MSI Hacking: Intel SDK for OpenCL Installed on Windows 10

In doing a bit of spring cleaning on my home PC, which was upgraded from Windows 7 to 10 several months back, I came across one particular application whose installer was refusing to behave.  The product name was Intel® SDK for OpenCL* Applications 2013, and I had installed it several years ago under Windows 7, for reasons that are both mysterious and unimportant.

Normally, removing an application is as simple as opening the Add/Remove Programs dialog and clicking Uninstall.  But in the case of this particular tool, the (un)installer refused to function at all under Windows 10.  Any attempt to invoke it produced the following unhelpful little popup:

Intel® SDK for OpenCL* Applications 2013 designed to work on Microsoft Windows Vista* x64, Windows* 7 x64, Windows* 8 x64, Windows Server* 2008 R2 x64 operating systems only. The installer detected that you're trying to install the SDK on a different version. Aborting installation

At this point I had a few options.  Walking away and leaving it to sit on my hard drive forever was the obvious one, but a true nerd never turns down a challenge.  Downgrading to Windows 7 was right out, so I decided it was time to earn my stripes for the day.

1

First things first, let’s see what we can learn about the application.  Most traditional apps register their uninstallers in the registry, or we can query WMI from the command line.  I chose the latter.

wmic
wmic:root\cli> product where "name like '%opencl%'"

The output gives us an important piece of information: the location of the installer MSI in the package cache.

2

Installers are basically glorified zip files that include additional layers of features: instructions for where on the system to place the files, dialogs to present to the user, etc.  An Uninstaller is basically just an installer in reverse; it tells the system where the files are that need to be removed.  Now that we know where the (un)installer is stored, we can work on it.

MSI installers can be invoked from the command line, so we can try that option next.

msiexec /x C:\WINDOWS\Installer\1d2d2be.msi

No luck… same failure.

We could also enable debug logging with msiexec to gather more information, but at this point it’s pretty clear that the installer’s logic is broken.  It’s fairly common to prevent people from installing on an unknown version of Windows, but it’s a bit less sensible to prevent an uninstall, and it seems like whoever wrote the installer routines just never planned for this scenario.

Fortunately for us, unlike some install systems, MSI files are fairly easy to edit.  There are lots of tools you could use for this, but I chose one that is free, relatively light weight, and provided by none other than Microsoft (meaning it’s hopefully fairly safe too).  The tool is called Orca and it’s part of the Windows SDK.

Note that you don’t need the SDK for your version of Windows; any version that contains Orca will do.  You also don’t need everything in the SDK installer, which can be quite large.  In the case of the Windows 7 SDK, Orca is part of the Win32 Development Tools.

3

Frustratingly, the SDK doesn’t actually install the Orca application, it installs the Orca installer.  (We must go deeper!)  So, once the SDK is installed, pull up the SDK installation directory and locate Orca.msi.  Install that, and then you’re good.

Before launching Orca, make a copy of the installer MSI that you’re going to edit.  Always have a backup!  If anything goes wrong during the editing process, we’ll want a pristine copy to fallback on, or we may never get this app removed.

Now we launch Orca, and open up our edit copy of the problem MSI.  We can now browse (and modify) the MSI tables right from this tool.  In this case, I looked for the error message that I knew appeared when the installer failed.

And there it is…

4

The LaunchCondition table lists, as the name suggests, conditions the installer checks for before allowing the installation to proceed.  Or in my case, the uninstallation.  I select the offending condition in the menu, and Delete.  Save the MSI, and exit Orca.

Now all that remains is to put the new MSI where Windows expects to find it: the location named in WMI, where we originally found the file.  (For installed MSI products, Windows will use the installer from the cache, even if you launch a different installer with the same ID from somewhere else on the filesystem.)

5

Success!

Review: Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leedskalnin and his American Stonehenge by Rusty McClure and Jack Heffron

Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leedskalnin and his American Stonehenge by Rusty McClure and Jack Heffron is part biography, part history lesson, and part guide to the present day tourist attraction.

The book opens with a small biography of the life of Edward Leedskalnin, covering his origins in Latvia and his eventual immigration to America. We learn that he traveled the North American continent, holding various jobs before making his way to Florida, where he would dedicate the remainder of his life to building his masterpiece. From the point of Ed’s arrival in Florida City, the text changes focus to the construction of the Castle.

