Either Microsoft is on their toes – or the stuff hackers steal from the NSA really is past its sell by-date

❝ Just as the Shadow Brokers hacker group started crowing about a dump of never-seen-before flaws in Windows, Microsoft announced it already had fixed most of the exploits.

“Today, Microsoft triaged a large release of exploits made publicly available by Shadow Brokers,” Microsoft Principal Security Group Manager Phillip Misner wrote in a Friday post.

“Our engineers have investigated the disclosed exploits, and most of the exploits are already patched,” he added.

Three of the dozen zero day vulnerabilities aired by the hackers, which they claimed were part of a large cache of data leaked from the U.S. National Security Agency, did not work at all on Windows 7 and above…

❝ As of the most recent patch cycle, no supported versions of Windows were vulnerable to the Shadow Brokers exploits, said Bobby Kuzma, a system engineer at Core Security.

“In other words,” he told TechNewsWorld, “for the love of God get XP, Vista and 2003 Server off of your networks.”

Har.

I know Microsoft users aren’t the most diligent of users of contemporary computing software and hardware. It was true through the 22 years I functioned within that milieu. I left over a decade ago and from what I read and hear – ain’t anything improved.

Basic security procedures still require regular backups and keeping your patches up-to-date. There’s more; but, too many folks don’t make it to the minimum.

Advertisements

California cranked out so much solar power this spring that wholesale electricity ran negative$

❝ The extraordinary success of solar power in some pockets of the world that combine sunshine with high investment in the technology mean that governments and energy companies are having radically to rethink the way they manage—and charge for—electricity.

California is one such a place.

❝ On March 11, it passed a milestone on the route to powering the whole state sustainably. For the first time, more than half the power needs of the entire state came from solar power for a few hours that day…

The power came from utility-scale solar photovoltaic farms, solar thermal plants, and the panels installed on private homes. Based on the data it collects, the EIA estimated that in each hour of peak times, that total capacity produced 4 million kWh of electricity on March 11…

❝ The spikes also have a big effect on wholesale energy prices, which dipped to zero or even to negative territory this spring during certain hours in California…That’s in sharp contrast to the same hours (8am to 2pm) in the month of March between 2013 and 2015, when average hourly wholesale prices ranged from $14-45 MWh.

Negative prices usually happen because there’s a glut of renewable energy, but non-renewable generators are also producing. They don’t shut them off completely because of the high costs of restarting.

California now accounts for a sizable chunk of the US market, having the highest energy demand of any state after Texas. It also has almost half of all the solar power in the US.

❝ This doesn’t mean, however, that Californians are paying nothing for their power because wholesale prices don’t translate directly into retail prices, which are based on averages, not single days. But it will mean energy companies start to rethink how they deliver and charge for electricity as the mix of renewables increases.

Unless, of course, you’re a public utility, fossil fuel producer or dimwit politician who hopes and prays that renewable power sources just disappear.

The latest dump of NSA tools means – get up-to-date with Microsoft Patches, folks!

❝ UPDATE: Microsoft has patched the majority of the exploits released by The Shadow Brokers. More details can be found here, and the company recommends updating to a supported version of Windows and downloading security fixes.

The original story follows below:

❝ On Friday, the group known as The Shadow Brokers dropped the hacking equivalent of a bomb, or perhaps several bombs, giving hackers all over the world the tools to easily break into millions of Windows computers

This is bad news not just for the NSA, but for the internet as a whole, according to security researchers who are poring through the dump. As someone called it, this is “cyber chaos.”

❝ Perhaps the worst tool released by the hackers is called “FUZZBUNCH.” This is a hacking suite or toolkit that contains several plug-and-play exploits to attack several versions of Windows operating system. Some researchers described it as something akin to Metasploit, a popular open source hacking framework…

In fact, the latest Shadow Brokers dump contains several working Windows zero-days in executable (.exe) binaries with “step-by-step logs laying out how they’re used and the commands to run”…

That means that pretty much anyone, from low-level cybercriminals to so-called “script kiddies” — hackers who are only good at reusing other hackers’ tools — could repurpose them to attack Windows computers…

❝ In the meantime, you can either shut down your Windows machine or block incoming connections to port 445 and 139 with the firewall to prevent some of the attacks, according to security researchers.

❝ The leaked tools are dated around 2013, so they don’t affect modern Windows operating systems such as Windows 10. But according to Hacker Fantastic, the FUZZBUNCH framework supports all kinds of Windows systems: server versions from NT, 2000, 2003, 2008 and up to 2012, as well as the consumer versions XP, Vista, 7 and Windows 8.

I worked within the Microsoft/IBM framework for 22 years before moving to Apple’s OSX [and following mobile OS’] over a decade ago. Yeah, anything can be hacked; but, ain’t much need to make it easy.

