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2016 February

February 24, 2016

Microsoft is putting data centers into the ocean


Popular Science reported earlier this month on Microsoft’s plan to create and install submersible data centers due to the energy required to keep the servers cool. In the United States alone, half of the power to power the Internet is used to cool the servers so they don’t overheat and crash. This mimics past attempts at using liquid-cooling systems but without the additional power requirements to operate such devices.

Project Natick is still in the research phase. Microsoft ran a successful prototype–over a period of several months–last year. The test was done one kilometer off the Pacific Coast. The proximity to land was required since the datacenter required terrestrial power but looks to make the switch to wind or oceanic current energy power conversion in the future. Some of the project rationales include providing quick deployment and latency reduction due to proximity to coastal populations and temporary usage for large events like the World Cup or the Olympics.

For more information, check out this article from Popular Science or the Project Natick page here.

February 23, 2016

Apple answers some questions about their customer letter

Apple released a follow-up response to CEO Tim Cook’s open letter to customers this week. This release seeks to clarify Apple’s intentions behind their rationale for object the U.S. government’s request (via the FBI) to unlock the phone used by one of the shooters in San Bernadino last December.

Specifically, the government is asking Apple to:

“The government asked a court to order Apple to create a unique version of iOS that would bypass security protections on the iPhone Lock screen. It would also add a completely new capability so that passcode tries could be entered electronically.”

Apple objected to the order due to what it calls “two important and dangerous implications.”

“First, the government would have us write an entirely new operating system for their use. They are asking Apple to remove security features and add a new ability to the operating system to attack iPhone encryption, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.”

“Second, the order would set a legal precedent that would expand the powers of the government and we simply don’t know where that would lead us. Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking? This would set a very dangerous precedent.”

For more information and for a list of the other questions addressed in the press release, check out this link from Apple.

February 19, 2016

FCC votes to unlock the cable box

FCC logo

The Federal Communications Commission today approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that seeks to give consumers more choices in the set-top boxes they use to watch cable TV. This will commence the months-long public comment period leading up to a final vote likely later this year.

The FCC is trying to create a software-based replacement for CableCARD (originally a PC Card device for computers but has since expanded to mean any device that uses it, like digital cable boxes, etc.) Theoretically, customers could watch their TV channels on various devices without needing to rent a set-top box from their service provider nor purchase any equipment.

This proposal has been contested not surprisingly by cable companies. Critics say that it would force cable companies to create new set-top boxes to then charge customers for renting these new devices. FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, clarified the proposal to dispel those concerns:

“There is nothing in here that allows third parties to disaggregate cable content or sell advertising around it… It takes the same system that goes to the cable box today with the same structures and moves it through a different box requiring the same structures. As a result, existing copyrights and programming agreements are unaffected, consumer privacy is protected, emergency alerts are passed through and child protection laws are unaffected. Nothing in this proposal slows down or stops cable innovation.”

Pay-TV companies would have two full years to comply. There are no new standards being codified either–Wheeler recommends that the information streams “be available to the creators of competitive solutions using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body…in compliance with [what] Congress [has already] mandated [in the 1996 Telecommunications Act] that consumers should have a choice.”

For more on this topic, check out this article from Ars Technica.

February 17, 2016

Apple’s Customer Letter: the US Government is requesting overreach

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, released a letter to his customers today following the request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to have data decrypted from an iPhone formerly belonging to the gunman who instigated a shooting spree in San Bernadino, California last December.

In response to the request by the FBI, Cook asserts that Apple complied with the subpoenas and search warrants issued in the investigation process for this case. Cook goes further:

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

Cook goes on to say that the FBI is circumventing Congressional action by invoking the All Writs Act “in an unprecedented use” to justify its request to expand its authority on future matters of similar nature. Apple will oppose the order due to what Cook sees as “an overreach by the U.S. government” citing its purpose is with “the deepest respect for American democracy and a love for our country” in mind.

For the full letter to Apple customers, click here.

February 12, 2016

This uncrushable robot just wants to rescue you

Cockroach-inspired robot designed at UC Berkeley

New cockroach inspired robot designed by UC Berkeley professors built to move while under compression. GIF Credit: MIT Technology Review.

Two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a robot that took its inspiration from a cockroach.