The story continues after Ed’s passing, with the authors tracing the ownership of the property up to the present day. We discover that, pursuant to Leedskalnin’s death in 1951, the subsequent owners saw fit to collect affidavits from surviving guests and acquaintances regarding the unusual nature of the Castle’s construction. These same statements now provide valuable insights into both the man and his creation.

The text concludes with a guide to the features of present day Coral Castle.

The authors incorporated a variety of color and black and white photographs throughout the book. On the whole they serve to enhance the text, although there are some stock images mixed in among the more interesting and relevant shots of Ed and the Castle.

While I found the majority of Coral Castle enjoyable and informative, I was disappointed with the manner in which the authors covered the possible methods of construction. One of the biggest draws of Leedskalnin’s work tends to be the mystery of how one small, frail man managed to build the entire complex unaided and in secret. There are several popular theories, ranging from basic mechanical physics to alien intervention. The authors only dedicate a single chapter to this topic, touching on every possibility in quick succession, and with minimal critical analysis. The coverage seems insufficient considering that the construction mystery is probably the foundation of most people’s interest. Given the length at which others have speculated on the topic, and that the authors seem to have so much insight into the rest of Ed’s life, it felt as though there should have been more to say here.

All in all, Coral Castle is an approachable and enjoyable treatment of Ed Leedskalnin’s life and most famous creation. Its strengths lie more in presenting the man than the mystery, but in that regard it’s worthy of the attention of those wanting to learn more about the history of this Florida landmark.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home by Rupert Sheldrake

Canines anticipating the arrival of their owners is only one small facet of the phenomena covered by author Rupert Sheldrake in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Others include animal empathy and illness detection, calls and telepathy, the sense of direction, and premonition. Each topic is supported by data collected by Sheldrake, either via public survey, solicitation of reports, or in a few cases by direct experimentation. While common pet species are the most frequently discussed, a variety of other animals are also included in cases where information was available.

Sheldrake’s approach is to present the data, which suggests the presence of unexplained abilities in some animals, as evidence of previously unrecognized natural phenomena. While qualities such as telepathy are widely denounced by mainstream science, the author does not promote the paranormal. Rather, he claims (by way of his own background in the sciences), that a true scientist’s duty is to follow the evidence, even when it disagrees with established modes of thought. If studies produce statistically significant outcomes in favor of telepathic ability, they must be explained rather than disregarded. If experiments can be reproduced which show seemingly impossible senses of direction, premonition, or communication, they demand further investigation. I find this attitude both logical and agreeable.

The book is easily readable and is written in a way that should be accessible to most everyone, regardless of background. Pet owners and those who work with animals in a frequent capacity will make an ideal audience. Readers may discover that they already have a peripheral awareness of the material from news articles, television, or life experience, and that the text expands on these. As just one example, I was already familiar with the way many species navigate the globe via some sort of “sense of direction,” but before this book I had never really appreciated just how mysterious or genuinely unexplained this ability is.

The author takes a breadth vs depth approach in this work, which may or may not be of concern depending on initial expectations. None of the behaviors are covered in the detail of a scientific paper, and in fitting so many topics into approximately 300 pages, what we are left with amounts to more of an overview. In fact, the chapters become fairly predictable in structure: Sheldrake presents the theme, gives some statistics about why the material seems to be legitimate, and cherry picks a few of the best case reports as examples. It’s a good approach for the layperson, but the detail may be insufficient for the scholar or the committed skeptic. (In fairness to the author, the chapters are thoroughly referenced for those who want to go farther.)

The aspect of the text that I found myself the most disappointed with was Sheldrake’s invoking of “morphic fields” as his best explanation for much of the observed phenomena. Presenting anomalous data is one thing, but to take an explanatory stance, even an openly speculative one, is highly risky, and tends to have a nasty way of discrediting the rest of the work. At any rate, what most troubled me was the lack of any context for morphic fields outside of the subject matter at hand. Supposedly these fields are some sort of natural…thing…that can be used to neatly explain animal telepathy, sense of direction, etc, but more detail is never really given. It’s not even made clear whether morphic fields are some existing and well established element of modern physics, or if they’re just a word Sheldrake invented for lack of a better explanation. In either case, I found them far too insufficiently supported to add value to the discussion, and the result was a net detraction from the otherwise scholarly qualities of the work.

