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This Week in Tech

Human ingenuity vs Biometrics.

Those of you who saw "Minority Report" will remember that Tom Cruise's disgraced policeman character had an eye transplant to hide his identity from ubiquitous iris scans - but kept his old eyes in a baggie so that he could still log on to the police network. Iris scans have been touted as even more effective than fingerprints as a form of biometric identification. That's why there was a frisson of excitement that rippled around tech circles when Samsung introduced iris scanning to unlock the new Galaxy S8 smartphone.

We all know that any new security technology is seen by some people as a challenge. AND, no security technology is completely foolproof. So, it didn't take too long before hackers touted that they could fool the iPhone's fingerprint scanner by getting a mould of your fingerprint and casting a replica of the finger. Not something your average girlfriend of boyfriend wanting to check out your texts to see if you are cheating is likely to do. It involves a bit of skill and technique to execute effectively and is definitely more than a 30 second hack.

It is a little faster to hack the iris scan on the S8 - all you need is a camera with night mode (so that it captures infra-red), a good printer and a contact lens. It's still not a 30 second hack, but it's certainly easier to get a photo of someone's eyes than it is to make a mould of their fingerprint.

The lesson is that no biometric security will ever be infallible - people will always find a hack. It's probably better to use a combination of biometrics and the good old PIN / password.

Green power - solar and wind

Tramp and Eskom / the SA Govt have at least one thing in common: they seem determined to cut all support for green renewable energy. This is not the case all over the world though. China just created a 40 Megawatt floating solar power plant that has the added benefit of protecting water supplies by reducing evaporation. Check it out at Digital Trends. In the UK a wind farm of 32 turbines each capable of generating 8 Megawatts has just gone on line. Supposedly a single rotation of one turbine can power a house for 29 months! Read it at Engadget.

Printed Ovaries - that work!

This was meant for last week's blog but somehow got left out. CNN has an article on how scientists created a 3d printed ovary, placed it inside a mouse which mated naturally and then gave birth to two pups. The video is with watching - but put it on silent: there is no voice over and the music is irritating!

WannaCry - and what's next...

Al Jazeera has an interesting video on the ransomware attack and cybersecurity in the future. Worth paying attention to is the fact that EternalRocks is quietly spreading itself in a much stealthier fashion but not delivering any payloads yet. Linux systems also have a vulnerability to the same type of SMB exploit used by the two worms and sysadmins are advised to patch ASAP - info and links to patches at The Hacker News.

CSO Online compares the real cost of ransomware to the actual amounts paid in ransoms.

Social Media

The Guardian got hold of leaked documents that reveal the guidelines given to the thousands of people employed as moderators for the site (this second article is very interesting, informative and a great source for classroom discussions). This prompted a little bit of internet outrage over where the lines are drawn between what can stay and what can't. It blew over fairly quickly. Basically: it is a grey area and moderators must use their own judgement....

At the same time Facebook is taking steps to counter the rising problem of the filter bubble that isolates people into worlds that only confirm their own biases and viewpoints. Engadget has more on their new approach to trending topics that might bring balance to both the news and the debates and discussions it sparks.

The connected future might belong to Thunderbolt 3

Engadget reveals that Intel is planning to build Thunderbolt controllers into their CPUs (removing the need for controllers on motherboards) and also plans to make the standard royalty free, meaning that putting Thunderbolt 3 ports into computers will cost no more than the hardware. Good news for those who want the fastest external device connection technology available. CNET has an excellent article on the differences between the different types of USB and Thunderbolt. Well worth the read.

Cashless ATMs

FNB is introducing cashless ATMs in rural areas in South Africa. The machines allow people to do banking tasks without having to travel to bank branches.

Walt Mossberg retires

The well regarded tech journalist has written his last article and it is well worth a read: find it at recode.net. In it he discusses what feels like a current lull in technology (iteration of existing products rather than the next big thing) and relates it to preparing the ground for the rise of what he calls 'ambient computing'.

8K Monitor - too good for current computing

If you have R70 000 burning a hole in your pocket and are prepared to spend it all on a monitor you can buy Dell's new 8K beauty. Digital Trends explains just how wonderful the screen is, and how modern computers (and even GPUs) just are not up to the task of getting the best from this screen.

And on that note, that's all for this week folks. Good luck with the exams and marking ahead.

A robotics edition

Strangely enough, the news this week has been full of stuff about robots. So, we'll run with it and let the blog focus on robotic topics.

