The Apocalypticon ~ Apple the Evil Genius, hellish eWaste, kids hacked, fart tracking and good news


FBI forensic expert calls Apple ‘evil genius’ for strengthening iPhone encryption — FBI officials continue their attack on Apple’s iPhone encryption, with the latest remarks against the company’s moves coming from a senior forensics examiner and only one day after similar remarks were made by the FBI director. Flatley said that crack time “went from two days to two months” as a result of Apple’s changes. [Dang!] But hey, a bug report on Open Radar affecting version 10.13.2 allows any user to change the App Store system preferences without a real password, in five steps or fewer.

Hellish e-waste where old tech is mined — German photographer Kai Löffelbein spent seven years documenting how metals are extracted, often under dangerous conditions, by some of the world’s poorest people. His forthcoming book, CTRL-X: A Topography of E-Waste, contains photographs from Ghana, China, and India, where much of the world’s e-waste ends up.

Millions of kids hacked, exposed — A company called VTech Electronics has just settled the US Federal Trade Commission’s first case involving an internet-connected toy. VTech will pay the FTC $US650,000 over charges it violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and “failing to take reasonable steps to secure the data it collected,” according to an FTC statement released this week. Cyberthreat intelligence firm Check Point meanwhile disclosed the existence of malicious code buried inside dozens of apps that displays pornographic images to users, and many of the apps are games reportedly geared toward young children. As a result, Google quickly removed the roughly 60 apps said to be affected from its Play Store.

Superbug related to fake sugar — Two bacterial strains that have plagued hospitals may have been at least partly fueled by a sugar additive in food products, scientists say. Trehalose, a sugar added to a wide range of food products, could have allowed certain strains of Clostridium difficile to become far more virulent than they were before, a new study finds. The results, described in the journal Nature, highlight the unintended consequences of introducing otherwise harmless additives to the food supply.

Fart tracker — Yep … A group of Australian researchers has developed an ingestible electronic capsule to monitor gas levels in the human gut. “When it’s paired with a pocket-sized receiver and a mobile phone app, the pill reports tail-wind conditions in real time as it passes from the stomach to the colon,” reports Ars Technica. [So now you can track fart development in real time on your phone. Gosh, technology, hey?]

And now for good news: Scientists have recently solved a major piece of the opioid puzzle [so have I: don’t take them] and it turns out most people say ‘thank you’ to automatic pizza deliverers. [Aw, most people!]

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Futurology ~ Star factory, comet spin, Mars ice, blacker back, gold, Blackbeard’s reading, ancient tool trove


The blue is water … on Mars

Star factory — Our Milky Way galaxy isn’t alone in this corner of space — it’s orbited by a few smaller dwarf galaxies, including the Large Magellanic Cloud. Inside that cloud is 30 Doradus (or the Tarantula Nebula), a “starburst” where stars are formed at a much higher rate than the surrounding area. And 30 Doradus has too many massive stars.
~ Unless they are pumped-up faux wannabes like on those reality TV programs. 

Comet slows its spin — Scientists across the world observed comet 41P when it approached Earth in 2017. It was close enough and bright enough to see with binoculars. One team of scientists, from the University of Maryland, watched the comet’s rotation rate drop rapidly, from one rotation every 20 hours to one every 46 hours. This is larger than any change in comet rotation measured yet, and it could help scientists learn more about how comets evolve over time.
~ What does that do to its gravity?

Scientists have discovered eight cliffs of nearly pure water ice on Mars — Some stand nearly 100 meters tall. The discovery points to large stores of underground ice buried only a meter or two below the surface at surprisingly low Martian latitudes, in regions where ice had not yet been detected. Each cliff seems to be the naked face of a glacier, tantalising scientists with the promise of a layer-cake record of past martian climates and space enthusiasts with a potential resource for future human bases.
~ Still not selling it.

Blacker black — Blackbirds aren’t actually all that black. Their feathers absorb most of the visible light that hits them, but still reflect between 3 and 5% of it. For really black plumage, you need to travel to Papua New Guinea and track down the birds of paradise. Although these birds are best known for their gaudy, kaleidoscopic colours, some species also sport profoundly black feathers. The feathers ruthlessly swallow light and, with it, all hints of edge or contour. By analysing museum specimens, Dakota McCoy, from Harvard University, has discovered exactly how the birds achieve such deep blacks. It’s all in their feathers’ microscopic structure.
~ And it’s hard to get out of your nostrils. 

Gold hits proton: surpass ensues — Surprise has popped up in the data of a decommissioned experiment at America’s largest atom smasher. Brookhaven National Lab physicist Alexander Bazilevsky and RIKEN physicist Itaru Nakagawa hitting a proton against a gold nucleus, approximately. Out on Long Island, New York, is the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at Brookhaven National Laboratory. It is the world’s second-largest proton or atom collider (after the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland), and has made discoveries about the kind of matter that probably existed in the split second after the Big Bang. Neutrons seemed to shoot out in the wrong direction after collisions between protons and gold or aluminium atoms. Now, they need to figure out the physics to describe what they actually saw.
~ Fun times at Long Island. 

