Monday, October 31, 2011

IBM's Robert Talbot (while in Latvia) talks about Watson

IBM's Robert Talbot attended a local IBM Forum conference in Riga, Latvia recently, where he sat down to talk to this blogger (wearing both my Latvian and English-language blogger hats) about the future of the artificial intelligence entity called Watson.  Here it is -- the color is a bit weird and the inter-titles are in both Latvian and English. Anyway, good luck on your med boards, Watson. 

Friday, August 05, 2011

Catching up on events - Lattelecom to go to IMS by 2017

Followup on the Tele2 fiasco
I have been remiss in updating this blog and there have been some noteworthy events that I will now belatedly relate.
First, I was more or less right about the cause of the big Tele2 crash on July 14. It was, as I said in a previous post, a “piecashit” gadget that brought down the house, but after talking to Tele2 technical director Ervīns Kampāns, the picture was a bit more complicated. What actually happened was that the system that was supposed to warn about a failure of the cooling system did itself fail, but not all the AC to DC transformers went down at once. When the first ones did, the UPS attached to the Nokia-Siemens core switch did kick in, but shared the power-supplying load with the diminished flow of current from the failing transformers. What resulted was that at some point, both the supply of current from the transformers and the UPS (which is intended to work for a short time until reserve generators kick in) was degraded and finally the core switch and all the complex systems it sustained crashed. It was, indeed, a perfect storm kind of event. According to Kampāns, Tele2 has now added additional backup and security systems, so that a repetition of the highly unlikely July 14 event is even more unlikely.
Lattelecom to go all IMS by 2017
On July 20, Lattelecom and China's Huawei announced they had signed an agreement to convert the entire Lattelecom fixed line network to run on IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) standards by 2017, with the first pilot tests to take place in early 2012. Migrating to IMS would expand the services available to fixed-line subscribers as well as offering them a kind of global mobility. Lattelecom would be one of the first telcos in the region to go all-IMS (globally, as far as I can see, there aren't too many other operators who have made a conversion, although IMS is used by some for a limited range of services)
People would be able to take their fixed-line Lattelecom numbers (actually, IP addresses attached to their handsets) anywhere in the world where there was a fixed or WiFi internet connection. Lattelecom CEO Juris Gulbis also told this blogger that the telco operator would develop applications for smart phones that would make it possible to call on the IMS network. With most Lattelecom subscribers on flat-rate, “free” calling plans, calls between two Lattelecom numbers anywhere in the world would cost only what the respective internet connection costs.
Technically, the move to IMS would mean eliminating most, if not all local switches and replacing them with two redundant switches to run the whole network. Existing copper landlines would be turned into DSL connections, while optical internet customers are already on the internet and would simply have their voice services upgraded to IMS.
The deal with Lattelecom is also another achievement for Huawei, which has succesfully challenged traditional infrastructure suppliers in the region, such as Sweden's Ericsson and the Finnish-German Nokia-Siemens. The project will be handled from the Chinese company's Swedisj office, which is located about a kilometer from Ericsson's headquarters in the Stockholm suburb of Kista. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Did an obscure "piecashit" gizmo bring down Tele2 in the Baltics?

