Category Archives: Apocalypse

The Apocalypticon ~ Cambridge Analytica, nuclear bombers on alert, crypto-warning, space graveyard, big bridge swing


What did Cambridge Analytica really do for Trump’s campaign? News that Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix approached Wikileaks founder Julian Assange last year to exploit Hillary Clinton’s private emails has amplified questions about Cambridge’s role in President Trump’s 2016 campaign. [This was the most cynical manipulation of voters the world has ever seen to date. A Great Leap Forward?]

US Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991. That means the long-dormant concrete pads at the ends of this base’s 11,000-foot runway – dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings – could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice… The alert order has not been given, but preparations are under way in anticipation that it might come.

Thinking of investing in crypto-currencies? A hustler knows a hustle. So if you have ever considered sinking money into an initial coin offering – a complicated, barely regulated and booming new form of financial vehicle where startups offer investors stakes in ‘new’ cryptocurrencies rather than traditional stock – it might be a good idea to listen to what one of finance’s most notorious criminals-turned-authors has to say … spoiler alert: it’s just a huge scam.

Torn between iPhone X or iPhone 8? Psychologists have names for this kind of decision, and the hemming and hawing that goes into it. [I always think of the Law of Diminishing Returns, myself, and I let that guide me.] Gizmodo has more on this ‘behavioural economics‘ conundrum, which Apple uses skilfully [or should that be ‘mercilessly’?].

Satellite graveyard is ‘near’ Pitcairn — Whether you launch a satellite into space or an entire space station like the Russian Mir, the Chinese Tiangong-1 or the International Space Station, what goes up must eventually come down – they all re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The greater the mass of what is in space – Mir weighed 120 tons, the ISS weighs 450 tons and will be decommissioned in a decade – the greater the likelihood that larger parts will not burn up completely during re-entry and crash to earth at high velocity. So there is a need for a place on earth where things falling back from space are least likely to cause damage or human casualties. The Oceanic Pole Of Inaccessibility is one of two such places.

And finally, some good news: 245 friends jumping off a bridge and swinging by a rope is enough to gain you pseudo-fame – at least until 246 people try the same thing. Looks cool, anyway. So thanks, Hortolandia, Brazil …

The Apocalypticon ~ Facebook anti-likes, Russian Troll Factory, racial recognition, falling satellites, nature’s armageddons, Pruitt wants more rads, Fahrenheit 451,


US Department of Justice dropped request for names of people who Facebook-liked and anti-Trump page — In a court hearing on October 14th, the US Department of Justice dropped its request for the names of an estimated 6000 people who ‘liked’ a Facebook page about an Inauguration Day protest. The search was considered ‘over-broad‘… [like].

A new story of Russian meddling one comes from a respected Russian news source, for a change, the RBC. From the report: “Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues. RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Apple avoided FaceID being ‘racist’ — Earlier facial recognition systems from HP and Google failed to recognise people with dark skin. In 2009, a HP webcam failed to register black people. And in 2015, Google Photos’ facial recognition categorized black people as gorillas. If Face ID made similar mistakes, it could be a sign that Apple didn’t train Face ID to recognise a diverse set of faces. Apple worked with participants from around the world to include a representative group of people accounting for gender, age, ethnicity, and other factors.

How scientists predict if a satellite is going to fall on your head — Here we introduce you to the supremely fascinating world of object reentry risk analysis: the science of predicting which of the tens of thousands of derelict spacecraft, spent launch vehicles and various other hunks of technology orbiting our planet will survive their inevitable plunge through the atmosphere and pose a threat to people here on Earth.
Because you know, an 8.5-ton Chinese space station is coming down, down …

But where have all the flying insects gone? The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists. Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon.” [Right – maybe we should be eating crickets after all, then?]

Why stop there? The Great Barrier Reef now looks like a graveyardDr Charlie Veron, the world’s leading expert on coral reefs, said this while speaking to a Nordic investment bank on the future of the Great Barrier Reef,.

Scott Pruitt reckons humans might be able to handle ‘more’ radiation — Donald Trump’s appointment of former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency this year drew eyebrows, because Pruitt had made his career as a longstanding legal opponent of the EPA and a prominent climate change sceptic. Since he’s been put in charge of the agency, Pruitt has allegedly made plans to water down federal scientific research on the climate, deflected from the issue during natural disasters, and cut loose hundreds of employees in a deregulation push.
Now some are worried he’s trying to lower the bar for deadly radiation.
[Hey, maybe he’s right. I vote he tries it first.]

Fahrenheit 451 hot to read — Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a dystopian future where books have been outlawed and are destroyed by firemen who set them ablaze. But in an ironic twist, French publisher Super Terrain has created a new edition of Bradbury’s classic that actually requires extreme heat in order to be read.

Want some good news? Well, kinda: here’s how to spot fake photos on the web.

The Apocalypticon ~ Fire flood and plague, data hackers, Cuban noise, denial, cell wars


‘Perfectly normal apocalypse’ in California — that’s right. Southern California has firestorms resulting from a  boil-up of fuel thanks to wetter winters then drier summers, and single-dewllig suburbs on the fringes allow fires to spread fast. All ‘perfectly normal‘… In cities, it’s not the devouring flames you should fear but the asphyxiating smoke. This is thanks to Trump’s ‘not climate change’. Hey, at least there haven’t been any hurricanes.
Scientists are perplexed over a giant hole that has opened up in Antarctica. According to Motherboard, the “gigantic, mysterious hole” is as large as Lake Superior or the state of Maine. It’s really ‘quite remarkable‘.
Tokyo is preparing for bigger floods than ever with high tech. Linked by tunnels that divert water away from the region’s most vulnerable floodplains, its US$2 billion underground anti-flood system, completed in 2006, is an extraordinary example of the defenses that global cities are readying as they face an era of extreme weather brought on by climate change [or not, as Trump prefers].

