Inside the Team That Cracked the Stuxnet Worm

Shared by Adam Fort

great read.

Siemens Simatic S7-300 PLC CPU
Shown above: Siemens Simatic S7-300 PLC CPU, similar to one of those targeted by the Stuxnet worm.

In an extremely comprehensive WIRED article, Kim Zetter tells the inside story of how researchers worldwide (primarily working for Symantec) decoded the Stuxnet worm, ultimately figuring out that it was developed to target nuclear centrifuges at a particular site in Iran. For nerds, this is an incredibly engrossing read, full of technical-but-followable detail, as well as a compelling real-life narrative. As many commenters have noted, it reads a bit like a Tom Clancy novel. While many of us have heard something about Stuxnet, this is the story you should read to learn the real story — grab a sandwich and turn off your email program for a half hour. Here’s a snippet:

It should have been no surprise to the researchers, then, when their work drew the attention of government agencies in and outside the United States, that began asking for briefings on their findings. Symantec put together a PowerPoint presentation for the Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, Department of Energy and FBI to answer their questions. “I joke that they already had all the answers,” Chien said. Asked if anyone from the NSA or CIA attended the PowerPoint sessions, he smiled. “If we ever did brief the NSA, we wouldn’t know, right?”

The political ramifications of their work took on even starker dimensions when, two weeks after they published their findings on the frequency converters, assassins on motorbikes attacked two Iranian nuclear scientists simultaneously in Tehran. The men were commuting to work on a Monday morning in separate parts of the city when the assassins zipped by their cars and attached bombs to them. […].

Although the researchers didn’t really believe their lives were at risk for exposing Stuxnet, they laughed nervously as they recalled the paranoia and dark humor that crept into their conversations at the time. O Murchu began noticing weird clicking noises on his phone, and one Friday told Chien and Falliere, “If I turn up dead and I committed suicide on Monday, I just want to tell you guys, I’m not suicidal.”

The day news of the assassination plots broke, Chien joked to his colleagues that if a motorcycle ever pulled alongside his car, he’d take out the driver with a quick swerve of his wheels. When he left work that day and stopped at the first intersection, he was shaken — just for a moment — as he glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a motorcycle pull up behind him.

Read the rest (it’s long) for a thoroughly excellent look at a dramatic story of modern computer security research.

(Via via Hypertext.)

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.)

Top 10 Punishments for Geeks

Evil overlords have a tough time when it comes to punishing geeks. We’re so good at retreating into our imaginations and replaying scenes from our favorite movies and TV shows in our heads that we can often weather physical punishments without any psychological consequences. To really punish us effectively, you need to find a way to really get into our heads and aim straight for our geeky psyches.

Here, then, are ten strategies for doing just that, for all those evil overlords — or those who’d like to become one — who could use a little help. Some are more broad punishments that would be effective against many geeks all at once, and some specifically target one geek at a time.

10. Six words: Offer regular coffee, serve only decaf.

9. Force him to watch the movie Waterworld without the ability to mute or fast-forward.

8. Release a new game-changing smartphone that runs all kinds of apps and that everyone instantly wants, but neglect to put in such basic features as copy-and-paste and undo until two years later.

7. Force her to write an article for publication, defending the existence of Jar-Jar Binks and the casting of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker.

6. Reprogram his electronic music players so that before listening to anything by Weird Al, Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm, Marian Call, or the podcast of any public radio show, he must first listen to an entire song by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, or Britney Spears.

5. Force her to write an essay explaining why Star Trek V is the best of all the Star Trek films without employing irony.

4. Broadcast a really good space-western TV show, move it around a lot from time slot to time slot to make sure its ratings suck, then after it starts to really become popular with the geek community cancel it with three episodes still in the can.

3. Give him an about-to-expire gift certificate for a shirt from a website that sells awesome geeky shirts, but that — as he finds out only upon attempting to check out, of course — only has “Hello Kitty” shirts in stock.

