Thursday, January 07, 2016

AsiaTrip: Alternate Climb Path

I found the original text I wrote on the night train from Kuala-Lumpur to Penang. It describes the same thing as the previous post, but I can see no reason not to post it. The second part of it forms the start of the next chapter, but that's it for the reserves - everything from then on is recollected a year or more later.

I wake up at ungodly o'clock, surprisingly upbeat and full of nervous energy. I consider what to bring up to the mountain, and leave my large suitcase at the hotel before checking out - I will be back after a day and a night and a day. I've filled my fancy aluminium canteen with a liter of boiled water, and I also have a couple of boxes of Pocky from the nearest 7-Eleven in my backpack. No breakfast is available (at this hour or at all), and all I have eaten so far in Kota Kinabalu is the disturbing dessert. The last decent meal I had was on the plane. The last decent night's sleep I had was in Tartu.

I'm the last person on the minivan. Besides me, there is a young guy from some other part of South-East Asia, and a big bald American guy, from Hawaii as it turns out, with his Asian-American wife. They are doing not just the summit, but also the Via Ferrata on the way back - something I initially wanted to do, but reconsidered (wisely).

The road out into the countryside reminds me of Brazil, perhaps unsurprisingly - lush jungle, fringed with intermittent industrial sites and Catholic retreats. The extent of human habitation should not be surprising, but somehow is, to a European. Yes, people live on Borneo, and yes, all of them have a Samsung Galaxy.

At base camp, I am introduced to my guide, Byron (named after the poet - I asked). I see people carrying trekking poles, and wonder if I should get one, but decide against it. This will ultimately prove to be a bad decision. We get back on the bus, and it drops us off at the trailhead of Timphon Gate. There are four other climbers in our group, but as I have booked alone and paid for a separate guide, I suggest to him that we strike out ahead. I go first, at the pace that seems good to me; Byron is spotting me from the back. I feel a little bit of social awkwardness - were I alone, I'd just put in my headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook. I am absolutely certain Byron would not have been offended, but I still don't do it, electing to take in the high jungle of Borneo with all of my senses.

I love trekking because it offers me a means of introspection, a backdrop of physical effort that I can modulate to my own perceived stamina while meditating - a sort of living REM sleep. I also love verticality as only a person from a very flat country can. On a normal occasion, I could think of nothing more pleasant than a four-hour ramble along a verdant mountainside. So understand when I tell you: the Mount Kinabalu summit trail is many things, but it is not pleasant.

Indeed, it is open to the general public, and can be completed by anyone of reasonable physical fitness levels, without recourse to specialist climbing equipment or technique (other than gloves, a headlamp, and decent footwear). But all the reviews will tell you: it is tough. All of the marketing focuses on the achievement, not the enchantment. You start with a six-kilometer hike, during which you go from 1866 meters above sea level - already higher than most amateur trails in Europe - to something like 3200 meters. That is a gain of 1,4 kilometers, or around a 1-in-4 average grade (gaining 1 kilometer in height per 4 kilometers walked). Furthermore, half of that elevation comes in the last third of the trail. I had a tracker running on my phone for parts of the climb, and the maximum grade it recorded was 47%. To put that in context: there is a gorge next to the Highway Museum in southern Estonia, where road signs tell you in no uncertain terms to slow the hell down to 30km/h and drive extremely carefully. That is for a grade of, if I remember correctly, something like 13%.

I was doing fine for the first four kilometers - feeling the strain, but also feeling like I was within my stamina limits. I could do this. It would be tough, but I would feel better for having done it. At the four-kilometer mark came the lunch stop: at a roadside shelter, I ate the packed lunch provided by the tour operator - a few triangles of ham and cheese on plain white bread, and an apple: intentionally bland enough not to upset any guest's sensibility or stomach. While I ate, me and a couple other climbers - another big American with an Asian girlfriend, oddly enough - chatted with, or rather were aggressively chatted at, a jolly old Englishman in a woolen sweater and a Holland beanie, who volunteered various details about his life, such as having gone to prison for crashing a car after doing coke, and emotionally supporting a Mexican friend who was obssessed with getting back his wife who'd divorced him years before. ("He slept with one of the nurses, and told his wife." - "Well, there's his mistake," I quip back. "He should have slept with his wife, and told one of the nurses.")

