NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The GUIDE: A Mental Fog [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Sometimes blog entries come to me from suggestions or news articles, but this one comes out of some research that I have studies as a result of work.  It is not my own, but I have some peripheral involvement as a consultant.  The topic is the so-called "mental fog" reported by patients who have undergone radiation therapy or chemotherapy (directed at the brain) or general anesthesia - the latter particularly after the age of 60.

Please note, I'm not saying it happens all the time, nor am I saying to avoid therapies that require either procedure.  It's just that there are reports and validated results, and those have some known (and unknown) mechanisms involved.

The results are similar - some thinning of the gray matter (cell layers) of the cortex visible in MRI, some shadowing of different brain areas associated with memory, and a tendency toward greater forgetfulness, aphasia, and loss of attention than before the procedure.  Comparison with like-aged subjects who have gone through similar procedures without the specific brain effects (radiation directed toward other body areas, local anesthesia or brief duration) reveal a slight, but not necessarily significant reduction in memory capabilities.

Neuroscientists think that the major culprit is inflammation.  Radiation therapy induces heating of the brain tissue, chemotherapy drugs often irritate normal cells (they are designed to be toxic to cancer cells) and anesthetics cause changes in blood flow cell membranes.  Inflammation causes pressure, and pressure alters the flow of nutrients into brain cells, as well as the flow of metabolic by-products out of the same cells.  Prolonged or repeated inflammation causes cells to die... and hence the patient suffers from loss of function. 

The curious feature of the "Fog" reported by these patients is that it is seldom an immediate effect, but rather takes about 6 months to a year to reveal the full extent of loss.  This is where the unknown mechanisms come in, and there are certainly labs that are researching the reasons for the loss in mental function.  It may be related to aging, and some theories speculate that normal age-related decline is simply accelerated. 

What is also speculated is that some of the inflammation processes are self-perpetuating, but only at low levels, and with slow progression.  New research is now aimed at replicating these results in animal models and testing a number of treatments - including anti-inflammatory drugs (not NSAIDs!) and even Alzheimer's treatment drugs.  With better understanding will (hopefully) come better treatment.  Still the best advice of all is to keep using and challenging your brain function with reading, puzzles, social activities and new experiences.  Research has shown that using our memory and cognitive abilities are the best way to retain them to an advanced age.

Sort of puts a new spin on "Use it or Lose it", doesn't it?

[Apologies for the short post and schedule interruptions.  I have finally met the impossible work deadlines for August and am at Dragon*Con this weekend. I should be able to get back to a better schedule in September.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The GUIDE: The Tip/Slip of the Tongue [Full link to blog for email clients.]

We've all done it.   Halfway through a conversation, the word we want just won't come out. We know it, we're certain that if we just try a bit harder, we can come up with the word.

Photo (C) 2012 by Steven Frame, Shutterstock

The phenomenon is "aphasia" and it refers to a type of memory disorder in which we have difficulty associated memory (or a name, place, object) with the actual word that represents it.  In disease states, aphasia results from damage in the pathways that connect Wernicke's area (language) with Broca's area (speech). But does every instance of "tip of the tongue" really mean that we have damage to the brain?

Actually, no.  In most people, temporary aphasia is actually a phenomenon of interference.  Our brains are running along in a conversation (sort of like the old joke about engaging the brain before putting the mouth in gear) and we realize that we weren't actually thinking about what we were saying even though the words were coming out of our mouth.  When we hit the point of having to say a word that has not be "preprogrammed" we realize that our thoughts have run so far ahead of what we are saying that they are now interfering with the ability to remember and say the word.

It does seem to happen more often as we age, but it's no more a symptom of age-related memory loss than it is one of distraction.

In the last blog, I mentioned the "P300" event related potential that indicates when a subject sees or hears an unfamiliar, unexpected or rare stimulus.  When stimuli are familiar, the brain simply does not spend as much time processing them.  In 2004, neuroscience researchers R.E. Hampson and S.A. Deadwyler showed that when rats were performing a behavioral test in which the individual trials were familiar and easy, the brain activity in the hippocampus (which processes memory) dropped to very low levels, but as soon as the rats made a mistake or were given a trial that did not match the previous sequence, the activity in hippocampus rebounded.  Likewise, their earlier work showed that animals with damage to the hippocampus could still perform a version of the same task (which normally required hippocampus) as long as the stimuli were presented in a familiar pattern with a fixed sequence.

