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This Week in Tech

The blockchain edition

Blockchain. It's the new buzzword in tech. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody wants to use it. In some ways it feels like a solution in need of a problem. But boy, when that problem is identified... we might see block chain add some order and accountability to the otherwise unruly wild-wild west of cyberspace.

What is blockchain?

When you hear the word blockchain you probably immediately think about cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Whilst blockchain is part of the technology that makes these currencies possible - it is not a currency itself. It is easier to understand what blockchain is if you get the idea of cryptocurrencies out of your head when trying to understand it.

Blockchain is a public distributed way of tracking transactions secured by cryptography. Let's break this down:

  • Public means that everything is out in the open and everyone has access to the records.
  • Distributed means that the records are kept in multiple places - and have to match in order for a transaction to be valid. This stops a single person or institution from controlling the transactions or changing the records after a transaction has taken place. It also means that validating a transaction is not the instantaneous transaction we are used to (e.g. an EFT payment through your bank). The transaction is only valid when multiple record keepers have indicated that they have added the record to their database. This also means that no single computer can cause a failure or data loss by being hacked or crashing or for any other reason.
  • Tracking means recording and writing down. Before computers people recorded transactions by writing them down in books. 'Ivan deposited 10 000 Rubles into the bank on 10 March 1914'. 'Ivan transferred 2 789 Rubles to Dmitris account on 16 May 1914'.... etc. These books were called ledgers. Ledgers needed to be controlled by trusted third parties - which is part of the function of a bank. Only the third party could update the ledger - they could demand a fee for doing so (which is why you pay your bank fees) and opens up the possibility for fraud, breaches of trust, etc. It is hard to share a physical book based ledger. ICT makes it possible for multiple computers to share the same electronic ledger and communications means that they can keep those ledgers synchronised and up to date in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Transactions means that blockchain can be used to track anything transferred between locations, people, institutions, businesses or countries. Shipping goods around the world? Blockchain can be used to verify that the goods were sent and received.

Other resources and explanations:

  • Digital Trends explanation
  • Lifehacker explanation
  • Blockgeeks explanation (very detailed - includes multiple descriptions of possible uses for blockchain)
  • Video explaining how blockchain works (excellent)

  • World Economic Forum's video explanation (more like an ad describing what it can do in the future)

  • IBM explains (actually tries to sell) their implementation of blockchain as a way of tracking transactions in the diamond industry (excellent)

The blockchain stuff in the news this week:

In 2014, Maersk followed a refrigerated container filled with roses and avocados from Kenya to the Netherlands. The company found that almost 30 people and organisations were involved in processing the box on its journey to Europe. The shipment took about 34 days to get from the farm to the retailers, including 10 days waiting for documents to be processed. One of the critical documents went missing, only to be found later amid a pile of paper.

A dose of reality amidst the hype:

Blockchain is designed to record transactions. That is all.

More data added to each transaction (e.g. note, images, other fields in the record) makes the calculation of the secure hash far more complicated and requires additional computing resources. Also, each transaction is only valid when 'accepted' by more than 50% of the network, which can make validating a transaction much slower. As the list of transactions or 'blocks' grows, so does the computing power needed to manage the blockchain. It also makes each transaction slower to process. What incentive is there for people to keep on running their part of the distributed network with no reward but considerable cost?

"...last year it was claimed that the computing power required to keep the [Bitcoin} network running consumes as much energy as was used by 159 of the world’s nations"

Here are some people raining on the parade...

  • Hackernoon - The missing blockchain user guide (read past the beginning to the AirBnB comparison, which is a concrete example)
  • Digital Trends: Blockchain has real problems to solve.
“Right now, Ethereum can process 17 transactions per second. Facebook can handle 175,000 requests per second. Visa, 44,000 transactions per second. So, if we really want to use cryptocurrencies as currencies, it would not be possible as of this moment.”
Justas Pikelis, co-founder of blockchain Ecommerce platform, Monetha
As of late 2016, it [Bitcoin] can only process about seven transactions per second, and each transaction costs about $0.20 and can only store 80 bytes of data.

