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This Week in Tech

Smooth Skullcaps Exhales - pure genius!

GPS. It lets us know where we are on the surface of our huge and amazing planet. Software allows us to combine our position with digitised maps and routing algorithms to find how to get to a specified destination. Our location can even be used to draw up lists of shops / attractions / faculties nearby to us, so that even if we are new to an area we can easily know what destinations are around us.

But, it is never quite so easy to let people know where we are. Sure we can share a location - if we are online and using the same app. Reading out lattitude and longitude co-ordinates to tell someone where we are is tedious - and often inaccurate. What is needed is an easy-to-communicate global standard method for communicating a location on the planet.

Enter "What Three Words". This amazing startup has divided the entire globe into a grid of 3m x 3m squares. Each grid has been given a name made up of three words. 26 Languages are supported (including isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans). These words are easy to remember, easy to communicate and can be typed directly into a mobile app or online browser map to find the location they represent.

It's a unique idea, well worth pushing as a global standard. It has tremendous potential for businesses and customers to quickly and accurately communicate location. In the UK emergency services are adopting it as a standard and it is rapidly garnering support in many other places (including here in SA).

The app (Android and iOS) is free - and so is access to the online map in a browser.

What if the company fails? What happens to your ability to convert locations into words and vice-versa? To quote from the site:


If we, what3words ltd, are ever unable to maintain the what3words technology or make arrangements for it to be maintained by a third-party (with that third-party being willing to make this same commitment), then we will release our source code into the public domain. We will do this in such a way and with suitable licences and documentation to ensure that any and all users of what3words, whether they are individuals, businesses, charitable organisations, aid agencies, governments or anyone else can continue to rely on the what3words system.

Reassuring.

I'd really recommend installing the app, using it and telling as many other people about it as possible.

And the article's headline? That's one of my favourite places to camp.

Digital Trends article.




GauGAN - the AI Artist

A short while ago I wrote about 'This Person Is Not Real' - an AI project that created realistic human faces from scratch. nVidia is experimenting with an app that can turn MS Paint style sketches into realistic looking photographic images. The app is not generally available, relies on computers with AI CPUs (Tensor chips) and so is not something that you can rush out and try.

Some of the resulting images can look like bad uses of the cut, paste and clone stamp tools in Photoshop, but that even this much is possible is pretty amazing.

But the video is cool in a kinda awesome, breathtaking way. Well worth showing your learners.


Google- The serial App, product and Services killer.

I am a voracious reader of news. That's why I write this blog. I manage this by using RSS - and for a long time I relied on Google Reader as my go-to RSS reading tool. Seven years after creating it Google summarily cancelled Reader.

I also enjoy taking (and editing) photos. One of the best plugins tool suites for image editing is called the NIK Suite, of which Viveza is my favourite tool. Google bought the tool in 2012. It dropped prices drastically (from $500 to $130) and then, in 2016, started to give the suite away for free. In 2017 they decided to kill the NIK product line. Luckily Dx0 (a photography software company) bought the brand from them and has continued development.

The list of Apps and Services that have died at the hands of Google is long - and does not include examples such as the NIK photographic plugins (because they were bought out and so did not die). Many of these were not created by Google. They were bought; they had loyal, enthusiastic users who watched their favourite tools languish and die at the hands of a mindless behemoth that consumed them, used them up and excreted them on the dungheap of history.

How long is this list, you ask? Just take a look at KilledByGoogle.

Does that seem like the behaviour of a responsible digital citizen to you?

Talking of irresponsible: Facebook strikes again.

It might be a really good idea to change your Facebook or Instagram password. And anyother password that is the same as your Facebook password (you naughty user you!).

Why? Because it turns out that Facebook kept hundreds of millions of user's data stored on locally accessible computers in plain text (i.e. unencrypted format). That means any Facebook employee (or person with access to the data) could look up the password of almost any Facebook user.

Since 2012.

Liklihood that someone actually looked up your password: Low. Change it anyway, to be safe. And think about just how irresponsible Facebook is when it comes to valuing / protecting your data and your privacy.

