Sep 162019
 

Very well, I’ve been had. I lost all my bitcoin savings.

Don’t worry, it was not much. Approximately 0.0113 bitcoins. Just over a hundred US dollars at current exchange rates. And it’s not like I didn’t know from the onset that something fishy was going on. Of course I was not planning to hand over my hundred bucks to a scam artist, but I figured the learning experience was worth the risk. I had no idea how things would play out, except for one thing: I knew I was not going to get richer, but my risk was limited to my meager bitcoin holdings.

Here is how it began. I became acquainted with an Alexander H. Perkins on Quora. At first, we exchanged some private messages, in part about some of the answers I wrote. But soon, he started talking about the business he is in, cryptocurrency. He seemed legit: I looked him up. A cryptocurrency expert, member of a listed cryptocurrency company’s advisory board. He asked if I wanted to invest some bitcoins into cloud mining, because supposedly, I can make “8% a day”.

OK, red flags are up. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is paying you 8% daily interest. That this was a scam, of that I had no doubt, but I just couldn’t resist: I had to understand how the scheme worked.

It so happened that I actually had some bitcoins, those 0.0113 BTC, in a bitcoin wallet. So what the heck… let’s play along.

As soon as I agreed to become his victim (not that he called me that, mind you), this Mr. Perkins kindly set up a “mining enabled” bitcoin account for me at blockchain.com. He provided me with all necessary details and soon enough, I was able to manage the account. I then transferred my bitcoin holdings from my other wallet to this one.

And within 24 hours, I received about 0.0008 bitcoins. And again, 24, 48, 72 hours later. I was told by Mr. Perkins that this money is not completely free money: that there will be a “mining fee”, which sounded odd because how can they charge any fee to my bitcoin account? But you know what, let’s see what happens. Indeed, after about a week of regular, daily payments, four days ago I actually got charged about 0.0008 bitcoins. But the payments continued: after two more payments, my bitcoin holdings were getting close to double my initial investment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Perkins called me several times on the phone. It was always a bad connection, suggesting to me that he was using a VoIP phone, but for what it’s worth, his calls came from a California number consistent with his place of residence. He was advising me that I should invest a lot more; that investors who put in a full bitcoin or more (that would be $10,000 US) are doing much better. I told him that I’d think about it. He asked when I might make my decision. I said he’d be the first to know. He did not sound happy.

Indeed, the phone calls stopped and for the past two days, I received no e-mail notification of payments in my bitcoin wallet either. So earlier today, I went to check the wallet, and whoops: all my bitcoins are gone. The wallet has been zeroed out two days ago.

I sent this Mr. Perkins a Quora message but I am not expecting a reply. On the other hand, I think I can reconstruct what actually happened, so my bitcoins were, after all, well spent: I did learn some intriguing details.

For starters, I am pretty certain that the Quora account doesn’t actually belong to the real Alexander H. Perkins. I tried to find information online about Mr. Perkins but I was unable to locate a valid e-mail address or social media account. The person is undoubtedly real, mentioned in a 2017 press release by Glance Technologies as a newly minted member of their advisory board. But Mr. Perkins seems like a rather private person with little visible online presence.

The Quora account was only created about a month ago. It has very low activity.

The aggressive sales tactics seemed odd from a noted expert, and represented another indication of fraud. But how exactly was the fraud committed?

Here is how. It all started when “Mr. Perkins” kindly set up that “mining-enabled” Bitcoin wallet for me on blockchain.com. I knew something was not kosher (what exactly is a “mining enabled” account, pray tell?) but in my ignorance of the technical details of cryptocurrency wallets, I could not quite put my finger on it. When I received the account info, everything checked out and I was able to secure the account, restricting transactions with two-factor authentication and even by IP address.

However, unbeknownst to me, Mr. Perkins must have copied down the blockchain.com wallet backup phrase: twelve words. The company warns me: Anyone with access to my backup phrase can access my funds. What I didn’t know is that the backup phrase can be used anywhere. They need not access the wallet through blockchain.com; with the appropriate cryptocurrency software, they can recreate the wallet and empty it.