Interested in directly uploading books to your brain?

❝ What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.

❝ A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described…how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.

Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”

❝ At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload “War and Peace”? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”

This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since. I confess that I do not know a lick about neuroscience. But just knowing something about reading makes the above story implausible, if not alarming.

❝ I’m not sure what Kurzweil thinks when he says our computer minds won’t need to bother to read the book, and I want to give him and his other futurist computer-brain friends some credit. They surely mean more than having the text of the book itself available to us, or even memorized. That wouldn’t represent knowledge. It must be something deeper, a representation of the book possibly as a narrative, or maybe a movie. But again, if we have access only to that movie, it doesn’t represent the same learning that would come through reading and experiencing the book.

A conclusion that is neither correct or incorrect – because, so far, there is no result, no product, to evaluate.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the book’s true meaning would change depending on the state of my brain — that the interface would look into my mind, see and understand my patience with hypocrisy and spiritual conflict, and then transform the story accordingly. In which case, every time I uploaded that book or any other, I’d experience a different story. I doubt this is possible, and in any case I would find the lack of active participation creepy. That said, I’d definitely pay a monthly subscription to try it out.

Disclaimer: I think Ray Kurzweil rocks. In the case of his ventures with Stevie Wonder, that is a literal opinion. IMHO, he makes folks think about new things in new ways and that is invaluable. And, yes, I accept as obvious that outlandish changes confronting 21st Century minds will no doubt be experimented with, evaluated sooner or later.

If an inquiring, well-educated mind finds interest in a process which might increase our capacity to enjoy live and create – as the capability to experiment and decide happens, so will the experiments. Might be fun. Or more.

Will a New Glass Battery deliver on the End of Oil?


John GoodenoughCockrell School of Engineering

❝ Electric car purchases have been on the rise lately, posting an estimated 60 percent growth rate last year. They’re poised for rapid adoption by 2022, when EVs are projected to cost the same as internal combustion cars. However, these estimates all presume the incumbent lithium-ion battery remains the go-to EV power source. So, when researchers this week at the University of Texas at Austin unveiled a new, promising lithium- or sodium-glass battery technology, it threatened to accelerate even rosy projections for battery-powered cars.

❝ “I think we have the possibility of doing what we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” says John Goodenough, coinventor of the now ubiquitous lithium-ion battery and emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “That is, to get an electric car that will be competitive in cost and convenience with the internal combustion engine.” Goodenough added that this new battery technology could also store intermittent solar and wind power on the electric grid.

❝ Yet, the world has seen alleged game-changing battery breakthroughs come to naught before…So, on whose authority might one claim a glass battery could be any different?

For starters, Donald Sadoway’s. Sadoway, a preeminent battery researcher and MIT materials science and engineering professor, says, “When John Goodenough makes an announcement, I pay attention. He’s tops in the field and really a fantastic scientist. So, his pronouncements are worth listening to.”…

❝ The new battery technology uses a form of glass, doped with reactive “alkali” metals like lithium or sodium, as the battery’s electrolyte…

They find, for instance, that the lithium- or sodium-glass battery has three times the energy storage capacity of a comparable lithium-ion battery. But its electrolyte is neither flammable nor volatile, and it doesn’t appear to build up the spiky “dendrites” that have plagued lithium-ions as they charge and discharge repeatedly and can ultimately short out, causing battery fires…

❝ Moreover, says…battery codeveloper Maria Helena Braga, a visiting research fellow at UT Austin and engineering professor at the University of Porto in Portugal, the glass battery charges in “minutes rather than hours.” This, she says, is because the lithium- or sodium-doped glass endows the battery with a far greater capacity to store energy in the electric field. So, the battery can, in this sense, behave a little more like a lightning-fast supercapacitor…

…Braga says, early tests of their technology suggest it’s also capable of perhaps thousands of charge-discharge cycles, and could perform well in both extremely cold and hot weather…And if they can switch the battery’s ionic messenger atom from lithium to sodium, the researchers could even source the batteries more reliably and sustainably. Rather than turning to controversial mining operations in a few South American countries for lithium, they’d be able to source sodium in essentially limitless supply from the world’s seawater…

❝ If Goodenough, Braga, and collaborators can ramp up their technology, there would clearly be plenty of upsides. Goodenough says the team’s anode and electrolyte are more or less ready for prime time. But they’re still figuring out if and how they can make a cathode that will bring the promise of their technology to the commercial marketplace.

“The next step is to verify that the cathode problem is solved,” Goodenough says. “And when we do [that] we can scale up to large-scale cells. So far, we’ve made jelly-roll cells, and it looks like they’re working fairly well. So I’m fairly optimistic we’ll get there. But the development is going to be with the battery manufacturers. I don’t want to do development. I don’t want to be going into business. I’m 94. I don’t need the money.”

