Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Celebrate Computer Security Day

November 30 is Computer Security Day, so I sat down for a chat with Itinerant Cryptographer, my resident computer security expert.

Mama Joules: Welcome to Mama Joules, Itinerant Cryptographer. You certainly have an unusual name. What do you do for a living?

Itinerant Cryptographer: I do research in computer security and cryptography. Most of my work is in applied cryptography - cryptography applied to real-world problems such as electronic voting and encrypting files based on passwords.

MJ: That sounds interesting. What is cryptography?

IC: Cryptography is the mathematical end of computer security. It includes encryption, which is a way of scrambling up information so that no one can read it except the person with the key, and other related ideas like digital signatures and information hiding.

Some ways that people use cryptography:

-- You have a movie and you want to embed a copyright notice in [it].

-- [You are playing an] online multi-player game [and want] to make sure that somebody else can't steal your player or the items that your player owns.

-- [You want] to keep a log of events on a computer that can't be deleted or tampered with without detection.

A digital signature lets you send a message [so that] anybody who knows your public key can identify that the message comes from you and hasn't been changed. Microsoft, for example, uses digital signatures when they distribute updates or programs. That lets your computer verify that the program really came from Microsoft.

The most important place where most people use encryption every day is SSL (secure socket layer). When you order things online and use a credit card, that information goes through an encrypted connection.

MJ: What are the biggest threats facing computer security today?

IC: A big problem in computer security is that over the last ten years or so, attacks over computer systems have moved from being done by hobbyists for fun to attacks that are done by criminals for a profit. When they were done by amateurs, the attacks tended to be more like pranks. Now, the attacks tend to be a lot more serious, more professional. They are harder to defend against and there are a lot more of them.

MJ: What can we, as users, do to make our personal computers more secure?

IC: Unplug them? (laughs)

You need to have a personal firewall and a virus scanner. A personal firewall is a computer program that sits between the outside world and your computer and tries to prevent bad communications from coming in from the outside and taking over your computer. Computer attacks are all about communicating. They can cause the computer to crash or malfunction in a useful way.

Imagine your computer is a house. A house has not only doors, but windows and an attic, air ducts, and maybe a crawl space underneath. What a firewall is supposed to do is block off most of those access points [to your home] except for the doors. You still have to lock your doors - keep your web browser and software up to date and run your virus scanner - but the firewall makes it harder to get in.

You need to be careful about accepting things over the Internet. If you click on a link and it tells you to download some software to view a movie, it may be trying to carry out an attack or take over your computer.

An attacker only has to find one weak point, like an Achilles heel. That's why computer security is a really hard challenge. You never get to the end of it. You never know if you've got all the bugs or the weakness. We can look for bugs in software. Weaknesses only show up if there's an attacker to exploit them.

MJ: What resources would you suggest for someone who is interested in cryptography, but doesn't know where to start?

IC: That's a good question. You're going to need to study a lot of math. And you also want to become a good computer programmer.

There are a lot of paper and pen ciphers that are good starting points - for example, the Vigenere cipher, the Caesar cipher, and the Rail Fence cipher. In a cipher, each individual piece of a message gets scrambled up. For example, each letter might be changed into a different letter. A cipher usually involves some calculation.

In a code, whole words or ideas get encoded into different words or ideas. A code uses a table or code book to translate the information. Read about the Navajo Code Talkers. These American soldiers used a different language [than English] as their code during World War II.

MJ: How are you planning to celebrate Computer Security Day?

IC: I think I'll go to work. (smiles)

Photo credit: Gil Paradis, via BurningWell.org

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Boy Finds Giant Maple Leaf, Stirs Controversy

The Weather Channel recently reported that a 9-year-old Canadian boy just became a Guinness World Record holder for finding the world's largest maple leaf. Just how large was this leaf? As big as a dinner plate - about a square foot in size.

But as Canada's CTV News reported:
All the attention has one possible downside. "People are jealous at school," [the boy] confided, and they're trying to find bigger leaves.
In fact, a ten-year-old Canadian girl is now challenging the record and two other families say their leaves are larger yet.

When will the controversy end? Maybe when *you* find the world's largest maple leaf!

Photo credit: Suvodeb Banerjee, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day?

Traditionally, here in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, the official start of the winter holiday buying frenzy. But some people are bucking the trend on November 26 by celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead.

The first Buy Nothing Day was celebrated in Canada in 1992 to promote awareness of wasteful spending and overconsumption. Today, Buy Nothing Day is celebrated - on Nov. 26 in North America and Nov. 27 elsewhere - in over 65 countries around the world.

How does Buy Nothing Day stack up against Black Friday? Let's do a quick comparison:

Black Friday: whip out your credit card
Buy Nothing Day: cut up your credit card

Black Friday: wait in the streets
Buy Nothing Day: free street parties

Black Friday: Wal-Mart (fill your cart to the brim)
Buy Nothing Day: Whirl-Mart (twirl your cart around without purchasing anything)

Black Friday: shop until you walk like a zombie
Buy Nothing Day: Zombie walk to draw awareness to Buy Nothing Day

However you choose to celebrate on November 26, enjoy yourself. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving. :)

Photo credit: Brave New Films, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's America Recycles Day!

