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This Week in Tech

KRACKs, Microwaves and leaks

Two HUGE hacks dominate the news this week.

KRACK - patch your WiFi fast!

KRACK affects WiFi at its lowest level - the WPA2 password security that encrypts and protects communication on the network. The bad news is that this security has been cracked, making all communication on the affected network vulnerable. The good news is that most new OS's have patches out there or patches will be coming in the near future. Fixes for routers may take time, but as long as your OS is fixed you should be safe, so make sure you install those updates as soon as they become available! Ars Technica explains how the KRACK exploit works.

SA Database leak - 60 Million affected - and that includes YOU!

This one is a bit more tricky. A database of more than 60 Million South Africans' information has been leaked online - the source of the leak is yet to be determined (read it at My Broadband). The bad news: The leak contains Names, full ID numbers, email addresses, contact details, age, marital status and income estimates. It is a perfect source for identity thieves. The database contains records of almost anyone involved in economic activity between 1990 and 2015. This includes people who have passed away in that time - hence the fact that the leak is larger than our current population!

The good news: There is none. The information is out there and you can't get it back. Watch out for any signs of Identity Theft... You can check if your data is in the leak - go to Have I Been Pwned, enter your email and hold your breath...

What can you do? Not much. Check your credit status now and regularly to see if someone has stolen your identity and obtained credit in your name. Then try to get the credit cancelled / revoked.

Backup and data recovery

The Hacker News has an interesting article on how a ransomware attack took down an American city for four days. Their point is to show the cost of the breach - I think it is a good illustration of the importance of doing backup right...

Microwaves make 40tb hard drive possible

Western Digital has announced that a new microwave technology will enable 40tb hard drives by 2025. Engadget has the details.

LED foils copyright breaking photography

This is an interesting story of how pulsing LED lights can ruin the photos taken by digital cameras and prevent them being used to take copyright breaking images in museums, etc. Digital Trends has the story.

"Hey Siri"

Ever wondered how your smart device (or home speaker, or smart TV) is able to tell when you want to give it a command by using its own special trigger phrase? Apple has published a full explanation of how its "Hey Siri" feature works. As complex as the process is, the astonishing thing is that it takes place all the time without having a noticeable effect on battery life. NB: The same explanation cannot be applied to other devices (all companies use their own technology).

The Uncanny Valley

What is it? This video explains perfectly!

The same people have a well reasoned explanation of why to be sceptical (as I am) of the VR hype...

That's it for this week....

Comments

A Social Mess

Social interaction has always (in my mind) been humanities Achilles' Heel. It is in this area where our insecurities and fears are most exposed - and where our need to dominate and profit often rise above our more redeeming characteristics. The rise of mobile, always on, always connected computing has gone hand in hand with the rise of mega-companies that are little more than symbiotic parasites - they ostensibly offer 'free' services that add value to our lives yet - leech like - drain much of the good and decent and substantive from our lives and social interactions. It would seem as if there is no low they will not stoop to in order to maximise their own profits.

In recent weeks we have seen these giant corporations scrambling to explain how and why they sold adverts that influenced the American election; how and why they publish and promote fake news; how and why it is OK for the American President to spout divisive, bullying hate speech on their platform... I find myself viscerally sickened and repulsed by it all.

And yet their quest to inveigle themselves into our lives is ever more persistent, determined --- and creepy. Two stories on Gizmodo this week particularly creeped me out:

Both stories deal with PYMK (People You May Know). Facebook wants you to make 'friends'. Their thinking (and research) is that the more friends you have, the more you will interact with their site (and the more money they will make from you). So they keep on suggesting people for you to connect with and be friends with. How they find these people is a closely guarded algorithmic secret (after all, other companies want you to connect to people using their network so that they can make money from you) and no one outside of Facebook really knows how it works.

PYMK uses '100 signals' to work out who to connect you to. Facebook refuses to say what these signals are. They deny that they use data bought from third parties or location data / location tracking in this mysterious algorithm. Yet they only vaguely describe around five of these 100 signals.

Both the articles describe extremely creepy connections that Facebook has made between users - connections that should not be possible.

Should any company have this kind of invasive power that they can wield at their own discretion without our having any recourse to prevent them?

The Reed Dance and social media

Facebook and Google and most other social media tries to block and censor nudity. But what if being bare breasted is part of your culture?

The Mail and Guardian has an article on how local girls protest their bare-breasted photos from the Reed Dance being deleted from social media....