Gotta love for-real researchers who would rather be exploring the inner space of new opportunities, qualitative discovery – instead of playing entrepreneur and building the next technology startup to an IPO.

Thanks, SmartAlix

Canadian AI company uses humans to mentor robots


The one on the left is the CEO of the company

❝ A secretive Canadian startup called Kindred AI is teaching robots how to perform difficult dexterous tasks at superhuman speeds by pairing them with human “pilots” wearing virtual-reality headsets and holding motion-tracking controllers.

The technology offers a fascinating glimpse of how humans might work in synchronization with machines in the future, and it shows how tapping into human capabilities might amplify the capabilities of automated systems. For all the worry over robots and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, there are plenty of things that machines still cannot do. The company demonstrated the hardware to MIT Technology Review last week, and says it plans to launch a product aimed at retailers in the coming months. The long-term ambitions are far grander. Kindred hopes that this human-assisted learning will foster a fundamentally new and more powerful kind of artificial intelligence…

❝ Kindred’s system uses several machine-learning algorithms, and tries to predict whether one of these would provide the desired outcome, such as grasping an item. If none seems to offer a high probability of success, it calls for human assistance. Most importantly, the algorithms learn from the actions of a human controller. To achieve this, the company uses a form of reinforcement learning, an approach that involves experimentation and strengthening behavior that leads to a particular goal…One person can also operate several robots at once…

❝ …The technical challenges involved with learning through human tele-operation are not insignificant. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at MIT who is working on tele-operated humanoid robots, says mapping human control to machine action is incredibly complicated. “The first challenge is tracking human motion by attaching rigid links to the human skin. This is extremely difficult because we are endoskeleton animals,” Kim says. “A bigger challenge is to really understand all the details of decision-making steps in humans, most of which happen subconsciously.”

❝ “Our goal is to deconstruct cognition,” Geordie Rose, cofounder and the CEO of Kindred says. “All living entities follow certain patterns of behavior and action. We’re trying to build machines that have the same kind of principles.”

Sooner or later, all this interesting stuff will come together in some sectors of the world’s economy – and a significant number of humans will be declared redundant. The good news is that pretty much every educated industrial society already has a diminishing population. Independent, self-conscious women with easy access to birth control are taking care of that.

Won’t make the transition period any easier for middle-age not-so-well-educated guys.

Conjecture on where AI is going doesn’t make it so. Yet.

❝ Artificial intelligence is grossly misunderstood, but you can’t really blame the public. However well-intentioned, we’re up against multiple coordinated efforts to distort the field, whether that’s technologist doomsaying or Singularity marketing. And, as is often the case in overhyped and-or distorted science, there aren’t really people on the inside doing the work of bullshit-calling.

❝ DARPAtv published the video below a few weeks ago and it’s worth your 15 minutes. It’s a rare clear-eyed look into the guts of AI that’s also simple enough for most non-technical folks to follow. It’s dry, but IRL computer science is pretty dry. The key point is that that this stuff is still really hard, and many of the things that we imagine AI to be capable of or imminently capable of are in fact looming challenges in the field—problems just now being formulated.

Click it and watch it.

Scientists in Oz crack the carbon-fibre code


Would be nice to have carbon-fibre for less than $450K

❝ Australia’s CSIRO has cracked the carbon-fibre code, and in doing so has opened the floodgates to mass-production of the composite material in Australia.

❝ Currently only a handful of companies around the world are able to manufacture carbon-fibre, each with their own closely-guarded secret recipe. But none have, as yet, cracked the method to producing ultra-lightweight, ultra-strong composite in significant quantities.

But now, CSIRO and Deakin University have, as they put it, “cracked the code” to mass-production through the use of a patented wet spinning line which can produce carbon-fibre that is both stronger and of a higher quality than previously produced…

❝ The CSIRO has patented the technology which has the potential to be a game-changer for the automotive industry. With current technology cost-prohibitive for wider use, carbon-fibre is usually found only on high-end luxury cars or supercars.

With the potential to now mass-produce the composite material, carbon-fibre is set to be cheaper than ever before, possibly leading to application in mass-produced vehicles. Lighter body panels would make cars even more fuel efficient, no bad thing in this day and age of climate change.

❝ The Director of CSIRO Future Industries, Dr Anita Hill, said the development was an important discovery that has the potential to disrupt the status quo in the carbon-fibre industry.

“This facility means Australia can carry out research across the whole carbon fibre value chain: from molecules, to polymers, to fibre, to finished composite parts,” said Dr Hill.

“Together with Deakin, we’ve created something that could disrupt the entire carbon-fibre manufacturing industry.”

More geek globalism providing a market common to existing and emerging industrial nations. It’s enough to make a parochial knee-bender sweat.

Thanks, Honeyman