So the brain actually doesn't process as much information when performing familiar tasks.  This is one reason why repetition is an important part of learning, because if the brain does need to get involved in routine tasks, they slow down.  The drawback is interference.  When operating in this "automatic" mode, if we actually stop to think about what we are saying or doing, we realize that we don't have a clear memory record.  Thus other memories can interfere - the sentence before last, the action before last - and it results in "tip of the tongue" in speech, losing our place, or stumbling in our actions.

A lot is being made these days about politicians and public figures who make "slips" of the tongue in their speeches.  Is it stress, senility, lack of intelligence, disease? Probably not.  It's usually interference.  The person is simply thinking about something else while they are talking - yet such slips can be quite revealing, because they provide a glimpse into what information is actually foremost in their thoughts - and thus providing the interference.

So, what can we do about resolving the "tip of the tongue" aphasia?

The best thing to do is to stop stressing over it.  The more you try to remember the word, the more interference you are placing into memory.  Relax, direct your thoughts toward something else, or simply ignore it and continue the conversation.  The memory is not totally gone, and you will recall it once you can reduce interference and trigger the appropriate association.  I have a colleague with severe aphasia (of the medical variety) - for names and  proper nouns - and he frankly uses other people to help fill in the gaps for him.  We all know about it, and usually either provide the name or allow him to ignore it and move in.  When it is important, it is possible to access the memory by assisting him with making associations with his own memory.

The tip of the tongue is for tasting... and making funny faces.  But both the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon and "slips of the tongue" are real disorders of human memory, and can be quite revealing  of how (and when) the brain processes information!

Monday, August 27, 2012

NEWS: Hacking the Brain [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The recent report from UC Berkeley about a "new" techniques for "hacking" the brain (, is neither new, nor is it hacking.  The research relies on recording what neuroscientists call the "P300" brain wave.  To explain why this is important (but not new), let me digress a moment..

Copyright 2012 by "jimmi", Licensed by Shutterstock
The EEG is a continuous readout of electrical activity that is affected by all activity of the brain at a given instant.  Because the brain is constantly active and processing information, it is difficult to point to any single peak and understand the information it represents.  Neuroscientists get around this issue by repeating events – sights, sounds, touches – then averaging the EEG synchronized to those fixed points in time.  EEG peaks that always occur in response to an event will continue to show up in the average, while "random," or at least asynchronous, events get averaged out.  The term for these patterns in averaged EEG is "Event-Related Potentials" and they have been studied since the 1930's, and the "P300" has been studied since the 60's.

AS an aside, ERPs are how doctors track visual and hearing deficits in infants.  The ERP peaks that occur within 100 milliseconds of a stimulus corresponding to information processing by various stages in the visual and auditory pathway.  "Counting the bumps" lets a physician determine whether (and where) a deficit may occur.  After 100 ms, the ERP peaks corresponding to different features – most notably the concepts of "expectancy" and "surprise".  IF you flash or play stimuli to a subject at a fixed rate, and omit one stimulus in a chain, such that the subject *expects* the stimulus, but it does not occur, then a large negative peak at 100 ms (N100) occurs.  If an unexpected or rare event occurs, a large positive peak occurs in or around 300 ms – hence the "P300" designation. 

P300 is more properly termed "P3" since it actually occurs from 250-400 ms (depending on the stimuli and species), but is the third major positive peak in the ERP.  It is also split into two components – P3a (250-300 ms) which responds to truly novel stimuli, and P3b (300-400 ms) which responds to rare, infrequent yet familiar stimuli.  It is very important to note that P3b is only elicited within the context of the subject's attention.  The most famous test of P3 is to tell a patient to count high pitched tones, then throw in one low pitched tone every 10 high-pitched tones.  The "oddball" stimulus elicits a large P3b, and the lower the frequency of "oddball" stimuli, the higher the peak of the P3b.  If, on the other hand, you throw in a flash of light instead of a tone, a P3a occurs and not a P3b since the stimulus was novel and not relevant to the task you assigned the subject.

P3 is not knew, by any means.  The earliest reports are from the 60's, and most of the "oddball" tests date from the late 70's and early 80's.  In fact, my PhD dissertation from the mid 80's was on tracing a P3-like phenomenon in rat brain that predicted sequences of stimuli and actually biased the animal's future behavior (the first step in my current research which predicts and even controls behavior via a neural prosthetic). 