Hacks and Cracks

Robots and Robotics

Social media & social implications

AI

Hardware

Miscellaneous

That's it for this week. Hope you have a much better understanding of blockchain and are no longer stymied when the learners ask tricky questions about it!

Comments

The after holiday catchup edition...

Welcome back.. Lots of news to catch up on...

AI

  • Fascinating (but long) interview with China's No 1 ranked technologist about AI and the future of technology. Worth a read.
  • New documentary on AI. Do you trust this computer. $3.99 to rent and stream. Elon Musk sponsored free streaming for the world last weekend - sorry you missed out :(.

Hardware

Social media and Privacy

  • In May the GDPR comes into effect. This new European law on privacy can impact all online businesses. Digital Trends explains it.

Hacks and scams

Drones

Resources

Wow. That's a lot to catch up on!

Welcome back & happy teaching....

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Self driving cars and morality

It finally happened. It was only a matter of time. A self-driving car has collided with and killed a pedestrian. The car belonged to Uber and Uber has pulled all of its self-driving cars off the road whilst the incident is being investigated.

Motherboard has a fascinating article on the hard decisions that have to be made when planning and coding the decisions that a self driving car has to make regarding safety and who gets hurt / who dies. This is a great read - and a really great topic for a class discussion / debate. This is an issue which is going to feature prominently in your learner's lives.

You can read about the incident itself here.

The Facebook drama continues...

Facebook is dealing with a massive backlash from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal mentioned in last week's blog. There is a concerted DeleteFacebook campaign complete with hashtag and all. Elon Musk removed the Tesla and SpaceX presence from Facebook. Vox has an interesting article that details 'The Case against Facebook' - taking it far beyond data breaches. CNN AMP points out that no matter how much he promises and how much he wants to, Zuckerberg cannot control or fix Facebook (and he knows it). It's become a monster beyond its creator's control.

It's so bad even their own investors are suing them.

Meanwhile Boing Boing says : Facebook, ShmaisBook --- you should see what your ISP is doing with your data!

Snippets:

Robots

Human Error

This week the SA Post Office web presence did not exist - because someone did not pay the R125 domain renewal fee....!!!!

Amazing Graphics

Meet Siren.

What's really special about Siren is that she is rendered in real time from a motion captured human using the Unreal gaming engine - and a PC with multiple graphics cards.

The video below shows a fish-man (actually Andy Serkis) created with the same technology.

This shows where 3D graphics and video are headed. Soon you will really not be able to distinguish virtual from reality.

World's smallest computer.

The older ones amongst you (those who saw the first PCs in the 90's) pay attention. That clunking desktop computer that you paid an arm and a leg for.. well it is now the size of a grain of salt and cost $0.20. IBM just announced the product and sees it as the ideal way to embed computing power in everything.

Left: 64 motherboards with two tiny computers in the top-left corner. Right: The tiny computer, mounted to a motherboard, atop a pile of salt.

Image: IBM

Mashable has the details.

That's it for this week. Holidays soon!

Comments

AMD fail, Facebook wail and video games don't create mass killers

Welcome back to another weekly news round up.

AMD fail...

A short while ago we got news of the Spectre and Meltdown hacks on Intel CPUs. AMD claimed that the chip design flaw that made these hacks possible did not apply to their CPUs and so they were soooo much better than Intel. Buy AMD instead! Well.... The shoe is now on the other foot. Researchers have found that anyone with 'Root' (administrator) level access to a computer or a network can get malware to run on the protected secure enclave of the CPU, making that malware impossible to detect or eliminate.

A disturbing part of the discovery is that it appears that the Israeli firm that published the report breaking news of these flaws seemed to be trying to use its findings to affect the stock price of AMD and other companies (i.e. trying to make money from the flaws by messing with the markets).

The fact remains that the flaws are real though - and are yet to be patched.

Read about it at Ars Technica and The Hacker News.

Facebook wail....

Facebook just kicked Cambridge Analytica off the system - for pulling private information from more than 50 000 000 users. To help Trump win his election (Ouch!! That's adding insult to injury!). They claim the event is not a hack or breach because no passwords were stolen - only personal and private information...