Which means that my entire blockchain.com wallet was compromised from the onset. Never mind the steps that I took, setting up two-factor authentication and all… It was never really my wallet to begin with.

The big warning sign was when the crook first processed a “mining fee”. I did not understand the details, but I knew that something was wrong. No third party can take money from your bitcoin wallet, “mining enabled” or otherwise. Yet at the same time, I continued to receive small payments, so I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I guess eventually “Mr. Perkins” decided that I am unlikely to invest more into his scheme, but more likely, I was not his only or biggest victim. You don’t set up an elaborate scam like this, with a fake social media account, fake phone number and all to just steal a hundred bucks from someone. (That would be a less effective, and certainly more risky, way of making money than working at minimum wage.)

There is the usual, “if it’s too good to be true” lesson here: Nobody is going to pay you 8% interest a day. OK, I knew that. I also knew that cloud mining is a very risky proposition, the returns are not spectacular and fraud is rampant. I didn’t have to spent a hundred bucks to learn this.

But there is also a valuable technical lesson. I had zero experience with cryptocurrency wallets in the past, and thus I did not realize that anyone setting up the wallet basically has a permanent, irrevocable key to that wallet. And when a sum, however small, goes missing from your bitcoin wallet, it is a guaranteed indicator that the wallet is compromised.

There is also another other thing that I did not realize until today. Namely that the Perkins account on Quora is almost certainly a fake, an impersonation. In fact, it was not until I actually asked myself, “how can this chap commit such fraud under his own name?” that I came up instantly with the obvious answer: he didn’t. Rather, a scamster used the name and credentials of a respectable but social media shy expert to set up shop and rip off his victims. That I did not think of this possibility earlier is a consequence of my prejudice. I had very low expectations to begin with, when it comes to people in the speculative cryptocurrency business. So neither the cheap VoIP line nor the pushy behavior raised additional red flags: I was wondering what scam the real Alexander Perkins was dragging me into, I did not expect to be dealing with an impostor.

 Posted by at 7:49 pm
Aug 212019
 

I am reading an article in The Register about a major Internet outage that occurred last December, when a handful of rogue packets managed to clog up a backbone network for more than a day and a half, blocking even VoIP 911 calls.

There are two rather frightening aspects of this fiasco. Both rather horrifying, as a matter of fact.

First, that in this day and age, in late 2018, a backbone service provider can still be brought to its knees by something as simple as a malformed packet. What on Earth are you doing, people? Have you heard of penetration testing? Fault tree analysis? Auditing your equipment and system software? Or have these essential steps been dropped just so that you can report some cost savings to your shareholders?

But it really is the second point that I find particularly upsetting. To quote, “the nodes along the fiber network were so flooded, they could not be reached by their administrators”.

Say what? Are you telling me that you had no alternate means to access your nodes? Like, you know, something as crude and simple as a dial-up port with a command-line based management interface? I mean, this is something even my little home office network used to have, and when I dropped it last year, reacting to rising landline costs and the fact that I no longer used that data/Fax phone line at all, I did so because I have dual network connections. To learn that a major backbone provider doesn’t have the kind of redundancy that I take for granted for my own little network is disconcerting, to say the least.

I suppose I should stop rambling now, though. Truth to tell, I am ignorant as to how CenturyLink’s actual network is configured, and I certainly never managed a fiber optic backbone network. I am simply reacting to the main points of The Register‘s article even though I cannot independently confirm its veracity. In my defense, The Register‘s articles tend to be well written and accurate. Even so, criticizing from a position of ignorance is never a smart thing to do.

Nonetheless, if The Register is correct, this really is not how a transcontinental data network should be configured and managed. This also seems to be the FCC’s conclusion.