I got an official description of what happened July 14 to knock out Tele2's core switch (?) and take down (for some, briefly, in Latvia, well into the night) services to around two million customers in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Despite it being a Swedish-based international telecoms company, the network crash in the Baltics (as far as I could see) got exactly fuck all coverage in the Swedish media, which, like much of Scandinavia, is zoned out in a hammock somewhere or on the beach in Greece before, to use the Latvian expression, the place goes to the Devil's mother.
Basically what happens is this: the core switch, possibly a Nokia MCSI runs on 48 volt DC current, which is fed to the device through a AC/DC transformer getting it from the 220V grid. The transformer apparently can get hot, so it has a "climate control" (read air conditioner or chiller on it). Because the AC/DC transformer is mission critical, the climate control comes with a temperature sensor and some kind of alarm that alerts Tele2 technical staff that the system has failed, but giving them enough time to prevent damage to the transformer. The alarm and the sensor are what may have been the "piecashit" gizmos that ultimately crashed the network. The alarm failed to go off until it was too late. By then, the transformer had overheated and shorted out, knocking out the switch. With no transformer, there was no way to power up the switch until extensive repairs had been made. In addition, very complex systems like mobile phone network core switches do not usually reboot very easily, especially after a power-failure induced crash.
Utility power was still on --Latvenergo's  press secretary freaked out a little when the media blamed electricity for the failure and said, rightly, that the electricity from the utility was never interrupted, it all happened inside the walls of the Tele2 facility. So it does look like one fucked gizmo brought down everything..
Except -- was there really no UPS (providing DC electricity) attached directly to the switch to keep it going for a while until the techies fix whatever broke or switch to generators? Perhaps the emergency protocol was to go directly to the generator, forgetting the possibility that the transformer, thanks to some cheapo gizmo, could blow? This is how we learn...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Charlie Foxtrot visits Tele2 in Latvia and the Baltics

As I understand it, you weren't supposed to use obscenity on US Army radios, so instead of saying that something was a clusterfuck, you said Charlie Foxtrot instead. Well, today, and to some extent, still, tonight (2100 local time, July 14), Charlie Foxtrot visited Swedish-owned Tele2 in Latvia and took a chunk out of Lithuania and Estonia as well, knocking a total of well over two million customers off the network (just over a million in Latvia, a million pre-paid users in Lithuania, and the undisclosed prepaid part of a total of 467 000 users in Estonia).
The problems started just after 1400 local time when, according to Tele2's official version, a disturbance in electricity supply took down a major switch. To me, this was an immediate, red-flag WTF?? because mission critical switches have, by default, big motherfuckers of UPS (uninterrupted power supplies) that will keep things going until utility power is restored or switched to emergency generators.
My theory is more that there was some kind of perfect storm event or someone stumbled across a power cable (between the UPS and the Mother of All Switches, if that is possible) causing enough of a power fluctuation to crash the switch at a software level and perhaps fuck up some vital hard disks. That is just my guess.
Business and post-paid customers in Lithuania were unaffected, and in Estonia, pre-paid customers were only down for around 20 minutes, or so the spokesperson said.
Whatever happened, it possibly showed the downside of Tele2  and possibly other operators rationalizing their networks by concentrating services in one switching center (for smaller countries like the Baltics). It appears that prepaid service (billing, switching) were run for all three Baltic countries on servers/switches in Riga. Given how mission critical (more mission critical than if the supporting device and software systems were distributed) the Riga switch is, one wonders how there could be any event involving electric power that could take it down. Some part of the truth may come out tommorrow (July 15).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Another look at Kista Science City

Unfortunately, I didn't get around to posting this video on this blog because I was busy with other stuff and then, from May 26-June 6, I was in the US for a personal visit. I don't think much has changed from what Åke Lindström said when we met on May 23. So here, ahead of the Midsummer holiday that the Scandinavian and Baltic nations share, is an insight into what is going on at Kista Science City.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bite Latvija announces new tariffs (video)

Looks like Charlie Foxtrot took over Blogger for a while, so I delayed posting this video, where Fred Hrenchuk, the CEO of mobile operator Bite Latvija talks about how the company (the smallest in Latvia with somewhat over 320 000 customers) has reduced its offering to just three tariff plans (all on a pay-as-you wish - pre, post, contract or not).


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A "cyberterrorist lite" attacks a Latvian news agency

A person with sophisticated knowledge of data security matters became a self-appointed censor and avenger in an act of  "cyberterrorism -lite" against the Latvian news agency LETA.  Delivery of news to LETA's customers was impeded for several hours while LETA's home page was replaced with a message from the hacker, who seemed aggrieved by a routine news story about the defacing of small business home pages that were hosted by low-cost hosting services.
The message from the hacker (in translation from Latvian) read:

Dear colleagues, before publishing the views of doubtful experts about small server hosting companies and discussing (their)competence, I suggest you review the content of this defamatory news story and stop publishing these offensive advertorials. As you can see, nothing is safe and unbreakable – if needed, therefore, don't try to leap higher than your own a(rse). Thanks for your attention.

