News Briefs Archive 2014




Junior Spooks

Catching them young is the theme of a new app from spy central, otherwise known as GCHQ. It’s called, Cryptoy and currently only available for Android devices from Google Play. Basically it is an interactive cryptography teaching and learning tool, aimed at Key Stage 4 students, but don’t let that put you off, it’s fun for all ages. Don’t get too excited, though, the sample cryptographic demos and games are not giving away any state secrets, they’re based on old-school systems. There’s even a section on the famous Enigma code, developed by the Germans in World War II, with some good historical background, but the essential principles behind many early forms of cryptography hold good for today’s code making and breaking technologies and GCHQ hopes it will inspire the next generation to take an interest in cyber security. Students, on a placement at GCHQ, originally developed the app for the Cheltenham Science Festival. It was meant to demonstrate encryption techniques, but it proved popular with the teachers who saw it, who asked for it to be made available as a teaching aid. In addition to giving users a basic understanding of cryptography they can use Cryptoy to compose and send encrypted messages via social media, challenging friends and family to decode their messages. It’s probably unnecessary, though, as anyone over 40 will know that teenage text-speak is already an almost unbreakable code…



Flash Forever?

We all know that nothing lasts forever, and the hard drives in most recent PCs and laptop have a MTBF (mean time between failures) rating of upwards of 100,000 hours or around 11 years – some manufacturers claim considerably higher figures. The point is, a hard drive is probably not the best place to store you data if you want it to still be readable in more than a decade or so, but what about solid state drives or SSDs? Clearly they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to make any rash longevity claims. Most types come with a warning that the number of read-write cycles they can endure is finite and this is due to wear and tear, at the molecular level, to insulating materials inside the chip. The Tech Report decided to put half a dozen SSD to the ultimate test, pushing them well past their design limits by continually pumping them full of terabytes of data. All six sailed past their claimed best-by dates and were only deemed to have failed when they had used up all of the chip’s built-in spare capacity, which automatically replaces worn out and faulty circuitry. The first drive failed at the 727-terabyte mark, which is vastly more data than they will ever be required to handle in the real world. To give you an idea of what that means, a very well used laptop with an SSD would typically handle between 2 and 5TB in a year. Two of the six SSDs are apparently still going strong, having now passed 2 petabytes  (2,000TB) and if we use the laptop analogy again, that’s getting on for 1000 years worth of use!   



Eyeing Up The Perfect Pizza?

Pizza Hut those purveyors of tasty, dough-based treats, have found a new way to speed things up and help you decide on toppings by tapping into your brain and tracking your eye movements. It’s called the Subconscious Menu and it was developed in collaboration with Swedish technology company Tobi, who are leading lights in the eye-tracking business. In trials, customers looked at a screen, showing 20 popular ingredients and the system’s algorithm took just under 3 seconds to figure out which of the almost 5000 possible combinations of ingredients would make up the hungry victim’s ideal pizza, and if they don’t like what it comes up with, it’s a simple matter to have another go. The company reckons they’re getting it right more than 95 percent of the time, there still some fine–tuning to be done but if the trials prove successful it could soon be appearing in a Hut near you.



Spook Detekter

Being spied upon by villains, hackers and nosey multinationals is bad enough but when it’s your own government, or another country’s security services, it’s time to say enough! For most citizen’s it’s probably not an issue, but for journalists, human rights activists and campaigners, solicitors, lawyers and in fact almost anyone who dares to pop their heads above the parapet, there is a very real possibility that one government agency or another could be taking an interest in what’s happening on their computers, which is why Amnesty International has developed Detekt. It’s a purpose-designed spyware scanner that looks for the sort of covert surveillance software used by spooks, and this includes the dark spyware that can read emails and even listen and watch their victims through a PC’s built in camera and microphone. Detekt is freeware and once it is up and running, it takes a fair while to scan a PC, which suggests it is delving deeply into the places where this stuff hides.  And yes, it really works, having actually found some nasties lurking on a human rights lawyer’s computer. The chances are if you try it you will get an all clear, but you never know, and it costs nothing to find out.



