Good news for Mac owners

So it turns out we may see a respite, even if only for a while, in new infections with the Mac DNSchanger malware.

The story starts with an Estonian company operating out of the US, called ESTdomains, and its associated Web hosting company, ESThosts. ESTdomains is the preferred domain registrar for Eastern European cybercriminals, who often host viruses and malware on its sister company ESThosts.

ESThosts relies on an upstream ISP called Intercage for its connection to the Internet. Happily, Intercage, which has long turned a blind eye to all kinds of criminal activity on the Internet, finally crossed the line and was dropped by its service provider. An new upstream provider rode to its rescue, only to have its packets dropped by an Internet backbone provider.

Why is this happy news for Mac users?

A while ago, I mapped out an underground network of virus and malware droppers, some of which were being used to spread the Mac version of the Zlob, aka OSX.DNSchanger, OSX.RSplug.A, or OSX.RSpluginA, malware.

Many of the sites that spread this malware were disguised as porn sites. Other sites were legitimate sites that had been hacked. Still other sites contained outdated, insecure versions of popular blogging or forum software such as WordPress and PHPnuke, and had been hacked to carry redirectors to the malware. Still other sites disguised the malware as antivirus software, or browser plug-ins, or any number of other things.

But–and here’s the interesting part–all of these fake porn sites, hacked blogs, hacked Web sites, hacked forum sites, and bogus software sites all pulled the malware from the same repository, a server living at IP address

Which is in Intercage’s IP space, and so is currently unreachable.

Meaning that as of right now, the one server being used to spread the Mac DNSchanger malware is offline.

Now, I have no doubt that the bad guys are going to move the Mac malware to a different server at some point. But they are going to have to rejigger the rest of the network to point to the new server, which will take time. In the meantime, we should see a lot fewer infections with this malware.

Fragments of Dragon*Con: Saturn

One of the (few) panels I actually managed to drag myself to at Dragon*Con was a panel on the Cassini space probe currently poking around Saturn. The panel was hosted by Trina Ray, who works as Science System Engineer for the Cassini program at NASA–which is a pretty damn cool job to have, if you ask me.

In all fairness, it wasn’t the panel I had wanted to see. The panel I’d intended to see, whose name I don’t even remember now, was full; the Cassini panel was next door, and relatively empty, and my feet hurt. So in we went.

It turned out to be one of the best panels of the con.

The Cassini mission was originally intended to explore Saturn and one of its moons, Titan. Along the way, it’s discovered some strange and interesting things, particularly with regards to another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus.

Now, Enceladus doesn’t really seem, at first glance, like a terribly interesting body. It’s basically a ball of ice about the size of Arizona; cold, distant, orbiting around Saturn like…well, like a big lump of frozen water.

Ah, but the universe is a vast and surprising place, full of weirdnesses too countless to apprehend.

Cassini has, among other things, instruments capable of analyzing and determining the chemical makeup of the matter around it. When it comes to pass that those instruments, while the ship is passing near a giant ball of ice, suddenly register a great deal of water, and then just as suddenly register bupkis, one parsimonious explanation is that the instruments are on the fritz. Another explanation is that there’s a massive honking big jet of water spewing for hundreds of miles out of the big lump of frozen water, but that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Big, cold lumps of frozen water aren’t usually in the habit of spewing out gigantic jets of liquid water, much to the relief of folks who own freezers everywhere.

Now, if there is a big jet of water spewing out of a ball of ice, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to be able to see, particularly if you arrange to look for it when it’s backlit by the sun. Some rejiggering of orbital mechanics and other rocket-science stuff later, the Cassini was able to take a picture in just that sort of situation, and here’s what it saw:

Lookit that! A big honking jet of water.

Now, this isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect if you were talking about a ball of ice orbiting a distant gas giant. Enceladus is cold. It’s bright white, so it reflects most of what little sun is available from so far away. In fact, it’s actually, for the most part, the coldest object in orbit around Saturn, with surface temperatures near the equator of around -315 degrees Fahrenheit.

