Nov 272017
 

Recently, I was looking at the registration of sci-hub.io in light of a recent US court decision, and the well-known Russian pirate site hosting illicit copies of millions of scientific papers was still working fine.

Not anymore. That address appears to have been taken down, but an alternative seems to be working fine:

$ nslookup sci-hub.bg
Server: 127.0.0.1
Address: 127.0.0.1#53

** server can't find sci-hub.bg: NXDOMAIN

$ nslookup sci-hub.bz
Server: 127.0.0.1
Address: 127.0.0.1#53

Non-authoritative answer:
Name: sci-hub.bz
Address: 104.28.21.155
Name: sci-hub.bz
Address: 104.28.20.155

Wonder how long before they take the .bz address down, too.

 Posted by at 10:38 am
Nov 102017
 

I’ve seen several news reports commenting on the fact that Donald Trump was using Twitter while visiting China. That despite the fact that Twitter is one of those Western services that are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. Some even speculated that Trump was using a military communications network or some other exotic technology to circumvent Chinese restrictions. (As if the US military was foolish enough to let this idiot of a president’s unsecure smartphone access their network.)

But reality is much more mundane, as I know quite well from personal experience in China.

When you are traveling with a phone registered to a foreign service provider, your Internet connection initiates from that provider’s network. So insofar as the Internet is concerned, you are not even in China. Your connection initiates from your home country. In my case, whenever I used my phone in China for Internet access, I accessed the Internet from an IP address registered with my Canadian cellular service provider, Rogers. I had unrestricted access to Google, Facebook, CNN and other news sites, with no Chinese restrictions.

Trump probably did exactly what I did, except that he probably worried about international data roaming charges and data caps a little less than I. He grabbed his phone, turned it on, and used it without a second thought. (OK, that’s not exactly like me. Trump was probably not surprised to see Twitter work on his phone in China, because he probably knows very little about the Great Firewall. I was mildly surprised myself, especially as I went there prepared for the worst, with multiple overt and covert VPN options prepared just in case I needed them. Which I did… but only when I was using the hotel Wi-Fi instead of the cellular network.)

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Nov 092017
 

Sci-Hub is a Russian Web site that contains pirated copies of millions of research papers.

Given that many of these papers are hidden behind hefty paywalls, it is no surprise that Sci-Hub has proven popular among researchers, especially independent researchers or researchers in third world countries, whose institutions cannot afford huge journal subscription fees.

Journal publishers do provide a service (at least those few journals that still take these tasks seriously) as they go through a reasonably well-managed peer review process and also perform quality copy editing. But… the bulk of the value comes not from these services, but from the research paper authors and the unpaid peer reviewers. In short, these publishers take our services for free (worse yet, often there are publication charges!) and then charge us again for the privilege to read what we wrote. No wonder that even in the generally law-abiding scientific community there is very little sympathy for journal publishers.

Nonetheless, publishers are fighting back, and the American Chemical Society just won a case that might make it a lot harder to access Sci-Hub from the US in the future. For what it’s worth, it hasn’t happened yet, or maybe we are immune in Canada:

$ dig +short sci-hub.io
104.31.86.37
104.31.87.37
$ traceroute sci-hub.io
[...]
 9 206.223.119.180 (206.223.119.180) 46.916 ms 44.267 ms 66.828 ms
10 104.31.87.37 (104.31.87.37) 31.017 ms 29.719 ms 29.301 ms

I don’t know, but to me it looks as just another case of using the legal system to defend a badly broken, outdated, untenable business model.

 Posted by at 9:04 am
Jul 122017
 

Microsoft broke my Skype device, and I hate them for it.

It’s one of these:

Yes, it’s an older gizmo. About ten years old. I even had to repair it once, replacing the small condenser microphone in the headset, which went dead.

But we really liked it. It worked very well. It is a dual-line phone: landline + Skype. And while it has no video, chats, teenage chatbots and such nonsense, it performs the basic function of Skype flawlessly: It lets you make bleeping voice calls.

Or rather, it used to perform that basic function flawlessly. Today, the device signed itself out of Skype forever, it appears, if online news sources about the demise of Skype devices can be believed.

