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Fri, 29 Mar 2013
Hardware outage affectiong osmocom.org, deDECTed.org, gpl-violations.org

As usual, murphy's law dictates that problems will occur at the worst possible moment. One of my servers in the data center died on March 20, and it was the machine which hosts the majority of the free software projects that I've created or am involved in. From people.netfilter.org to OpenPCD and OpenEZX to gpl-violations.org and virtually all osmocom.org sites and services.

Recovery was slow as there is no hot spare and none of my other machines in the data center have backplanes for the old SCA-80 hard disks that are in use by that particular machine. So we had to send the disks to Berlin, wait until I'm back there, and then manually rsync everything over to a different box in the data center.

To my big surprise, not many complaints reached me (and yes, my personal and/or business e-mail was not affected in any way)

Recovery is complete now, and I'm looking forward to things getting back to normal soon.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Fri, 08 Feb 2013
Update on what I've been doing

For the better part of a year, this blog has failed to provide you with a lot of updates what I've been doing. This is somewhat relate to a shift from doing freelance work on mainline / FOSS projects like the Linux kernel.

In April 2011, Holger and I started a new company here in Berlin (sysmocom - systems for mobile communications GmbH). This company, among other things, attempts to provide products and services surrounding the various mobile communications related FOSS projects, particularly OpenBSC, OsmoSGSN, OpenGGSN, but also OsmocomBB, and now also OsmoBTS + OsmoPCU, two integral components of our own BTS product called sysmoBTS.

Aside from the usual software development, this entails a variety of other tasks, technical and non-technical. First of all, I did more electrical engineering than I did in the years since Openmoko. And even there, I was only leading the hardware architecture, and didn't actually have to capture schematics or route PCBs myself. So now there are some general-purpose and some customer-specific circuits that had to be done. I really enjoy that work, sometimes even more than software development. Particularly the early/initial design phase can be quite exciting. Selecting components, figuring out how to interconnect them, whether you can fit all of them together in the given amount of GPIOs and other resource of your main CPU, etc. But then even the hand-soldering the first couple of boards is fun, too.

Of all the things I so far had least exposure to is casing and mechanical issues. Luckily we have a contractor working on that for us, but still there are all kinds of issues that can go wrong, where unpopulated PCB footprints can suddenly make contact with a case, or all kinds of issues related to manufacturing tolerances. Another topic is packaging. After all, you want the products to end up in the hands of the customer in a neat, proper and form-fitting package.

On the other hand, there is a lot of administrative work. Sourcing components can sometimes be a PITA, particularly if even distributors like Digikey conspire against you and don't even carry those low quantities of a component that we need for our 100-board low quantity runs. EMC and other measurements for CE approval are a fun topic, too. I've never been involved personally in those, and it has been an interesting venture. Luckily, at least for sysmoBTS, things are looking quite promising now. Customs paperwork, Import/Export related buerocracy (both in Germany as well as other countries) always have new surprises, despite me having experience in dealing with customs for more than 10 years now.

Also significant amount of time is spent on evaluating suppliers and their products, e.g. items like SIM/USIM cards, cavity duplexers, antennas, cables, adapters, power amplifiers and other RF related accessories for our products.

The thing that really caught me off-guard are the German laws on inventory accounting. Basically there is no threshold for low-quantity goods, so as a company on capital (GmbH/AG) you have to account for each and every fscking SMD resistor or capacitor. And then you don't only have to count all those parts, but also put a value at them. Depending on the type of item, you have to use either the purchasing price, or the current market price if you were to buy it again, or the price you expect to sell the item for. Furthermore, the trade law requirements on inventory accounting are different than the tax laws, not often with contradictory aims ;)

In the end it seems the best possible strategy is to put a lot of the low-value inventory into the garbage bin before the end of the financial year, as the value of the product (e.g. 130 SMD resistors in 0402 worth fractions of cents) is so much lower than the cost of counting it. Now that's of course an environmental sin, especially if you consider lots and lots of small and medium-sized companies ending up at that conclusion :(

So all in all, this should give you somewhat of an explanation why there might have been less activity on this blog about exciting technical things. On the one hand, they might relate to customer related projects which are of confidential nature. On the other hand, they might simply be boring things like dealing with transport damage of cavity duplexers from china, or with FedEx billing customs/import fees to the wrong address...

