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Study Opportunities' Blog

Great programming game - a must have for IT teachers & learners

AWESOME new game 'Human Resource Machine' is effectively a machine code level programming simulator - with great animation that illustrates how the instructions are executed. The entire computer simulator has only 11 commands. It works a little like Scratch but has specific goals and tasks that mirror a lot of what you teach in the classroom.

The game is only $9.99 and available direct from the developers but can also be found on the iOS App store, Steam, & GOG. It works on PC, MAC, Linux & iOS. You want a great game that teaches your learners to think like a programmer? Get this game for your classroom and encourage them to get copies for themselves.

27 MILLION scam messages = 2 ½ years in jail, $310 000 in fines. Sanford Wallace, the self-titled 'Spam King' has been sentenced - for Spamming Facebook users in 2008 - 2009.The wheels of justice grind slow indeed. The article detailing the spammer's misdeeds and his punishment can be found here on Boing Boing.

3DPrint.com has a story (and photos) on how a Chinese construction company 3D Printed a 400 square meter, 2 storey house.

A short while ago we spoke about deep-insert card skimmers used in ATM machines. Krebs on Security has a new article which includes video showing how these skimmers are inserted into an ATM mechanism - and retrieved.

Not IT related specifically but still amazing: CNN has an article on a man who lived 555 days without a heart. Here's the artificial heart he relied on to stay alive whilst waiting for a transplant.

Sadly, SpaceX's latest attempt to land a rocket on a barge failed - it seems as if an engine ran out of fuel and cut out before the rocket could land, resulting in an impact do hard it 'accordion' the engines on the rocket.

That's it for this week. happy teaching!

Rise of Ransomware

There's a (not so very) new bogeyman in town. Meet Ransomware, the malware that creeps onto your computer or device then settles in and locks you out! To be able to access your data again you need to pay a ransom to the creator of the malware.

Ransomware is not new. Its been around since about 2004. Earlier forms of ransomware displayed a dialog box that took up all the screen space and stayed on top of all other windows - effectively stopping you from using your computer. They often pretended to be from Law Enforcement and demanded a 'fine' that had to be paid before you could unlock your computer. The idea behind pretending to be law enforcement - and 'detecting' socially unacceptable crimes (such as child porn, bestiality, terrorism) on your computer was to discourage people from reporting the malware.

Screenshot of early 'Law Enforcement' style screen-blocking ransomware.

Ransomware has evolved. It now contains sophisticated encryption algorithms and basically encrypts all the documents on your computer - or on your business network!. This type of ransomware is becoming far more common - already this year there have been many reports of big organizations being 'hit' by ransomware. Some examples include:

  • December 2014 saw Tewkesbury, USA police pay $750 ransom after being hit by Cryptolocker ransomware.
  • In February this year the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Centre paid nearly $17 000 after its network was disabled by ransomware.
  • The Methodist hospital in Henderson, Kentucky, USA hit by the 'Locky' strain of ransomware in March. They also paid around $17 000 in ransom.
  • Chino Valley Medical Center in Chino, California and Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville had to shutdown systems to root out ransomware in March.
  • In April an American public utility - Lansing Board of Water and Light (like Joburg Power and Joburg Water as a single company) was hit by ransomware - they did not say whether they paid the ransom or not.
  • In May Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, USA paid the ransom demanded ($1 600) but the hackers only gave them partial access to the data and demanded more money to restore full access.
  • Also in May the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada paid $20 000 ransom after files - and their e-mail system - were encrypted by ransomware.

There are likely to be many more unreported incidences of large corporates being hit by ransomware, not to mention individuals (who typically get asked for much smaller ransoms of $200 - $300).

How does ransomware get onto your computer?

All the usual ways -

  • Phishing & spear phishing e-mails. This includes e-mails with MS Word document attachments that contain Macros which download and install ransomware.
  • Links in posts on Facebook, Twitter, IM, etc. that lead to malicious web sites.
  • Visiting unsafe, suspicious or fake web sites.
  • Fake / infected torrents.

Read more:

  • The Hacker News collects a whole lot of articles about ransomware in one place.
  • Malwarebytes.org has an article which shows a scary rise in the prevalence of ransomware this year.
  • Microsoft's security post on ransomware has some interesting graphs showing which ransomware is most common & global incidences of ransomware attacks.
  • Norton's post on ransomware is a bit cursory and outdated.

Best prevention for ransomware?

Daily, incremental backups that are AIR-GAPPED - i.e. you do not leave your backup media connected to the computer. If you do the ransomware will simply encrypt your backup as well!

3D Printing enables radical new brain surgery!

In case you didn't know this, babies are born with a skull that is not solid. The bones of the skull are not completely fused at birth to allow for flexibility during the birthing process - and, more importantly, to allow for brain growth after birth. The larger expansion areas of the skull (called the fontanelles) largely ossify (become bony) by the age of 2. A rare condition called craniosynostosis causes the bones of the skull to close early, resulting in restricted growth space for the brain and the build up of cranial pressure that causes the head to deform. Xiao Yu was born with this condition which surgeons corrected last month with the aid of 3D printing. They scanned his head and created and printed a detailed 3D model of his skull. This enabled surgeons to plan and practise what they needed to do before the operation carried out on 21 May - the first of its kind! Read about it in more detail at 3dprint.com.