Damn you, Microsoft. If this is how you are “improving the user experience”, please stuff your improvements where the Sun doesn’t shine. I don’t want smileys. I don’t want chatbots. I want good old, solid, reliable Skype that, among other things, lets my wife and I call our aging parents overseas, lets me talk to clients, and lets me talk to colleagues. And, well, just plain works.

Sure, we can use Skype on our smartphones. And we do, when the occasion warrants it. But this device was convenient, too. And I really cannot understand why support for it had to be killed by Microsoft. Perhaps pure spite?

One of these days, I’ll start compiling a list titled, How can you tell that a company hates its customers? If I ever get around to doing it, this thing with Skype will certainly make that list.

 Posted by at 5:55 pm
May 292017
 

Is your mother proud of you being a crook?

I have asked this question many times in recent months; basically, every time I receive a call from the “computer support department”, trying to tell me how my computer is full of viruses or whatever.

I usually don’t expect an answer; as a matter of fact, I usually just hang up, although more often than not, the other party hangs up first before I get a chance. Understandable… that’s what they are trained to do by their criminal masters.

Today, for some reason, I chose not to hang up. And the gentleman on the other and of the line asked me to repeat myself instead of hanging up on me. I obliged. After a moment of silence, I actually got an answer.

“Well, sir, I need the money.”

That was an unexpectedly candid admission, not that I was not aware of this basic truth. These callers, usually in boiler rooms somewhere in India or Pakistan, do this because they need to earn a living.

But it’s one thing to earn a living, it’s another to defraud vulnerable people, old ladies and whatnot. I told that much to this agent. He just repeated himself, defensively: “But I need the money.”

So I told him that I understand. That I, too, was a refugee once 30 years ago. (True.) But even when I had no money, I did not start defrauding people. I asked him to think about this, please; then thanked him and hung up.

Did I accomplish anything? I don’t know. Is it valid to compare my situation 30 years ago: granted, a refugee, but a refugee in a first world country (Austria) with no family to worry about and with guaranteed shelter and food at the Traiskirchen refugee camp, which I declined to take advantage of only because I found work (no fraud involved, but it’s true that I had no work permit) and I was able to afford better accommodations?

Yes, I read Les Misérables. No, I do not want the poor to be disproportionately punished, with no grace or mercy.

Still, I think there is an ethical line to be drawn here. No matter how great your need is, I still don’t think this moral justification applies when you work for a criminal enterprise, earning a living from defrauding vulnerable people halfway around the world.

 Posted by at 2:21 pm
Feb 262017
 

In many ways, this is the most disturbing story I read in recent… days? Months? Maybe years?

The title is (relatively speaking, in this day and age) innocuous enough (if perhaps a little sensationalist): “Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit“. Yeah, sure. Billionaires are evil SOBs, we knew that already, and now a bit of investigative journalism dug up another reason why we should hate them. Big deal… you could be forgiven if you moved on to read something else, maybe the bit about Trump snubbing the White House Correspondence Dinner or Fox News using a phony “Swedish defense advisor” to curry favor with the President.

But if you choose to read this article, it reveals something else. It reveals how the Leave campaign in the Brexit vote received assistance provided by artificial intelligence software to build profiles of up to a million voters and create highly targeted campaigns on social media.

Back when the nightmare of the machines taking over was first discovered in the science fiction literature, it was usually envisioned as a clean break: First the humans are in charge, but then comes Judgment Day and the machines take over.

Reality is a lot messier, for both humans and machines. There is no clean break. The ever increasing power of the machines is harnessed by ever more reckless humans, manipulating humanity in unexpected ways. Machines manipulating elections or referenda at the bidding of sinister humans… in many ways, that is the worst of possible worlds.

It makes you feel helpless, for one: You realize that nothing you can do on social media, nothing you can say in your blog will amount to one iota, as the machines have an infinitely greater capacity to analyze data and assess outcomes.

And it also makes you fearful. AI (for now) has no compassion or conscience. It will lie or make up “fake news” without remorse. It will (for now) do its masters’ bidding, even if those masters are sociopaths.

So no, folks, don’t delude yourselves. Judgment Day may already be here. It’s just coming one little data point, one neural network, one deep learning algorithm at a time.

