Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cheap international roaming, by hacking your SIM card

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The Register writes about a (UK) long-distance carrier called BiBiTel with a novel product

The BiBiTel product is a decal with some embedded electronics. You remove your phone's SIM card, affix the decal, and put it back in your phone. The electronics in the decal passes through all communication used to place domestic calls. When you try to place an international call, or if you are out of the country, however, it intercepts the call and places it over the BiBiTel network instead of your normal carrier. The call is handled and billed by them at their discounted rates. (At least I assume they're discounted - I don't know what the rates are normally in the UK.)

Conceptually, it's not much different like land-line services in the past, where you would dial an access code or a toll-free number to place your call through an alternate carrier. Those methods (especially the toll-free number approach) would still work with a cell phone, but something like this is far more convenient. If it works as advertised, you no longer have to think about it - it will just redirect your calls automatically.

I never place international calls for myself (and work calls are on the company phone, which they pay for), but for someone who does, this is a great idea. I wonder when something similar will become available for customers of US carriers.

Monday, October 07, 2013

SQRL login system

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Gibson Research has released a secure login system called SQRL (Secure (QR) Login - pronounced "squirrel") with a lot of very interesting and attractive properties.

The superbrief summary of SQRL is:

  • You install the SQRL software on your smartphone
  • When you visit a web site that supports SQRL, you will see a QR code next to the login form.
  • Instead of typing in your user ID and password, you scan the QR code with your phone
  • The SQRL app works some cryptographic magic (go read the web page for the details) and sends the results to the URL that's part of that QR code
  • You click the login button without typing in any name/password
  • You are securely and anonymously logged in:
    • The server doesn't know who you are (unless you provide that information separately)
    • The server will recognize you when you come back in the future
    • Other servers using SQRL will see different anonymous IDs, so you can't be tracked across multiple sites (unless, of course, you provide additional information as a part of using that site.)
    • The authentication process is out-of-bound (separate network connection, separate device, etc.) so a compromised web browser (like in a public terminal) won't see any of your login credentials

More convenient and more secure than a normal password-based login. What more could you want?

I need to read more about this (I've only read the first page of the site), but based on what I've read so far, and the fact that Gibson Research is a company that has earned a lot of trust over the years, I am very interested in this technology and would love to see it (or some similar concept) widely adopted all over the internet.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Atari 2600 Adventure

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Today, I stumbled across the home page of Warren Robinett. For those who may be unfamiliar with the name, Warren was the Atari engineer who wrote the Adventure game for the Atari 2600.

This was a ground-breaking game for its time, and was the first adventure game ever made for a gaming console. Although incredibly primitive by today's standards, it becomes incredibly impressive when you realize that the Atari 2600 only had 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM. Warren's home page has a page devoted to Adventure. In it is a PowerPoint presentation about the making of Adventure, including a quick summary of the Atari 2600's architecture. It is a great read if you're into legacy hardware/software platforms and the programming techniques needed to develop code for those platforms.

Interestingly, back in the 70's, when Adventure came out, my father and I found the Easter egg, learning all about Warren Robinett. We phoned Atari, hoping to be able to talk with him for a few minutes, but the receptionist claimed that no such person ever worked there. At the time, we assumed that he had been fired for wasting memory with the Easter-egg room which could have held another game room. In hindsight, I think it is more likely that we weren't the first to phone up, and Atari was trying to make the callers go away so their engineers could get back to work.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Dolphin intelligence has been seriously exaggerated

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Der Spiegel reports (along with many others) about the recent findings and book by Justin Gregg that debunks many of the myths surrounding dolphin intelligence.

While dolphins no doubt are intelligent, the belief that it is second only to humans (including language, complex social structures, etc.) is simply not true.

Note that some media outlets reporting this are taking away the wrong conclusion. Gregg points out that some aspects of dolphin behavior (attributed to superior intelligence) are shared by many lesser life forms that nobody would consider intelligent (like goldfish and mealworms), leading some to conclude that he's placing dolphins among them on the intelligence ladder. I don't get that impression from the article, and Gregg himself has said that he does not hold this belief.

See also:

Security is a drawer full of warm socks

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I have been quoting this strip for a long time, ever since I read it in a Peanuts anthology as a kid. Sadly, dryers now have cool-down cycles, so you have to stop it prematurely if you want a drawer-full of warm socks.

Maybe that's what's wrong with society. No warm socks, therefore no security...

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

NYT: Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews

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The New York Times reports the results of a recent poll indicating that the non-Orthodox Jewish population is becoming increasingly non-observant. Conservative Jews are becoming Reform, Reform becoming totally non-observant, etc.

Personally, this comes as no surprise. When you fail to teach religion, or teach it in the context of multiculturalis, or fail to teach the fact that religion imposes real obligations, then you end up also teaching that it doesn't matter. And if being Jewish doesn't matter, then there is no impetus to bother remaining Jewish.

It's only in the Orthodox community where parents make a point of giving their children a thorough Jewish education (Jewish day schools typically teach 4 or more hours of religious instruction in addition to secular studies) and where religious obligations are taught and enforced. This doesn't guarantee that the kids will want to be that observant, but it does guarantee that they know all about their heritage and culture and what they will be discarding if they choose to leave.

But that having been said, I think some of the problem is also the fact that the orthodox community sets up massive barriers that prevent less-observant Jews from joining the community. The attitude there (not universal, but common) is that if you don't do everything 100% perfect, then you shouldn't belong to the community at all. And the definition of "100% perfect" gets stricter every year, for reasons that (to me, a non-orthodox Jew) don't seem to make any sense.

And woe unto someone who converts to Judaism. Not only do the orthodox not recognize non-orthodox conversions (which I understand), they also don't recognize many orthodox conversions. For a variety of reasons (including pressure from groups in Israel), the standards for orthodox conversion are much stricter now than they were even 20 years ago. In some places, fully-observant orthodox Jews who converted in the past are not considered Jewish for no reason other than the fact that the conversion happened before the new rules were set up.

With an atmosphere like this, it is quite understandable that those who are not orthodox are just throwing up their hands in disgust and saying "F!@(#& it all". If a non-Jew approached me today asking about conversion, I would tell him not to bother, and it would have nothing to do with Judaism itself, but everything to do with the associated politics. Why would anyone study for years and completely uproot his life, only to find that the community he is allegedly joining thinks it was all worthless and will forever treat him as an outsider? Or that at some point in the future, they will change the standards and make him start all over again?