Category Archives: Apocalypse

The Apocalypticon ~ Korea, Russia, China, Social Media, cleaners, CRISPR threat, time travellers, booze anger


Korean DMZ — Is this the ‘scariest place on Earth?’ (I think Washington DC is scarier, myself). The Korean Demilitarized Zone was established in 1953 as part of the armistice agreement that ended three years of brutal fighting between North and South Korea. Stretching across the 250km (155-mile) width of the Korean peninsula, the approximately 3.2km (2-mile) wide swath of land is bounded on both sides by several lines of barbed wire fence and one of the largest concentration of soldiers and artillery in the world. President Bill Clinton once called it the “scariest place on earth.” Now you can see images of it.

Enriched uranium floating about — On 3 August 2016, 7km above Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a research plane captured something mysterious: An atmospheric aerosol particle enriched with the kind of uranium used in nuclear fuel and bombs.
It’s the first time scientists have detected such a particle just floating along in the atmosphere in 20 years of plane-based observations. And this has baffled scientists. [North Korea?]

The Russian charges — Surprise! The US Justice Department has revealed an eight-count indictment charging 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities over their alleged meddling in US politics, including the 2016 US presidential election. So while the current White House may result from Russian meddling, it has been eight months since the malware known as NotPetya tore through the internet, rippling out from Ukraine to paralyse companies and government agencies around the world. On Thursday, the White House finally acknowledged that attack. And in a reversal of its often seemingly willful blindness to the threat of Russian hacking, it has called out the Kremlin as NotPetya’s creator.
Meanwhile, Russian bots flooded Twitter with pro-gun tweets after the school shooting in Florida.

Social media — General practitioner Rangan Chatterjee says he has seen plenty of evidence of the link between mental ill-health in children and their use of social media. “One 16 year-old boy was referred to him after he self-harmed and ended up in A&E,” reports the BBC. Dr Chatterjee was going to put him on anti-depressants, but instead worked with him to help wean him off social media. Maybe he’s not the only one: Facebook lost around 2.8 million US users under 25 last year.

China — The heads of six top US intelligence agencies told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week they would not advise Americans to use products or services from Chinese smartphone maker Huawei. [That’s going to go down well …] Huawei responded that it “poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor.”
China has reassigned over 60,000 soldiers to plan trees in a bid to combat pollution by increasing the country’s forest coverage. The soldiers are from the People’s Liberation Army, along with some of the nation’s armed police force. The majority will be dispatched to Hebei province, which encircles Beijing, known to be a major culprit for producing the notorious smog which blankets the capital city.

Household cleaners, paints and perfumes have become substantial sources of urban air pollution as strict controls on vehicles have reduced road traffic emissions, scientists say. Researchers in the US looked at levels of synthetic “volatile organic compounds”, or VOCs, in roadside air in Los Angeles and found that as much came from industrial and household products refined from petroleum as from vehicle exhaust pipes.

CRISPR could be triggering unintended mutations — Last winter, a letter appeared in a scientific journal that challenged how truly “revolutionary” and world-changing CRISPR gene-editing technology really might be. Researchers found that when they used CRISPR to cure blindness in mice, it had resulted in not just a few but more than a thousand unintended effects. Those unintended changes to DNA, they found, were not detectable using common methods for checking for off-target effects. This, the authors wrote, meant that CRISPR needed significant fine-tuning before it was ready to cure disease in people. Stocks tumbled. The scientific community freaked out.

And in good, or at least funny, news — Time travellers: though most of their wild tales were eventually disproven, the stories are still incredible. Here are five of the most memorable.
Australian scientists are trying to work out why some drunks get so mean. Dramatic mood shifts while drinking alcohol are normal, but for some of us, booze takes us down a path toward nasty, belligerent and downright aggressive behaviour. By studying brain scans of drunk men, Australian scientists have pinpointed the parts of our brain that go weak when we drink, making us meaner than usual. But like so many aspects of human psychology, it’s a lot more complicated than that. [I’ve always thought drunkenness reveals true nature, myself.]