November 15 is America Recycles Day. How are you planning to celebrate?

For certain locations in the United States, 1-800-Recycling.com can help locate businesses near you that recycle everything from paper and glass to automotive wastes and hazardous materials. For example, Best Buy will recycle most electronic items at its US and Puerto Rico stores, "including TVs, DVD players, computer monitors, audio and video cables, cell phones, and more."

From now until December 13, Recycling Zychal is offering to "upcycle" your broken umbrella for free (you pay for shipping the umbrella to them). Send them your broken umbrella and they will make something nifty out of it. The Recycling Zychal Etsy shop sells items repurposed from the fabric portion of umbrellas, like rain hoods, pet toys, and dog raincoats, so I can't wait to see what they are planning! This video shows you how to strip your umbrella and ship the material cheaply to them:

Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter says we should take America Recycles Day a step further and strive for a Zero Waste Day instead. Today is good time to consider the environmental impact of what you purchase. Can you live without the latest electronic gadget? Find companies that use less packaging? Invent new ways to use old objects?

EPA has a great section on their website entitled Wastes: What You Can Do. It's broken down by location of waste generation and season, with tips to reduce your environmental impact. Check it out!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fun at the USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo

On Saturday, October 23, 2010, Princess and I joined the crowd at the first USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo in Washington, DC. Roughly 850 organizations from all walks of science - education, industry, government - presented more than 1,500 interactive exhibits. The range of topics was staggering. But my favorite exhibits weren't just interactive, they were off the wall.

Maggot Monet, presented by Southeastern Louisiana University's College of Science and Technology, allowed visitors to paint with live maggots. Or rather, you dipped the maggots into paint and they did the painting for you by wiggling across the page. You got to take home their maggot masterpiece.

Candy Experiments™ was another hot exhibit. Visit their online experiments page to put your Halloween candy to the test. Did you know that you can create a density rainbow using Skittles? Float the letter "m" off of your M&Ms? Make Life Savers flash in the dark? Their booth was so popular that I couldn't even get the stroller near it.

All in all, the festival was a terrific success. Families crowded around displays of sea ice, robotic arms, nanotechnology, microbiology. The 8-to-12-year-old crowd, in particular, enjoyed the many options for fun: racing model cars, building molecular models, shooting foam rockets, meeting TV stars from CSI Miami.

But the festival didn't exactly cater to the youngest scientists. Access was difficult with a stroller. Princess did get to color a kidney for the American Society of Nephrology. We won a stuffed E. coli. And she had fun playing with ping-pong ball "moons".

I hope it becomes an annual event so that we can take her brothers with us next time. As it was, I lugged home a load of science swag for them. As soon as this picture was taken, they divvied up the goods and scurried off with their newfound treasures. Dad got to keep the science-themed T-shirt. Princess and I have our memories. Well, that and the stuffed E. coli.

Photo credits: Mama Joules

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Adventures in Local Eating: The Pumpkin Edition

When my friend Lazy Locavore first talked with me about her food choices, I thought that I had misheard her.

"You're a loco-vore?" I asked. "A crazy-eater?"

"No," she said with a laugh. "I'm a locavore. I eat locally-grown foods."

I didn't think much about this until she handed me a pound of locally-raised ground beef.

"Try this," she said.

I put the meat in my refrigerator. Again, I didn't think much about it until I took the meat out and actually looked at it. This was Meat with a capital M. It smelled fresh, it looked fresh, and it was very moist, almost bloody. I could practically visualize the cow, which initially set me back a bit. But my husband and I persisted and soon we had tasty hamburgers for dinner.

"Huh," I thought. "Maybe there is something to this locally-grown food stuff."

A couple of weeks later, I was standing in a farmer's market, looking for ripe apples. Taking a sniff of the rich and lovely scent of fresh produce, I realized something. I miss the smell of food. So many things you pick up in the grocery store these days are almost devoid of smell.

But what really got to me were pumpkins. This year, my boys went on several hay rides and soon we had a porch full of pumpkins. Lazy Locavore persuaded me to cook one.

"It's not hard," she insisted. "I can do it and I'm lazy about my food."

Several of our pumpkins were true carving pumpkins, hollow inside with a slightly off smell and few seeds. I was glad that Lazy Locavore had taught me to look for a small, solid pumpkin when baking. When I found one that literally bent the knife as I tried to cut into it, I knew I had a keeper. It looked something like this (sans the face):

Now, several days later, my pumpkin looks like this:

And here's what I learned: Pumpkins are food! I had been completely ignoring the fact that people actually eat them. I just saw them as ornamental.

The most important thing that the locavore movement has taught me so far: when we no longer relate to fresh foodstuffs as food, something needs to change.

Photo credits: Mama Joules