The New York Times has a detailed piece on this.

Here's Facebook's official explanation of what happened.

Here's Joy of Tech cartoon's take on it - Mark Zuckerberg Vs Wonder Woman!

BUT WAIT.... Here's more...

The Next Web has a piece showing what data Facebook has on you - and how you can check it out for yourself...

Every time you open Facebook, the time, location, IP address, browser & device have been recorded. If you’re part of the 1.4B people that use Facebook on a daily basis, they have enough data points to determine your everyday life patterns with great accuracy: home and work address, daily commute, wake up & bedtime, travel duration & destination, etc.

Video games don't create mass killers

One of President Trump's reactions to the recent school shooting in Florida (besides suggesting that teachers be armed) was to say that video games are responsible for creating a mindset that makes mass killings possible.

Luckily for us, science proves otherwise - and Gizmodo has the details.

Passwords Out, Biometrics In

CNN Money has a segment on how quickly the US is moving away from passwords and resorting to biometrics for security. I'd take the statistics with a grain of salt, but interesting nonetheless.

Tourism & The Selfie

The Citizen has a great in-depth article on how selfie culture is affecting tourism. Great for broadening your view and gaining insight.

Android - with malware pre-installed

The Hacker News has an article detailing how 5 million Android devices have been found with some particularly nasty malware pre-installed.

Climb into a taxi - and find there's no driver...

Waymo is trialling driverless cars in its service in the US. Digital Trends has an article on how people are reacting. Video below.

Digital Trends explains:

What is RAM

What is an SSD

Criminal using drone to scout target in JHB

The Citizen has the details.

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

Comments

Internet Censorship in SA

The FPB (Film and Publications Board) which so recently and unreasonably overreached itself by giving the film Inxeba: The Wound a pornographic "X" rating, is one step close to trying to censor the internet.

MyBroadband has the details here and here. This gives you a great opportunity to discuss and debate the issue of censorship in general, its dangers and, more importantly, the practical feasibility of enforcing this law.

The Human Error dept.

On 7 March all Occulus Rift VR headsets worldwide stopped working. Not because of a bug or a software problem, but because a security certificate was not renewed. MyBroadband has the details.

Cryptocurrency Heater

This Motherboard writer found himself stuck without a heater in the latest cold blitz in the USA. His solution? Fire up his cryptocurrency mining rig. His article explains how effective it was - and the upshot in terms of cost. A short but entertaining read.

Alexa's Creepy Laugh.

Just read the BuzzFeed article. If it happened to me I'd probably also be creeped out.

The Yellow Pages finally bends the knee

The Yellow Pages. Remember them? That fat book of (obviously) yellow pages containing business listings and advertising for the landline, pre-internet area. Well, it still exists and is going digital. MyBroadband has the details.

What to do when your ISP over-promises and under-delivers

Your ISP sells you a 20 mbps line. You never get to experience that speed. In fact, you are lucky when you get 10 mbps. What to do? In SA, unfortunately, not much. The UK govt has seen the light and has passed a bill which will allow users to simply tear up their contract and move on without penalties. Cool. Engadget has the details.

Deepfakes. AI generated face-transposing videos.

There has been a lot of buzz about the problem of DeepFakes - a technology which has been used to create fake pornographic videos of celebrities by putting their faces on the bodies of porn stars in porn videos. This New York Times article takes a deeper look at the tech and how it works - and foresees the fake news problem becoming worse with a looming increase of fake videos.

More on the fake people in video scene...

If you saw the original Blade Runner movie and the new sequel then you would have noticed the appearance in the new movie of a character from the old - completely unchanged. Boing Boing has an article showing how this was done.

Two articles on News, Fake News and reading from the New York Times.

Both are worth reading.

The Guardian has an article in a similar vein detailing MIT research on why fake spreads faster than true on Twitter.

DigitalTrends "What is" series

Finally: China's first space station due to crash back to Earth

This will happen somewhere around the end of this month. No one knows exactly where or when. Engadget has the details.

That's it for this week. Ciao.

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