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The Apocalypticon ~ Space bling, Spectre, climate denial, CIA exploit, Alzheimer sugar, Trump in sights


New Zealand disco ball in space is bad for science — When NZ-based Rocket Lab launched a 91cm-wide mirror ball into orbit. Called Humanity Star, it’s supposed to remind us that we’re all puny specks of dust living in the terrifying vastness of the Universe. Some astronomers have spoken out about the stunt, claiming the sparkly object will interfere with their work – one even compared the abusiveness of the act to sticking “a big flashing strobe-light on a polar bear”.
~ The bigger problem is the precedent this otherwise useless satellite creates. Basically, Rocket Lab spent a fortune to launch a useless bit of bling into orbit. 

Hardwired meltdown — Linux progenitor Linus Torvalds has already shared his feelings regarding the bungles of Spectre and Meltdown. They weren’t happy ones. Now that patches are available, Torvalds is even less impressed, describing Intel’s effort as “complete and utter garbage“. Torvalds stated that “the whole hardware interface is literally mis-designed by morons” and the way Intel has approached the problem “implies [it] will never fix [the interface].

White House seeks 72% cut to clean energy research — The Trump administration has made it very clear that it is pro fossil fuels and has little interest in pushing programs the promote renewable energy. The Washington Post has reported that the president’s proposed 2019 budget slashes funds for Energy Department programs focused on energy efficiency.
~ When an ostrich buries its head in the sand, you’re basically presented with its arse. 

Major report nixes negative emission tech anyway — Senior scientists from across Europe have evaluated the potential contribution of negative emission technologies (NETs) to allow humanity to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets of avoiding dangerous climate change. They find that NETs have “limited realistic potential” to halt increases [PDF] in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at the scale envisioned in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios. None of the NETs have the potential to deliver carbon removals at the gigaton (Gt) scale and at the rate of deployment envisaged by the IPCC, including reforestation, afforestation, carbon-friendly agriculture, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCs), enhanced weathering, ocean fertilisation, or direct air capture and carbon storage.

A 15-year-old convinced Verizon he was the head of the CIA — A British teenager managed to obtain access to sensitive US plans about intelligence operations in different Middle East countries by acting as former CIA Director John Brennan, a court heard on Friday. Kane Gamble, now 18, researched Brennan and used the information he gathered to speak to an internet company and persuade call handlers to give him access to the spy chief’s email inbox in 2015. He pretended to be both a Verizon employee and Brennan to access Brennan’s internet account.
~ This is not hacking so much as exploiting gullibility. 

More evidence of a strange link between sugar and Alzheimers — People with high blood sugar stand to experience worse long-term cognitive decline than their healthy peers, even if they’re not technically type 2 diabetic, new research suggests. The findings are not the first linking diabetes with impaired cognitive functions, but they’re some of the clearest yet showing blood sugar isn’t just a marker of our dietary health: it’s also a telling predictor of how our brains may cope as we get older.

Trump claims memo vindicates him but it doesn’t, and Mueller has made more progress than most think — In a tweet over the weekend that the controversial Nunes memo “totally vindicates” him. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if anything, the Mueller investigation appears to have been picking up steam in the past three weeks – and homing in on a series of targets.
~ This is, therefore, in the ‘good news’ category. 

The Apocalypticon ~ Doomsday clock, sensorium, tech, Earth, aliens,


It’s two minutes to midnight. And that’s really bad news if you’re a fan of planet Earth. The so-called Doomsday Clock, a symbol of how close the world is to total annihilation, has been moved 30 seconds closer to midnight.
The last time it was at two minutes to midnight was when the United States and the Soviet Union both conducted hydrogen bomb tests way back in 1953. [Can’t think why …. sh, don’t say ‘Trump’, Damn, it!]
Speaking of, then, why aren’t there more smart Americans? Americans are wondering, having just, presumably, caught up with the rest of the world. To emphasise the point, perhaps, the US has dropped out of the top 10 in the 2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index for the first time in the six years the gauge has been compiled. The Governor of Hawaii didn’t correct that false missile alert sooner because … he didn’t know his Twitter password.
President Trump took to Twitter [its brevity matches his attention span] to announce he has signed a six-year renewal of a powerful government surveillance tool. Worried? Of course not. The US National Security Agency maintains a page on its website that outlines its mission statement. Earlier this month, the agency made a discreet change: it removed ‘honesty’ as its top priority. [That, combined with the current President, is the slippery slope that leads to Fascism, folks.]

