Hacking the Defcon 18 Badge

Since its 14th edition, Defcon badges have gone electronic. Hardware wizard Joe Grand (he and I both worked at @stake a long time ago, though in different offices) creates these masterpieces and unleashes them on the thousands of people who descend upon Las Vegas every year for this oldest of the US hacker conferences, now in its 18th incarnation.

Befitting this conference, the badges have all sorts of hidden capabilities, easter eggs, etc. One of Defcon's many challenges is to find these backdoors. This year's badge is no exception. Sporting an LCD panel for the first time ever, pressing the badge's buttons causes all sorts of cryptic (and some not so cryptic) behavior.

One of the badge's challenges is to crack "Ninja mode" which you have to enable by picking an electronic lock consisting of fifteen tumblers, each one with three states (for a total of over 14million combinations).

I had fun with this one. I was making slow, steady progress until I thought of exploring the Defcon CD... Bingo! Joe was thoughtful enough to include a full development environment for the card, as well as the source code to the firmware! From that point "hacking" became a simple exercise in reverse engineering the code. I won't give the key away but I will say that Wolfram|Alpha proved very useful for quick conversions between binary, trinary, and hexadecimal.

In retrospect I should have looked at that CD much earlier :-)

Forests Full of Adventure

"Adventure Forests" (Foret de l'aventure in French) have become very popular in Switzerland. They're a wonderful experience for young and, well, not so young, combining the thrills of an amusement park with physical exercise. And of course, the pleasure of being in the middle of nature.

These adventure forests consist of zip lines, rope ladders, tight ropes, and many other obstacles strung between tall trees. There are usually multiple courses of varying difficulty, each one taking 15min to up to an hour to complete. It's all pretty safe as long as you use the climbing gear they give you properly. We visited three parks while we were in Switzerland, our boys loved them! (I did too :-)

Travel tips:
  • Call ahead to find out when there are fewest "adventurers" at the park. Not being stuck behind another group makes a big difference
  • Wear light, loose fitting clothes. Some of the obstacles can be quite physical (though the tough ones always have an escape route)
  • Bring water and snacks, these are available at the park but can be quite expensive
  • Hit the restroom before you and esp. the kids put on your climbing harness :-)

27" iMac Electricity Consumption Stats

I pulled our handy little Killawatt out from its resting place this week and used it to track our 27" iMac's (quad core i7 processor) electricity usage. The Killawatt plugs in between the wall socket and the device you want to monitor. It will calculate cumulative power consumption (Kwh), watts, amps, etc. The device is particularly useful in figuring out how much an electric appliance, or computer, really costs to run.

27” Apple iMac
Kwh / Day
Cost / Day
On, screen dark
On, light usage
On, max usage

"Max usage" means all CPUs were chugging away and a DVD was playing. Cost / day is based on my current cost of just under $0.12/Kwh.

Overall that doesn't feel too bad, though it can add up over a year. If you were compressing videos 24x7 non-stop for a whole year it would cost you over $210 (and would probably seriously reduce the lifespan of your iMac to boot :-)

iPad AntennaGate

There's been a lot of talk on the net about AntennaGate over the past few weeks: if you hold an iPhone4 the wrong way, it loses signal strength and drops calls. Apple called attention to the fact that other cell phones also suffer from this (much to the annoyance of the other phone makers :-) though the iPhone4 seems to be the worst affected.

But where, in all this, is the iPad? The iPad 3G has an antenna. Does it also suffer from signal attenuation if you hold it "wrong"? No one dared ask the question...

Until now! :-)

In case you're wondering...
- Yes, I know I messed up pronouncing "fanboy", we only did a single ad lib take
- The footage shot on a properly held iPhone4 (thanks Aron!)
- No iPads were harmed in the making of this video

In Norway, Public Libraries have Climbing Walls

Well, at least one does! What a great idea for the kids' section! Children can't sit still all the time and this solution gives them both an outlet for their energy and a way to see the world from a different perspective, just as any good book would do. Thanks to my lovely wife Katrine for the pics and to our sons and nieces for the (in)action poses ...

Visiting the Beautiful Amalfi Coast

We spent a wonderful day touring the Amalfi coast south of Naples with our taxi driver Giovanni. A strong sea-faring republic at the turn of the first millennium, it slowly fell from power due to natural disasters, invasions, and Venice's rise in the North. Today, the coast is home to a group of picturesque villages perched on hills above the dazzling Tyrrhenian Sea.

Travel tips: expect to spend a day visiting the area. Though there are a number of bus tours you can take, we preferred to hire a taxi. It was expensive (around EU270 from Sorrento and back) but, with five of us, no more than a tour would have cost us. What we lost out on local history (Giovanni was a decent guide but no pro) we gained in flexibility: stopping where we felt like, leaving an area when we were done. With three often impatient boys, this was very useful!

The Addiator: Ingenious Mechanical Pocket Calculator

Growing up I loved to play with my father's Addiator, a small mechanical calculator that could easily add and subtract numbers... It wasn't a PDA but a PMA: Pocket Mechanical Assistant :-)

It's based on a very clever idea: parallel tooth metal strips had numbers from 0 to 9 printed on them, as well as a "flag" (in my addiator's case a red arrow) to indicate that you need to carry the operation over to the next column. This mechanism was originally invented in the late 1800s by a Frenchman named Louis Troncet. I've included a picture from his 1889 patent that shows you the inner working of the device. You can view a number of his patents here.

The German company Addiator manufactured devices like mine from the 1920s to the early 1980s when digital calculators finally made them obsolete. Many other companies made them too, and not just to add / subtract either

This short video shows you how simple and effective Troncet's invention was.

Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii

We had a great time visiting Pompeii and its volcano this summer. Vesuvius literally blew its top in AD79 and submerged the town of Pompeii in ash, mud, and molten lava. The ruins deserve their reputation: they're incredibly well preserved, down to murals, pottery, and yes, casts of the victims.

Travel tips: If you're an EU citizen bring your passport or driver's license along to the ruins, your children will get in free and adults pay less too. We paid a taxi driver 120 Euros to pick us up at Pompei train station, drive us up the volcano (stopping when we wanted to take pictures), wait 1.5 hrs while we explored the crater, then drop us off at the ruins. It was worth it and, given that there are five of us, much cheaper than paying for five seats on a bus tour. We saw Vesuvius and Pompeii in a single day.

Gliding in the Swiss Alps

Got some great pictures of gliders while hiking. They swoop in overhead, almost silent, skimming the mountain sides. I've always admired glider pilots: they have so little margin of error when landing. In the Cessna I rent, it's easy to use power to compensate for any issues with the approach, wind variations, unexpected traffic, etc. You don't have that luxury in a glider! Must be a real rush to fly one of these in the mountains. Gotta get an intro flight next time I'm here.

If ever someone googles their glider's tail number: this one is HB-3427. Contact me if you want the full size pictures.