Blackbeard’s reading matter — Old-timey pirates are typically portrayed as stupid, unrefined thugs whose only interests involved plundering captured ships and forcing enemies to walk the plank. The recent discovery of legible text on paper pulled from the cannon of Blackbeard’s flagship paints a strikingly different picture of these misunderstood sailors. Specifically, Blackbeard kept a copy of Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711, detailing the British naval officer’s participation in a global expedition aboard the ships Duke and Dutchess.
~ Cooke’s account inspired Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Prehistoric picnic spot in Israel yields hundreds of tools — The ‘mega-site,’ located in Jaljulia near the town of Kfar Saba, was discovered in November 2016 by developers who were surveying the area in preparation for urban development. Over the past year, a collaborative effort by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University has uncovered thousands of artifacts at the one-hectare site, an area frequented by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers some 500,000 years ago.
Digging to a depth of 5 metres, the archaeologists uncovered layer after layer of tools and animals bones. At least six distinct sub-sites have been found within the excavation area.
~ Such a good picnic spot loads of people lost their tools …

The Apocalypticon ~ Bombogenesis, Spectre, NSA sucks, CPUs, hacks, NSA, Black Mirror, and the Alternative Apocalypse


The ‘very real scientific term’ weather bomb describes a storm that suddenly intensifies following a rapid drop in atmospheric pressure. Bombing out, or “bombogenesis,” is when a cyclone’s central pressure drops 24 millibars or more in 24 hours, bringing furious winds that can quickly create blizzard conditions and coastal flooding.
In the north of the US, according to the Cape Cod-based Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, it’s gotten so cold that sharks in the area have been washing up on the shore and essentially freezing to death.
Myles Allen, a climate expert at the University of Oxford, believes scientists can now blame individual natural disasters on climate change. Scientific American reports of how extreme event attribution is one of the most rapidly expanding areas of climate science. Now extreme event attribution is not only possible, it’s one of the most rapidly expanding subfields of climate science.

What’s going on with our CPUs? In 2017, Google’s Project Zero team in collaboration with researchers at a number of different universities identified an absolutely massive problem with speculative execution, one of the techniques employed in modern microprocessors as a way of improving performance: when a processor uses speculative execution, instead of performing tasks strictly sequentially, it predicts which calculations it might need to do subsequently. It then solves them in advance and in parallel fashion. The result is that the CPU wastes some cycles performing unnecessary calculations, but performs chains of commands much faster than if it waited to process them one after the other. However, there’s a serious flaw in the way modern processors are hardcoded to use speculative execution. They don’t check permissions correctly and leak information about speculative commands that don’t end up being run.

The worst hacks of 2017 — Critical infrastructure attacks, insecure databases, hacks, breaches, and leaks of unprecedented scale impacted institutions around the world—along with the billions of people who trust them with their data.
This list includes incidents disclosed in 2017, but note that some took place earlier.

NSA has bad morale — The US National Security Agency is losing its top talent at a worrisome rate as highly skilled personnel, some disillusioned with the spy service’s leadership and an unpopular reorganisation, take higher-paying, more flexible jobs in the private sector. Since 2015, the NSA has lost several hundred hackers, engineers and data scientists, according to current and former US officials with knowledge of the matter. The potential impact on national security is significant, they said. Their work included monitoring a broad array of subjects including the Islamic State, and Russian and North Korean hackers. [OK, I didn’t say ‘Trump’.]

And if you really want to zonk yourself Apocalytpticonically … there’s a new season of Black Mirror.

And the good news? I’ve read too many visions of apocalypse where survivors all turn into inhumanoids who just want to kill each other, so I’m going to write an alternative.

Futurology ~ Space, robots, ancient Americans, dinosaur eggs and what’s coming


Alien megastructure is ‘just dust — An analysis by more than 200 astronomers has been published that shows the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852 – nicknamed Tabby’s star – is not being produced by an alien megastructure. The evidence points most strongly to a giant cloud of dust occasionally obscuring the star, reports The Guardian.
~ Well to me, that’s a relief. But hey, surely a cloud of dust should have been their first call, not ‘alien megastructure’?!

The border of earth and space — A new NASA mission, the first to hitch a ride on a commercial communications satellite, will examine Earth’s upper atmosphere to see how the boundary between Earth and space changes over time. GOLD stands for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, and the mission will focus on the temperature and makeup of Earth’s highest atmospheric layers.
~ Another mission, another future iteration of space junk. 

Smart bot could build homes on Mars — Built by the German space agency DLR, humanoid bots are being groomed to build the first Martian habitat for humans. Engineers have been refining Justin’s physical abilities for a decade; the mech can handle tools, shoot and upload photos, catch flying objects, and navigate obstacles.
Now, thanks to new AI upgrades, Justin can think for itself.
~ Here’s a better idea – the smart Alec can build a house for itself on Mars.

Soft robot may actually be useful — A burgeoning field called soft robotics promises to bring more “natural” movements to the machines. And today, a pair of papers in Science and Science Robotics detail a clever new variety of robotic “muscle,” a series of oil-fueled pouches activated with electricity. This actuator (aka the bit that moves a robot) is as strong and efficient as human muscle, but can pull off more contractions per second. Which could make for a prosthesis that moves more naturally, perhaps—or maybe farther down the road, soft yet strong robots that help you around the house without accidentally terminating you.
~ And I honestly do prefer not being accidentally terminated. 