Madagascar is fighting the plague — The World Health Organisation has delivered more than a million doses of antibiotics to Madagascar amid a raging epidemic of plague in which at least 33 people have died and 230 others have been infected. The ongoing epidemic involves mostly cases of pneumonic rather than the more common bubonic plague, but the airborne variety of the disease is significantly more transmissible and deadly.

The Security Paradox — There were 400,000 Britons were exposed in the US Equifax data breach. Oh, wait, the number was actually closer to 700,000.
That’s why we use VPN, right? Except a VPN provider has been sharing it’s logs with the FBI. Logs the provider said it didn’t keep. You see, someone who secures you information has access to that information. This is the Security Paradox – what happens when the locksmith wants to get into your house?
But don’t worry, there’s an Antivirus Paradox too: Russia exploited ‘antivirus software’ from Kaspersky Lab to trawl US systems for classified data. and HP Enterprise actually allowed Russia to review the cyberdefense software used by the Pentagon. The source code review could help Moscow discover weaknesses in the software, potentially helping attackers to blind the US military to a cyber attack. This is why people increasingly want AI to take over these tasks. Shame it’s already so biased, and yet we’re entering the Age of the Bizarrely Intelligent Robots. What’s it like working with them? Wired knows. This makes a perverse kind of sense when you consider that in many cases, we’re allowing – no, in some cases actually voting for – our countries to be run by the most greedy and flawed people.

Can noise weapon? If ever anything sounded like fake news … The Associated Press has obtained a recording of what some US Embassy workers heard in Havana in a series of unnerving incidents later deemed to be deliberate attacks. The recordings themselves are not believed to be dangerous to those who listen. Sound experts and physicians say they know of no sound that can cause physical damage when played for short durations at normal levels through standard equipment like a cellphone or computer. [Aha, but Castro’s speeches were s o  l o n g  . . . ]

Deny this: a restored prisoner’s letter uncovers horrific details of life at Auschwitz death camp. In 1944, Marcel Nadjari, a Greek Jew who was forced to remove bodies from the Auschwitz gas chambers, buried a letter in a forest near the camp. The text was rediscovered in 1980, but was virtually unreadable. Using a new imaging technique, scientists have finally reconstructed the letter, and it’s providing harrowing new details of the Holocaust — and what it was like to work as a forced labourer in a Nazi extermination camp.

Parody ‘Subgenius’ religion wants to crowd-fund contacting aliens — In 1979 the followers of J.R ‘Bob’ Dobbs founded a satirical religion called the Church of the Subgenius. Combining UFOs and conspiracy theories with some social critiques (and a few HP Lovecraft characters), the strange group is now re-emerging online with an official Facebook page and a slick new video channel.
Eighteen months of experimentation lead to clues about a flying saucer arriving on ‘the Black Day’ – and one last chance at eternal salvation and everlasting Slack: the construction of an alien-contacting beacon. [Good for a laugh, anyway. At least, they’re enjoying themselves.]

And after that, some good news … In an effort to reduce the 40 trillion kg of carbon dioxide humans produce each year, three companies have been working to build machines that can capture the gas directly from the air. One such machine in Iceland has begun operation.
Climeworks just proved the cynics wrong. On October 11th, at a geothermal power plant in Iceland, the startup inaugurated the first system that does direct air capture and verifiably achieves negative carbon emissions.
This technology could pull us back from the brink. Yay!

The Apocalypticon ~ cow farts, algo-disrhythmia, airline tragedy map, adapting mice, angry eagles, leaked leak email, stick insect progress


NASA finds a lot more cow farts — Another reason for New Zealand farmers to bury their heads in their shitty dirt is a new NASA-sponsored study which shows that global methane emissions produced by livestock are 11% higher than estimates made last decade. Because methane is a particularly nasty greenhouse gas, the new finding means it’s going to be even tougher to combat climate change than we realised.

Algorithms have already gone rogue — Tim O’Reilly has been the conscience of the tech industry for more than two decades. In his new book WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, although optimistic about tech, he doesn’t shy away from its potentially dangerous consequences.

Interactive ocean map results from airline tragedy — The search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 ran for more than three years, and was one of the largest marine surveys ever conducted. Within the search area coordinated by the Australian government, 278,000 square kilometres of ocean floor data was collected and collated by Geoscience Australia. That data is now publicly available, and has been used to create an interactive story map of the search for the missing aircraft.

Mice are adapting to New York City; Australian eagles are attacking drones — New York mice seem to be adapting to the city evolutionarily. A team of scientists analysed the genomes of white-footed mice captured in New York and New York-adjacent parks to see whether they’d evolved given the pressures of city life. It turns out the urban critters have probably been adapting, genetically, to their new city diets, which may or may not include cheeseburgers and pizza.
In Australia, angry birds are ripping $80,000 drones out of the sky — Daniel Parfitt thought he’d found the perfect drone for a two-day mapping job in a remote patch of the Australian Outback. The roughly $80,000 machine had a wingspan of over two metres and resembled a stealth bomber. There was just one problem. His machine raised the hackles of one prominent local resident: a wedge-tailed eagle. Swooping down from above, the protected eagle used its talons to punch a hole in the carbon fiber and Kevlar fuselage of Parfitt’s drone, which lost control and plummeted to the ground. Ouch. Some think 20% of Australian drones have been destroyed this way in the outback.

(Image from The Mercury)

What happens when you send an anti-leak training email to staff? Someone leaks it — Trump’s ‘administration’ is mandating government-wide training sessions on “the importance of protecting classified and controlled unclassified information” leaked just under a month ago, the courses themselves have started making their way around to various federal agencies. We know this because the training was leaked.

