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Interesting snippets from around the globe

Bird poop and the Southern Cal electric grid

Ever since humans started building tall things, birds have been pooping on them, including high voltage power lines.

The power lines that carry electricity from hydroelectric plants in the Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles were first constructed in 1913 and at 386 km in length, they were the longest power lines in the world at the time.

Birds pooped on the transmission towers from the beginning and the Southern California power grid was beset by streams of bird poop, but the problem of “flashovers” didn’t become acute until the 1920s, when Southern California Edison upgraded the power lines to 220,000 volts.

Flashovers are basically the result of a short circuit. Electricity leaps from the power line and into a metal transmission tower, setting off a bright blue flash. These flashovers caused voltage drops and even power outages in L.A. In the summer of 1923, these interruptions were happening every two or three days.

At first, engineers didn’t suspect the birds. However, when one of the engineers noticed an eagle leaving behind a string of excrement as it launched from a tower, it lent credence to the theory that so-called bird ‘streamers’ might be the cause of flashovers.

And so began a battle of wits with the birds. First, the engineers tried to install bird guards that prevented them from perching on their usual spots above a tower’s insulators. But the birds only moved closer, onto the shields that protected the insulators. They then added more anti-avian architecture, including spikes and a poop-catching steel pan, which together seemed to help.

But it wasn’t just the towers themselves that had to change. The utility added redundancy into the electric grid, so that the load could be automatically shifted in the case of a flashover.

Something as forgettable as bird poop helped change not only the physical towers but the entire design of the Southern Californian electric grid.

ENVIRONMENTALHUMANITIES.ORG (PDF)
(July ’15)

 

FBI’s most wanted cyber-crooks

The FBI has updated its cyber-crime most wanted list with $US4.3m in rewards for the capture of a number of notorious cybercriminals, and they’re particularly interested in one Russian hacker – Evgeny Mikhailovich Bogachev.

Bogachev has a $US3m bounty on his head for allegedly masterminding the Gameover Zeus botnet. Romanian hacker Nicolae Popescu is also listed for $US1m while the others range from $US50,000 to $US100,000.

Bogachev, who goes by the pseudonyms of “Lucky12345,” “Pollingsoon,” and “Slavic,” is believed to have created the infamous Gameover Zeus, which targets Windows computers and steals passwords for online banking logins as well as bank account numbers.

The botnet, which spread malware like ransomware, has supposedly infected more than a million computers and been behind the theft of over $US100m. Small businesses were often targeted.

Bogachev was first charged with conspiracy, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft in 2012 and the authorities believe he is still in Russia.

More details on the cyber crims to be found at the link below.

FBI.GOV
(July ’15)

 

Selfies to replace passwords

Mastercard is testing new app that could allow customers to make purchases online by taking a selfie rather than entering a password.

Currently, Mastercard customers use a system called SecureCode to verify their identity while shopping online. This requires them to enter a password at the point of sale.

However, as we know, passwords can easily be forgotten, stolen or intercepted, so a number of financial organisations and technology companies are experimenting with biometrics as an alternative form of identification.

Participants in Mastercard's trial will be prompted to snap a photograph of their face using the Mastercard app on their smartphone at the online checkout point, rather than entering a password. They’ll also be required to blink to ensure a crook isn’t holding a photo in front of the camera.

The app then converts the photo into 1s and 0s using facial recognition technology, and transmits it over the internet to MasterCard, which compares it with a stored code representing the cardholder's face. If the two codes match up, then the purchase will be approved.

The use of biometrics really started to take off when Apple introduced fingerprint scanning to the iPhone.

CNN.COM
(July ’15)

 

Internet addresses run out

The Internet as we know it has now become officially too big for its britches.

The organisation that assigns IP addresses in North America — the numbers that identify every computer, smartphone and device connected to the Internet — recently ran out of numbers. But, it’s no surprise. The IP world new this day was coming.

IP addresses are the four-number strings like 74.125.224.72 that you'll sometimes see in your browser's address bar, in the guts of your smartphone's system settings, or that you might be asked to type in to your Wi-Fi router. That address, 74.125.224.72, is one of many that should take you to Google.com.

There are five huge non-profit regional organisations that hand out those addresses around the world. For the first time, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, in charge of North America, had to turn down a request for a block of addresses because it didn't have enough.

So it activated its "Unmet Request Policy", basically saying sorry, but if you want all of those requested addresses, you'll have to sit on ARIN's waiting list until they somehow become free or buy them on the open market.