So P3 is not "new", nor is it hacking.  Since the 80's P3a and P3b – and in fact, the whole set of ERPs – has been examined for use in lie detection, but there are various interpretations – the first is that a "lie" would result in a P3b due to "guilty knowledge."  Subjects are examined by reading back their answers to given a series of questions, and supposedly hearing their "lie" would result in a large P3b since it conflicts with what they know to be true.  The fallacy is that for ERP recording to be reliable, the EEG must be averaged, thus the Q&A needs to be repeated enough times to average out signals not specific to the stimuli, the "lie" is no longer rare or unexpected, thus a P3b is less likely to be generated.  In addition, a well-practiced lie becomes the more familiar answer, and is thus more likely to produce a smaller P3b, which in turn is less likely to be distinguished from truthful, familiar answers. 

The second reason why use of P3b is not "hacking" is that the procedure is unlikely to work quite the way it is described in the article.  The press release states that the procedure could be used to discover PIN numbers and passwords because the subject generates a "P300"  when they see or hear their secret codes presented.  IN fact, since the codes are private, yet highly familiar, it is much more likely that the combination of N100, P300 and other ERPs that respond to novelty and unfamiliarity will be smaller when their own PIN or password are presented.  The procedure may work as described in some cases, but it is highly unlikely to work as described in subjects who are aware of what the procedure is attempting and have those codes extremely well memorized.

I love seeing articles like this because they provide an opportunity to raise awareness of brain science – but at the same time I hate them because university press offices try for a spin that is the most likely to catch public attention irrespective of the dull truth of the science.  In the past I have blamed the press offices and not the scientists when they misstate the science.  Given that I am currently working on press releases on my own work, I can see how easy it is to go with the simple, spectacular pronouncements, but I do try to keep them within the range of scientific accuracy and clearly indicate the speculative bits.  There is still a measure of truth in the report, especially in that ERPs can and do provide an important measure of how the brain is reacting to and processing information.  ERPs are also very important in detection and analysis of disease states and can provide valuable tools for brain-to-computer interface for locked-in patients.

As always, I caution my readers about over-interpretation of publically-released scientific information, and certainly invite inquiries, as well as refutations, as they have provoked many interesting debates and provide an opportunity for learning.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

COMMENT: The Paper Monster [Full link to blog for email clients.]

It came from the stockrooms, fueled by our hopes and dreams of the future - and it's stealing that future bit by bit.

I'm referring to paperwork - and much of the time, on real paper and not just electrons in a computer.

Yes, I've been bitten by the paperwork monster yet again.  When I returned from Germany I was greeted with 5 deadlines - a grant application to be written from scratch in 16 days (typical writing time averages 30-40 days), two manuscript revisions, one manuscript in the process of being written, but due on Aug 28th, and a manuscript to review for a major scientific journal.  With my senior colleague leaving on Aug. 21, and me leaving on Aug 27, it didn't leave much time to get everything done, but we did it, with the last of those tasks completed on the 21st.

Unfortunately, those tasks have proved to not be the only ones necessary within a month's time.  I have two animal care and use protocols due on Sept. 7 and an amendment overdue. We have an industry contract for sponsored research being negotiated, page proofs from one of the resubmissions (that was completed and accepted the week I returned), a progress report, at least 3 laboratory training sessions to complete - and of course slides for three talks to be delivered on this next trip.

The worst of all is the damned paperwork.
  •  My health insurance "flexible spending account" issued a credit card for medically related purchases instead of having us file paper reimbursement forms - except that I have just learned that in essence I must file the exact same paperwork to justify the expenses on the card.
  • We have new documentation requirements for all of the training courses that laboratory staff are required to complete - courses on lab safety, chemical hazards, animal care and use, Conflicts of Interest, financial reporting, responsible conduct of research, workplace behavior... all of it accessible in our computer records, but must now be kept in notebooks of paper records in the lab.
  • The accounting office will no longer accept written indications of foreign currency exchange rates - I must now provide credit card statements along with the paper receipts of all expenditures (even meals) because the paperwork burden is on me due to personnel cutbacks in the service departments
  • New progress report guidelines on research projects require much more detailed financial accounting - to a level that our offices do not typically provide - once again placing the burden on the researcher... instead of doing research.
  • Animal research requires a literal "paper trail" of environmental, health, "enrichment", training and other factors due to government regulations and oversight.  In 10 years our vet staff has more than doubled, and the research oversight office has increased four-fold.
  • ... and these are just a few of the examples of the explosion of regulatory and oversight time and effort (not to mention expense) that are increasingly passed on to researchers - and individuals within society as a whole. 
Yes, we are being nibbled to death by ducks and buried under a mountain of paperwork. Ironically, our "paperless future" has taken a giant leap backward due to the necessity to maintain hard copy records to satisfy audits and inspections.