Overall I still have the feeling that I was writing a decent amount of code in 2012 - although there can never be enough :) Most of it was probably either related to OsmoBTS, OpenBSC/OsmoNITB or the various Erlang SS7/TCAP/MAP related projects. The list of more community-oriented projects with long TODO lists is growing, though. I'd like to work on SIMtrace MITM / card emulation support, the CC32RS512 based smartcard OS, libosmosim (there's a first branch in libosmocore.git). Let's hope I can find a bit more time for that kind of stuff this year. You should never give up hope, they say ;)

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Wed, 16 Jan 2013
Why I hate phone calls so much

The fact that I have more than 20 missed phone calls on my land line telephone after only half a day has passed triggers me to write this blog post.

It is simply impossible to get any productive work done if there are synchronous interruptions. If I'm doing any even remotely complex task such as analyzing code, designing electronics or whatever else, then the interruption of the flow of thoughts, and the context switch to whatever the phone call might be about is costing me an insurmountable amount of my productive efficiency. I doubt that I am the only one having that feeling / experience.

So why on earth does everybody think they are entitled to interrupt my work at any given point in time they desire? Why do they think whatever issue they have rectifies an immediate interruption in what I am doing? To me, an unscheduled phone call almost always feels like an insult. It is a severe intrusion into my work-flow, and has a very high cost to me in terms of loss of productivity.

Sure, there are exceptional absolute emergencies (like, a medical emergency of a family member). But just about anything else can be put in an e-mail, which I can respond to at a time of my choosing, i.e. at a time I am not deeply buried into some other task that requires expensive context switching and the associated loss of productivity. And yes, a response might be the same day, some days later, or even a week or more later. There are literally hundreds of mails of dozens of people that need to be responded to. I can never even remotely answer all of them in a timely manner, even if I'm working 12-14 hours a day up to 7 days a week.

Right now I'm doing the only reasonable thing that is left: Switch off all phones. And to anyone out there intending to contact me: Please think twice before calling me on the phone. Almost anything can be put in an e-mail. And if you really want to have a phone call, please request a scheduled phone call in an e-mail containing a very detailed agenda and explanation of the topic.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Tue, 17 Jan 2012
Having Fun with DHL Express!

This is what I got when tracking one of my inbound shipments:

It seems DHL is having fun bouncing the package back and forward between Hong Kong and Leipzig(Germany). So far, it started in HK, then arrived in Leipzig on January 8, went back to HK, back to Leipzig, back to HK, back to Leipzig and is currently allegedly again in Hong Kong _after_ succesfully passing German customs clearance on January 15.

For the TCP/IP nerds among the readers: I wonder when the TTL expires.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sat, 11 Jun 2011
Why do self-respecting hackers use Gmail & Co?

Yesterday morning I was reading through the logs of my exim-based mailserver and noticed _how_ many messages were delivered to Google/Gmail. This is mostly related to the various mailing lists that I'm hosting at lists.{gnumonks,osmocom}.org.

Now if those lists were general-purpose mailing lists for let's say a group of environmentalists or a local model train club, I wouldn't be surprised. But almost all of those lists are about very technical projects, where the only subscriber base should be people from either the IT security community, or the Free Software community. The former is typically extremely security and privacy aware, whereas the latter is at least to some extent in favor of what I would describe as 'being a producer rather than just a consumer of technology.

So why is there such a high degree of Gmail usage among those groups? I really don't get it. Let me illustrate why this is a surprise:

  • you give away control over your personal data

    Control over your own data means you own it, you have it on your hard disk, it is not on somebody else's storage medium. Control over your data also means that somebody needs a search warrant to your home in order to get to it. It also means that you decide when or how to shut it down, not a large corporation in a foreign country.

  • you put your personal data within the U.S. jurisdiction

    Depending on where you are, this may or may not be an improvement. I don't want to start a political debate here, but you have to be aware what this means specifically, especially in terms of government authorities or private companies getting access to your mails. I myself would not even say that I understand enough about the US legal system to determine the full outcome of this. Also, in case there was a subpoena or other legal action in the US, how would I defend myself? That's so much easier in my home country, where I know the laws and regulations.

