Monday, 8 April 2019

The Venezuelan Petro.

In February 2018, the government of Venezuela - well known for its financial acumen - announced they were jumping on a digital bandwagon by launching their own cryptocurrency the Petro. The new currency had many stated aims, including to bolster the crashing Venezualan Bolivar currency, and to circumvent US sanctions.

This was an interesting move. The  initial sale allegedly raised $3.3 billion for the Maduro government, although there has been no independent verification of that claim.

I personally feel that government-backed cryptocurrencies are a good way forward for the technology. Although governmental backing reduces some of the advantages of such systems, it also gives a currency increased trust - and trust has been one thing holding cryptocurrencies back.

It is therefore interesting that Venezuela, a country that is in the depths of a massive financial and political crisis, is the first country to make such a move. So what has happened in the last year?

The answer appears to be 'not much'. You cannot go onto a market and buy a Petro or Petro Gold. No-one seems to have an idea about the value of a Petro. To make matters worse, the technology behind the Petro has changed several times of the year, even after launch - and there are even doubts that the currency even exists in any practical form.

I won't go into any jokes about the failure of a socialist state to create a reliable currency - after all, we capitalist countries haven't been brilliant at that, either. But the Petro does seem to be yet another scam cryptocurrency - albeit one created by a government that is in real trouble.

And meanwhile ordinary Venezuelans suffer.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

6 April 2019 - it's GPS rollover day!

Today is a special day! You could be the lucky recipient of a rollover!

No, not a lottery win, but something even more unusual: the 1,024-week GPS week-number rollover! Stay tuned to see if you are a winner!

Okay, time to be serious. Twenty years ago the news was full of the upcoming Millennium  Bug, where ancient (and sometimes recent) computer systems that used two digits to represent dates - e.g. '99' for 1999, would roll over and start using '00' for 2000 - which causes all sorts of problems when you perform operations on the data and 2000 is seen as being before 1999.

Fortunately many good engineers  worked for years to ensure that the effects of the Millennium Bug were not as bad as some forecast. Some say that this means the Bug was overwrought nonsense: in fact, problems were avoided because people did lots of work to prevent those problems.

The Millennium bug was an epoch event: dates and times in computer systems have to be represented by numbers, and those numbers are of finite size. The larger the number, and the larger the granularity each number represents, the greater the length of time the number can represent.

Another example is GPS,which has exploded in popularity over the last twenty years. Most cars now have GPS receivers, they are in all smartphones, and many of us even have receivers in our wristwatches. Many vital system require timing and positional information from GPS. Yet GPS receivers also have an epoch - in this case, the data sent from the satellites to the receiver uses 10 bits to represent the week, allowing 1024 distinct values. This means that every 1024 weeks, it resets. If for some reason it gets the 'wrong' week, the receiver may start giving incorrect data to the user.

Today, the 6th of April, the week number rolls over. It is not the first time it has happened (it last happened on August 21st 1999. There were far fewer receivers back then (in fact, is it about the time I got my first Magellan handheld GPS), and the problems were not as significant.

However today it may be different: manufacturers will have been aware of this issue, and will have  put some protections in place. However if your receiver is over a decade old, and has not had its firmware updated, then there might be problems.

The good news is that the GPS constellation is being updated, and the new signals have a 13-bit week, enough for 8,192 weeks - or 157 years. I doubt a rollover of those new signals will affect me much!

But if you have an older receiver, I hope you don't win the GPS rollover lottery!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Brexit and Julian May

In the 1980s and 1990s, the late Julian May wrote a series of eight books: the four Pliocene Exile books, the standalone vinculum 'Intervention', and the three novels of the Galactic Milieu trilogy.

In them, she describe a world where alien races have come to Earth whilst we were on the brink of nuclear war and offered us the stars. Since then, mankind has moved out from Earth to planets around the Galaxy: the large nations have many worlds, the smaller a few, and the smallest share some. Vast liners travel the ether between worlds, and mankind is flourishing.

Yet there are discontents. Humans - often powerful and influential ones - who rail against the aliens with whom we share control. We once controlled the world, but we are now a small piece of a gigantic Galactic cog. We should be in charge.

So these discontents start a rebellion that destroys worlds and kills billions. It is a pointless rebellion: one where they shake their fists at the very beings who have treated us well.

And it ends with Humanity chastened and still part of the Milieu. Little has changed, for the course was inevitable, and changing it would destroy everything.

And that is now what might happen to Brexit. We in the UK have a history that is littered with glory, and it is easy to sit back and want those glories to return. Britannia ruled the waves, and we ruled the world. But that world has changed: first came America, and then other countries overtook us. We are a small country: proud and brilliant, but small - in a world where size matters.

In such a world, is the EU an inevitability?

So we have a choice: to join up with other small countries (and smaller ones) to form a bloc that has more power together, or to be small and alone. It seems that the former might be inevitable. If so, perhaps the wettest of wet dreams of hardcore Europhiles are correct and, like Humanity after the rebellion, we will eventually become leaders of the group.

If so, then Brexit may be, like the rebellion in the books, a felix culpa - a blessed fall.