What now, Silicon Valley ‘disconnectors’? Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook engineer who created the ‘like’ button, now  belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who fear a smartphone dystopia — they complain about the rise of the so-called “attention economy”: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.
One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

And finally, some good news: the possible triumphant return of the Lord How Island stick insect — The most bizarre island on Earth is shaped like a skinny pyramid, the remnant of a shield volcano. In 2003, scientists scaled its sheer cliffs in search of the only thing more bizarre than the island itself: the Lord Howe Island stick insect. It’s enormous, growing over 15cm long (six inches), with a dark, robust abdomen and chunky back legs. The researchers managed to bag just two breeding pairs, because Lord Howe Island stick insect was, and remains, one of the rarest critters on the planet after an invasion of rats almost wiped them out. But thanks to genetic test improvements, a very-closely-related species from another island might be able to save the day.

The Apocalypticon ~ The Data Wars, airlines, animals, ice, carbon …


Moscow is adding facial-recognition technology to its network of 170,000 surveillance cameras across the city in a move to identify criminals and boost security. Since 2012, CCTV recordings have been held for five days after they’re captured, with about 20 million hours of video stored at any one time. This quickly became almost impossible to process by police officers alone, so they’re automating the process.
Are, Russia, so security conscious … The ‘secure messaging app’ Telegram has employees in Saint Petersburg in the same building as Kremlin-influenced social network VK, which is owned by the oligarch and Putin ally Alisher Usmanov. Doesn’t that make us feel secure?
Meanwhile, Russian hacktivist group Fancy Bear (also referred to as APT28, Sofacy, and Strontium) has been using a flaw in Google’s caching of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to phish targets, Salon reports. To make matters worse, Google has been aware of the bug for almost a year but has refused to fix it…

Of course, things are much better in the United States of America. The Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the files it collects on immigrants, as well as some citizens, by including more online data – most notably search results and social media information – about each individual. The plan is set out in the Federal Register, where the government publishes forthcoming regulations. A final version is set to go into effect on October 18th.
But here, lax security can be incredibly rewarding. The CEO of Equifax is retiring from the credit reporting bureau with a pay day worth as much as US$90 million – or roughly 63 cents for every customer whose data was potentially exposed in its recent security breach. Nice one, good job there Dick, love your work.
Data is the new oil, or so the saying goes. So why are we giving it away for nothing more than ostensibly free email, better movie recommendations and more accurate search results? It’s an important question to ask in a world where the accumulation and scraping of data is worth billions of dollars..

Airlines worldwide were forced to delay flights as a global flight-bookings system operated by Amadeus IT Group SA suffered what the company called a “network issue.” Major carriers including British Airways, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Cathay Pacific Airways and Qantas Airways were among those reportedly impacted by the outage. At least their planes still had fuel.

While we’re back in the analogue world, humans are changing animal migrate routes in ways you may not expect. White storks in Europe typically fly to southern Africa for the winter. Yet when researchers at Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Ornithology tracked a bird’s path using a GPS logger in 2016, they found it and a few others had skipped the grueling migration across the Sahara Desert. That year, the birds stopped, instead, in cities like Madrid, Spain, and Rabat, Morocco. Apparently, they had developed a taste for junk food, in particular the stuff that piles up in landfills along the migration route.

But hey, there’s a new rat, and it’s a biggun! The Solomon Islands is a nation comprised of nearly one thousand islands located northeast of Australia. Dense, lush rainforest blankets the majority of the islands, and the country’s coral reef biodiversity is among the richest in the world. Many of the plants and animals in the Solomon Islands have evolved in splendid isolation, and now, one of these animals has emerged from its idyllic surroundings, revealing itself to science for the first time: the vika (Uromys vika), a big-arse rat four times the size of even the heftiest of the familiar, city-slicker variety.

If you want an unusual but punchy telling of the world’s explosion of climate-warping gases, look no further than this visualisation of CO2 levels over the past centuries soaring like skyscrapers into space.

 

Satellite images taken last weekend show a new 267km2 iceberg emerging from Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. The calving event did not come as a complete surprise, but it’s a troubling sign with regards to future sea level rise.

And in good news … OK, I’m struggling. How about this mirrored train ride through Tokyo?

The Apocalypticon ~ Trump’s Facebook, hackering, Japanese thunder, dads are mutants, super malaria, bison shot, Nestlé, diesel deaths, vote


A note about The Apocalypticon: I found so many apocalyptical news stories researching for the aforementioned Futurology, probably thanks to Donald Trump more than anything, I started  following my weekend Futurology column with this, on the premise that if nightmares truly are strengthening our psyches against possible disasters, this might serve similarly. That said, I try and end on a positive note (I’ve always liked D, myself). 

Thanks to the terrifying wonders of social media, President Trump has launched targeted digital ads on Facebook, , only on a much larger scale than he did. Most seem to be offering conflicting versions of his plans for the border wall. Facebook is attempting to regulate political ads, apparently – yeah right, coz if Zuckerberg does run for president, don’t expect that to continue! But hey, it’ not all bad – Facebook plans to read our thoughts one day. I thought it was already. I guess that’s what you get with a CEO whose name means’Sugar Mountain’.

Amazon knows if you’re trying to make a bomb. Amazon’s listings for ingredients commonly used in DIY bombs are often accompanied by ‘frequently bought together’ suggestions for the exact chemicals necessary to turn relatively harmless substances into viable weapons.

In other software/wetware news, if you’re a gamer who installed the Steam Inventory Helper on your PC, you may want to uninstall it as soon as possible. Recent reports suggest this extension used to buy and sell digital goods on Steam is spying on its users. [Ha ha, I have a Mac.] Also, the Feds in the US are ditching Kapersky ‘security tools‘ citing the company’s potential ties to the Russian government.

Thunderous Japanese particle accelerator — Thunderclouds rolled into the Japanese beach town of Uchinada early one December morning in 2015. The scientists expected the storms; they’d staked out the location specifically for studying something normally only seen by satellites. Sometime after 5am, a flash of lightning struck a wind turbine. And along came a more perplexing weather phenomenon, too: The thunderstorm turned into a particle accelerator and blasted gamma radiation at the ground.

