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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 10th, 2021

And now for something somewhat different

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Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2021 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

America’s broadband problem

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Ensuring that all citizens have access to good broadband is, to my mind, a government responsibility, much like mail, roadways, safe drinking water, law enforcement, and the like. The illustration is from an article by Russell Brandom and William Joel in Vox, and at the link the map is interactive.

If broadband access was a problem before 2020, the pandemic turned it into a crisis. As everyday businesses moved online, city council meetings or court proceedings became near-inaccessible to anyone whose connection couldn’t support a Zoom call. Some school districts started providing Wi-Fi hotspots to students without a reliable home connection. In other districts, kids set up in McDonald’s parking lots just to get a reliable enough signal to do their homework. After years of slowly widening, the broadband gap became impossible to ignore.

So as we kick off our Infrastructure Week series, we wanted to show the scope of the problem ourselves. This map shows where the broadband problem is worst — the areas where the difficulty of reliably connecting to the internet has gotten bad enough to become a drag on everyday life. Specifically, the colored-in areas show US counties where less than 15 percent of households are using the internet at broadband speed, defined as 25Mbps download speed. (That’s already a pretty low threshold for calling something “high-speed internet,” but since it’s the Federal Communications Commission’s standard, we’ll stick with it.)

Maps like this are important because, for much of the past decade, the scale of the problem has been maddeningly difficult to pin down. Most large-scale assessments of American broadband access rely on FCC data, a notoriously inaccurate survey drawn from ISPs’ own descriptions of the areas they serve. Even as the commission tries to close the broadband gap, its maps have been misleading policymakers about how wide the gap really is.

Instead of the FCC’s data, we drew on an anonymized dataset collected by Microsoft through its cloud services network, published in increments by the company over the past 18 months. If the FCC monitors the connections that providers say they’re offering, this measures what they’re actually getting. You can roll over specific counties to see the exact percentage of households connected at broadband speed, and the data is publicly available on GitHub if you want to check our work or drill down further.

The disparity between FCC reports and the Microsoft data can be shocking. In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability. But according to Microsoft’s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.

Other areas stand out for the sheer scale of the problem. Nine counties in Nevada fall under the 10 percent threshold, covering more than 100,000 people and the bulk of the area of the state. Most of Alaska is a similar dead zone — understandably, given how rugged the state’s interior is — but similar gaps pop up in southwest New Mexico or central Texas.

Because it’s measuring usage, this data doesn’t distinguish between people who can’t buy a fast connection and people who simply can’t afford one, and in other places, you can see the connectivity problem as one more consequence of accumulated neglect. In Arizona, Apache County stands out as a long thin stripe in the northeast corner of the state, showing just 5 percent broadband usage. More than 70,000 people live there, most of them members of the Navajo, Apache, or Zuni tribes. According to the census, more than 23,000 of them are living in poverty, by far the highest poverty rate in the state. Across the border, San Juan County, New Mexico, shows 29 percent broadband usage, so the problem isn’t that the county is too remote or that the terrain is too difficult to manage. Apache County is simply poor, and the slow progress of the broadband buildout seems like a promise it will stay that way.

With the right eyes, you can even see the broadband gap as a dividing line for the US at large. Counties on the wrong side of the line are poorer and more remote, losing population even as the country grows. This is why there’s no broadband, of course: from a business perspective, building out fiber in Apache County is a losing bet. But the lack of fiber also stifles economic activity and makes young people more likely to leave, creating a cycle of disinvestment and decay that has swallowed large portions of our country.

In theory, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2021 at 2:27 pm

Inside an International Tech-Support Scam

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Cybercrime operates large-scale (for example, the current takedown of the oil pipeline that serves the East Coast of the US, which is going to hit hard as fuel supplies run low) and small-scale (individuals). Doug Shadel and Neil Wertheimer write for AARP:

A light rain fell and a cold gray mist hung over the street as Jim Browning arrived home from work. A middle-aged Irishman with a strong brogue, Jim is a software engineer at a midsize consulting firm, and on this workday, like most, there were few surprises. He shared a pleasant dinner with his wife, and when the dishes were cleared, he retreated to his office, shut the door, opened his computer and went undercover.

Jim Browning is not his real name. The alias is necessary to protect him and his family from criminals and law enforcement, as what he does in the privacy of his office may be morally upright but technically illegal. It’s a classic gray area in the netherworld of computer hacking, as we will explain. What is important to know is that back in 2014, it was the same annoying robocalls that you and I get most days that set Jim on his journey to become a vigilante.

A relative of Jim’s had told him about warnings popping up on his computer, and Jim, too, was besieged with recorded calls saying his computer was on the verge of meltdown, and that to prevent it he should call immediately. As a software expert, Jim knew there was nothing wrong with his system, but the automated calls from “certified technicians” didn’t stop. One night that spring, his curiosity got the better of him. “It was part nosiness and part intellectual curiosity,” Jim said. “I’m a problem solver and I wanted to get to the bottom of what these people wanted.” So he returned one of the calls.