Kentucky Fried Keyboard (and Mouse)

You have to hand it to those wacky Japanese. For a culture with an enviable (and at times, somewhat questionable…) association with raw fish and good healthy fresh food they seem to have taken to fast food in a big way. Doubtless they will be paying the price, but we have to say that we’re rather envious of it’s KFC restaurants, which have been running a Colonel’s Day Twitter promotion. There’s finger-lickin fun for all the family but the feature that caught our eye is this custom KFC keyboard and mouse. It’s brilliant; there are small pieces of plastic chicken on all of the keycaps, with only the letters K, F and C displayed in the company livery. Colonel Sander’s visage is on the Windows key; top left, where the escape key usually lives, there’s what looks like a tiny light-up Colonel and a couple of keys in the top tight corner have been replaced by a soft drink and a bucket (we think, our Japanese is a but rusty). Best of all is the fried chicken-drumstick shaped mouse. Sadly, as far as we can make out, it’s a one off competition prize; so don’t go looking for them on ebay Japan any time soon. But if there’s any justice in this old world KFC will see the light and start making these things for everyone to enjoy, especially in more deserving markets, like the UK, where we had the first branch outside the US and have been dutifully chomping on the deep fried treat since 1965, a full five years before those Japanese Johnny come lately's…



The Appliance Of Power

Wire-free charging for smartphones and tablets has been around for a while but here’s a new twist, called WattUp. The idea is your device will charge wirelessly, while it is in your pocket or on the table, by power beamed from household appliances like microwave ovens, refrigerators, cookers and even washing machines. It’s the brainchild of the Energous Corporation and Haier Wireless and apparently it will be able to deliver a useful charge over distances of several metres, creating ‘always on’ charging environments in ‘high-traffic areas’ in homes – presumably in and around the kitchen – offices, retail stores and commercial spaces. The report, from Yahoo Finance is a little short on detail, beyond the fact that WattUp is a pat pending technology and it delivers ‘intelligent, scalable power’ using the same radio frequencies as Wi-Fi. On the face of it this sounds like a very bad idea. There’s also no mention of how much power will disappearing into the ether in what sounds like a suspiciously wasteful technique but what do we know? Anyway, we’ll just have to wait and if and when it comes to pass we’ll let you know.



Iconic Development For Designers

How many times have you been stuck for an icon, and we’re not talking about a common or garden Wingding? Mock ye not, it can happen, especially if you are a designer, web or otherwise, artist or just a garden shed tinkerer, looking for an icon to dress up your latest home-brew gadget. Well, to save you searching the web the good folks at Google, specifically the Google Design division, have just made a whopping 750 icons and glyphs available as open source images and code. They’ve just published the whole lot on the GitHub code-sharing website as 24 and 48 pixel SVG files, plus PNG versions for use on web pages and iOS apps, and not forgetting top quality hi-dpi PNG formats for specialist users. You can download the whole lot for free, or click the Preview button to see what’s available and if you have been wondering where to find that elusive battery 60 percent charge symbol, now you know.



Compact Fusion Coming?

Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before but news reaches us, via Gizmodo, of an exclusive report in Aviation Week magazine regarding a compact fusion reactor proposal from Skunk Works. They’re a division of Lockheed Martin, famous for developing stealthy aircraft and experimenting on crashed UFOs (possibly…).  Nuclear fusion is what powers the Sun and unlike nuclear fission, the stuff that makes atomic bombs go bang, it’s pretty clean, doesn’t go bang, generates negligible waste and should be of no interest to terrorists. Basically it works by heating a plasma – an electrically charged gas – up to the point where ions in the plasma fuse together, and in doing so, releases very large amounts of energy, in theory more energy than is needed to sustain the process. It’s a win-win situation, but there’s a problem. For fusion to take place the plasma has to be heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees centigrade, hotter than any known material can withstand so it must be contained inside a large vacuum chamber and held in place by powerful magnetic fields, essentially a magnetic ‘bottle’. It looks a bit like a donut, with the plasma running around the inside, and most importantly, not touching the sides. Up until now most experimental fusion reactors have been based on the Soviet Tokamak design, and they’re very big, complicated and expensive to build and thus far not very successful. The Skunk Works design is much smaller, not much larger than a jet engine in fact and because it is relatively small the designers say that they can get to the prototype stage in just 10 years, and in 15 years, be in a position to start producing 100MW fusion reactors, small enough to fit inside a shipping container. That’s enough power for 80,000 homes. Fusion is the Holy Grail of cheap sustainable energy and we’ve seen many, many claims over the years that it is just around the corner. At this stage there’s no way of knowing if this will come to anything but sooner or later someone is going to crack this nut, so here’s hoping that this will be the one!



Warner Warning

Pirates beware, Warner Bros has unleashed an army of ‘robots’, designed to track down and curtail the activities of those suspected of stealing or distributing its movies and media. It’s okay we’re talking not about Terminator-style killbot turning up at your front door. The robots in question are software programs or bots that mimic the behaviour of humans, searching the Internet for movies to download. This information, which comes to us courtesy of Torrent Freak, was revealed in heavily redacted court records that came to light following a series of lawsuits between the studio and a file hosting service. The papers describe how Warner Bros use the bots to research links to sites allegedly infringing its copyright by hosting or linking to content. When it finds one it automatically sends a Takedown Notice to the suspected offender. Apparently it focuses its attention on around 200 sites but here’s the rub, the process is fully automated and according to the documents, the material is not downloaded, reviewed or checked by humans, which calls into question the accuracy, legitimacy and even the legality of the exercise. Without conducting follow-up checks there would seem to be no way of knowing if the bots are correctly identifying dodgy material, or even the possibility that it may be perfectly legitimate. More revelations are promised soon.



News On Ten, Not Nine

Microsoft caught almost everyone on the hop last week with the announcement that the next release of Windows will be called Windows 10. So what happened to Windows 9? No one is saying officially but various comments attributed to MS high-ups suggest that it’s a more ‘appropriate’ name, whatever that means but there is an indication that this will be the last major update for a while and future releases will be largely based on W10, which brings us to the headline features. Windows 10 has been designed to operate on as wide a range of devices and hardware setups as possible, from industrial servers to embedded operating systems in gadgets, tablets and presumably things like fridges and wearables. It also plans to make the App Store the one-stop place to go for both users, and developers.


Time for the nitty-gritty, and what W10 can do for you, and at the top of the list is the return of the much-missed W7 style Start Menu. A lot of work has been put into a new Multiple Desktop display, file search has been improved, there’s a new Task View button that shows all open apps and files. Another newcomer is a revised Snap View layout, which lets up to four apps to be snapped on one screen and for tablet users there’s Continuum that adapts the display, depending on how you use your device as a tablet or desktop. The launch date has been confirmed as mid 2015 and for developers and enthusiasts who can’t wait to get their hands on it, you can sign up for the Technical Preview edition, which is now ready for download.




