Category: Technology

Snowden addresses HOPE Conference

Barton Gellman/Getty Images/AP

Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy agency contractor who leaked details of major U.S. surveillance programs, called on supporters at a hacking conference to spur development of easy-to-use technologies to subvert government surveillance programs around the globe.

Snowden, who addressed conference attendees on Saturday via video link from Moscow, said he intends to devote much of his time to promoting such technologies, including ones that allow people to communicate anonymously and encrypt their messages…

At the HOPE hacking conference, several talks detailed approaches for thwarting government surveillance, including a system known as SecureDrop that is designed to allow people to anonymously leak documents to journalists.

Attorneys with the Electronic Frontier Foundation answered questions about pending litigation with the NSA, including efforts to stop collection of phone records that were disclosed through Snowden’s leaks.

Snowden is seen as a hero by a large segment of the community of hackers attending the HOPE conference [and the nation and the world], which includes computer experts, anti-surveillance activists, artists and other types of hackers.

HOPE in this case stands for Hackers On Planet Earth.

And if you think every kind of government snoop wasn’t doing their best to photogrqph, record and trace everyone at the conference – you’re still living in cloud cuckoo-land — watching Father Knows Best on TV.

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Geiger counters not discovering any terrorist dirty bombs – just radioactive goods from Japan!

300 radioactive Japanese cars stopped at Russian border

The Customs Department had detected radiation emanating from motor spare parts imported from Japan and the consignment was sent back to Japan.

Customs Media Spokesperson Leslie Gamini said that the radioactive chemical Caesium 137 was detected in the consignment at the Colombo [Sri Lanka] port…He said that equipment installed at the port to detect radiation materiel had detected the chemical emanating from the consignment.

The Customs spokesman said that residue of the chemical had been found from the spare parts and so the consignment was detained at the port and sent back.

He said the consignment had originated from a company operating from close proximity to the Fukushima nuclear power plant which was damaged in a massive earth quake in 2011.

The Customs Department said that while only a small amount of residue was found in the consignment, a major disaster was averted by ensuring the items did not enter the local market.

If you think this is a rare and unique happening, read on:

It certainly won’t be the first thing on the minds of Caribbean people when they wake up every day but there is clear evidence that radioactive material from the area in Japan where a nuclear power plant failed after a 2011 tsunami and earthquake is beginning to turn up among commercial imports to the region.

Last month, customs and other enforcement authorities in Jamaica intercepted and quarantined a 40-foot container of vehicle parts destined for the Caribbean trade bloc headquarter nation of Guyana after tests had shown elevated levels of contamination.

That the levels startled authorities into quarantining the container and preparing plans to return it forthwith to Japan is slowly beginning to bring regional customs officials to the reality that other contaminated imports might have slipped through their monitoring net in earlier months.

But that should not have been the case. In late 2012, Jamaican authorities also discovered a passenger mini bus with similarly high levels of radioactive material on a city pier and impounded it as well but that very incident has only now come to light after the transiting Guyana container made news headlines.

Health and customs officials in Guyana say they were only alerted to the fact that Jamaica had saved Guyanese car dealers and owners from actually and unknowingly handling contaminated parts when local Jamaican newspapers exposed the story in the past week.

That country has no Geiger Counter to measure or test imports from Japan or any other affected country for acceptable radiation levels…

Reflect upon the fact that paranoia over terrorists with imaginary superpowers convinced customs agencies around the world to raise capabilities for radiation detection. Those fearfilled delusions are now turning up real threats otherwise undetected because governments consider commercial goods free of danger.

Wonder how much radioactive crap from Chernobyl and other radioactive screw-ups ever crossed into the United States before Islamophobia prompted an upgrade in safety concerns?

