Google Chrome Update

July 27, 2010

Google has released a new version, 5.0.375.125, of its Chrome Web browser, for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows.  This update is noteworthy because it fixes a number of serious security problems; further details are in the release announcement on the Chrome Releases blog.   The new version is available via the usual built-in update mechanism.

Because of the security content of this update, I do recommend verifying that you have it; you can so by clicking on the little “wrench” icon in the upper right corner, then selecting “About Google Chrome”.

Getting Cable

July 27, 2010

There’s an article at the Wired site reminding us that it was on July 27, 1866 that the first successful undersea cable between Europe and North America was completed.  (This was a telegraph cable — sorry, no streaming video in this release.)  In some ways, it represented a very impressive rate of technological progress.  It had been just 22 years since Samuel Morse’s historic first telegraphic transmission between Baltimore and Washington DC.  Not only had the use of the telegraph spread, but the US found the time to have a Civil War.

From today’s perspective, it’s almost impossible to imagine living in that era.  The telegraph was the first widespread means by which information could be spread faster than a person could travel.  Before the completion of the trans-Atlantic cable, an event in London could not be known in New York until enough time had passed for a ship to cross the ocean.

Thinking about the change in communications possibilities implied by that cable may help us make some more sense of the changes we’re experiencing today.

Spontaneous Prion Generation

July 26, 2010

One of the scarier health threats that has been in the news in the last few years is the family of neurodegenerative diseases, including Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE, often called “Mad Cow Disease”], and the similar diseases scrapie in sheep and goats, and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease [vCJD] in humans.  Besides their devastating effects, they are frightening because they typically have a long incubation period, measured in years, between the time of first exposure to the disease and the appearance of symptoms, and are essentially always fatal.  They are thought to be caused by prions, a pathological form of a normally occurring protein that differs by being “folded” differently in space.

(Many biological molecules depend for their effects not only on their chemical composition, but also on their physical shape.  It is quite common, for example, to have two forms of the same compound that are mirror images of one another [these are called stereoisomers], where one form is biologically active, and the other is not..   To take another example, the three simple sugars — glucose, fructose, and galactose — all have the same basic formula, C6H12O6, but differ in the arrangement of those atoms within the molecule.)

The prions themselves are not in any sense living organisms; they contain no DNA or RNA.  Nonetheless, introduction of a small quantity of prions into normal protein causes the normal molecules to “re-fold” themselves into the pathological shape.   The mechanism of transmission of these diseases has been thought to be eating infected animals.  For example, the original outbreak of BSE in the United Kingdom was attributed to cattle (which are naturally vegetarians) being fed protein supplements derived from the meat of diseased cattle or sheep.   This transmission mechanism is reasonably well accepted, but it of course begs the question of how the whole thing got started — although a random mutation is always a possibility.

In a new study reported at the site, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida and the Institute of Neurology at University College London have shown that infectious prions can be spontaneously developed in normal tissue.  The scientists placed normal tissue on very fine steel wires, and were able to observe the spontaneous formation of infectious prions.  It is possible that the metal somehow acts as a catalyst for the formation of these molecules.  Dr. Charles Weissman, of Scripps, one of the study leaders, is careful to say that there is another possible explanation of the results:

Weissmann noted that an alternative interpretation of the results is that infectious prions are naturally present in the brain at levels not detectable by conventional methods, and are normally destroyed at the same rate they are created. If that is the case, he noted, metal surfaces could be acting to concentrate the infectious prions to the extent that they became quantifiable by the team’s testing methods.

The paper reporting the results is to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is available online as a pre-publication open access article [doi:10.1073/pnas.1004036107]; the lead author is Julie Edgeworth of UCL.

I doubt that many people will find these results particularly reassuring, but at least we are making progress in understanding the mechanism of these strange diseases.

New Firefox Versions

July 26, 2010

Mozilla last week released, not one, but two new versions of the Firefox browser.   Version 3.6.7 was released on July 20,  and was quickly followed by version 3.6.8 on July 23.   The first release, 3.6.7, fixed a number of stability bugs, and 14 security vulnerabilities; unfortunately, as sometimes happens, these fixes introduced another bug, which caused crashes on some pages using plug-ins.  This bug was fixed in the second release, 3.6.8, which is obviously the one you want, and the one you will get using the built-in update mechanism.

Release Notes, with more detailed information, are available for both versions, 3.6.7 and 3.6.8.   Installation binaries for all platforms (Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux), in your choice of more than 70 (human) languages,  can be downloaded here.

Windows .LNK Flaw Exploit

July 20, 2010

I posted a note last week about a new Windows security vulnerability, related to its processing of shortcut (.LNK) files.  The Internet Storm Center  [ISC]at SANS is now reporting that  code to implement an attack on this vulnerability has been published within the Metasploit  framework.

The ISC has raised its assessment of the overall Internet threat level from Green to Yellow.  (Who decides these colors, anyway?)   I think this is a potentially serious thret, because it requires so little in the way of user action to succeed.

Microsoft has not yet issued a patch for this, but there are some mitigation steps listed in its Security Advisory.

I’d expect Microsoft to issue a patch for this in its regular update in August.  If I discover anything further, I’ll post a follow-up note.

Top Secret America

July 19, 2010

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
— Benjamin Franklin

The Washington Post has a long history of investigative journalism.   I was a regular reader when I was in  college, when the Post reported on the Watergate break-in, and (along with the New York Times) on the Pentagon Papers.  So I was most interested  to see, in this morning’s Post, the first article in a new series, “Top Secret America”, which discusses the explosive growth in domestic intelligence and security services since September 11, 2001.  There is also an accompanying Web site that includes not only the articles, but also additional graphic and video content.  This is all as the result of a two-year investigation by the Post‘s staff.   Not surprisingly in an area that has “growed like Topsy”, the structure and organization of this effort seem to leave something to be desired.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

According  to the Post, there are 1,271 governmental and 1.931 private organizations involved in this effort, scattered across ~10,000 locations in the US.  There are something like 854,000 people who now have Top Secret security clearances.  One wonders how secret anything can be that is (potentially) known to so many people.

I have not, obviously, had time to read and digest all this material yet.  But, assuming the facts are rougly correct, it is hard to imagine that anyone really has an overall grasp of what is going on.

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