The person who answered asked if he could access Jim’s computer to diagnose the problem. Jim granted access, but he was ready; he had created a “virtual computer” within his computer, a walled-off digital domain that kept Jim’s personal information and key operations safe and secure. As he played along with the caller, Jim recorded the conversation and activity on his Trojan horse setup to find out what he was up to. It took mere moments to confirm his hunch: It was a scam.

Intrigued by the experience, Jim started spending his evenings getting telephone scammers online, playing the dupe, recording the interactions and then posting videos of the encounters on YouTube. It became, if not a second career, an avocation—after-dinner entertainment exposing “tech support” scammers who try to scare us into paying for unnecessary repairs.

“Listening to them at first, honestly, made me sick, because I realized right away all they wanted to do was steal money,” Jim would later tell me. “It doesn’t matter if you are 95 or 15, they will say whatever they need to say to get as much money out of you as possible.” Jim saw, for example, how the callers used psychology to put targets at ease. “They say reassuring phrases like ‘Take your time, sir,’ or ‘Do you want to get a glass of water?’ And they will also try to endear themselves to older people, saying things like ‘You sound like my grandmother,’ or ‘You don’t sound your age—you sound 20 years younger.’ “

Jim’s YouTube videos garnered mild interest — a couple thousand views at best. For Jim, this didn’t matter. The engineer in him enjoyed solving the maze. At the least, he was wasting the scammers’ time. At best, his videos maybe helped prevent some cases of fraud.

Then one day in 2018, Jim’s evening forays took an unexpected turn. A tech support scammer called from India and went through the normal spiel, but then he asked Jim to do something unusual: to log in to the scammer’s computer using a remote-access software program called TeamViewer. Later on, Jim found out why: The developers of TeamViewer had discovered that criminals in India were abusing their software, so they temporarily banned its use from computers initiating connections from India. But there was a loophole: It didn’t stop scammers from asking U.S. and U.K. consumers like Jim to initiate access into computers in India.

Hence, the scammer’s request. The voice on the phone talked Jim through the connection process, then told him to initiate a “switch sides” function so the caller could “be in charge” and look through Jim’s computer.

Presented with this opportunity, Jim acted quickly. Instead of “switching sides,” he took control of the criminal’s computer and locked the scammer out of his own computer. Lo and behold, mild-mannered programmer Jim Browning had complete access to all of the scammer’s files and software. And he was able to see everything the scammer was frantically trying to do to regain control.

This bit of digital jujitsu changed everything. Over the next few months, Jim figured out ways to infiltrate the computers of almost every scammer who tried to victimize him. “My process worked on almost every remote access program out there, certainly the ones most popular with scammers, like TeamViewer, AnyDesk or FastSupport.” He also figured out how to secretly install software that recorded what the scammers were doing — without them even knowing it.

Suddenly, Jim was sitting on some powerful knowledge. But as Spider-Man was told, with great power comes great responsibility. Jim wondered, What should I do with what I’ve learned?

Scammers mock and make fun of victims

By now Jim had reverse engineered his way into dozens of scammers’ computers, sometimes four or five at a time. He would set his software to record, then leave for work as his computers did their thing. When he came home at night, he reviewed the footage. Often, he couldn’t believe what he saw: call after call of boiler room scammers — mostly in India — contacting older people — mostly in the U.S. and U.K. — and scaring them into spending money to fix a fake computer problem, or sending money based on other deceptions.

Jim posted these new videos, which gave an authentic, bird’s-eye view of how scammers operate. As a result, his YouTube channel jumped to tens of thousands of subscribers.

One night in May 2019, Jim found his way into the computer network of a large New Delhi boiler room. While lurking in their network, he noticed the company had installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras so the bosses could monitor their employees. So Jim hacked his way into that network and was able to turn the cameras this way and that, capturing the facial expressions and attitudes of dozens of scammers in action.

In one remarkable scene, he . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, including some actual examples.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2021 at 11:46 am

Airfish-8: It would make a great passenger-only ferry

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More information on their website’s About page.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2021 at 11:36 am

An old but excellent shave stick by Valobra and for aftershave Clubman by another name

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The Valobra shave stick show is substantially older than the Razor Emporium I used earlier, but (unlike the RE stick) the Valobra — though with no more cover than shown in the photo — has endured in first-rate condition: still smooth and workable. It’s a fairly firm stick — my guess is that it’s made from triple-milled soap — and the lavender is fragrant and abundant.

It should be noted, in fairness, that Valobra’s been making shaving soap and shaving sticks for a long time — almost 120 years, since it was founded in 1903 — and not only is Razor Emporium much younger, the shave stick I had was the very first they made, and we know that version 1.0 of anything generally needs some improvement, in specific ways that experience reveals.

This shave stick is a true pleasure, and the Vie-Long horsehair brush easily created a very nice lather and held plenty in reserve for the entire shave. Because I used a shave stick, my preshave was MR GLO rather than Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave.

Three passes with RazoRock’s German 37 slant left my face perfectly smooth and undamaged, and then a splash of Geo, an aftershave by A.I.I. Clubman (see this post for more info) finished the job. Like many of the tall-bottle aftershaves, the fragrance was that of an old-time barbershop — pleasant but (to my nose) undefinable.

Altogether, a great way to launch the week.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2021 at 9:04 am

Posted in Shaving

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