below is from the National Gallery of Scotland web site.
An unfamiliar name to me, Joan Hassall produced a print called The Stricken Oak that is absolutely amazing.
Shown on the right, it should be seen in all its glory, either in real life or the National Gallery of Scotland web site. A beautiful and very finely detailed wood cut.
Right: The Stricken Oak, Joan Hassall. Wood engraving on paper, 1937 [link].
There are a lot of pieces worth seeing and this only scratches the surface. We also have William Blake: tiny wood engravings illustrating Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil (see the Tate site).
Hokusai, Otto Dix, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Picasso, Goya, Constable and more.
I'm a member of the National Gallery of Scotland so it is an easy decision to go back for another look. However, even if I wasn't a member, I think another visit would be hard to resist.
Printing has been something I have wanted to try my hand at for a long time and this is another little push to have a go sometime.
I rarely think about using a spell-checking program: I've always thought I was fine reading what I wrote and fixing any mistakes myself. I can spell. But the other day, reading back a short blog post (again) I noticed a couple of errors I should have seen earlier. I could easily have "published" them. This made me think about a vim spell-checker.
It turns out there is a very easy way to do a spell-check in vim:
This highlights words considered misspelled. There are keys to jump between them and
also to pop open a list of suggestions (see:
A very useful tool on occasion. I must remember to use it before pushing anything out to the world!
There are lots of different things going on in December: markets, fairs, shows, exhibitions, concerts. Too much to see everything so you have to be a bit picky. Unfortunately, a lot does tend to clash at weekends.
A case in point last weekend were so many artist studio spaces having an "open studios" at the same time: Coburg House, Patriothall and Out of the Blue Abbeymount. I wanted to see Abbeymount Studios (I've never been) but prioritised Patriothall because it is near me and I was a bit time constrained. All this was on top of Out of the Blue Arts Market, Summerhall Christmas Market and quite a few other markets. All go!
I went to Summerhall Christmas Market on Saturday afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the stalls in all the various rooms of the rambling old building. Until 2011 it was "The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies" but now it's a big arts venue with a lot of very diverse programming.
The best thing about well curated markets like Summerhall is the quality of the stallholders: creators and makers. Much to see and many are worth drawing attention to but I'm always particularly interested in any visual artists around.
One of the creators present was Marie-Alice Harel, an artist and illustrator.
As she says on the web page, it certainly is "curious": "a reflexion on nature and culture, on the blurry line between human and animal". Her art is fine, detailed and beautiful to look at, in the classic tradition of Edmund Dulac. She's won some awards and exhibited quite widely. There's lots on her web site, including some process. More to come I expect!
Left: A detail from Into the Deep, Watercolor and ink, 2020. © MÄ HAREL [link]
Another artist and illustrator with a table exhibiting her work was Joanna Robson.
Robson's also an accomplished artist with an attractive body of work. I was particularly struck by the prints she had on display.
The etching Haven has a blog post describing the background and technique. Having recently visited the Scottish National Gallery's The Printmaker's Art, it's great to see the actual copper plate the etching is inscribed on. It looks beautiful.
Right: Haven, etching. © Joanna Robson [link]
Overall, an excellent Christmas market at Summerhall, made so good by the people taking part. I will definitely want to go next year as well. I also bought some Kimchi from Edinburgh Fermentarium. I've now finished the pot of "Mac Kimchi" : "A kimchi for those of us who crave the deep spicy umami of traditional Korean kimchi". Recommended.
Well, tis the season to go shopping it seems.
Edinburgh is jam packed with people in the town center. I read that the official Christmas Market on Princes Street is unbearably busy, with some people turning around and walking away because of the queues. Even outside the main areas things are busy, especially at weekends. Luckily, I'm an early bird so, if I need to go near the epicentre, I can mostly avoid the crush. I assume it will be getting worse.
It's definitely something to take in at night though. I like this time of year because of the number of things to do but I prefer the smaller and less commercial attractions. Some reports to come hopefully.
John Byrne, one of the best artists Scotland's produced, died today. He was a natural : he had to draw (write,paint) to live.
I was mostly familiar with his painting, drawing and print making and he was very prolific. In addition to this, he was a successful writer and playwright.
Definitely a big Byrne-shaped hole in the Scottish arts scene.
I saw a lot of his work over the years in Edinburgh, and would even occasionally see the man himself around town (or in the Art Shop). A very dapper dresser. He was fond of doing self-portraits, often with a cigarette in his mouth: not very good for his health although he lived to a good age (like another famous artist smoker, David Hockney).
Although I'll miss seeing new art works from him, I look forward to a proper retrospective exhibition.
There is a bit of winter sun around just now in Edinburgh: an occasional bright sun, weakly warming, with clouds and the threat of rain, sleet or snow. Perhaps all three on the same afternoon. It's very cold but this is something you need to get used to during a winter in Scotland. There's often no sun at all and it can be quite dark and dismal all day.
The Scottish Gallery's December exhibition is called Low Winter Sun and celebrates the sort of weather we might get up here at this time of year. Victoria Crowe is the artist and always a welcome sight in the gallery; an artist I like and have admired on this blog.
Some of Crowe's work in the exhibition are monotype prints, and they're good. From Jackson's Art blog :
The blog linked above also describes how to make a monotype print. Even better, Victoria Crowe shows how it is done on the Scottish Gallery's YouTube channel : The Making of Burnished by a Late Sun (YouTube video).
The exhibition is on for a few weeks and I'll visit again.
If you use DHCP anywhere, you know that the server sends network configuration to you, the client, to set up things like your IP address, gateway, DNS server etc. An essential service today for most devices. What if you change something in the server and need to refresh these settings?