 Posted by at 5:04 pm
Aug 202019
 

I have been reading dire predictions about the increasingly likely “no deal” Brexit that will take place this Halloween.

Today, I ran across two things that drove the point home for me more than anything else.

First (actually, this came second, but let me mention it first), this warning by GoDaddy to their UK-based customers who happen to hold a .EU Internet domain name:

And then there is this: An article from three years ago by a Fedja Buric (judging by the name, probably from the region) who offers a sobering comparison between the breakup of Yugoslavia and Brexit.

It may have been written back in 2016, but I think its dire warning is even more relevant today, now that a no-deal Brexit is rapidly becoming a near certainty.

 Posted by at 9:00 pm
Jun 132019
 

The news this morning is that former PM Jean Chrétien suggested that Canada should stop the extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, as a means to win back the freedom of the two Canadian hostages in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. (Yes, I called them hostages.)

The case against Huawei runs a lot deeper, however, than the financial fraud Ms. Meng is alleged by US authorities to have committed.

There is also the question of espionage, including the possibility that Huawei’s 5G equipment cannot be trusted because of firmware or hardware level backdoors.

I repeatedly encountered the suggestion that this issue can be trivially remedied by using end-to-end encryption. Unfortunately, end-to-end encryption, even if properly implemented (ignoring for the moment our own Western governments’ recurrent pleas to have built-in backdoors in any such encryption algorithms), solves only part of the problem.

It still allows Huawei to steal metadata, such as where calls are routed or the amount and nature of data traffic between specific endpoints. Worse yet, no encryption prevents Huawei from potentially sabotaging the network when called upon to do so by the Chinese government.

For this reason, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the US ban against Huawei is justified and appropriate. It must, of course, be accompanied by a suitable increase in spending on researching 5G communications technologies, because otherwise, we risk shooting ourselves in the foot by banning the use of equipment that is technologically superior to the available alternatives. This is a new situation for the West: The last time the West faced a great power adversary that matched Western scientific and technological capabilities was in the 1930s, with Nazi Germany.

As for Ms. Meng, I think the suggestion to suspend the extradition process is wholly inappropriate. It would signal to the world that Canada is willing to suspend the rule of law for the sake of hostages. However strongly I feel about Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor, however strongly I desire to see them released, this is not a price Canada should be willing to pay.

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Apr 092019
 

My research is unsupported. That is to say, with the exception of a few conference invitations when my travel costs were covered, I never received a penny for my research on the Pioneer Anomaly and my other research efforts.

Which is fine, I do it for fun after all. Still, in this day and age of crowdfunding, I couldn’t say no to the possibility that others, who find my efforts valuable, might choose to contribute.

Hence my launching of a Patreon page. I hope it is well-received. I have zero experience with crowdfunding, so this really is a first for me. Wish me luck.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Apr 012019
 

Dear Google+: It was a pleasure and a privilege knowing you. This will be my last blog post that will be shared on Google+.

Sure, I used you mostly just to view cute cats (Caturday, Cats of Google) and occasionally, interesting news on Linux and Android, but still.

It was on Google+ that I earned my most famous follower. I never bragged about it as quite probably it was just a staff mistake, but even so, it was nice to count you among my friends, Mr. Obama.

And the site had so much potential. The potential to become a more intelligent, less gossipy social network, dominated by meaningful discussion, not fake news.

Oh well. It was nice while it lasted. All good things do come to an end eventually. Thanks for the memories.

 Posted by at 8:54 pm
Oct 282018
 

I admit that until today, I have not even heard of gab.com. Or if I have, it escaped my attention.

Today, I visited the site, and I was taken aback by the amount of vile hate, white supremacist and anti-Semitic garbage, lunatic right-wing conspiracy theories, falsified history, and yes, even calls for violence.

Unfortunately, gab.com shares the fate of vixra.org, the uncensored/unmoderated alternative to the Internet physics manuscript archive arxiv.org: instead of a credible, balanced alternative, it became a fringe magnet.