Finally, there is an appendix to the main text which addresses skeptical “controversies and inquiries.” As a reader of fringe science topics, it’s not uncommon to see an author weigh the material down in combative language against hardline skepticism. By placing his responses to these challenges in an appendix, Sheldrake left the other content mostly unburdened, which is an approach I personally appreciate.

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home was, on the whole, an eye opener. Well before the conclusion I found myself compelled to examine my own pets behavior in greater detail, wondering if I had overlooked any of these mysterious qualities. Sheldrake makes a highly compelling argument that there is more to our animals than most of us give them credit for. And what may be most interesting is that many of us, simply by assuming such faculties to be impossible, may be unwittingly downplaying or ignoring our own very real experiences with them. Humans are animals too after all, and what is true of our pets, may very well be just as true of us.

Rating: 4/5

New GitHub Project: trustymail

I’ve been running private mail service @theplante.net for years.  Spam filtering has long been one of the most difficult (impossible!) issues for small-time mail operators, but I usually enjoy the challenge, and using the various white/black listing and heuristics tools makes the experience manageable.

Still, I never entirely trust that important messages will survive the spam filtering process as intended, so I will occasionally whitelist senders that I know I want to hear from.  In my setup this usually means some combination of Postgrey and SpamAssassin configuration.

I finally decided to sit down and spend a few minutes scripting the configuration process so I could maintain one whitelist instead of multiple.  The script will format each config file as needed, and I don’t have to worry about my lists getting out of sync anymore.

The results are available on GitHub:  https://github.com/ThePlante/trustymail

Review: The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt by Christopher Dunn

Christopher Dunn is an American engineer who has some serious questions about the technological history of ancient Egypt. He has spent many years traveling to Egyptian temples, pyramids, and archaeological sites in his spare time, examining the remains of this once great culture. In The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt, Dunn presents his latest findings, many of which challenge the teachings of establishment Egyptology.

Alternative histories of Egypt (and elsewhere) have been popularized as of late by the Ancient Aliens crowd, often suggesting that extraterrestrials had a hand in early human accomplishments. Rest assured, ET makes no appearances here. The author remains wholly down to earth, and gives no suggestion that any species other than mankind was responsible for the pyramids. The text is strictly analytical, and only sensational in so far as it disagrees with the more popular academic views on the technology used by the ancient Egyptians.

While most Egyptologists are archaeologists or historians by trade, Dunn is a lifelong engineer, with an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes. Rather than studying artifacts in terms of the people who created them, Dunn wants to know what we can learn about how they were created. Where an archaeologist might see a coffin or a statue of an old god, Dunn sees manufactured objects exhibiting subtle errors and tool marks that can speak to their means of creation.

The author takes tools for precision measurement and a digital camera to each location. He singles out individual objects which he feels exhibit particularly telling features, and uses a combination of physical inspection and computerized analysis of his photographs to complete the evaluation. He attempts to determine, based on the various shapes and surface features, what tools may or may not have created the artifacts, and what mathematical calculations would have gone into their design. The book contains numerous black and white images in line with the text (often marked up to indicate points of interest or measure), as well as a series of color panels to further illustrate key findings. Dunn makes frequent references to geometric principles throughout his work, and an understanding of these is somewhat critical to following along.

The pace of the text varies, in some places feeling a bit dry, as scholarly works are prone to do. The only real intrigue is in the mystery of the artifacts themselves, and how the story presented to tourists and the media, of armies of Egyptian slaves with hand tools of wood and copper, fails to jive with the reality of mathematically precise, seemingly machined, stonework. My biggest complaint is probably that the black-and-white photos were rather small and low resolution, and were in some instances hard to reconcile with the corresponding discussion in the text. There were certainly a few times where “I’ll take your word for it” was as likely a result as “oh, I see it!” for me, but I don’t feel it significantly damaged the case the author was trying to make.

By the end though, the arguments really do pile up, leaving one to wonder what the true history of Egyptian technology could be. The evidence seems convincing, based on all the apparent signs of advanced mathematics and mechanical processes currently unaccounted for, that more complex technology must have been available to somebody, at some point. I have no less difficulty believing Dunn’s claims, given the reasonable degree of photographic and analytical proof, than any other historian claiming the same miracles were worked with much less. It’s a shame that so many scholars would seemingly rather argue amongst themselves than reexamine the evidence, when the truth shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Maybe the field of Egyptology could use a few good engineers in its ranks.