Ancient Americans we didn’t know about — She died 11,500 years ago at the tender age of six weeks in what is now the interior of Alaska. Dubbed ‘Sunrise Girl-child’by the local indigenous people, the remains of the Ice Age infant, uncovered at an archaeological dig in 2013, contained traces of DNA, allowing scientists to perform a full genomic analysis. Incredibly, this baby girl belonged to a previously unknown population of ancient Native Americans – a discovery that’s changing what we know about the continent’s first people.
All Native Americans can trace their ancestry back to a single migration event that happened at the tail-end of the last Ice Age. The evidence, gleaned from the full genomic profile of the six-week-old girl and the partial genomic remains of another infant, suggests the continent’s first settlers arrived in a single migratory wave around 20,900 years ago. But this population then split into two groups: one group that would go on to become the ancestors of all Native North Americans, and another would venture no further than Alaska. This is a previously unknown population of ancient North Americans now dubbed the Ancient Beringians.
~ Then they got ‘back-migrated’. 

Ancient dinosaur eggs perfectly preserved — Chinese construction workers digging on Christmas day found a gift that was wrapped 130 million years ago in the form of 30 incredibly preserved dinosaur eggs. The discovery was made in the city of Ganzhou at the future site of a new middle school, but work on the new facility had to be put on hold after the ancient eggs were discovered.
~ Here’s the plan, then: grind them into snake oil medicine. 

But wait, Gizmodo has more: All The Wild Stuff We’re Going To Do In Space And Physics In 2018.

The Apocalypticon ~ Ideal population size, radiation, hacking, slacking, cryptojacking, Polygamy, Apple and fighting climate change


Earth might be looking a little worse for wear, after the last four-hundred years of reckless wide-scale resource extraction, but to its credit it hasn’t collapsed entirely. Despite our best efforts, it continues to gamely welcome our rapidly expanding population, barring the occasional earthquake. Whether the planet might be a little better off with fewer of us is a different question, a freighted one: what would the planet’s population size would be in an ideal world?
If the French lifestyle as the benchmark, we would need to reduce the world population to about 3 billion people (4.6 billion less than today’s population). If the USA, the world population would need to be reduced to 1.9 billion. Oh, darn. 

Flying irradiates you — Many flyers don’t know that soaring miles above Earth also takes us out of a vital protective cocoon and a little closer to a place where our cells can be pummeled by radiation from colliding stars, black holes and more. You can’t see these high-energy charged particles, but at any given moment, tens of thousands of them are soaring through space and slamming into Earth’s atmosphere from all directions. These rays don’t pose much of a risk to humans on Earth’s surface, since the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field shield us from most of the threat. But if you fly a lot

Bot finds Nazi accounts: Twitter banned the bot and kept the Nazi accounts — After a week of testing, Impostor Buster was born. Using a crowdsourced database of impersonator accounts, carefully curated to avoid any false positives, the bot patrolled Twitter and interjected whenever impostors tried to insinuate themselves into a discussion. Within days, this golem for the digital age had become a runaway success, garnering thousands of followers and numerous press write-ups. The developers received countless thank-yous from alerted would-be victims.
So Twitter sided with the Nazis: in April, the service suspended Impostor Buster without explanation and reinstated it only after being contacted by the ADL’s cyber-hate team. This month, Twitter suspended the bot again [link is paywalled NY Times], and this time refused to revive it.

Cryptojacking, which exploded in popularity this fall, has an ostensibly worthy goal: use an untapped resource to create an alternative revenue stream for games or media sites, and reduce reliance on ads. It works by embedding a JavaScript component in a website that can leverage a visiting device’s processing power to mine a cryptocurrency (usually Monero). Each visitor might only do a tiny bit of mining while they’re there, but every user lending some hash power over time can generate real money. And users might not even notice what’s happening. In theory, it can be a win-win.
Talking about Cryptocurrency, where did Wikileak’s Bitcoin go? The transparency organization may be sitting on a stockpile of bitcoin valued at around US$25 million, and has likely exchanged several other large cryptocurrency caches for fiat cash, according to two sources who independently analysed WikiLeaks’s bitcoin transactions. So where is the ‘transparency organization’ spending the fortune that the public blockchain indicates it has?

Fighting ‘wrongful views’ in Vietnam — Vietnam is deploying a 10,000-member military cyber warfare unit to combat what the government sees as a growing threat of “wrongful views” proliferating on the internet,. Force 47 has worked pro-actively against distorted information, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported, citing Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy head of the general politics department under the Vietnam People’s Military. The disclosure of the unit comes as the Communist government pressures YouTube and Facebook to remove videos and accounts seen damaging the reputations of leaders or promoting anti-party views like this one: Hey Vietnam, totalitarianism sucks! All it does is conceal the corruption of the ruling class. 

Russia taking US biometric data — Biometric data belonging to millions of Americans may or may not be at risk – but it is frankly unclear – based on a BuzzFeed report. At least two experts are concerned, though, the report says.