That said, the imminent shutdown of gab.com is precisely the wrong response, for way too many reasons to count. First, free speech is worthless if we don’t tolerate speech that offends us. Second, it plays right into the hands of the lunatic right-wing fringe, confirming their worst conspiracy theories and affirming their views of leftist intolerance. Third, in the era of the Internet, it is really not possible to shut a site or a service down (witness sci-hub, by way of example.) At best, it’s a whack-a-mole game.

If we don’t stand up to support gab.com’s right to exist today, we give up a very important right. Those who think censorship is the answer will not stop here. Martin Niemöller’s poem (First they came…) applies. They will come for others, in the name of all that’s good and decent, until the only voices that remain are those bland, compliant ones that the powers-that-be consider acceptable.

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Sep 192018
 

Outraged over ever increasing phone bills, today I decided to cancel our second landline.

We used to use this line a fair deal. It was, back in the days of dial-up modems, my phone line for incoming dial-up calls (e.g., when I was traveling) and also a means to maintain a backup, low-speed Internet connection. It was occasionally used by my wife, as it was the line to which a dual-mode Skype-and-landline phone was connected.

And, of course, it was used for that miracle of 20th century technology: facsimile transmissions.

Of course, this is 2018 now, and I have not used a dial-up data connection in at least a decade. No travel computer of mine had a modem, in fact, since the early 2000s. My old travel kit, containing various country-specific phone plugs, even a screwdriver and alligator clips, lies on a shelf, forgotten. And Skype? Microsoft betrayed many Skype users, myself included, when they irreversibly changed the Skype protocol, rendering old Skype-compatible hardware useless. Yes, I feel a bit bitter about it… I liked that Skype phone, I even fixed it once when its original microphone died and had to be replaced. Now it’s just another worthless piece of junk electronics. And once the Skype phone was no longer useful for, well, Skype, my wife also stopped using it as a landline phone, opting instead to use her mobile phone for local calls.

As for faxes… How quaint. Faxes. When was the last time you sent a fax? Or received one? I cannot remember.

To make a long story short, this second line has remained pretty much unused for the past year or two. Yet Bell kept ratcheting up the price. My most recent monthly phone bill for the two landlines reached $125, and that’s where I decided to draw the line. I called up Bell in the hope that they might have a decent offer for a long-time customer but no, nothing. In fact, it almost felt as if they wanted me to get rid of that second line. (Makes you wonder what the hell is going on there.) So… the second line has been terminated.

Well, supposedly anyway. It was at least six hours ago that Bell told me that the line would be deactivated within 15-120 minutes… but it still gives a dial tone, and I can still ring it. Go figure. I suspect the line will be dead tomorrow anyway.

 Posted by at 5:19 pm
Aug 282018
 

If you are still running the desktop version of Skype on a Windows 10 computer, be careful before you click “Install now” when the Skype Update dialog appears on your screen.

You see, “the latest version of Skype” that is ready to install is the crappy, worthless, dysfunctional “Metro” version of Skype, which now Microsoft is keen on pushing out to unsuspecting customers, who may naively think that this update, like so many updates before it, is merely another security and functionality fix.

Why am I so hostile to Metro Skype (aka. Skype 8)? I tried using it in the last few weeks. I really did. Here are just a few of my issues with it:

  1. It is not possible to change incoming call notifications, which currently interrupt whatever the hell you might have been doing, stealing focus.
  2. It is not possible to tell Skype 8 to use your desktop speaker for incoming call rings, when you are using an earpiece for the actual call.
  3. The “Metro” UI is buggy. By way of a rather blatant example, when I call a landline contact in Hungary (+36 country code, 1 for Budapest), once the call connects, it shows up in the UI as a call to +1 361 … Needless to say, any attempt to redial fails.
  4. Other “by design” annoyances in the UI, for instance, when there is an incoming message or call that I do not answer, I get a notification in the Chat tab, but the contact is not brought to the top of the list; I have to scroll down manually, hoping that I do not accidentally skip over the contact that appears in boldface.
  5. Though I do not use it, many do: apparently Skype 8 is not integrated with callto: links on Web pages.