 Posted by at 9:03 am
Feb 022017
 

“After a second notices he ran it on db1 instead of db2″… This sentence (somewhat shortened, to make a fitting title) describes the beginning of a colossally effed up night at GitLab.com.

In response to a spike in system load, which resulted in lag on a replication server, the operator thought that maybe restarting the replication server with a clean slate is a good idea. So he decided to wipe the replication server’s data directory.

Unfortunately, he entered the command in the wrong window.

I feel his pain. I did make similar mistakes before, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the memories still hurt me, years later.

I have to commend GitLab for their exceptional openness about this incident, offering us all a valuable lesson. I note that others also responded positively, offering sympathy, assistance, and useful advice.

I read their post-mortem with great interest. In reaction, I already implemented something that I should have done years ago: changing the background color of some of the xterm windows that I regularly open to my Linux servers, to distinguish them visually. (“Create issue to change terminal PS1 format/colours to make it clear whether you’re using production or staging”).

Of course similar incidents and near misses also changed my habits over the years. I rarely delete anything these days without making a backup first. I always pause before hitting Enter on a command that is not (easily) reversible. I have multiple backups, and tested procedures for recovery.

Even so… as Forrest Gump says, shit happens. And every little bit helps, especially when we can learn from the valuable lessons of others without having to go through their pain.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
Nov 172016
 

It is rare these days that a piece of spam makes me laugh, but today was an exception. After all, it is not every day that I receive an e-mail notice, pretending (kind of) to be from UPS, informing me that my “crap” has been shipped:

Still trying to figure out though if the language was intentional, or simply a mistake made by a non-native English speaker unfamiliar with certain, ahem, idioms.

 Posted by at 1:16 pm
Sep 142016
 

Hey, I am getting famous again!

For the second time, Quora decided to feature one of my answers on their Forbes blog site. This one was in response to the question, “Is Theoretical physics a waste of resources”? I used the example of Maxwell’s prediction of electromagnetic waves to turn the question into a rhetorical one.

Forbes used a stock Getty image of some physicists in front of a blackboard to illustrate the blog post. Here, allow me to use the image of a bona fide blackboard, one from the Perimeter Institute, containing a few of the field equations of MOG/STVG, during one of our discussions with John Moffat.

Forbes used a stock Getty image of some physicists in front of a blackboard to illustrate the blog post. Here, allow me to use the image of a bona fide blackboard, one from the Perimeter Institute, containing a few of the field equations of MOG/STVG, during one of our discussions with John Moffat.

Anyhow, I feel honored. Thank you Quora.

Of course, I never know how people read my answers. Just tonight, I received a mouthful in the form of hate mail from a sarcasm-challenged defender of the US space program who thought that in my answer about astronauts supposedly having two shadows on the Moon, I was actually promoting some conspiracy theory. Duh.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Aug 252016
 

It was 25 years ago today that a Finnish chap by the name of Linus Torvalds made an announcement about a new operating system that he developed in the preceding few months. Nothing big and professional, he assured us, just a hobby project basically… but here it was, and he already got a command shell and the GNU C compiler working.

I have been using Linux for 23 of those 25 years. I became familiar with Linux when I took over sysop duties of the UNIX forum of the long defunct NVN (National Videotex Network).

I no longer have the original SLS (SoftLanding Linux) floppy images, though I am pretty sure even without checking they can be found in several archives online.

But I do have the announcement that I posted on the NVN UNIX forum page almost exactly 23 years ago, on September 1, 1993:

Welcome to the LINUX distribution on NVN!

The UNIX Forum data library now contains the complete set of files
making up the Softlanding Software (SLS) distribution of LINUX, the
popular *FREE* UNIX operating system clone.

The files are the most recent (version 0.99 patchlevel 12) as of
today, August 28, 1993.

The files were used by the UNIX SysOp to install a complete LINUX on
an 80386SX20 PC, with 4 Mb of RAM, a 68 Mb and a 42 Mb MFM hard disk
drive, an ATI VGAWonder super-VGA card with 512 kb video RAM, a
Microsoft mouse, a 5.25" high density floppy drive, and a 3.5" high
density drive, and an ATI2400etc/i internal modem. Brief assessment:
it works like a charm. So well, in fact, that I decided to keep it
and permanently convert my old 386SX to a LINUX host. I am already
using it as a dial-in system for my friends and business associates.