How’re your sensors? Watch out for transduction attacks, which spoof data by exploiting the physics of sensors. Seriously, it’s a thing. Or might be soon, anyway.
While we’re talking about tech, YouTube was recently caught displaying ads that covertly leach off visitors’ CPUs and electricity to generate digital currency on behalf of anonymous attackers.
Using machine learning and AI to swap celebrities’ faces onto porn performers’, resulting in fake celebrity porn seamless enough to be mistaken for the real thing. Early victims include Daisy Ridley, Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson and Taylor Swift. [So can they swap Keannu Reeves’ face with that of an actor?]
Facebook said it could offer no assurance that social media was on balance good for democracy. [And we can all remember when it was good for democracy? But hey, it still makes a sh_t-ton of money, so it doesn’t matter.]

Breaking up is hard to do — If you want to get an idea of how quickly sentiment has shifted against US tech giants, check out NYU professor Scott Galloway: “After spending the majority of the last two years of my life really trying to understand them and the relationship of the ecosystem, I’ve become 100% convinced that it’s time to break these companies up.” It’s an audacious claim from anyone, even more startling coming from someone who has been such a close and bullish observer of these tech giants. Yet for Galloway, it is clear that the four companies have simply become too big, and too powerful. [The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse indeed.]
And Kim Dotcom, the founder of file-sharing site Megaupload, is suing the New Zealand government for billions of dollars in damages over his arrest in 2012. The internet entrepreneur is fighting extradition to the US to stand trial for copyright infringement and fraud. Dotcom says an invalid arrest warrant negated all charges against him. [John Key, you’re the one who should be fronting for this.]

(Image from Which)

Life on Earth and all that — Yes we could cool the Earth artificially, but we really really shouldn’t. When we see a large cat capturing its prey on the African savannah, we’re literally watching millions of years of evolution in action. This could disappear almost overnight in the ‘cooling the Earth artificially’ scenario. But Australian birds of prey have been spreading bush fires. Seems crazy, but apparently not.
In New Zealand, ‘gene drive’ may be used to wipe out imported predators[Surely, that means people?] But genetically-targeted poison might be the easier option.
Plastic is still a huge problem, but we don’t seem to be taking it seriously yet. A new study based on four years of diving on 159 reefs in the Pacific shows that reefs in four countries (Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar) are heavily contaminated with plastic. It clings to the coral, especially branching coral. And where it clings, it sickens or kills.

But hey, people don’t just ignore the Earth’s feelings — Remember those World War II shipwrecks that mysteriously vanished from the bottom of the Java Sea? When they were found to be missing in 2016, it was heavily suspected that illegal salvagers exploded the ships and then looted them for metal. According to new reports, those metal scavengers also brought up substantial remains of Dutch and British sailors – and then unceremoniously dumped them into mass graves.

I found an alien! (Is this the right number?) Faced with some six-eyed slime-being rooting through your trash, or a spacecraft idling above your backyard, who exactly would you think to call? And what would whoever you called do, when you called them?

Finally, some good news — Scientists have been investigating the impact of violent video games on behavior for more than two decades, and the results are still being debated. In a 2015 resolution on games, the American Psychological Association reported that multiple studies found a link between violent game exposure and aggressive behavior, though critics at the time questioned the findings. Now, a new study published by researchers at the University of York in the journal Computers in Human Behavior further challenges the connection.
{Hoorah! Once more into the breech, then …]

The Apocalypticon ~ ‘Free’ speech, robots, ‘smart leaders’


How free is that speech? For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the news­paper, pressure the broad­cast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, a loaded gun at an announcer’s head. Now we’re in the Golden Age of free speech – and twitter bots and fake news. Here are six tales of modern censorship for you.
And Snap, an instant messaging service, had a simple message to its employees: leak information and you could be sued or even jailed. The chief lawyer and general counsel of Snapchat’s parent company, Michael O’Sullivan, sent a threatening memo to all employees last week. [OK, who leaked the memo?]. Sure, whose even heard of Snap? Apple isn’t allowing a new app developed by a university professor that detects when your internet is being throttled by ISPs from being listed on the app store. The company claimed the app contained “objectionable content” and “has no direct benefits to the user!” [From ‘Way to go, Apple!’ to ‘You have a way to go, Apple.] Eventually, though, it was allowed.