In short, the new UI offers a much poorer user experience, it has serious functional deficiencies, and it is buggy.

What I would like to know is what on Earth is going on in the heads of those at Microsoft who are pushing this “upgrade”. And who is going to give me back the hours that I wasted on this boneheaded nonsense.

At least for now, it is still possible to reinstall Desktop Skype by following the direct download link. Just be sure not to “upgrade” by accident afterwards.

 Posted by at 1:31 pm
Aug 212018
 

I have Google ads enabled on this site. Not really worth the effort; my blog site generates mere cents of revenue on a good day.

More recently, I noticed that Google started placing ads between paragraphs inside articles. I would like this if it improved the site’s profitability. But it didn’t.

And those ads are very disruptive, even when (or perhaps especially when) the ad is closely related to the content. Recently, I found myself apologizing more than once when I showed a blog post to someone, because of the silly, disruptive ads in the middle.

What can I say? I turned these ads off. I like Google ads as a source of revenue, but this was taking it one step too far.

 Posted by at 8:38 pm
Aug 012018
 

Over the years, I ended up with several Microsoft accounts, and it is a mess. Here is how it happened.

I had a Microsoft account since time immemorial, associated with my personal e-mail. I had my MSDN subscription under this account.

I also had a Hotmail account since time immemorial.

I had a Skype account since time immemorial, too, associated with my personal e-mail. I used my standard, preferred username as my Skype name.

The Hotmail account became an Outlook account once Microsoft acquired Hotmail and created outlook.com. Thus, this became a separate Microsoft account. My standard, preferred username became a Microsoft Live ID.

So here is what I wanted to do at one point: I wanted to use my personal e-mail as my Office 365 and SharePoint online login. But for reasons I no longer remember, there were obstacles along the way. To resolve this problem, I first moved my MSDN subscription to my Outlook account. I then changed my old Microsoft account to be identified not by my personal e-mail but by my Gmail address. This freed up my personal e-mail address to be used as an Office 365/SharePoint online user account.

But then, one day when I was trying to use Windows 10 Quick Assist to offer assistance to someone, the software told me that I need not only to log on to Microsoft, but associate my account with my Skype account. OK, I’ll bite the bullet, I said… and associated my original Microsoft account (now under my Gmail address) with Skype.

And now I am having a problem. Skype tells me that my account has two aliases: The Gmail address and my standard username. But if anyone sends a contact request to my standard username, I get nothing. Today, I figured out why: these requests go to my other Microsoft account! (The one I never used with Skype.) Presumably it’s because my standard username also happens to be my Microsoft Live ID.

Curiously, if I actually log on to Skype using my standard username, I get connected to my Gmail-associated Microsoft account (which is what I want.)

Needless to say, there is no option to merge two Microsoft accounts. There is no option to unmerge a Microsoft account and a Skype account either. I cannot even add my old personal e-mail address as an alias to either of my Microsoft account; presumable because it is now set up as my Office 365/SharePoint online user account, I receive an error message indicating that a “work or school” e-mail cannot be an alias.

As far as I am concerned, this is an unholy mess. Just writing down what happened made my head spin a little. And I really wish I didn’t have to waste a good two hours of my life earlier this morning simply to get to the bottom of it all. (It all began when I made an unsuccessful Skype-to-landline call to Hungary and tried to call again using Skype on my mobile; the software, having updated itself, asked me to log in, and inadvertently, I logged in with the wrong ID. Bad idea, which I eventually remedied by shutting down Skype, deleting all Skype data on the phone, and then restarting Skype and starting all over again.)


As a reminder to myself, here is an excellent page that explains the difference between Microsoft and Office 365 accounts.

 Posted by at 7:28 pm
Jun 162018
 

When I was a teenager, the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, was one of my favorites.