Thanks, Mike

Steve Terrell gets his first robocall of the 2014 political season

It’s Starting …

Posted on Jul 8, 2014 by Steve Terrell at his blog at the Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN

I checked my personal email a few minutes ago and noticed I’d received a call on my home phone. Here’s what it looked like (transcript courtesy of the robots at Comcast, copied and pasted exactly as it appeared, question marks and all):

“Hi this is Gary I’m very sorry I missed you. I’m a volunteer and I was just calling to let you know about Doctor Mike street(?) he wants to stand up for New Mexico in the US House of Representatives. my(?) … with-the-mexico(?) for fifty five years now and he he understands our state and our district extremely well next week with the scientist engineer physicist-instead(?) the mathematician with the PhD in applied mathematics from MIT. He’s also Maggie here and both his(?) bachelors and Masters from the Mexico State University. Doctor Mike Reed wants to be your representative in Washington but in the meantime he is working to make Mexico a better place with his-own(?) small business. My free there’s-been(?) a contractor and the sub contractor(?) supporting our Air Force national ads for the past twenty five years. Well. Thank you very much for your time and for considering Doctor Mike from-with-your(?) thoughts about the one(?) … bye have a great day.”

Steve Terrell is one of the best political reporters in any local/state/regional scene around the nation. Major newspapers agree with me – say no more. They read his writing to find out what’s going on in New Mexico. So do I – and enjoy an extra chuckle in the process.

I’m not certain which is least competent – whoever drafted this political robocall or the Comcast robots transcribing and emailing the contents to Steve. But, it makes for enjoyable reading albeit mostly incomprehensible.

Net-zero energy test home ends first year with leftover energy

Braving a harsh winter with snow-covered solar panels, a net-zero energy home in Washington DC has come up trumps in a year-long study of its energy harvesting capabilities. Located on campus at the National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers used computer simulation to replicate the energy consumption of a family of four. At the end of its first 12 months, there was a large enough surplus to power an electric car for 1,440 miles.

The 2,700 ft sq two-story construction was developed to look like a regular home, but function as a laboratory for clean energy research. Much like the Honda Smart Home, NIST’s effort combines stable ground temperatures with geothermal systems to minimize heating and cooling loads throughout the building. Another factor in overall energy efficiency is a doubling of insulation levels, sealed by special sheeting that reportedly heals itself when pierced.

“The most important difference between this home and a Maryland code-compliant home is the improvement in the thermal envelope – the insulation and air barrier,” says NIST mechanical engineer Mark Davis…

The energy surplus and the home’s claim to net-zero living was compounded by a stretch of severe weather. For 38 days through winter, the 32 photovoltaic panels were largely covered in snow and ice, hampering their ability to harvest energy from the sun. But over the 12 month period, the home generated 13,577 kWh of energy. This surpassed the virtual family’s energy usage by 491 kWh, an excess that could in theory be directed toward an electric vehicle or back into the grid…

Despite boasting the aesthetics of a typical suburban house, adoption of the technologies used will largely come down to cost. NIST estimates that fitting out a similar-sized house with all the bells and whistles of its test home would cost around US$162,700. On the upside, it puts savings in electricity costs at $4,373 for the year.

Further research will center on how the measurements of the home can improve its energy efficiency and addressing the difference in up-front costs and long term savings. NIST is hopeful its findings will lead to improved energy efficiency standards as a resource for builders, regulators and home buyers.

A couple of comments.

First, the design is two or three times the size of sensible requirements. Make your decisions based on need instead of cultural McMansions and a family of four could be quite comfortable in 1200 square feet instead of 2700. My wife and I and a dog live in 1400 sq.ft. and use about 900 sq.ft. including a study/home office. We have a spare bedroom we refloored a couple years ago and haven’t yet gotten round to moving anything into that room!

Second, custom home building adds a premium of as much as 30% to cost. Building comparable homes as part of a subdivision, growing economic advantages of scale will reduce the cost of building homes like this. Working this out from scratch probably increased cost from projected by 10-15% just on change orders. :)

Robotic bird looks like the real thing in flight

Nowadays, we take flight for granted. But, of course, we can never built something that flies like a bird. Or can we? If there’s one “talent” humanity has in abundance, it’s perseverance and it seems somebody has cracked it.