The files in this distribution are:

readme.sls this file
sls_info.zip miscellaneous text information files
rawrite.zip needed to create the A1 bootable LINUX disk
sls_a1_3.zip bootable floppy image for 3.5" 1.44 Mb drives
sls_a1_5.zip bootable floppy image for 5.25" 1.2 Mb drives
sls_a2.zip Minimum base system
sls_a3.zip
sls_a4.zip
sls_b1.zip Base system extras
sls_b2.zip
sls_b3.zip
sls_b4.zip
sls_b5.zip
sls_b6.zip
sls_b7.zip
sls_c1.zip Compilers
sls_c2.zip
sls_c3.zip
sls_d1.zip Documentation
sls_d2.zip
sls_s1.zip Essential component source
sls_t1.zip TeX
sls_t2.zip
sls_t3.zip
sls_x1.zip X-Windows
sls_x2.zip
sls_x3.zip
sls_x4.zip
sls_x5.zip
sls_x6.zip
sls_x7.zip
sls_x8.zip
sls_x9.zip
sls_x10.zip

All the files named sls_Sn.zip must be uncompressed under DOS and
copied onto separate floppies. The bootable LINUX floppy (disk A1)
can be created from sls_a1_3.zip or sls_a1_5.zip using the RAWRITE
program, supplied in RAWRITE.EXE.

It is suggested that you download sls_info.zip first, for additional
information. The files in this archive are text files readable under
DOS (lines end with CR/LF instead of LF only as they do under UNIX).


Please note that while the NVN UNIX does not (indeed, cannot) provide
support for LINUX, I will be glad to answer any of your questions. 
Also, if you are interested in a specific program, application, or
information file that is not included in the present distribution,
please let me know and I will see if I can obtain and upload it. If
you would like to run OSF/Motif on your LINUX system, you may not
have to wait too long; I am planning to try and obtain Motif in the
near future.

Good luck with your installation and I hope that the next time you
call, it will be with your LINUX system!

UNIX SysOp

Before making this announcement, I already set Linux up on an old 386SX desktop computer that I was no longer using. Within a few months, this computer began to play a permanent role as my Internet server. Although it went through several hardware and software iterations, its basic identity remains the same: it’s the very same server on which these words appear.

 Posted by at 10:20 pm
Jul 132016
 

Today, I took the plunge. I deemed my brand new server (actually, more than a month old already) ready for action. So I made the last few remaining changes, shut down the old server, and rebooted the new with the proper settings… and, ladies and gentlemen, we are now live.

Expect glitches, of course. I already found a few.

The old server, of which I was very fond, had to go. It was really old, the hardware about 7 years. Its video card fan failed, and its CPU fan was also making noises. It was ultra-reliable though. I never tried to make this a record, but it lasted almost three years without a reboot:

$ uptime
 12:28:09 up 1033 days, 17:30, 4 users, load average: 0.64, 0.67, 0.77

(Yes, I kept it regularly updated with patches. But the kernel never received a security patch, so no reboot was necessary. And it has been on a UPS.)

This switcharoo was a Big Deal, in part, because I decided to abandon the Slackware ship in favor of CentOS, due to its improved security and, well, systemd. I know systemd is a very polarizing thing among Linux fans, but my views are entirely pragmatic: in the end, it actually makes my life easier, so there.

Anyhow, the new server has already been up 13 minutes, so… And it is a heck of a lot quieter, which I most welcome.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Jun 152016
 

The CRTC told me that it is the cable companies’ fault. The cable company told me that it is the provincial emergency agency that makes the decision. The provincial agency, on its Web site, tells me that these alerts are at the discretion of the television channel.

But the reality is that they are interrupting all channels, as well as recorded programs, with pointless messages: some are tests, some are amber alerts from half a continent away (yes, Ontario is a huge province.)

If they did this to the public airwaves, that might be forgivable. But they are messing with a privately owned service for which I am paying good money. Serious money, as anyone can attest who is paying for a cable subscription nowadays.