In a paper published on February 8th, Robert Full and Kaushik Jayaram explain how the malleability of a cockroach exoskeleton which allows for movement in compressed spaces can be applied in robotics. They then built a device–a compressible robot with articulated mechanisms (CRAM)–from several folding exoskeleton-like plates. They speculate that its malleability and strength make it ideal for exploring collapsed buildings (like in a rescue scenario).

This is made possible through the use of flexible polymers used in applications like Soft Robotics and Empire Robotics that sell soft grippers which allow for precise manipulation of objects. (Click here for a fun example from Empire’s Versaball playing beer pong.)

For more information, check out this article from the MIT Technology Review or click the GIF above.

February 11, 2016

Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory

The video above produced by The New York Times describes the method in which gravitational waves were detected on Earth for the first time by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Washington and Louisiana.

Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted that the acceleration of massive objects would ripple the fabric of space and time sending out gravitational waves. Today’s report is a confirmation of the first detection of such a wave.

For more information on this new discovery, check out the full article by The New York Times.

Google’s Driverless Cars will be legally treated like human drivers

Google's driverless car

Google/Alphabet’s driverless car. Photo credits: Google (accessed from Popular Science)

The artificial intelligence system that operates self-driving cars developed by Google/Alphabet is now considered the driver by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) according to an exclusive report from Reuters.

The system which “has no need for a human driver” will be treated as separate from the vehicle’s occupants. This now will clear the way for Google or other automakers developing driverless systems to develop systems that communicate directly with their cars. However, current federal law does not allow for steering wheels and brake pedals to not be part of the vehicle.

NHTSA said then it would write guidelines for self-driving cars within six months. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the administration may seek new legal authority to allow deployment of autonomous vehicles “in large numbers,” when they are deemed safe, the department said.

For more on this subject, check out the article from Reuters.

Click on the image above to read a related article from Popular Science.

February 10, 2016

Mac OS X vulnerability to hijacking via third-party apps

Security locks
ArsTechnica is reporting that Mac OS X Yosemite (10.10) and El Capitan (10.11) are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MITM) hijacking through Sparkle, a third-party software framework that certain third-party apps use to receive updates.

In a MITM attack like this one, the software is made vulnerable during the update process and malicious code can then be installed to take control of the computer.

There is a patch available (at the time of this post) but use of it has to be taken care of by the developer. Sparkle’s documentation does note that due to how it works, software that uses it can be vulnerable without making a few modifications at the developer level.

The vulnerability has been found so far in versions of Camtasia, uTorrent, and VLC Media Player.

For information on how the vulnerability was discovered (it is pretty advanced), check out this summary from Radoslaw Karpowicz, the man who found it.

For more information on this vulnerability (in more layman’s terms), check out ArsTechnica.com.

February 5, 2016

Morocco turns on what will be the world’s largest solar power plant

Flag of Morocco
The largest solar plant in the world, the Noor 1, outside of the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate on the edge of the Sahara Desert, was activated this week. The plant spans thousands of acres and is now generating about 160 megawatts of power. The plant’s next two phases will bring the generation capacity to 580 megawatts by 2018.

Right now, the plant is comprised of 500,000 curved mirrors standing roughly 40 feet tall. The mirrors concentrate the sun’s light onto a pipeline filled with fluid, heating it up to 739ºF. This superheated fluid is used to heat up a nearby source of water which steams then spins turbines to create energy.

The plant can still operate at night by storing the heat in to tanks of molten salts.

For more information, check out these articles from The Guardian and from The Verge.

February 4, 2016

Babylonians tracked Jupiter with sophisticated geometry

Babylonian astronomical information

Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver.

(from John Timmer – Ars Technica)

Even when a culture leaves behind extensive written records, it can be hard to understand their knowledge of technology and the natural world. Written records are often partial, and writers may have been unaware of some technology or simply considered it unremarkable. That’s why the ancient world can still offer up surprises like the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient mechanical computer that highlighted the Greeks’ knowledge of math, astronomy, and the mechanical tech needed to tie them together.

It took several years after the discovery for the true nature of the Antikythera Mechanism to be understood. And now something similar has happened for the Babylonians. Clay tablets, sitting in the British Museum for decades, show that this culture was able to use sophisticated geometry to track the orbit of Jupiter, relying on methods that in some ways pre-figure the development of calculus centuries later.

For the full article, check out Ars Technica