Robotic progress and fears — An interview from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is with the former Army Ranger who led the team that established the US Defense Department policy on autonomous weapons (and who has written the upcoming book Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War).
Paul Scharre makes the case for uninhabited vehicles, robot teammates, and maybe even an outer perimeter of robotic sentries (and, for mobile troops, “a cloud of air and ground robotic systems”). But he also argues that “In general, we should strive to keep humans involved in the lethal force decision-making process as much as is feasible. What exactly that looks like in practice, I honestly don’t know.”
Our greatest fear these days may be the singularity: when the abilities of AI and robots surpass those of humans, growing so advanced that civilization is forced to reboot as humanity spirals into existential dread. Or worse, the machines turn us into batteries, à la The Matrix. But perhaps we should instead consider the dangers of the Multiplicity.

Smart leaders smart — Intelligence makes for better leaders, from undergraduates to executives to presidents, according to multiple studies. It certainly makes sense that handling a market shift or legislative logjam requires cognitive oomph. But new research on leadership suggests that, at a certain point, having a higher IQ stops helping and starts hurting. [I’m more afraid of idiots who think they are smart. You know, like really, really smart.]
And how ‘smart’ is this? In September 2017, Mark Zuckerberg quietly bought a 106.68m ‘exploration yacht’ for $US150 million. However, a Zuckerberg spokesperson has soundly denied the Facebook CEO bought the ship. It’s potentially a giant escape yacht’. The massive ship “can sail halfway around the world without refuelling and is designed to endure the toughest weather conditions” – making it the perfect vessel to wait out an impending apocalypse that only the billionaire creator of Facebook knows about. [Well, Zuck, you’ve got to get to that yacht first.]
But wait … dirt might save us. And California is going to close its last nuclear power plant.

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!]

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.

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.

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!). 

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.

The Apocalypticon ~ Quantum spying, Android, see level, Russians, post apocalypse garden, dazzle ships


Quantum spying — In his latest novel, David Ignatius tackles the intersection of quantum computing and espionage. The Quantum Spy revolves around a central theme of spy literature: the race for a new technology, to discover something new that, even if only for a moment, will provide a geopolitical advantage.
But it didn’t take any kind of computer to hack the US military, because they didn’t even use passwords. [Makes you feel safe, doesn’t it? ]

Three quarters of Android apps track users with third party tools — A study by French research organization Exodus Privacy and Yale University’s Privacy Lab analysed the mobile apps for the signatures of 25 known trackers and found that more than three in four Android apps contain at least one third-party ‘tracker.’

US ‘orchestrated’ Russian spy scandal, claims Russian — Right, yeah, that makes sense.

Twitter-twatted Trump — In the last few days, President Donald Trump has used his infamous Twitter account to retweet British fascists’ anti-Islam videos and tag the wrong Theresa May in an angry rant. Trump’s very bad tweets translate into almost immediate real-life consequences for everyone but him. But undoubtedly one of the high points of Trump’s tenure on the site was when his account was mysteriously nuked after what Twitter described as a “human error by a Twitter employee”. Now, per TechCrunch, we know who that legendary employee was. He’s not concerned with legal consequences, telling TechCrunch, “I didn’t hack anyone. I didn’t do anything that I was not authorised to do. I didn’t go to any site I was not supposed to go to. I didn’t break any rules.” [Give that man a medal.]

The rise of sea level rise — The problem with coastal living is that while the food supply is relatively stable, sea levels are not. They’ve always risen and fallen as the climate changes over the millennia – and thanks to the hyper-productivity of the Industrial Age, they’re in the middle of a pretty significant uptick. In the coming decades, rising sea levels could jeopardize untold billions of dollars in real estate and infrastructure along the world’s coasts and displace millions of people.

Plants for after the apocalypse — In Geneva, New York, Cornell University scientists crossbreed domesticated crops with their wild ancestors to propagate superhardy strains that better withstand droughts, heat waves, and freezes. [But not seawater – see above.]

Dazzle ships for when the navy wasn’t just Battleship Grey — Dazzle patterns  made ships really had to identify and calculate torpedo attacks upon. The British got all artsy with it, but the he US also adopted Dazzle painting as camouflage, but in a very American way. “Where the British saw this as a kind of large art project and each ship had a unique design, the Americans created a catalog of plans, then sent the plans to Eastman Kodak for testing” according to Claudia Covert, a special collections librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design. [And she has the best name ever for this job.]

