Archive for March, 2015

Augustus Owsley Stanley III of “Owsley” LSD fame passes

Friday, March 27th, 2015

– A long time ago in 1968, in coastal Texas, I tried LSD for the first time.  I think it was very likely a “Owsley” tab since it came to me through musicians playing up in Houston.  I’d never tried anything other than alcohol before that.  It was an amazing experience.

UPDATE: Owsley actually died in 2011.  The article quoted here did not mention that so I assumed it was recent news.  Regardless, he and his LSD adventures are, I think, highly interesting.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Self-taught chemist Owsley “Bear” Stanley, a legend of the 1960s psychedelic underground who produced the LSD that fueled Ken Kesey’s “acid tests” and the Grateful Dead’s acid rock, died March 13 after a car accident in Queensland, Australia, where he had lived since the 1980s. He was 76.

Mr. Stanley, the grandson of a Kentucky governor, grew up in the Washington area before he found his calling in Berkeley,­Calif., as an early patron of the Dead and one of the first people to produce mass quantities of acid.

“I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2007. “Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus. I was not responsible for his wings, but they did carry me to all kinds of places.”

Working at first from a makeshift bathroom laboratory in Berkeley, Mr. Stanley produced at least 1 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967.

A stubborn, fast-talking perfectionist, he discarded any batch suspected of impurities and soon gained a reputation for producing reliably pure and powerful LSD. His customers were rock stars, Haight-Ashbury hippies and an ever-widening circle of people who wanted to be part of the hallucinogenic era. It made him a fortune.

– More:  

– Poetry I’ve written under the influence:  

Hacking BIOS Chips isn’t just the NSA’s domain anymore

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

– I’m coming to believe that the only secrets left are the things in your head that you’ve never told another soul.  And I’m increasingly fearful that those who want to dominate our societies in the name of ‘security’ are developing the tools to disarm any who might try to organize against them.

– In the coming years, when the various dominator powers war against each other for global domination, those of us who understand little of these cyber wars will be like rats beneath the wheels of the passing chariots.

– As I see it, the only saving grace is that the type of intelligence it takes to participate in these wars is in no way exclusive to those with the urge to dominate.  But the Dominators do have the enviable advantage of money and organizational power.

– And note well, my friends, that nothing I’ve just said acknowledges in any way the other preeminent fact of our times – that our presence within, expansion into and carelessness with the natural environment around us is virtually certain to bring it down around our ears, unless we change our ways.

– Those going forward from here will increasingly live in ‘interesting times’.  We are truly at a pivot-point in human history and most of us are deeply asleep with regard to how fragile the world around us is becoming.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

THE ABILITY TO hack the BIOS chip at the heart of every computer is no longer reserved for the NSA and other three-letter agencies.  Millions of machines contain basic BIOS vulnerabilities that let anyone with moderately sophisticated hacking skills compromise and control a system surreptitiously, according to two researchers.

The revelation comes two years after a catalogue of NSA spy tools leaked to journalists in Germany surprised everyone with its talk about the NSA’s efforts to infect BIOS firmware with malicious implants.

The BIOS boots a computer and helps load the operating system. By infecting this core software, which operates below antivirus and other security products and therefore is not usually scanned by them, spies can plant malware that remains live and undetected even if the computer’s operating system were wiped and re-installed.

BIOS-hacking until now has been largely the domain of advanced hackers like those of the NSA. But researchers Xeno Kovah and Corey Kallenberg presented a proof-of-concept attack today at the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver, showing how they could remotely infect the BIOS of multiple systems using a host of new vulnerabilities that took them just hours to uncover. They also found a way to gain high-level system privileges for their BIOS malware to undermine the security of specialized operating systems like Tails—used by journalists and activists for stealth communications and handling sensitive data.

Although most BIOS have protections to prevent unauthorized modifications, the researchers were able to bypass these to reflash the BIOS and implant their malicious code.

Kovah and Kallenberg recently left MITRE, a government contractor that conducts research for the Defense Department and other federal agencies, to launch LegbaCore, a firmware security consultancy. They note that the recent discovery of a firmware-hacking tool by Kaspersky Lab researchers makes it clear that firmware hacking like their BIOS demo is something the security community should be focusing on.

Because many BIOS share some of the same code, they were able to uncover vulnerabilities in 80 percent of the PCs they examined, including ones from Dell, Lenovo and HP. The vulnerabilities, which they’re calling incursion vulnerabilities, were so easy to find that they wrote a script to automate the process and eventually stopped counting the vulns it uncovered because there were too many.

“There’s one type of vulnerability, which there’s literally dozens of instances of it in every given BIOS,” says Kovah. They disclosed the vulnerabilities to the vendors and patches are in the works but have not yet been released. Kovah says, however, that even when vendors have produced BIOS patches in the past, few people have applied them.

“Because people haven’t been patching their BIOSes, all of the vulnerabilities that have been disclosed over the last couple of years are all open and available to an attacker,” he notes. “We spent the last couple of years at MITRE running around to companies trying to get them to do patches. They think BIOS is out of sight out of mind [because] they don’t hear a lot about it being attacked in the wild.”

