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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

Internet goes down at exam time - for the whole country!

Well, it does if you live in Ethiopia, Algeria, Iraq or Uzbekistan. We know that it is best practice to make sure IT and CAT learners don't have internet access whilst writing their prac exams. In fact, many of us even restrict their general network access to prevent messaging, e-mail and file sharing being used for cheating. After all, leaving the access provides the temptation... BUT, to disconnect a whole country from the internet for the duration of national exams in all subjects seems a little extreme. There's a bit more behind the story than paranoia and caution though - see The Guardian and Newsweek for details.

Ethiopia cut internet access for a week or two at the end of May this year. Iraq cut internet access for periods of hours (at least not days) last year, and again this year (The Verge). Algeria did it last year (Reuters). Uzbekistan did it in 2014 (Ed Tech Times). In all these countries the internet lockdown was presaged by widespread leaks of papers on social media and general cheating and corruption. This is a fascinating topic for a class discussion. Is the action justified? How important is the credibility of a national exam? Why do we have national exams? What is the impact of an internet shutdown on society? Who should be able to make this kind of decision? In all cases the government seems to have acted unilaterally, without warning and often without comment or indication of how long the shutdown would last. Is this acceptable? This whole topic is pure classroom gold!

Human error - always the biggest problem with IT

I held off from talking about the immense British Airways shutdown that stranded thousands of passengers and cancelled hundreds of flights - because of a computer problem. I was curious to see what the cause of the problem would be - early reports made no mention of hacking or malware - so that left bugs or human error as the cause. I was betting on human error, because.... well, because that's what it usually is. Turns out that the real cause is pretty much the same as in this video that Apple opened its 2017 WWD Conference with (to show the importance of apps, of course)...

Yup! Over 70 000 people missed flights because someone switched off a power supply!

Your FACE is being watched - in the most unexpected places and ways

This article caught my eye: Pizzeria billboard in Oslo analyzes people! And I got curious. And did some searching and reading. Turns out there's a lot of hidden commercial face-recognition and customer recording going on out there. In Beijing, authorities are using face recognition to limit toilet paper theft in a public park! Last year Russia saw the release of the FindFace Android app that can track down and identify people from a photo (using the Russian social network Vkontakte). Facebook uses similarly powerful technology not only to tag your photos but to learn and improve its accuracy when you tag a photo. Luckily it has not made it possible for users to use this technology to search for and identify people. This didn't stop the FaceZam app hoax panicking people in March this year. Google has also had its share of the facial recognition creepiness - does anyone remember the thankfully short-lived NameTag app for Google Glass way back in 2014? Wearers of the AR glasses didn't even have to obviously take a photo using their phone to be able to scan your face and identify you!

The article that best summarises what's going on and why is at Readwrite.com and is a good value, in depth read.

Attention is the new currency” is the headline here. Your attention (and the meta-data associated with it) is being relayed to advertisers without your permission or awareness, and there is no way to opt–out.

From an article in Medium.com by Youssef Sarhan.

Moore's Law still survives

It is slowing down, but despite predictions of its death throughout my tech and teaching caree, Moore's Law is still hanging in there. The latest Intel technology (Kaby Lake) sees transistors shrink down to as small as 14 nanometers. IBM has developed new technology which use 'silicon nanosheets' to shrink chip technology down to an incredible 5 nanometers! That means the same chip area can hold double the amount of transistors. Wired has the details.

Extreme overclocking.

Did you know there is an Overclocking World Cup? This event has been held at Computex for the last four years and involves the arcane arts at getting a standard CPU to run at ungodly speeds (e.g. 7.5 Gigahertz) long enough to be deemed stable and successful. It typically involves the use of extreme cooling using liquid nitrogen. Engadget writer Richard Lai walks you through the process of learning this extreme (and pointless beyond demonstrating that it 'can be done') art.

SA Internet - where we're at and where we're going.

Short and sweet: ADSL and fixed lines are out, Fibre and Mobile are in. For information, Telkom recently announced two interesting pieces of information:

That's it for this week - never fear, the holidays are near!...

Comments

18 cores, a surf-able drone and jaywalking

Exams are upon you, so you don't have too much time to deal with in-depth news and articles right now. So this week I'll keep it short and sweet.

18 Cores

That's right: Intel just just announced a new i9 series of core processors that maxes out at 18 cores (36 threads) on a single CPU - trumping AMD's earlier announcement of a Ryzen processor with 16 cores. That's if you are willing to pay $1 999 (over R30 000) just for the CPU in your system! As always though, this development is an indication of how CPUs are developing and where they are going. That, and the fact that everybody (including Apple) seems to be trying to catch up with Google and their Tensor chip by creating silicon designed specifically for AI and machine learning.

Surf-able Drone

This is not something that is on the market, more a proof of concept used in a cool way. Digital Trends has an article on a guy delivering the match ball to a soccer cup final in Portugal.


Don't Jaywalk!!

