Category: Geek

Glider ready to fly higher than the U2 spy plane

Click to enlarge

The Perlan Mission II glider, which is designed to fly higher than the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird, has made its maiden flight. The aircraft separated from its towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above Roberts Field at Redmond Municipal Airport in Oregon, but is expected to go much higher next year when it makes a world altitude record attempt to the edge of space.

Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock piloted the aircraft on its first flight, gliding back to the ground on wings with a span of 84 ft and surface area of 263 sq ft. The 5,000-ft altitude of the maiden flight is a baby step for the aircraft, which is expected to reach 90,000 ft next year when it will attempt to soar to the edge of space over Argentina.

If successful, this will not only smash the current glider world record altitude of 50,727 ft set by Perlan II’s predecessor, Perlan Mission I, in 2006 with Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson at the controls, but it will also beat the SR-71’s current record-holding altitude of 85,069 ft. Although a number of aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, the SR-71 retains the “absolute altitude record” for sustained flight.

While the SR-71 achieved the record drawing power from two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbo-jet engines, Perlan II will look to reach these dizzying heights by riding air currents over certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles that can reach into the stratosphere.

The Perlan team isn’t looking to go to the edge of space just because it is there, but to aid in research into high-altitude flight, climate change and space exploration. Since the aircraft is engineless, it will reach high altitudes without polluting the atmosphere it will study in an effort to shed more light on how the stratosphere impacts global weather, the health of the ozone layer, and to collect data to improve climate models for more accurate climate change predictions.


Apple products get more personal – and private – and piss off the NSA

Fire up the new Apple News service for the first time on your iPhone, and it’ll ask for your favorite topics and news outlets. Use it over time, and you’ll find that it is behaving like your personal news recommendation engine.

Read a lot about gardening, and you’ll see more stories about hardy perennials. Click on every story about the Red Sox? Get ready for more bullpen analysis. But eventually you may start to wonder — just how much does this app know about me?

You may think you know the answer, given that we live in a world where our every click and scroll is obsessively tracked by tech companies eager to sell us personalized ads. Apple, too, has been employing a small amount of targeted advertising since at least 2010.

But in a revamped privacy policy Web site, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post, Apple on Tuesday attempts to lay out how its philosophy on data collection distinguishes itself from its tech industry rivals.

In essence, the company is telling customers it is not interested in their personal data, even as it must use more of that data to deliver personalized products…

Apple News, which can deliver a stream of headlines right onto one of the home screens of the iPhone, launched this month into a crowded space. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have long been using algorithms to serve piping hot headlines from the Web to consumers while using their reading habits to enhance the vast trove of data the companies keep on every user.

Apple’s offering is different in that its stories are also curated by a small team of journalists. And the company clearly hopes a selling point will be its pledges on privacy protection.

“We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers,” chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a letter that introduced its privacy Web site last year. “We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud.”

Apple made substantial updates last fall to its privacy policies and the revamped Web site launching Tuesday offers new details and language on several topics. It is broken down into several sections — such as how it handles information requests from the authorities including the National Security Agency, instructions on how to secure devices from, say, third parties which may be interested in tracking behavior, and how some of Apple’s services work…

A new section on the Apple News app states that it collects data on what each user is reading so it can offer personalized headlines and ads. But the service does not tie reading habits to an Apple account and uses a unique identifier — which functions only within the News app — to send you targeted ads. Readers can also remove a record of their reading history from their device.

It works just like Apple Pay – which is why we love Apple Pay. No chance of anyone from a checkout clerk to the NSA accessing any personal info about the transaction.

In a separate section, the company laid out new language on encrpytion. Last year, Apple made it impossible for the company to turn over data from a customer’s iPhones or iPads — even when authorities have a search warrant — if users turn off automatic back-ups to the company’s servers. The policy has generated protests from police departments and Obama administration officials.

The new language doesn’t mention law enforcement, but the debate over Apple’s decision last fall motivated the company to spell out its thinking on encryption…“Encryption protects trillions of online transactions every day. Whether you’re shopping or paying a bill, you’re using encryption. It turns your data into indecipherable text that can only be read by the right key… And we can’t unlock your device for anyone because you hold the key — your unique password. We’re committed to using powerful encryption because you should know that the data on your device and the information you share with others is protected.”

There’s an interesting discussion at the end of this article about educated consumers coming down on the side of privacy. Hopefully, such questions will make a difference to voters, as well.

Jeb Bush is the ultimate opponent of Internet Freedom

Do you want to live in a country where Internet Service Providers can slow down and censor your internet traffic at will, where the NSA has vastly more power than it does today and where end-to-end encryption may be illegal? Then Jeb Bush is the Republican presidential contender for you: he has positioned himself as the anti-internet candidate in an election where internet rights have never mattered more.

A lot of the White House candidates have made worrying comments about the future of surveillance and the internet – from Chris Christie’s bizarre vow to track 10 million people like FedEx packages, to Hillary Clinton’s waffling on encryption backdoors – but Jeb Bush’s deliberate campaign to roll back internet rights is the perfect storm of awful.