I don't often turn political in this column, but it is well worth the exercise to remember at election time the burden placed on individuals - from small business to research - by a government that cannot rein in its growth.  While one party is traditionally been viewed as more "supportive" of research, the other party champions a reduction in regulation and government.

I'm not sure which I would prefer - losing 25% of science funding, or having science funding increased by 50% - only to find that I must double expenditures to comply with regulations - which practically results in 25% less funds available for the actual research.

I do know that too much more development in the direction of increased regulation is driving scientists out of business. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

NEWS: Dragon*Con Appearance Schedule [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Tedd Roberts' Dragon*Con schedule. My thanks to Regina Kirby, Sue Phillips, Dru Myers and Shannon Chesnut for panel assignments.
    "Who Are you Really?" (Main Programming) Friday, Aug 31, 11:30 AM [I sense Regina's hand in this one!] "Inside the Mall: Urban Survivalism" (Apocalypse Rising Track) Friday, Aug 31, 1 PM "Read All About It: Zombies in the Media" (AR Track) Saturday, Sep 1, 11:30 AM [Note, I was a last-minute addition and am not listed in the Pocket Program for this panel] "Belief Systems in SF and Fantasy 102" (SF Literature Track) Saturday, Sep 1, 2:30 PM [Also includes some guy named John Ringo] "The Science in Science Fiction" (SF Lit) Saturday, Sep 1, 8:30 PM "Turning Science Fiction into Reality: Who funds the research?" (Science Track) Sunday, Sep 2, 10 AM "Zombie 501: The Messiest Ways to Kill A Zombie" (AR) Sunday, Sep 2, 7 PM [With fellow zombie enthusiast Michael Z. Williamson] "Not Your Granny's Pot - What's Medicinal About Marijuana?" (Science) Sunday, Sep 2, 10:30 PM "Year Two, What Now?" (AR) Monday Sep 3, 10 AM. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

NEWS: State of the art in Neural Interfacing [Full link to blog for email clients.]

One of my readers suggested that I give reports on recent scientific conferences, and the state-of-the-art in various fields in which I do research.  In June I attended the Neural Interfaces Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, where participants discussed both the latest in brain to machine interfacing, as well as the electrodes, devices, and computers used to perform those interfaces.

In recent months I've seen developments which indicate that the field of neuroscience is not very far from developing effective "bionics".  Sometime in the next year.  The first patient will be fitted with an upper limb prosthetic– a bionic arm – and will wear it for six months to a year.  The means to record and decode the neural signals that control normal muscle movement have been around for at least two decades.  However, does not been until recently that we have risked implanting recording electrodes in humans to do this task.  One of the great drawbacks of bionic interfacing is that we still don't have a very good technique for creating a two-way connection and allowing the patient to actually "feel" using a prosthetic limb.

One of the biggest drawbacks to the implantation of recording electrodes has been that they eventually become encapsulated by glial cells and scar tissue.  Once this happens the electrodes become less capable of recording and the recordings become less precise.  This is one of the major reasons why the patients who initially test our new bionic limbs will only have the use of them for very short period of time.  However, some remarkable new techniques have been developed over the past several years which may make metal recording electrodes obsolete.

The first technique uses a system very similar to that which I reported previously, as a future direction for developing a prosthetic for the retina.  Healthy retina cells containing pigment called rhodopsin which changes its shape when exposed to light.  The rhodopsin embedded in cell membranes of a "rod" or "cone" causes the cell to react to light by opening ion channels, much the same way neurons react to chemical and electrical stimuli. The new field of "optogenetics" inserts similar chemicals collectively termed "opsins" into cells to make them sensitive to specific wavelengths of light.  In the retina, this technique can be used to rebuild the light-sensitive cells that have been damaged by disease.  However, in other brain areas, it can be used to insert the capability of stimulating cells using light instead of electricity.  The advantage to using optogenetics as a means of providing an interface from the machine back to the brain, is that the fiber-optic implants used to present the light stimulus are much less likely to produce inflammation and lead to scar tissue formation and encapsulation of the electrode.  The disadvantage is that multiple electrodes using fiber optics do not yet exist, and the technique for inserting the opsins into brain cells is still subject to some controversy.

However, the second exciting new technique still uses light, but instead of requiring a specialized molecule inserted into the neuron, it relies on infrared wavelengths, which produce a very small amount of heat focused on single neurons.  It was shown at the conference, that the amount of infrared energy required to activate a neuron was considerably less than what would produce a measurable heating of the tissue around the infrared light source.  Thus, it may turn out to be possible to stimulate neurons using light, with or without specialized opsins.  With these two techniques at our disposal, what is needed now is a better way to record neural activity, and to many of the same scientists using both optogenetics and infrared stimulation are looking for alternative recording techniques. him.  By the time the next conference is held in two years, I expect that even this problem will be solved.

