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Inside the Team That Cracked the Stuxnet Worm

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Shown above: Siemens Simatic S7-300 PLC CPU, similar to one of those targeted by the Stuxnet worm.

In an extremely comprehensive WIRED article, Kim Zetter tells the inside story of how researchers worldwide (primarily working for Symantec) decoded the Stuxnet worm, ultimately figuring out that it was developed to target nuclear centrifuges at a particular site in Iran. For nerds, this is an incredibly engrossing read, full of technical-but-followable detail, as well as a compelling real-life narrative. As many commenters have noted, it reads a bit like a Tom Clancy novel. While many of us have heard something about Stuxnet, this is the article you should read to learn the real story -- grab a sandwich and turn off your email program for a half hour. Here's a snippet:

It should have been no surprise to the researchers, then, when their work drew the attention of government agencies in and outside the United States, that began asking for briefings on their findings. Symantec put together a PowerPoint presentation for the Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, Department of Energy and FBI to answer their questions. "I joke that they already had all the answers," Chien said. Asked if anyone from the NSA or CIA attended the PowerPoint sessions, he smiled. "If we ever did brief the NSA, we wouldn't know, right?"

The political ramifications of their work took on even starker dimensions when, two weeks after they published their findings on the frequency converters, assassins on motorbikes attacked two Iranian nuclear scientists simultaneously in Tehran. The men were commuting to work on a Monday morning in separate parts of the city when the assassins zipped by their cars and attached bombs to them. [...]

Although the researchers didn't really believe their lives were at risk for exposing Stuxnet, they laughed nervously as they recalled the paranoia and dark humor that crept into their conversations at the time. O Murchu began noticing weird clicking noises on his phone, and one Friday told Chien and Falliere, "If I turn up dead and I committed suicide on Monday, I just want to tell you guys, I'm not suicidal."

The day news of the assassination plots broke, Chien joked to his colleagues that if a motorcycle ever pulled alongside his car, he'd take out the driver with a quick swerve of his wheels. When he left work that day and stopped at the first intersection, he was shaken -- just for a moment -- as he glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a motorcycle pull up behind him.

Read the rest (it's long) for a thoroughly excellent look at a dramatic story of modern computer security research.

(Via Waxy.org via Hypertext.)

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Slow Wi-Fi? It Could Be Your Neighbor's Fault
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If your Wi-Fi connection remains interminably slow no matter how many times you restart it, you can probably blame your neighbor. It could be that there are too many people using Wi-Fi connections on the same channel, even if you're all on different networks. But, as Tech Insider teaches us in the video below, there is a way to circumvent this, returning you to the prime TV-streaming Wi-Fi speeds of your dreams. (These instructions apply to Mac users, but if you've got Windows, How-To Geek recommends a tool called the Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector to do the same job.) It seems like a lot of steps at first, but it'll be worth it—we promise.

If you’ve got a Mac, hold the Option key while clicking the Wi-Fi symbol in your top menu bar. Go to “Open Wireless Diagnostics,” then when that opens, go up to the top left menu bar and click the drop-down menu “Window > Scan.” That will open up a window with all the nearby Wi-Fi networks. Click the “Scan Now” button on the bottom right, and your computer should recommend the best channels for you to use—say, you’re on Channel No. 1, but the best 2.4GHz channel is No. 3. Tech Insider recommends writing those down (there are options for both 2.4GHz channels and 5GHz channels).

Now, you’ll need to break out your iPhone. Download the AirPort Utility app, and go to your phone’s settings. Scroll down to the AirPort Utility app in your app list, and enable “WiFi Scanner.” Use the app to scan your house for Wi-Fi networks and note which channels are commonly used by your neighbors’ networks. (If you don’t have an iPhone, you can also use Acrylic Wi-Fi for Android or Windows phones.) This will help you avoid the most congested networks.

Then, log onto your router on your computer by typing your router’s IP address into your browser, just like you would any web address. From there, go into Wireless Settings, and change the channel your network operates on to one of the recommended options that you wrote down from your computer's diagnostics window earlier. And don’t forget to save!

This should help you get a faster internet connection by minimizing the amount of interference from other networks around you. Because the best neighbors are the ones who don't slow down Game of Thrones for you.

See the process step-by-step in the video below.

[h/t Tech Insider]

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This 'Smokeless' Fire Pit Promises a More Efficient Burn
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BioLite

For thousands of years, people have gathered around open flames to cook food, find warmth, and share stories deep into the night. Campfires have been around since the dawn of humanity, but what if there was a way to use modern technology to make them even better? The people at BioLite believe they've found one.

The FirePit is the outdoor gadget startup's answer to the recreational, backyard fire. It offers the same benefits as a more conventional product: a space for building wood or charcoal fires, a removable grate for grilling, and metal screens on each side to protect onlookers from embers. But the yellow battery pack is what sets it apart from anything else on the market. With the press of a button, a fan inside the FirePit stokes a hotter, more efficient blaze without producing all of the smoke and soot people are used to.

Couple sitting by a firepit on the beach.
BioLite

"Air injection makes the fire burn more completely," Ryan Gist, one of the lead engineers on the project, told Mental Floss. "So you basically get all the energy out of your fuel." The result is a fire you can enjoy without worrying about your eyes and throat burning, moving your chair every five minutes to avoid a gust of smoke, or having your clothes stink for weeks.

It also makes for a fire capable of burning longer and brighter with less wood. Smoke is made of tiny fuel particles that haven't fully burned up. Using a fan, the FirePit can draw that runaway fuel back into the fire before it has a chance to escape. "It's like when you're stuck on the highway behind a truck and it's got black stuff coming out of the tailpipe," BioLite marketing director Erica Rosen told Mental Floss. "When you see black stuff coming out of a fire, it's the same thing. So what we've done is, we've given fire a tuneup."

FirePit's built-in fan makes the fire easy to control. If campfire gazers want to see big, roaring flames through the box's X-ray mesh, they can turn the air down low. The higher fan setting produces a smaller, more intense burn, which is perfect for chilly autumn nights. Adjusting the blaze can be done remotely with the BioLite Energy app or manually from the control panel on top of the battery pack.

People sitting by a fire.
BioLite

BioLite designed the FirePit for backyards, but its foldable legs make it convenient to carry to the beach, a campsite, or anywhere else where you might bring a cooler of the same size. Once it's cooled down after an evening of grilling hot dogs and toasting marshmallows, the pit fits neatly into its solar panel case, where it can recharge in time for the following night (the battery also features a USB plug for charging indoors).

The FirePit recently debuted on Kickstarter, where it's available along with its solar carrying case for a special deal of $169 (once the first 300 FirePits go, it will be sold for the regular price of $199). To help the campaign reach its $100,000 funding goal, you can reserve yours today with shipping estimated for May of next year.

Skewers cooking on a grill.
BioLite

All images courtesy of BioLite.

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