Bush proudly stated on his campaign website this week that he would axe the FCC’s important net neutrality rules, a hard-fought, grassroots victory from earlier this year by internet rights activists almost a decade in the making. As the New York Times described it at the time, the net neutrality rules “are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else…”

As Gizmodo’s Kate Knibbs put it, however, “Instead of viewing the FCC’s net neutrality rule as a safeguard for consumers, Bush is framing it a way to sandbag ISPs out of their rightful profit margins, with no upside for people using their services.” Jeb Bush is apparently happy to side with Comcast and Time Warner, two of the most hated conglomerates in America, rather than the tens of millions of people who just want watch Netflix every night without their internet slowing down or having to pay more.

But that’s just his latest vow to dismantle the hard-fought rights internet users have won over the past few years. Bush is also a mass warrantless surveillance fanatic. He not only continually defends the NSA on the campaign trail, but has called for the mammoth spy agency to be handed even more powers. He’s defended the massive phone metadata program that collected Americans’ phone records that is both wildly unpopular with voters and has already been modified by Congress – and to a large extent shuttered – with the passage of the USA Freedom Act. Bush even claimed the expansion of the NSA over the past six or seven years has been the “best part” of the Obama administration.

Perhaps worst of all, Jeb Bush has ignorantly criticized the welcome trend of tech companies like Apple implementing end-to-end encryption in their devices to protect its millions of users from criminals and government spying. Seemingly channeling his brother George W at an event in August, Jeb said, “If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job…”

I rarely expect the average American voter to vote on behalf of their own economic interest. Might be a bit of a stretch for a society working harder than ever at perpetuating ignorance and obedience.

I hope geeks interested in blogs fond of tech and science are brighter than that. I hope that vague number of Americans still believing in personal privacy will vote – even in another election featuring the untrustworthy vs the folks who try to be nice.

EU court advances privacy rights vs social networks, NSA and all

Max SchremsGetty Images

A privacy campaigner has scored a legal victory that could bolster his attempts to prevent Facebook from being able to pass EU citizens’ data to the US authorities.

An opinion issued by the European Court of Justice says that current data-sharing rules between the 28-nation bloc and the US are “invalid”.

The decision could affect other tech firms’ abilities to send Europeans’ information to US data centres.

However, it is not a final judgement.

Although the EU’s highest court tends to follow the opinions of its legal adviser, the 15 judges involved have yet to issue a conclusive ruling of their own on the matter.

Even so, Max Schrems – the activist who prompted the case – suggests there could be far-reaching consequences.

“Companies that participate in US mass surveillance and provide, for example, cloud services within the EU and rely on data centres in the US may now have to invest in secure data centres within the European Union,” he said…”

The origins of Mr Schrems’ dispute with Facebook can be traced back to whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about US cyberspies’ activities.

In 2013, Snowden released details about a surveillance scheme operated by the NSA called Prism, which provided officials with ways to scrutinise data held by US tech firms about Europeans and other foreign citizens.

Mr Schrems alleged that, in light of the revelations, EU citizens had no protection against US surveillance efforts once their data had been transferred.

He targeted Facebook in particular because of the wide range of data it gathered and the number of people using it.

However, when he took the case to Ireland – where Facebook’s European headquarters are based – it was initially rejected.

The Irish data watchdog said the Safe Harbour agreement between the US and EU prevented it from intervening…

The EU forbids the transfer of personal data to other parts of the world that do not provide “adequate” privacy protections.

RTFA for lots more detail. Living in the belly of a lying beast has to make me smile – or rant – every time our government accuses anyone else on the planet of cyber spying. No other nation has invested so much in the cause of technology designed for the sole purpose of spying on every individual on this wee blue marble in the Milky Way galaxy.

We may never find aliens if they’re hip to encryption

snowden tv

Edward Snowden has strongly defended citizens’ rights to encrypt their messages, and has taught journalists how to use encryption to protect themselves from spying programs.

But the NSA whistleblower sees a downside to encrypting so much information: aliens may not be able to spot signs of intelligent life.

Snowden, appearing on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk podcast via a video link from Moscow on Sept. 18, told the astrophysicist how encryption could interfere in our attempts at alien communication.

Done properly, encrypted communication—encoded so that only the intended recipient can read the information—can’t be identified and is indistinguishable from random behavior, Snowden said.

“So if you have an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations, or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all of their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means,” Snowden said. “So what we are hearing that’s actually an alien television show or, you know, a phone call … is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation.”

Although as Tyson noted on his podcast, alien species might not be so keen on encryption. “Only if they have the same security problems as us,” he told Snowden.

You might hope that some other species with sufficient advancement in science to track down our wee ball of mud in the night sky – might also have moved to social development more reliant upon science and less dependent on superstition and imperial amorality. And may have grown beyond our need for encryption.