I am uploading this video to YouTube because I hope to use it to bring attention to this blatant abuse, all in the name of the public good, of course. Alerts such as this that completely hijack all channels for a whole minute should be reserved for genuine, imminent, major emergencies such as a tornado, flash flood, military or terrorist attack. They should not be tested recklessly, and they should not be used excessively for events that do not meet the criteria that define a serious, imminent, life threatening emergency that actually affects the region in which the alert is shown.

I wonder if a clever lawyer might find a way to sue the government for illegally appropriating private property.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Jun 092016
 

Dictatorships can be wonderful places, so long as they are led by competent dictators.

The problem with dictatorships is that when the dictators go bonkers, there are no corrective mechanisms. No process to replace them or make them change their ways.

And now I wonder if the same fate may be in the future of Singapore, described by some as the “wealthiest non-democracy”.

The Ministry of Information and the Arts

To be sure, Singapore is formally democratic, with a multi-party legislature. But really, it is a one-party state that has enacted repressive legislation that require citizens engaging in political discussion to register with the government, and forbids the assembly of four or more people without police permission.

Nonetheless, Singapore’s government enjoyed widespread public support for decades because they were competent. Competence is the best way for a government, democratic or otherwise, to earn the consent of the governed, and Singapore’s government certainly excelled on this front.

But I am beginning to wonder if this golden era is coming to an end, now that it has been announced that Singapore’s government plans to take all government computers off the Internet in an attempt to improve security.

The boneheaded stupidity of this announcement is mind-boggling.

For starters, you don’t just take a computer “off the Internet”. So long as it is connected to something that is connected to something else… just because you cannot use Google or visit Facebook does not mean that the bad guys cannot access your machine.

It will also undoubtedly make the Singapore government a lot less efficient. Knowledge workers (and government workers overwhelmingly qualify as knowledge workers) these days use the Internet as an essential resource. It could be something as simple as someone checking proper usage of a rare English expression, or something as complex as a government scientist accessing relevant literature in manuscript repositories or open access journals. Depriving government workers of these resources in order to improve security is just beyond stupid.

In the past, Singapore’s government was not known to make stupid decisions. But what happens when they start going down that road? In a true democracy, stupid governments tend to end up being replaced (which does not automatically guarantee an improvement, to be sure, but over time, natural selection tends to work.) Here, the government may dig in and protect its right to be stupid by invoking national security.

Time will tell. I root for sanity to prevail.

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Jun 022016
 

This morning, Quora surprised me with this:

Say what?

I have written a grand total of three Quora answers related to the Quran (or Koran, which is the spelling I prefer). Two of these were just quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian saint who advised Christians not to confuse the Book of Genesis with science; the third was about a poll from a few years back that showed that in the United States, atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious folk from any denomination.

As to string theory, I try to avoid the topic because I don’t know enough about it. Still, 15 of my answers on related topics (particle physics, cosmology) were apparently also categorized under the String Theory label.

But I fail to see how my contributions make me an expert on either Islam or String Theory.

 Posted by at 11:18 am
Apr 292016
 

When you contribute on Quora as I do, Quora may reward you by declaring you a “most viewed writer” in select topics.

What I didn’t realize is that Quora’s powers reach not only beyond planet Earth, but also beyond the boundaries of our physical universe.

A few months ago, Quora declared me most viewed not just in this universe but in parallel universes:

But if you thought this cannot be topped, here is the latest: I am now a most viewed writer in the whole multiverse!

Wow. I really feel special.

 Posted by at 11:13 am
Apr 152016
 

Not for the first time, one of my Joomla! sites was attacked by a script kiddie using a botnet.

The attack is a primitive brute force attack, trying to guess the administrator password of the site.

The frustrating thing is that the kiddie uses a botnet, accessing the site from several hundred remote computers at once.

A standard, run-of-the-mill defense mechanism that I installed works, as it counts failed password attempts and blocks the offending IP address after a predetermined number of consecutive failures.

Unfortunately, it all consumes significant resources. The Joomla! system wakes up, consults the MySQL database, renders the login page and then later, the rejection page from PHP… when several hundred such requests arrive simultaneously, they bring my little server to its knees.

