Precious Metals

Gold, silver, platinum. These tempting elements have brought more than their share of joy and woe to people over millennia. The final session of my gemstones class covered the precious metals in which those beautiful stones are set. The fictional criminal I have in mind picked up a few good tips in this session too.

Gold’s purity is measured in karats, with 24K gold 100 percent pure. 18K gold is 75 percent gold and 25 percent alloy, and so on. Pure gold is much too soft to be made into jewelry. In the United States, 14K (58.3 percent gold) is common in fine jewelry. In other countries—notably, India and the Near East—18K gold is more typical.

Not only are gold alloys more durable for jewelry, having less gold makes them less expensive than pure gold would be and allows for a change in the color. Our instructor emphasized that gold is yellow. White gold, rose gold, and green gold are all possible because of the alloys used. Pink gold is produced through the addition of copper; green gold by adding silver; and white gold includes palladium (expensive) or nickel (cheap), for example. An opportunity for a scam there, it seems.

Gold is also hypoallergenic, so if someone has an allergic reaction to their gold jewelry, they are actually sensitive to whatever metal the gold was alloyed with. Many people (including me!) get an itchy rash when there’s nickel in their jewelry (the backs of inexpensive earrings, for example), so sticking to yellow gold is best for them. Of course, such a dermatologic reaction might raise a buyer’s suspicions. Interestingly, and of potential benefit to our fictional jewelry scammer, the Federal Trade Commission does not regulate the alloys used in jewelry manufacture, just the percentage of gold present.

While nickel is inexpensive, palladium is very expensive, so to achieve the desirable level of whiteness in white gold, it may be plated with some other metal—typically rhodium. White gold today is so expensive, “you might as well buy platinum,” our instructor said. My thief is pondering that in planning his next smash-and-grab.

Prices of the precious metals are high, because of high demand, and can rise quickly when people are nervous about other investments or in the midst of various national or international crises. And some of the countries gold is mined in are not the most stable or as subject to environmental or purity standards as is the United States or European Union. (Foreign intrigue afoot.)

Like gold, most silver is an alloy. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver and the remainder copper, which provides strength. It’s not as hard or as tough as gold.

Previous posts in this series:
Diamonds and Pearls
Colored Gemstones

Photo: PhotoMIX-Company for Pixabay

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

Thanksgiving, 2020

turkey feather

Enjoy this special holiday (and the 4500 calories the average American reportedly consumes on Thanksgiving Day)! Stay safe now to make it  possible to be with your loved ones later.

Photo: Turkey feather, Josch13 for Pixabay.

World in Flames

wildfire, fire

Daniel Duane’s riveting article in the November issue of Wired, “The Fires Next Time,” should give the people who live in the American West, all of us who have family or friends who live there, and everyone who loves the area’s beauty yet another serious problem to worry about. A distraction from covid, maybe?

You might think my posts about impending disasters—cyberthreats, climate change, and others—suggest I’m teetering on some mental edge. Not so. For me, these “ripped from the headlines” topics open dramatic possibilities outside the overworked crime fiction obsession with serial killers, duplicitous spouses, and missing “girls.”

The wildfires article is laden with enough drama and information about Western wildfires to create some compelling fiction. Martin J. Smith used an advancing wildfire to great effect, ramping up the tension in his 2016 police procedural, Combustion. It can be done.

Duane points out that, though their number seems to be increasing, wildfires were even more frequent hundreds of years ago—before housing developments, ranches, and towns erupted in fire-prone areas. Fires were a natural part of the landscape. The frequency of these long-ago fires meant they stayed close to the ground, burning surface fuels, and the forest ecology evolved to handle such ground-fires of that type.

Even now that fire managers recognize the benefits of periodic burns, which get rid of that ground-level fuel, it’s had to make that case to private property owners in the path of a blaze. Thus, CalFire’s mandate continues to be to extinguish every one of them as fast as possible, Duane says.

His article begins with a deconstruction of the 2018 Carr fire in the northern Sacramento Valley and explains how in recent years, western wildfires have become much more dangerous. The models that let officials predict wildfire behavior, and therefore, how to fight a particular fire and when to evacuate residents, have become obsolete.

There’s a growing incidence of plume-driven fires, in which wind and weather are redirected by the rising heat column to make the fire burn hotter and move faster. The result is a fire tornado. In the Carr file, it was “a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating 143 mph.” A fire tornado sucks up flaming debris (like the remains of people’s homes) and scatters it like firebombs, igniting new blazes.