In Friday's blog, I will provide a brief update on medicinal Cannabinoids, followed by a couple more book reviews and even a convention report over the next several weeks.  I am still open to suggestions on topics that readers would like to see covered in The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain.

Until next time, if you have a question about the brain, don't be afraid to ask! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday Funny - reprise and update: PHD Comic [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Over a year ago, I started a "Monday Funnies" blog series with a mention of Gary Larson's "The Far Side, and Jorge Cham's "PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper)" comic.

Today, I am reprising and updating the recommendation PHD (  "Piled Higher and Deeper" is a phrase quite often used to describe the futility and absurdity of advanced degrees, and Jorge Cham captures the essence of this absurdity in his comic about grad school life.

Cham's main characters suffer many of the indignities that we all faced in grad school - the distant professor, the unappreciative undergrads, and misunderstanding public. Cecelia wants to meet with her professor, but he is never available (, meanwhile, our "nameless hero" finds that his advisor is often all too available (

Note the red ink all over the paper Prof. Smith is handing N.H. in that last linked strip - I felt that way.  My wife (then fiance) handed her Master's Thesis in, and it sat on the professor's desk for two months, then came back with only a few corrections.  I handed in my Dissertation, and got it back within 48 hours with so much red ink that it actually transferred to items underneath or placed on top of the stack of pages.

But PhD is about more than just science humor:  This installment ( talks about the real science of the Mars "Curiosity" rover.  When Jorge Cham takes to the road for speaking tours, proud students show off their labs, and they often show up as informative comics such as this one about New Mexico's Very Large Array (radiotelescopes):

There's even a PHD movie, and it has toured college campuses and is now available for streaming or download at:  I have to confess that I have not yet watched it - I  plan to share it with the local students at a future "Neuroscience and a Movie"
I close this tribute to a very timely and topical sense of science humor with a reference to one of my favorite comics which describes the "Science News Cycle" (  It shows how a grad student's statistical correlation turns into sensational news.  Many of us have been there.  In fact, I'm there right now, on the one hand trying to decide the appropriate balance between defending my research from being usurped by others while on the other hand trying to avoid calling too much (unwanted) attention to myself.  Meanwhile, I need a third (!) hand to try to make sure I'm not misquoted or misinterpreted. 

We have a love/hate relationship with the press and the public.  Everyone *needs* to know what we discover, but few of us can have the expository genius of an Isaac Asimov or a Carl Sagan - or even a Jorge Cham. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

REVIEW: Existence by David Brin [Full link to blog for email clients.]

David Brin is a contrarian - he says so right in his blog.  I don't always agree with him - heck, I don't often agree with him.

But I admire his writing.

Existence is Brin's first book in 10 years.  I can believe that it may have taken him that long to write it.  It's convoluted, jumps back and forth, leaves you guessing far too often, and juggles so many threads that seem totally disconnected that you wonder where the whole thing is going.

I loved it.

 - yeah, it was hard to follow at first.  Like John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" and Brin's prior opus "Earth", Existence consists of short chapters of the main story line(s) (there's at least 4) interspersed with news, book quotes and internet-like excerpts.  However, the masterstroke of Brin's writing is that all of these seemingly disconnected parts come together in the end leaving the reader quite satisfied with not just the "past" of the storyline, but also the implied, unwritten "future" for the characters.

I must warn you, though, the book is long.  I read it on Kindle, which informs me that the book is over 14,000 "locations" long.  The Amazon listing says the hardback is 560 pages.  Looking at the Table of Contents reveal 8 major parts and 99 chapters, but as stated above, they're short and advance the story in small increments per major character or storyline.

Now onto the story:
It's 2050, the world is heating up and running out - of everything.  The rich seek any thrill they can afford while the poor eke out a living on yesterday's discards,  America is fractured even as it rebuilds from a spasm of terrorism some twenty years before.  Young people spend much of their time connected to computers that people walk around with artificial intelligences in their eyeglasses, coloring and commenting on everything they see.  From the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere, the Earth is overloaded with junk and people wonder what the point is to progress, to Existence, and whether the next industrial mishap, outbreak, natural disaster, computer construct or war will end human existence forever.  
Astronaut Gerald Livingstone wanted to be a hero, but instead he's a garbage collector, lassoing unwanted space junk out of orbit, but the latest object isn't junk, but a smooth, crystalline emissary from alien races far away in distance and time - but what do they mean by the enigmatic message?

