Pic of the Day – Calistoga in the rain


Click to enlargeOm Malik

❝ I ended up in Calistoga to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I forgot my backpack at home and as a result am reduced to just one device – my phone. It is interesting to be forced to use a different, wider lens when you are used to a 50 mm lens.

❝ Made with the iPhone7Plus at the Calistoga Ranch, California. Edited with RNI Films app.

Om is living proof that journalists and geeks can both end up doing a damned good job at being human beings. Thoughtful, caring, constructive.

This is from a series of photos noted above – taken with his iPhone as an expedient. But, don’t be surprised by his skill and obvious talent. He’s done notable work with the iPhone as an exercise before.

Click this link through to the photos page of his blog. Click any of the images you like and you will move into the series that snap represents.

Advertisements

Would you buy your kid a doll that can be compromised by the NSA?

❝ It’s nice to have a friend who’s a good listener, but a doll called My Friend Cayla listens a little too well, according to German regulators who say the toy is essentially a stealthy espionage device that shares what it hears and is also vulnerable to takeover by third parties.

“Cayla ist verboten in Deutschland,” says Jochen Homann, the president of Germany’s Federal Network Agency…announcing a ban on the doll in Germany on Friday. His agency oversees electronic privacy as part of its telecommunications mandate; Homann also cites a special obligation to protect the privacy of children, calling them the most vulnerable members of society.

❝ The heart of the problem, Homann says, is that Cayla looks like an everyday doll and gives no notice that it collects and transmits everything it hears — in this case, to a voice-recognition company in the U.S. whose other customers include intelligence agencies.

❝ Nuance, the U.S. company in question, has said in response to similar criticisms that it “does not share voice data collected from or on behalf of any of our customers with any of our other customers.”

❝ The test question — “Can I tell you a secret?” — brought this reply: “Sure go ahead; be very quiet, though. I promise not to tell anyone; it’s just between you and me because we are friends.”

Regardless what the folks making a living off the doll tell you — Do you think the NSA asks permission from the people they bug?

With Trump as the censor-in-chief, federal workers communicate with self-deleting apps, strong encryption


Ethics? What ethics?

❝ After charges that the Trump transition team was trying to scare employees at the Department of Energy — by sending a request for an inventory of all agency employees or contractors who attended meetings or conferences on climate change — some civil servants who felt they needed to protect the long-term interests of their agency and nation took to covert methods of communication. And although…White House staffers are using an app called Confide, which deletes messages once they are read, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are now going after federal workers who use similar tools of communication.

❝ …Career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency downloaded the encryption apps WhatsApp and Signal shortly after Trump was sworn into office to discuss how to handle a potential gutting of the agency. The apps make it harder for hackers to access conversations as encryption scrambles data and lets only a person with the correct passcode have access.

❝ While most civil servants stay in their jobs from one administration to the next, regardless of who’s in power, Trump has signaled with his picks for leading certain agencies that he seeks drastic change that could lead to deep cuts…

Dissenting bureaucrats have created new email addresses in order to discuss how to deal with Trump’s political appointees without drawing the White House’s wrath…

❝ Republicans, desperate to shut down embarrassing leaks, have now set their sights on the handful of civil servants who have turned to encrypted messaging apps…Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois…Smith and LaHood, who are chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and the vice chairman of the subcommittee on oversight on the Science, Space and Tech committee respectively, argued that the use of encrypted messaging circumvents federal record-keeping laws, and asked EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. to “determine whether it’s appropriate to launch a full-scale review” of EPA workers’ use of encrypted apps.

These two patent leather-politicians aren’t qualified to run a chicken coop much less scientific oversight. It’s obvious their only concern is shutting down any information which might get to the press. Political distortions, lies and fake news chosen to replace fact-based research and development may be acceptable to creation-science nutballs and other Trump chumps. The American public writ large just might resent wasting tax dollars on Republlican mumbo-jumbo.

The Machine is Calling…listen carefully


Click to enlarge

Soft City, by the Norwegian graphic artist Hariton Pushwagner, is something of a miracle. Not only for existing in the first place, but for surviving at all. It languished in obscurity for decades and was very nearly lost before finally being issued in book form, following a messy legal dispute involving the artist and his former dealer. Most pointedly, however, it is a miracle of its native medium — the comic strip — for its startling and disquieting vision in a form that had never seen anything like it.

Cue the theme from Twilight Zone. Read on.

GMO cows resistant to tuberculosis — first step to antibiotic-free cattle

❝ Precise gene editing, the stuff of science fiction, has been a reality since 2015. That was when CRISPR-Cas9 came in full force to the scientific field after decades of research. The technology allows scientists to go in and essentially snip and tuck genes from one organism to another to enhance them in some way, and it’s already been done with pigs, fish, mice, and mosquitos, as well as human embryos.

