Sep 082012

Poor Nokia. The struggling mobile phone manufacturer is about to introduce its new flagship phone, the Lumia 920. The phone supposedly has a high quality camera with image stabilization, which Nokia proudly showed in a YouTube ad. The ad shows a young couple, the geeky man taking videos of her girlfriend while they ride bicycles, go to an amusement park, or just generally goof off.

Except that it’s all a fake. Look closely at this frame, about 27 seconds into the video:

Look at the reflection in the window of that mobile home (or whatever it is). Do you see the girl’s goofy boyfriend, riding his bicycle while holding a phone? Of course not. What you do see is a white van with its side door open, revealing a cameraman with a large, professional camera.


I am actually rooting for Nokia. I even think that Windows 8, while a disaster on the desktop, will likely be a good smartphone or tablet operating system if it is given the chance. None of which excuses the phony ad.

To their credit, Nokia admitted the fake right away, and the updated version of the video that is presently on YouTube says that much. Still…

But then, as P. T. Barnum once supposedly said, any publicity is good publicity. Maybe Nokia will actually benefit from the extra publicity that their commercial receives as a result of this fiasco.

 Posted by at 4:57 pm
Sep 072012

So recently, I got a nice new phone, a Samsung Galaxy S II.

When I set it up, I realized that Samsung chose to replace the built-in Google e-mail application with their own. This was a bit of a disappointment as the Samsung version seemed a tad less flexible and less configurable than the (also pedestrian) Google program, so I opted for the open-source K-9 Mail instead, which works very well indeed.

Today, I noticed that all of a sudden, my server is showing IMAP logins using my user ID from a strange IP address, occurring like clockwork, every five minutes. The IP address belongs to Samsung in Germany, Frankfurt to be precise. This was odd because my phone was actually connected to my home Wi-Fi, so there was no reason for it to go through a distant proxy server. Suspecting that something was afoul, I turned the phone off. The IMAP logins from the German IP address continued.

At this point, I immediately changed all relevant passwords. The login attempts (no longer successful) continued for a while, then stopped.

But what was this? A bit of research showed that the IP addresses are characteristic of Samsung’s “Social Hub” program. Apparently when I entered my login credentials using the Samsung version of the basic e-mail app, it passed on that information to Samsung’s Social Hub servers. So without my knowledge and my approval, my password to my personal account on my Linux server was sent to, and stored on, a server in a foreign country. (And no, I don’t want to hear that I actually gave my approval by clicking the Accept button on a 50-paragraph unreadable user agreement when I started using my phone. This kind of potential security breach must require up-front notification of the user and explicit approval.)

I have since kind of confirmed it by noting that Social Hub indeed shows my e-mail account as being registered, even though I deleted my login credentials days ago from the Samsung e-mail app proper. Worse yet, it seems impossible to delete this account from Social Hub; when I try, I just get a “Loading…” screen that stays on forever.

I still like this phone, but my opinion of Samsung just sank several notches all at once. A high technology company should be much more conscious of its users’ security needs and much more proactive in protecting them. Indeed it leaves me wondering if, perhaps, it might have been possible for a smart hacker to use social engineering and trick Samsung into revealing this information… which Samsung should never have obtained without my explicit permission in the first place.

 Posted by at 9:37 pm
Sep 062012

Nature had a nice editorial a few days ago about the Pioneer Anomaly and our research, titled “…and farewell to the Pioneer anomaly” (so titled because in the print edition, it is right below the obituary,  titled “Farewell to a pioneer”, of Bernard Lovell, builder of what was at the time the world’s largest steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank).

Farewell, yes, though I still hope that we will have the wherewithal to publish a longer article in which we provide the details that did not fit onto the pages of Physical Review Letters. We ought to update our review paper in Living Reviews in Relativity, too. We need to prepare for the release of the data used in our analysis. And, if possible, I’d like to spend time tackling some of the open questions we discuss near the end of our last paper, such as analyzing the spin behavior of the two spacecraft or making use of DSN signal strength measurements to improve the trajectory solution.

First things first, though; right now, my priorities are to a) earn money (which means doing things that I actually get paid for, not Pioneer) and b) get ready to have our upstairs bathtub replaced (the workmen will be here Monday morning), after which I plan to do the wall tiles myself (with fingers firmly crossed in the hope that I won’t mess it up too badly.)

Yes, sometimes such mundane things must take priority.

 Posted by at 11:26 am
Sep 042012

Speaking of books… A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of The Hunger Games on Blu-Ray. I knew more or less what to expect but I was still amazed. I am trying to imagine that conversation somewhere in a movie company boardroom where the producer made the pitch: “I am planning a movie in which two dozen children brutally murder each other…” It’s a near miracle I think that this movie was made, and a genuine miracle that the result was not sweetened up by Hollywood.

The brutality of The Hunger Games is not self-serving. Its dystopia teaches a young audience a lot more than what a first kiss is like or how to survive a life-and-death game with a bow and arrows. It teaches them about choosing and betraying (or be betrayed by) friends. It teaches them about choosing when all your choices are evil and immoral. It teaches them how not to trust any authority. How life can be lethally unfair. How the protected world in which children live is merely an illusion. And the sequels, if possible, are even better. Yes, I now read them all, and I cannot wait to see them come to life on screen.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Sep 042012

I just finished reading a chilling Swedish dystopia: The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. Its title caught my eye when Google Play on my new tablet offered it at a discount, for only $1.99. I read the first few chapters for free and I was hooked.

The Unit paints a frightening picture of a society in near-future Sweden, in which childless people past childbearing age are sent to state-of-the-art facilities, Reserve Bank Units, to live out the rest of their lives in perfect comfort… as dispensable subjects of medical experiments and organ donors, submissively awaiting the day of their “final donation”.

I just hope that the mentality depicted in this book is not in any way representative of the way people think in present-day Sweden.

 Posted by at 12:58 pm