A little scary

In news that touches on the industry I work in, a pair of computer programmers show what a knowledgeable person can do to a modern car.

Of course, the methods shown in that article require a physical, wired connection to the CAN bus on the car. (CAN is the usual abbreviation for Controller Area Network, the most common architecture used to connect micro-controllers in automotives.)

Most cars have one such connection, the ODB-II port. Usually, this can be found in the driver-side footwell.

However, many cars also have a Bluetooth-enabled entertainment unit, which is connected (often via a subsidiary microprocessor) to the car's CAN bus. I don't know how easy it is to trick the BT-processor into feeding unintended signals onto the CAN. In theory, it is possible. In practice, this likely requires a great deal of inside-industry knowledge, and access to a Bluetooth device that is already, or will be, paired with the car's electronics.

(Pro tip: if your car comes with a mechanically-operated clutch or emergency brake, you can stop it from moving even if a hacker has control of steering, throttle, and ignition. However, a mechanically-operated clutch is usually only found on manual transmissions. And a mechanical emergency brake is usually seen on vehicle with drum brakes. If your car has disc brakes on all four wheels, you may have an emergency brake that depends on the electronic controllers in your car to activate. An emergency brake that is electronically-controlled may be vulnerable to a hacker. My currently daily drive has a mechanical emergency brake, but an automatic transmission. However, it is old enough to have no wireless-connection-capable electronics on-board.)

The potential danger from this kind of hacking is frightening.

One note: among the top 6 car manufacturers in the world, I am not aware of any two that use the same definitions for data and instructions on their CAN bus. (The design for CAN separates the data definitions from the transmission protocols, and allows any manufacturer to write their own data set and instruction set.) But I might not be well-informed; my specialty doesn't require me to know those details.

However, any hack against one car manufactured by one company will likely work against most vehicles offered by that company. And once that hack is publicly-available, it will be very hard for the affected company to recall and fix every affected vehicle.

Electronic security on cars is a new thing, and is currently in its infancy. I hope that it will improve faster than the security in Windows-branded Operating Systems did...


Motown Madness

I'm from Detroit. Except I'm not.

(Cue a line of regional humor: You know you live in Michigan when: half the people you know grew up in Detroit, but you don't know anyone who currently lives in Detroit.)

You see, I've never resided in (and only occasionally set foot in) the City of Detroit. But for most of my life, I've lived in the suburban cities that surround the City of Detroit.

It's an odd dichotomy. All that time, I've lived in areas that are generally violence-free. Crime is known to happen, but not in significant amounts. The local schools are respectable. Local Police usually respond in good time, and rarely see things more heinous than property theft and DUI cases.

Three miles away from my current abode, across the political barrier between City and Suburb, is an area where crime is common, the school system is broken, and violence seems to be part of the background noise in the neighborhood. Murder is shockingly common.

Detroit was by turns a river fort, a trade center, Underground Railroad terminus, industrial city, Arsenal of Democracy, and one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. Eventually, it became a notoriously crime-ridden city, a place of racial tension, a City whose primary businesses struggled against rising overseas competition...
And now, an example of the potential financial collapse of city governments that make promises that can't be kept.

I never knew the glory days of Detroit. I don't know what will arise from the ashes.

Indeed, I don't even know if the self-immolation of the City is complete. It is sad, and strange. So far, the suburbs have managed to not share in the ruin of the CIty. I don't know if that will be the case in the future...



Spent some time overseas for a vacation, in an unusual place: South Africa. The plane flights were a little long, but I had a good reason to take the long flight to Johannesburg.

The visit was the result of a developing relationship with a woman. She was visiting her hometown, seeing family, and helping an elderly relative celebrate a birthday. I was offered an opportunity to travel to see the relatives and the homeland.

A few odd details stick out in my mind:
  • The countryside is a mix of beautiful vista and small towns. The small towns range from cute to poverty-stricken.
  • Everyone is friendly.
    This goes double if the person thinks they can sell you something.
  • The big cities aren't much different from big cities in the U.S.
    Except that all houses in the middle-class neighborhoods are behind walls, and electric wires are not uncommon on top of the walls.
  • Almost everyone I met had at least one dog, but dogs are considered outside animals. Cats were allowed inside the house, though.
  • Traveling to visit a game-preserve in the bush can get a little...interesting when the directions weren't perfectly clear, and phone service is spotty.
  • The game preserve is peaceful. The guys who were there with me hunted some, but seemed more intent on having fun than on getting game.
  • It seemed that every tree or bush in the preserve had thorns on it.
  • Everything looked cheap, after I did the SouthAfricanRand-to-USD conversion in my head
  • The old gold mine is interesting, but the ratio of mined-rock to extracted-gold is mind-bogglingly-large.
  • Descending 220 meters (~740 ft) in a caged elevator can be a little scary, even though the tour guide entered the lift cage with us.
The experience was good. I like visiting the area. I could probably live there short-term, but I'm not sure I could settle permanently.