Tag Archives: The Apocalypticon

The Apocalypticon ~ Your data, killer DNA, killer animals, North Korean collapse, Polish Christ sprouts antennae, Zuckerberg for laughs


Who has more of your personal data than Facebook? Try Google — Facebook may be in the hot seat right now for its collection of personal data without our knowledge or explicit consent, but as The Wall Street Journal points out, “Google is a far bigger threat by many measures: the volume of information it gathers, the reach of its tracking and the time people spend on its sites and apps.” [OMG I have been telling people for YEARS about how bad Google is! And no, I do not recommend Gmail! Gah!]
But that does not get Facebook off the hook, oh no. A patent filed by the social network describes how personality characteristics, including emotional stability, could be determined from people’s messages and status updates. Facebook says it has never, so far, used the personality test in its products. But the patent was first filed in 2012. [Yeah, we really trust you, Facebook.]

Golden Gate killer tracked down by genealogy DNA — The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, has finally been arrested by police. Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. They found distant relatives of DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to to his front door.

Chinese institutionalised misogyny — A Human Rights Watch report reveals gender discrimination amongst major tech companies, as in the rest of Chinese society, is common and widespread. Search engine Baidu listed a job for content reviewers in March 2017 stating that applicants had to be men with the “strong ability to work under pressure, able to work on weekends, holidays and night shifts.” The conglomerate Tencent, which owns WeChat, the massive game Honor of Kings and a majority stake in League of Legends was found to have posted an ad for a sports content editor in March 2017, stating it was looking for “strong men who are able to work nightshifts.”

Animals who kill us — Mosquitos take the crown, but even cows are pretty bad. Oh, you’re not worried? The cow could be left as the biggest land mammal on Earth in a few centuries, according to a new study that examines the extinction of large mammals as humans spread around the world.

The world is agog at the Koreas talking, but — A new reports suggests the collapse of North Korea’s test facility may have been a contributing factor. Ouch.

Massive Polish Christ suddenly sprouts antenna — Rising 36m in the air, Christ the King is said to be the tallest statue of Jesus in the world. Since 2010, it’s loomed over the residents of Świebodzin, Poland, and it’s apparently already getting some upgrades. Signal broadcasting equipment was recently spotted embedded in the statue’s crown, but no one’s quite sure what’s going on with Jesus 2.0. [Monetising belief – now there’s an idea!]

And OK, let’s have a laugh at Mark Zuckerberg. Why not? He became a gazzlionaire off our data. 

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 ~ 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 ~ 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!]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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