The Apocalypticon ~ Flat-earther, Russia rads, dark wiki, Apple racism, scary tech, evil sugar, coffee good


Self-taught rocket scientist ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp. His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date. “I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”
[Ah, yes indeedy and for sure, Mad Mike. Soon to be Flat Mad Mike …]

Russia said it had detected a significant radiation spike in the Ural Mountains, close to a sprawling Soviet-era nuclear plant still remembered as the site of an accident 60 years ago. Russia did however reject suggestions that it was the source of a radioactive cloud that hovered over Europe. [Coz if we don’t like the idea, it can’t be true.]

Darkweb wiki — In many parts of the world, using Wikipedia is taken for granted. But in other places, like Turkey or Syria, using Wikipedia can be difficult, and even dangerous. To make using Wikipedia safer for at-risk users, former Facebook security engineer Alec Muffett has started an experimental dark net Wikipedia service that gives visitors some strong privacy protections.

Apple only wants to put its Stores where white people live — New York’s northernmost borough is the city’s most diverse, has the lowest income per household, and is the only borough without an Apple Store after one opened in Brooklyn’s predominantly white neighbourhood of Williamsburg last year. This trend holds true on a national scale. That means 251 of the 270 stores, or 93%, are located in majority-white ZIP codes. Of the 19 that are not located in majority-white ZIP codes, eight are in ZIP codes where whites are still the largest racial bloc. [Oh, what was that word again, Apple? Let me help: ‘Diversity’.]

In scary tech news, LED street lighting has backfired — To reduce energy consumption, many jurisdictions around the world are transitioning to outdoor LED lighting. But as new research shows, this solid-state solution hasn’t yielded the expected energy savings, and potentially worse, it’s resulted in more light pollution than ever before.
The Wi-Fi Pineapple is a cheap modified wireless router enables anyone to execute sophisticated exploits on Wi-Fi networks with little to no networking expertise. It can be used to run a Wall of Sheep and execute a man-in-the-middle attack, as well as how you can protect yourself from Pineapple exploits when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.
Intel found severe bugs in management engines — After to an investigation by third-party researchers into Intel’s hidden firmware in certain chips, Intel decided to audit its firmware and on Monday confirmed it had found 11 severe bugs that affect millions of computers and servers.
German regulators have banned smartwatches for kids — Saying the technology more closely resembles a “spying device” than a toy, Germany regulators have banned the sale of smartwatches designed for kids, urging the parents who were stupid enough to buy them in the first place to destroy them.
Over 400 of the world’s most popular websites record your every keystroke — The idea of websites tracking users isn’t new, but research from Princeton University released last week indicates that online tracking is far more invasive than most users understand.
Television’s most infamous hack is still a mystery 30 years on — It has been 30 years since the Max Headroom hack, arguably the creepiest hack in the television history took place. A few minutes after 9pm on Sunday, November 22, 1987, Chicago sportscaster Dan Roan was cheerily summarizing the Bears’s victory that day for Channel 9 local news. Suddenly, televisions went silent, and their screens went black. At first, it seemed like an equipment malfunction. Without warning, televisions in the area blasted loud radio static. It was overlain with the screech of a power saw cutting into metal, or a jet engine malfunctioning. At center screen, a person wore a Max Headroom mask – a character who appeared on various television shows and movies in the 1980s.
After 30 years and an intense FCC investigation, the people behind the Headroom hack remain unknown.

Evil sugar — About 50 years ago, the sugar industry stopped funding research that began to show something they wanted to hide: that eating lots of sugar is linked to heart disease. A new study exposes the sugar industry’s decades-old effort to stifle that critical research.
Now, 46% of Americans have high blood pressure. With new guidelines, rather than one in three US adults having high blood pressure (32%) with the previous definition, the new guidelines will result in nearly half of the US adult population (46%) having high blood pressure, or hypertension.

Gah! But wait, here’s some good news: coffee is good for us again — A review of 200 separate studies has shown even three or four cups a day is still more likely to benefit your health than harm it. but there are some exceptions, like women who are pregnant or at risk of fracture.
The researchers concluded that drinking coffee regularly resulted in a lower risk of heart disease and even death compared with drinking no coffee at all. They also found that drinking coffee lowered the risk of some cancers (including prostate, endometrial, skin and liver cancer), type 2 diabetes, gallstones, gout, liver disease and dementia. [Off to make one – bye!]