The message included a link to the defacement story from LETA as published by the news website (I will admit here that this story was written by your blogger). The story quoted by name two persons associated with data security companies -- one from Panda Software (the Latvian representative of a Spanish security) and the other from a local company with past ties to Russia's Kaspersky Lab.

The latter source pointed out the latest round of defacements, providing a list of URLs and had, in earlier cases, spoken of the vulnerability of low-cost hosting companies. The other source said that Panda and others (meaning the security business in general) had solutions that could prevent such defacements, which can be assumed (with a grain of salt, there is no absolute security, only a raising of the barriers to hackers) to be true.

The news story was originally filed under the business news portal of LETA, As a business news story, it unavoidably involves quoting people with some degree of commercial bias (tempered by the fact that one cannot stray radically from the truth even when self-promoting in front of a reasonably intelligent audience). To freak out over a small amount of self-promotion and label the whole story an "advertorial" is, to say the least, an overreaction from some strange mixture of ignorance (of journalism) and paranoia.

Taking it to next step and using specialized skills to take down a news agency (whatever one may think of its content) is, to my mind, an act of cyberterrorism-lite. If we envision real cyberterrorism as attacks on the IT infrastructure of utilities such as water, electricity, gas or telecommunications that prevent delivery of these services, then why not consider information/news as a utility that has been attacked in Latvia by an electronic terrorist?

OK, to be fair, and as a journalist, I try to be fair, LETA's IT infrastructure leaves much to be desired. It is not exactly a digital fortress. For that matter, most housing in Riga doesn't have steel doors, state-of-the-art locks and alarms. That explains, but does not excuse the successful activities of burglars. Except in this case, nothing was "stolen", but the homeowner was locked in and prevented from doing his business.

Also to be fair, there are hacking activities and "thefts" of information from those in power and with power over the population that should be hacked -- like Wikileaks or the activities of Neo (exposed as Ilmars Poikāns), who obtained government and municipal salary data from the Latvian State Revenue Service. However, a privately-owned news agency (clinging to its old label of "national news agency", whatever that means...) is not an agent of state power.

It should be mentioned that the censorious cyberterrorist was cheered on by a number of commentators on the usual Latvian news portals (what the British Bethlehem Asylum for the Insane -- hence bedlam -- was for part of the 19th century as a place to be "entertained" by the antics of the mad, has been replaced by the commentators on portals such as - a place to read the howlings and ravings of the deranged).

In any case, one can only hope that this does not herald the start of more of what I can only call mad-dog (it takes little to trigger the rabid) cyberattacks on the media. But all it takes is one skilled wacko, and in Latvia, we have found him. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

A request for leads, tips and job offers :)

It is pretty clear to me that Latvia is going to be in economic stagnation and suffering political disability of one kind or another for the foreseeable future. While this may make for some interesting news stories for the next five or seven years, it is not a place to stay with a family and a teenager who needs some kind of future. I'm afraid I don't see one  in Latvia - not for someone who needs an education, nor for someone who may choose (strange as it seems) to retire at some point.
With some reluctance I am posting my attempt at a video CV to explore, very seriously, a "plan B" outside of Latvia. This is nothing against my present employer LETA, but to be frank and objective, I don't see any growth or development for the media in Latvia for several years, and the adaptation that media companies must make, economically, in terms of their employees, may work for the young, but it is distressing for me, even if, day to day, things are still tolerable. In short, I have served my nearly 16 years here, given it a good try, but conditions are not going to improve and will probably deteriorate in my remaining working life. Time to move on...

