Send in the clowns

It's at times like this that I'm reminded of the story about the depressed man who went to see a psychiatrist. Times were hard, with many people out of work and hungry. The man told the doctor of how miserable, depressed, alienated and lonely he felt. The doctor listened patiently, and at the end he said "I know just the cure for you. Tonight, the great clown Pagliacci is in town. Go, see his show and you will be filled once again with the joys of life."

At this, the man slumped further in his chair, and said, "But doctor... what the hell kind of prescription is that? I've just told you that I'm on the verge of suicide, and your advice is to go and watch some stupid clown show? How will that solve my problems? What crackpot medical school did you go to so that you come up with pointless fatuous suggestions like that? At least offer me prozac or something, you worthless piece of crap."


Nasty Search Queries

It's been a while since I posted any search queries that have brought people here, but it's long overdue. Most egregious from the recent batch was a query for "yes minister appleby/hacker slash", although I have to shoulder some responsibility for that since I briefly mentioned the topic back in 2003. Worryingly, after inventing the concept as a ridiculous dummy five years ago, it seems to have genuinely come to pass, at least judging from the search results. I'm not about to actually click on any of them.


QAM, QAM, lovely QAM

I've been happily surviving without any source of live television for a few years ago. It's a combination of pretty awful local over-the-air reception (which is only compounded by the impending switch to digital), and obscenely expensive cable fees for even basic programming. It hasn't bothered me much, but it would be nice to have some access to live information in the event of a major event, political happening, or large emerging news story. For the presidential debates, I was able to pick up some webstreams, though these were a bit shaky, and for the oscars, I just drove over to Princeton for an hour to see them.

Well, I recently switched my internet service from 3Meg DSL (which barely counts as broadband these days) to 15Meg Cable. I casually wondered whether this would let me pick up any TV off the coaxial cable. Nothing via "analog" or plugging in to an over-the-air ATSC decoder box, as you might expect (the installation work order even indicated that I had been given a "video block" for free). But, after some fiddling, I discovered that I could pick up the local channels via QAM: Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. The kind cable company was fulfilling its FCC obligation to provide customers with unencrypted QAM versions of the channels. So now I can pick these up, albeit via a computer with an appropriate decoder card, which isn't that satisfying. Maybe when I upgrade a television, I'll get one with an integrated QAM tuner and use that.

Also while switching to Cable internet, I made the mistake of hooking up a machine which is usually shielded behind a router. I left it alone for an hour or two, and returned to find that it had been hijacked: I'd left a VNC server running without a password (I normally access the machine only on the internal network), and some crim had abused the hospitality. I was tipped off by the fact that the antivirus software had been uninstalled, the software firewall disabled, and other general nastiness. I wondered if I would need to scrub the machine and start over. Actually, delousing the machine was not too hard. I identified all the files that had changed in the intervening time, which led me to a couple of new directories, in windows/system/programas [hint: I don't usually label my directories in spanish] and thereabouts. A couple of new processes were running, as well as a couple of familiar named processes which were running as a user rather than as kernel (ie they were pretending to be something they were not). A new service, cunningly named ms-java was also installed. I killed and deleted the processes and files, and removed the unwanted service. Unless there was some additional nasty rootkit business going on, I think I got it all (subsequent virus scans and spyware scans didn't turn up anything).

What was interesting is what all this badware was doing: I didn't spend too much time trying to disentangle it, but I got the general idea. There was an IRC client installed, presumably to allow the machine to be controlled from afar; there was also an FTP server set up. Probing into it, I was rather galled to find that the server was serving up some of *my* files. Fortunately, these were only some music and video files that I'd downloaded. These had been copied into the programas directory, and were being served from there. I got rid of all of that, but was still curious to know how automated this was: had the whole attack been done via standard scripts, or had some kid pwned my machine, and manually been probing through my files? Fortunately, there wasn't anything too important on the machine, but it's still rather worrying to see how easily---and how quickly---some kid can get in. Sure, I left a door wide open, but it's always a surprise to be reminded how cavalier people can be. Anyway, I managed to get the whole thing cleaned up within a couple of hours of infection, so no lasting damage done.

A pair of nickers

Fans of bank robbery will be delighted to learn that there was another bank robbery last week after I posted about one last Tuesday. The same bank was hit on Thursday (after I walked past it on Wednesday). In fact, it was the same bloke what dunnit, and the police have someone helping them with their inquiries. So that's all right then.


Is that a sandwich in your pocket?

Gawker rather downplays the latest edition of Masterpiece Security Theatre, in which an innocent german teenager is harassed for possession of a sandwich. He had packed the sandwich in his bag, forgotten about it, and ticked the "nothing to declare" box on his form. The punishment for this mighty crime? A fine of $300. "He lied on an official document!" the snide voiceover snarls. Well, the US customs form is a little misleading on this matter. The relevant question reads

"Are you bringing with you:
a. fruits, plants, food, or insects?
b. meats, animals, or animal/wildlife products?
c. disease agents, cell cultures, or snails?
d. soil or have you visited a farm/ranch/pasture outside the United States?"

"Fruits, plants, food or insects" -- well, "food" is a pretty catch all term to be buried away in this list. But put next to fruits, plants and insects, makes it confusing. Are they referring to some special kinds of food? Why not just say "food" if that's what they mean? Given that I've brought in packaged snacks (quite often, ones that I bought in the US to begin with), and just been waved through without further question, what does this really mean?

Maybe just to be safe, I'll tick all these boxes. I mean, there's bound to be a few microns of soil stuck to the bottom of my shoes. And which of us isn't carrying billions of "disease agents" without realising it? I know I am.

"The Bin Bag Murders are Back On!"

Well, not quite. But excitement! Before the great snowstorm which dropped a grand total of, er, about two inches of snow, there was apparently a bank robbery about ten minutes from where I dwell. And look--he's wearing a hat! Could it be another copy-cat hat burglar?