And yet, it’s spewing out jets of liquid water. Which is weird. It’s also hot at the poles. Which is weirder. And the heat is concentrated in weird stripes at the south pole, which is weirder still:

So what we’ve got here, basically, is a ball of ice that’s not really a ball of ice at all. It’s being heated by some internal process, it’s spewing out jets of water through fissures in the icy surface, these jets of water have all migrated (or possibly rotated the entire moon) so they’re exactly at the south pole, and…

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention something. It’s not just water. It’s also got organic molecules of various sorts in it.

What we’re left with, then, is a moon that’s got a crust of frozen water with a liquid core of molten water, in much the same way that the earth has a crust of solid rock with a liquid core of molten rock. The water within the moon spews out in huge plumes via a process called “cryovolcanism”–and how cool is that word, by the way? Cryovolcanism. The moon’s south pole is covered with cryovolcanoes.

And they spew out a lot of water. In fact, it looks like the largest ring around Saturn, the E-ring, is created by Enceladus. The ring is a vast structure of little tiny ice crystals, which come from these cryovolcanos on the moon’s surface.

Now, let’s sit back and think about this for a bit.

We have heat. We have liquid water. We have organic molecules. We have, in Ms. Ray’s words, a compelling reason not to ditch the Cassini, when it reaches the end of its life, on Enceladus.

Because, you see, those are the basic ingredients necessary for life–heat, water, organic molecules.

Now, if you look at most conventional science fiction, you see that a great deal of it is concerned with life in outer space–something which has never been demonstrated, but which nevertheless seems rather likely. And much of the bulk of this kind of science fiction concerns itself with life as it might exist in places that are like earth.

Which shows, I think, a failure of imagination.

The human imagination, as I’ve often said, is surprisingly feeble. When given a stunningly vast universe filled with all manner of weirdness, we set our imaginary stories in places that look like Wyoming. When confronted with the breathtaking diversity of biology just here on earth, the best we can come up with is imaginary creatures like Bigfoot–half man, half ape, all lame. When we ask ourselves how such a marvelous, beautiful place as the universe could come to be, the best we come up with is a bearded old guy who created the earth (whose surface is seventy-five percent water) exclusively for man (who has no gills), and since that epochal moment of creation has largely confined himself to a near obsession with women’s clothing and the occasional vaguely Mary-shaped swirl in somebody’s French toast.

I came away from the panel impressed all over again with the majesty and incredible, mind-boggling wonder and beauty of the physical universe. This stuff is so incredible, so fantastical, so amazingly bizarre and splendid that it’s hard to understand how anyone, confronted with this, could not be awed by the complexity and surprises the universe has to offer.

After it was over, Shelly turned to me and said “How come more people know about Britney Spears’ sister than know about this?” And you know, I don’t have an answer.

Fragments of Los Angeles: Horses

So. Five days spent in Los Angeles is, apparently, all it takes to flip a person’s most basic, fundamental perceptions of himself completely upside-down.

Take the matter of horses, for example. Throughout the ebb and flow of my entire adult life, through all the ups and downs, all the explorations of distant shores, all the joys and sadness of a life spent testing boundaries, there have always been a few constants I could hold on to. Among these constants is the certain knowledge that horses don’t much like me, and I don’t much like them.

The last time I encountered a horse, I was still living in Nebraska, so I would have been twelve years old or so. The horse was at a camp high in the Rocky Mountains, where the air is thin and stabs you in the lungs like a drunk with a broken bottle. “Experience the wilderness!” the camp brochure said. “Ride on horseback!”

The horse I rode, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, spent the entire time, as we rode down the trail, reaching back and trying to bite me. I came away from the experience with two lessons: first, horses are bad-tempered and somewhat aggressive animals that like to bite, and second, nothing made of hay should ever be that hard.