So, here is my video CV to any and all who are interested:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Michael Curry talks about the Websphere Application Accellerator at Impact 2011

Here is my video interview with Michael Curry of IBM about the new Websphere Application Accellerator for Hybrid Networks during Impact 2011 in Las Vegas. The video was originally edited for a Latvian speaking audience, hence some of the opening and closing titles.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

An adventure in electronic uselessness on the way to IBM Impact 2011

I am on my way to one of the world's high-techiest conferences, IBM Impact 2011 in Las Vegas. However, I was sent a travel plan that a) keeps me in the air as long as I think, it took me to get to Australia in 2003. b) I was unable to check in online due to the travel having been ordered by IBM's travel agent. Fortunately, Riga Airport this morning was not as much of a zoo as I expected.
Then here at Schipol in Amsterdam, I was also unable to check in on one of the automated machines because I had checked baggage in Riga (the Riga check in machine didn't let me check in either). So I am finally checked in and typing this in one of the two 30 minute free WiFi sessions you get from KPN. Otherwise, it is starting at EUR 3 for 15 minutes. Insane. At least Las Vegas airport has/had free WiFi. I will see what Minneapolis offers, must spend a couple of hours there, too. All together, I am 24 hours, almost, from door to door. And then, with a 10 hour time shift, IBM expects European journalists not to write gibberish about their event :).
Anyway, will try to post both text and video from the event, with my Latvian day job taking precedence. Watch this space...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Latvia's 2011 census on the internet is off to...a clusterf**k

Latvia's attempt to conduct part of its 2011 census on the internet has gotten off to a start that can only be described as a total clusterfuck. The Latvian Central Statistic Bureau (CSB) opened a internet page where people could fill in a census questionnaire using three methods of authorization -- their passport number and personal code number, the PIN code and access code from a number of internet banks, and the official e-signature.
While the last two authorization methods are relatively safe, passport numbers and personal code numbers are often publicly available, widespread information. For example, the personal code of controversial Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, on trial for money laundering and other economic crimes, was recently published in an official list of charitable donors. Travel agencies and employers also often have both personal code numbers and passport data.
The possibility to circumvent the authorization system was first pointed out by the Latvian language IT blog  The internet news portal then conducted an experiment, opening the census data filed by a third person, altering it, then putting it right again. This clearly proved that it was possible for anyone with the right data to change someone else's census questionnaire.
The Latvian State Data Inspectorate (Datu valsts inspekcija/DVI) then hastened to stop internet census data collection, calling the authorization method a violation of the law. However, around 100 000 persons had already used the internet to answer census questionnaires, most, though not all using their passport and personal code data. The CSB announced on the evening TV news that it was freezing all these questionnaires to prevent anyone from making any changes.
Local data security experts are shocked by the way the CSB handled data security. Ilmars Poikans, a researcher at the University of Latvia's Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, also known as the cyberactivist "Neo", who leaked state salary data from a poorly designed data base last year, called the census fiasco " a breach of sound thinking rather than a data security breach".
Ilze Murane, a lecturer in computer science and a data security specialist said the bungled internet census could destroy public trust in any kind of e-government services.
Baiba Kaskina, who heads the recently re-organized CERT.LV cyberincident reaction team, said the CSB had never consulted her staff about security issues, and there was no law that compelled them to do so. Although CERT.LV has a small staff, Kaskina said the agency would have advised the CSB on where to find descriptions of best practices and recommended data security auditors.
Somehow, almost year after "Neo" started leaking government agency salary data because he was able to leaf through reams of "unauthorized" data simply by changing the last number of an authorized URL in the State Revenue Service electronic filing page, this doesn't surprise me.  As Poikans/Neo said -- now there can be many more "Neos"  and it is doubtful whether the police can catch them all. Poikans is still under criminal investigation for his activities last year. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Latvia proposes an internet kill-switch -- Mubarak on the Baltic?

