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Wednesday, January 02, 2008


TV-B-Gone from Kit by mlcastle from flickr (CC-NC-SA)
24C3 is over. Here's a quick summary of events I attended and some general impressions. Recordings of most of the events are downloadable.

Anonymity for 2015: Why not just use Tor? was a quick overview of state of web anonymizers. In case you wondered - they're all insecure against serious attackers and there's little hope for them ever being secure. Web (low latency) anonymizers are much worse than email (high latency) anonymizers.

Make Cool Things with Microcontrollers: Hacking with Microcontrollers and "Design Noir: The seedy underbelly of electronic engineering" talked about microcontrollers and cool things you can do with them. The most popular one was TV-B-Gone which is an universal TV remote with just an off button. In some modded versions it can turn off all TVs in radius of 100 meters. Apparently everyone who bought one at the Congress tested it at nearby MediaMarkt or Saturn, what really pissed them off. Another popular thing was Brainwave Machine, which allegedly affects your brainwave patterns using flashing diodes and binaural sounds. I tested it and it only made my eyes hurt by flashing diodes directly into them.

Programming DNA: A 2-bit language for engineering biology talked about progress of DNA-based engineering, and how cheap and simple DNA synthesis became in recent years, at Moore's Law kind of pace. One thing I'm wondering is if we will ever create DNA processors which do something to DNA (or RNA) linearly one nucleotide at a time. In nature there are only two such processors - one for copying DNA (or RNA) to DNA (or RNA), and one for RNA to protein synthesis. There's a lot of stuff based on local pattern matching (DNA repairs, post-transcription RNA modification, RNA interference etc.) but they seem much less interesting. It would be really awesome if we could create more DNA processors, let's say one which would synthesize different kind of polymers based on DNA/RNA, or one which would do interpret nucleotides as instructions more complex than "copy, move forward by one". In a way DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis are DNA processors, but they're purely artificial and we cannot use them from within cells. Maybe I'll talk about it more in some other post.

The second day was probably the most interesting. In started with the first round of the Ligthning Talks, where I gave a brief presentation of XSS Shield plugin for Ruby on Rails. It was released only a few days before the Congress, so I had no time to do it before, but I will definitely blog about it soon. Some other interesting talks were about UN Democracy and vulnerabilities in Mac desktop widgets. Unfortunately the rest of the lightning talks were scheduled for fourth day evening, so I was unable to see them.

Then I've seen Quantum Cryptography and Possible Attacks which was rather introductory and hand-wavy, so I'd probably be better off seing After C: D, libd and the Slate project: A clean slate for operating systems in the same time slot.

Linguistic Hacking: How to know what a text in an unknown language is about? was very introductory too. It's kinda difficult to know in advance which CCC talk is going to be introductory and which is going to be totally hardcore.

Just in Time compilers - breaking a VM: Practical VM exploiting based on CACAO was something I enjoyed a lot, as writing compilers is my hobby. Immediately afterwards there was Modelling Infectious Diseases in Virtual Realities: The "corrupted blood" plague of WoW from an epidemiological perspective which applied epidemiological models to Corrupted Blood epidemics from World of Warcraft.

Then was the rescheduled AES: side-channel attacks for the masses talk which was very interesting in spite of being a clear case of Death By PowerPoint. It wasn't the only messily structured presentation, but the Congress average was pretty good, so I'm not going to complain.

The late evening of the second day was even better, with DIY Survival: How to survive the apocalypse or a robot uprising and the absolute hit of the 24C3: Rule 34 Contest: There is porn of it. Unfortunately there are no official recordings of Rule 34 contest (no idea about unofficial ones), but participants searched for porn on various subjects ranging from the simplest like Star Wars to more difficult like Apple and Religion. Contest winner was an experienced porn seeker who used websites like Encyclopedia Dramatica and Rule 34 search engine, but participants were able to get really far with just plain Google Image search. Fittingly the first prize was an inflatable sheep.

The third day was the weakest, with From Ring Zero to UID Zero: A couple of stories about kernel exploiting being the only really good talk. haXe: hacking a programming language didn't really explain what's the point of haXe, and Space Communism: Communism or Space first? started with an interesting premise but was very boring in execution.

The last day was full of really great talks which I wasn't able to attend as I had a train at 16:10. It would be much better if they moved some of the good ones from day 4 to the least interesting day 3.

A Spotter's Guide to AACS Keys presented a gloom view of widespread censorship we would live in if Hollywood won. It is very important to keep breaking every digital restriction management system Hollywood, RIAA, Microsoft and other forces of evil keep throwing at us. If we are unable to do so, we're going to live in the fascist world where only licenced "content providers" will be allowed. In their evil world there would be no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no blogs, and IMs would be paid per message. Just look at game consoles and mobile phones, which were the most successful in implementing DRMs - is this the world you want ? I like free Internet much more.

The second talk was Overtaking Proprietary Software Without Writing Code: a few rough insights on sharpening free software, the basic premise of which was that quality is massively overrated when it comes to Open Source software popularity. But that's not all - shitty quality cheap stuff is what created the civilization. Ten thousand years ago people gave up good quality food they hunted and gathered and for which they were evolutionarily adapted, and replaced it with agricultural food which lacked adequate nutrituion, made them fall to many diseases, increased their death rates, reduced their heights, shortened their lifespans, made them susceptible to regular mass starvation events due to bad weather, and eventually enabled civilization as we know it. Gradually the quality of food and life improved, but many people in poor countries are in many ways still worse off than in the Paleolithic.

Many other social and technical changes required giving up quality in exchange for something else, usually quantity. For a recent example - people are reading blogs instead of reading newspapers and other traditional media - quality of presentation in blogs is typically far worse than in newspapers, but there are more blogs, on more subjects, presenting more points of view, and so blogs get more and more popular. Wikipedia vs professionally developed textbooks is another good example. Wikipedia is often less well edited, has typos, bad grammar and inconsistencies which would never get past even the quickest review, not to mention occasional vandalisms and pov wars. But Wikipedia is also much bigger and much more accessible than traditional textbooks and encyclopedias, and somewhat worse quality is not that big of a deal (I'm talking about small articles about less popular subjects mostly, quality of the most popular 10% of articles is usually very high). Oh and it's free, what also helps.

Browsers are another good example. The most popular browser IE is worse than any other browser ever made, but has one good feature of being preinstalled (where's antitrust law when we need it, OEMs should be free to install IE or Firefox or Opera as they see fit, instead of being de facto forced to install IE only). The second most popular browser Firefox has better quality than IE, and is gaining popularity relative to IE. But that's not a victory of quality - Opera is even better when it comes to low bug counts but it never got anywhere as popular as Firefox (or IE). Firefox is winning not because of quality but because it has very easy to write extensions, and therefore more useful extensions than any other browsers. That and good marketing.

The last talk I attended was Ruby on Rails Security, which is really a must-see for anybody doing Rails. It covers everything you need to know except of XSS Shield.

Just afterwards there was a Lego Sumo contest where people built and programmed their Lego Mindstorms robots which tried to throw each other off the table.

A few observations - I liked go corner more when it was located in the dining hall like on 23C3. Some German language talks had English descriptions (like Sex 2.0: Hacking Heteronormativity, and Hacker Jeopardy) and there was no way to tell that from the paper Fahrplan. They should make it possible to pay for tickets by cards for 25C3, cash is so 20th century. In spite of these minor glitches I think 24C3 was a really awesome event, and I'm definitely attending the next year.

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