Microsoft News

In case you missed it, Microsoft has discontinued support for Office 2007 (upgrade if you haven't already) and says that Windows 10 Mobile (and physical phones) is no longer a priority. The mobile space really belongs to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Kaspersky - Anti-Virus or Hacking tool?

If you use Windows then going without anti-virus software is like going into space without a spacesuit. It feels kinda suicidal. Of course, the fact that everyone needs anti-virus to protect themselves from the baddies who want to hack and steal data means that, well, the AV programs themselves are the perfect way to hack...

In the news this week is a complicated story of how Israeli intelligence hacked into Kaspersky AV to find proof that the Russians had hacked the AV software so that it would steal American spies' secrets. Sounds more complicated than a badly written Hollywood tech-spy thriller? Probably - but it is true nonetheless. Read it at Ars Technica (and many other places).

Technology and the future

MIT Technology Review has an interesting article on predicting the future of AI (and technology). It does a good job of explaining the limits of AI in its current forms (including the 'machine learning' that is a buzz concept today). Excellent, thoughtful and worth a read.

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Roy Amara - Amara's Law

A robotic massage

Digital Trends has an article on a massaging robot that has just started work in Singapore.

That's it for this week. Enjoy.

Comments

Storage shrinks.... to DNA size!

It has been a relatively quiet week (if you exclude product launches) in general tech news. So this week's blog is equally short - but it does contain one or two interesting snippets...

Storage

We know that storage keeps getting smaller, faster, cheaper. BUT, this typically relates to the 'working storage' that we use all the time whilst our devices are active. Backup storage needs RELIABILITY above all other factors as its main characteristic. Tapes, Hard drives, optical media... they all fall short when it comes to long term archiving and storage of data. The material itself degrades, the hardware and software used to read the media becomes obsolete and so, ironically, our age of data collection and accessibility might in the long term, possibly end up with fewer records than the written pages of the Middle Ages!

One of the efforts aimed at solving this problem is aimed at figuring out how to store data using DNA. Yep, that same stuff that holds the genetic encoding that makes you 'YOU'.

This week in the news saw scientists encode complete jazz songs onto DNA - Digital Trends has the article here. The company responsible - Twist BioScience - has and interesting blog explaining what they see as the need for and the potential of DNA storage here.

Cryptocurrency

The New York Times has a short 'Q&A' style article explaining what Bitcoin is and how it works. Worth a read if you don't understand cryptocurrencies...

Tattoo Sensors

The video says it all....

That's it for this week.

Comments

Robots again.... Autonomously

This week's news contains two significant robot announcements that point the way to a future where robots take over and humans have very little work to do. What existed only in the imaginations of comic book and Sci Fi authors in the 1960's is lowly becoming reality as our technology starts to catch up with our dreams. What is making this robot revolution possible? Small, low powered, reliable sensors (including GPS); powerful SoCs (System on a Chip - where the whole computer system is on a single chip); plentiful, fast, reliable and cheap memory and storage and major advances in AI algorithms....

Our robotic future

To the self-driving cars that seem to be just over the horizon we can now add robots that can farm by themselves - and carry out dental surgery without a human's guiding hand...

Hands Free Hectare is a project at Harper Adams University which just successfully proved that robots can plant and harvest a field without any human intervention. The robots in question were installed into old farming equipment (tractors, harvesters, etc.). During the entire process - from planting to harvest - humans were not allowed into the hectare sized field. The result? 4.5 tons of Barley!

And in China (where there is apparently a shortage of dentists) a robot installed two dental implants in a patient (humans are still required to change drill bits etc, but the precise, in-mouth work was carried out by the robot autonomously. On top of that, the implants were 3D printed! 3Dprint.com has more.

These are two great and interesting examples of ICT 'disrupting' the world as we know it and possibly increasing productivity whilst causing job losses for humans. It used to be that only factory style work (precise and very repetitive involving no ability to sense the world or make decisions) was the target for robotic replacement. Now any job is fair game...

Mining vs Advertising

Much of the web (and most of the 'free' apps and services we use) is 'powered' by advertising. The problem is, advertising is becoming over saturated and people are becoming suspicious and resentful of the 'tracking' that advertisers do. This week we saw proof that companies are investigating alternative sources of income. One of these alternative sources of income is 'mining' cryptocurrency. To 'mine' a bitcoin or ether or any other type of cryptocurrency you need to perform some intense calculations to solve complex mathematical problems. To make money by mining cryptocurrency you need expensive computer hardware running at full capacity - which uses a lot of electricity.

