Cracking the Zodiac killer’s code

Cracking the Zodiac killer’s code

Until 2020, the 340 character cipher remained un-decrypted. There have been no end to the theories about the meaning of the code and the identity of its author from would-be sleuths. With the solution text now out and standing up to scrutiny, it’s a wonderful reminder that internet sleuths need to be taken with a grain of salt.

One of these sleuths, Sam Blake, decided to contact programmer David Oranchak of Roanoke, Virginia after he gave a talk on it at the annual meeting of the American Cryptogram Association. Blake was particularly intrigued by the idea of homophonic substitution where one letter might be swapped for more than one symbol and then re-arranged in a systematic way. This generated a whole host of new ways to read the cypher.

Here’s Oranchak’s talk:

Oranchak took what he’d found to Jarl van Eycke, a Belgian warehouse worker and codebreaker who’d written AZdecrypt, software used for decoding homophonic substitutions. Van Eycke used an updated version of his software to churn through the possibilities. Using misspellings and characteristics from Zodiac’s previous writings things started falling into place.

The code used a tremendous amount of computing power, power that was definitely not available in 1960’s. The techniques involved in cracking it weren’t like the ones used in modern cryptography, so it’s explains why few people have used such statistical models on what is essentially a one-off code.

Oranchak sent their solution to contacts at the FBI, and by the end of 2020, the FBI had verified the methodology and results. In March 2021, Blake wrote about how he’d used Mathematica, a math software package, for his part, and in January, van Eycke made headlines again when he cracked an unsolved 386-year-old code composed by a Dutch scientist.

You can read more about the journey here, or check out the 9 part series about solving the code on Oranchak’s youtube channel.

Writing your own OS and running in a VM

Writing your own OS and running in a VM

JDH sits down and writes his own OS from scratch – and it runs in a VM on modern x86 hardware. But what should his OS do? How about play Tetris. With graphics, keyboard input, and even Soundblaster sound. He writes everything from scratch to handle all of this. As someone that grew up with 8086 assembly and programming old DOS based TSR programs, this was a blast from the past and definitely worth a watch.

A whole game in a QR code and Crinkler – a demoscene compressor

A whole game in a QR code and Crinkler – a demoscene compressor

MattKC asked himself if he could put a whole game into a QR code. He actually succeeds at it, but with some fascinating turns along the way which include changing linker settings and creating a window in assembly.

One of his other adventures is compressing the executable using an old demoscene tool: Crinkler. Crinkler is not your normal RAR, ZIP, or other self-extracting executable compressors. Crinkler replaces the linker used to generate the executable by a combined linker and compressor. The result is an EXE file which does not do any kind of dropping and decompresses into memory like a traditional executable file compressor.

It also uses context modelling, which produces a far superior compression ratio than most other compressors. The disadvantage of context modelling is that it is extremely slow and needs quite a lot of memory for decompression, but this is not usually a problem with 4k demos.

Give his adventure a watch below. Also

Halo Edition lighting

Halo Edition lighting

Lighting effects have come a long way – especially with new color LED setups. Enter Halo lights by Mandalaki. They can create a variety of really interesting lighting effects.

However, at an astronomical $1000+ for one of these lights, one has to wonder if you could do a lot better on a good projector. Still, it’s interesting to see what design houses are coming up with – once you get past the somewhat insufferable product claims.

Prices to live in Tokyo

Prices to live in Tokyo

It’s always valuable to look before you leap. After taking several trips to Japan, I really loved it and was curious what it might be like to move there.

GoinGlobal had a solid breakdown of the cost of living in Tokyo that I found pretty accurate based on my travels.

A frugal single person might live in Tokyo on about $1,103 USD a month (excluding rent); and a family of four can get by on about $3,984 USD a month (excluding rent), according to Numbeo. However, living costs vary a good deal, depending on lifestyle and accommodations.

Housing is very interesting.

For renting, you can spend anywhere from $1700 per month for a furnished 480 sq ft apartment in an average cost surrounding area in west Tokyo, up to a astronomical $4000 per month for a 900 sq ft furnished apartment in one of the Tokyo wards. As a foreigner, you will almost certainly need a guarantor who is financially liable in case a renter fails to pay rent or make necessary repairs. Even more shocking, renting an apartment also involves a number of fees – fees that can cost the equivalent of five to six months’ rent or more. As an alternative, there is shared housing setups where you can share common spaces. In shared housing, you can renting a simple guest room for $400/mo.

As for buying a place, as a foreigner, it is pretty much off the table until Japan is listed as your official residency and you have at least 2 years of employment with your firm. If you’re curious, prices can range from $7800 per square foot in the western suburbs of Tokyo, up to a jaw dropping $11,000 per square foot in the main wards.

Mind boggling.

Open office spaces causing the great resignation?

Open office spaces causing the great resignation?

Fast Company decided to test the idea that open office spaces are better than cubicals or offices. So they did a scientific controlled study on noise aspects and published the results in the Cambridge Press.

The results? There is a significant causal relationship between open-plan office noise and physiological stress. Compared to quieter private offices, even after a short exposure of 8 minutes, they found a causal relationship between open-plan office noise and both stress and negative mood. Negative mood increased by 25% and sweat response by 34%. While there was no immediate effect on reduced work performance, it is reasonable to assume such hidden stress over the longer term is detrimental to well-being and productivity.

Chronically elevated levels of physiological stress are known to be detrimental to mental and physical health. Frequently being in a negative mood is also likely to harm job satisfaction and commitment. It potentially increases the likelihood of employees leaving.

Is it a surprise then that surveys show up to 70% of employees will seek new jobs if their employer does not offer flexibility to work from home some of the time?

Combine this with the fact that workers have demonstrated they are usually MORE productive working at home, and one should really start to question what has made us so unhappy at the office – even when 70% of people supposedly have these ‘better’ open office workspaces.

It might not matter anyway – because COVID issues that will likely linger for years may be the final straw that kills open offices, since open office spaces provably spread illness at much higher rates than cubicles and offices.

Lenovo Yoga 730-13IKB Keyboard Replacement

Lenovo Yoga 730-13IKB Keyboard Replacement

Something I wish I knew before picking the Lenovo 730-13IKB in a super-sale open box deal. The Yoga 730-13IKB has 2 really common, and pretty unforgiveable, problems. One is display flickering issues and keyboards that have keys that are randomly flaky. I got the display fixed while it was under warranty (after trying re-seating of the display cable through the hinge and only getting a little improvement), but it went out of warranty when I started having keyboard issues. I would often have the A,S,D keys stop working, but it wasn’t always consistent and was sometimes different keys. One solution that helped was to pull the bottom off, clean the contacts, and re-seat the keyboard connection. That, however, only worked for a little while until it started again.

Time to replace the keyboard with a new one – fortunately it was only $29 in 2021. As for how to do it, It’s Binh Repaired & Reviewed gives a great disassembly demonstration. The most annoying part is the removal of the black plastic wrap over the keyboard. I actually tore the backlight layer – but since my replacement kit had a new one I just tossed the old one. Once you’ve done that, it seems to go pretty well.

Now it appears to work perfectly, hopefully it will continue to do so.