Online Circus

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Defeating Your Electronic Shackles

An Israeli prisoner that was forced to wear an electronic shackle that verifies he doesn't violate his home arrest, had outsmarted the device (original article is in Hebrew).
The shackle monitors the suspects relative location and if the suspect leaves a defined detention area, the device signals through the telephone line to the local police. How did he defeat the system ? He stopped paying his telephone bills and his line was disconnected...

From Schneier's

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Safeguard Strategic Installations From Google Mapping

From Yahoo News -

Concerned over satellite images of its strategic installations being made available in the public domain by internet search engine Google, India has decided to constitute an expert group to suggest ways to safeguard the country's interests.

And I was thinking, why should Google go out of its way to blur the Indian buildings ? You want your buildings blurred ? I say build them blurred in the first place... !
On the same note, here are other solutions the Indian expert group might want to consider:
  1. Cover your nuclear reactors with huge shades, paint them with clouds from below and trees from above.
  2. Paint your airport buildings roofs with reflective paint (effective in daylight sweeps only !)
  3. Create a building cover by sewing together thousands of car covers. Cover your governmental buildings before Google sweeps (need inside information here...), remove afterwards.
  4. Place a huge magnifying glass over your atomic establishments (Fire hazard).
  5. Place a huge mirror over your submarine base, reflect the bastard.
  6. Place a huge monitor over your Prime Minister's residences, facing the sky. Broadcast what a second satellite views just a few kilometers away.
  7. Cover your police stations with small mountains.
  8. Build your army bases over modular wheeled plates. Shift them around regularly.

On a more serious note (?) Google should definitely have a "blur API" you can use as a request to blur ones buildings. What about painting a huge crossed "G" over required rooftops ?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pricing Software Vulnerabilities

Two weeks ago, a person going by the nickname "fearwall" tried to auction a flaw in Excel on eBay, the auction was pulled shortly afterwards (article, screenshot).
It appears that after fearwall reported this Excel-crashing flaw to Microsoft he decided to see how much money he could sell it for.
Currently, it's hard for freelance security researchers to receive monetary compensation for their time. The ones that can actually profit from researching vulnerabilities are the bad guys. Exploiting such a security vulnerability to take control over world-wide machines translates immediately to an easy income as these machines are used to steal bank accounts, spam and advertisements (more information here). As Microsoft and other software companies are somehow not liable for these acts of exploitation, besides the bad publicity behind it, their incentive to research these security holes before launching a new application is not very large.
On the other hand more ethical options for researchers looking to sell vulnerabilities do exist - The iDefense Vulnerability Contributor Program and the 3Com Zero Day Initiative pay anywhere between $100 to $1,000 for a vulnerability.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Crack In The Wiki Model ? Take Two

When it rains, it pours.
It was only logical that after the latest Wikipedia "scandals", kind souls will search deeper to uncover further populist issues with the Wiki model, and that's exactly what technology writer Rogers cadent uncovered.
Rogers found that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, has been busy updating his own biography even though Wikipedia's policy is that these acts should generally be avoided.
Now, it's one thing if Wales was just trying to fix a false bio as happened in previous cases but apparently Wales tried to increase his role in placing the cornerstone of the Wikipedia's concept over that of Larry Sanger and tone down his past association with online adult content.
I'm assuming that Wales didn't want to cover anything up but was just frustrated when he realized that his bio doesn't reflect his own views. Still, there is an issue here and in my view, it is not the problematic editing of one's own biography - rather, we should realize that this kind of views are highly subjective and two different people (Sanger/Wales) given the same facts might still write the article differently being sure each one is right and the other is wrong. As Wikipedia offers no means of final decision (In delicate subjective matters, who can rule who is right and who is wrong ?) the plausible outcome is a Wiki page update war, repeated over and over, which is exactly what happened here.
But is this issue even relevant to the general public ? These subjective views and Wiki wars are not on cornerstone notions as the weight of an Electron or the outcome of world war II, just on miniscule details that should usually hold no interest to the public but only to the participating members, in this case Wales/Sanger (cute comics here). And as predicted, a recent research shows that comparing 42 science-related topics, Wikipedia and Britannica offer quite the same scientific accuracy, so the model seems to hold and here is your bottom line. Or is it ?
Some think not and that is the reason for the upcoming release of "Digital Universe", that would offer a free online encyclopedia moderated by experts. The Digital Universe, by the way, is the brainchild of no other than Larry Sanger...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Spamming For Vigilante Justice