2. Force her to play Monopoly for six straight hours while people at neighboring tables play Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. For added misery, make one of her fellow players one of those people who constantly offer trades like “I’ll give you Water Works for Park Place” because they figure eventually someone will accept. For even more added misery, pick a Monopoly set based on a geeky subject, like Star Wars, The Muppets, Nintendo, or Pixar films.

1. Force him to take a seven hour plane flight sitting next to a teenager who worships the Twilight books and films and can’t wait to tell you all about why.

Any other good ideas? Please leave a comment!

Photo by guiltyx on Flickr; Monopoly © Hasbro.

Battleship Galaxies: Not Your Father’s Battleship

Shared by Adam Fort

This looks like a intresting game. Marcie will hate it.

Battleship Galaxies: Wretcheridians vs. the Intergalactic Space Navy

Battleship Galaxies: bring it on!

Overview: Battleship gets a massive overhaul in Battleship Galaxies: it’s an epic space battle between the Intergalactic Space Navy and the invading Wretcheridians. There’s almost nothing in common with the original seek-and-find Battleship game and is more like a tactical war game with miniatures, tactics cards, and custom-built fleets. It’s a joint effort from Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, and IDW Publishing.

Battleship Galaxies boxPlayers: 2 to 4 (depends on scenario)

Ages: 13 and up

Playing Time: 60+ minutes (depends on scenario)

Retail: $65.00

Rating: Epic. Despite the somewhat corny name for the aliens, Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive is pretty awesome.

Who Will Like It? I’d recommend this one to anyone who likes sci-fi-themed board games. It’s strategic war but also includes a sizable luck element. Plus if you just like miniature spaceships, you’ll love the bits.


The game has various scenarios you can play, but the central theme is the Saturn Offensive, the first contact with the alien race. A mining colony on Saturn is under attack, and the ISN rushes to their defense. Battleship Galaxies includes a 48-page comic book about the event from IDW Publishing, and while I was prepared for a cheesy, clearly-promotional story, I was actually impressed. Sure, there are a lot of sci-fi tropes in there with against-all-odds survival, but it’s a pretty fun way to get immersed in the world of the game and helps set the tone.

The two fleets have similarly-sized ships, but their stats are actually quite different, which also holds to the theme. Depending on which side you’re playing, you’ll have to use different strategies in battle.

Battleship Galaxies box

Battleship Galaxies box contents, not including the boards. Click to enlarge.


Battleship Galaxies game board and screens

One game board and player screens

Battleship Galaxies comes in a pretty big box: it’s about like your typical Hasbro rectangle but about twice as thick. The game includes:

  • 20 ships with bases and stands
  • 2 battlefield gameboards
  • 2 player screens
  • 2 coordinate dice (d10 with letters A-J, d8 with numbers 1-8)
  • 72 tactics cards (36 per faction)
  • 2 quick reference cards
  • 24 ship cards (12 per faction; some are double-sided)
  • 2 energy boards and markers
  • 45 red damage pegs
  • 35 blue shield pegs
  • 8 obstacle tiles (debris and asteroids)
  • 8 discovery tiles (energy sources, shield regenerators, and so on)
  • 1 victory point tile (use in certain scenarios)
  • 48-page comic book

The spaceships are made of a sort of rubbery plastic, and snap onto the bases fairly easily. You can either pop them all back off to store in the box as pictured above, or leave them on the stands and dump them in the fairly deep pockets in the box. (The two largest ships fit best if you take them off the stands.) The ships look pretty cool, with a lot of nice details, and the paint jobs are single-color but with some gradations.

The two game boards are nice and sturdy, and big enough that the scenarios that use both boards would require a decent-sized table. The player screens are simple cardboard standups, nothing fancy, but they serve their purpose and have nice artwork on them.

The energy boards are simple cardboard tiles with holes punched in at each number, and the energy marker is a plastic token that matches the ships. They work all right, but it can be easy to knock them over if you bump the table. A plastic pegboard might have been a bit nicer, or maybe a token that lies flat on the board instead of standing up.