Other news for the week:

  • SA gets its first super computer! Called Lengau (SetSwana for Cheetah) the machine contains 24 192 Intel Xeon 2.6 ghz processor cores with 126 Terabytes of memory. Photos and article at MyBroadband.
  • World's First completely 3D Printed aircraft. Thor - the new small pilotless aircraft created by Airbus is completely 3D printed. Read about it here at Business Insider.
  • More privacy invasion. The FBI is developing software to track and sort people by their tattoos. Read it here at Gizmodo.
  • Side-Channel Hacking - by microphone. Side channel hacking involves using all the unintentional byproducts of hardware (sound, electricity, vibration, electromagnetic noise) as a way to 'see' what a computer is doing. A very technical article from Communications of the ACM describes various ways of obtaining the keys for cryptography in novel and interesting ways. One of these ways makes use of the fact that the power used by a CPU, memory etc. varies a lot whilst the CPU is working. This change in power needs cause the CPU to make a noise called a 'coil whine'. Researchers record and analyse the sounds made whilst the CPU is working on decryption tasks. They have been able to break 4 096 bit RSA encryption keys from sound alone. To do this they need at least an hour of sound - which they have successfully recorded from 10 meters away using a parabolic microphone - or from only 30cm away using a mobile phone microphone. The article includes description of other ways of side-channel hacking as well.
  • REALLY great app for the Geography dept. The True Size OF (thetruesize.com)is a web app that corrects for the problems of map projections so that you can compare the true sizes of countries with each other. You type in a country name, the country outline gets highlighted and you can drag that highlight onto any area of the globe. Multiple countries can be highlighted at once. The link I created shows India, China, The USA, UK, Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Ireland, Austria and France fitting into Africa with room to spare!
  • Siemens is working on teams of spider like 3D printing robots that can move around in swarms and print / repair almost anything. Read it here at Fast Company.

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

Third time's the charm...

Imagine if your airline had to buy a new jet after every trip. You'd board your flight at OR Tambo, fly all the way to Heathrow and then after you'd gotten off the plane the airline would have to write it off completely - no refunds, no recycling, no money for scrap. All $ 60 000 000+. That's 60 Million PLUS! DOLLARS. Nothing recovered. All gone.

For the flight back to Joburg the airline would have to buy a whole new plane.

Sounds crazy, right?

Well, that's essentially what's been happening everytime humanity has sent a rocket to space. Each rocket costs about the same to make as a large commercial jet. A lot of that cost is in the 'first stage' of the rocket that does most of the hard work of getting the payload most of the way to space.

Well, Space X (a company founded by South African born Elon Musk - who also started the Tesla motor company and PayPal) is hell bent on saving all that wasted money.

The first stage is 41 meters tall (taller than the Voortrekker monument or the statue of Jesus in Rio), nearly 4 meters in diameter and weighs around 30 tons empty. It has 9 very expensive engines that deliver more power than 5 jumbo jets when the rocket launches. The second stage only has one of these engines. If you can save the first stage of the rocket then you are saving a huge amount of its cost. To save the first stage you have to get it safely back to earth (in the past, first stages just fell back to earth and crashed into the ocean).

So when the rocket comes back to earth you have to try to land a tall, skinny tower weighing over 30 tons on a platform smaller than a rugby field - at a landing approach speed of 200 km / h (when the rocket starts coming back to earth it is travelling at Mach 4 - 4 times the speed of sound). That's all difficult enough on solid earth where the ground stands still. Now stretch your imagination a little more and think of the landing platform as a barge floating on the ocean. Anyone who has ever been on a boat knows that no matter how still the water seems to be, the boat still moves.

The drone barge that the rocket lands on is called 'Of course I still love you'. Photo: SpaceX

Well, to make a long story short, On 27 May SpaceX made it's third successful landing on a barge in the ocean (and it has also landed once on land).

The Falcon 9 landing on the barge at sea. Photo: SpaceX

This miracle of technology, skill, vision - and human ingenuity - would not be possible without IT. The barge is a drone. There are no people on or near it (too dangerous). The rocket itself is travelling far too fast to be under human control. So a vehicle control system had to be developed - algorithms worked out so that the rocket knows how to control itself and sensors used so the rocket knows exactly where it is and how fast it it is moving. The system has to take input from the sensors and respond instantly to use the engines to make corrections. If the system responds a microsecond too slow (or fires an engine for a microsecond too long) the rocket will crash.

That's a lot of money that gets wasted if there's a bug in the code!

So, if you are looking for a good example of real-time computing to give your learners, then you don't need to look any further!

The SpaceX site is VERY friendly and explains a lot of what they do in normal, everyday non-technospeak. The mission spoken of in this blog entry is here but it is also well worth the time to click on the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon links to read more details on the rockets themselves.

Other news for the week:

  • Intel announces new 10 Core CPU for desktops available this year - at a price of $1 799! Check it out at Engadget.
  • A mugger got arrested after he got recognised by his victim - after Facebook suggested the victim add him as a friend! Again at Engadget.
  • France passes a law making after hours / weekend work e-mails illegal. This one is worth paying attention to. IT makes work invade our personal space and 'off' time. e-mails come at any time and demand to be answered immediately. The French want companies of 50 or more people to stop this practice. The law says the after hours mails are illegal - but there are no fines or punishment specified if the law is broken. The New Yorker article is a short but interesting read and reveals that VW turns off its servers after hours. Daimler allows employees to automatically delete e-mails they receive whilst on holiday. Additional here at Huff Post.

That's it for this week. Happy teaching.

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