Worms propagating through emails use different techniques to lure unsuspecting recipients into opening an attached document, a new worm replica, that emails itself further and further.
Most worm writers create their email content with Social Engineering in mind. The latest headlines, for example, discussed a Sober worm variant that tries to frighten you into opening an attached "questionnaire" by mentioning that it was sent from the FBI offices after your computer's IP was detected at illegal web sites. Here's an example -

Dear Sir/Madam,
We have logged your IP-address on more than 30 illegal
Web sites.
Important: Please answer our questions! The list of questions are

Yours faithfully,
Steven Allison
Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI was so concerned by this worm that they've actually rushed to issued a warning on their website.

Now for the punch-line. It appears that a slightly revised version of the above email, caused an alleged pedophile in Germany to hand himself over to the local police after mistaking the automatically generated worm text as an official warning that he was under investigation !

Amazing, though I was somewhat annoyed to see that the different newspapers tried to spin this as the doings of a nice worm writer, while the only intent in the emailer's mind was to cause as many people as possible to install the worm.

On the other hand, that does raise an interesting idea, an experiment of sorts. Suppose someone really tries to call for vigilante justice "the Sober way". He writes the following email and send it to millions randomly selected email addresses across the globe.

You thought you'll get away with this, but guess what ? I've got
it all on tape !!!
Now here's the deal. As much as I'd like to see you rot in jail for the
rest of your life, I'll graciously give you exactly 24 hours to do the right thing and turn yourself in, before I'll make the tape public and your sentence will be
much more painful.

This is my first and last warning and you know I'm not
joking !

Your 24 hours start now -- You know who

What do you think will happen ?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Pokemon Gene Controversy

Did you know that there are genes named after Sonic the Hedgehog and after The Pokemons ?
It seems that the Pokemon gene (POK Erythroid Myeloid ONtogenic factor) at certain states can cause cancer, which apparently was enough for Nintendo to threaten the scientists at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York with legal actions if they keep referring to it as Pokemon... The gene is now called zbtb7.
Less catchy, isn't it ?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

Not quite the center of the earth, but still quite interesting. Chikyu is a giant drill built by Japanese scientists. In 2007 it will drill down to a depth of seven kilometers to explore the Earth's mantle. They've just ended their first training mission, successfully.
While we're at it - the transatlantic train is another ambitious plan. A train that will go from New York to London in less than an hour, going 5000MPH through a tunnel floating in the Atlantic ocean... Only a theory though.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Amazing Narwhal

The Narwhal is truly an extraordinary mammal, most renowned for his Unicorn-like tusk.

Narwhal tusks, up to nine feet long, were sold as unicorn horns in ages past, often for many times their weight in gold since they were said to possess magic powers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a tusk valued at £10,000 - the cost of a castle. Austrian lore holds that Kaiser Karl the Fifth paid off a large national debt with two tusks. In Vienna, the Hapsburgs had one made into a scepter heavy with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

What's even more amazing is that a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the Narwhal's tusk is actually a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity. The eight-foot-long modified tooth has as many as 10 million tiny nerves reaching from its surface to the central core and, ultimately, the whale's brain.