On Linux when using the NetworkManager program to deal with networking, you can easily release and refresh the configured settings using the NM command line tool nmcli. See what network conections are present :
nmcli connection show
Identify the network you want to refresh ("NAME") and switch it off ("down") :
nmcli connection down id "NAME"Replace "NAME" with the name of the conection (you will need quotes if there are any spaces in the name of the connection).
Turn it back on ("up") :
nmcli connection up id "NAME"
This should refresh your network configuration to reflect the server change you have made.
Putting my "What I learned Today" efforts in the shade is Josh Branchaud's "Today I Learned" (TIL) repository of useful knowledge. He's been adding to this for quite a few years and it's a very impressive collection. It's on Github.
The banner at the top of my blog at the moment (end of October 2023) is a detail from a photograph I took a couple of years ago on Bruntsfield Links, Edinburgh. The banner (cropped a little) :
This was a lovely sunny afternoon in September 2020. I used the photograph as a reference for a painting I completed late last year (November 2022). The painting came out fairly well I think. I've come to terms with how much green there is. I think. The painting :
A detail from the painting :
By Greg Egan
A near future Earth, cut off from the rest of the universe by a "bubble" in space blocking out the stars and any access to the universe beyond the solar system. A future Earth where brain modifications ("mods") are easily bought and installed, giving the user ways of taking a call in their sleep, suppressing boredom or even bringing a visible and audible avatar of a dead partner to life. Maybe an idea installed: something that becomes a central part of who you are. However, this is the least of it in Greg Egan's novel. It gets even stranger: quantum physics strange. What is the quantum wave function and what does it mean when it "collapses"?
If you know what Schrödinger's Cat is, or a bit about Quantum Physics (the strange and sometimes outlandish theory of the subatomic world) you might think you have an understanding of what's in store: you might need to think again.
I enjoyed reading this but must admit that the speculation was tough going on some occasions (also: I have a Physics Degree). Quantum Physics is a very successfully theory of the world but also notoriously difficult to understand on many levels (beyond the mathematical equations). This is definitely not your average "speculative" fiction book, science-fiction or otherwise and Egan has form; he is not afraid to consider the stranger aspects of science and where it leads. It can be mind-bending stuff, so great fun sometimes but also hard to follow on occasion.
This is definitely not a book everyone will like; probably a book only a few will manage to get through perhaps. But for those that like their science-fiction to have harder "science" in it, you can't beat Greg Egan's novels and I would highly recommend you have a look at Quarantine. Especially if you are interested in the ramifications of Quantum Physics.
Almost a followup to the recent post about removing complexity and keeping things simple: a recent post by Julia Evans (a software developer in Canada). She has a video and a transcript of a talk she gave entitled Making Hard Things Easy and makes a case that far too much knowledge is poorly documented and hard to understand. She's primarily talking about technical things, like the Bash Shell or DNS, but the main point is applicable to many other things in normal day to day life and work. This is why we write an "executive summary" on a report. We want to extract the important parts of a (possibly long and involved) document and present them in an easily digested list up front. Fundamentally, it is all about good communication.
"Keep It Simple, Stupid" is often an apt plan in life, not just in your technical endeavours. If something is complicated, it's easier to build badly, or break.. So I will place this "What I Learned Lately" post in the "general" section.
I was looking at the state of the technical back-end of my web site and blog (such as it is), trying to recall how it all fit together: what this or that file (or style) did and where it came from. Most of it is quite simple: the blogging "platform" itself is straightforward (a small CGI script called blosxom), the rest generally static. But I had included some bigger components, a so-called "framework" (Foundation), of which I was only using a tiny portion (barely noticeable really). Also extra fonts, mostly unused but cluttering up the HTML. When you add complexity like this, things can get slower and harder to extend. The final problem was: I barely understood what this extra stuff was or how it worked.
A final thing to note: testing the site to make sure it still worked and looked okay, I came across a lot of my old blog posts. Book reviews, some social comment, galleries and art. It all builds up and is fascinating to read now (to me at least). It's amazing to look back and recall I actually owned a Firefox Smartphone! Unfortunately it didn't work out for the long term. Things are a lot better now of course /s
It's finally open. It's been a long and frustrating wait in many ways, but Scotland's new National Gallery of Art opened its doors to the public for the first time last Saturday. Many delays, some due to the pandemic, and a lot of money spent. But we have something to visit at last and the bottom of the Mound is beginning to look somewhat presentable again (although I have a bit of a complaint: see below).
The new gallery is laid out along the length of the main gallery building, but underneath it. In the photo above, the new extension is all the way at the back, stretching away under the National Gallery building at the far end. Unlike the old spaces for the Scottish collection, the new area doesn't feel so much like a basement now. It's lighter and better laid out.
I like the new gallery and I am very happy that it is finally open. Like many, it was dragging on a bit but you can't argue with the great art work we can finally see again. It makes a big difference to see the paintings in a well lit and more open space. And even though it is hard to integrate with the rest of the gallery space, it's a huge improvement.
The gallery site has a fuller section on Celebrating Scotland's Art.
You can also have a look at a YouTube video which walks you through the space.
I wish they actually cleaned up the mess and litter outside the gallery in real life, rather than just virtually. Council or gallery problem ownership? Also, hooray that the Playfair Steps are also open again.
Every year, the Mall Galleries in London hosts an exhibition of the Royal Society of Marine Artists and the 2023 show finishes on September 30th. Unfortunately, I don't get down to see them anymore, but the gallery always puts them online and it's the next best thing. As always, amazing works of art.
Some awards are given out each year (online). Frankly, they're all excellent but here are two I particularly like. Jenny Aitken's Sundown from Harwich Quay (link) because of the beautiful evening light, and Raymond Leech's Evening Crabbing Session Blakeney (link) because of it's lovely "painterly" execution. Great light as well!
The world is a lot better with good art.