But now Russia is accusing the US of (LOL!) meddling in its elections! Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has accused the US of a “direct interference in our electoral process and internal affairs” following the State Department’s criticism of Russia’s decision to bar opposition leader Alexey Navalny from running in the upcoming presidential election against Vladimir Putin.
In a statement shared with Business Insider last Tuesday, a State Department spokesperson expressed concern over the Russian government’s “ongoing crackdown against independent voices, from journalists to civil society activists and opposition politicians.” “These actions indicate the Russian government has failed to protect space in Russia for the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the statement said. “More broadly, we urge the government of Russia to hold genuine elections that are transparent, fair, and free and that guarantee the free expression of the will of the people, consistent with its international human rights obligations.”
Zakharova pushed back. “And these people expressed outrage over alleged Russian ‘interference’ in their electoral process for an entire year?!” she said.

Is there a link between polygamy and war? Men in South Sudan typically marry as often as their wealth – often measured in cattle – will allow. Perhaps 40% of marriages are polygamous. If you ask them the reason for the violence, locals will blame tribalism, greedy politicians, weak institutions and perhaps the oil wealth which gives warlords something to fight over. All true, but not the whole story. Wherever it is widely practised, polygamy (specifically polygyny, the taking of multiple wives) destabilises society, largely because it is a form of inequality which creates an urgent distress in the hearts, and loins, of young men.
‘Gosh, I like your big new cow.’

Apple caved, finally recognising it will have to do more to calm customers’ ire after admitting to, and then apologizing for slowing down their old iPhones. Apple wrote: “We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologise.” To that end, the company has slashed the price of battery replacements for iPhone 6, 6s, and 7 devices from $US80 to $US30.
Cook showed his heartfelt contrition by accepting a huge pay rise. Yes, that is what ‘cynical’ means. 

Oh, so where does all this malaise leaves us? Planning to survive a future we have profoundly tainted by what we do, how we buy and who we vote, or don’t vote, for.

Futurology ~ NASA’s new missions, Germans paid to use power, Crispr future, raunchy Neanderthals


Titan (lower left) in a size comparison with Earth and our Moon. In reality, it’s a bit further away ..

NASA has announced two new potential robotic missions — One is to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, since scientists think comets contain materials from our early solar system, such as ancient ice, rock, and even complex carbon-based molecules. The other heads to Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system, larger even than planet Mercury, and has a dense atmosphere. These missions are the finalists from 12 proposals submitted to the New Frontiers program back in April. Only one of them will move forward and launch in the mid-2020s. 
~ I’m for Titan, which may even host life and structures formed from vinyl cyanide.

Consumers in Germany were paid to use electricity this holiday season — The cost of electricity in Germany has decreased so dramatically in the past few days that major consumers have actually been paid to use power from the grid. While “negative pricing” is not an everyday occurrence in the country, it does occur from time to time, and did this past holiday weekend.
~ Merry Christmas! Let’s put another roast on. 

Crispr humans may be on the way — This was the year that prediction felt like it was starting to come true. US scientists used the CRISPR gene editing technique to treat a common genetic heart disease in a human embryo. Many more diseases were successfully treated in mice using CRISPR. Hell, a particularly enthusiastic biohacker even spontaneously injected himself with muscle-growth genes while giving a talk at a conference.
But if 2017 was the year that the potential of CRISPR began to come into focus, 2018 may be the year that potential begins to be realised.
Next year, the first human trials of CRISPR-based treatments in the US and Europe are slated to begin.
~ Crispr humans won’t need ironing. 

But Crispr’s days are numbered — In less than five years, the gene-editing technology known as Crispr revolutionized the face and pace of modern biology. Since its ability to find, remove, and replace genetic material was first reported in 2012, scientists have published more than 5000 papers mentioning Crispr. Biomedical researchers are embracing it to create better models of disease. And countless companies have spun up to commercialise new drugs, therapies, foods, chemicals, and materials based on the technology. But Crispr Classic is somewhat clunky, unreliable, and a bit dangerous: it can’t bind to just any place in the genome. It sometimes cuts in the wrong places and it has no off-switch. So scientists are working to tweak the technology.
~ Bring on the crisper Crispr!

Naughty Neanderthals — Qiaomei Fu is a leader among a cadre of scientists applying modern, next-generation gene-sequencing techniques to the study of ancient humans. The geneticist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, she has so far unearthed a prehistory shaped by dramatic displacement, migration — and interspecies action.
Qiaomei Fu is regarded as one of the young stars of genetic anthropology, and has published a string of studies shedding light on our ancestors’ raunchy pasts. It seems that sex between modern humans and Neanderthals went on for longer than we’d previously thought. Fu has now founded her own lab in China.
~ Some people find them attractive to this day. 

Review ~ Logitech MX Sound system


Logitech’s MX Sound speakers bring Bluetooth audio to the desktop. MX Sound can deliver stereo audio from computer, smartphone or tablet.
These new speakers appear like greater and lesser pods fused together; the greater houses a forward-facing 70mm speaker and the lesser houses the rear-firing bass ports. The two pods make for a surprisingly stable platform thanks to weight distribution and two rubberised strips on their undersides. The right-hand speaker has the ports, power supply and controls on the back, and the left speaker has an attached cable that goes into one of the ports (only fits one) on the back of the right one. The other ports are headphones, power, PC (any stereo minipin connection, actually) and Aux, which will also take a signal from pretty much any source, again via stereo minipin, effectively giving you two swappable wired connections as well as two swappable wireless (thanks to Bluetooth switching).
With tailored drivers and rear-facing port tubes for bass (better bass tends to come off the backs of normal speakers, so if you port it out properly from the rear of a cabinet, bass response is improved).
A 10° backward tilt when their sitting on a flat surface is designed to point the speakers from a desktop position upwards towards your ears.