  • you give Google not only the social web information who mails whom, but also the full content of that communication

    Now Google may have privacy policies and other rules that this data is not to be mined for whatever purposes they deem fit. But first of all, what guarantees do you have on it? Definitely less than if you ran your own mail server on your own hardware. Secondly, whatever Google promises is always within the scope of the US jurisdiction. In the 10-year aftermath of 9/11 there have been a number of alarming developments including wiretaps to phone lines without court review/order, etc.

Now I don't want this to be a bashing of Google. The same applies more or less to any email hosting company. I also don't want it to be a bashing about the US. The above is meant as an example only. In Europe we have our own problems with regard to data retention of e-mail related data (who is mailing whom). But those only apply to companies that offer telecommunications services. If you host your own mail server, you are not providing services to anyone else and thus are not required to retain any data.

There's also what I would call the combination effect, i.e. millions of millions of people all using the same service. This leads to a large concentration of information. Such concentrations are ideal for data mining and to get a global 'who is who'. This information is much more interesting to e.g. intelligence communities than the actual content, as it is much easier analyzed automatically. It also doesn't help to encrypt your messages, as the headers (From, To, ...) are still unencrypted.

Furthermore, this concentration leads to single points of failure. I'm not speaking physically, as Google and other web-hosters of course know how to replicate their services using a large-scale distributed system. But all is under control by the same company, maintained by the same staff, subject to the same jurisdiction/laws, etc.

There was a time when the Internet was about a heterogeneous network, de-centralized, without a single point of failure. Why are all people running to a very few number of companies? The same question goes for sites like sourceforge. All the code hosted there subject to the good will of the hosting company. Subject to their financial stability, their intentions and their admin staff. They've had security breaches, as did apparently Google. Sure, self-hosted machines also have security breaches, but only the breakage of a very small set of accounts, not the breakage of thousands, hundred thousands or millions of users simultaneously.

Now hosting your own mailserver on your own machine might be a bit too much effort in terms of money or work for some people. I understand that. But then, there are several other options:

  • You team up with some friends, people you know and trust, and you share the administrative and financial effort
  • You look out for NGOs, societies, cooperatives or other non-for-profit groups that offer email and other services to their members. At least in Germany we traditionally have many of these.
  • You use a local, small Internet service company rather than one of the big entities.
While you still give up some control with those alternatives, you keep your data within your jurisdiction, and you still keep the spirit of de-centralization rather than those large concentrated single point of failures.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Fri, 11 Mar 2011
Travelling to Belem/Brazil to talk about OpenPCD and OsmocomBB at UFPA

Tomorrow I'll be leaving for a 10-day trip to the signal processing lab of UFPA (Federal University of Para) in Belem, Brazil. I was kindly invited by Prof. Aldebaro Klautau to hold some lectures and lab exercises regarding Free Software (+Hardware) RFID projects like OpenPCD as well as Free Software GSM projects like OsmocomBB.

I would love to use that opportunity to spend some more time in Brazil for holidays, but my schedule really doesn't allow for anything like that at this time. It's always sad to have to miss such a chance. It would be exactly the right time of the year to spend some time at the beaches of Pernambuco or Alagoas... *sigh*

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sat, 22 Jan 2011
Heading for a business trip to Nairobi/Kenya

I'm about to leave for a 1-week business related trip to Kenya... so please excuse any [additional] delays in reaching me. I really need to focus on my work in order to keep up productivity.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Fri, 28 May 2010
UPS sends me an invoice over 1 Euro-cent

Yesterday I received this letter from the local UPS subsidiary in Germany.

This is nothing uncommon, as I often import some electronics parts or other equipment from outside the EU, on which I need to pay customs duties and/or import VAT. In such cases, they typically collect an estimated amount as COD (cash on delivery) and then send an invoice about the difference (if any).

The funny part in this case now is: The grand total after subtracting my COD payment is EUR 0.01 - in words: One Euro-cent. They really want me to do a bank transfoer or write them a cheque over 1 cent !?!