The Apocalypticon ~ Trump, Russia, hacks, security, duped iPhone owners, bent cops film themselves, food and climate


As usual, the US president trumps most of the other bad news. Someone who tried to hack Trump’s tax returns – pretty amateurishly, as it turns out – might get 5 years in prison. Would-be whistleblowers were rallied by WikiLeaks, while one high-profile Democrat offered a $5 million reward for anyone who legally leaked Trump’s financials. You might wonder why this never went any further, until you realise that co-prize a-hole Julian Assange wanted to be Australian ambassador and asked for Trump Junior’s help. How unpartisan is that? It looks like Russian agents leaked Democrat information to Wikileaks to enhance Trump’s chances, after all.
Meanwhile, Trump’s regime wants to use bigoted AI to ‘extremely vet’ would-be immigrants. An alliance of more than 50 civil liberties groups and more than 50 individual AI experts sent dual letters to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today, calling for the end of a plan to screen immigrants with predictive “extreme vetting” software.
In a new low, Senator Jeff Sessions has had all his under-oath forgetfulness listed by Wired. How’s that for an aid memoir, Jeffy boy? It gets up to no. 47 … but for a glimmer of hopes US judge has ordered Facebook to redact the info of anti-Trump activists sought by the Feds. Without this, the details of some 6000 people who ‘liked’ these pages would have been available to the FBI.

Speaking of Russians and hackers, the personal computer of an NSA worker who took government hacking tools and classified documents home with him was infected with a backdoor trojan, unrelated to these tools, that could have been used by criminal hackers to steal the US government files, according to a new report being released Thursday by Kaspersky Lab in response to recent allegations against the company. The Moscow-based antivirus firm, which has been accused of using its security software to improperly grab NSA hacking tools and classified documents from the NSA worker’s home computer and provide them to the Russian government, says the worker had at least 120 other malicious files on his home computer in addition to the backdoor. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppyThe reason that citizens in the West are subject now to more surveillance than there was in the Soviet Union is that digital technology made it possible, says Richard Stallman. “And the first disaster of digital technology was proprietary software that people would install and run on their own computers, and they wouldn’t know what it was doing. They can’t tell what it’s doing.” Stallman has been fighting this battle since 1983.

Criminals duping iPhone buyers out of their phones — A security report has shed new light on the lucrative business of unlocking and reselling stolen iPhones, a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise spanning the globe. The tools used by shadowy hackers involved in this black market trade were detailed in TrendMicro’s latest research. Criminals have turned to sophisticated methods of infiltration, targeting desperate owners of missing devices with phishing emails gearing toward capturing iCloud credentials. They play on the eagerness of the owner to reclaim their lost phone.
The victims might receive a fraudulent link, for instance, alerting them their iPhone has been located. Since the message is carefully crafted to appear legitimate, using a spoofed email account or SMS message, many owners carelessly follow the instructions they’re given. In doing so, they compromise their own iCloud accounts, granting the phone thieves full access to their device.

LA cops film themselves fitting-up a suspect with cocaine — Newly-released body camera footage from a hit-and-run arrest in April appears to show two LAPD officers planting drugs in a suspect’s wallet, selectively filming only portions of the arrest to implicate the man for drug possession. Hah!

Some goodish news — what would happen if the entire US went vegan Researchers found a 23% increase in the amount of food available – mainly in grains – and a 28% decrease in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. However, they only found a 2.6% decrease in overall greenhouse gas emissions and found deficiencies in the American diet’s essential nutrients. Still, at least it’s being considered.
And climate-conscious cities have been sharing their experiences. At last week’s COP23 climate conference in Bonn, Germany, Essen’s representative was all ears as officials from other post-industrial cities shared their stories. Speakers included representatives from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Beijing’s E-Town (short for Economic-Technological Development Area)—all cities that make up the new Urban Transitions Alliance.

The Apocalypticon ~ Consumer hell, code and encryption, human-rat hybrids and the war on journalism


In Consumer Hell, there are alternatives to the iPhone X — “I love the dumb notch! And the face-scanning thing I don’t want! The iPhone X is exactly the kind of absurd luxury good I crave,” you say. But you have not even scratched the diamond-encrusted surface of true decadence. Sit right there like the tiny, foolish baby you are and Bryan Menegus will tell you about an even newer, more exciting bauble, the likes of which have not been seen since Nordstrom’s leather-wrapped stone: Tiffany & Co.’s new “tin can” for a mere $US1000.

