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.