Modern fires move fast. In some instances, Australia’s bushfires moved faster than people could flee them. The 2018 Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours. For a while, Duane says, it consumed “about a football field a second.” That was the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and sent Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In court proceedings earlier this year, the company said, “No apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo [the fire’s] damage, and no passage of time can lessen the anguish we heard expressed in court.”

Next Week: How World War II Strategies Exposed Some Fire Secrets

Photo: Amissphotos for Pixabay

Covid in an Era of Cyber Insecurity

12/3 Update: The attacks on health care entities attempting to address the Covid pandemic continue, with the latest hacker target–the cold chain necessary to distribute vaccines.

Since 2014, the United States has faced an increasing number of well-publicized cyber attacks. Although some have been severe, none have crossed the “traditional threshold of war,” as described by Garrett M. Graff in a November 2020 Wired article. To recap a few of these: In 2014, there was China’s theft of government personnel records and North Korea’s suspected hack of Sony; in 2016, Russia attempted to manipulate the presidential election; and more recently, we’ve seen numerous ransomware attacks on institutions and municipal governments, both large (Atlanta, Baltimore) and small.

In response to such threats, New York City created a citywide cyber command (the NYCCC) in July 2017. This centralized organization works across NYC agencies and offices “to prevent, detect, respond, and recover from cyber threats.” Geoff Brown, head of the NYCCC, described its challenges in a recent online briefing moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly. A consolidated approach certainly has face validity, compared to asking a hundred different entities with personnel of varying training, skill, and interest to cobble together their own separate, inevitably not interoperable security plans. As Brown said, “We can’t predict what’s coming around the curve, but if we build resilient systems overall, we can respond well.”

Over the last year, in the face of Covid, the NYCCC has used its technical environment to “defend the defenders.” When city agencies moved to remote operations, that process also was aided by the NYCCC’s work. Not surprisingly, cyber adversaries took advantage of concerns about Covid to expand their intrusion attempts, knowing people would more quickly respond to queries and data requests that appeared to be Covid-related and ignore potential red flags.

It was incredibly sobering, Brown said, to reflect on how, in the middle of a life-threatening crisis, the health network itself became so vulnerable. As a result, NYCCC has worked with both the public and the private hearth care sectors to increase awareness of cyber vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses. Never forget, he warned, that without extreme vigilance, the consequences can be deadly. He cited how a ransomware attack led to the recent death of a German man.

Understandably, health care systems have a fundamental concern about patient privacy, although even that makes the system subject to attack. Clearly, such attacks are corrosive, with damage beyond their initial impact, by damaging citizens’ all-important trust in governmental, public health, and social institutions.

The Perfect Weapon

The Perfect Weapon, HBO, David Sanger

In mid-October, HBO released its documentary, The Perfect Weapon, about growing cyber security risks (trailer). A recent Cipher Brief webinar featured David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, who wrote the book on which the documentary was based, and Mary Brooks, who contributed to both his book and the documentary, and was moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly.

Creating a documentary based on a detailed, fascinating, and chilling 340-page book is a challenge. It had to be more interesting than 000s and 111s scrolling down the screen. There was a history to lay out. Director John Maggio decided to render the technology aspects of earlier cyberattacks in broad strokes and to humanize the story by focusing on the victims. This approach not only revealed how many sectors of society are vulnerable to cyber criminals, but also how diverse are the sources of these attacks.

The first cyber attack receiving much play in the United States was North Korea’s 2014 takedown of Sony in response to a movie it didn’t like. For that segment, Maggio’s team could interview actors and executives. It was harder to get the story of the next significant attack—this one by the Iranians on the Sands Casino in Las Vegas—because the casino executives don’t want to publicize it.

Since then, attacks have continued, most recently with ransomware attacks on US hospitals already stretched thin by the coronavirus, and on local governments in Florida, for example—after crippling attacks on Baltimore and Atlanta.

Though costly and significant, these episodes have not been serious enough to trigger retribution by the US government. “They are short of war operations,” Sanger said, “and deliberately calculated to be so.” The potential for much more consequential acts definitely exists. It is known, for example, that malware has been placed in the US power grid, where it sits. Officials don’t want to talk about it, or remove it, ironically, because they don’t want the bad actors to understand our detection capabilities.

Of course, the United States isn’t inactive in this arena. In 2010, our government. and Israel used the malicious computer worm Stuxnet to disable Iran’s nuclear program, an action US officials won’t admit to even now, Sanger said. Unfortunately, the destructive Stuxnet code escaped into the wild and is now available to many black-hat hackers. Stuxnet “didn’t start the fire,” he said, “but it was an accelerant.”