Nature has actually recreated this little trick many times before, with the duck-billed Platypus, a venomous, egg-laying, duck-billed mammal that has electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors distributed across its bill to help him locate his prey, and with the Star-nosed mole that has a bizarre set of 22 fleshy mobile tentacles on its nose that are extremely sensitive to touch and electrical impulses, allowing it to find its prey without sight.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Movement of Earth's Magnetic Pole Accelerating

From an AstroBio article

After some 400 years of relative stability, Earth's North Magnetic Pole has moved nearly 1,100 kilometers out into the Arctic Ocean during the last century and at its present rate could move from northern Canada to Siberia within the next half-century.

And the following citing from the original Oregon State release

The surprisingly rapid movement of the magnetic pole doesn't necessarily mean that our planet is going through a large-scale change that would result in the reversal of the Earth's magnetic field.

Not necessarily... ? Well, that's a relief.

Interactive Fiction

When I got my commodore 64, I quickly learned to appreciate the world of text adventures. In a matter of fact, one of my earliest motivations to sharpen my programming skills was trying to write a text adventure on my own.

I am happy to see that the text adventure scene (i.e. Interactive Fiction) is still thriving. If you care to see what it looks like, check out the Interactive Fiction 2005 competition site.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The fascinating stories behind MMORPG

I find Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games fascinating.

Playing together with thousand of others, forming friendships and embarking on epic quests sounds like some tasteless commercial until you first try it and find it's quite real. Personally, I've done my acquaintances through DikuMUD back in 1992 and it was two months before I raised my head from the terminal again...

Gaining more and more popularity along the way, some MMORPG now boast hundreds of thousands of online members, a phenomenon that sparks many interesting "behind the scenes" stories. Here are some of these stories I found along the way -
  1. Man pays $100,000 for virtual resort - After all, the virtual island he bought just a year earlier for $26,500 more than paid for itself.
  2. Digital plague hits online game World of Warcraft - the plague was caused by a curse given to characters that battle a certain demon. The curse can pass to nearby characters. The game developers, however, failed to limit the area where the curse operates. The disease would not have spread without the efforts of the online equivalent to terrorists, that teleported their cursed characters to inhabited areas and spread the disease to the general online population.
  3. Online gamer gets life for stabbing - A Shanghai online game player who stabbed a competitor to death for selling his virtual sword has been given a suspended death sentence.
  4. Virtual Sweatshops - Chinese "virtual sweatshops" where people are employed to play online games and collect virtual items for their employers who then sell them for real money.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Discovering New Music

Two cool ways to discover new music -

1. Pandora - analyzes music down to it's basic traits (i.e. rhythmic syncopation, vamping, vocal harmonies) . By playing songs and asking for your "thumbs up/thumbs down" it tries to adapt to your musical taste (correlating traits) and automatically creates a personalized online radio station. Relevant Slashdot discussions can be found here and here.

2. Last.FM - uses a social approach to the same problem. By joining a community and logging the music you hear, LastFM can correlate your preferences with other community members and use their playlist to suggest new songs you may enjoy.

Enjoy your music... !

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Democracy 2.0

I love online community-wide experiments. The last one I've enjoyed was The Smaller Picture - an interesting little experiment where thousands of viewers try to create a single picture by individually selecting whether to set some random pixel to black or white.

Today, I've stumbled on Democracy 2.0 (thanks to the Digg). Democracy 2.0 is an experiment, testing whether a wide range of individuals can create together a solid base for nation laws. From the site -

Democracy 2.0 hopes to answer the following question: if the country started from scratch today, meaning there are no laws, what laws would you make for society?
We hypothesize that collaboration through a wiki will filter social norms, transform these social norms into legislation, which in turn will produce superior laws to govern society.

Let's wait and see...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A crack in the Wiki model ?

It seems that enough pressure can crack anything.

Wikipedia witnessed two "scandals" this week i.e. the problematic biography of one assistant to Robert Kennedy, and Adam Curry anonymously editing out other creators of the podcasting technology while pumping up his own role (I'm guessing that the Wiki guys were on to him because he used the same IP for both anonymous and named logins... There's probably a lesson here).