After the lunch stop at the four-kilometer mark, though, the trail got significantly steeper. I kept climbing out of sheer stubbornness and resolve. By the five-kilometer mark, I had broken down, physically and mentally. It was only the innate composure and ability to suppress emotion that is the birthright of a North European that prevented me from weeping openly. The guides warned us to take rest breaks, but not to make them long - it would be difficult to start again. Several times, I simply stopped on the trail, unsure of whether I could start again - but I knew that there was no cable car with which to take a short-cut. A big part of why I travel is to put myself not just out of my comfort zone, but into a situation where I have to push myself, because there is simply no other recourse available. This was perhaps the greatest of these moments.

My guide saw that I was struggling, but of course, there was nothing he could do but encourage me. He did not know what I eventually realized - that I was doing this climb on a lack of sleep, and most probably a serious deficit of blood sugar. Looking up at the trail that was shooting ever higher above me, I sat on a rock, and closed my eyes, thinking of nothing and feeling nothing but the sun on my face.

Then I wolfed down a whole box of Pocky in one go.

The Laban Rata mountain refuge was just behind the next crest. I climbed breathlessly onto the volleyball-like pitch beneath the hostel building, as Byron high-fived me. I felt relieved, but only for a moment: this was the six-kilometer mark, and the stop for the day. I still had another three klicks, and eight hundred vertical meters, to go until Low's Peak - and I would have to do that at night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

AsiaTrip: Upwards and Onwards

(The story starts back here. I could have sworn I'd typed up the next chapter on the overnight train from Kuala Lumpur, but I can't find it anywhere, so I am continuing as recollected.)

I wake up at an ungodly hour and semi-check out, leaving most of my luggage behind. Downtown Kinabalu is quiet, and the tour company's van picks me up for the two-hour drive to the national park. As the van leaves the city and meanders through the countryside, I start up a brief conversation with an American, a weightlifter type, and his Asian (but not Malaysian) girlfriend. For me, it's my first and biggest challenge of the trip; for them, it's one of many. The American's got a couple of walking sticks, for his bad knees, and pays to have his and his lady's bags ported up to the overnight hostel. I can appreciate that it's an affordable solution when your travel plans won't let you leave the bags in the city, but it still strikes me as odd and slightly presumptuous. You don't need your luggage for a two-day, one-night climb.

At the base camp, I get my mountain ticket and meet Byron, my guide. The park regulations mostly prohibit solo climbing, and my schedule is not conducive to finding clever workarounds - I'm not part of a group, so I've been issued a personal minder. As I stand in the parking lot with my packed lunch (cheese on white bread and an apple - maximally inoffensive), I look up at the towering Kinabalu. There must be something I'm missing. There's no way I'm climbing all the way up there, on foot, today!

We're shuttled to the park entrance, and I pass by my last chance to rent a hiking pole. I consider it, but am not sure, and then they run out. This will turn out to be a big oversight on my part; but for now it's morning, the sun is shining, it's not too hot, and I am full of energy. As we start up the trailhead at 1800 meters above sea level, I ask Byron if it's okay that we go on ahead. The others from my van are moving slowly, and I might as well take advantage of having a personal guide. It's not so much that I'm in a hurry - I just like hiking alone, at my own pace and with my own thoughts, without adjusting to others. Byron is happy to follow behind - his capabilities obviously far exceed any pace I can set. For a while, it's a pleasant climb, as we pass the porters going up and down the mountain with heavy loads, boxes of supplies for the hostel, luggage, and even giant cannisters of pressurized cooking gas, strapped to their backs valve-side down, like a third-world jetpack.

The first tourists we meet are a group of drenched Aussies sprinting downhill. Their guide follows behind, winded, exchanging discernible gasps of exasperation with Byron. The young Aussies are obvious professionals, mountain runners, from the same clique that comes here every year to set records. There's a plaque down at the park gate, displaying last year's top times. It will take me somewhere between four or five hours just to get to the overnight spot, then more to reach the summit in the darkness, and the rest of tomorrow to get back down. The record holder, a Spaniard, made it all the way to the peak and back... in under three hours, total.

There is a dozen-odd rest areas on the way up the trail, some more elaborate than others. For the first major section, I am happy with my pace - I may not have strength, but I like to think I have stamina. By the time we break for lunch, there's a respectable flow of last night's tourists coming downstream. The undisputed king of the lunch spot is a wiry old Englishman wearing several sweaters and a thick wool hat with floppy ears, a one-man ambulatory sauna. He tells us stories of bumming around South-East Asia with the missus on a creaky old sailboat, as well as his old mates from back home - including a tragic physician who desperately tried to recapture his wife's affections. "The poor dumb sod, he slept with one of the nurses and told his wife." (I wait one heartbeat and deadpan: "That's his mistake right there. He should have slept with his wife and told one of the nurses.")

