A New Beginning, try 2

A New Beginning, try 2

I don’t care much for new year “resolutions” and other such contraptions, but seeing how my last post here was from January last year, while the Drafts folder is getting thicker and thicker, I decided to give it another try. As they say, “perfect is the enemy of good” so I’ll try to focus more on the content and less on tweaking every little comma this time. Here’s to an amazing New Year for everyone and onwards to a hundred...

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Securing HTTPS by using HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)

Securing HTTPS by using HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)

A little while ago I was writing about configuring SSL/HTTPS to secure my own website. In the meantime, I read about some “interesting” experiments the Chinese government seems to be running with Github, which reminded me of the equally nasty shenanigans employed by otherwise respectable ISPs (40% government owned by the way) in Romania a couple of years ago. I therefore realised there was still some work to do to configure things correctly, so I went on and enabled “HTTP Strict Transport Security” (HSTS). This is a rather recent IETF standard supported by Google and PayPal and implemented in only a few browsers at the moment, but the list is growing. What it does is make sure the connection to the website will always start encrypted, instead of the usual going through an unsafe redirect first. Even if someone manually typed the HTTP URL, the browser would instead load the HTTPS one. Adam Langley goes into more detail about HSTS and the advantages it brings on his own weblog. In a nutshell, enabling it for Apache is quite easy (“max-age” represents the time in seconds the browser will remember the setting): <virtualhost _default_:443> ... # Enable HSTS Header always set Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=31536000; includeSubDomains" ... </virtualhost> While HSTS closes one particular hole, I’ve only just scratched the surface of HTTPS gotchas (perfect forward secrecy for example remains an issue), and the entire SSL/CA infrastructure is still vulnerable to attacks from malicious state-owned entities. In any case, a step forward is a step forward, and there is work under way to improve the overall system — it’s a subject definitely worth keeping an eye on for every Internet...

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Homo Ludens or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game

Homo Ludens or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game

A Dutch historian called Johan Huizinga wrote about the “Playing Human” (Homo Ludens) in a 1931 book, among the first to discuss the important part games have played in shaping our culture and civilisation. He even goes as far as to say that playing is a necessary condition for culture to develop. In my case, I’ve been fascinated by games of all shapes and sizes since I was a child. While running around in the sun or sitting with a couple of friends to play a board-game during a rainy afternoon definitely have their own appeal, it was computer games that brought it all to another level for me. My first encounter with such a beast occurred during a visit to a health-centre which also performed regular testing of pilots and cosmonauts (yes, Romania did send a man into space, in collaboration with the then-USSR). I must have been around seven years old at the time, and given the opportunity to experience a test “like real pilots” I obviously jumped at the occasion. Looking back to it now, it was just a system designed to ascertain reaction time under various conditions, but to me it seemed like the most amazing machine. All I had to do was use a joystick to position a white square over the outline of a moving plane, and press a button as soon a light came up. I don’t know if it was the difficulty increasing with each successful attempt, or the whole fascination with the blinking lights, but in short order I was addicted. Seeing my interest in the game and unwillingness to let go once the “test” had ended, the researcher offered to show me more “computer games” on his office computer, another wondrous piece of technology which I had not encountered before. In retrospect, it was probably just their way of giving me something to do while they discussed “grown-up stuff”, but for me it was nothing short of a revelation. A simple white square moving around to “cut” pieces of the screen while avoiding balls and black squares, or a silhouette of a man pushing boxes around — in my mind, the little dots of Xonix became heroes and gorillas while the warehouse from Sokoban took a life of its own. There it was, this gray box with a four-colour screen and a keyboard full of buttons, which could instantly turn into anything imaginable — it was the catalyst that drove me to later pursue Computer Science and shaped my whole future; I still remember fondly one of my first ever computer programs, a simple “guess the number” game. Fast-forwarding through the following years, I embraced gaming on the personal...

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Fringe Finale — See You on the Other Side

Fringe Finale — See You on the Other Side

There are few TV shows that really capture my interest, but the ones that do tend to combine intriguing ideas, unusual characters and decent amounts of fun in an unforgettable blend. One of the series that achieved this masterfully was Fringe, a little show I discovered a few years ago while spending the night in a Parisian Hotel. What attracted me to this show was less the main premise — in the beginning a simple procedural drama with “weird” elements thrown in — and more the characters and their interactions which were beautifully developed over the first three seasons. A decidedly scientific logos permeated the episodes, never letting the “paranormal” elements take hold, and it provided a contrasting background to let the characters express their pathos. I felt the tension rising steadily during the first couple of seasons, while the third managed to connect a number of disparate threads in a skilful display of screen-writing. Moments like “Peter” and especially “White Tulip” were some of a select few in television that made me utter “wow” at the end. Fringe never lost it’s sense of humour, even during the gravest of plot twists, with everything from Walter’s antics to its light-hearted approach when dealing with recreational soft-drugs, use of unconventional techniques and even animation sequences to add sugar, spice and everything nice on top of a good story and complex, believable characters. The fourth season brought with it a change of pace; I must admit that I cringed when the “altering the past” idea came into play, since time-travel tends to always dilute a show and rob it of any emotion and attachment to the characters — why bother, if any death or wrong-doing can be reset in a second by going back in time? Leaving aside all the paradoxical aspects which are conveniently ignored when dealing with such plots, time-travel is always a cheap way to “reboot” the story and forcefully take it in directions that would otherwise be impossible. However, given the track record I thought that if any show could pull it off it would be Fringe, and I wasn’t disappointed. The intertwined destinies of the two universes made for some memorable episodes, there was so much to explore that frankly I could see them going for at least another season. It was a bit strange to see the main characters “un-rebooted” in the end, using the arguably contrived mechanic of “alternate memories” to turn them into their old selves again, but when the bridge closed at the end of “Worlds Apart” I felt genuinely sad, witnessing the end of a beautiful story. The following couple of episodes were needed to tie up all the loose ends,...