Brin weaves many lives in parallel with Livingstone:
Tor Povlov is a journalist whose accident leads her to a different type of existence;
"Hacker" is a bored rich kid who discovers a new intelligence where he least expects it;
Hamish Brookeman is an author, director, celebrity and apologist for a movement that wants to renounce technological advancement;

Peng Xiang Bin is just trying to survive by reclaiming a home for his family from a drowned coastal mansion - until he discovers an artifact of his own which offers a startling counter viewpoint.
As I said, Brin weaves all of these lives and stories together - not always seamless - but that, too, is part of the story.  From beginning to ending, the story paints a sweeping epic that asks whether it is enough to simply exist, and what it is that defines that existence.

I was quite satisfied with the book, and felt a satisfying sense of closure at the end.  Not all mysteries were answered, and not all threads were knotted, but while the novel begins as a type of dystopia, it ends with Brin's characteristic sense of hope and energy which  always keeps me coming back for more.

If there is one major idea or concept that I will take away from Existence, it is Brin's treatment of the age-old question of how Mankind ensures that artificial intelligences, robots and androids don't turn on their creators (Terminator, anyone?).

Brin's answer?  We domesticate them.  We raise them as we would children, and teach them to be people, with all the rights and responsibilities of natural born humans.

Right.  Individual humans achieve immortality through their offspring.  In this manner, silico-intelligences would be our children, and can carry our legacy into a future even if our own Existence is less than certain.

Tell me that's not a reason for hope!

Well done, Dr. Brin.  Well done.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

NEWS: Warning about a phone scam. [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This is real.  This is serious.

I got a phone call from my parents today.  They said a "Representative from Microsoft" called to let them know that a virus had been tracked to their computer, and that they "Called to help" secure the computer.

Fortunately, my parents have been using personal computers since the 80's and figured it was a scam from the start.

Thing is, the same folks called back, urging them to act immediately.

The voice had a heavy Indian accent, and the name and number were blocked. 

Here is a good article on the scam:

From the article:
A friend called me to tell me that someone called his house, and using some ruse, convinced his 11 year-old daughter to ‘type in some numbers’ into the Run window,” Ron wrote. “When he got home, he turned the computer off, and we assume that it’s compromised and will need to be reformatted.”

Ron said that not long after that incident, he received a similar call. The woman on the phone told him that she was “the authorized security monitoring service for Microsoft Windows,” and that they had detected that his computer was infected with malware, which naturally he needed to have removed.

“The phone number was a Georgia area code, but I’m pretty sure she was from somewhere in India or Pakistan, based on the delay,  her accent and use of English — she said her name was Nancy,” Ron said. “She was also calling me at 7:30 am.”
In another article (, Kaspersky Lab security researcher David Jacoby tracked the behavior on a clean test machine specifically set up to (A) track what the scammers were doing, and (B) not have any personal info that they could steal.  I'll summarize the steps for you here (in accordance with copyright fair use) but go read the whole article for yourself:

1 - they make common windows functions appear to be unusual: 

"... Jacoby said the woman who called him instructed him to open the Windows Event Manager, so that he could see numerous error messages which she said indicated that his system had been compromised."  Of course it will, that's what event viewer does, and those errors are normal.  

2 - like any good fortune teller, they use information *anyone* could know to make it seem like they are referring only to you: 

"... Jacoby said the scammer then instructed him to execute a DOS command to reveal the system's unique ID and allow her to verify that it was referencing the correct--infected--system. The caller then read out the license ID, and asked Jacoby if it matched the ID he was seeing on his screen. It did, but that was because the DOS command he'd run revealed the ID for a file extension that ships on all Windows PCs"
3 - they give an instruction that will have a known result, to scare the customer:P

"... The caller then instructed him to run the "verify" DOS command to see if his Windows license could be verified, and said that an "off" setting--which Jacoby saw--would indicate that the license couldn't be verified. "  Not really.  The 'Off' setting is for another purpose entirely (disc-write verification). 

4 - they play on emotion and fear:
"... Jacoby said the caller began "screaming 'oh my god!' in my ear, she was super upset that my license was not verified; according to her this meant that no security patches could be installed." Yeah.  Of course, the caller knew the result ahead of time and 
5 - wolves wrapped in sheep's clothing:

After these steps, the caller installed a remote access program that in and of itself was innocuous - its used by many legitimate companies for remote maintenance and customer support - but they lied about the updates and licensing.