Dads are mutants — Children inherit four times as many new mutations from their fathers than their mothers, according to research that suggests faults in the men’s DNA are a driver for rare childhood diseases. Bugger.

Nestlé makes millions bottling free water — But you knew this, right? This is, after all, the company that invested heavily in stopping third world mum’s breastfeeding so they’d buy its milk powder. Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, has been bottling water since 1843 and has grown into the largest seller of bottled water. But a detailed report on Bloomberg uncovers the company’s operation in Michigan, revealing that Nestle has come to dominate in the industry in part by going into economically depressed areas with lax water laws [LIKE NEW ZEALAND!]. It makes billions selling a product for which it pays close to nothing.
[Which makes Nestlé and ilk (Coca-Cola, for example) clever and the New Zealand government really, really stupid. Cows freely shit in lots of our NZ water, and what’s left pure-ish we virtually give away to overseas corporations to sell. Duh!]

Diesel cars and trucks kill 5000 a year in Europe — Emissions from diesel cars rigged to appear eco-friendly may be responsible for 5000 air pollution deaths per year in Europe alone, according to a study. The numbers are in line with previous assessments of deaths due to the so-called Dieselgate scandal, which erupted when carmaker Volkswagen admitted in 2015 to cheating on vehicle emissions tests. [Imagine what the figures would be in China and India.]
But hey, now you can build virtual roads in what must be a truly maddening game.

Super-malaria — A newly-mutated strain of drug-resistant malaria has spread into Vietnam, complicating efforts to contain the the mosquito-borne virus in Southeast Asia and potentially posing a global threat.

First wild bison appears in Germany in 250 years, and is promptly shot dead — seriously! The World Wildlife Fund will be pursuing charges against a local official who, upon receiving a report of the first sighting of a wild bison in Germany in over 250 years, promptly ordered hunters to shoot the animal dead.

And the good news? Ah … I hope you voted. You get a one-in-roughly-four-million chance to affect the future every three years, so you may as well use it.

The Apocalypticon ~ Data, security, storms, bombs … and saving us from climate change


New Zealand’s Neoliberal drift — In New Zealand, neoliberal reforms have widened inequality and undermined the country’s self-image as an egalitarian paradise. So while Bill English keeps crowing about New Zealand’s ‘rock star economy’, why are there more homeless, more beggars, more hungry kids? I agree with the above blog’s assertions. People say you can’t sum up neoloberalism, as it covers many things, but I have made a study of it and feel I can: the basic core of neoliberalism is allowing markets to solve all issues including cultural and social. Which is as patently stupid as it appears at first glance. It also involves ‘othering’ and victimising those who can’t progress competitively and therefore shares similarities with classic Nazism. Remember that? World War Two responsible for 40-50 million deaths? The Holocaust?
Yeah. 

Data — 143 million Americans may have had their Social Security Numbers stolen (along with other sensitive personal information), so security experts are pressing for a fundamental reassessment in how, and why, we identify ourselves. Meanwhile, a Chinese man has been given a nine-month jail sentence for helping people evade government controls on where they can go online.

Security — And Russian election hacking in the US is the story that keeps on growing.  A lot of registered voters in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Arizona didn’t even get to vote on election day last year because their names weren’t in the electronic poll books because, theoretically, Russian hackers had infiltrated the servers of VR Systems, a company that provides the software for polling equipment. However, anonymous sources from the intelligence community told the New York Times that at least two other election software companies were also hacked. And if you’re worried about that pro-Russian shock-gadfly Julian Assange’s Wikileaks site getting hacked, that was a DNS reroute.

Storms — While the massive hurricane Irma is about to hit Florida after laying waste through the Caribbean, Houstonians in Texas were left without shelter and facing the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. The staggering damage includes 40,000 homes lost, but another number also deserves close scrutiny: the flooding destroyed as many as a million cars in the Houston metro area. A job for FEMA, which over the last seven decades has evolved from building a top-secret series of bunkers designed to protect US officials in case of a nuclear attack to a sprawling bureaucratic agency tasked with mobilizing help in disasters.
And while it’s storming’ here on Earth, it’s also storming’ out in space. The Space Weather Prediction Center has upgraded a geomagnetic storm watch for September 6 and 7 to a level only occasionally seen, but scientists say it’s nothing to be too alarmed about – at least we’re getting some cool atmospheric aurora effects.

Bombs —  Sensors in South Korea, China, and the US indicated that whatever the Hermit Kingdom exploded underground recently was more powerful than the atomic weapons the US used during World War II—a benchmark North Korea had not definitively topped before. But hoorah! Because America has way more powerful bombs still.
Large sections of central Frankfurt, Germany were evacuated in preparation for authorities to defuse a World War II-era, 1.4-ton ‘Blockbuster’ HC 4000 air mine. At least 60,000 people were asked to leave the area while the bomb defusal operation proceeds. The bomb was successfully defused, but still needs to be removed from the area with utmost caution. Now there’s a perfect task for a driverless truck!

Climate change — According to Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, we’re barely staving off climate disaster. Your Tesla might be cool, but it’s not helping much. The pessimistic professor has been studying sea icefor nearly 50 years. “Reducing our emissions is not going to be enough to prevent catastrophic consequences,” he says. In his scorching new book, A Farewell to Ice, Wadhams presents some radical, and sometimes theoretical, ways to save civilisation. [‘Head in the sand’ isn’t one of them.]
The terrible weather isn’t our only worry. Research published by Orb Media, a nonprofit journalism group, has revealed that microplastics have contaminated high proportions of tap drinking water and bottled water. Samples from the United States tested positive in 94% of instances, while Europe’s contamination averages around 72%. Tests were undertaken at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, with lead researcher Dr Anne Marie Mahon noting the risk of plastics carrying bacteria.
But at least you’re probably not gluten intolerant. [I ways like to end with some good news.]

The Apocalypticon ~ Hurricane Harvey, robot work, tracking, tasers, hacker burglar, invented man, Sun collision


Wettest tropical storm in US history — The US National Weather Service is reporting 124cm of total rainfall at a site southeast of Houston, which now marks the greatest accumulation of rainfall ever recorded in the contiguous United States on account of a single tropical storm. Isn’t that really really great? The unprecedented duration and intensity of the storm naturally sparked a heated debate about how much climate change is to blame. The short answer is we don’t really know yet. But attempting to answer that question will help prepare for the future.
In the meantime, Hurricane Harvey knocked out 25% of Gulf oil production. Meanwhile, US researchers say the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has underestimated the importance of photovoltaic solar energy, claiming the technology could provide up to 50% of the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

A t-shirt swing robot can make as many shirts per hour as 17 workers. SoftWear Automation introduced LOWRY, a sewing robot, or sewbot, that uses machine vision to spot and adjust to distortions in the fabric. Though initially only able to make simple products, such as bath mats, the technology is now advanced enough to make whole t-shirts and much of a pair of jeans. SoftWear Automation’s big selling point is that one of its robotic sewing lines can replace a conventional line of 10 workers and produce about 1,142 t-shirts in an eight-hour period, compared to just 669 for the human sewing line. Another way to look at it is that the robot, working under the guidance of a single human handler, can make as many shirts per hour as about 17 humans. Once workers have been replaced, the rich may as well eat us.

Tracking us from space — On August 21, the human density of Hopkinsville Kentucky more than tripled as around 100,000 people swarmed toward the total solar eclipse. Hundreds of miles above the crowd, high-resolution satellites stared down, snapping images of the sprawl. The satellites belong to a company called DigitalGlobe, and their cameras are sharp enough to capture a book on a coffee table, but only twice a day. So that’s the next challenge.

Taser deaths much worse than realised — Independent studies have showed that ‘when deployed correctly’, Tasers reduce injuries among both officers and the people they subdue. But amidst a lack of official data about their use and effects, a new report by Reuters found 1005 incidents in the US in which people died after police stunned them with the electrical weapons, most since the early 2000s. The Taser was ruled to be a cause or contributing factor in 153 of those deaths – far more than the 24 cases the company has counted. Reuters found that 9 in 10 of those who died were unarmed and one in four suffered from mental illness or neurological disorders; in 9 of every 10 incidents reviewed, the deceased was unarmed. Perhaps worst of all, more than 100 of the fatal encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency.

Burglar hacked hotel swipe locks — Eventually, Aaron Cashatt’s lock-hacking spree triggered Operation Hotel Ca$h, a multi-agency police operation aimed at tracking him down. Officials estimated that Cashatt was responsible for 78 hotel burglaries. (Cashatt later hinted the number was well over a hundred.)

Invented man offsets sexism — LA-based entrepreneurs Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer wanted to create Witchsy, an online marketplace for their feminist-centred, darkly comic fashion accessories. But along with the usual woes that come with getting a startup off the ground, they had another problem: men. So they came up with a plan, creating a fake partner, Keith Mann, to field their email correspondence.

Sunny outlook. OK, not really: from their calculations, researchers predict 97 stars will miss our Sun by about 93.2 trillion miles (about 150 trillion km) at some point in the next 5 million years. Sixteen stars will graze our Sun at a distance of 37.2 trillion miles (about 60 trillion km). While that seems like a lot — because it is — the ESA reports this is actually “considered reasonably near.” At least, it’s near enough to potentially perturb the Oort cloud, a vast belt of icy cometary objects encircling our Sun at mind-boggling distances.
Ah, well, it is positive since none of us will live long enough to suffer. Hoorah!

 

The Apocalypticon ~ Nazis. Trump. Putin. Germany. Sexist machines. Fish wars. Accuweather fixes dodgy app.


Nazis. We’ve recently seen the ugliest face of white nationalism in the United States. In both its structural and personal forms, racism shouldn’t surprise anyone (unfortunately).
As political scientist David Karpf has argued, these violations must be met with penalties or the norms fade away. However, just to underline US presidential hypocrisy on this kind of thing, President Trump just pardoned controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted for disobeying a judge’s order to stop detaining people illegally, seemingly because he was popular! But even if you knew that virulent hate groups existed, they’re fringe enough that most have never spoken to their members. If people engage with them, can they be recruited back into humanity?

Lamar wall cloud with very large hail falling. Taken on chase of this extreme storm near Lamar in Colorado, Denver, North America, USA. (At least Accuweather has nixed its app’s secret tracking behaviour.)

Trump’s equivocation has even managed to put off the Russians. The Kremlin had long played along with President Trump’s extreme rhetoric while he lionized Vladimir Putin – meanwhile cultivating the American right’s faith-based, family-oriented, anti-immigrant agenda. But Trump’s failure to instinctively condemn Charlottesville’s swastika-toting marchers seems to have crossed a bright red line for them. Defeating Hitler’s Germany as 27 million Soviet citizens died is a key pillar of Russian national pride; recently the Russian media has expressed dismay over the president’s equivocation. Relations had already soured – now, indulging the ghosts of fascism may forever taint Moscow’s formerly favourite US leader.

Germany, though, reckons it cannot end up with a Trump. Seven decades after World War II, a leader like President Donald Trump would have almost no chance of political success in Berlin thanks to the unique historical, political, social and cultural stories of the United States and Germany and the tumultuous path they have taken over the last century.
~ Seems like a hell of a price to pay to get to that conclusion – can America do it without world war and a Holocaust? But it’s a good question:
“Why does the US, the political, moral and military leader of the Western world since the end of World War II, now have a dangerous laughing stock, a man who has isolated his country, as its president? Why does Germany, a former pariah, now enjoy a more positive political standing than ever before?”
“There will be time for reflection. Hopefully there will be time to rebuild. But now it’s simply time to be ashamed.” [My italics.] So tweeted Republican Garrett Johnson after Trump won the Republican presidential ticket, but soon after he was attempting to get tech experts into Trump’s administration teams. But tech practitioners have been abandoning Trump, and the administration’s tech team remains largely empty. The Office of Science and Technology, for example,  employs just 40 people, down from roughly 130 under Obama.

Machine learning failures because they learned from humans. Ironic or what? Two prominent research-image collections – including one supported by Microsoft and Facebook – display a predictable gender bias in their depiction of activities such as cooking and sports. Images of shopping and washing are linked to women, for example, while coaching and shooting are tied to men. Machine-learning software trained on the datasets didn’t just mirror those biases, it amplified them.
~ So our pure machines are now sexist. Nice one, tech nerds. Maybe it would be better if men simply weren’t allowed to vote

Fish wars coming — Battles over politics and ideologies may be supplanted by fights over resources as nations struggle for economic and food security. These new conflicts have actually already begun – over fish.
In 1996, Canada and Spain almost went to war over the Greenland turbot. Canada seized Spanish vessels it felt were fishing illegally, but Spain did not have the same interpretation of the law and sent gunboats to escort its ships. In 1999, a US Coast Guard cutter intercepted a Russian trawler fishing in the US exclusive economic zone. The lone cutter was promptly surrounded by 19 Russian trawlers. Fortunately, the Russian Border Guard and the Coast Guard drew on an existing relationship and were able to defuse the situation… Japan protested when 230 fishing vessels were escorted by seven China Coast Guard ships in the waters of the disputed Senkaku Islands. Incidents in the South China Sea between the Indonesian Navy and Chinese fishing vessels and China Coast Guard have escalated to arrests, ramming, and warning shots leading experts to suggest only navies and use of force can stop the IUU fishing.

Finally, some good news — Responding to privacy concerns (as reported last week on Mac NZ), AccuWeather is out with a new version of its iOS app that removes a controversial data sharing behavior. Earlier this week, security researcher Will Strafach called attention to the practice in a post and users took to Twitter to announce their intention to dump the app in droves. “AccuWeather’s app employed a Software Development Kit (SDK) from a third party vendor (Reveal Mobile) that inadvertently allowed Wi-Fi router data to be transmitted to this third-party vendor,” the company wrote in a statement accompanying the app update. “Once we became aware of this situation we took immediate action to verify the operation and quickly disabled the SDK from the IOS app. Our next step was to update the IOS app and remove Reveal Mobile completely.”

The Apocalypticon ~ US ‘justice’, old trauma, 91 Antarctic volcanoes, phone repairs contain hacks, medical emergencies, bees, solar eclipse myths, Miami flooding


US ‘Department of Justice’ demands data from anti-Trump sites — A web hosting provider has revealed the US Justice Department’s efforts to obtain records about an activist website established to coordinate “mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump”. DreamHost said it was opposing a broadly-worded US federal warrant that seeks access to “all information available” about the website disruptj20.org. In other Trump news, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich is leaving President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, the latest executive to distance himself from the president following the weekend’s events in Virginia. In a blog post, Krzanich said that the decline in American manufacturing remains a serious issue, but said that “politics and political agendas have sidelined the important mission of rebuilding America’s manufacturing base. I resigned to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues, including the serious need to address the decline of American manufacturing.” Trump recently more or less validated – several times – the racist and thuggish ideologies hurled by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
US voting machines have leaked 1.8 million Chicago voter records, and Wired has published a handy guide to Russian hacking attempts aimed at US democracy, all part of an increasingly digital intelligence playbook known as “active measures:” techniques and strategies that Russian military and intelligence services deploy to influence the affairs of nations across the globe.
~ And Americans thought they’d been specially singled out …

Can your great-great grandparents’ trauma be passed on to you? An affinity for Russian literature might be something your parents passed on via social influence, reading it to you before bedtime, just as their parents did for them. But life experiences such as trauma, researchers have recently found, can be passed on, too: children can inherit the changes that occur in how their parents genes are expressed due to environmental stressors.

91 volcanoes discovered under Antarctic ice — Scientists have uncovered the largest volcanic region on Earth, and it’s two kilometres below the surface of the vast ice sheet that covers west Antarctica.
~ We’d best uncover that as soon as possible, then … don’t worry, we’re working on it. 

Replacement phone parts can contain secret chips — Just when you were congratulating yourself on that cheap phone repair you found, there’s a possibility the replacement parts installed by repair shops contain secret hardware that completely hijacks the security of your device. The concern arises from research that shows how replacement screens, one put into a Huawei Nexus 6P and the other into an LG G Pad 7.0, can be used to surreptitiously log keyboard input and patterns, install malicious apps, and take pictures and email them to the attacker.

Medical emergencies: UK deadly fungus outbreak — More than 200 patients in 55 UK hospitals were discovered by healthcare workers to be infected or colonized by the multi-drug resistant fungus Candida auris, a globally emerging yeast pathogen that has experts nervous.
An alarming report from the World Health Organisation estimates that some 500,000 Yemenis have contracted cholera since April of this year, of which 2000 have died. It’s now the worst active cholera epidemic in the world, and one of the largest in decades.

Popular pesticides are stopping bumble bees laying eggs — Wild bees, such as bumblebees, play just as crucial a role in pollinating many fruits, vegetables and wildflowers, and compared to managed colonies of honeybees, they’re in much greater jeopardy. A group of scientists in the United Kingdom decided to look at how bumblebee queens are affected by some widely used and highly controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids. What they found isn’t pretty.

Solar eclipse myths — Loads of evidence to the contrary won’t stop people from believing some pretty bizarre eclipse myths – mostly ones that involve sex and/or death.

Finally for this week why is the sea rising so fast in Miami? Sunny day flooding is occurring more often, and rising sea levels and climate change are to blame. But, as is often the case when you drill down into the inner workings of our planet, the full story is a bit more complicated. A combination of two naturally-occurring climate patterns (the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation) are associated with hot spots of sea level rise along the Eastern seaboard.
~ That was supposed to be the good news that ends this column … sorry!

The Apocalypticon ~ Fury and ‘frankly power’, Satan’s heat, Russian NSA hacks, Lesser Cocking, Silicon wasters, victimising women, Thiel spies, life-saving Apple, airline hate


Trump offers North Korea fire and fury. [Oh, you thought I was joking with this blog?] The oh-so-really-really eloquent one said “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” said Trump. “They will be met with fire, fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with the fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.”
[I bet Trump was a real a-hole even at kindergarten.] One has to wonder, when will we finally die out? Futurists, anthropologists, science fiction authors and others have been asked this question by Gizmodo.

Meanwhile, North Korea has secret plans to attack Guam. We know this, because North Korea stated “The Hwasong-12 rockets to be launched by the KPA [Korean People’s Army] will cross the sky above Shimani, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures of Japan,” the statement said. “They will fly for 3356.7 km for 1065 seconds and hit the waters 30 to 40km away from Guam.” [Oh my God, how will we work out what North Korea is planning? Fiendish!!]

Meanwhile, Europe is already suffering the heat of Satan. At least two people have died over the course of the heat wave, which caused temperatures to spike as high as 44°C (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in southern Spain and 40°C in the French Riviera. Temperatures were forecast as high as slightly over 42°C in mainland Greece. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if this heat wave could be correlated with all those other heat waves across the world, or the inexplicable trend of the planet breaking global heat records on a regular basis. [Nope, You’re just being silly, Gizmodo.]
Talking about Satan … Monsanto has been editing its own ‘independent’ product reports.

But wait! A global investment firm has also warned of an almost unheard-of phenomenon called Global Climate Change. A leading British global investment firm has a warning for its clients: if we keep consuming oil and gas at current rates, our planet is on course to experience a rise in global average temperatures of nearly 8°C (14°F) by the end of the century. This would make Earth basically uninhabitable for humans. [Whereas I thought investment firms were uninhabitable by humans. You see? Delusion is hardly exclusive.] And hey, now there’s a game for that. [This will be As Much Fun as TV3’s The Project.]

Russian hotel hackers use NSA tool — A Russian espionage campaign has used Wi-Fi networks to spy on high-value hotel guests [that’s me safe then], and recently started using a leaked NSA hacking tool to upgrade their attacks. But maybe it’s not the Russians we should be fearing so much, at least with election fraud?

AI and Lesser Cocking Vestibulaton … Artificial intelligence networks have already come to the rescue of craft brewers, metal bands and guinea pig owners who are looking for wacky new names. Now, digital consultant Dan Hon wants to use those same neural networks to help Britain come up with even more amusing place names. This from the country that’s already come up with locales such as Papplewick, Blubberhouses and Picklescott and which called a river The Piddle. [I’m still reeling from the ‘Buttcombe Ale’ I spotted on tap in a Birmingham pub a few years back.]

Coasters are millionaire Silicon Valleyites who do virtually [get it?] nothing for loads of money. Yes it’s a thing. Aspirational?

And while we’re talking about rich a-holes, Peter Thiel, who recently got special citizenship in that citadel of freedom, New Zealand, on the special circumstances that he was a rich a-hole, apparently [this is always guaranteed to super-impress National politicians] has been selling Palantir data storage, analysis, and collaboration software to police departments throughout the US. Most of Palintir’s business, though, is with the military. [Doesn’t that just make you feel all safe and snuggly? And yes, LoTR fans, you’re right about the implications of the system’s name.]

An image site victimises countless women, and almost nothing can be done about it. No, this isn’t fake news, unfortunately, being spread by ‘social’ bots.

Apple refuses to enable tech that would ‘save lives’ — Apple is still ignoring requests to enable a feature called Advanced Mobile Location (AML) in iOS. Enabling AML would give emergency services extremely accurate locations of emergency calls made from iPhones, dramatically decreasing response time. Google’s successful implementation of AML for Android is ‘already saving lives’. [And also, of course, enable you to be tracked with pinpoint accuracy by Agents of Despond like Peter Thiel.]

And you know I always like to end on a positive note: there’s a new way to tell airlines you hate them. Two airlines have dipped their wings into the waters of two-way texting. Hawaiian Holdings’s Hawaiian Airlines is adding the feature while JetBlue Airways took a stake in a software startup that will allow its call centre staff to start texting customers in the coming months. And they’re inviting you to ask questions, and maybe even complain. [Maybe?!]

The Apocalypticon ~ NSA and Dotcom, nuclear, beer, robots, EVs, cats and dogs, too-hot Asia, web habits, clever escape, AI beer names


According to new documents from New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), the NSA illegally used technology to spy on Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom. The New Zealand Herald first reported that the GCSB told the nation’s high court that it ceased all surveillance of Dotcom in early 2012, but that ‘limited’ amounts of communications from Dotcom were later intercepted by its technology without the bureau’s knowledge,” reports The Hill. [And this went on under Obama. Nothing like this would ever happen under a reasonable, rational man like Trump …]

In a major blow to the future of nuclear power in the United States, two South Carolina utilities said they would abandon two unfinished nuclear reactors in the state, putting an end to a project that was once expected to showcase advanced nuclear technology but has since been plagued by delays and cost overruns..
[A reactionary lash-back.]

Two Chinese chatbots have proved they can develop real intelligence. The chatbots, BabyQ and XiaoBing were designed to use machine learning artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out conversations with humans online. But they have been pulled. Why? BabyQ, a chatbot developed by Chinese firm Turing Robot, had responded to questions on QQ with a simply “no” when asked whether it loved the Communist Party.
In other images of a text conversation online, which Reuters was unable to verify, one user declares: “Long live the Communist Party!” The bot responded: “Do you think such a corrupt and useless political system can live long?” Meanwhile, China is pioneering new ways of combatting dissent on the internet.

Electric vehicles not the answer to pollution — Professor Frank Kelly said that while electric vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, they still produce large amounts of tiny pollution particles from brake and tyre dust, for which the government already accepts there is no safe limit. Toxic air causes 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned from 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that.
But faced with rising anger from some motorists, the plan made the use of charges to deter dirty diesel cars from polluted areas a measure of last resort only. Kelly’s intervention heightens the government’s dilemma between protecting public health and avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists. [But hey, how to measure that pious feeling?] And self-driving cars are confusing humans – and insurance companies.

Cats and dogs contribute to climate change — Pet ownership in the United States creates about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, UCLA researchers found. That’s the equivalent of driving 13.6 million cars for a year. The problem lies with the meat-filled diets of kitties and pooches, according to the study by UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin. [Hey, finally someone else to blame.]
We’re all going to die from climate change anyway – it’s just matter of when.

No outside life in South Asia — Venturing outdoors may become deadly across wide swaths of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by the end of the century as climate change drives heat and humidity to new extremes, according to a new study. These conditions could affect up to a third of the people living throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain unless the global community ramps up efforts to rein in climate-warming carbon emissions. [Start tunnelling?]

Six figure salary to protect Earth from aliens — Ever fancied yourself as a bit of a hero? How about the protector of mankind? Well now NASA is looking for just that, and it’ll pay a six-figure salary for the honour. Other duties include advising Safety Mission Assurance officials on planetary protection matters and ensuring compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions. [Too late. Just look at the White House.]

Users secret web habits ‘easy to expose’ — Two German researchers say they have exposed the porn-browsing habits of a judge, a cyber-crime investigation and the drug preferences of a politician. The pair obtained huge amounts of information about the browsing habits of three million German citizens from companies that gather ‘clickstreams’: detailed records of everywhere that people go online.

Attacks on the US press tracked — The US Press Freedom Tracker is a newly launched website that intends to document press freedom violations in a place that hasn’t historically required it: the United States. [Another Trump innovation.] Argentinians, meanwhile, are so sick of the media, they are inventing their own.

Student escapes kidnappers with nerves of steel and manual transmission — A college student in Columbia, South Carolina was kidnapped by three men at gunpoint. Fearing the worst, she used some Jason Bourne level-problem solving and her manual transmission car to get away safely. 20-year-old Jordan Dinsmore found herself in one of the worst situations possible when three men approached her, pushed her to the ground and put a gun to her head. The publication reports that they forced her to drive her car and withdraw money from an ATM and then told her that she was going to be taken to a location to be raped.
But Dinsmore had one advantage: when the men first put her into the car they couldn’t drive it because it had a manual transmission, so they made her take the driver’s seat. That is when she concocted a plan to escape[So impressed!]

At least we can have a new beer, thanks to AI — Brewers are running out of beer names, so scientist Janelle Shane (who uses artificial intelligence for this purpose frequently) decided to set AI onto the problem. The results: an IPA called Yamquak, a Cherry Trout Stout and Fire Pipe Amber Ale. [Yikes!]

The Apocalypticon ~ Sans Sharif, climate instability, bot-soldiers, Trump of course, piggybacking flood rabbits, Android virus vulnerability


Best headline this week: ‘Pakistan now Sans Sharif’ — Ever since the Panama Papers were anonymously leaked back in 2015, there has been a major shift in the political situation in many countries. One such is Pakistan, where the names of numerous members of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family were spotted in the papers.
To deflect examination, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz submitted photocopies of several documents in order to deny corruption, but the documents were dated February 6, 2006 and contained Microsoft’s Calibri font. Which wasn’t commercially available until January 30, 2007.
Hah! Sharif has now been disqualified from his position as a part of the court’s final verdict of the case.

Climate change is fostering instability, bot attacks and Trump’s military — Climate change will escalate instability across the globe and make it harder for the US military to conduct its operations, according to two former admirals, a retired general, a once-ambassador to Nigeria, and the former undersecretary to the Secretary of Defense. Nothing they said, however, was all that new. In fact, the Department of Defense has known about, and sometimes planned for, the security threats created by climate change for well over a decade.
Maybe that’s why they want attacking bot-swarms to replace soldiers? Even though top soldiers have warned about the dangers of such things. Will Trump listen or care? probably not, as Trump’s mind-defying ban on transgender troops certainly cuts down the pool or available humans who want to kill people, sorry ‘defend’ people.
Trump: I consulted the military about the transgender ban. The military: no you didn’t. [This is what ‘streamlined government means, people.]

Researchers have discovered multiple unpatched vulnerabilities in radiation monitoring devices that could be leveraged by attackers to reduce personnel safety, delay detection of radiation leaks, or help international smuggling of radioactive material. Ruben Santamarta, a security consultant at Seattle-based IOActive, at the Black Hat conference on Wednesday, saying that radiation monitors supplied by Ludlum, Mirion and Digi contain multiple vulnerabilities.
But vulnerabilities are also opportunities. The Black Hat and Def Con security conferences now have a booming side business in recruitingWild rabbits escape floods on the backs of NZ sheep — Really. This remarkable scene was captured by a New Zealand farmer who said he’d never seen anything like it.

Antivirus for Android is pretty bad — Researchers at Georgia Tech who analyzed 58 mainstream options found that many were relatively easy to defeat, often because didn’t take a nuanced and diverse approach to malware detection. So have fun with those, Meanwhile, the forthcoming Apple iOS 11 will disable “Auto join” for any network which suffers from low speed issues or is deemed to be generally unreliable. Good-oh.