Each ship base has a number of holes along the perimeter that holds the shield pegs and hull damage pegs, which are simple plastic pegs. It works well enough, though when your battles get pretty tight you’ll probably have to pick the ship up to get at the pegs underneath.

Battleship Galaxies ship cards

Two ship cards: Veteran ISN Everest, Standard Wretch So Bwa Tet. (Click to enlarge)

A word about the ship cards and their details. Above you can see two examples of ship cards, one from the ISN and one from the Wretch fleet. There are three sizes of ships — small, medium, and large — which is reflected in the size of the base and is indicated on the card. Also, each ship can be either Standard, Seasoned, or Veteran. Typically the weapons are the same but the Seasoned and Veteran versions cost more to launch and also have additional abilities attached to them. The row of numbers across the top of the card indicates the activation cost (the amount of energy you must spend to use this ship during your turn), the number of spaces the ship can move, the amount of shield the ship has when you deploy it, the amount of hull damage it can take before it is destroyed, and the energy cost to deploy the ship.

Below that is a description of the primary weapon, secondary weapon (if any), and any special abilities. The weapons will list the cost to fire them (Charge), their range, the number of attacks they make each turn, and the damage done by the attack if they hit. Along the bottom are a number of icons which indicate things like whether it’s a solo ship or squadron, the amount of space in the cargo hold for transporting smaller ships, and the number of upgrades, weapons, and heroes that can be attached to the ship.

Finally, there’s the grid, the only holdover from classic Battleship. Whenever you fire on a ship, you roll the two dice, resulting in a set of coordinates (like G-5). Compare the coordinates rolled to the grid: if the spot is grey, it’s a hit. If it’s white, you missed. Each ship also has a red star (or two) that marks a critical hit — if the ship has no more shields and you hit it on that spot, it’s an instant kill.

Battleship Galaxies ship cards and tactics cards

Ship cards and tactics cards: the ISN Everest with Erin Cho and 2 nuclear warheads; the ISN Barrage with Bronson Skiles. (Click to enlarge)


Battleship Galaxies comes with instructions for five scenarios, each with its own starting setup and goals for each faction. One scenario accommodates three players (one ISN and two Wretch) and one is for two teams of two players each.

Generally there are some number of obstacle tiles or discovery tiles placed on the board, and each faction starts on one edge of the board. There are two types of obstacles: debris, which can cause damage if you choose to fly through them, and asteroids, which can help small and medium ships avoid attacks when they are nearby. Discovery tiles provide a variety of benefits like recharging your shields, providing additional energy, and extending the range of your weapons. These are revealed as soon as you reach them and are then face-up for the rest of the game.

Depending on the scenario, you either use the listed ships or you pick your own fleet based on the total launch costs. You do the same for the tactics deck: either use the listed set of cards, or build your own tactics deck with a stated number of cards (half the fleet cost). The tactics cards are shuffled and placed to the side, and the ships and ship cards are placed behind the player screens. Each player starts with a certain amount of energy (depending on the scenario) and draws a hand of five tactic cards from their own deck, then the game begins.

Each turn has three phases: Energy, Deploy, Action.

During the Energy phase, you gain 10 energy and draw one tactic card. (This varies in the team scenarios.) You may also discard tactics cards at any time during your turn to gain one energy per card.

The Deploy phase is your chance to launch ships and attach additional weapons from your tactics cards. You pay the launch cost of a ship in order to place it on the board somewhere touching your starting zone. Squadrons (consisting of three identical small ships) must be launched so they’re all adjacent to each other. Some large and medium ships also have cargo space, which allows you to transport smaller ships inside them. In this case, you slip the transported ship cards underneath the launched ship. In future deployment phases, you’ll launch those ships adjacent to the transporting ship rather than your start zone, getting them into battle more quickly. However, if a ship is destroyed, any ships inside its cargo hold are also destroyed with it.