Recommended for anyone with an interest in Egyptian history or ancient technology; no aliens required.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology by Loren Coleman

Tom Slick was a Texas oilman who took an interest in anomalous creatures from a young age. He was fortunate enough to have the wealth necessary to sponsor expeditions around the globe, and today he is most well remembered in cryptozoology circles for his pursuit of the Himalayan Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology is a biography of Slick’s life, with a specific focus on his contributions to the early days of cryptozoology.

Loren Coleman is the author of numerous books in this field, and is currently the curator of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, ME. His credentials make him a logical candidate to produce this sort of biography, and it’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into researching the private and somewhat enigmatic individual that was Tom Slick. Having died suddenly and unexpectedly in a plane crash, Tom did not leave behind a formal record of his activities, making it necessary to piece together his story from family members, colleagues, and correspondence.

The text begins with a relatively straight biographical introduction to Tom Slick, addressing his parents, family atmosphere, and general upbringing. This serves as background as we progress toward the main event, which will constitute the remainder of the book: Tom’s contributions to cryptozoology. These early chapters, on up through Slick’s involvement in the Himalayan expeditions, are informative and satisfying, and really shed a great light on his character.

After covering the Yeti years, the content starts to get off track and begins to ramble. Chapter 10, supposedly on the Orang Pendek, somehow manages to discuss neither Tom Slick, nor the Orang Pendek in any real quantity. The following chapter (“Other Cryptozoological Side-Trips”) again makes only glancing mention of Slick, instead choosing to address a couple other cryptids at length. It felt as though Coleman couldn’t quite help himself in turning at least a few chapters of this otherwise-biography into another book of creature tales, justified only by making the vaguest of connections with Tom Slick in the process.

A few appendices follow the main body of the text, the first of which is purportedly an exploration of Tom Slick and potential connections the CIA. Why this would be in an appendix rather than a chapter is not immediately clear, as it is at least a full chapter in length. Sadly, the content is a mess of mostly random facts and coincidences, few of which seem to involve Slick at all. The conclusion seems to be that no, Slick probably wasn’t involved much in covert government operations, and if he was, the book fails completely at providing coherent evidence of the claim. In my opinion the entire section should have just been dropped for lack of relevance.

Finally, as a more material complaint, the editing in much of the text was horrible. It was really surprising to see a book by a seasoned author be released with so many blatant typographical errors. Simple words were misspelled, punctuation wandered, and names changed spelling from one sentence to the next. (I also found the parenthetical reference format less than ideal, but it’s better to be distractingly referenced than not referenced at all.)

It’s nice to see a book paying homage to Tom Slick’s personal, and largely private, quest for the unknown. His role in early cryptozoology deserves to be recognized and appreciated, and Loren Coleman’s research does justice to his ambitions. It’s just unfortunate that poor editing and a lack of focus manage to hinder the enjoyability of the final product.

Rating: 3/5

Review: Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster by Lyle Blackburn

In Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster, Lyle Blackburn takes us along on an investigation into a cryptid from the swamps of South Carolina.

Blackburn previously explored the Fouke Monster in his excellent book The Beast of Boggy Creek. The author’s style and approach remain much the same in Lizard Man. Choosing an (arguably somewhat obscure) monster of North American folklore, he personally travels to the site of the original events. There, he tracks down surviving witnesses for interviews, visits significant locations, and basically does whatever legwork can reasonably be done so many years after the fact.

The era of the Lizard Man was a somewhat brief one, becoming an overnight cultural phenomenon, but not providing the depth or longevity of reports one might expect from the more famous members of the cryptozoology club. That’s not to say that the matter was unworthy of investigation, and in my view the result was actually a gem of a story. It’s not a long book, but it’s more or less the size it needed to be to tell the tale of the Lizard Man, at least as far as it can be known today. And, as it turns out, the popular interpretation of the creature that had been presented by armchair researchers and the media was not necessarily accurate, even by monster-hunting standards.