I tried as a solution a network-level block on the offending IP addresses, but there were just too many: the requests kept coming, and I became concerned that I’d have an excessively large kernel table that might break the server in other ways.

So now I implemented something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: ensuring that administrative content is only accessible from my internal network. Anyone accessing it from the outside just gets a static error page, which can be sent with minimal resource consumption.

Now my server is happy. If only I didn’t need to waste several hours of an otherwise fine morning because of this nonsense. I swear, one of these days I’ll find one of these script kiddies in person and break his nose or something.

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Apr 102016
 

I’ve been encountering an increasing number of Web sites lately that asked me to disable my ad blocker. They promise, in return, fewer ads.

And with that promise, they demonstrate that they completely and utterly miss the point.

I don’t want fewer ads. I don’t mind ads. I understand that for news Web sites, ads are an essential source of revenue. I don’t resent that. I even click on ads that I find interesting or relevant.

So why do I use an ad blocker, then?

In one word: security.

Malicious ads showed up even on some of the most respectable Web sites. Ad networks have no incentive to vet ads for security, so all too often, they only remove them after the fact, after someone complained. And like a whack-a-mole game, the malicious advertiser is back in no time under another name, with another ad.

And then there are those ads that pop up with an autostart video, with blaring sound in the middle of the night, with the poor user (that would be me) scrambling to find which browser tab, which animation is responsible for the late night cacophony.

Indeed, it was one of these incidents that prompted me to call it quits on ads and install an ad blocker.

So sorry folks, if you are preventing me from accessing your content because of my ad blocker, I just go elsewhere.

That is, until and unless you can offer credible assurance that the ads on your site are safe. I don’t care how many there are. It’s self-limiting anyway: advertisers won’t pay top dollar for an ad on a site that is saturated with ads. What I need to know is that the ads on your site won’t ruin my day one way or another.

 Posted by at 9:19 am
Mar 202016
 

Recently, it was proudly announced that Canada now has a state-of-the-art emergency preparedness system, with the participation of major telecommunication companies like Bell or Rogers.

The problem… well, here is an example of the problem:

This is what was on my television screen a little earlier this afternoon, in place of CNN, for something like a full minute or so.

And not just in place of CNN. In place of every channel. Even if I was trying to watch a recorded show on the PVR.

What’s wrong with it, you ask? Well, I live in Ottawa. That is more than 400 kilometers from Toronto, and the last time I checked, a 1997 Toyota Camry is not a hypersonic jet aircraft.

But even if the abduction happened next door… I don’t mean to be heartless, but this kind of dramatic alert is something I would expect to see if World War 3 was imminent, or if my city (not Toronto!) was about to be hit by an F5 hurricane. Not in case of a domestic abduction (which, in the vast majority of cases, is just a family member like an estranged father, taking a child without permission.)

The last time this happened, I wrote to the CRTC, who told me that it’s not their responsibility (even though they were the ones who mandated it!) but that of provincial agencies and the telecommunication companies that implement the system.

Today, I wrote to Rogers. I do not expect a meaningful reply*.

As if I didn’t already have enough incentives to cut the cable.


*Update: A day after I sent my e-mail complaint to Rogers, a gentleman by the name of Aaron called me from the “President’s office”. He very patiently listened to me as we discussed not just the emergency alert system but also other issues related to the digital transition, the cost and limited choice of decoder equipment, and other topics. We spent more than 20 minutes on the phone. I still don’t expect anything meaningful to happen, but I appreciated it that my complaint was taken somewhat seriously.

 Posted by at 6:06 pm
Feb 212016
 

Last night, when I almost managed to kill my server, I was playing with a service that I just discovered: Weather forecast in ASCII.

Well, almost ASCII. UTF-8 characters, to be precise. (And it was while messing with those xterm settings that I managed to enter a command using the wrong syntax.)

Still, it’s a nicely formatted three-day forecast suitable for text terminals. And it has pretty thorough world coverage.

I just hope the forecast holds up for Tuesday, as I’ll have quite a few errands to run that day and I’d prefer not to get stuck in a snowstorm.

 Posted by at 9:24 am