Combination-lock-cracking robot

Students at Olin College have made a robot that can crack a MasterLock brand padlock’s combination; it can work faster depending on whether it knows some, none or all of the combination. The documentation for the project is quite good.

Our final design was able to dramatically reduce the amount of material needed by turning the entire assembly on its side. In this way, the motor mount and spindle, the lock holder and the solenoid could all be considered distinct entities attached to a single base plate. Since torque on the base was not an issue like it was with the first two “tower” designs, we could make the base much thinner. This allowed us to make our slots longer without increasing the total cost much. Thus, we were able to make every component adjustable relative to the fixed lock base which allowed for quick insertion and removal of the lock, as well as easy tuning of the solenoid distance that allowed it to consistently pull the lock latch all the way open. This was critical because one of the main problems we dealt with was assuring the location of the solenoid relative to the lock. The solenoid had a very thin range of positions that it would work from; too far from the lock it did have enough energy to pull the latch, too close to the lock and it didn’t have the travel to pull the latch completely open.

The LockCracker (via Neatorama)

Losing Parental Control: Reducing the Struggle — excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity

Shutterstock image by Larisa Lofitskaya

(The following is the second excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity. Read the first excerpt. Read the second excerpt.)

Victoria never played soccer herself, but she became an avid fan of the sport in a short amount of time. Soccer brought out Victoria’s competitive spirit. When her twelve-year-old son, Tim, made the all-star AYSO team, Victoria was only too happy to take him to the two weekday practices and the weekend games. Tim loved playing, and he worked hard to improve his game. He was making steady progress, but this was not fast enough for Victoria. In her mind, Tim was not trying hard enough. She believed that he needed to be more aggressive to reach the “next level.” Nothing irked her more than to see another player beat her son to the ball.

And so Victoria, ever the controller, constantly pushed Tim to be more aggressive on the field. Her shouts could be heard above everyone else’s. Tim complained to his mom that she was distracting him during the game. But this didn’t deter her. During one important tournament game, Victoria loudly criticized Tim in front of the other parents for backing off some bigger opponents. Tim was so embarrassed that he walked off the field crying, right in the middle of the game. He told Victoria he didn’t want to play anymore.

Unfortunately, such stories are all too common in childhood sports. To see what’s really at stake, just go to a league game in almost any sport and witness who suffers most from a loss and who takes longer to get over it! Here’s a clue: it is not the child.

Excessive parental control extends well beyond the playing field. It pervades the classroom, artistic performance, religious observance, childhood friendships, and social activities, all with equally troubling consequences.

Continue reading “Losing Parental Control: Reducing the Struggle — excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity

I haven’t used soap or shampoo in a year, and it’s awesome: personal experiment update


I stopped using soap a year ago. It was easily one of the best moves I’ve ever made in my entire flippin’ life.

About this time last year I read an article (which Mark mentioned here as well) extolling the virtues of a soap-free bathing experience. TL;DR version: Your body is designed to regulate itself. Smearing chemicals all over it wrecks its own built-in processes, and screws with naturally balanced pH levels. This made sense to me and I thought I’d give it a shot for a month.

At the beginning of February 2010, I blogged about the results I’d seen so far. I didn’t stink at all (confirmed by friends, family and random people I ended up sitting next to on various forms of public transit), my skin felt better, oily and dry patches had all but disappeared and the light dandruff I’d had my entire life was almost gone. I was pleased with the results of my month experiment and decided I’d run with it for a while longer. As of January 1, 2011: it’s been a year now, and I can’t imagine ever going back.

Continue reading “I haven’t used soap or shampoo in a year, and it’s awesome: personal experiment update”

Playtime Computing: blended reality/robotic learning environment

My friend David Robert and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group are building a pretty amazing mixed-reality and robotics educational system for kids called Playtime Computing. A virtual “Alphabot” emerges form the screen into the room where kids can interact with it as a tangible interface. The researchers are most excited for possible applications in distance learning and language education.

U.S. record on cybercrime weak, lacks vodka

Moscow restaurant.jpgMy post on real evil by a Russian mob got me called a CIA propagandist, which is kind of a stretch, given my previous reporting and attempted reporting on U.S. intelligence. Still, that gives me an opportunity to fault the spotty efforts by my home country to put a significant brake on cybercrime, which in my view is one of the gravest threats we’re facing.

Among the greatest U.S. government screw-ups are the failures to invest sufficiently in developing a more secure Internet protocol, to call out other governments who are harboring the worst of the worst, and to warn the public that nothing they do online is secure. I could go on at length, but I have elsewhere.

Instead, let’s talk about the arrogance of U.S. law enforcement abroad and about Viggo Mortensen naked. In the movie “Eastern Promises,” which features Viggo Mortensen nude [Hey, when your book comes out in paperback, I’ll be happy to discuss SEO ethics], there’s a bit after he has been initiated into the most central Russian gang with a tattoo. “I am through the door,” he tells an associate.

Continue reading “U.S. record on cybercrime weak, lacks vodka”

Good news, of a kind, from a dark world


As a fan of BoingBoing dating from a decade ago, when it was delivered on horseback, I wanted to share something positive with fellow readers in my first guest post. Unfortunately, the thing I’ve been most passionate about in my reporting and writing since 1999–cybercrime and tech security–doesn’t lend itself to much that’s happy. What I’m offering today is a compromise. It was good news to me personally, and it will be good news to those of you who have my read my book, Fatal System Error. For the rest of you, it won’t be pleasant, and I’m sorry about that.

On Friday, I got a Skype message from a longtime source of mine: “My friend got his daughter back.” We spoke on Sunday, and I will tell you what I can from that talk. To begin with, though, my source uses the fake name Jart Armin of HostExploit.

Like the people who work at Spamhaus, Jart is one of those people dedicated to tracking the worst cyber gangs who works in anonymity in order to protect himself. I don’t like quoting people I can’t name, but I did so in the book with Jart because he has done important research and because he is entirely right to be afraid of the people he has been tracking.

To explain that in the book, I briefly told the story of a colleague of Jart’s who was investigating mob activity in St. Petersburg, Russia. The colleague made the mistake of working with the local police. Before he finished his assignment, the man’s teenage daughter was kidnapped from her Western country, and the investigator got a message that if he dropped the case, the rest of his children might be okay.

That was five years ago. I had to leave the story hanging in the book because there had been no closure. A couple of weeks ago, the man got a new message. His daughter was in Kazakhstan, and he could have her back as long as he agreed not to look into certain of the gang’s activities. One factor in the change of heart was the additional attention that Fatal System Error brought to the mob. The family has been reunited, though the young woman is not the same as she was. She was fed drugs and used to service men. A grim story, but at least it has an ending now, and I wanted to update those who knew the first part.

There are many reasons why cybercrime is as bad as it is, and getting much worse. One of them is lack of awareness of how dangerous and well-connected the gangs are. The most serious identity thieves and fraudsters are not isolated teenage script kiddies. They are mobsters who kill people, and worse, though those stories are seldom told. Folks need to know just how bad they are, every bit as much as they need to know the stories of the heroes who are risking their lives to stop them.