Who is behind an attack can be murky. For various reason, organized crime has increasingly muscled its way into the cyber-threat business. Governments hire hackers or external organizations to create havoc, because it gives them deniability. “Not us,” they say.

The US Cyber Command’s goal is to “defend and advance national interests.” However, the job of preventing attacks is difficult. It’s a challenge that requires considerable imagination, given an environment where the risks are escalating rapidly, the technology is improving constantly, and the targets have no boundaries. You may have read about recent threats to COVID vaccine research.

What exactly are the “national interests,” when American businesses have suppliers, clients, and customers all over the world? Companies don’t want to be perceived as working against those relationships. Google, for example, declined to participate in a military program to make drone attacks more accurate. Similarly, though Microsoft and the Cyber Command were both attempting to disable TrickBot in the last few weeks, their efforts were independent and uncoordinated.

Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cyber Intelligence has said, “We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail,”

The documentary—and the book—lay out what’s at stake for all of us. Past posts on this topic:
* Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing
* Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

Technology & Elections

vote, voting, election

A set of articles in the current issue of Wired discuss the part technology can play in improving our elections. Skeptical, all things considered? You should be. Still, here’s what to watch for.

Candidates and Facebook

James Barnes, a Facebook employee embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016 (think about that a moment), has had second thoughts and is now working to promote Joe Biden at the political nonprofit Acronym. It produces digital media campaigns for progressive candidates and causes. By the end of summer, though, very few voters were undecided, so their campaigns weren’t making converts. One can only hope that the Trump campaign’s October efforts to outspend Biden on Facebook ads in several battleground states, according to this CNBC story, will fall flat too.
Read: PW Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media.

The Voting Process

To be a state election official is to be plagued with nightmares. “We all knew we were headed into what would be a contentious election year,” said Arizona’s Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs, in a model of understatement in this Wired article by Lily Hay Newman. Plus, they know they have a derailing technical problem or two: In Georgia’s disastrous primary, for example, all 159 counties were using new machines for the first time. Plus, the pandemic. Officials have had to scramble to find polling places. Traditional venues—schools, community centers, churches—balked. Experienced poll workers? A vanishing species.

Texas election officials and a team of university-based computer scientists, Wired reports, have devised a way to use advanced encryption technology—homomorphic cryptography—to improve our notoriously vulnerable voting machines. (Just using the term, I’ve already approached the limit of my understanding of how it works.) The machine assigns a lengthy ciphertext to each vote and prints out a short identifier, akin to a bit.ly link. Voters can use these to verify their votes are “in there.” Part of the beauty is that votes do not need to be decrypted to be counted, so privacy is maintained.
Read: James McCrone;s Faithless Elector, about a member of the electoral college who doesn’t stick to the script or McCrone’s brand new book, Emergency Powers, about how far someone will go to hang on to the presidency. Hmmmmm.

Secure Vote Counting

In this election, several states will use “risk-limiting audits” to validate results. These methods link the scale of the audit to the victory margin. If a candidate wins big, even a small sample of randomly selected ballots can confirm the results. In closer contests, a larger sample is needed. Bottom line: Unfortunately, processes, equipment, and practices vary widely, state to state, and nationally, the lack of investment in improving them contributes to a loss of faith in our elections that eventually damages every one of us.

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson

Good Covid Ideas from Bill Gates

Bill Gates has probably spent more time thinking about public health—not just in the developing world—than almost anyone who isn’t a medical epidemiologist. In a 2015 TED talk, he warned about the likelihood of a pandemic and his bottom-line was, “We’re not ready.”

Being right isn’t always gratifying. Yet, in the current issue of WIRED, Gates doesn’t cast blame on the skeptics. “We can do the postmortem at some point. We still have a pandemic going on, and we should focus on that.”

His message is for public officials and private industry alike. A particularly urgent need is for a rapid self-test for Covid 19. Most tests today, which require people to wait days for results, are essentially useless, Gates says, and a big barrier to quicker test results is the insurance reimbursement system. Tardy tests are reimbursed at the same rate as timely ones. Why not build in a financial incentive for speedy response and a penalty—including no reimbursement at all—for delayed results?

Another shortfall is that the US should help the vaccine companies build extra factories for the billions of doses that will be needed around the world if the pandemic is to be effectively stopped. Although this would be expensive, he says it’s a fraction of the money that will be lost in a tanking worldwide economy. “In terms of saving lives and getting us back to normal,” that expenditure is a smart and essential investment. Interesting.