6 - and now the hook: 
There's always a hook, and this is the one where they try to get you to pay for something you don't need.  Whether a fake Windows license, a new super antivirus or even just troubleshooting services, the companies really want your credit card and bank info.  Of course, they can get it via the back-door remote access you've just allowed them to install, but it's so much easier if you just give them the number. 
Brian Krebs' KrebsOnSecurity article cited up front mentions issues where the scammers are playing fast and loose with credit card info and trying to mask the  fraudulent nature of their charges ($99-$199).  Jacoby mentions a $250 PayPal charge.  Even if you don't fall for the charges, the information leak from your computer has already happened.

What to do? 

If you receive one of these calls, hang up on them. 

And yet there are reports that the callers won't let up... "Why did you hang up on me?" one caller wailed, "This is important!"

In that case, I recommend that you turn on your answering machine, then tell them you have done so in order to report them to the FBI.  That should end the call right away. 

If you've already had this happen, have your computer checked by a IT security professional - but the important part is this:

YOU call THEM.  

In the meantime: be safe, protect your brain, your computer... and your identity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NEWS: And, Lo, there was Chocolate! [Full link to blog for email clients.]

OK, I'm back, and it will take some time to get specific content prepared for the blog, but in the meantime, here's a sampling of my trip occasioned by a friend who insisted that certain details went appropriately with The 12 Days of Christmas:

12 (times ten) Speed limit
11 million gallons per minute (Rhine falls)
10 kilometer-long country
9 pounds of chocolate
8 hour plane flights
7 days a-travelling
6 countries visited
5 castles photo'ed
4 currencies in my wallet
3 Alpine lakes
2 mountain ranges [Belchen - Black Forest, Churfirsten - Switzerland]
and a great long, twisting river - the Rhine!
In explanation:

Speed limits on the autobahn ranged from 100 to 130 km/hr with the most common limit being 120.  That's 75 mph for us benighted Americans who don't use metric.

The Falls of the Rhine river near Neuhaiusen am Rheinfall is the biggest plains waterfall in Europe.  It's about half the height of Niagara Falls (Rheinfall = 25 m, Niagara = approx 50 m), and at only 150 meters width, is about 1/8th the combined width of the American and Horseshoe Falls of Niagara.  Yet at nearly 11 million gallons per minute, the Rheinfall has approximately 1/2 the flow rate of the 8 times larger Niagara, making it a spectacular waterfall indeed.

Liechtenstein and Switzerland from Schloss Gutenberg
The Principality of Liechtenstein is 10 km x 4 km.  It is sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria along the eastern bank of the upper Rhine river.   The country is so narrow because of the limited space between the Rhine and the alpine mountains bordering each side of the High Rhine valley.  There are two castles of note - Schloss Gutenberg - Gutenberg's castle; and Schloss Verduz - The Prince's residence in the national capital of Vaduz. 

Switzerland is famous for their chocolate, and any trip to the chocolate store will entice the buyer with truffles, milk, dark and white chocolates, chocolate-dipped gingerbread and oh, so much more.

Chicago to London plane flights are 8 hrs long.  Connections from London to Frankfurt or from Basel were only 90 min, but learning to sleep on the plane was an essential skill, especially since the eastbound leg was overnight (and advanced the clock by 6 hours!).

Petit Venise
Part of my trip was for the International Cannabinoid Research Society meeting in Freiburg Germany.  The meeting was 4 days, I squeezed the touring into the remaining three days (although the society as a whole visited Belchen in the Black Forest one afternoon).

Interior: Rathaus, Basel
The conference was held in Freiburg, Germany.  Travel plans included stops in London, UK, then on to Frankfurt by plane, then down to Freiburg by train.  After the meeting, I took a bus to the Basel (Switzerland) airport (which is technically in France, although the infrastructure was built by the Swiss - both France and Switzerland administer the airport, so there are two nationalities depending on your air and surface travel needs.)  The bus arrived 45 min. later at the French side, we walked through the terminal to Switzerland side and picked up a rental car.  The drive back to Freiburg took us into Basel and across the Swiss-German border.  After picking up the remaining family members and luggage in Freiburg, we visited Breisach am Rhine and its medieval cathedral overlooking the Rhine, then crossed over into the Alsace region of France to visit the town of Colmar.  Alsace has a thriving industry and farming, and is noted for seceding from France after WW I (Alsace-Lorraine).  Colmar is also known as Petit Venise (Little Venice) for its canals, and is noted as the birthplace of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Frederic-Auguste Bertholdi, Sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.  We spent a day exploring Basel, with it's spectacular Rathaus (Town Hall) and Renaissance Old Town (and buying gingerbread and chocolate). On another day, we traveled west-to-east across Switzerland to Liechtenstein, to Feldkirch, Austria, to the Rhinefall and back to Basel.  Including London, that was 6 countries in all (UK, Germany, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria).
Schloss Vaduz