An attacker could compromise the BIOS in two ways—through remote exploitation by delivering the attack code via a phishing email or some other method, or through physical interdiction of a system. In that case, the researchers found that if they had physical access to a system they could infect the BIOS on some machines in just two minutes. This highlights just how quickly and easy it would be, for example, for a government agent or law enforcement officer with a moment’s access to a system to compromise it.

Their malware, dubbed LightEater, uses the incursion vulnerabilities to break into and hijack the system management mode to gain escalated privileges on the system. System management mode, or SMM, is an operations mode in Intel processors that firmware uses to do certain functions with high-level system privileges that exceed even administrative and root-level privileges, Kovah notes. Using this mode, they can rewrite the contents of the BIOS chip to install an implant that gives them a persistent and stealth foothold. From there, they can install root kits and steal passwords and other data from the system.

But more significantly, SMM gives their malware the ability to read all data and code that appears in a machine’s memory. This would allow their malware, Kovah points out, to subvert any computer using the Tails operating system—the security and privacy-oriented operating system Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald used to handle NSA documents Snowden leaked. By reading data in memory, they could steal the encryption key of a Tails user to unlock encrypted data or swipe files and other content as it appears in memory. Tails is meant to be run from a secure USB flash drive or other removable media—so that conceivably it won’t be affected by viruses or other malware that may have infected the computer. It operates in the computer’s memory and once the operating system is shut down, Tails scrubs the RAM to erase any traces of its activity. But because the LightEater malware uses the system management mode to read the contents of memory, it can grab the data while in memory before it gets scrubbed and store it in a safe place from which it can later be exfiltrated. And it can do this while all the while remaining stealth.

“Our SMM attacker lives in a place nobody checks today to see if there’s an attacker,” Kovah says. “System management mode can read everyone’s RAM, but nobody can read System Management Mode’s RAM.”

Such an attack shows, he says, that the operating system Snowden chose to protect himself can’t actually protect him from the NSA or anyone else who can design an attack like LightEater.

– To the original article:  

– research thanks to: K. M.



The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward.

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

– John Kenneth Galbraith

Two new studies further support the theory that our political decision making could have a neurological basis

It is still considered highly uncool to ascribe a person’s political beliefs, even in part, to that person’s biology: hormones, physiological responses, even brain structures and genes. And no wonder: Doing so raises all kinds of thorny, non-PC issues involving free will, determinism, toleration, and much else.

There’s just one problem: Published scientific research keeps going there, with ever increasing audacity (not to mention growing stacks of data).

The past two weeks have seen not one but two studies published in scientific journals on the biological underpinnings of political ideology. And these studies go straight at the role of genes and the brain in shaping our views, and even our votes.

First, in the American Journal of Political Science, a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the relationship between our deep-seated tendencies to experience fear—tendencies that vary from person to person, partly for reasons that seem rooted in our genes—and our political beliefs. What they found is that people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own. As McDermott carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” as she puts it.

I interviewed the paper’s lead author, Peter Hatemi, about his research for my 2012 book The Republican Brain. Hatemi is both a political scientist and also a microbiologist, and as he stressed to me, “nothing is all genes, or all environment.” These forces combine to make us who we are, in incredibly intricate ways.

And if Hatemi’s and McDermott’s research blows your mind, get this: Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, first performed brain scans on 82 people participating in a risky gambling task, one in which holding out for more money increases your possible rewards, but also your possible losses. Later, cross-referencing the findings with the participants’ publicly available political party registration information, Schreiber noticed something astonishing: Republicans, when they took the same gambling risk, were activating a different part of the brain than Democrats.

Republicans were using the right amygdala, the center of the brain’s threat response system. Democrats, in contrast, were using the insula, involved in internal monitoring of one’s feelings. Amazingly, Schreiber and his colleagues write that this test predicted 82.9 percent of the study subjects’ political party choices—considerably better, they note, than a simple model that predicts your political party affiliation based on the affiliation of your parents.

I also interviewed Schreiber for The Republican Brain. He’s a scientist who was once quite cautious about the relevance of brain studies to people’s politics. As he put it to me: “If you had called me four years ago and said, ‘What is your view on whether Republicans and Democrats have different brains?’ I would have said no.” Now, his own published research suggests otherwise.

One again, though, there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.

The two new studies described here are likely connected: It is hard not to infer that fear of outsiders or those different from you—along with greater fear dispositions in general—may be related to the role of amygdala, a brain structure that has been dubbed the “heart and soul of the fear system.” The amygdala has been repeatedly implicated in politics. Indeed, Schreiber’s research builds on prior brain studies: In a group of University College of London students, for instance, conservatives showed more gray matter in the right amygdala.

So what’s the upshot? How about this: We need a much broader and more thoughtful discussion about what it means if political ideology turns out to be nothing like what we actually thought it was. Scientists working in this new field tend towards the conclusion that the new research should make us more tolerant, not less, of political difference—not to mention a whole lot more humble about our own deeply held beliefs.

– To the original in Mother Jones: