Category Archives: Apocalypse

The Apocalypticon ~ Facebotch, Big Brothers and another excerpt


Facebook has booted AggregateIQ, the Canadian election consulting firm that built data tools for sketchy election firm Cambridge Analytica, this week on the grounds that it may have received some of the extensive data on 87 million Facebook users the latter company received through a partnership with an app.
Facebook is also suspending a data analytics firm called CubeYou from the platform after CNBC notified the company that CubeYou was collecting information about users through quizzes. CubeYou misleadingly labeled its quizzes “for non-profit academic research,” then shared user information with marketers. [I would guess ‘sold’ rather than ‘shared’, myself. ] Almost 10% of Americans have already deleted their Facebook accounts.

(Image from Atlas Obscura’s article on Soviet industrial design)

Does that sound bad? How about this, then – the data could be in Russia: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie says the data the firm gathered from Facebook could have come from more than 87 million users and could be stored in Russia. The professor who was managing the data harvesting process was going back and forth between the UK and Russia, you see. Hooray!
So Facebook has a dubious plan to ‘improve’ the situation.

Better passwords — Anyway, here’s some advice on better passwords. Read it!

Bigger Brothers: a man in China got caught by his face — The man was reportedly caught by facial recognition software running on cameras at a concert identified him. That’s despite there being over 50,000 people attending the concert, which took place in Nanchang. Law enforcement in the country has increasingly been turning to facial recognition software to surveil the public for persons of interest.
The Indian government intends to build an identification system of unprecedented scope. The country is reportedly “scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3 billion residents and connecting the data to everything from welfare benefits to mobile phones.” [All of these ventures are for the betterment of humanity. Well, 1% of humanity, anyway.]

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: Authorities often scramble security and defence forces to combat ‘panic’ and looting after disasters. In fact, though, if you think back to news reports you have seen, this is rarely the case. For example, flooding swamps a community and emergency services respond, and of course they are extremely helpful and proficient, but almost inevitably they arrive to find people towing the disabled on boats, helping fill sandbags and passing around supplies.
These scenes are often captured by the very same news crews that would have you believe the people on the ground are panicking, paralysed or looting, ‘so thank God (or whatever) the authorities have arrived’.
Of course, some people do those unhelpful things too, but the point is, most people do not.

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The Apocalypticon ~ US oh God, new bacteria, Serial’s Syed, Estonian DNA


Facebook exec who wrote terrorism and death are ‘justified‘ by Facebook’s ‘growth’ says he was just trying to be ‘provocative‘. Andrew Bosworth wrote in an internal company memo that said Facebook may be used to coordinate terrorist attacks and that it might cause deaths from bullying, but that those effects were justified in the name of corporate growth.  [Not the best deployment of social capital, then.] But Facebook’s fake news problems extend far beyond Russian trolls interfering in US elections. Overseas, false stories have turned into tools of political warfare – most notably in Myanmar, where government forces have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Even Zuckerberg admits that’s a ‘real’ issue. [Big of him, or what?]
But wait there’s more: a week after Apple CEO Cook said “some well-crafted regulation is necessary ” in light of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and that Apple was better off than Facebook because it doesn’t sell user data to advertisers, Facebook’s CEO decried Tim Cook as being ‘glib‘.

Ah, companies that make money from your personal information … Last year, Google announced some upgrades to Chrome, by far the world’s most used browser – and the one security pros often recommend. The company promised to make internet surfing on Windows computers even “cleaner” and “safer” adding what The Verge called “basic antivirus features.” What Google did was give its browser the ability was scanning files in the Documents folder of Windows computers. [I’ve said it before, and it seems like I’ll be saying it again and again: Google makes money from your personal data. Why would you trust it? Or its Gmail, for that matter.]
So, Google should be trusted to build AI for killer drones, right? The US Army describes how it’s working to make a battlefield network of machines and humans a reality. [And there Commander in Chief is …]
Richard Stallman, the president of the Free Software Foundation, says that the surveillance imposed on us today is ‘worse than in the Soviet Union’. He argues that we need laws to stop this data being collected in the first place. Security guru Bruce Schneier warns that “thousands of companies” are spying on us and manipulating us for profit. [Did you ever think what ‘the Information Age’ was really going to lead to?]
So, are you being hacked? Here’s how to tell. In other US news, Illinois is dealing with an outbreak of synthetic weed that makes its users bleed from their eyes and ears. Deaths in the us from synthetic opioids doubled from 2015 to 2016. And eating out a lot might disrupt your hormones. [And I thought phthalates was exercise for people who lisp.] ‘Nightmare bacteria’ with unusual resistance to antibiotics of last resort were found more than 200 times in the United States last year in a first-of-a-kind hunt to see how much of a threat these rare cases are becoming, health officials said this week. Hey, at least it’s also the new era of Super Gonorrhoea!Cellphones might kill too
A pair of studies by the US National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” that exposure to radiation caused heart tumors in male rats, and found “some evidence” that it caused tumors in the brains of male rats. [And that’s why I won’t let my rats have smartphones.]

Is there any good news? I take heart that Adnan Syed, the man whose murder conviction became the subject of the wildly popular Serial podcast, was granted a new trial by Maryland’s second-highest court of appeals last week, although whether that actually happens is still in limbo.
Oh, and the jury’s still out on whether the Estonian governments program that aims to collect the DNA of 100,000 of its 1.3 million residents to then offer them lifestyle and health advice based on their genetics is a good thing or not.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: On calling in the army after a disaster to ‘control looting and maintain order’: “It’s interesting that the panic myth is so persistent. Think about news reports you have seen: flooding swamps a community and emergency services respond, and of course they are extremely helpful and proficient, but almost inevitably they arrive to find people towing the disabled on boats, helping fill sandbags and passing around supplies.”

The Apocalypticon ~ Nuke yourself in sim, surveillance, Apple, your passwords, China, forest shapes and good news


Nuclear Explosion Simulator shows just how screwed we’d be if Russia dropped another Tsar Bomba — For years, one of the more perversely interesting things on the internet has been Alex Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP, which — true to its name — shows you the estimated damage if you dropped a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world. Now the Outrider Foundation has released its own, rather more elegant version, and we’re back to blowing up our backyards.
Outrider’s simulator lets you enter any location and select from a number of bomb strengths, from the 15KT Little Boy (the first nuke used in war) to the 50,000KT Tsar Bomba, which Russia tested in 1961. [Finally, a more compelling reason to move to the outer burbs! Except for the Tsar Bomba – that just wipes out the entire Greater Auckland from Pukekohe in the south to north of Orewa.]In the US, President Trump has slammed Amazon for ‘causing tremendous loss To the United States’ — President Trump recently escalated his attack on Amazon, saying the e-commerce giant does not pay enough taxes, and strongly suggested he may try to rein in the e-commerce business. A sexual harassment lawsuit against Google might proceed as a Class Action; a department of the US State Department dedicated to diplomatic security has reportedly procured a $US15,000, Apple TV-sized device its manufacturers advertise as being able to break iPhone encryption in anywhere from two hours to three days (the FBI did not have the technical capability to access an iPhone used by one of those behind the San Bernardino shooting, it turns out).
Facebook may be able to listen to you through its app … During an appearance before a committee of UK lawmakers, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie breathed new life into longstanding rumours that the Facebook app listens to its users in order to target advertisements.

Dark Australian — In 2015, during the transition from paper to contactless public transit cards, Australia passed sweeping new data retention laws. These laws required all Australian internet service providers and telecommunications carriers to retain customers’ phone and internet metadata for two years: details like the phone number a person calls, the timestamps on text messages or the cell tower a phone pings when it makes a call. So Claire Reilly ‘went dark‘…

Apple adds more privacy and security — Apple’s updates (macOS 10.13.4, iOS11.3 and tvOS 11.3) were prompted by the enormous new European data protection regulation GDPR, and have been in the works since at least January. But they come at a good time for the company, whose head Tim Cook has been merrily capitalising on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, publicly rebuking Mark Zuckerberg over the social network’s business model.

Your passwords — Do you know whether the ones you’re using are strong enough to stand up to repeated hacking attempts? If you want to know how to do a self-audit on password security, and the best combinations to use to keep your data safe, Gizmodo has asked the experts to explain.

China sin-drome — China is testing cutting-edge defence technology to develop a powerful yet relatively low-cost weather modification system to bring substantially more rain to the Tibetan plateau, Asia’s biggest freshwater reserve. The network will be three times bigger than Spain[And it uses burners! Yeah, global warming, China, for goodness sake!]
But hey, at least the jaywalkers will be sent ‘punishing text messages‘. [Angry face sad face …]

Shaping forests — Scientists have made a fundamental discovery about how fires on the edges of tropical forests control their shape and stability. The study implies that when patches of tropical forest lose their natural shape it could contribute to the catastrophic transformation of that land from trees to grass.

Some good news — A class of antibiotics heralded as an essential future weapon against drug-resistant superbugs passed an important test. There’s now evidence they can be used to treat serious infections in live animals (in vivo) without being toxic.
Staunch ancients — Soon after the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age, our planet was vulnerable to abrupt and dramatic shifts in climate, including prolonged cold snaps that lasted for decades. New research suggests early hunter-gatherers living in the British Isles didn’t just manage to survive these harsh conditions – they actually thrived.

The Apocalypticon ~ Hackers, water, China, Space-X hole, medical, stupidity, apocalypse


But wait! There is more from the a-holes at Cambridge Analytica — Cambridge Analytica got its hands on millions of people’s Facebook likes in 2014 by getting an academic, Aleksander Kogan, to design an app with a personality test that hoovered up data from the 250,000 or so Facebook users that took it, as well as from their millions of friends. Cambridge Analytica then used all those likes combined with the magic of big data to help put Donald Trump in the White House. But that’s only the half of it ….
It may be a while since you’ve heard the handle Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who took responsibility for the infamous DNC hack of 2016. Reports from the intelligence community at the time, as well as common sense, pegged Guccifer 2.0 not as the Romanian activist he claimed to be, but a Russian operative. He messed up once, and now Guccifer 2.0 has been fingered as a particular GRU officer working out of the Russian agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow.
AI outsmarting its creators — A paper recently published to ArXiv highlights just a handful of incredible and slightly terrifying ways that algorithms think.

Gyre-normous — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is filled with 79,000 metric tonnes (87,000 tons) of plastic, and that’s between 10 to 16 times higher than previous estimates, according to new research.
Marine researchers say recent sea star wasting disease epidemic defies prediction. Some sea star communities on the west coast could recover, but marine scientists still can’t pinpoint the environmental factors behind the unprecedented disease outbreak.
The number of people short of water could rise to 5.7 billion people by 2050. Currently, about 3.6 billion people are estimated to be living in areas with a potential for water scarcity for at least one month per year.

China’s terrifying “social credit” system isn’t planned to be fully implemented until 2020, but we’re already seeing facets of it being put in place. In May, people who have committed acts of “serious dishonor” will reportedly be unable to travel on trains or flights for up to a year.
And China has approved the creation of one of the world’s largest propaganda machines as it looks to improve its global image. [Greetings from George Orwell, and good luck with that.]

Space-X made a hole — The Falcon 9 rocket that launched last August reportedly ripped a temporary hole in the ionosphere due to its vertical launch.

Cell tower cancer link — Researchers with the renowned Ramazzini Institute (RI) in Italy announce that a large-scale, lifetime study (PDF) of lab animals exposed to environmental levels of cell tower radiation developed cancer.
A massive new study concluded that lead is 10 times more dangerous than thought, and that past exposure now hastens one in every five US deaths. Researchers at four North American universities, led by Bruce Lanphear, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, studied the fate of 14,289 people whose blood had been tested in an official US survey between 1988 and 1994. Four fifths  had harbored levels of the toxic metal below what has, hitherto, been thought safe.

People asked to name women tech leaders said ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ — The tech industry has a persistent problem with gender inequality, particularly in its leadership ranks, and a new study from LivePerson underscores just how depressingly persistent it truly is. When the company asked a representative sample of 1000 American consumers whether they could name a famous woman leader in tech, 91.7% of respondents drew a complete blank, while only 8.3% said they could. But wait, it gets worse: Of those 8.3% who said they could name a famous woman tech leader, only 4% actually could — and a quarter of those respondents named Siri or Alexa. [OMFG.]

The duelling visions for how humanity will survive — By 2050, the world’s population will top ten billion. As industrial capitalism evolves across the globe like no time in human history, will our planet’s ecosystem be able to sustain itself during this rapid transformation? Charles C. Mann’s grapples with these problems in The Wizard and the Prophet.
We’re sleepwalking into a mass extinction, say scientists. The most biodiverse aquatic communities may be the most vulnerable to extinction. Arctic wintertime sea ice extent is among lowest on record[But some of us are looking at the stars. We could become a galactic wrecking crew rather than just an Earthbound one.]

But yes, there’s a little good news: A few decades ago, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake. But in the 1950s, it became the victim of the Soviet Union’s agricultural policies. The Aral Sea began to disappear and nearly completely vanished. But things have changed for good. Its total area of water, straddling Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is now a tenth of its original size. What’s left has broken into two distinct bodies: the North and South Aral Seas. In Uzbekistan, the entire eastern basin of the South Aral Sea is completely desiccated, leaving merely a single strip of water in the west. But Kazakhstan’s North Aral Sea has seen a happier outcome, thanks to a nearly $86 million project financed in large part by the World Bank. [Great, huh? Hah!]

The Apocalypticon ~ Fake news, tech calumny, cartel phones, radioactive, plastic not fantastic, China, climate change, filthiest animal


Fake news: it’s us! Over the last year, ‘fake news’ has gone from being a niche concern that charlatans exploited for profit, to a code red existential threat to the fabric of society … But our scientific understanding of how and why false stories spread is still limited. Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab are diving in to correct that blind spot and for anyone looking to point a finger, Gizmodo has some bad news. It’s not all bots: ‘major Twitter influencers’ [perhaps they really should be called Twats] were more likely to share true stories.
Twitter has also suspended several popular accounts known for stealing tweets or mass-retweeting tweets into manufactured virality.
Meanwhile, Facebook subsidiary Instagram and its competitor Snapchat have both disabled GIF-embedding service Giphy after an extremely racist image began spreading via the platform.
Hacking Team’s developers are actively continuing the development of spyware, and Reddit says it has identified and removed hundreds of Russian propaganda accounts. [Or is that Reddit propaganda?]

Shadowy phones for drug cartel — For years, a slew of shadowy companies have sold so-called encrypted phones, custom BlackBerry or Android devices that sometimes have the camera and microphone removed and only send secure messages through private networks.
Now, the FBI has arrested the CEO of one of the most established companies, Phantom Secure, as part of a complex law enforcement operation, according to court records and sources familiar with the matter.

Radioactivity — Contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation has released its evaluation of what went wrong in December during demolition of the nuclear reservation’s highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant. The Tri-City Herald reports the study said primary radioactive air monitors used at a highly hazardous Hanford project failed to detect contamination. Then, when the spread of contamination was detected, the report said steps taken to contain it didn’t fully work.
So what about bricks? A team of researchers at North Carolina State University thinks they have a simple way to detect the leftover radiation simply by taking a core of material out of a brick. Something like this could be important for things such as nuclear weapons inspections. [I can do that just from a place name: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl …]
So, how about ‘better’ nuclear plants? Scientists want to create miniature suns in power plants here on Earth. [Yeah, this idea doesn’t worry me at all.] MIT has announced it is working with a new private company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) to make nuclear fusion finally happen. CFS recently attracted a $US50 million ($64 million) investment from the Italian energy company Eni, which it will use to fund the development.

Plastic water bottles full of plastic-filled water — The bottled water industry is estimated to be worth nearly US$200 billion a year, surpassing sugary sodas as the most popular beverage in many countries. But its perceived image of cleanliness and purity is being challenged by a global investigation that found the water tested is often contaminated with tiny particles of plastic. [I’ve always found this so absurd for so many reasons: this just adds another. Water should always be heated and filtered through ground coffee for maximum safety.]

China wants to bar people with ‘bad social credit’ from trains and planes — People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday. [This from a country dumb enough to willingly give its authoritarian leader even more power.]
The suspected Chinese cyber-espionage group dubbed TEMP.Periscope appeared to be seeking information that would benefit the Chinese government, said FireEye, a US-based provider network protection systems. The hackers have focused on US.maritime entities that were either linked to, or have clients operating in, the South China Sea.
But hey, at least the pollution has diminished. Over the past four years, pollution in China’s major cities has decreased by an average of 32%.
But be careful, the Chinese space station may still wipe out your city. [From Heavenly Palace to Earth-smashing malice.]
Is this why Frazzled Chump wants a Space Force? 

Half a degree more global warming could flood out 5 million more people — A new study finds that by 2150, the seemingly small difference between a global temperature increase of 1.5 and 2° Celsius would mean the permanent inundation of lands currently home to about 5 million people, including 60,000 who live on small island nations.
Extreme winter weather in the US has been linked to the warmer Arctic. Extreme winter weather is two-to-four times more likely in the eastern US when the Arctic is unusually warm.
In Florida, wildlife officials are smashing the skulls of iguanas. Over the past decade, the population of this invasive lizard has absolutely exploded. Native to Mexico and Central America, these herbivorous lizards were introduced to the state as pets, but they have since taken Florida by storm, munching on plants and flowers in gardens, and damaging footpaths and seawalls with their burrows. [So officials smash ’em.] The head-bashing technique falls within the bounds of Florida’s animal cruelty laws …
But, in ‘good’ news … Around 74,000 years ago, a massive caldera erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, triggering a prolonged and devastating volcanic winter. Scientists have speculated that the Toba eruption pruned back human populations to a considerable degree, but new research published today suggests at least one group of humans living in southern Africa not only managed to survive the event, they actually prospered.

For a bit of fun, what do you reckon is the filthiest animal? Gizmodo asked the experts. [Don’t worry, humans get a mention.]

(Image from Gizmodo)

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: “Say you wake up one morning, and 40% of people no longer exist. That’s the honeymoon vision of apocalypse, as ridiculous as that sounds … because it is ridiculous. If people didn’t just evaporate, which you have to admit is extremely unlikely under any imaginable apocalyptical scenario, the immediate problem is getting rid of the dead. There are 56 houses in my street. If there are three people in each, averaged out, that’s 168 people. At 40% mortality, that’s 67 bodies to cope with straight away …”

The Apocalypticon ~ Data miners, power, weather, IT creeps, bacteria, bullets


Big Data gets you … really — Facebook’s VPN Service Onavo Protect collects personal data, and does so even when it’s switched off! Security researcher Will Strafach took a look at Onavo Protect, the newly released VPN service from Facebook:
He found that Onavo Protect uses a Packet Tunnel Provider app extension to do this. [First, why would anyone trust a VPN service by Facebook, and secondly, is anyone surprised?] But YouTube is full of nazi propaganda, and arch data-miner Google has partnered with the United States Department of Defense to help the agency develop artificial intelligence for analysing drone footage. [Yeah, now we all feel safer.]

Two million Americans lost power after ‘bomb cyclone’ — Tens of thousands of utility workers in the Northeast raced to restore power to more than 1.5 million homes and businesses just days after a powerful nor’easter caused flooding and wind damage from Virginia to Maine… Flood waters had receded in most areas, but the storm took out huge chunks out the coastline in Massachusetts and other states. [Trump will no doubt blame Mexicans, or Hilary.]

IT staff undercover: FBI recruiting at Best Buy — Questions were raised last year about whether FBI agents were actively recruiting technicians at Best Buy’s Geek Squad to search for illegal content on customer devices. According to newly released documents, however, prior reports only scratched the surface: Best Buy’s ties with the FBI appear more complex than once surmised.
On February 28, the Australian Federal Police paid the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s Melbourne headquarters a visit after it was alleged the weather organisation’s “powerful computers” were being used for crypto-mining purposes. And want to know why everything gets hacked all the time? Staff shortages, apparently.
Sobbing Shkreli — Back in September, “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli said he wouldn’t spend a single day in prison. He was wrong. Shkreli was sentenced to seven years in prison on March 10th by US District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto at a hearing in Brooklyn. Shkreli was sobbing when he told the judge that he’s “not the same person [he] once was”. Right: it wasn’t a great sign for Shkreli when his own lawyer said in court that there were times he wanted to punch Shkreli in the face. [Like only at least two million other people.]

