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Bitpourri - Too Much Of A Good Thing

More Meltdowns and Spectres, and Venezuelan inflation

A Mélange Hors d'oeuvres
Welcome to Bitpourri, where we post tidbits that aren’t lengthy enough to warrant a full blog post of their own but still merit sharing. These (usually) unrelated vignettes are quick and easy reads for when you're interested in some food for thought, but are feeling more “snackish” than ready for a full meal. You can find more of our Bitpourri series here.

Bugs Beget Bugs
Back in January I commented on the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities. Since then there have been additional variations of both vulnerabilities disclosed. And there are probably more that are still under wraps. Chip makers won't reveal them to the security community until vulnerabilities are fixed.

We now have a third type of speculative execution vulnerability, Foreshadow. This is another attack affecting Intel CPUs, but with a twist. It allows the attacker to circumvent Intel’s SGX enclaves. These are protected & encrypted sections of memory specifically designed to add extra security.

Speculative execution (aka "looking ahead") is a good thing for microprocessors. It allows them to take advantage of unused resources while the CPU is executing other code. This speeds things up without requiring the CPU to run faster.

Speculative execution is built into the design of the microprocessors. This makes it very hard to correct any design flaws (such as all these security vulnerabilities). Microcode patches are issued to correct these design flaws. Every patch issued negatively affects the performance of the CPUs. This is due to two reasons:

  • Losing some of the performance gains resulting from the now-disabled features (such as speculative execution).
  • Adding additional overhead while executing each instruction.

Intel's microcode patches for Foreshadow included a surprise for operating system distributors. They added an unprecedented license restriction preventing anyone from running or publishing performance comparisons. After industry pushback this limitation was removed. Intel — and other CPU manufacturers — are concerned the performance hits will result in more lawsuits.

The engineers who create these microprocessors are truly geniuses. Unfortunately, complex designs have a greater the possibility of a vulnerabilities. This may just be speculation, but I'm afraid that the prevalence of these security vulnerabilities foreshadows that there are more to come.

An Impractical Bolivar
Venezuela has been in the news this week (08/19/2018) due to its reeling economy. Its hyperinflation is undermining the bolivar (the currency of Venezuela). The International Monetary Fund has estimated Venezuela’s rate of inflation for 2018 will be 1,000,000%. Let that sink in: a 1,000,000 percent rate of inflation. This translates to 114% per hour, and 1.9% per minute (1.9% is the 2018 annual rate of inflation for the US).

As you can imagine, this untenable situation is a burden on shoppers. If they can find goods for sale they need to use suitcases or wheelbarrows full of cash to make small purchases. The Venezuelan government took action this week by devaluating the currency by 96%. They cut five zeros from prices and replaced all of the existing bank notes.

Consider this example of the difficulties using the bolivar to purchase goods. Prior to the devaluation, a bar of soap (53¢ US) would cost 5,100 notes of 1,000-bolivar denomination. A kilo of cheese ($1.14 US) would require 11,000 of the same notes. The 1,000 bolivar note was added in 2017.

Storing all these bank notes at home, or at a business, is almost impossible. The physical transportation is difficult as well. A store selling the equivalent of $100 US would have to handle 1.1 million 1,000 bolivar notes. The value of this cash would decline considerably by the time a business can deposit the cash in their bank.

Cash registers are simply not equipped to handle prices in the millions (or billions). Sales reporting becomes more difficult as well. Stores need to reprice their goods everyday (or throughout the day) just to try to keep up with inflation. Of course, that assumes they can stock their shelves (which is no easy feat in Venezuela).

In Venezuela the government subsidizes the fixed price of gasoline. This has resulted in some crazy pricing disparities. As of the exchange rate on Monday (08/20/2018), 1¢ US would buy 4,233 gallons of gasoline. For comparison, that 53¢ bar of soap would cost the same as 152,381 gallons of gas. Venezuelans were faced with a additional problem resulting from the currency devaluation. Once devalued, there would be no denomination of currency or coin small enough to purchase a tank of gas.

We all dream of becoming millionaires (or even billionaires). These days I'd go for a wheelbarrow full of cash and gas prices from when I was a kid. I guess we'll just have to settle for 1.9% inflation here in the US.

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