I refill my metal canteen at the only waterhose that Byron dares recommend to a foreigner, and we continue uphill. Now it's a different story, though. I may have rested and eaten, but the upper part of the trail is significantly steeper. The cheer drains from me as my legs burn, but I have no choice except to push on. I stop bantering with Byron and focus only on the road ahead, and above me. I'm carrying my phone and earbuds, but I feel it would be rude to use them for distraction, so I let my mind focus on the drumbeat of random lyrics from a Lordi song. Onward and upward, only occasionally glancing back down the hill to measure my progress - by this time we are out of the jungle and there is some sort of view, although the fog has rolled in to obscure most of it. Byron urges me to rest, but my stubbornness wins out. I don't think I can afford to lose inertia, or I'll never be able to start back up again. I'd quit if that were an option, but this is not Mount Etna or Vesuvius, there is no overpriced cable-car option. It's Malaysia, it's Borneo, it's a mountain that admits us tourists on sufferance. The overnight hostel is closer than base camp, is all that matters.

Eventually I can't take it any more. It's Sunday afternoon in local time, and the last decent sleep I had was on Thursday. I've barely had any dinner, I've not had any breakfast, I've spent the previous day walking around Hong Kong, I've been up since five in the morning, and the two slices of plain white bread with even plainer cheese have not made a difference. Exhausted in a way I can't ever remember being, with no physical or mental stamina left, I sit down on a rock just off the seemingly near-vertical path and turn around to look out at Asia sprawling before me. I reach into my backpack, pull out my box of Pocky and wolf it down, waiting for the blessed rush of sugar, palm oil and processed carbohydrates to revive me. I close my eyes and just sit there, drained.

Byron waits patiently for a subjective eternity - maybe twenty minutes by the wall clock - and urges me on. I sigh and recommence climbing.

Just over the next crest is Laban Rata. Now I can rest.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

E-voting, New Zealand, something something

Jon Worth posted this link on Facebook and asked e-voting advocates to address the points in it, specifically as it concerns the prospects of e-voting in the EU.
So I did.
So Jon asked me to put them in a separate blog post for easy reference.
So I did.

(As always, I encourage you to read that entire post to understand my replies.)

Myth 1: 

"How to verify that an eligible voter cast a vote that arrives at a voting system’s door remains an unsolved problem."
Wrong. Secure digital ID is a reality, and several countries have deployed state-backed PKI systems that identify persons online to a sufficient level of reliability (no lower than comparing the person in front of you to a passport photo). Now, most of the EU doesn't have digital identities deployed yet, but the eIDAS Regulation does stipulate that they ought to eventually. I know where they can buy an e-government-in-a-box, at very reasonable rates.

"They may have sent the correct credentials, but who is to say it was them who was doing the voting, and not some “helpful” malware installed on their computer?"

In the last couple of elections, Estonia has deployed a second-device authentication mechanism. You vote on a computer, and get a time-limited QR code that you scan with a phone app, it then talks to the e-voting servers and shows how your vote has been recorded. Furthermore, while many have tried, nobody has successfully demonstrated a viable in-the-wild attack on the authentication mechanism. As Jon knows, being subjected to such constant tests is how systems become more secure.

"Good luck with that when you have an online voting system, and malware to manipulate votes is discovered on many New Zealanders’ computers a day after the results have been declared."

Fortunately, e-voting allows you to re-do the process after malware has been cleaned out or the software changed to close the attack vector. And, like all critics of e-voting, this author makes the assumption that judges and scrutineers are infallible and incorruptible.

Myth #2: 

Technology moves so fast that computer systems built today need constant maintenance, monitoring and patching just to keep them operational. In the case of an online voting system, defences against the latest threats and constantly upgrading underlying software and operating systems will make the cost even higher than for the average system. It’s likely the budget for these systems will be in the millions of dollars a year.
Only relevant if you set up a separate designated system for online voting. The eIDAS Regulation requires digital identities to be provided anyway, and the system easily pays itself in the savings on bureaucracy eliminated by e-government. Nevermind the general benefit to the economy of digital identities being widely available.

Myth #3:

"“21 percent of non-voters said they did not vote in the 2011 General Election because they ‘didn’t get round to it, forgot or were not interested’ to vote.”. In a word, disengagement."

Yup, and the way it's been done with us - a long period where e-voting is available, in a very convenient way, before a paper voting day - makes it much easier to get around to it. Plus, don't discount the driving factor of being able to share an "I voted" screenshot to Facebook.