Big Bash Bug Shock

An unexpected vulnerability, dubbed ShellShock, has been discovered in the Bash* shell, which is a key element in many Unix-based operating systems that includes Mac OS, Linux and Android. It has actually been around for the past 20 years and Bash is a key component in all of these operating systems and it works a bit like DOS, executing text command. In theory the ShellShock bug allows a hacker with remote access to run malicious code on a computer or device by getting Bash to respond to a simple information request. Many systems are already protected by firewalls and updates are being rolled out, as we speak, but there is concern that some devices, such as routers, web cameras and a goodly chink of the ‘things’ in the Internet of Things connected to the Internet, also rely on Linux based software, and are not routinely updated and could – again, only in theory – be compromised. Most Mac users need not be concerned as OSX has built in protection, though an update is being prepared. Critical systems, such as though used to run web servers, power stations, traffic lights, cash dispensers and so on should be patched very quickly but there is a growing command that many other as-yet undiscovered vulnerabilities may also exist in Unix based operating systems that until now has been considered relatively safe from attack. Thanks go to Lifehacker this simple check for Mac and Linux users. Simply open a Terminal window and type the following test command: env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c 'echo hello'. If the test fails you will get the following response:  vulnerable hello. *In case you were wondering Bash is an acronym for Bourne Again SHell. This is a jokey reference to it being a replacement for the Bourne Shell command line interpreter, created by Stephen Bourne -- an engineer working for Bell Labs – released back in 1977.



Windows 9 For Free?

Speculation is starting to circulate that Windows 9, codenamed Threshold, could be given away free, possibly to both W7 and W8 users. The reasoning is that Windows sales have been in decline; W8 met with a lukewarm response but the free upgrade to the much improved Windows 8.1 was a success, so by giving away the new operating system it would bring a very large number of users into the W9 fold. If you are worried about the impact it would have on Microsoft’s bank balance, don’t, they can afford it. It would also introduce many more users to the delights of spending money in the Windows Apps Store and on online services, which could more than make up for lost revenue on OS sales. Of course persuading grumpy W8 PC users to upgrade, let alone those happily using W7 could be a struggle but it looks as though Microsoft has put a lot of effort into making W9 more PC friendly, and with less emphasis on touch screen operation for those who don’t want or need it. Possible improvements include reverting to a more traditional Start menu. The much derided Charms bar could be sidelined, and for those that want both options, there’s talk of a Metro style apps screen that runs inside a desktop window. Technical Previews of W9 for the industry are expected to appear at the end of this month; the consumer preview version should follow a few months later, probably in early 2015.



On The Cards

Thirty or so years ago I spent what was probably several month’s wages on a 10 megabyte hard disc drive and recall thinking what a great investment it was. There was no way I would ever manage to fill it up in my lifetime and I would probably be able to pass it on to children. I also believed that one day I would take holidays on the Moon and commute to the office in my flying car… That sort of thing seemed quite plausible back in the 70s and 80s but if you had told me that one day someone would come up with a memory device that packs 512 gigabytes into a little piece of plastic, no larger than a postage stamp, I would have thought you insane. Not only has it happened, this SDXC memory card from Sandisk has a data transfer rate of a whopping 95 MB/sec, and that’s what makes it really significant. Forget the capacity, no doubt terabyte cards are just around the corner, but up until now data transfer rates have been the high capacity memory card’s Achilles heel, and ruled them out for one of the most demanding applications, namely 4K video recording. Well, now it’s possible and with that sort of capacity you can do a day’s shooting, not to mention solving all sorts of space problems on laptops and cameras. Needless to say it comes at a price and if you want one right now (or when they become available) it is going to set you back the thick end of £500. Oh well, wait a few months and they’ll be giving them away in packs of Cornflakes!



Graphene Screen Flexible Solution

Back in the 1960s lasers were famously described as a solution looking for a problem, and we all know how that turned out… Well, the new wonder material Graphene has been suffering form the same problem. This remarkable two-dimensional carbon-based crystalline material has many wondrous properties and a lot of people are working on ways to do amazing things with the stuff, but so far there’s been little that you can put your fingers, let alone spend your money on but here’s another future use that looks quite promising, this time from the University of Cambridge Graphene Centre. It’s a flat and flexible display, with Graphene replacing the normally inflexible metal and ceramic electrodes, which are deposited on the screen’s backpane layer. As an added bonus the screens can also be manufactured, or rather printed, on a roll, at relatively low temperatures, which in theory reduces cost and complexity. The prototype screen has a relatively modest 150dip resolution but the developers are working towards flexible LCD and OLED displays with improved performance for colour video displays that could be incorporated in various forms of wearable technology. We will be keeping our eyes on this one, probably...