Control — Logitech has gone all minimal with these speakers, using a motion-activated and backlit touch-control interface to keep surfaces unblemished. Wave your hand about 5cm or less in front of the right speaker and three backlit controls appear: Bluetooth (press it to make it discoverable for pairing), and a plus and minus sign for volume volume up and down. This means the speakers stay discrete until you need to change the volume. The units self power-down after 20 minutes of non-use, by the way, to conserve power use.

Sound — Audio is well defined, rounded and surprisingly full, especially if you position the two speakers so the bass emanating from the speaker backs is unimpeded and, perhaps, can reflect back to you off a wall or something.
But very bass- and sub-bass-heavy tracks distort at higher volumes. For example with Rihanna’s Shut Up and Drive, bass surges can stop the trebles coming through. Normally, you won’t notice this, but since the highs roll off at a comparatively low 20MHz, what passed for definition at medium volumes suffers accordingly at higher. A song like Public Image by Public Image, with that wonderfully expansive Jah Wobble bass technique, sounds fine at medium volumes and not so god at loud. If you’re a painful twit, like me, with audio stuff, you will also notice the limitations of having one speaker in an enclosure at full extension: for example, in the sublime System Virtue by Emma Paki, at full volume, when the speakers have to produce a swell of that lovely bubbling bassline, the mids and highs will momentarily drop out. If you’ve ever wondered why bigger speaker enclosures have different drivers for different jobs, it’s partly to avoid this, and to produce a wider spectrum from low sounds to high.
Honestly, though, if you want music at high volumes, you should not be looking at a 12W system. For serious music listening and Logic work, I switch my sound through to a Rotel stereo amp and two-driver ELAC speakers, since Macs and iDevices certainly can and do deliver high quality sound.
I also tested it out delivering video soundtracks. The Western series Godless on Netflix certainly gave them a good workout with an extended gun battle that sounded extra convincing with better speakers. The expanded sound stage was very welcome on a holiday trip, although this pair of speakers is nowhere near as portable as some other solutions, including some excellent products from Logitech.
The other way to use speakers is, of course, for games. My current obsession, the World War Two shooter called Day of Infamy, is a good test. You need to be able to hear things to the left and right: you should be able to tell if an enemy is stalking you on the other side of a wall. You learn to identify Allied versus Axis weapon sounds so you can ‘stage’ where things are happening, which can be crucial to playing well. The speakers kept up well, and definitely made the game sound a lot better, and the staging was good, although you can’t beat headphones for truly dedicated play.
Here’s a tip, though: if game sound is too good and too loud, you might find you’ll be less distracted and rattled if you it down a bit, as games like this spend a lot of development on authentic and immersive sound stages.

The ports on the back of the right speaker (click the picture for a large view)

Switcheroo — Listen via Bluetooth and/or a wired connection, and seamlessly switch between to previously-connected devices thanks to the Logitech Easy-Switch feature, which stores details for two devices. It’s easy to use – pause music on one, press play on the other … however, it’s possible to have a wired connection playing at the same time as a Bluetooth one over the speakers at the same time since there’s no input switch to select one over the other, and one input doesn’t automatically cut out the other.
Apart from playing a playlist, say, from an iPad and then an iPhone, it also means you can have them connected to your Mac (or PC) yet have them play a selection direct from your smartphone.

Conclusion — A good offering at a reasonable price that will give you expanded stereo separation, more detail and much warmer midtones than built-in speakers for music, soundtracks and games at low-to-mid volumes.

What’s Great — Easy Bluetooth connection and a wired option; understated interface that only appears the you need it; subtle design which means they don’t draw too much visual attention.

What’s Not — If you’re playing Bluetooth audio and also send sound via wired, they’ll just both play at the same time. Strains at high volumes (as you’d expect from a 12 Watt system and single speakers).

Needs — Anyone who has room on a desk for speakers this big (about a hand’s length across for an average male hand) for a much better quality audio experience. They also sound good with TVs and their understated form is a bonus for this use, if you have the rom for them and just want better TV audio than stock, yet don’t want to go up to a full audio-visual sound system, for example in a small room or apartment.

Logitech MX Sound speakers, RRP NZ$169
System — Total Watt (in RMS) 12W with a Total Peak of 24W, connects via Bluetooth 4.1 up to 25 metres in line-of-sight range plus two 3.5mm inputs (a 3.5mm audio cable is supplied) plus a headphone jack.
Frequency response is 75Hz-20kHz (good headphones will go down to 12Hz, and subwoofers lower still, plus up to 25KHz).
160mm high (6.30 inches) by the same width and 83.4mm deep (3.28in). Weight: 1.72kgs (3.90lbs). Works with Bluetooth enabled devices and any device with a 3.5mm input including televisions, computers, smartphone, tablets and music players

Availability — The Logitech MX Sound system is available via Logitech.com and from selected retail stores for a suggested retail price of NZ$169 (I’ve seen them on Mighty Ape for NZ$139).