Malvertising vs Adware

CSO Online explains (includes a brief explanation of the use of steganography).

Fabian Fights Back - against Ransomware

Great read from the BBC.

Pay by Face

Not sure I'm ready for this. Apparently the Chinese are.

Follow up on Boeing 737 Max 8

Popular Science on software as part of aircraft design.ExtremeTech on how safety features that could have prevented the crashes were 'optional' (expensive) extras. CNN on how pilots with experience on other 737 models were 'trained' on the 737 Max 8 (with no reference to the new MCAS system in the course materials).

Profits over lives. Not looking good for Boeing.

Flat Earth?

I've known about people choosing to believe that the earth is flat for a while. What I have not known is the craziness of the world that these people inhabit. Ars Technica has an article that sums up the content of 'Behind the Curve' - a documentary screening on Netflix, Amazon and Google Play. Not really tech or IT related, but the article is worth reading and the documentary worth watching.

Other Links:


That's it for this week.

Comments

Manslaughter - by text and a phone call

Seems like that old nursery chant: 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me' is no longer quite as true as we'd like to believe. Last week a judge in Massachusetts found a 17 year old young woman guilty of manslaughter for using text messages and a phone call to encourage and convince her 18 year old boyfriend to commit suicide.

“This is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words,”
- Matthew Segal, lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

Our learners live in a world where constant communication and the pressures of social media are pervasive. They often post private messages to each other and public messages on social media without giving a moments thought to the impact, implication, consequences or possible collateral damage these messages might cause. As educators, we need to take the time and effort to repeatedly draw to their attention cases that vividly illustrate this - cases that redefine the law and our society. This is one such case. The New York Times has a good article on the topic, but if you have already used up your free access for the month, here's a link at CNN. If nothing else, this could open the door to Manslaughter / Murder becoming, of all things, a cybercrime.

Human error - again

Computers are stupid. they only do what you tell them to do, so you better make sure that you tell them to do the right thing. One young person, first day on the job, just out of University, unguided and working according to a document telling him how to set up his own test development database did what many of our learners do: he copied the code in the document and executed it unmodified. The result: the entire companies database deleted. Gone. Unrecoverable. The CTO promptly fired him and he posted about his experience on Reddit. Many readers have come out in support of him and believe that the CTO should have been the one to lose his job.

A complete nightmare situation. A business almost down the tubes because of human error. I say almost, because surely there were backups and recovery, though tedious and inconvenient, would be possible? Wrong! Seems like there was a problem with the databases and backups were not being restored. A company that provides a document containing a potentially destructive code snippet to a complete noob for unsupervised use is not likely to make sure they follow the best backup procedure in the world. More human error, compounding the original human error...

Quartz Media has a nice article based on the incident.

Robot, Robots, Robots

Harvard students seem to want to prove that robots can be made from anything - they are developing a spider like robot made from drinking straws and powered by air.

And now, a robot that crawls up your butt - to make an unpleasant medical procedure weirder but less unpleasant. Curious? Check it out at Boing Boing.

This robot uses AI to figure out how to pick up almost anything.

In Shanghai, an automatic, self-driving supermarket cruises the streets....

Finally, the BBC has a short segment from Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, chief engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on 5 robots set to change the world.

Click Fraud

Motherboard has an article on a click fraud farm busted in Thailand. Fascinating visuals and a glimpse into the world where fake likes, ratings, etc are manufactured on demand.

In Russia though, this type of click fraud is out in the open. Here's an article about a vending machine that sells Instagram likes and followers!

Lying AI

Whilst Google seems intent on creating AI's that defeat humans at complex games demanding strategy and insight, Facebook has built itself an AI that has learnt to lie to get what it wants. Appropriate for a system where most people create fake representations of a perfect life? A fascinating read.

AI, self driving cars and Insurance

Some interesting questions raised in this article from Readwrite.com.

Scary new malware infection technique

Digital trends has an article on how hovering your mouse over a link in a PowerPoint slide can automatically download and install malware (no clicking required).