The horses and I have existed in a sort of détente since then. It’s an easy truce; they stay in the farms, I stay in the cities, and we’re all happier for it.

Then I went out to visit Gina. And Gina, as it turns out, has a horse. A horse named Rockstar. This is her horse.

It was with a certain trepidation that I met Rockstar. Horses are big, terrifyingly big animals, and even the most casual glance at horse physiology reveals that they appear to be half a ton of muscle in service of a set of back legs capable of kicking a Toyota Prius through a cinder-block wall.

And you know what? Her horse is awesome.

Take a big, affectionate, kind of slow-moving puppy dog, give him a fondness for having his nose scritched, and make him capable of kicking a Toyota Prius through a cinder-block wall, and you’ve got Rockstar. Plus, he’s fun to ride. When did they start making horses fun to ride, and why wasn’t I notified of this?

We returned to the farm many times, “we” meaning Gina, her dog, and I, and I rode the horse muchly. And Gina rode the horse muchly also, and even rode a different horse while I was riding Rocky, and thus did we ride together.. And verily, it was fun.

And now, gentle readers, I must go off to test some of my other most basic and fundamental assumptions about the world, for truly does it seem that the sky must be falling. Plus, I’m sore in muscles I didn’t even know I had.

Battlestar: Galactica, now in Sanskrit!

I’m a big fan of the new Battlestar: Galactica television show. It’s arguably among the edgiest and most brilliant things that’s ever been attempted in a mainstream TV show. It’s also unremittingly grim and depressing; fitting, I think, for a program whose premise is the genocide of the entire human race.

One of the things I particularly like about the show is the music in it. It’s unlike any science fiction program’s music I’ve ever heard before; stark, simple, and absolutely lovely. I’m especially fond of the opening title music, which I use as figmentj‘s ringtone on my phone:

What I didn’t know, though, is that the lyrics are in Sanskrit. Specifically, they are the Gayatri mantra (Sanskrit: गायत्री), an ancient Hindu hymn:

ॐ भूर्भुवः स्वः ।
तत् सवितुर्वरेण्यं ।
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि ।
धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात् ॥

Transliterated, it reads:

oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreniyaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt

It’s a mantra that appears in the Ŗg Veda, and it’s the second most important mantra in Hindusim.

And I think that’s pretty cool.

Anyone in Kalamazoo fancy a cup of coffee?

physicsduck has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort working on a project called Astrolounge, intended to serve the college and local music communities in Kalamazoo. Unfortunately, he’s run into some difficulties with the landlord–difficulties that threaten to scuttle the project.

So, in true open-source, community-building style, he’s looking at a nonintuitive solution to the problem–buying the facility by raising money through the sale of ten dollar gift cards for five bucks. The upside: It solves the problem with the landlord, gives the group a way to finance the build-out, and helps distribute caffeine to needy college students throughout Michigan. The downside: it takes a lot of $5 sales to build a cafe.

Now, if it were me, I’d be all over this like white on rice–can’t get enough bang for my caffeine buck! Hell, I spend more than five bucks on hot chocolate alone every time I walk into a Starbuck’s–that paragon of bland, soulless corporate consumerism. Sadly, however, I don’t live anywhere near Kalamazoo, Michigan.

However, I suspect some of you do, or know folks who do. And this is no idle project, folks; these guys are willing to bust ass to make this happen.

(Lots more cool vids like that here.)

Anyone out there have Sirius satellite radio?

I’m going to be interviewed on the Playboy channel (Sirius radio channel 198) on Monday, September 22, starting at 11:45 AM. Who knows how well that’s going to go; it’s more painful for me to be up and functional at 11:45 in the morning than you might think.

At any rate, I’ll be talking about Onyx and sex and whatever folks call in about. Apparently, it’s a call-in show; the studio number is (877) 205-9796. I don’t have Sirius radio, so I’ll likely have no freakin’ clue how it all goes.