One’s Hot, The Other’s Not, Probably…

First some hot news for owners of Compaq and HP laptops, notebooks and charging stations sold between September 2010 and June 2012, buy a fire extinguisher! It appears that there have been upwards of 29 incidents (overheating and small fires) in or around the power cords. Thankfully it only concerns the cable and it’s easily identified, and HP will replace it free of charge. The code to look out for is LS-15 and this can be found moulded into the connector at the adaptor end of the cord.


What’s not hot, apparently, is the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and this is in spite of some models displaying a thermometer overheating icon on the screen. MS maintains that only a small number of units are affected, and the appearance of the Thermometer Gauge icon is down to a software glitch, which is begin addressed by a soon to be released update. Some users disagree and claim that their tablets really do become too hot to handle, and it’s quite possible they are right with so much powerful technology shoehorned into such a thin and poorly ventilated case, but we’ll have to wait and see until after the update is released, which will probably be in amongst the scheduled Surface updates on September 9th.




Dodgy Diallers

Our thanks to PCWorld (the US webzine, not the shop) for alerting us to something new to worry about. It appears that some smartphone apps, and Facebook Messenger has been cited as an example, may have a security loophole that could be exploited to make expensive premium rate phone calls. It’s all down to the way some apps display a phone number as a link. Danish software developer has discovered that some apps do not enable the necessary warning or permission step and will make the call without asking the user. He has found a way to use this behaviour on a web page, using JavaScript code, so in theory all the unwary user has to do is click on a link to visit a web page on their mobile, the code is triggered and the phone dials the premium rate number, which the user may not know about until they get their next bill. So far this vulnerability doesn’t seem to have made it into the wild and been used for malicious purposes, and hopefully now that app developers have been warned it won’t become a threat but it would be wise to take care when clicking on web links and keep an eye on your phone when doing so, to make sure it’s not racking up your bills.



Smart Earphones

Yes, we all know that smartphones have built-in microphones that can listen in on your conversations but now, thanks to Wired, a new threat has been uncovered in the shape of the gyro motion sensor chips installed in most devices. It turns out that the chips, which are used to determine a device’s orientation and motion are also sensitive to vibrations, sufficiently so to be able to pick up speech, albeit in a fairly crude way. Apparently it’s legible enough, researchers have found, to be able to distinguish some words and the speaker’s gender. What makes it really worrying is that unlike a device’s built in microphone, apps do not need a user’s permission to function, nor is there any way to turn it off. It’s still a long way from being a real threat but given time and effort it is possible that it could be developed to the point where is can be used to distinguish numbers, something to bear the next time you’re giving out your credit card details



Goodbye IE?

Farewell Internet Explorer, at least all versions before IE 11. Don’t worry, it’s not going to happen until January 2016, but according to the Microsoft IE Blog from the 12th of that month security updates and support will be withdrawn. Microsoft are closing the door on old versions of the browser because it says the latest incarnations are much safer, and better able to handle the demands of the latest web standards, which will help developers no end, who often struggle to maintain backwards compatibility, and as an added bonus its faster, has greater compatibility with web apps and future developments and it is more secure. For most users I won’t be an issue as the latest versions of IE are automatically installed during updates but for some commercial users, who, for one reason or another are locked into web pages and apps that rely on older versions Microsoft will continue to develop and support the Enterprise Mode for IE 11 until January 2020, which maintains backwards compatibility with older web standards.



USB = Unsafe Security, Beware?