Ransomware Ponzi scheme

A Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme. Popcorn Time is a new type of malware tries to maximise its profits by using the strategy behind a pyramid scheme - when you get infected and your data is encrypted and held ransom, you are given a choice: either pay up or deliberately infect at least 2 others to 'free' your data. What would you do? The New York Times has the details, also at Fortune.com.

That's it for this week - good luck with the last of exams and the reports....

Comments

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.

Rise of Ransomware

Remember that whole saga of Apple vs the FBI when Apple refused to create a back door for the FBI to investigate a terrorists phone? Apple said that it was too dangerous and would make iOS vulnerable to hackers. The FBI said something like 'but you can trust us, we are a powerful government agency, we will protect the backdoor and keep it safe and no one else will ever get to use it - especially not hackers....' Apple stuck to their guns and the matter was never tested in court because the FBI withdrew their case and found an alternative solution to their problem.

Turns out Apple was very right though. A couple of weeks ago we reported on US government hacking tools and secrets being exposed by a hacker group calling itself the Shadow Brokers - and published on Wikileaks. That leak led to the biggest flood of ransomware infections in history. Computers across the globe became inaccessible - their data encrypted and unavailable. Ransoms of $300 - $600 were demanded. Here are some very important facts about the infection:

  • The malware in question 'Wanna Cry' (where 'Cry' stands for cryptor or decryptor) is not a virus nor a phishing attack - it is a worm with the smarts to distribute itself over the network without human intervention (you don't need to click on a link to get infected).
  • It is based on an 'exploit' leaked from the Shadow Brokers' hack of 'safe' US government intelligence agencies, specifically the NSA..
  • Microsoft was warned by the NSA that they had been hacked and that there might be a leak - and made update patches that fixed the vulnerability available in March of this year (two months ago). Unfortunately they did not patch outdated versions of their OS (XP, Vista, Server 200, Server 2003, etc).
  • Turns out most of the computers that got infected were running Windows 7.
  • The spread of the infection was slowed when a researcher discovered that the malware checked for the existence of a specific web page. As long as the web page did not exist, the ransomware continued to spread itself. The researcher (MalwareTech) registered the domain, created the web page and WannaCry stopped spreading itself.
  • Microsoft took the unprecedented step of releasing free patches for its outdated OS's.
  • Turns out that if you got infected and have not rebooted there is a possibility you can crack the encryption and free your data. The tool is available on GitHub.
  • The hackers have not earned that much from the infection. Monitoring of suspected linked bitcoin wallets shows a ROI (return on investment) of around $70 000 dollars so far. Perhaps the infection was just too large and created too much talk too quickly for people to pay up.

Wanna Cry infected hundreds of thousands of computers in over 100 countries world wide. It crippled businesses, government offices, health care (especially the NHS in the UK) and private computers indiscriminately.

The biggest lesson though is that machines with the latest version of the OS and up-to-date patches were pretty much safe from the attack.

Cartoon resources - great for class discussion or tests / exams:

MP3 is dead - NOT!

News articles this week tried to scare people into believing that MP3 as a music format is dead. Why? Well, basically the Fraunhofer institute that created MP3 is no longer licensing the format. Because their patents have expired. Which means that the format essentially moves into the public domain and is free for developers to write encoders and decoders for without having to pay royalties.

The articles suggested people use other formats such as AAC - which are, co-incedentally, still under patent and require royalty payments. These formats are newer and (slightly) better than MP3. I was just gearing up to explain the nonsense in detail when I came across this article by Marco Arment - who did it all for me so I don't have to!

The Working Dead - IT jobs in review

As IT and CAT teachers we have a vested interest in extolling the job market for IT savvy workers. InfoWorld has an excellent article on the evolution and turnover of IT related jobs and just how tricky the IT job market can be. Well worth a read so that you can talk in an informed manner with your learners on the topic.