So why not get other people's computers to do the mining for you using a type of distributed computing?

That's exactly what The Pirate Bay (something you could expect of them) and video streaming site Showtime (a big surprise) did this week. They embedded scripts in their web pages that made your computer do cryptocurrency mining when you visited them. Your computer did the work, you got the electricity bill and they earned cryptocurrency. All without asking your permission. The Guardian has the details.

Privacy insight

Tinder is a dating app. Like most modern apps it collects data about you to 'improve its performance'. We all know this. What might surprise you is how much data it collects. A journalist who used Tinder for 4 years of using Tinder requested that Tinder supply her with the data it collected. European data laws allowed her to do this and eventually Tinder complied - the result adds up to 800 pages of collected data. Data from Tinder, Facebook and Instagram had been collected. All the places she was when she used the app. The online conversations she had with people she matched up with.

“Tinder knows much more about you when studying your behaviour on the app. It knows how often you connect and at which times; the percentage of white men, black men, Asian men you have matched; which kinds of people are interested in you; which words you use the most; how much time people spend on your picture before swiping you, and so on. Personal data is the fuel of the economy. Consumers’ data is being traded and transacted for the purpose of advertising.”


Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states your data may be used to deliver “targeted advertising”.

Alessandro Acquisti - from "I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest, darkest secrets" in The Guardian, 26 Sept 2017.

The extent of data collected by Tinder is astonishing - but is nothing compared to what Google knows about you. Remember - the connected world is NOT a private place.

Read the article at The Guardian (worth the time).

Tapes are back!

No, not your 70's, 80's and 90's mix cassettes - no matter what the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise would have you believe. We are talking tape based data backups. The fact is, disk based backups are vulnerable to hackers. Tapes are slower, not permanently online and more cumbersome - but their major advantage is that they are secure. You need physical access to mess with their data. That's why many companies are looking to use tapes as a secondary, more secure type of backup. Read it at Marketwatch.com. This ties in with spies and security agencies going back to typewriters, paper and filing cabinets because hackers make data security a joke!

That's it for this week. Happy teaching...

Comments

Teraflops, Petaflops and Supercomputers

This week Supercomputers made the news in two separate articles. We mention them in passing when talking about 'types of computers' in class, specifically at the beginning of Grade 10 and then pretty much forget about them. Our teaching is so focussed on the shallow end of the computing pool that we sometimes forget how astonishingly deep the pool can get - and how powerful computers truly can be. A good thing to remember is that today's supercomputer is tomorrows smartphone, watch or some other minuscule digital device that no one has even imagined yet. So, let's take a closer look at supercomputers....

First: The supercomputing news

What is a Supercomputer?

The Oxford English Dictionary only offers us this: A particularly powerful mainframe computer.

WhatIs.com offers a far more satisfying A supercomputer is a computer that performs at or near the currently highest operational rate for computers.

Yeah, but what is a Supercomputer really?

This video about sums it up perfectly:

Top Supercomputers - by end of 2016

Great to see visuals of the actual machines.

What is a FLOP?

FLoating point Operation.

A single calculation involving floating point numbers (i.e. real numbers with decimal points). Supercomputers work at speeds that allow them to perform in the Teraflop or Petaflop range. A TERAFLOP is 1 TRILLION floating point operations per second. A PETAFLOP is 1000 Teraflops = 1000 Trillion = 1 Quadrillion floating point calculations per second. By next year we should have a Supercomputer capable of 200 Petaflops!

To put it in perspective, desktop computers are only reaching Teraflop capability this year whilst the world got its first Teraflop Supercomputer in 1997 and its first Petaflop supercomputer way back in 2008 (the IBM "Roadrunner" - see it on YouTube).

The Top 500 Supercomputer list (also a great source for seeing what these behemoth machines are being used for) is updated twice yearly and lists (obviously) the 500 most powerful computers in the world. The competition for the most powerful machine is largely between the USA and China, with China dominating since 2012.

Multi Processing / Parallel Processing

We teach these concepts relating them to the desktop computers and devices that our learners are familiar with and use every day. They really start to make sense when you talk about them in terms of these machine which are made up of hundreds of thousands of CPUs and GPUs. Maybe worth a reference back to supercomputers at that point?

The Mythbusters guys explain parallel processing in GPUs in this fun video courtesy of Nvidia:

And that about concludes our quick primer on Supercomputers. Now on to our news links for the week.

News in brief:

That's it for this week.

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