What's jaywalking? Crossing the street anywhere that is not an official pedestrian crossing - or crossing against the light. Paris has a problem with jaywalking - statistics say that over 4000 people a year are hit by cars whilst jaywalking. So, obviously, authorities would rather people did not jaywalk and have come up with an innovative technical way to discourage people from jaywalking. Digital Trends has the details.


An AI chatbot that helps you get a job

CNN Money has and article on a startup trying to develop a chatbot that deals with recruitment and preliminary job interview questions.

VR Training midwives

Virtual reality has been 'on the cusp' of mainstream use since the early 1990's. I remember the first huge clunky VR sets and the blocky graphics that they displayed. Today's VR is much more realistic and immersive but still faces the problems of lag (even milliseconds of lag can cause headaches and sea-sickness) and expensive hardware. That said, I think VR is closer to mainstream use than ever before and is seeing some innovative use cases. An Australian University is using VR in its final exams to test how good a trainee midwife is at delivering a baby. CNet has the details.

Facial Recognition in education

A French business school will use facial recognition software to check how much attention its students are paying in class. Useful? Invasive? Creepy? You decide. read the article at The Verge. This author strongly agrees with the sentiments expressed in the second last paragraph.

I promised this week would be short and sweet - so that's where we stop! Good luck with exams, invigilation and marking!

Comments

The Alternative Facts version...

Welcome back to a world where, if you don't like the way reality is working, you simply replace it with an 'Alternative Version' that suits what you want to believe. The incredible stance taken by US President <shudder> Donald Trump's spokespeople has far reaching implications for the world your learners are going to inhabit (this could go on <shudder> for EIGHT years!). Basically the message is that it's OK to lie publicly - spread falsehoods - and then defend those falsehoods as 'Alternative Facts'. An alternative fact is a lie. Period.

Fake News

This week's blog has a lot of coverage about Fake News - simply because that has made it into the news a lot after the whole Trump fiasco. Here's a quick list

  • Comic: Dilbert's PHB (point haired boss) tweets fake news.
  • Mental Floss reports on a study about 'with training we can learn to spot fake news'.
  • Wired has a thoughtful article about how fake news is just propaganda in newer clothes - and that a lot of seems legitimate because it is generated by 'think tanks' and researchers that are themselves fake. Language teachers might find this article useful as they do have to cover propaganda in their syllabi.
  • The Citizen reports on fake news in SA with articles on how Three SA media organisations have been targeted by fake Twitter accounts
  • MyBroadband then posts on how the Huffington Post SA plans to fight back.
  • Fake news is dangerous and offensive. MyBroadband has a run down of various SA companies' actions when employees post offensive material to FaceBook. This is a great real life illustration of acceptable use / social media policy in real companies.
  • Google has banned (stopped showing adverts on - i.e. denied income to) over 200 'Fake News' publishers - ReCode via BoingBoing.
  • Even legitimate news organisations easily get caught out by suppliers of fake news. The pressure to publish quickly means that journalists don't always check facts as thoroughly as they should. A short while ago The Guardian ran an article on a possible backdoor in the WhatsApp messaging app. This article turns out to be spreading (and legitimising) fake news. More from TechCentral.

Beware the Alternative Online Sweetheart

He (or she) is better known as a scammer, fraud or con artist. And don't think that you can spot these heartless criminals easily. When you are looking for love you are vulnerable - you want to trust... The BBC has a short video clip about a University Professor who fell for a fake online charmer and lost about 140 000 pounds (nearly 2 000 000 rand) to him.

The development of the Barcode

The first item ever sold using a barcode was a pack of chewing gum. I never knew that. I found out by reading fantastic BBC article about the development of the barcode, its differing standards and how it is essential for making modern retail work. If you don't follow any other links from this weeks blog, follow this one.

Facial Recognition vs Passports

Here's an interesting concept - should we do away with passports and simply allow computers to identify us using facial recognition? Australia seems to think this is a good idea and has launched a project to implement facial recognition immigration control by 2020! Motherboard has the details. Besides the novelty of the concept, this is a great discussion topic for your classes. To make this work Australian authorities will need to access (and create) databases of facial identity profiles from around the world. The implications regarding tracking, privacy, etc. on a global scale are well worth stopping and thinking about.

Fighting the good fight

How many times have you seen adverts on web sites that you just know are fake - and possibly dangerous? Well try to imagine how bad it could be if all the publishers of this type of advert were not being actively defended against. htxt.co.za has an article on how Google has blocked 1.7 billion bad ads in 2016 alone.

Other links:

  • PC Gaming is big business

htxt.co.za has an article about how PC gaming made over $30 billion last year

  • HP recalls laptop batteries

HP has had to recall 100 000 laptop batteries as being dangerous. Lifehacker helps you find out if your battery is at risk.

  • Facebook publishes privacy basics - a guide

Facebook is trying to simplify the way users control who get to see their data / posts. May be a good idea to actually run through this with your class, looking at each setting and discussing its implications.

  • Finally a good use for CDs & DVDs!

Just look at this - makes you want to smile! All made from shards of broken optical disks...


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