[Warning: Spoilers]

The author does attempt to draw conclusions about the nature of the beast based on the available witness reports. In a later chapter he covers other instances of “lizard men” in cryptozoology and popular culture in an attempt to draw comparisons. Blackburn slow-walks us to a conclusion that is probably more or less obvious to the experienced reader well before he finally gets there: the Lizard Man moniker is a misnomer, and the creature reported by witnesses is not particularly lizard-like at all.

In fact, in what is for me the highlight of the entire effort, the most well regarded Bishopville Monster reports turn out to have almost identical traits to other incidents commonly interpreted as encounters with a Sasquatch. Despite the “lizard” interpretation plastered all over the media and the public imagination of the day, in reality, virtually every credible witness described classic Bigfoot characteristics. This is seemingly significant in that unlike Sasquatch encounters by people already intent on finding the creature, and therefore arguably prone to see one whether it exists or not, the Lizard Man witnesses should have seen a man-lizard, or nothing at all. A fascinating result, and one that more than justifies the effort Blackburn puts into his investigation.

[End Spoilers]

The author’s writing style is easy and personable, and aside from a few minor typographical errors, the book is a pleasure to read. It’s a must for monster hunters, and is almost certainly the most definitive work available today on the Lizard Man of Bishopville.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Philip J. Imbrogno, and Bob Pratt

Night Siege documents a very large and unusually persistent unidentified flying object over the Hudson Valley region of the northeast United States in the 1970s and 80s. (The current version of the book is amended to include additional reports up through the mid 1990s.) Sightings of the object were investigated first hand by a small team of researchers, three of whom went on to produce this text based on their data and experiences.

The book is largely a walk-through of the most significant encounters with the UFO, presented chronologically as the events unfolded. It relies heavily on eyewitness testimony gathered first hand by the authors, including statements from police officers, scientists, engineers, and other members of the general public. Overall they do a good job of setting the scene, and creating a mildly suspenseful yet informative narrative. There is little in the way of any conclusion, although the authors clearly lean in the direction that the object does not appear to be a traditional man-made craft.

As is par for the course in the UFO arena, the Hudson Valley object left no apparent physical traces. Its reality cannot be proven in the scientific sense, and those of a permanently skeptical bent will not find any more irrefutable proof of the unearthly here than elsewhere. That said, I found Night Siege to be a fascinating entry, and an outstanding read as far as these cases go.

One of the foremost difficulties faced by anyone evaluating a sighting of something unusual in the sky (or for that matter, on the ground) is overcoming the problem of the credibility of the witness. Most encounters with the unknown involve only a small number of people, maybe one or two in any given incident. Even the most honest and well meaning individuals are human, and all humans are prone to accidental misinterpretation. Dreams, hallucinations, intoxications, and just being deceived by ones own eyes are all potential causes for concern. Just because someone thinks they’re seeing spaceships (or Sasquatches, the Loch Ness monster, etc.) doesn’t mean they really are. This is evidenced by the substantial number of UFOs that become IFOs (identified flying objects) upon further review and investigation. Hoaxers are far from the only threat to the research. Honest mistakes happen all the time, but it muddies the waters and makes it difficult to accept witness testimony of an extraordinary event at face value.

With that in mind, what really stood out about the Night Siege phenomenon was the raw volume of consistent and often simultaneous sightings. During some of the more notable incidents, the Taconic Parkway clogged with cars pulling over to view the UFO. Police phones were overwhelmed with calls and dozens of officers saw it. The UFO even famously hovered in restricted airspace over the Indian Point nuclear reactor. The authors estimate over 7000 people observed the same object or objects during the time period in question! And the numbers do not appear baseless, given the hundreds of reports compiled by the investigators, along with the corresponding police activity and media coverage.

These are, simply put, not events that can be casually dismissed as civilian or government aircraft, the planet Venus, street lights, or swamp gas. The witnesses were not drunk or dreaming. Whatever it was, it was big, it was unusual, and a lot of people saw it. It left so many witnesses that by the later chapters, the text almost begins to drag with the repetition of encounter after encounter. How many people need to see something before it becomes, in some sense or another, very much real?

We may only be able to speculate as to what the Hudson Valley UFO really was, but unlike other strange sights that only manifest in isolation, it’s hard to argue that something bizarre wasn’t hovering around the night skies over the north east. In my opinion, it makes for one of the most challenging UFO incidents from a skeptical perspective, and it is definitely some fascinating reading.

Rating: 5/5