One wonders to what grand total the expenses for the paper, printing, postage, banking transfer fees and accounting fees on the UPS side will amount to for processing something like this.

I wonder what would happen if I didn't pay that 1 cent. Would they actually try to sue me? Probably simply stop delivering packets to me, which I cannot afford and thus rather pay that single cent...

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Wed, 25 Nov 2009
The Emperor's Codes: The Breaking of Japan's Secret Ciphers

During the last weeks, I've read the book The Emperor's Codes: The Breaking of Japan's Secret Ciphers. As you can guess from the title, the book relates to the various UK, American and Australian code breaker teams working on breaking the encrypted communication of Japan during the second world war.

There have been plenty of books about the history of breaking Germany's Enigma ciphering machine, but information on how the Japanese codes were broken so far didn't seem to be as widespread - despite the resepective archives being opened up during the last decades.

It has been a most interesting reading. As you can imagine, at that time almost nobody had a sufficient understanding of the Japanese language, not even thinking about how to encode Japanese writing into morse code.

Nonetheless, all of the Japanese merchant, diplomatic, army and navy codes have been broken during the war. And surprisingly, the Japanese never really assumed something is wrong with their actual encryption method. All they did is to replace the codebook or the additive codebook.

Also, just like in today's GSM (A5/1) crypto attacks, even back then the importance of known plaintext could not be underestimated. The verbosity of Japanese soldiers addressing a superior officer and the stereotypical nature of reports on weather or troop movements gave the cryptographers plenty of known plaintext for many of their intercepted message.

What was also new to me is the fact that the British even back then demanded that Cable+Wireless provides copies of all telegraphs through their network. And that's some 70-80 years before data retention on communications networks becomes a big topic ;)

Overall, definitely a very interesting book. I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in security, secret services, WW2 history and/or cryptography.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sat, 15 Nov 2008
TXL-CDG-BLR-DLH-TPE

This was the route that I was taking to Taipei this time: Berlin, Paris, Bangalore, Delhi, Taipei... with 7 hours in Bangalore and 4 hours in Delhi, resulting in a total travel time of about 38 hours.

Everything went surprisingly well and I did a lot of work. However, my day/night rhythm is basically completely gone by now. Need to try to synchronize with local time.

Oh, and if you're asking yourself "why"? Because airline ticket pricing is the most ridiculous thing on this planet, even worse than stock exchange. Any more 'direct' asymmetric Germany->Taiwan->India->Germany flight would have been about three times as expensive as both a Germany->India->Germany and a India->Taiwan->India round trip ticket together.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sat, 01 Nov 2008
German Post paper form shows HTML font tag

Something fun for a change: This morning I had one of those "you were not present when we tried to deliver something to you, please come to the post office to pick it up" cards in my mailbox.

However, as the scan of this very card shows (check for the red arrow), they inadvertently show half of a HTML FONT tag for the font "HELVETICA" on the actual printed card. I wonder how nobody could notice ;)

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Thu, 13 Dec 2007
Playing around with the HTC TyTN II / Kaiser

For reasons that I cannot yet disclose, I have obtained a HTC TyTN II (aka Kaiser). This is my first (and hopefully last) Windows Mobile based device.

So far I've taken the device fully apart, unmounted all the shielding covers and took high-resolution photographs of each and every part of the phone. The resulting information is now that I'm aware of all the major components in the device, and I've started to do some data mining on those components.

As everyone knows, HTC used a Qualcomm MSM7200 based chipset in this device. The MSM integrates both the GSM baseband (DSP+ARM9) as well as the application processor (ARM11) and many other things. What's less known is the further peripheral configuration.

  • The Bluetooth and WiFi chips are from Ti (BRF6300 and WL125, respectively).
  • The power management unit is a Qualcomm PM7500
  • NAND+DRAM are in a multi-chip module (1.8V, 2GBit NAND x8, 1GBbit DRAM x32) from Samsung
  • The 3G/GSM RF part consists of Qualcomm's RFR6500 (receive with integrated GPS) and RTR6275 (transmit) as well as AWT6280, AWT6273 and AWT6273 amplifiers
  • There furthermore is a CPLD: Xilinx XC2C128 (3000 system gates, 128 macrocells).
  • For those interested, I'll go through my PCB photographs and will edit and publish them soon.

    I am now digging through all the various XDA/WM6 hacker information out there and trying to understand the various tools that can be used for further taking apart the software side. I've already managed to get into the bootloader, which apparently offers a standard USB serial emulation that can be accessed even from a Linux PC.

    Unfortunately the MSM7200 is a highly proprietary/closed chipset, and there is very limited public information available. I've already ran into this while evaluating potential hardware for OpenMoko at some point in the past. I became curious about this MSM7xxx chipset family when they were first added to the ARM-Linux machine type registry many months ago.

    Anyway, meanwhile Google seems to be doing a lot using this chipset, as they have recently announced the availability of a linux-msm.git tree. The source code should document many things such as GPIO assignments, IRQ's and contain drivers for most of the hardware (on the application processor side).

    Now if some of you ask yourselves if I have turned my back on OpenEZX and OpenMoko: No, that's not true. I'm just looking at this for a very peculiar reason. Hopefully I'm able to reveal more soon.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Mon, 03 Dec 2007
incommunicado for a while

It seems like my main mail server, ganesha.gnumonks.org, is facing some severe problems (ext3 corruption on a 3ware hardware RAID-1, i.e. something that clearly should not happen.

As per Murphy's law, this had to happen exactly while I was in-flight on my trip to Bangalore for FOSS.in 2007 :( Had it happened 2 days earlier, i would have actually within physical reach of the machine in question.

Luckily, all my hosted servers have remote consoles and actually even remote access to the BIOS setup. So I'm trying to recover what's to recover. The exim mail spool is on the affected /var partition. The much more important cyrus IMAPD spool is not affected. What a relief.

Still, everyone who tried to contact me: Please expect some delays in email based communication through the next few days. Sorry for the inconvenience.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Fri, 20 Apr 2007
Short update

The last couple of weeks have again been so busy that I didn't find the time to update this blog. After returning from the Taipei trip, as usual, there were tons of things to be done for OpenMoko. Later I spent about one week on a business trip to Bangalore, from which I've returned monday afternoon.

Now I'm only home until thursday next week. Next friday, I'll once again depart for Taipei to speed up and coordinate OpenMoko/FIC development.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Wed, 07 Mar 2007
Apple can't even properly translate their SPAM

I just received SPAM from apple: "Mit dem Mac ist Codieren immer und überall möglich." and further down "Codieren. Kompilieren. Berechnen."

Seems like a multi-billion multi-national company cannot even afford some native speaker to proof-read their advertisements. Quite embarrassing.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sun, 04 Mar 2007
G5 Quad broken one month after warranty: The big bang

Last night, I was once again annoyed by the slow build time of our dual AMD64 2.4GHz build server, and I wanted to use my Apple G5 quad again as a build/compile system.

So I pressed the power button, and immediately in that instance there was an extremely loud BANG!. No smoke, no smell, just that bang. Standby/trickle power was still there, the LED's kept shining.

I quickly opened the case, too off the covers, etc. There is no visible component that has suffered any damage. No leaked/exploded capacitors, no residue from some electrical spark, nothing.

And then I found out: The machine arrived on February the 2nd, and now it's exactly one month after the 1 year warranty has expired. I wonder how they can time their system failures that well :(

A little bit later I found out about the Apple Power Mac G5 Repair Extension Program for Power Supply Issues. It seems like this is a common bug, especially when you see things like this lengthy list of people who report a similar effect.

Seems like I'll have to call some local Apple dealers the first thing Monday morning....

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Thu, 01 Feb 2007
Federal "Express" - One month to get a customer account

Since sending hardware to Werner Almesberger in Argentina using DHL seems to be suboptimal, I decided to give FedEx a try. So I went to their web-site, and tried to register for a customer account / number.

What struck me first, is that they require you to enter both land-line AND mobile phone number. As if everyone had both these days. I know a lot of people who either only have land-line, or mobile. And obviously there are people like myself, who would never want FedEx to contact them via mobile at all.

Anyway. What I then got back was an automatic email (in German) indicating that the respective employee is "Out of Office till 21st of February", and that "e-mails to this address will not be processed during this time".

Whew, I thought. What kind of express. It takes only three weeks to get a customer number. Maybe I should resort to UPS next. *sigh*

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Fri, 06 Oct 2006
Dual-Opteron liquid cooling leaking

I'm not really having that much luck with the liquid cooling system of my main workstation. Today, one of the CPU coolers (dual socket 940 board) started leaking. Unfortunately it was the cooler of the CPU sitting above the AGP and PCI-X slots, spilling coolant on th Radeon 9200 and E1000 cards.

Coincidentally all that happened while I was having a bath, but that just as a side-note.

Now the box still boots up and is accessible from the network. Just no graphics output. Pretty bad for what I use as a dual-head compile and development workstation. So far it looks like at least that AGP card has died. I already bought a used one on eBay (you can't get any Radeon 9200 these days, and that's the really last 'free' graphics chip out there [apart from Intel on-board stuff]...). It could also be the AGP socket or something completely different. I don't have any spare AGP cards, just PCI... 5V PCI that don't fit in the 3.3V-only PCI-X slots, so I couldn't test it with a different card right now.

Now since this is the second time I'm having quite big trouble with that liquid cooling system, this is a good time to re-think whether it was that good an idea. I still think it was. I mean, for the better part of two years, this system has been running day and night, without any problems. In fact it is so quiet that I now regard my Quad G5 (unloaded, all fans at minimum) as extremely loud. And it is that quiescence which I love so much, and it is even worth at least those two times I've now had problems.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Sun, 13 Aug 2006
Allnet Allsound / U-Media AudioMate

I couldn't resist any longer to buy a Allnet Allsound aka U-Media AudioMate, basically a small 802.11 WLAN capable Internet streaming radio stand alone receiver. Something that you can just put into your kitchen / bedroom. It hooks up to your WLAN and plays MP3 radio streams stand alone. No running computer / hard disk / server / ... required. IT also seems to support UPnP A/V, but I yet have to look into some Free server software for this.

Oh and yes, you can actually use it as alarm clock, waking you with tunes of your favorite Internet streaming radio. How cool is that?

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Wed, 05 Jul 2006
The wonders of Vienna airport

For my trip to Shanghai, the both cheapest and most convenient flight schedule was offered by Austrian. I mainly use KLM / NW / Air France / Lufthansa for my flights, so Austrian was definitely a new experience.

So here I am, connecting to my int'l flight at Vienna airport. Free 802.11b wireless Internet access, unfiltered, with a DHCP server that provides you an official IP. Guess I'll never connect voluntarily at Frankfurt, Paris or Amsterdam again. Finally somebody understood how you can make an airport much more attractive to the [IT] business traveller, without any big investments.

[ /misc | permanent link ]

Mon, 15 May 2006
Software for paleeograpy of Indic scripts

Those of you who know me a bit better will know that my now ex-{fiance,girlfriend} is studying indian philology and indian cultural history at Freie Universitaet Berlin. Now when you think about philology, you will probably think of old people wading through books and paper.

To the contrary. I've always been amazed how much software development they actually do (or have made) there. Some years back, I learned about Sanskritreader, an OCR (optical character recognition) software package for devanagari script.

Now their latest software is IndoSkript, a Palaeograpy software. It comes with a ~600MB database of scans of anciend Indic handwritings, where evey glyph in those scripts has been individually separated, and the scripts are annotated, etc.

Using that software (it's mainly a database software) you can for example check how a particular glyph was written in a certain timeframe in a specific dynasty in the Mysore area. Or you can draw [or import a scan?] a glyph and have it do pattern-matching, giving you a probabilistic analysis of which already-known glyphs match your new one the most.

As of now, it ships with a database of Brahmi, consisting more than 700 scriptures of more than 170,000 glyphs total.

It's great that they develop these tools, and it's even better that they are published as public domain software. What would be even better, is if they made their software Free Software and publicized the source code. This way other people could contribute and e.g. add a much-needed non-German localization, a precondition for any kind of international (e.g. Indian) use of it.

Maybe I can find a minute (and a minute of their time) to explain to them the marvels of Free Software.

[ /misc | permanent link ]