But there are bigger issues — Was there a warm plume erupting under the ice three years ago? Well, not really, as it’s probably been there millions of years.
But while we’re indulging in hyperbole, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that randomness is a more powerful component of the evolution of English than previously thought. Woa, random!
Last week, a single user ‘permanently’ locked down 300M worth of ethereum. dozens of digital wallets containing nearly $300 million dollars worth of ether, the unit of exchange on the Ethereum platform, allegedly by accident. Ouch. They need a hard fork to fix this, apparently.
Crypto aint so crypto after all, is it? We think we’ve locked all this stuff up, yet … five years ago Benjamin Delpy walked into his room at the President Hotel in Moscow, and found a man dressed in a dark suit with his hands on Delpy’s laptop. A few minutes earlier, the then 25-year-old French programmer had made a quick trip to the front desk to complain about the room’s internet connection. He had arrived two days ahead of a talk he was scheduled to give at a nearby security conference and found that there was no Wi-Fi, and the ethernet jack wasn’t working. Since then, his Mimikatz code has been widely used. “Mimikatz wasn’t at all designed for attackers. But it’s helped them,” Delpy says in his understated and French-tinged English.
Thank god for walls of lava lamps, then. Cloudflare provides security and domain name services for millions of the most prominent sites on the web. The company has built a solid reputation for its secure encryption, and one of the key factors in its system is a wall of 100 lava lamps in the lobby of its San Francisco headquarters. Really! Cloudflare videotapes its wall of colourful constantly morphing lava lamps and translates that video information into unique cryptographic keys.
Watch out for the devious Netflix phish. The email says your Netflix account has been suspended, due to a problem with your billing information. It offers a link, which takes you to what looks very much like a Netflix landing page. It’s not. It’s a phishing scam that collects extensive personal data on victims. But as with all of the most pernicious phishes, the problem with the Netflix phish isn’t just its convincing look, it’s that whoever’s behind it has found new ways to bypass spam filters over and over again.

Maybe the HumanoRats will solve our problems — No! Yes! And yikes! At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience starting November 11 in Washington DC, two teams of scientists plan to present previously unpublished research on the unexpected interaction between human mini-brains and their rat and mouse hosts. The human mini-brains inside the rats are starting to integratewith their hosts’ brains. Queue a new film: The Planet of the Rats. They’re touting this as “an unprecedented advancement for mini-brain research”. [I was hoping that had stopped at Trump, myself.]

The billionaire war on journalism — Newsweek offers a new reminder that internet journalism can vanish in a corporate shutdown or be “sued out of existence”. Writers at the local New York City news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist, as well as Gothamist’s network of city-specific sister sites, such as LAist and DCist,  learned this chilling lesson when billionaire Joe Ricketts abruptly shut down the publications and fired their employees. The decision has been widely regarded as a form of retaliation in response to the newsroom’s vote last week to unionise with the Writers Guild of America, East. Worse, for a full 20 hours after the news broke, Gothamist.com and DNAinfo.com effectively didn’t exist: Any link to the sites showed only Ricketts’s statement about his decision, which claims the business was not profitable enough to support the journalism…
The larger tragedy is a nationwide death of local news. Alt-weeklies are flailing as ad revenue dries up. The Village Voice, a legendary New York paper, published its final print issue in September. Houston Press just laid off its staff and ended its print edition last week. Countless stories won’t be covered because the journalistic institutions to tell them no longer exist. Who benefits from DNAinfo being shuttered? Billionaires. Shady landlords. Anyone DNAinfo reported critically on over the years. Who loses? Anyone who lives in the neighborhoods DNAinfo and Gothamist helped cover. [And over here in New Zealand, Winston Peters’ extra super payments he didn’t deserve and didn’t declare for several years seemingly went to his head, and he thinks he’s a billionaire too. Even though he paid it back, and he’s not that wealthy, he’s also trying to shut down journalists. Apart from those who leaked the information, he’s going after the journalists who released it. So, he wants the truth about those who tell the truth, but he wants to punish them for it. Weird.]