Two years ago, Hiroaki Hashimoto from Japan build a machine that can flap, glide and turn like a bird. It’s so good, in fact, that during one of its test flights, the robot attracted the attention of some eagles who wanted to hunt and kill it. The machine looks somewhat like an oversized pidgin and weighs in at 166 grams… With a wingspan of 1,430 mm – about 56 inches – it’s never going to be part of the flock, but the bird-like movements are incredibly life-like…

A company called Festo Robots built a complicated seagull-like machine a few years ago, but it had a huge budget. This is what a man built in his garage and for that, we tip our hat to mister Hiroaki Hashimoto.

The concepts behind ornithopters is as old as Leonardo DaVinci. Balsa-wood toy versions have been around – and occasionally popular – for decades. Trying to produce anything capable of flying longer than a rubber band wind-up toy never got very far because of the weight restrictions of strictly mechanical devices.

Solid state and computerized controls resolve pretty much all those problems. It just takes an inventive and curious mind to revisit old questions and solutions.

Thanks, Honeyman

Strength of materials advanced – Audi introduces fiberglass springs

GFRP spring on the left, conventional steel on the right

The quest for ever-greater fuel efficiency is driving auto manufacturers to extreme lengths to reduce the weight of their vehicles. Aluminum, carbon fiber and fiberglass are all being used to help meet stringent emissions standards. In its search for “enlightenment,” Audi has announced it will introduce glass fiber-reinforced polymer (GFRP) springs in its vehicles before the end of the year.

The core of the spring is made up of fiberglass strands, impregnated with epoxy resin and twisted together. Audi then uses a machine to wrap additional strands of fiberglass around the core and cures the unit in an oven. The strands are wrapped across each other at a 45-degree angle, to allow the load to be equally distributed across the whole spring.

So what benefits do the GFRP springs hold over steel? To start with, they don’t corrode, even after damage by stone chips, and they’re not impacted by wheel washing chemicals. In areas with snowy, salted roads, there are huge potential benefits to ditching steel for fiberglass.

Another key advantage over traditional steel springs is weight. In an upper mid-size car, Audi claims each individual spring weighs almost 6 lbs, whereas its GFRP units weigh just 3.5 lb. This adds up to a saving of around 40 percent.

One of the essential parameters in automotive design is the ratio of sprung to unsprung weight. Reducing vehicle weight, the weight of those portions of the suspension in motion – is part of that whole equation.

In combination with metallurgical advances like the lighter high-strength steel employed by Mazda and the tough, strong aluminum projected to reduce the weight of Ford’s 2015 F-150 pickup truck – we’re about to experience a dramatic change in weight-savings in production motor vehicles.

Science museum opens exhibit with singing toilets

A toilet exhibition featuring a giant slide and singing toilet seats opens at the Miraikan science museum in Tokyo.

The exhibit aims to make people more comfortable discussing their bowel movements, says staff. ‘Toilets and faeces are normally thought of as very unclean topics, but I would like for people to actively talk about them instead of just thinking that they’re dirty,’ says museum staff member Tami Sakamaki.

Um, OK.

ReWalk exoskeleton gets FDA approval for home use

Following multiple clinical studies, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for the ReWalk to be sold for personal use in the US. This makes the ReWalk the first motorized exoskeleton designed for people with lower body paralysis due to spinal cord injury to be cleared for personal use in the US.

ReWalk consists of a wearable brace support worn outside clothing, a computer-based control system and motion sensors to enable paraplegics to sit, stand, walk and even climb stairs with a little motorized help. Until now, the ReWalk technology has only been available in the US at rehabilitation clinics in the form of the ReWalk Rehabilitation system. This version is designed specifically for use in a clinical rehabilitation environment and as such can be adapted to fit users of different sizes and weights.