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The Plight of the Christmas Trees

The Plight of the Christmas Trees

As I got out of the house yesterday, I was greeted with the first surprise of the new year — the white blanket covering everything, a première this winter (we had a sort-of-blizzard in December, but that doesn’t count as it only lasted half a day or so). I’ve always enjoyed the child-like state almost all adults get into when there’s snow around, as well as the calm, serene atmosphere that descends upon a city when the playful little ice-crystals make an appearance. I’m not a big fan of what happens next (slippery side-walks, traffic mayhem, delayed trains) but the first few moments are always nice. That being said, there was something sad about the past few days as well — all over the place, discarded Christmas trees have been popping up, thrown away with the trash. I’ve always found he whole idea of “cut a tree from the forest, keep it for a couple of weeks and then throw it away” a bit strange and illogical, but tradition is a powerful force in every age.   Looking at these sad, dried-out symbols of the holidays, I couldn’t avoid wondering: wasn’t there a better way? As it turns out, there are actually several choices that don’t imply wasting perfectly good trees: You can buy a living tree in a pot and grow it in your garden or even on a balcony/terrace if it receives enough light. They are quite small and grow slowly, so even after several years won’t take up that much space. Once they become too big, you can arrange to have them planted in a local forest. Getting an artificial tree is always an option — of course, plastic does not look that great and for some reason no manufacturer could replicate the smell yet (maybe a business opportunity?); on the other hand, you do get a virtually immortal contraption, and let’s be honest — with all the kitchy lights, globes and tinsel spread over it nobody will notice. In some places (including Amsterdam) it’s actually possible to rent a Christmas tree and have it delivered to you over the holiday period; it would then be taken away and re-planted at a nursery, patiently waiting for you to get it back the following year. This could go on for 6-10 times depending on the size of your dwelling and the health of the tree. If all else fails, we should at least do what was common in the old days and people living in rural Netherlands still do today: build a huge heap out of all those old trees and set them on fire. It’s a great social event, it ties up the community and fire...

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A Billion Seconds Old

A Billion Seconds Old

Sometime one of these days, I will become 1,000,000,000 (one billion) seconds old. Of course, being born tends to be a messy affair, it’s not an exact science, and then there’s all those pesky leap seconds to contend with — so the exact moment will just come… and go… in a heartbeat; I won’t even notice. I remember being a bit apprehensive about the change of “prefix” when I turned 30 years old, but this time I just have this funny feeling, as if a billion little faeries follow me in the dark, their voices like the sound of tiny bells fighting for attention. I’d like to talk to each one of them, to reveal the bright spark that brought them into being for just a tiny second; but somehow I can never get close enough, all I can see are the patterns of swirling light. But what will the next billion seconds bring? Well, I guess I have a few decades to discover...

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The Unofficial Story of… Magnets

The Unofficial Story of… Magnets

Note This was initially written for our internal company magazine Offline where it was published in the December 2012 issue. I added it here for your reading pleasure… Enjoy! I was fascinated with magnets from the earliest age, amazed by the magical force that was keeping all those pieces of plastic fruit attached to the outside of the fridge. A little later I discovered that seemingly mundane objects like door latches contained these tiny treasures inside, and from that point no piece of furniture would ever close properly inside the house. Magnets exert an irresistible pull — not only over some metals, but also over our minds. We want to master the invisible force that can hold things together or push them strongly apart. But how did it all start? If we go to the very beginning, iron and the other heavier elements needed for magnets were produced in the final days of a high-mass star’s life (our Sun need not apply), and spread around the universe by supernovas. Once on Earth, iron ore deposits were formed when some of the earliest forms of life produced enough oxygen to bind the iron salts within the primordial waters and create huge deposits on the ocean floor. Eons later, legends speak of a Cretan shepherd called Magnes from Magnesia who around 2000 BCE found himself stuck to a black rock, only to dig up “lodestones” from underneath — which subsequently were named “magnetite” after him (or was that the region?). Greek and Chinese scholars were able to devise practical uses for the lodestones: by shaping them as needles and floating them on water, they noticed that the needle always pointed in a north-south direction — thus the compass was born. At first, people remained wary of the strange rocks, and for many years they were surrounded in myths and superstition bestowing upon them the ability to heal sickness, frighten evil spirits or even attract and dissolve ships made out of iron. Even though they had been in use for thousands of years, the first detailed description of a compass in Western history is attributed to Petrus Peregrinus de Marincourt, a French Crusader, who in 1269 CE wrote about the floating marvel while standing guard outside the besieged city of Lucera. It took almost four more centuries for William Gilbert, the Court Physician to Queen Elizabeth I, to write his treaty “De Magnete” in 1600 and finally give a rational explanation for the mysterious ability of the compass needle to point north-south: the Earth itself was a giant magnet (that is bound to have ruffled some superstitious feathers). He also devised ways to make more magnets by contact with lodestones or beating...

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Quote of the Moment

  • Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God: this saves much wear and tear on the brain tissues. Edward Abbey