Your body is surrounded by farticles


Everywhere you go, in everything you do, you are surrounded by an aura of microbes. They drift down from your hair when you scratch your head, they fly off your hand when you wave to your friend, they spew out of your mouth when you talk. Even when you sit around doing nothing, you’re sitting in your own, personal microbial bubble.

Made up of millions, billions, trillions of bacteria, yeast, cells, and cell parts, this bubble is actually more like a cloud — a cloud, new research suggests, that is unique to you. And as gross as it is to imagine everyone around you shedding microbial bits and pieces into the air, studying those clouds can be useful for people like doctors tracking down disease outbreaks and cops tracking down criminals.

The gut microbiome, often invoked in expensive probiotic-heavy diets, is probably the hottest microscopic community right now. It’s the collection of microbiota, living inside you, that helps you break down food, fight disease, and control your hunger.

But your outer body has its own microbiome, too. Your body is covered in skin, and that skin is like a vast savannah populated with millions of exotic critters. They feed on the oils seeping from your skin, dead cells, bits of organic matter, and each other. “In a single centimeter of skin, you can find thousands of bacteria,” says James Meadow, former University of Oregon researcher and co-author of a microbiome paper published…in the journal PeerJ.

Combined, the non-you cells in your body outnumber the you cells by about 10 to one. And if some sadistic scientist were to grind up and sequence all the DNA in every cell in and on your body, only about 2 percent of the genetic material would be human. The rest is microbes

So how different could individuals’ microbial clouds really be? The two trials showed that, at least in these 11 people, microbial clouds varied significantly from person to person. They also found that different people shed microbes at different rates…

That knowledge will help shape microbiome cloud research in fields like contagious disease and forensics. In hospitals, nobody really knows how germs spread. Since leaving Oregon State University, Meadow has joined a biotech company in San Francisco that wants to use the understanding of microbial clouds to help hospitals prevent things like MRSA outbreaks.

Cops see other opportunities for the microbial cloud. Gilbert has been helping crime scene investigators use microbial residue to track down criminals. He says people pick up microbes from the soil, the air, the food they eat, and the water they wash and drink with. So an individual’s unique microbial signature could put them at the scene of a crime—or exonerate them if the microbes in their cloud match their alibi.

Any guess as to who gets the most funding, first?

Wildfire reconnaissance drone flies test flight over Paradise fire

The National Park Service announced on its Facebook page on Friday than an unmanned aircraft system, otherwise known as a drone, took a test flight over the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park to gather infrared data…

Here’s the park’s statement from the Facebook page:

For the past week an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise Fire. The system was demonstrating possible applications in wildland fire management and suppression. UAS’s can supplement manned aircraft, especially at times of reduced visibility due to smoky conditions and at night when manned firefighting aircraft may be limited in flying.

The primary goal of the UAS on the Paradise Fire was to gather infrared information. This information assisted fire officials in pinpointing the fires perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. The extremely large old growth trees in the area of the Paradise Fire create a thick canopy that makes mapping the perimeter and observing hotspots from the air very difficult without infrared capabilities.

This was an operational demonstration provided by Insitu, Inc. with no direct cost to the government. The demonstration was one of a series of ongoing missions to further UAS use on wildland fire in national parks and is part of an interagency strategy for UAS integration into wildland fire support. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed the use of their land for the aircraft launch and recovery site. The purpose of the demonstration was to show the capabilities and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft technology on wildland fires. The ultimate goal for UAS use on wildland fire is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products, and information regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. Additional applications, such as search and rescue and animal surveys, may be explored…

The ScanEagle UAS that was flown on the Paradise Fire weighed approximately 50 lbs with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. The UAS was only operated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporary flight restriction (TFR) area. The TFR has been lifted.

Sensible, productive use. I hope our politicians can differentiate between this sort of test/work and go-pro joy rides by ego-smitten basement dwellers who hope to be the next YouTube hit.

In a few more days, I hope the data and analysis from a similar weeklong test in Idaho is released.

VW cheated smog testing on almost a half-million cars

The EPA is accusing Volkswagen of illegally using software to cheat emissions standards, allowing the German automaker to sell half a million cars that produce nitrogen oxide, which creates smog, at up to 40 times the legal limit.

In a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act sent to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, today, the EPA said diesel-powered VW cars used a “defeat device,” a kind of “a sophisticated software algorithm [that] detects when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and turns full emissions controls on only during the test. The effectiveness of these vehicles’ pollution emissions control devices is greatly reduced during all normal driving situations.”

The accusation applies to 482,000 diesel-powered, four-cyclinder Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3, and Golf cars sold between 2008 and 2015 in the US, and to Passat cars sold from 2014 to 2015…

The White House has directed VW to recall the affected cars, and the automaker will be required to fix the problem, at no cost to car owners.

“Clean diesel,” by comparison to old standards [think drippy Oldsmobiles] works well and produces better miles per gallon figures. Some of the systems require a bit more owner management which VW may assume Americans aren’t disciplined enough to perform.

The majority of diesel-powered passenger cars in the country are sold by the Volkswagen group – which includes Audi.

Pretty sleazy.