UBI (Universal Basic Income)

Let's start off by talking about a concept that features in Science Fiction and has been in the news lately relating to Bill Gates' call for a tax on robots and Elon Musk's statements in support of the concept. A UBI is when the state pays every citizen, no matter what other income they may earn, a set amount each month (Wikipedia's explanation here, Wharton School of Business discussion here, Brookings arguments in favour of). Part of the motivation for calls for a UBI is the increasing loss of jobs due to automation (robots). Some places (Finland, Ontario) are actually trialling the concept.

The topic of a UBI is a great one for class discussion and a topic for 'Social Impact of ICT' that your learners can really get their teeth into. How about a debate? Why not make up a 'parliament' where speakers get to argue for and against a UBI and then the class has to vote? This is a topic that can fire up your learners, get them involved, make them talk after class to friends and family and make your class even more relevant!

Bionic Ants

A lot of robotic research is modelled on the insect world. Check out the teamwork of these bionic ants (via Hackaday) created by Festo (direct link to company video is bionicants-en-SD.mp4)


How big are robots, economically speaking?

According to an article by Fast Company, researchers put the economic value of all robots in America at $732 Billion - bigger than the economy of Switzerland!

Robotic ear surgeon.

Cochlear implants. Devices that help deaf people to hear. Wired has an article about a robot that can perform the operation to give someone a cochlear implant - by itself.

Robot Porter


CNet has an article detailing a journalist trying out a robot porter that followed her around New York for a day. The robot follows you around and can be used for things like carrying your groceries. Great for city life where you don't use a car.

Drone Pilots outnumber real pilots.

OK, so drones are not real robots. The combination of mechanised constructions under remote human control (with the distinct possibility of self control in the future) is enough of a grey area to qualify for inclusion in this blog. Digital Trends has an article detailing how the US air force now employs more drone pilots than pilots for real planes.

Robots and specialised AI chips

The world of the microprocessor is also being affected by the increased demand for more intelligent robots. AI performs better when running on hardware specially developed to support it. Google set the trend by developing the TPU (Tensor Processing Unit) last year and many other companies are working in this hot new area of tech research and development. Mobileye is just such a company, making chips and cameras for self driving cars. Intel just bought them for $15.3 Billion.

UWVs? Seafaring Drones? Whatever you call them, they are real and being tested in Norway.


Engadget has the details.

General News

PRINT THIS OUT AND STICK IT UP IN YOUR CLASSROOM - and email it to everyone you know!!!

Cartoon courtesy of XKCD.

  • Hard drives can be wiped of data using a powerful magnet (degaussing). Or you can physically destroy them using a drill and a hammer. But how do you destroy the data on a SSD? Magnets don't work. Physical destruction needs much more precision - you have to destroy every chip. Lifehacker has the solution - and it's not what you expect.

Fake news

EWN republishes and article from the World Economic Forum studying how to control fake news.

That's it from a full and busy blog for this week.

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Unintended Consequences

Tech is always pushing the boundaries. A continual fountain of new ideas, new gadgets and new ways of doing business bubbles up, with entrepreneurs and investors (and consumers) eagerly jumping aboard the latest bandwagon. The 'next big thing' arrives and is proclaimed by its inventors / creators / designers; we all reach, starry eyed and full of hope, for the magic that will miraculously improve our lives and ease our blighted souls.

The problem is: new tech is untried, untested and - even it performs flawlessly and does what it is meant to do in an exemplary fashion - people are wily and conniving and deceitful and will find a way to pervert the purpose of even the best technology.

This brings me to the cause of this negative and cynical rant: Poachers are trying to hack the tracking technology designed to protect and preserve their prey (Full scientific article available at Wiley Online Library). Cyber poaching. A new term to learn and loathe.


“Animal tracking can reveal animal locations (sometimes in nearly real-time), and these data
can help people locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,”

Another job bites the dust

Used to be that people thought that jobs flipping burgers at fast food joints would be the last refuge for humanity whilst robots took over the world. Flappy, the burger flipping robot might hake something to say about that. Read it at Engadget and check out the video below.


Wikileaks and the CIA

The big news this week, splashed all over the news and just about every publication you care to read, is the Wikileaks publication of CIA hacking tools. The New York Times has an article detailing how to protect yourself if you are worried (summary: update, update, update!), Popular Science retcons it is all over-hyped and Digital Trends has a summary of the leak.

