Category: Technology

Solar Impulse lands in Nanjing

solar impulse

The Solar Impulse 2, the world’s largest solar-powered aircraft attempting to fly around the world, has just made its sixth stop in the Chinese city of Nanjing.

It arrived in Nanjing on Tuesday night after a 17-hour flight. Previously, it had been stranded in China’s Chongqing Municipality for 21 days due to bad weather.

The Solar Impulse 2 will stay in Nanjing for another two weeks, after which it will begin its 5-day non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.

Kicking off its journey on March 8th in Abu Dhabi, the plane stopped at Muscat, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Mandalay and Chongqing, and has been flying a total distance of 6,000 km for 75 hours. It will then fly across the U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean, pass Southern Europe and North Africa, and then head back to Abu Dhabi, finishing its round-the-world journey.

Just keeping up with one of the more inspiring flights in recent decades.

How the IRS could do your taxes for you

Tax Day doesn’t have to suck — at least not this much.

The IRS knows what you make. It knows if you typically take the standard deduction. For a lot of Americans, the IRS could just fill out their taxes for them. It would save billions of dollars in tax preparation fees and hundreds of millions of hours spent filling out tax forms.

This isn’t some wild idea: it was piloted in California, where citizens loved it — 97 percent of those who used it said they would do so again. It’s how taxes work in Denmark, Sweden, and Spain…

Politicians ranging from President Obama to Ronald Reagan have supported this tax change — but there are some very rich companies and some very powerful activists standing in its way.

Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, is a particularly powerful opponent. Such a system “minimizes the taxpayers’ voice blah, blah, blah…”

But that excuse doesn’t hold much water. Under these automatic systems, no one has to let the IRS fill out their taxes for them. They can continue to do it by hand or by TurboTax, or hire an accountant. Intuit knows, however, that many fewer Americans would do their own taxes under this scenario, and that would be a big hit to Intuit’s bottom line.

Some anti-tax conservatives also hate the idea of the IRS filling out sample returns. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, warns, “Conservatives, in particular, should see this ploy for what it clearly is: a money-grab by the government.” The easier and more efficient the tax system is, the more money it will raise, and the less public anger there will be for anti-tax conservatives to harness.

I’ve looked at samples and, frankly, come up with no difference in results. Plus a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon in February my wife and I usually spend cranking out a return — handed back to us.

Of course, regulation which ends up saving taxpayers and the government money and time is way too rational for Congress to consider. Especially when there are lobbyists with deep pockets who say the change is unnecessary and probably unAmerican.

I nominate the Flying Mailman Doug Hughes for an Aerial Achievement Medal

Doug Hughes
Click to enlargeJames Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times

Perhaps nobody was more surprised by Doug Hughes’ gyrocopter stunt at the Capitol on Wednesday than his neighbors in Ruskin, Florida.

“It’s weird thinking somebody like that, you know, two doors down,” the U.S. mailman’s neighbor Ian Hopkins said.

“We were so surprised about it because you know he’s a good man… he’s a good neighbor,” another person said.

Hughes is a married father of four who’s been flying gyrocopters for more than a year. According to his website, the 61-year-old grew up in California, served in the Navy and became a mailman more than a decade ago. But Wednesday, he chose to veer off his regular route to draw attention to campaign finance reform…

Hughes’ so-called “freedom flight” had been in the works for some time…In fact, Hughes alerted the Tampa Bay Times last year — after the Secret Service interviewed him about his plans.

“Terrorists don’t announce their flights before they take off. Terrorists don’t broadcast their flight path,” Hughes told the Times…

According to the Times, Hughes’ act of civil disobedience began taking shape more than two years ago after his son committed suicide…His grief prompted him to take a bigger stand on political issues he felt were important.

“We were trying to think of ways to get attention, and it looks like he did that,” Hughes’ co-worker Michael Shanahan said…

Still, Shanahan insists his friend is more patriot than terrorist.

Ahead of his landing at the Capitol, Hughes took to his website writing: “I have no violent inclinations or intent… Let’s keep the discussion focused on reform — not me — I’m just delivering the mail.”