The Apocalypticon ~ US angst, Japanese negativity, Snowden app, Facebook and Twitter propaganda, Apple slowing devices, Christmas spirit


Better off — Are you doing better than the previous generation? The Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC, asked nearly 43,000 people in 38 countries around the globe that question this past spring. Residents in 20 countries said people like them were better off than they were 50 years ago. In Vietnam, 88% felt better off, followed by India (69%), South Korea (68%), Japan (65%), Germany (65%), Turkey (65%), the Netherlands (64%), Sweden (64%), Poland (62%) and Spain (60%)… but the US was among the other 18 countries in which people said they were actually worse off than half a century ago. In Senegal, 45% felt this way, followed by Nigeria (54%), Kenya (53%), the US (41%), Ghana (47%), Brazil (49%), France (46%), Hungary (39%), Lebanon (54%) and Peru (46%).
Perhaps Americans have a point – one in five American households have ‘zero or negative’ wealth.
~ It’s mostly down to inequality and distribution, but they keep voting for more of it. President Trump’s tax proposals won’t give America’s middle class the reprieve they need to grow their wealth and recover from the financial crash. 

Japan’s negative births — The number of births in Japan this year has fallen to is lowest since records began more than a century ago with about 941,000 new babies, the health ministry said on Friday, proof if any were needed that it faces an ageing and shrinking population. The number of births will be about 4% lower than last year and the lowest since the government started compiling data in 1899, the ministry said. “What’s behind this is a continuous decline in the number of women in the typical childbearing age bracket of 25 to 39.”

Snowden’s guardian app — The NSA whistleblower and a team of collaborators have been working on a new open-source Android app called Haven that you install on a spare smartphone, turning the device into a sort of sentry to watch over your laptop. Haven uses the smartphone’s many sensors – microphone, motion detector, light detector, and cameras – to monitor the room for changes, and it logs everything it notices. The first public beta version of Haven has officially been released; it’s available in the Play Store and on F-Droid, an open source app store for Android.

No cure for Alzheimers — Few afflictions carry the existential dread that dementia does. While it’s bad enough that there isn’t a treatment that can stop the progression of Alzheimer’s once it’s apparent, a new series of papers published this week suggests something even more disheartening: There might be nothing you can do to prevent it, either.
~ But hey, there’s never any harm in eating right, being active, and being cognitively and socially engaged.

Elderly excluded from jobs in Facebook ads — Verizon is among dozens of leading employers in the US, including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target and Facebook itself, that placed recruitment ads limited to particular age groups, an investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times has found. The ability of advertisers to deliver their message to the precise audience most likely to respond is the cornerstone of Facebook’s business model. But using the system to expose job opportunities only to certain age groups has raised concerns about fairness to older workers. Several experts questioned whether the practice is in keeping with the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits bias against people 40 or older in hiring or employment.

Russian Facebook trolls tool — Facebook has made available a tool to allow users to see whether they had liked or followed a page linked to Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 US election. Facebook had promised to make such a tool available in November, after the company revealed in a congressional hearing that more than 140 million people may have been exposed to Russia-linked propaganda during the 2016 election cycle.

But wait, there’s also Russian Twitter in the UK — Fake social media accounts linked to Russia were used to influence and interfere with public debate in the aftermath of four terrorist attacks in the UK this year, researchers have found. At least 47 Russian Twitter accounts posted material after attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, according to researchers at the Cardiff University Crime and Security Research Institute.

Apple slowing your iDevices — Apple last week confirmed what many customers have long suspected: it has been slowing the performance of older iPhones. Apple says it started the practice a year ago, to compensate for battery degradation, rather than push people to upgrade their smartphones faster. But even giving that benefit of the doubt, there are plenty of better ways Apple could have accomplished the same goal without betraying customer trust.
~ For myself, I’ve noticed a significant and annoying lag whenever I launch the Camera app until it becomes available to shoot on my iPhone 6.

And the good news? Er, is it that Christmas makes people ‘horny‘. Crikey. Anyway, all the best from me for the festive season and the New Year (he writes as he’s about to head off to work on Boxing Day!). 

Futurology ~ Weird from space, ISS, WWII ships research, oil and gas, brains and light, Mixed Reality, robot sweat, de-extinction


Magic Leap finally revealed a prototype of its Mixed Reality glasses

Weird space visitor has organic insulation — Oumuamua is the cigar-shaped object – about 400 meters long and only 40 meters in the other dimensions – that originated from somewhere else in the Galaxy and visited our Solar system while moving at nearly 20,9214 kilometres per hour (about 130,000mph). Scientists do not know where Oumuamua came from or what it is made of. It is not shaped like commonly seen asteroids, and unlike comets it does not leave a trail behind it, not even when it flies past the Sun. In fact, Oumuamua seems to be wrapped in a strange organic coat made of carbon-rich gunk that it likely picked up on its long travels through space…
~ Right, it wrapped itself. It’s Christmas after all. 