It's interesting to see that in both of the above "scandals", the errornous articles were identified and fixed. The Wiki model worked here (though we don't really know where else it failed...) and the only paid price was the misconceptions of those who accessed the false articles in the meantime (I wrote about it previously). Regardless if this was a legitimate price to pay for the wealth of information, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales decided to restrict anonymous users from creating new articles (they are still allowed to edit existing ones)

From the article -
"The change is one of the first that would specifically limit what anonymous users can do on Wikipedia. And some may see that as a significant step for a service that's traditionally prided itself on letting anyone participate. But Wales said the move is not a major one because, as mentioned, most new articles are already written by registered Wikipedia members, and most anonymous users' actions are edits to published entries."

Really interesting to see how this story unfolds - Has Wiki managed to cross the gap of initial participation and can continue to thrive on its registered members alone, or did political pressures just pushed our open encyclopedia to commit an online suicide ?

I guess time will tell.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lost in Translation & Mediocre Journalism

When I skimmed through Slashdot's headlines Yesterday, I found myself sneering to French arrogance when I read that France is Hostile To Open Source Software requiring open source developers to change their license.
I gave little thought to the article until I ran into the Techdirt followup that gave the following amusing insight - Slashdot (and other newspapers) are making headlines from nothing but a poor French-English PR translation... In the rush to publish, Slashdot's moderator introduced a false headline.

This just adds up to the discussions seen lately of the risks in mediocre online journalism following some of Wikipedia's so-so articles and the surge in online blogging. Afterall, what would I remember - the French arrogance or me jumping to conclusions ?

I guess that was my own tiny contribution to inferior online journalism...

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A dog's life

The newspapers are filled with details of the first ever (publicly known anyways) face transplant carried out in France last week on a 38 years old woman.

What I found ironic was the story behind the story...
You may have heard that the face transplant was required because the woman's face was savaged by a dog, a tragic incident. But (thanks to aunti-spam for the tip), reading a bit further into the details most newspapers found uninteresting enough to mention, you may have found that the dog was in fact the woman's dog. Why would her own dog bite her in the face ? the French news agency AFP quotes her daughter as saying the family dog apparently used its jaws to try to wake her after she took an overdose of sleeping pills in what seems like a suicide attempt. Would you like to get the dogs comment on that ? can't do that. The french authorities put him to sleep to the family's protests.

Isn't it ironic ? If the dog wouldn't have intervened, he would still be alive and his owner dead as wished. It's the opposite now.
Don't get me wrong - I'm happy for the owner to get a (second ?) chance, but I'm so sad for the dog...

Friday, December 02, 2005

A car paint that self heals its scratches

Nissan engineers have come up with a special car paint that should heal most scratches in a matter of days... Cool:
1. I'm sure the guys from Apples iPod Nano's production line would have been interested
2. I wonder if someone is working on an anti-dent paint (inflatable car anyone ?)

(From Engadget)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The NSA's CryptoKids

Is it plain reasonable or just amusingly absurd... ?
Meet the NSA for Kids, and their FBI for 5th graders counterpart !

Can your search terms be used against you ?

A chilling possibility - You most likely know that Google saves all your search terms. You might know that they can trace the searches back to you. You probably know that they have a neat privacy policy over using this data. You wished you never knew that with a mere subpoena, the government can and will use this information against you in the court of law...

From the editorial at the New York Times (registration required) -
"At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words "neck" and "snap." The data were taken from the defendant's computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which - unbeknownst to many users - keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals"

Should we start to seriously reconsider the search terms we use ?

(Saw that on Schneier's)

Alien invasion is near (?)

Will Aliens use contaminated radio signals to take control over Seti@Home computers as a first step of taking over the world ???

Read all about it here. And here for the Slashdot discussion

And if we're at it, we better check that our Aluminum foil hats are ready

On the Effectiveness of Aluminum Foil Helmets

Are the Aluminum foil helmets a good solution against aliens taking over our minds ? Read all about it here. From the article -

"It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current [Aluminum Foil] helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings."


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