Hughes knew what was at stake in carrying out his mission. The Tampa Bay Times said he expected to lose his job and his freedom. Hughes said he didn’t tell his wife or four children about the plan because he didn’t want them to be implicated.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You don’t need to belong to the Air Force to deliver the air mail. Just maybe – you should receive commendation for courage in the face of politicians afraid to do a damned thing for folks’ civil rights.

Sprint to reimburse $15.5 million to snooping coppers

The office of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag announced Thursday that Sprint Communications has agreed to pay $15.5 million to settle allegations that it overcharged law enforcement agencies for carrying out court-ordered wiretaps and other surveillance activities.

Lawyers from Haag’s office sued Sprint in March, alleging that from 2007 to 2010 the telecommunications giant overcharged law enforcement agencies to the tune of $21 million. They were seeking triple-damage compensation and additional civil penalties under the U.S. False Claims Act.

Telecommunications companies are permitted under federal law to bill agencies for “reasonable” expenses incurred in accomplishing a court ordered wiretap.

Under the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), however, telecom companies are required to cover the finance of upgrading their equipment and facilities to ensure that they’re “capable of enabling the government … to intercept and deliver communications and call-identifying information,” according to the U.S. Attorney.

WTF?

Sprint allegedly defrauded federal law enforcement agencies by billing them for those expenses while recovering the otherwise legitimate costs of carrying out court-ordered wiretaps — which was prohibited by a 2006 ruling from the Federal Communications Commission, according to the U.S. Attorney.

So, bad enough our government uses the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, every other war popular with politicians to snoop on us. They require the communications companies they order to snoop – to upgrade their equipment to do the best possible job of snooping.

Sprint tried to sneak the cost into charges for individual snooping jobs – whether court-ordered or “other surveillance activities”. The Feds bagged ’em for it.

Either way, we’re screwed.

Deputies find stolen cabin — huh? wha?

stolen cabin

Authorities say a log cabin that a family reported stolen off its foundation has been found in rural northeast Washington.

Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen says deputies following a tip found the cabin Thursday morning about 10 miles from its original location. He says the structure had been placed on stilts and was sitting at the end of a private road east of Springdale.

Chris Hempel tells The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane that her family drove to their cabin Tuesday and found the entire 10-by-20-foot structure missing.

Investigators think that whoever took the cabin was living in it.

Allen says deputies are getting a search warrant to get onto the property and inside the cabin. He says he has identified suspects but declined to name them.

Do Tiny Homes come with a VIN number?

Tiny songbirds tracked crossing 1,700 miles of open ocean

blackpoll warbler by erickson
Click to enlargeLaura Erickson

A tiny songbird that summers in the forests of northern North America has been tracked on a 1,700-mile, over-the-ocean journey from the northeastern United States and eastern Canada to the Caribbean as part of their winter migration to South America…

Scientists had long suspected that the blackpoll warbler had made its journey to the Caribbean over the ocean, but the study that began in the summer of 2013 when scientists attached tracking devices to the birds was the first time that the flight has been proven, according to results published Wednesday in the United Kingdom in the journal Biology Letters.

“It is such a spectacular, astounding feat that this half-an-ounce bird can make what is obviously a perilous, highly risky journey over the open ocean,” said Chris Rimmer of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies…

The warblers, known to bulk up by eating insects near their coastal departure points before heading south, are common in parts of North America, but their numbers have been declining. “Now maybe that will help us focus attention on what could be driving these declines,” Rimmer said…

A number of bird species fly long distances over water, but the warbler is different because it’s a forest dweller. Most other birds that winter in South America fly through Mexico and Central America.

In the summer of 2013, scientists tagged 19 blackpolls on Vermont’s Mount Mansfield and 18 in two locations in Nova Scotia. Of those, three were recaptured in Vermont with the tracking device attached and two in Nova Scotia.

Four warblers, including two tagged in Vermont, departed between Sept. 25 and Oct. 21 and flew directly to the islands of Hispaniola or Puerto Rico in flights ranging from 49 to 73 hours. A fifth bird departed Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and flew nearly 1,000 miles before landing in the Turks and Caicos before continuing on to South America.

On their return journeys north, the birds flew along the coast.