Latvia's new draft law on a “ A State of Emergency”, which was presented to the meeting of state secretaries (part of the process of introducing it to the parliament or Saeima) last September, was way ahead of Egypt's authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak by granting the government the right to throw a kill switch on the internet and all other electronic media. They can also censor the press and all correspondence, too.
The draft law also contains provisions for regulation the movement of citizens during an emergency, for overruling the decisions of local authorities, for searches and seizures in private homes and a number of other totalitarian measures. It also provides for emergency allocation of resources, goods and services and other steps that are at least superficially reasonable in case of a natural disaster, war or insurrection.
What is worrisome is that a state of emergency can be declared for political reasons, such as “a threat of civil disorder”, and that the provisions for regulating media and electronic communications, especially the internet, are dangerous and disproportionate. It is hard to see what benefit the population could gain from being shut off from domestic and outside media during a major global or regional disaster. As far as preventing people in Latvia from disseminating information over the internet and social media, it looks like the main purpose of such measures would be to keep the outside world from learning of repression or other violent and irrational actions by Latvia's own government and authorities.
Let us assume that a megastorm, a Cyclone Yasi or Hurricane Katrina type of storm was raging over Northern Europe and about to hit Latvia, where a state of emergency had been declared. Why should people be cut off from looking at the Weather Channel, the BBC, CNN or other news sources on the internet or on their mobile phones for a “second opinion” in addition to what the government was saying in official announcements?
I don't think the government would cut off the internet simply because a storm was coming, but such measures could be used if there were mass demonstrations that presented a “danger of civil disorder” to police and government bureaucrats advising those able to declare a state of emergency. In such a case, the reason for cutting off electronic communications, including the internet and the social media that live on it, would be to prevent information about state repression from getting out and to interfere with efforts by dissident groups and civil society to self-organize using the internet.
In short, this is a dangerous piece of draft legislation that leaves way too much leeway for the state to censor, repress, and prevent the dissemination of information about its own repression. This law must be stopped and/or drastically modified so that it is not a compilation of “rubber clauses” that can be stretched to attack inalienable human rights in times of social and political tension. There shall be no Latvian Mubarak, no internet kill switch.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Amigo versus Bite, the unfucked version

That's a pretty harsh title, but it describes what I want to present here in English on my personal blog. The story of the latest war of the gagoons as I translate the curious Latvian phrase gāganu kari got severely fucked up in the LETA/ editorial process, either by a technical or editorial failure. The essence of the story, abot how two mobile operators got out the long knives in Latvia over what was a comparison of  differently derived ARPU (average revenue per user) figures from 2009 got the hatchet. The story was reduced, without explaining the core of the problem,  to  a tale of one side suing the other after the other denounced the former to the Latvian Consumer Rights Protection Centre (CRPC). The date for that event seemed very important, not the core of the conflict.

Amigo, the brand under which Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT)  subsidiary Zetcom operates, came out with an ad saying that ARPU for Bite Latvija was LVL 8.86  per month, and only LVL  3.56  per month for Amigo. Which is why Bite's claims of having a "zero tariff" (which they do, on their own network) was wrong, and one should choose Amigo, which charges 1,5 santims per minute on its network as the lowest tariff for prepaid customers calling "friends" ( a limited circle) on the Amigo network (runs on the LMT net).

ARPU is only indirectly related to specific consumer tariffs, it is more an indicator of corporate health (if reasonably high) than anything else. Low ARPU can be interpreted as a bad sign. Excessive ARPU, compared to the market, is a signal of poor competition. This is what I tried to explain in the story. This is what vanished from the text, along with some Bite and Amigo tariff figures. There was also a bit of what the Brits would call a cockup with emails between the editorial process and me, so I basically had to run the story out very fast, without restoring the deleted/butchered?  parts.

I also explained in the story that ARPU comparisons only make sense among operators with a like set of services (including income from roaming, mobile internet, whatever, that doesn't affect the ordinary customer). Amigo, as Bite rightly pointed out, is making an incorrect comparison. For this, as I dod get across in the lead of the story, Amigo/Zetcom is suing Bite and asking it to retract its statement that it is wrong to compare different things as if they were alike. Well, maybe in Latvia you can find a judge for that...

In any case, this simply continues the rather bizarre tradition of courtrooms and consumer protection agencies as marketing battlegrounds for Latvian mobile telecoms operators. Last summer it was LMT' s pre-paid Okarte against Tele2' s Golden Fish, each represented by Gumby-like characters in TV commercials. That bogged down the CRPC for a while. This one will keep the lawyers busy. The sum of it all is that someone has to step aside with their leaking winter boots (footware is tha main consumer problem brought before the CRPC) and wait for the corporations to finish their fight.