On the way to Liechtenstein we noted Schloss Habsburg and stopped for a photo opportunity.  Two castles in Liechtenstein (Gutenburg and Vaduz), one in Feldkirch, Austria (Schattenburg), and finally Schloss Laufen atop the Rhinefalls completed our single-day tour.

Switzerland and UK are not "Eurozone" countries, and have their own currencies.  British pounds were worth approx $1.60, and Euros were $1.33, which is actually lower than the last 3 times I have been to U.K. and Europe.  The Swiss maintain their own currency due to the prevalence of banking, and the Swiss Franc was nearly equal to dollars in value.  Europeans like big colorful currency, but by far the most colorful of the lot were the Swiss francs, making them easy to find among the three other currencies in my wallet.  Hardest to tell apart were the Pounds and Euros - both in paper currency and coins. I have to admit, I really like the idea of coinage in 1 and 2 pound/euro denominations, but it was surprising to find that Franc paper currency does not come in denominations less than 10 pounds - there are coins ranging from .005 to 5 Francs!

Lake Zurich is actually two lakes - Zurichsee at the northern end near the city of Zurich, and Obersee upstream of the dams at Rapperswil. The lake is comprised of alpine glacial melt into the river Linth.  Upstream and a few kilometers east of Obersee is the Walensee, a strictly alpine-locked glacial lake fed by the Linth, Murgbach and Seez rivers.  Depending on whether one counts Lake Zurich as one or two lakes, our third lake was Lake Constance, the largest lake in the region, which separates the Alpine headwaters of the Rhine river (in Switzerland and forming borders with Liechtenstein and Austria) from "Hochrhein" or "High Rhine" which flows west-to-east near the Switzerland-Germany border.  The Lake itself forms the triple border of Switzerland-Austria-Germany.

Belchen, Black Forest, looking NW toward Germany & France
The Wallensee is nestled at the foot of the Churfirsten mountain range in Switzerland and is the northernmost extent of the Swiss Alps.  Looking up from the lake you see craggy mountain tops and high alpine meadows which seem impossible to farm, or build, yet there are pastures, farms and houses perched at angles that are enough to make a ground-dweller dizzy.  The "second" range includes Belchen - while not the highest peak in Germany - it's position nestled in the heart of the Black Forest, at the SW corner of Germany, provides s views of France and Switzerland that are unparalleled.  There is a cable-car/gondola lift to the top of the 1414 m peak, with an inn at both ends of the lift.

Breisach am Rhein, looking toward France from the Muenster
"Leu" ferry, Basel
In all, we crossed the Rhine river 7 times.   Spelled "Rhein" in German, the dominant language of it's course, the Rhine and Danube rivers formed the northern inland borders of the old Roman Empire, and were essential to commerce, and the Rhine is navigable for most of it's length, notably from Basel to the outlet.  Canals run parallel to the principal watercourse along the French border and for much of the lower (northern and delta), middle and upper course.  The lower Rhine and delta discharge into the North Sea in the Netherlands.  Lower and middle sections are entirely within Germany, while the Oberrhein" or Upper Rhine, forms the border with France from Basel to Manheim.  At Basel, the Rhine turns from the south-to-north flowing Oberrhein to the east-to-west "Hochrhein" (High Rhine) within the borders of Switzerland.  Above the Falls and Lake Constance, the river once again returns to a south-to-north orientation and forms the borders with Liechtenstein and Austria before winding back up to it's sources in the Swiss Alps.  It should be noted that the city of Basel sits astride the Rhine, and that the waterflow is strong enough that there are ferry boats that cross between the Grossebasle (Greater Basel - the South) to the Kleinbasle (Lesser Basel - the North) using only the force of the river.  These boats angle their keels and rudders toward one bank or the other, and are tethered to an overhead cable running from bank-to-bank.  The water flow past the keel is sufficient to force the boat across the river in about 10 minutes.  There is one just just below the Basel Muenster (Cathedral).

It was a fantastic trip, and I really did gain some valuable scientific knowledge which I will share in a later post.

Until then, enjoy the photos!