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This Week in Tech

The importance of being Uncertain and other fun facts...

Welcome to our 50th blog post. We hope that the blog has at least made one useful contribution to your teaching, classroom and / or learners. This week's news tends towards the lighter side and there are a couple of fun things you can show your learners to put smiles on their faces.

Uncertainty rules!

The first item on the agenda is MIT engineers proving that you don't need GPS and precise knowledge of location to improve an autonomous drone's ability to avoid obstacles. Instead they allow the drone to keep what they call a 'nano map' in memory which the drone continually refers to. By comparing past images with the current image the drone can position itself relative to obstacles and take the appropriate evasive action.This is much closer to how we humans do things and reduces crash rates from 28% to 2%!

Weird Hardware Hack

Q: What do you get if you combine parts from a flatbed scanner, dot matrix printer and a hard drive, with some mechanical parts and a pencil?

A: The weird 'printer' below that uses a pencil to 'tap' out an image.

Useful? NO. Fascinating? Yes!


Robots continue their advance...

Wired has a story on how Boston Dynamic's Spot robot dog can now open doors (video below). Makes me think of the 'Metalhead' episode from Black Mirror season 4.

Or maybe not so much... The Winter Olympics provided the ideal opportunity for various robotics teams to show just how far robots have to go. The narrative is not English but the visuals are universally understandable.

5G and Wild Boars

More from the Winter Olympics. 5G is a specification that is only due to hit mainstream in 2020. South Korea has been using the technology (capable go 10 Gigabits data transmission speed) in various demonstrations throughout the Olympics. One of the uses is for automated defences against Wild Boars to keep them from invading competition tracks. TechCentral has the details.

Recycling old computers into art

Zayd Menck has built a model of Midtown Manhattan (New York) from old computer parts...


In other news:

    • The BBC reports that Bitcoin mining in Iceland is about to use more electricity than all the households in the country.
    • Meanwhile the SA Reserve bank wants to regulate Bitcoin in SA (MyBroadband).
    • Facebook lost 2.8 Million US users under 28 years old last year (Recode).
    • Facebook (again) is getting more intrusive by asking you to add lists to your wall... (Engadget).
    • Want to take better photographs? This AI will shock you into getting it right! (Hackaday)

And that's it for this week. Enjoy!

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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.

Humans can't own property - only corporations can

Chaos and absurdity seem to abound in world events and politics (local and international) at present, so it seems only fitting to take this blog's title from a standpoint held by big corporations abusing copyright protection law to protect physical products. That's not all though, there's plenty more absurdity to come. So strap in, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

If you had to guess from previous posts where the title of this weeks blog come from I'm sure that you'd eventually arrive at: John Deere. Boing Boing has the details.

Hacking news and absurdities:

  • Ransomware is being hidden inside attachments - to attachments. Details at Lifehacker.
  • Downloaded a 'guide' to a game from the Google Play store? You might be one of over 2 million people infected with malware from these trojan apps. Hacker News has the details.
  • Badly written Android apps leave ports open - and your device open to hacking. Hacker News.
  • Intel has a firmware hole that's been around since 2008. Ars Technica explains (technical).
  • HP notebooks have a pre-installed key logger in an audio driver. htxt.africa. If you have one of these, best you get it fixed.

Fake news Dept:

Birds. Small, beautiful, fascinating and deadly.

To airplanes, at least. Birds being sucked into the swirling vortex of a jet engine can break turbine blades and cause a catastrophic failure of the engine. Which can kill the plane and, in the consequent crash, probably most of the people on board. So birds are a problem - especially around airports, where they are likely to come into contact with planes and their engines.

Enter the Robot Falcon - a drone that looks and flies like a falcon and is designed to scare birds away from airfields! Check it out at Atlas Obscura.

Good reads:

  • CSO Online has a great in depth article on computer forensics.
  • R2D2 operates inside your eye. Engadget.
  • The Economist: Data more valuable than oil.
  • The power and reach of Facebook. The Guardian (fascinating, written by an ex facebooker)
  • New York Times: people training robots to do jobs.
  • The technology behind your traffic fines. The Citizen.
  • 4G not fast enough? - 5G is coming. Digital trends looks at what 5G is shaping up to be.

Social Media:

That's it for this week.

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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