And one of my favorite chapters in that book was a chapter with an uncanny (not to mention unusually long) title: “How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches”. In it, Dumas describes a classic hack: exploiting the human in the system. By bribing an operator of France’s early optical telegraph network, the book’s protagonist is able to plant a false message, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of one of his mortal enemies. In short: a targeted cyberattack on a telecommunications network.

What I did not know, however, is that this chapter may have been inspired by real life events. About ten years before Dumas published his novel, the brothers François and Louis* Blanc managed to hack the telegraph network in a manner even more sophisticated than the hack described in Dumas’s book. Yes, the real-life hack relied on bribing operators, too, but it also involved a case of steganography: inserting a coded message that would piggyback on the original telegraph transmission. Not only did the scheme succeed, like any good hack it remained in place and undetected for two years. And when it was finally detected, the Blanc brothers were charged but never convicted; there were, after all, no laws on the books back in the 1830s against misuse of data networks.


*Well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It appears that the twins are misidentified as Francois and Joseph in several English-language publications. Francois was later known as The Magician of Monte Carlo, a casino that he owned and where he first introduced the single-0 style roulette wheel.
 
 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Mar 242018
 

I just read that Elon Musk nixed Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Much as I admire Musk, I will not follow his example. I am not planning to delete my Facebook account.

Facebook is not the problem. It is a symptom.

The actual problem is much broader. The Internet that brought us together is also responsible for creating fragmented communities, echo chambers if you wish. When our primary source of news is like-minded people, memes and links we exchange with each other, often uncritically, without checking their veracity, there is a problem. It makes no difference if the content delivery vehicle is Facebook, Twitter, plain old e-mail or anything else.

I am not going to give up the opportunity offered by Facebook to stay in touch with old friends, with classmates I have not seen in years if not decades, with other people I would not even know were it not for the Internet. This is priceless.

But when I want to get informed about the world, I do not turn to Facebook. I do not forward memes. I might give a perfunctory “Like” to something that appears in my feed, but I do not believe it without checking first. And most importantly, I use other sources to keep myself informed.

Yet I fear the problem is even greater than this, and once again, ditching Facebook may be precisely the wrong answer. I recall what it was like when I was growing up in Hungary in the 1960s, 1970s. We had one national television channel. (OK, make that one-and-a-half, because there was a Channel 2, but with only a very short broadcast day in the evenings, initially, only a few days a week. And on Mondays, both channels were off the air.) This means that we all watched the same things. No matter which part of the country, which walk of life you came from, you knew the same television personalities I knew, you heard the same jokes, you watched the same drama.

It was probably never quite like this in North America, where there were always a multitude of channels since the dawn of television. Still, back in the old days, “multitude” meant maybe a half dozen choices if you were in a major metro area. So the shared cultural experience was still there. Not anymore. And never mind television, with hundreds of cable and satellite channels and numerous online alternatives. On top of that comes social media, with its propensity to create microcommunities.

Again, the problem is not that you stay in touch with your circle of friends. That’s great! The problem is that your circle of friends becomes your primary source of news and views about the world. You reinforce each other’s beliefs, making it harder and harder to contemplate alternative viewpoints.

So keep Facebook. Do stay in touch with old friends or distant family members. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use Facebook to inform yourself. Ditch the memes. Stop sharing anything other than cute cat pictures. And be the most suspicious when you see something that you are inclined to believe. It’s not the lies and deceptions you hate that are the most dangerous; it is the lies and deceptions that you are most likely to believe that will fool you. This is something state-sponsored Russian trolls know all too well.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Jan 032018
 

When will news portals finally learn that autoplaying a video at maximum volume in the middle of the night guarantees only one thing: that I close the tab in a mad panic while I curse the news site, its creators, editors, their parents and grandparents and just about everybody they ever did business with for scaring me witless and waking up my household?

 Posted by at 1:52 am
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 handset, 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