Other News:

Fake News corner:

You might wonder why I did not report on the supposed 'Blue Whale' suicide game last week. It's simple: what information was out there seemed sketchy, anecdotal and unreliable. It seemed like a sensationalist story, the kind that proliferates on Facebook. Here's htxt.africa doing some serious research and vindicating my opinion of the story and not giving it any kind of credence.

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Welcome back. We all know that ICT is incredibly enabling. IT puts a lot of CAN into your world. This week we take a bit of time to think about responsibility and consequences. We look at three specific examples of where we can ask - 'you can - but should you?'. But first, let's start with some general news for the week:

Quick news summaries:


You can, but Should you: Monitor your staff?

Sensors are becoming smaller, cheaper and more powerful. Using them, people are developing systems to use energy and space in offices more effectively. To do this, the sensors need to track the movement of workers in the office. No workers in a room? OK, turn off the lights and climate control. Have an open plan office and need to manage work spaces, conference venues, meeting rooms, etc? Track who is where in the building.

The problem is that all technology can be used for many purposes. The same sensors that can tell you how many desks are empty and which meeting rooms are available can also be used to track how much time a worker spends at his / her desk. Some sensors can even tell how often people speak to each other. Big Brother is alive, well and coming to an office near you.

So the trade off is, once again, efficiency vs privacy. This is a topic within the frame of reference of your learners - and makes the whole privacy debate real to them. So why not give them the topic and get them to do a real debate in the class?

Some reference sites:


You can, but should you: Profit from fake news?

You live in a poor town in a poor country. There is an election in a foreign country that many people are interested in. You see an opportunity to create some 'news' web sites related to candidates in this election - and make some money off the advertising when people view your site. Your actions may have a significant impact on the outcome of that election. Should you go ahead and make money or not?

This topic is drawn mainly from a fascinating Wired article titled Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex. The article details the actions of a 17 year old who made $16 000 (more than R200 000) in four months feeding fake news to the American public during the elections. An interesting read - which raises interesting questions that you and your class need to be aware of.


You can, but should you: Watch porn online?


88 percent of the top 500 porn sites have tracking elements installed.

Finally, we all know that most school kids have looked at online porn at least once. You can be as shocked and in denial as you like - but surely it's better to be honest and upfront with the issue - and with them.

Articles detail how, no matter how you try to hide it, your porn viewing habits can be tracked - and all it takes is a hacker to put it out in public for the world to see... or blackmail you into a very uncomfortable situation. Check out Brett Thomas's Blog and Motherboard.


"If you are watching / viewing porn online ... even in Incognito mode,
you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be
publicly released and attached to your name."
-- Brett Thomas

Even if you don't feel comfortable debating the issue of porn, online porn and the viewing habits of the modern teenager - surely it is worthwhile to warn your learners of something that could potentially cause them (at minimum) great embarrassment in the future?


Solving the database problem of time

For the more technically minded. Running a global database is an immense technical challenge. But one of the issues that does not jump to the forefront of one's thinking is Time. How does a database track and manage user interactions (insertions, deletions, edits) on a global scale given the problems of different time zones - and the delays inherent in electronic communications? Only one company has solved this problem - Google. The database it developed is called Spanner, which it is making available to paying customers as a cloud service. Read about it at Wired.


Ransomware & Malware corner

Here's this week's Ransomware and Malware news.

  • Researchers show PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers, the small computers used in many industrial contexts) can be hacked and used to do things like hold the power grid to ransom.
  • And: The Hacker News has an article where researchers show that the water supply is also at risk.
  • Related: CSO Online has an article on worries that Ransomware will hit critical infrastructure. Interesting video on recovering from a Ransomware attack at the bottom of the article.
  • Prediction: Ransomware insurance will become a hot new thing.
  • Is your English poor? Are you worried your dating scam will be detected because of bad grammar / spelling? Don't worry, the Darknet has a solution. Krebs on Security has an article detailing how you can buy dating scam packs - full of templates, photos, letters, etc. to make it easy for you to steal money from a lonely person just looking to connect with that special someone.


Fake news corner

Here's a summary of fake news related articles for the week:

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

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