Ocean shite — It’s polluted, germ-filled sludge, not sharks, that will make going to the beach more dangerous than just staying home – at least according to a cleverly titled review published this week in the International Journal of Epidemiology. There is a significant increase in the risk of ear and gut ailments in those who are exposed to bathing waters. [Yes, avoid New Zealand’s ‘pristine’ beaches, that’s for sure. Hottest summer ever and no swimming!]
But hey, there can be a good side to poo — at least when it’s from penguins. After noticing telltale guano streaks on satellite imagery, an international team of researchers set out to count the number of penguins on Antarctica’s aptly named Danger Islands. They found a previously undetected supercolony of over 1.5 million Adélie penguins – a surprising result, given how poorly these aquatic birds are doing just 161km away.
And speaking of bacteria, our Superior Being Elon Musk might just mess up another panel thanks to bacteria he launched into space on his stupid vanity project. If his Tesla Roadster wasn’t sterilised before SpaceX launched it, scientists at Purdue said Musk’s car could turn harmful if it crashes into a planet like Mars.

Bullets are bad — really really bad. Trauma surgeons who have worked on injuries inflicted by military-style weapons want to call attention not to the exact model of the rifle, but the size and speed of the bullets they fire. To put it short: the resulting injuries are grotesque. But the White House is more concerned about video games. [Mind you, some of this is utterly revolting. on the good side, this is not reality, it just looks like it.]

The Apocalypticon ~ China bans N, Apple, right smell, measles, thawing, net neutrality, Democrat rebuttal, aliens and flowers


Chia bans ‘n’ [see my little joke there? I meant’t ChiNa’ … LOLs or what?]. It is the 14th letter in the English alphabet, but for the Communist party of China it is also a subversive and intolerable character that was this week banished from the internet as Chinese censors battled to silence criticism of Xi Jinping’s bid to set himself up as ruler for life [from now on, shouldn’t he be known as ‘Xi Ji_pi_g’?]. The contravening consonant was perhaps the most unusual victim of a crackdown targeting words, phrases and even solitary letters censors feared might be used to attack Beijing’s controversial decision to abolish constitutional term limits for China’s president. And before you can say ‘1984‘ (by that master of prescience George Orwell), that and Animal Farm have been banned too. [All I can exclaim is ‘You Nnnnnnitwits!]
In other worrisome Oriental moves, Apple has moved its Chinese encryption keys to China, worrying privacy advocates. [Coz, you know, authoritarianism, privacy and all that].
But hey, Apple is also doing shit things in the West! A file that Apple updated on its website last month provides the first acknowledgment that it’s relying on Google’s public cloud for data storage for its iCloud services. You know, Apple the Great Protector of Privacy is housing its data with supposed ‘enemy’ Google – which makes most of its money from selling people’s private information.

Dictators stink. Really. A new study published in Royal Society Open Science suggests that one seemingly unrelated behavioural quirk might have played a small role in people voting for authoritarian figures like Trump, or ‘voting’ for Xi Jipig, for that matter: an abject hatred of body odour. [Conversely, now you can presumably smell a right-winger coming: they’l be liberally soused in deodorant.] The more disgusted you feel about things, the more likely you tend to be conservative [Trump uses the word ‘disgusted’ really really often, although not as often as he uses the word ‘really’]. This adds in to the fear-response research that predicts voting patterns.

North Korea didn’t do it, Russia did — Russian military spies hacked several hundred computers used by authorities at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea according to US intelligence. They did so while trying to make it appear as though the intrusion was conducted by North Korea, what is known as a ‘false-flag’ operation [or, as I prefer, an ‘evil conniving move’].

Aussie takes measles to New York City — Measles has just visited the Big Apple, and public health officials are warning the city’s small unvaccinated population to be on guard. An Australian tourist was confirmed to be carrying the viral disease days into their trip. [I made up a new word for this but didn’t use it. I was going to write ‘Aussie Measelates New York’. Yeah, don’t thank me, it’s cool.]