Though not mentioned in the article, I presume the coastal return leg was governed by food availability. Though it may have been resistance from prevailing winds.

Regardless – what an impressive feat considered quite normal for these wee creatures.

Has motorization in the US peaked?

The answer to the question posed in the headline is “yes,” US motorization has indeed peaked. And so has the percentage of US economic productivity that ends up in our gas tanks. So we have that going for us.

Those who long for the days of bell bottoms, massive Afros and dominance of the Philadelphia Flyers may think of the mid-’70s as a good time, but when it came to how much of our dollars were being spent on gas, times were tough. According to the most recent version of a report from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), the distance driven per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) peaked in 1977 and has dropped 22 percent since then. Fuel use per GDP dollar hit its high in 1972…and has plunged 46 percent since then.

Keep in mind that the average fuel economy for new light-duty vehicles has doubled to from the early 1970s to its current rate of about 25 miles per gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, consistent with a previous version of the UMTRI reports, which said driving mileage per person maxed out around 2004, we are indeed driving less, thanks to factors such as electronic commerce and more data services.

Takes a while for good news to get around. I recall discussions like this in the 1960’s and folks said it would never come to pass. But, for all the reasons listed – and more – folks are driving less, diminishing importance of automobiles.

Dumb crook of the day

A Maine man who’d been wanted by police for several weeks made a couple of critical mistakes that led to his capture – he sent out social media messages pinpointing his location.

The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office had been looking for Christopher Wallace, of Fairfield, in connection with a burglary in January.

Police tell the Morning Sentinel that on Sunday night they received tips from people who said Wallace had posted on Snapchat that he had returned to his Fairfield home.

So, police went to the house.

While they were searching with permission of the resident, they were tipped off that Wallace had posted a new Snapchat message saying police were in the house looking for him and he was hiding in a cabinet.

He was found in the cabinet.

There is dumb. Then there is compulsively dumb.

14-year-old shows up auto industry security

image

A 14-year-old boy may have forever changed the way the auto industry views cyber security.

He was part of a group of high-school and college students that joined professional engineers, policy-makers and white-hat security experts for a five-day camp last July that addressed car-hacking threats…

With some help from the assembled experts, he was supposed to attempt a remote infiltration of a car, a process that some of the nation’s top security experts say can take weeks or months of intricate planning. The student, though, eschewed any guidance. One night, he went to Radio Shack, spent $14 on parts and stayed up late into the night building his own circuit board.

The next morning, he used his homemade device to hack into the car of a major automaker. Camp leaders and automaker representatives were dumbfounded. “They said, ‘There’s no way he should be able to do that,'” Brown said Tuesday, recounting the previously undisclosed incident at a seminar on the industry’s readiness to handle cyber threats. “It was mind-blowing.”

Windshield wipers turned on and off. Doors locked and unlocked. The remote start feature engaged. The student even got the car’s lights to flash on and off, set to the beat from songs on his iPhone. Though they wouldn’t divulge the student’s name or the brand of the affected car, representatives from both Delphi and Battelle, the nonprofit that ran the CyberAuto Challenge event, confirmed the details…

It was a pivot moment,” said Dr. Anuja Sonalker, lead scientist and program manager at Battelle. “For the automakers participating, they realized, ‘Huh, the barrier to entry was far lower than we thought.’ You don’t have to be an engineer. You can be a kid with $14.”

She described the breach as more of a nuisance attack, and emphasized that, in this case, no critical safety functions, like steering, braking or acceleration, were compromised. But the incident underscored just how vulnerable cars have become.

None of this is geek news. Nor is is there any surprise to this display of auto industry leaders’ ignorance of the vulnerability of their tech, the sophisticated toolkits of hardware and software available to even kid-level hackers.

European manufacturers experienced something similar a few years back and revised their engineering designs to match reality. Some more successfully than others, some less so. Why American corporate leaders didn’t pay attention and learn speaks to how parochial, insular, most Americans are. Another part of that corporate [and political] personality is native to imperial populations. If you have the most power you think you must also know best how to do anything.

In fact, reality, especially when much of your culture is well past its peak, contradicts that belief.