No need to panic just yet but security experts Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell have discovered a fundamental flaw in the design of USB memory that could allow a contaminated memory stick to take over your computer, redirect internet traffic and alter4 files. It’s deep in the sticks firmware, the software that controls the memory chips and is therefore next to impossible to detect. To make sure they weren’t imagining it they have even created some proof of concept malware, called BadUSB that exploits the vulnerability. So where does this leave USB sticks? So far it hasn’t gone beyond the research lab and it would quite difficult for a memory stick you are using to become infected – it would have to be physically tampered with – but the risk is there and current best advice is not to plug a USB memory stick in your PC unless you are 100 percent sure of its provenance. Even without this new threat this would be good advice, for years spooks and villains have been lacing USB sticks with viruses and malware and leaving them in the lavatories of organisations they want to infiltrate, or sabotage, in the certain knowledge that someone will pick it up and pop it into their work computer…



A Jewel Of A Touch Screen

Blinging up smartphones is hardly a new idea but how would you like one with a screen made of sapphire? It may well happen and the word on the street, or rather the digital superhighway, is that Apple could be one of the first to have them. In its natural state sapphire is a precious gemstone but there are ways and means of synthesising it in industrial quantities, but not for its aesthetic or jewel like qualities. It turns out that sapphire, like diamond, is super-tough and hard as nails. In fact it’s virtually bullet-proof, and more than able to withstand the day-to-day rigours of a smartphone screen, including being dropped and sat on. It is totally transparent, can be coloured by adding impurities and it can be up to four times more durable and even thinner than Gorilla Glass. None of this is news but up until now it has, like the stuff you get in jewellers, been very expensive. Scaling up and improvements in manufacturing and processing methods could reduce the cost by a factor of ten, which still makes it a good deal dearer than existing screen glass, but given it’s properties, and the never ending quest for thinner screens it may well be coming to a smartphone near you, and maybe sooner than you think.



Cool Way To Make Electricity

There are many environmentally friendly ways to generate electricity but here’s one of the hottest, or coolest – depending on your point of view – that uses nothing more than plain old humidity – and there’s been no shortage of that lately. Researchers at MIT dreamt it up and the operating principle is incredibly simple, not to say elegant. Some materials strongly attract water (superhydrophyllic) and others repel it (hydrophobic). If you put a copper plate coated with a superhydrophyllic material close to one with a hydrophobic coating, the droplets of water that condense on the hydrophobic surface will jump the gap, and in doing so generate a tiny electric charge. Now don’t get too excited, we are talking about minute amounts of electricity at this stage, just a few picowatts per square centimetre but the MIT boffins reckon this can be increased to a microwatt or more, at which point it may be possible to build a device around 50cm sq, that could produce enough energy to charge a mobile phone in 12 hours. In theory humidity generators would be cheap to build, there are no moving parts, and the technology could be scaled up to become a potentially very useful source of power in parts of the world blessed (or cursed) with high levels of humidity. 



Rewritable Revival

Remember recordable CDs and DVDs? The older ones amongst you may remember that they used to quite popular a few years ago but now they’re in danger of becoming obsolete, what with low-cost solid-state memory and data streaming, but hang on, the technology may still have a trick or two up its sleeve. The materials used in recordable optical discs, including one called germanium antimony tellurium alloy (GST to its friends) have an interesting property called reversible phase change, which basically means they switch between two states when exposed to laser light or heat. Researchers have found a way of triggering the phase change electrically and create a super thin material that can be made to change colour. In short they have come up with the basis of a new optical display technology and potential applications include superfast, nanometre-pixel visual displays, smart glasses with variable transparency lenses, artificial retina devices, flexible displays for wearable tech and smart contact lenses. Sounds promising and we’ll file this one under worth-keeping-an-eye-on…



More Attractive Smartphones?