Myth #4:

"What is missing from an online vote is a paper trail — actual paper that can be counted again if a result comes into dispute."
Anyone who has paid attention to, oh, let's say the referendum in Crimea, or recent municipal elections in Russia, can tell you interesting things about the inviolability of paper trails in paper elections.

"With an online system, it’s impossible to trust the results of the count, let alone a recount."
It is possible, though, to build tamper-proof databases and systems with end-to-end encryption. (They exist for specific government purposes; but the overhead means they are uncommon and not visible to most people. Here is an example I found with some very quick google-fu, of a tamper-proof solution in an environment where the receiver does not trust the sender at all and expects them to cheat.)

It is possible to build an IT system that is secure as long as you trust one or two core administrators - same as a paper voting system is only secure as long as you trust the returning officers.

Myth 5:

"What our system can’t do, is verify that our voters clicked on what they thought they did (hint: malware can change web pages), or rely upon showing the voters their choices later (not only did we just break the “secret” part of secret ballot, but our malware is back and changing pages again)."

Well, I described above how that's been solved in practice, although it's true that the functioning of the system would be much more transparent and understandable to most voters if you give up the secrecy of the vote. There are philosophical arguments for it as well, but I doubt they would be broadly convincing.

"Scrutineers are told to watch out for husbands hovering over their wives at polling booths. In an abusive household, the victim has no right of secrecy, making coercion by abusive or judgemental people far easier. Outright vote selling also becomes simple. And in families with voting-age children living at home with their parents and disengaged with the election process, maybe a parent will decide that one extra vote for them won’t hurt?"

Again, has actually been addressed in practice. This is why you get to e-vote repeatedly over a long period, and only the last vote counts; you can vote how your boss/spouse/school bully tells you to, show them that you did, then vote the other way a few hours later.

"It’s too hard for one person to manipulate thousands of votes."

But not too hard for a group of people. And I've talked before in these conversations about how e-voting actually makes it possible to set up independent voting watchdogs that are much more efficient than the Carter Center.

Myth #6:

Er, this is just babble. Not sure how I'm supposed to respond to that. "No, YOU're stupid"?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jurassic World: Presented by Michael Bay.

The named characters to die off are, in order: a Japanese security commander, an Indian CEO, a snooty British nanny. Oh, sorry, there was also a comically fat security guard who got eaten. Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio's operatically terrible villain is the only white guy in Costa Rica to have actually picked up a strong tan, just to make sure you don't feel as bad for him when he dies horribly (offscreen, in case he needs to come back for the sequel), while his mwahaha-ing Chinese accomplice escapes with the seeds of the next disaster. Over in the control room, the one tech who volunteers to stay behind gets hilariously and humiliatingly rejected by a girl, because he is a NERD and how DARE he try to play the hero, he is nowhere near military-trained enough to be a protagonist we actually care about!

Bryce Dallas Howard plays a female executive who spends the first act being hysterical and inept in the face of crisis, until she goes back to the man she once dumped - Chris Pratt as Bronaeris Stormborn - whose gruff manliness inspires her to get her shit together and modify her outfit for more cleavage, signalling readiness to take on the hazards of the Central American jungle without ever taking off her stilettos. Of course, she only starts being a worthwhile character when she forgets everything she'd learned in her career and is overcome with nice, Christian, motherly concern for her nephews, whom she previously abandoned, the evil witch!

The Bro of Dragons
The nephews in question are a precocious boy genius already coming into his own as the superhero Background Exposition Man, and his big brother, the sullen kid whose main purpose is to give the camera an excuse to pan over to the hot teenage girls he's constantly ogling. Never mind - they will be fine, because at a key moment we will be told that they had just happened to restore their grandfather's old muscle car together, so they know exactly how to quickly repair a Jeep that's been rotting in a Central American jungle for twenty years.

The Big Bad Monster is always exactly as capable and powerful as the plot requires, which is explained away with "well, you didn't know this, but it also has genes from THIS animal!" - including being impervious to tranquilizer darts, bullets, and anti-tank rockets! Of course, he is also conveniently vulnerable to the teeth of another dinosaur once it's time for the money shot. Oh, and a velociraptor gets thrown into a souvenier shop window and EXPLODES IN A BALL OF FLAMES. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Stealing an idea: Estonia's counter-offer to the European Commission is to accept zero refugees in the country, but instead to issue e-residence for free to all refugees admitted into Europe, so that they can start their businesses and pay their taxes here (while still physically living somewhere else).
We'll even throw in a bunch of WiFi routers to set up around the camps on Lampedusa.


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