❝ …Scientists from the Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi, China demonstrated they have made healthy baby cows that have been modified to be more resilient against bovine tuberculosis — with no adverse side effects.

…Yong Zhang, a bioinformaticist and the lead author of the paper…and his team meticulously combed through the cow genome and found a place where they thought they may be able to insert another copy of a gene called NRAMP1, which occurs naturally in cows. This gene has been associated with being able to resist infection from bovine TB; by adding a second copy, the researchers thought they could vamp up this resistance.

They used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to insert the extra copy of NRAMP1 into 11 young cow embryos before inserting them back into cows to gestate as usual. After the healthy calves were born, the researchers exposed them to bovine TB. The cattle, who didn’t appear to have any other health consequences as a result of being modified, didn’t get sick, and their immune systems seemed less bothered by the bacteria than cows that hadn’t been altered.

❝ …In North America, farmers don’t give antibiotics to cows with this infection. Instead, they are slaughtered, Reynold Bergen, the science director of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said in an email. This is because bovine TB spreads really quickly, and often when one cow is diagnosed, the whole herd has to be killed to prevent further infection of people or other animals, and it’s difficult to detect early on.

But if cows don’t get sick to begin with, farmers wouldn’t lose their herds. Additionally, the authors think that similar methods could be used to give cows and other livestock genetic resistance to other bacterial infections, which means that they would not need to take antibiotics, which contributes to the growing problem of infections that are resistant to the treatments we have available for them.

Bravo! Not only a successful result; but, the sort of practical goal which improves health for a couple of species – including us. Sometimes, working towards less medication is realized to be a positive end.

Dropped from Air Force jets, an autonomous 100-drone swarm plans and executes its mission

U.S. military officials have announced that they’ve carried out their largest ever test of a drone swarm released from fighter jets in flight. In the trials, three F/A-18 Super Hornets released 103 Perdix drones, which then communicated with each other and went about performing a series of formation flying exercises that mimic a surveillance mission.

But the swarm doesn’t know how, exactly, it will perform the task before it’s released. As William Roper of the Department of Defense explained…

Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.

They’re not required to behave like human sheeple. Should we worry?

Researchers uncover dormant botnet of 350,000 phony Twitter accounts

A massive botnet secretly infiltrated the Twitterverse in 2013 but has lain mysteriously dormant since then, say researchers.

❝ The rise of the Twitter bot has plagued the online world in recent years. These are Twitter accounts that are automated and require little or no human intervention. Many are entirely legitimate, publishing headlines and links to news stories.

But others are malicious. These Twitter bots produce spam, provide fake followers for anybody willing to pay, and can manipulate debates and public opinion in insidious ways that are hard to track and prevent. The effects of large swarms of Twitter bots — so-called botnets — are largely unknown…

❝ Today that changes thanks to the work of Juan Echeverria and Shi Zhou at University College London. These cybersecurity experts have stumbled across a Twitter botnet consisting of more than 350,000 automated accounts, a network of almost unimaginable proportions, that has existed undetected since 2013…its longevity raises serious questions about the potential impact of botnets and the way they are tracked and monitored…

❝ A simple assessment of the…accounts that created these tweets showed they had much in common. These accounts had never published more than 11 tweets, they never had more than 10 followers and less than 31 friends. They were all produced by Twitter for Windows phones.

But reading the tweets, Echeverria and Zhou realized that they all contained random quotations from Star Wars novels with hashtags inserted at random. A typical tweet is: “Luke’s answer was to put on an extra burst of speed. There were only ten meters #separating them now.”…

❝ …The researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm to recognize Star Wars bots and set it loose on a much larger database of 14 million English-speaking Twitter users.

The results were a shock. The machine-learning algorithm, with the help of some manual filtering, found some 350,000 accounts that had the same characteristics. These accounts had never tweeted more than 11 times, had fewer than 31 friends and were all produced by Twitter for Windows Phone.

What’s more, this entire botnet was created in just a few days in June and July 2013. At the time, it produced 150,000 tweets a day…Then it stopped. “When the creation of new Star Wars bots stopped on 14 July 2013, all the bots suddenly fell silent and remained so ever since…”

So what might these fake Twitter accounts be for? Although the accounts have been silent for some time, this makes them valuable since they are less likely now to be labeled as fake. For this reason, pre-aged bots have significant value on the black market…

❝ Clearly, the discovery of this giant botnet raises important questions about the extent to which the Twitterverse has been infiltrated by bots that can influence the dynamics of conversations, opinions, and even elections. The work leaves open the crucial question of who set up this botnet and why.

BTW – Echeverria and Zhou report they “…have recently discovered another botnet with more than 500k bots”.