The space station is the best thing we ever did — The International Space Station is one of the few nonstellar things up there that we can see from down here without instruments. It’s a prefab home the size of a football field, 462 tons and more than $100 billion worth of pressurised roomlike modules and gleaming solar arrays, orbiting 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Its flight path is available online, and you can find out when it will make a nighttime pass over your backyard. Right on schedule, you’ll spot an unblinking white light that’s moving at 28,163kph (17,500 mph).
~ Agreed, it’s pretty awesome. 

Physicists recycled WWII ships and artillery to unlock the mysteries of the universe — A million Russian artillery shells helped scientists discover the Higgs boson. All over the world, remnants of World War II weapons are built into the most mysterious experiments in physics.
~ Ploughshares, anyone? 

Oil, gas production gone by 2040 — In France, anyway. France’s parliament has approved a law banning all exploration and production of oil and natural gas by 2040 within the country and its overseas territories. Under that law that passed a final vote, existing drilling permits will not be renewed and no new exploration licenses will be granted. The French government claims the ban is a world first. However, it is largely symbolic since oil and gas produced in France accounts for just 1% of domestic consumption.
~ Still, could be worse. You know, planet-wide apocalypse or something. No pressure. 

Light, genes and brains — Along with his MIT neuroscientist colleague Dheeraj Roy and others, Susumu Tonegawa is upending basic assumptions in brain science. Early this year, he reported that memory storage and retrieval happen on two different brain circuits, not on the same one as was long thought. His team also showed that memories of an event form at the same time in the brain’s short-term and long-term storage areas, rather than moving to long-term storage later on. Most recently (and tantalisingly), his lab demonstrated what could someday be a way to bring currently irretrievable memories back into conscious awareness.
~ Hopefully, they also wrote it down somewhere. 

Magic Leap into Mixed Reality — After raising US$1.9 billion dollars, Magic Leap finally showed off it’s “mixed-reality” goggles. Was the wait worth it? Rolling Stone got a look: “The revelation, the first real look at what the secretive, multi-billion dollar company has been working on all these years is the first step toward the 2018 release of the company’s first consumer product. It also adds some insight into why major companies like Google and Alibaba have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Magic Leap, and why some researchers believe the creation could be as significant as the birth of the Internet.”

Robot sweats while it does press-ups — In Science Robotics, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed off a humanoid that is strikingly lifelike not just in how it looks, but how it moves. The machine is a radical departure from the stiff, bumbling humanoids that have so far done a whole lot of falling on their faces.
~ It ‘sweats’ by circulating water through its frame to dissipate heat when it’s active. 

De-extinction — For the past few years science writer Britt Wray has been delving into the strange field of ‘de-extinction,’ travelling the world to meet with scientists working to bring back species ranging from the aurochs to the thylacine to the woolly mammoth. One of the most promising efforts is Revive & Restore, which hopes to create a living passenger pigeon by the year 2022.
~ Perhaps she could start planning ahead, for us?

Photo Lemur 2.1.1


Photo Lemur, the one-stop photo improvement app, has sped up a little in its latest version and improved the algorithms it uses to analyse, and then fix an image.
A slider along the bottom lets you decide how much ‘improvement’ Photo Lemur can deliver, from 0 to 100%. This is the least sophisticated tool as far as the user goes: no layers, selections, replacement or other area-by-area corrections are available; no brushes, correction tools, multiple undoes … almost no tools at all.
The interface is dauntingly simple (to those used to Photoshop). Open Photo Lemur and drop an image onto the Photo Lemur import window (left), and the app analyses the image (the wireframe animations as per the main image above, I suspect, are arbitrary rather than working, so you know things are happening).
The image opens, and you can drag a vertical Before and After slider to see what your image is like and what it could be like, which is invariably quite an improvement, lightening dark areas and showing otherwise hidden detail, and adding sparkle and contrast to better lit areas. Drag this slider left and right to to inspect your image.
Click the little paintbrush icon at bottom right, and the Boost level slider is revealed. What you saw in the After section is the 100% boost, so you can back off down to what you feel is a more acceptable level if that works better for you.

But does it work? Yes, and often the result is truly remarkable (click an image for a closer look). For a badly degraded, overexposed or faulty shot, there’s a limit to what it can do, but honestly, iPhones simply don’t deliver those kinds of results any more, since they also analyse the scene and balance the white point and exposure faster than the blink of an eye. That means 99% of the shots you send this app’s way will be improved with added sparkle, depth, detail and clarity to make them really ‘pop’.

This even applies to those images shot in low light, which feature noise in the darker areas as an unavoidable consequence of the way CCD sensors work when there simply isn’t enough light for a decent exposure.

Click Export to see several useful options: you can export back to Disk (your hard drive, or a connected hard drive) or choose to upload directly to Flickr, email it, add it directly to Facebook, tweet it or launch it into Snapheal, should you have it, so you can do those area-by-area corrections that Photo Lemur does not support.

Small frustrations — If you open several images at once, you can’t seem to resize the image you are working on to see it in more detail, as there’s no Zoom. Also, the window is not resizable. When you use the Boost slider, you’re actually subtracting, or at least selectively minimising the boost,. It means ‘Set Amount of Boost’ rather than Boost. And when you do this, the Before and After slider disappears – I’d prefer it if it stayed

Conclusion — This is like a more sophisticated, more analytical and more thorough version of the Enhance wand you can single-tap in the Photos app on iPhone and iPad, with the added feature that you can back off from the maximum level of change to the point where you think it’s best. It’s basic, interface-wise, sure, but with it’s smart background tech, works a treat to enhance your images in a much more sophisticated way considering most of its magic is hidden from view.