The ReWalk Personal System, on the other hand, is customized to suit a specific user and is designed for daily use in a range of environments, including outdoors and on a variety of surfaces and terrains. It was first cleared for personal use in the UK in 2012 and has been available there and throughout Europe since that time. Now those in the US have the chance to take home their own ReWalk with the FDA issuing a marketing clearance for the device.

For a change, we’re only 2 years behind other Western nations in providing a revolutionary prosthesis.

We live in a technological era when the combinations of engineering materials and miniaturized, powerful computer processors open doorways for amazing numbers of the disabled. Now, we just need the social and political advancement to bring our nation up to match the capabilities of our scientists and technologists.

US military has managed to crash more than 400 drones in the past 13 years

More than 400 large US military drones have crashed around the world in the past 13 years, a Washington Post investigation has found.

The Post obtained documents detailing accidents including collisions with homes, farms, runways, roads, waterways and even an air force transport plane in midair. Several drones vanished while at cruising altitude and were lost.

In April, an army drone crashed next to an elementary-school playground in Pennsylvania; in 2012 an unmanned navy surveillance aircraft nose-dived and ignited a wildfire in Maryland.

Of the 418 major drone crashes since September 2001 that the newspaper identified, about half happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly a quarter were in the US. Almost 200 of the crashes were classed by the military as “class A”, meaning they destroyed the aircraft or caused at least $2 million worth of damage, though no loss of life was attributed to the accidents. Problems included pilot error, mechanical failure and communications challenges.

Though unmanned aircraft have long been used by the US military in overseas operations and by US border patrol, their safety is of particular concern as they are set to become a common feature of civilian life in America within a couple of years…

Congress told the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with a plan allowing commercial drones access to US airspace by September 2015, but the agency is unlikely to meet that deadline given the complexity of drafting safety regulations.

I’m only addressing the question of small civilian drones.

Think of all the things that can go wrong just because amateurs are farting around with devices that can get into real trouble. In most states, RC planes are controlled by state and local regulations. There are limitations to how and when and where they can be flown.

Right now, it’s legally a hobby. One I might even enjoy myself. But, I don’t think the wildlife and especially the raptors and snakes we specialize in watching in the bosque would appreciate the more-or-less-synchronized noise of several small-displacement rotors buzzing over their turf while they try to live a normal day hunting for their next meal.

There are beaucoup useful and productive tasks small unmanned vehicles can accomplish. The same is true for casual or professional creative work. Licensed, insured, flown by operators of proven ability. Keep on rocking in the Free World.

Heinz and Ford research turning tomato scraps into car parts

It might seem that tomatoes and cars have nothing in common. But researchers at Ford Motor Company and H.J. Heinz Company see the possibility of an innovative union.

Researchers at Ford and Heinz are investigating the use of tomato fibers in developing sustainable, composite materials for use in vehicle manufacturing. Specifically, dried tomato skins could become the wiring brackets in a Ford vehicle or the storage bin a Ford customer uses to hold coins and other small objects…

Nearly two years ago, Ford began collaborating with Heinz, The Coca-Cola Company, Nike and Procter & Gamble to accelerate development of a 100 percent plant-based plastic to be used to make everything from fabric to packaging and with a lower environmental impact than petroleum-based packaging materials currently in use.

At Heinz, researchers were looking for innovative ways to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from the more than two million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to produce its best-selling product: Heinz Ketchup. Leaders at Heinz turned to Ford…

…In recent years, Ford has increased its use of recycled nonmetal and bio-based materials. With cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets introduced in the last year, Ford’s bio-based portfolio now includes eight materials in production. Other examples are coconut-based composite materials, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, and soy foam seat cushions and head restraints.

Someday we may be able to scrounge our way through a junkyard – and make pizza.

Now, what part of a car can we make from anchovies?