General news:

  • How big of a problem is spam? A single spammers list of email addresses has been found - an incredible 1.3 Billion adresses. From one spam operator. Just think how much faster and more responsive the internet would be if it were not clogged by the foul morass of spam mails.
  • It is early days yet but Google has started applying image recognition tech to videos - trying to identify objects in the video. Why it matters: You could search a video library for a specific item or scene quickly rather than suffering through endless fast forwarding. It also opens the path to all sorts of as yet unimagined analysis of video archives - as well as self-alerting surveillance systems.
  • Microsoft has announced it is creating a version of Windows Server that will run on the same type of smaller, lower powered, cheaper processors (ARM processors) that power your smartphone and tablet. Read it at Digital trends. Why it matters: This move would make servers (and data centres) cheaper and more energy efficient.
  • Android is about to overtake Windows as the most used OS globally. Why it matters: More proof that most people's first (and perhaps only) computing device will be a mobile one.
  • Prototype Red Cross Land Rover launches and lands drones from its roof - while on the go! Why it matters: Besides being sooooo cool? Improved response time and efficiency.
  • Is Facebook doing something about its Fake News problem at last? Possibly. Here's a link to a page on Facebook that allows you to declare a news item as possibly fake. Problem is, that they haven't made it generally available as yet. Why it matters: We've been talking about Fake News a lot and how it influences real life. This can help people become more aware that what they are reading is not necessarily true.
  • David Mahlobo (our very own Minister of State security) wants to monitor and restrict social media in South Africa. Why it matters: If you think that even a hint that government wants to control social media (for whatever reason) is not disturbing and dangerous then I am not sure how any amount of words can explain why this is important. Zapiro has a perfect cartoon to explain the futility of the idea and the repressive, dictatorial company that our Minister wants to join.
  • CNN announces availability of some news in 360 degree VR.
  • 3D Print has a great, but technical, article on printing baby skeletons and organs to improve neonatal care.
  • CPU Developments. AMD announces server CPU with 64 cores. Why it matters: It is always good to know the trends in CPU development (not that it is likely a consumer will have a machine with such a chip $3000 - $4000 (over R40 000 just for the CPU) . Obviously, this increases server, data centre power at the same high end price point.
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Robots, 3D Printing and DNA

DNA storage, anyone?

The quest for smaller, larger capacity, low power storage is pretty much never ending. This week news emerged of people finally being able to store data on DNA with 100% accuracy (Motherboard, Engadget). A great long term future trend to mention to the class, though it will probably take 10 - 20 years before this becomes a commercial product. Although capacity is huge (you can fit over 2 TB of data on 1 gram of DNA!) it can take forever to do so - the researchers took 7 hours to write 2 MB of data. Then another 7 hours to read the data.

3D Printing in the spotlight

More for your current and future trends session. 3D printing is continually advancing. Almost every week there is an article on how surgeons succeed with particularly difficult operations because they first use a MRI / CAT scan to generate a 3D image of the persons body and then 3D print the part they will work on - so that they can practice the operation before surgery starts.

South Africa is not being left behind in the 3D printing revolution. The CSIR is about to go operational with the worlds largest 3D printer - capable of printing metal parts 200m long, 6m wide and 6m high. Read about the Aeroswift printer here at 3DPrint.com.

The world has its first printed on site house (Digital Trends) - and it only took 24 hours to print the house. Watch the video (a bit of a sales pitch for Apis Corp, the makers of the printer, but still an interesting watch). Another great current and future trends topic for your classes. 3D printing houses - reduced costs for making the house, huge loss of jobs for construction workers. Which is more important?

The robot revolution

From house printing robots to small, furry pollinators. Check out how a Japanese scientist is trying out a concept of using micro drones to do a bees work (because, scarily enough, bee populations are dying out around the world).

Advances in robotics continue apace, and as always, Boston Robotics is at the forefront. This week they unveiled a new machine called Handle - check out the video below to see what it can do.

For more insight into robots, their place in the workplace and people's relationships with robots there is a long but very interesting read at The New York Times. Good material for you to gain insight into robotics in the real world.