The problem is there are only those four numbers in addresses, a system called IPv4. It's been in place for more than 30 years and no one would have predicted back in the 80’s that the 4.3 billion possible addresses would not be enough.

Because the clever bods that architect these things knew the problem was looming, work has been under way for years on what's called IPv6 — longer addresses that also include letters. With IPv6, there are about 340 trillion trillion trillion combinations, or 3.4 x 1038 which is 7.9 x 1028 more than IPv4.

IPv6 addresses are eight groups of four hexadecimal digits with the groups separated by colons which looks like this: 2001:0db8:85a3:0042:1000:8a2e:0370:7334.

Adoption of IPv6 has been slow but will likely start to accelerate now. Google tracks IPv6 across its users and reports that ~7%are now using IPv6, up from 2% just two years ago.

The new scheme pretty much ensures that every gadget in your home can have its own unique address.

NBCNEWS.COM, WIKIPEDIA.ORG, GOOGLE.COM
(July ’15)

 

Did you finish the book?

The old publishing cliché that ‘it doesn't matter how many people read a book, it matters how many people buy a book’ is being thrown out by Amazon.

Since 1 July Amazon have switched from paying self-published authors based on how many downloads their book has, to paying for the number of pages read which overturns the standard publishing model and it turns out that that sum is no more than US$0.006 per page.

For the authors the impact is limited to those using Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners' Lending Library, and they will have the choice of opting out.

So how will Amazon determine what a page read means? They've developed the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) to streamline the process. KENPC is meant to work while taking into account different genres and font settings so an author can't widen margins or increase the font size and "create" more pages to read. Non-text elements on a page, like graphs or photos, will count toward the KENPC.

For readers, they won’t even notice the difference.

AMAZON.COM, THEGUARDIAN.COM
(July ’15)

 

It was the other guy’s fault

California state officials have released details on six of the self-driving car accidents recorded by Google and in all cases, it was the other guy’s fault according to the report.

Last month, the tech giant revealed that its autonomous cars had been in eleven accidents, but no further details. State officials had previously claimed that confidentiality clauses prevented them from releasing any further information on the crashes.

The Associated Press reports that all the cars involved belonged to Google and Delphi Automotive, its parts supplier, and that “most of the cars were in self-driving mode when the accidents happened, and the other driver caused the accident.”

It also says “none of the crashes were serious enough to injure the person the state requires to sit behind the wheel, and the reports say none of the people in the other cars were treated for injuries either.”

That’s encouraging.

AP.ORG
(July ’15)

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World’s Most Exclusive Website

A site that claims to be the "most exclusive website" on the internet, which only grants access to one visitor at a time, has seen more than 95,000 people sign up to its waiting list.

Most Exclusive Website, which lets in a new visitor every 60 seconds, has served more than 98,500 tickets at the time of writing, with more than 300 waiting in line.

The Most Exclusive Website was picked up on social news site Reddit and over the course of a few hours saw its waiting list rise from around 1,500 to more than 10,000.

The site's creator, who goes by the name of “jfols”, said in a comment on Reddit that he made the site "for the lulz" (lulz = personal amusement) and revealed that the surge in traffic since going viral meant that the site's servers needed to be reconfigured.

A YouTube video that shows what awaits for those who make it past the waiting list and reveals that for 60 seconds the visitor is treated to a montage of cat pictures.

Why would you bother?

MOSTEXCLUSIVEWEBSITE.COM, YOUTUBE.COM
(July ’15)

 

Phone virus infections skyrocketing

A new report just published by Alcatel-Lucent suggests that spammers and hackers are increasingly targeting mobile devices. According to the report, about 16 million mobile devices were infected in 2014 worldwide – nearly 1% of all total mobile devices in circulation. This is a 25% increase over 2013 totals, which was a 20% increase over 2012 numbers.

The major concern with malware, of course, is that it can intercept credit card or social security numbers and steal your identity. But the report notes another insidious type of malware that’s also increasing: Spyware. “It tracks the phone’s location, monitors ingoing and outgoing calls, text messages, e-mail and tracks web browsing,” the study notes.

And something to keep in mind for porn fans. Porn is the biggest source of malware, and 60% of all porn is viewed on mobile phones.