Thee-thaw — Camp Century, under the thick ice of Greenland, was always an audacious scheme. Just 1287 kms (800 miles) from the North Pole, the US military built a hidden base of ice tunnels, imagined as an extensive network of railway tracks, stretching over 4000 kms (2500 miles), that would keep 600 nuclear missiles buried under the ice. Construction began in 1959, under cover of a scientific research project, and soon a small installation, powered by a nuclear reactor, nested in the ice sheet. Except the ice is thawing … the now-melting ice sheet threatens to mobilize the dangerous pollutants left behind.
And Norway is spending millions to keep its ‘ice vault’ cool. Even though it’s located in the Arctic Circle, Svalbard’s temperature is expected to increase from an average -5.9C to 3.3C, and rainfall is expected to increase by 40%, by the year 2100. Ironically, the facility designed to safeguard seeds in the event of climate change is being threatened … by climate change.

Net neutrality — I don’t really get it, not because I’ve tried, unfortunately, but because I haven’t. Anyway, now there’s a guide for simpletons like me. And while we’re at it, those of you [like me] who follow America under Trump like a slo-motion train wreck you can’t take your eyes away from, there’s also an article about what to take away from the Democrats’ rebuttal memo.

And the good news … if aliens come, try offering them a bunch of flowers. Awww. 

The Apocalypticon ~ around the world and (almost) back again


Around the world … A survey of satellite data published in the journal Cryosphere [links to a PDF] confirms what scientists have suspected for a while now: ice loss from the critical region of Antarctica is happening at an increasingly fast pace.
Antarctica lost roughly 1929 gigatons (a gigaton is one billion tons) of ice in 2015, which amounts to an increase of roughly 36 gigatons per year every year since 2008. Nearly 90% of that increase in loss occurred in West Antarctica, “probably in response to ocean warming,” according to NASA.
Photos and video emerging from the Indonesian island of Sumatra are absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, no one has been hurt, but the smoke and ash bubbling from Mount Sinabung after an eruption on February 19th is like watching a mythical monster slowing taking over the sky (left).
High levels of microplastics have been found in Northwest Atlantic fish. A study, published in open-access journal Frontiers in Marine Science, found microplastics in the stomachs of nearly three out of every four mesopelagic fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic.
And in the US, where a deranged president is urging teachers to get armed and trained [oh yay, schoolyard firefights, they won’t be dangerous …], legislators declared porn is a health risk but assault weapons are fine.
But actually, America’s greatest vulnerability is its continued inability to acknowledge the extent of its adversaries’ capabilities when it comes to cyber threats, says Ian Bremmer, founder and president of leading political risk firm Eurasia Group.
The latest bug to hit Apple devices wrought havoc on the internet.The issue, which has become known as the Telugu bug, gave people the ability to crash a wide range of iPhone, Mac and iPad apps just by sending a single character from the third-most-spoken language in India. Apple patched the bug a few days later (so update your Apple devices!) because mean-spirited users took to using the Telugu symbol to “bomb” other peoples’ devices. By adding the symbol to a user’s Twitter name, you can crash the iOS Twitter app simply by liking someone’s tweet.

Emerging risks of AI — A new report authored by over two-dozen experts on the implications of emerging technologies is sounding the alarm bells on the ways artificial intelligence could enable new forms of cybercrime, physical attacks, and political disruption over the next five to ten years.

Bonkers clock — Depending on the day, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is either the richest or second richest human on Earth. And while he’s trying to figure out how to use some of that money philanthropically, he announced construction has begun on the giant clock in the middle of nowhere that he put up $US42 million to build. The 10,000 Year Clock is intended as a symbolic reminder that we should consider the long-term impact of our actions.
~ Or he could spend that money on actually helping people … twat

Finally, some goodish news: more than 50% of Australia’s coal fleet will be over 40 years old by 2030, and the Australian electricity grid, along with these ageing fossil fuelled power stations, are increasingly vulnerable to worsening extreme weather events.
To reach zero carbon pollution well before 2050 in order to effectively tackle climate change, Australia needs to increase reliance on renewable energy. The good news is that Australia could reach 50% renewables by 2030 even without significant new energy storage.

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.]

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!]