General news:

  • Gmail to allow users to receive 50MB attachments.
  • Get started with your own Ransomware kit - seriously, a maker of ransomware has a 5 minute ad for people wanting to start a life of cyber crime! Watch it at Boing Boing.
  • Body cams are cameras worn on the body of police - a rising trend in the USA. The idea is that the body cam protects both the police and the public by recording interactions - so that the police are less likely to use excessive force and so that the police can justify their actions when they do have to use force. Problem is, due to limits in battery and storage these cameras are not always on.Read about new holster technology that will activate all body cameras in the area when someone removes a gun from the holster.
  • Someone has created a braille smartwatch for the blind. Check it out here.
  • Be careful what you type - computers always take you literally. This week many internet services went offline - because they used Amazon web service and someone typed the wrong instructions into a maintenance command. Read it at Engadget.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Phishing and Whaling

We all take a lot of time and effort to teach our learners about Phishing - and about the more specialised, targeted "Spear Phishing" version of this type of attack. Well, it's time we added "Whaling" to that repertoire.

The term 'Whale' is often used in IT - and in business in general. A 'Whale' is generally a big spending customer - for example in all those 'free' games that you find available on mobile devices you are able to buy 'coins' or 'stars' or 'points' or something that will make it easier to progress through the game faster. Most people do not spend real money on these in game currencies - but there is a select group of users that do buy them - and they buy large. They are usually called 'Whales' - and they are where these companies make their money. Before science was sufficiently advanced whales were simply regarded as another type of fish - the biggest fish in the sea. So they are the biggest Phish for Phishers to focus their attention on as well. In the world of cybercrime a whale is typically a high level business person (CEO, COO, CFO, CTO = 'C' level executive, someone with 'Chief' in their title), politicians or celebrities.

The Whale phisher typically sends an urgent e-mail from a trusted colleague / business partner requesting urgent payment for some critical aspect of the business. The CEO then gives the order that payment be made, short-circuiting the usual paperwork... The phisher scores big. In May this year an Austrian aircraft company lost nearly € 41 Million (more than R 645 000 000) to a Whaling attack. The CEO and CFO lost their jobs. Read about it here.

MyBroadband.co.za has a story on Whaling and some tips from the FBI about how to avoid such attacks, whilst Social-Engineer.com asks 'Why go after minnows when you can catch a Big Phish?'. Finally CSOonline.com has got some examples of scams that CEOs could fall for (especially the spoofed 'from' addresses that rely on similar looking mis-spellings to seem as if they are from a valid source) - if you can stand their irritating multi-page slideshow format.

Fighting back against RansomWare

A great resource for learning about, identifying and fighting Ransomware is nomoreransom.org. They even have tools that will decrypt certain types of Ransomware attacks. A great resource for teaching about this type of malware.

Watch out for that cheap wireless keyboard

You better watch out, you better beware, Keysniffer is already in town.

Armed with a bit of smarts and a wireless dongle that costs less than R200 a hacker can not only intercept whatever you type on your keyboard (without even having to install key logging malware on your computer) from up to 70 m away, but they can also insert their own keystrokes to change whatever you are typing.

How is this possible? Well, makers of cheap wireless keyboards (those that use their own wi-fi dongle instead of Bluetooth) let the communication between the keyboard and the computer take place without encryption (or with poor encryption). Why? Because its cheaper and cheaper = lower price or more profits or both. Wired magazine has the lowdown on this new hacking exploit.

There is no such thing as anonymity or privacy on the web

Keep on telling your learners this fact. Repeat it until they think you are a stuck record. For those that say that they are savvy and have the skillz and the toolz to keep private - point out to them that the TOR browser and account they are using is probably compromised. Researchers recently found over 100 TOR nodes that were spying on their users... Tell them to read the article at The Hacker News. Then point out that the web is a large, wild, ungoverned place which is about as tough and secure as a bag made of wet toilet paper. They need to always assume that most of what you do, create, store, collect, download electronically is traceable and watchable and has probably been intercepted by someone somewhere.

A general Resource for all

The World Digital Library is a resource created by the US Library of Congress with support from UNESCO. It contains many digitised images, texts and maps that are interesting to browse through but could also be valuable resources for the History / Geography teachers at your school.

Building at 225 bricks per hour

3DPrint.com has an article about an Australian company which has created a robot that can lay 225 bricks in an hour - as much as a human does in half a day. Basically a truck loaded with bricks arrives at the building site, extends a robotic arm and starts laying the bricks according to the design programmed into it from a CAD model. There's a time lapse video of the robot at work near the end of the article.

That's it for this week.

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