ALCATEL-LUCENT.COM
(Apr ’15)

 

Hello Barbie spies on kids

At the 2015 Toy Fair in New York City last month, Mattel launched “Hello Barbie”, a WiFi connected doll that talks back whenever you talk to her. But here’s the catch – she will also repeat what you say back to the company.

Hello Barbie works by recording and processing users’ voices. Pressing a button on her belt prompts the toy to ask a question, and then record the response with an embedded microphone and transmits it back to servers in the cloud. Voice-recognition software by a San Francisco startup, ToyTalk, saves and decodes the content, and then uses it to formulate an appropriate response from Barbie.

As ToyTalk gathers recordings of its users’ conversations with Hello Barbie over time, it “learns” their name, interests and conversational habits, which Mattel says is intended to improve the quality of responses. It also allows parents to review the sound clips.

As a result, Barbie, the child’s parents and Mattel could get a whole lot of intel about the user and those around her (assuming the user is a young female).

Sounds creepy.

POPSCI.COM, QZ.COM
(Apr ’15)

 

The hottest new domain name:  .sucks

ICANN, the guys who approve generic top level domain names (gTLDs), have already blessed us with such distinguished and venerated domains such as .WANG, .SEXY and.FISH. Now, they are granting us every brand names’ worst nightmare - .SUCKS.

Of course, something as prestigious as a .SUCKS domain isn’t going to come cheap. Before that address officially goes on sale on 1st June, companies with a registered trademarked name will be invited to pay an extortionate $US2499 to register their .SUCKS domain to keep it out of the hands of competitors or irate consumers. And, to keep it in their possession, they’ll need to cough up that sum every year.

After 1 June, using a .SUCKS domain for a regular website means paying a more reasonable $US249 for the name. Or, if you're just paranoid and want to block a certain domain from being registered (temporarily), you can pay $US200 "to place any domain available as a Standard Registration domain on the reserved list for a year."

On the surface, this looks like fodder for a whole lot of libel court cases, but there could be some positive takes – badbreath.sucks for a chewing gum company, heartburn.sucks for an antacid company.

There are also court cases lining up where companies and celebrities are accusing the company of extortion.

ARSTECHNICA.COM, MARKETINGLAND.COM
(Apr ’15)

 

Samsung’s $40,000 high-tech dog house

Samsung UK has come up with a high-tech dream house for dogs. The pooch pad comes fully loaded with an automatic food dispenser, a grass turf covered treadmill, a hydrotherapy pool, vinyl walls that the owner can cover with photos, and a Samsung Galaxy Tab S for the dog’s browsing pleasure. It also has a price tag of £20,000 ($NZ40,000).

According to Samsung, “From dogs who have social media profiles to owners who use video calling to check on their pet while away, technology is fast becoming an integral part of everyday life. The Samsung Dream Doghouse looks sleek and modern, featuring the kind of tech the discerning dog of the future will need.”

Discerning dog of the future?

ODDITYCENTRAL.COM
(Apr ’15)

 

Airbnb will provide 20K rooms for Rio’s Olympics

Airbnb has won a contract to provide 20,000 rooms to accommodate athletes and attendees at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The company beat two other accommodation services – a significant feat for the Silicon Valley based start-up which was only founded five years ago.

The report doesn’t say how much the contract is worth but it is likely that Airbnb will become a sponsor and partner for the event as well.

There is no history of the public ever being asked for assistance with accommodation during the Games in the past, so this is a notable decision. In fact, during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, home owners were actually threatened with the possibility of fines for renting out their own homes at the expense of the local hoteliers.

REUTERS.COM
(Apr ’15)

 

Wi-Fi that’s 5000x faster

Seattle’s Space Needle and the Seattle Center, the city’s home to arts and culture is trialling a new Wi-Fi service from Microsoft that blows away the old W-Fi service in terms of speed and capacity.

The installation is a pilot program for Microsoft Research’s “white space” tech that harnesses long-range, wall-penetrating TV signals. Along with quadruple the access points, the tech gives the Seattle Center public Wi-Fi speeds up to 5,000 times faster, letting you Skype or watch movies to your heart’s content.

The previous system supported basic browsing only and often didn't work at all with too many users online. The new technology can handle more than 25,000 users at a time, which should be a boon during concerts and other big events. To use the tech, you just have to log on to the "Microsoft Wi-Fi Seattle Center" network, with a free app (coming soon).

SEATTLECENTER.COM, MURRAY.SEATTLE.GOV
(Apr ’15)

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