What’s Great — Improves most images you throw at it, without you having to do all of the legwork.

What’s Not — when you have several images open, you have a limited working space. Confusing payment options: for a while this was Subscriber, then it was a single price … often gets heavily discounted and specially offered, so look out for that (for example, Photo Lemur 2.2 ‘Spectre’ is currently 70% off until 4th January).

Needs — Those who feel their general shots are a little lacking. Photo Lemur is a very fast way to add considerable zing! to images. Its stock price is incredibly steep until you realise how much time and work it can save you.
Check out the developer’s How It Works page.

Photo Lemur 2.2 Spectre, usually US$151 (NZ$215) but US$45 (cNZ$64) until 4th January).
There’s also a Free Version,, for which you have to put in a name and email address. This is for those who want to try Photolemur before buying it. It’s limited and puts the product logo in the photo.

Online only— Visit the Photo Lemur site.

 

The Apocalypticon ~ Space germs, fossil fuels, information wars, sensitive time capsule, Apple tax and censorship, bush fire thwarts prepper, toys


Germy space station — According to a new study in the journal PeerJ, the interior surfaces of the 17-year-old, 250-mile-high, airtight space station harbour at least 1000 and perhaps more than 4000 microbe species.

Shocking dependence on fossil fuels remains — Most of the world’s clean-energy sources are used to generate electricity, but electricity forms only 25% of the world’s energy consumption. As the rich world moved towards a cleaner energy mix, much of the poor world was just starting to gain access to modern forms of energy. Inevitably, they chose the cheapest option, which was and remains fossil fuels. But the world’s energy demand has grown so steeply that we’re also using a lot more fossil fuels than in the past.

Time capsule in, ahm, hate to say, Jesus’ butt — While preserving an 18th century wooden statue of Jesus, a team of Spanish restorers was surprised to discover a time capsule hidden within the hollowed-out buttocks-portion of the carving. Written by a Catholic chaplain, the detailed document contains economic, political and cultural information about the time period. The document was signed in 1777 by a Spanish Priest named Joaquín Mínguez, chaplain of the Cathedral of the Burgo de Osma.
~ Let us raise our eyes …

Man tries to hack mate out of prison — A Michigan man has pleaded guilty to hacking the computer network of the Washtenaw County Jail, where he modified inmate records in an attempt to have an inmate released early. To breach the jail’s network, the attacker used spear-phishing emails and telephone social engineering. He was arrested a month later and is now awaiting sentencing (maximum 10 years and a fine of up to US$250,000).
~ Once upon a time, this would have been a physical act. 

More on the information war — Personal data belonging to over 31 million customers of a popular virtual keyboard app was leaked online, after the app’s developer failed to secure the database’s server. The server is owned by Eitan Fitusi, co-founder of AI.type, a customisable and personalisable on-screen keyboard, which boasts more than 40 million users across the world. The database appears to only contain records on the app’s Android users.
Should we worry? We could fund a Universal Basic Income with the data we give away to Google and Facebook.
In 1929, the Nazi propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer published a caricature of an imaginary group of devious looking Jewish people peeling off in a car after apparently running over a German boy, left bleeding in the arms of his father.
In the year 2017, the president of the United States retweeted a video of a dark-haired teenager assaulting a blond, Dutch teenager on crutches, with the erroneous caption, “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” Unfortunately, there’s more. “This is scary shit,” echoes Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale and author of the book How Propaganda Works.
Now, and after the US, the UK appears to be warning its own workers to steer clear of Kaspersky‘s security products. [Kaspersky refutes he has anything to do with Russian espionage, but let me boil down how Russian espionage works: Russia is asked through official channels ‘Did you sanction, or carry out, this or that?’ Russia replies ‘No’. That’s it.]

Shout out against Apple and tax. Literally — A group of global activists stormed and occupied several Apple Stores in France last weekend in a move aimed at pressuring the company to pay up on a €13 billion (US$15.5 billion) tax bill to the European Union.
But wait, there’s more: Apple’s Tim Cook (along with Google’s Sundar Pichai) made appearances at China’s World Internet Conference, bringing star power to a gathering the Chinese government uses to promote its strategy of tight controls online. [In other words, they were there to promote Chinese censorship. Go Tim ‘it’s not the morals, it’s the money’ Cook.] 

Microwaving North Korean missiles — According to an NBC News report, a weapon, still under development, could be put on a cruise missile and shot at an enemy country from a B-52 bomber. It’s designed to use microwaves to target enemy military facilities and destroy electronic systems, like computers, that control their missiles. [Fries with that?]

Bushfire prep — OK, not really. A Utah man reportedly spent 30 years building a series of underground bunkers that he hoped would outlive the apocalypse … but half of them couldn’t even survive a bushfire. [Back to the drawing board for Mr Doofus.]

Although that was funny, it’s also tragic and stupid. I like to end on a positive note. Here it is: get your kids less toys. Really.

Apple Mac, iPhone & iPad news for New Zealanders

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