The Action phase is, of course, where all the action takes place. You spend energy to activate ships, which allows you to move them and then fire their weapons. Most of the primary and secondary weapons have no additional energy cost to fire, though some of the additional weapons on the tactics cards may cost extra to fire. You can fire any number of weapons on an activated ship, but each weapon is limited to the number of attacks shown on the card. Also, each ship can only be activated once per turn.

Battleship Galaxies game in progress

In the middle of a heated battle — the ISN Everest has taken a lot of damage.

Movement is pretty intuitive — you move from hex to hex —  but you can move through spaces that are occupied by other ships as long as you don’t stop on them. However, when you move through or adjacent to an enemy ship, the electronic countermeasures kick in, and you can take up to three damage (based on the size of the ship) if the opponent rolls a 5+. What this means is that you usually have a buffer zone between ships, unless you want to risk taking some damage to get really close up.

Firing, as I mentioned in the description of the ship cards, is where luck really comes into play. Once you’re in range and you pick a target, you roll the dice to see if you hit them. Typically smaller ships have a lot more white space on their grids, making them a lot harder to hit, but they also have less shielding and hull so they’re easier to destroy if you do manage to hit them. When you damage a ship, you first remove shield pegs for each point of damage. Once the shield pegs are gone, you add one red hull damage peg per point of damage. Some special weapons do damage that is specific to shield or hull. If a ship reaches its hull damage limit (even if it has shield pegs on it) then it is destroyed and removed from the game.

The tactics cards are also an important part of the game, with a number of different types of cards. Each one states which phase it can be used, and has an energy cost associated with it. Events are a one-time use and are then discarded. Heroes can be attached to a ship to give a particular benefit. Additional weapons and ship upgrades are also available, adding firepower or special abilities to your ships. Finally, there are sabotage cards which allow you to do really nasty things to your opponents if you manage to get adjacent to their ships, wreaking havoc on their ships from the inside.

The game ends when either player has no ships on the board after round two. (You can’t win before then.) Even if a player still has ships yet to be launched, if you eliminate all the others on the board before they get to launch them, you could still win the game. Also, if both players have run through their tactics deck twice, the game is over and you add up the total launch cost of ships remaining on the board: higher total wins. Some scenarios have additional victory conditions.

Battleship Galaxies with sheep

Be sure to watch out for giant intergalactic sheep (not included)…


Battleship Galaxies with dinosaur

… as well as the ISN Dino (not included).

I’ll have to admit: when I’d first heard about Battleship Galaxies earlier this year, I figured it was a reboot along the lines of Monopoly Revolution or the even-more-recent Monopoly Live … and you all know how I feel about Monopoly. So I didn’t really have high hopes for a reboot of Battleship even though, all things considered, I’d much rather play Battleship than Monopoly. One look at the box and I could tell that Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive was much more than a simple repackaging. It’s a completely new game with only the slightest resemblance to the original, and it makes for an extremely engaging struggle between two players (or teams).

I broke out the game and assisted my daughters through the basic scenario to get a feel for the game. (They’re four and seven, and definitely too young to play the game on their own, but they really enjoyed moving the ships around and rolling the dice … and introducing some of their own beasts to the mix, as evidenced by the photos.) It was enough for me to get a feel for the depth of the game, but didn’t really count. I played a few more games with a couple of other gamers, and that gave me a much better idea of how it all works together.

One note: the first scenario, Dead Zone Battle, is the one suggested for first-time players, and it comes with a list of ships and cards so that you don’t have to design your fleet and tactics deck on your own. It also says, in the variants, that you can play without the tactics cards to simplify the game. What I found, after playing twice without cards, is that although this does make it easier to learn the game mechanics, it is pretty unbalanced. The Wretch ships have lower activation costs than the ISN, giving them a pretty big advantage. The biggest Wretch ship, the Vapor’s Fate, also has a special power that allows you to roll the die each time you’re hit as long as you have shield pegs left; on a 6+ you don’t take any damage at all. As you can imagine, this is a huge advantage if you roll well. The ISN Everest, on the other hand, has special powers that involve the tactics cards, so if you’re playing without them it’s basically just a big ship with no special powers. Although it appears very formidable with its 12 hull strength, it is actually not too difficult for the Wretch to home in and blast away.

