Head in the Clouds

In case you haven’t heard, today Google announced that it would be releasing an “Operating System.” This “Operating System” will be Linux, themed and branded with Google stuff, and will be designed to run Google web applications. It will be cloud computing. Besides the fact that Google is going to call it’s new, snazzy Linux distribution an Operating System (which it is, just not a new one), I still can’t get over cloud computing. Why does anyone want to put all of their documents and all of their information into the hands of someone you’ve never seen or met before at a server warehouse? I just don’t get it. You fill your computer with anti-virus and anti-spyware programs to the point where it’s crippled by virus checks, registry checks, and hard drive scans, and in a few years you’ll just throw all your important files onto some network storage center in California that you have never seen? That just doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, I want you to think back to all of your computing experience. What part of your computer has been the most unreliable? What part doesn’t always work? What part do you have to fiddle with and play with and finagle with until it finally decides to sort of work, and when it does, unless it’s under ideal conditions, it works only slowly? Yes, that’s right, it’s your network. I don’t care what operating system you’re running, Windows, Mac OS or Linux, no operating system does networking perfectly, and wireless is especially tricky. And this is what we’re going to rely on for our files and applications? Until recently, wireless Internet has been a luxury. I’m not saying it should always be that way, but I think it’s not a great idea to restrict yourself to areas where you can get wireless access. Yes, technologies like EDGE (I think…) and WiMax will greatly increase wireless range, but there is no technology that will increase the range infinitely. What does this mean? Let’s say you’re on a vacation to some remote area of Canada. Much of Northern Canada has no cell reception, and therefore it’s doubtful that there will be wireless Internet service even after “The Great Switch” to cloud computing. You’re looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend of fishing and working on your latest novel, as you are a writer. Sadly, however, wireless reception is spotty at best. You’re not too far away from civilization, but the nearest access point is about 10 miles away. Now you’re brand new, cloud computer is very thin, and very nice. It’s all shiny and sporting the latest cloud computing operating system of your choice. But it doesn’t have a word processor. No, it doesn’t have a word processor because your word processor is “on the cloud.” Your files are all “on the cloud.” You’re life is “on the cloud,” and whenever you try to connect to “the cloud,” your operating system freaks out and throws up a message that says, “No Connection available.” So your vacation is ruined. Sucks for you.

But that’s not a big deal. I mean besides the fact that some of the greatest writers ever were inspired by the great out doors (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Witman, and Jack London to name a few), that scenario has a relatively low impact. Well let’s consider another situation. It’s the year 2015. Assuming that the world didn’t end in 2012 as everyone is saying it will, we’re all on the cloud. Wireless reception literally covers the globe, and you can get wireless reception pretty much anywhere. There’s some guy in a fishing cabin in Northern Canada who’s pretty pissed off, but other than him everyone’s happy. Well, that is, other than him and a vicious South American dictator. This South American dictator is fed up with American politics, American democracy, and American music. He hates America, and he wants to strike. Now back in the old days there were two options for this dictator. First, plan some kind of terrorist attack – kill a bunch of people and then threaten to do it again. Second, buy some missiles and start firing. Either plan would lead to certain failure, as any attack on the US by a small country would lead to that countries annihilation. However, because of this modern era where all sensible people use the modern convenience of wireless Internet, he has another option. You see, wireless access is a status symbol. Even today business people walk around with bluetooth headsets and blackberries and wireless cards for their computers that ensure they are always connected. It shows that they have lots of money, and that they are devoted to their work with their lives. Let’s ignore that they haven’t been home in a year, their kids don’t remember what they look like, and neither they nor their spouse has had sex since a few months after they were married. So everyone is on wireless. What does our intrepid South American dictator do? He goes to Radio Shack. Or the dump. Or anywhere where electronic parts are available. And he has some of his engineers build a device, very much like LadyAda’s Wave Bubble, that jams RF signals. He builds hundreds of them, and at a relatively low cost, because these things are fairly simple, and there are all sorts of electronic devices that have been discarded. You see, hardware in the year 2015 is much like it is today, in that it’s meant to be not just exceed by the latest hardware, but replaced by the latest hardware, and once your hardware is too old, it must be upgraded. So he builds a few hundred of these little RF jammers at a fraction of the price of a missile or even a bunch of guns, and now all he needs is a plane. He has someone file a flight plan and do everything by the book, and then he demands whatever it is that a South American dictator wants. The US denies him, of course, which is reasonable. I mean what could a small nation like his do to a big nation like ours? The deadline comes, the plane flies, and every few hundred feet, centering around El Paso, Texas (in the year 2013 the nation’s financial center was moved to El Paso, Texas, don’t worry about it), they drop these devices, and the entire country is crippled. Because the devices are small, and because they were disguised as everyday items, they are hard to locate, and because they are numerous, finding and destroying them all is difficult. It takes several days of searching to find and destroy most of them, and there are still some lurking on peoples’ roofs and in trash cans, and reception in suburban areas is still being affected because the cleanup crews had to focus on the urban center to get trade going again. The stock market has already taken a plunge, and several of the smaller corporations that couldn’t handle the pressure have already gone under. Larger corporations are facing heavy losses, and though there seem to be no obstacles to further business, our South American dictator has threatened to do it again. The US now has three options. First, give in to his demands. Second, ground all air traffic near financial or governmental centers. Third, screen every flight from everywhere in the globe, because any one of them could be transporting the dictator’s lacky armed with a few hundred RF jammers. Now that was a financial center. What would happen if he hit multiple targets including centers of government, police stations, hospitals, and financial centers? Nothing good.

Yes, this is an extreme situation, and it’s not likely to happen, but tell me one good reason why it couldn’t happen. You may have heard of the hacker attack a while back that crippled Estonia for a few days. There’s an article here about it, describing a situation similar to the one I created above. The difference is that Estonia was attacked from within the network, but a physical attack on a wireless network could be even more difficult to prevent. I keep my opinion that cloud computing is dumb, and I will never embrace it. It would be nice to centralize computing power so that consumer devices are smaller and lighter, but that’s taking the easy way out. We’re putting convenience over functionality, practicality over security, and that’s never a good thing. We don’t have to be intelligent or innovative, let’s just take all the resources we already have, centralize them, and then we can make little tiny innovations so that we don’t have to do as much work and our innovations look bigger. Poor choice.

I have said it before, and I hold my ground, that if I have to write my own software so that I can use it on my own computer without the help of a cloud server, then so be it. I don’t care what other people do, that’s none of my business, but if you do decided to embrace cloud computing, or anything else for that matter, make sure you know all of the implications, not just what a bunch of forward thinking people tell you are the implications. And yes, that does include me. Think for yourself, don’t just take what you’re given.


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