Once we incorporated the tactics deck, however, the game felt much more balanced and added a lot more strategy. Now, for instance, the ISN Everest could attach two nukes for free as soon as it’s deployed, making it a powerhouse for attacking. We also found that the lower activation costs of the Wretch are offset by higher costs to use the additional weapons on the cards. There’s a great variety of cards that can be tremendously advantageous if played correctly: the Wretch have a card that lets them re-roll an attack, or increase a ship’s range by 4 for a turn. The ISN have an “alert” card that lets you cancel damage and move a ship if it’s within 5 spaces of the ISN Torrent ship, and I used that several times to move my flagship out of danger. There is, of course, a luck element to the cards, since you only draw one per turn, but once you’re familiar with the cards you can design your own deck, and deploy ships based on what you know you’ve got up your sleeve.

It’s worth mentioning again that the two fleets are asymmetric, making the battles very interesting because you can’t both use the same tactics. In this game, it’s crucial to know your ships (and your opponent’s) because just blasting away at the closest ship isn’t always the path to victory. The ISN Torrent is a support ship which increases the range of any ally ship it’s adjacent to, and it can be important to take it out early. The Wretch’s Red Tougu ships are small but have some very powerful abilities; but if you use them too soon they might not be around to use those powers.

Of course, there is a luck factor here — even with the best of plans you might be thwarted because you just can’t get a hit on a ship. However, neither player really has an advantage there, and the best strategies take that luck factor into account. If you really don’t like resting your fate on the whims of dice, then this game may be a bit frustrating to you.

Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive can feel a bit complex at first, and the instructions aren’t always the most clear about every specific question that could come up. However, once you get most of the rules under your belt, it’s an exciting game that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The additional scenarios add replay value, and the ability to design your own fleet and tactics deck add a lot of variety to each scenario. The retail price can be a bit off-putting, but keep in mind that it is a pretty massive game with lots of bits — if that’s your thing, then this is probably worth it. If you’re a hardcore Eurogamer, you may want to look elsewhere.

Based on the rulebook, it’s clear that there are additional sets planned which will introduce more ships, cards, and scenarios. I don’t know the expected date for those, but it’s a very appealing possibility to me.

Wired: Lots of miniature spaceships! Epic space battles with a variety of ships and tactics cards; multiple scenarios for variety; asymmetric fleets.

Tired: A bit spendy; “simplified” game without tactics cards is unbalanced; “Wretcheridians” is corny, even when you learn the etymology by reading the comic.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

Atlantis’ Last Approach

Atlantis’ Last Approach
For the last time, the US Space Shuttle has
approached the International Space Station (ISS).

Following a dramatic
launch from
Cape Canaveral
last week that was
witnessed by an estimated one million people,
Space Shuttle Atlantis on
lifted a small crew to a welcome rendezvous three days ago with the orbiting station.

Although NASA is discontinuing the aging shuttle fleet, NASA astronauts in the near future will be able to visit the ISS on Russian space flights.

Pictured above, Atlantis rises toward the ISS with its cargo bay doors open, showing a gleaming metallic
Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module.

Over 200 kilometers below lie the cool
blue waters of planet Earth.

The much-anticipated
last glide back to Earth for the Space Shuttle is currently scheduled for next Thursday, July 21.

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Final Launch

In this unusual four-camera video, director Chase Heavener shows a view of the final liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour, shot by cameras attached to the solid rocket boosters. It looks far better fullscreen, and you may want to watch it on Vimeo to see it in HD and get to that fullscreen mode most easily. My favorite moment is around 2:26 when the boosters detach and thus go out of sync as they burn and spin. It’s poetic but also may induce mild motion sickness.

Beautiful by itself, but of particular interest for space nerds. The music is by Ulf Lohmann and the source video is from NASA.


You can watch a much less exciting video of Endeavour’s final landing.

(Via @brainpicker.)