A team of researchers at the University of Oulu in Finland have developed an ingenious new short-range communication system for with smartphones, reports New Scientist. It relies on the fact that most models have a built-in magnetometer, basically a magnetic sensor, used by compass and map apps. It’s called Pulse and sends data as short bursts of magnetism. Don’t get too excited, at least not yet as it has a couple of limitations. Firstly it is rather slow, so far they have only managed to achieve a data rate of 40 bits per second, and second, it only works over short distances, just 2 cm, but that might actually be an advantage as it would be very difficult to hack, and it could work like current near field communication (NFC) systems, where the phone has to be placed in contact with a sensor. So far the developers have used it to send a wide variety of data types, from web addresses to MIDI music sequences. The bandwidth, or rather lack of it probably will make it difficult to use for sending useful amounts of data but the researchers suggest that it could be used as a secure switch, for an NFC link-up, so an exchange of data only occurs when the phone is in contact with a terminal and receives a magnetic pulse authorisation. We shall see…




Gasses For The Masses

For as long as we can remember hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of the future, and it really does have a lot going for it. To begin with it is clean, and you can’t get much cleaner than something whose breakdown products, when burnt, is water. Hydrogen also packs a lot of energy into a relatively small volume, so why aren’t we all driving around in hydrogen powered cars? Well, there are problems. It is expensive to make, and pollution issues if fossil fuels are used to generate the electricity needed to produce it. Then there’s the tricky issue of storage and delivery. It’s dangerous stuff and very difficult to handle safely, so news that a team of researchers, led by Professor Bill David and Dr Martin Jones (pictured) at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council has come up with a possible solution that solves some of those problems has to be worth checking out. The STFC team are using ammonia, which with some clever catalytic chemistry, can be converted or ‘cracked’ into nitrogen and hydrogen. It’s not a new idea but until recently the catalysts needed to do the conversion have been far too expensive to do it economically. The breakthrough is a two-stage process that uses cheaper and more readily available materials, and can generate hydrogen from ammonia, ‘on demand’. Ammonia is still pretty nasty stuff, but it can be stored relatively safely in plastic tanks, and a reactor unit, suitable for a family car, could be as small as a 2 litre drinks bottle. As usual no word on when or if it will ever happen but rest assured we’ll be keeping an eye on it.



Corset It Makes Sense…

Now here’s an interesting use for 3-D printing technology, and it’s probably not what you think. It’s actually more to do with art than keeping lady bits contained. Confused? Well, here’s the basics, the full explanation is actually a bit beyond us. The corset structure is called x.pose and the name derives from the idea that as we become more connected and use our devices we are unconsciously exposing ourselves. This nakedness is reflected by the garment, which changes transparency according to the amount of data the wearer’s smartphone or device is broadcasting. Now this is where it gets a bit complicated… The design of the corset is determined by an app that collects the wearer’s data then generates the pattern of variable transparency patches that represent the neighbourhoods where the wearer is located. The 3D printer uses this information to construct the meshes that make up the corset, and it connect to the smartphone by Bluetooth. What this means in practice is the corset’s patches will pulsate at a faster rate in a busy city, compared with a rural location, where the smartphone is sending out less information, about location and so on. We suppose it beats making little plastic animals, which is what most 3D printers seem to end up doing…



Learn To Levan

Between them Google and Wikipedia know just about everything there is to know, but here’s a new approach to creating an encyclopaedia, called Levan, from the University of Washington. The name comes from Learning EVerything about Anything, and it is an automated system that deals in concepts and visual associations. If that sounds a bit high-falutin and geeky, don’t worry; it’s a basically simple idea. All it needs is a little input from you, to tell it what you want to know, then off it goes, sorting through books, documents and images on the web, putting together everything it can find into highly visual and easily digestible chunks for you to explore. At this very early stage of its development it needs help to expand and is looking for new categories to compile. The choices it makes can be a bit weird, but there’s no denying it’s compulsive and it’s hard to resist clicking on links, so see where they lead. Who knows, it could actually be quite useful one day.



Shattering News

It sounds like a challenge to us but apparently a group of researchers, led by Dr Yu Zhu, at the University of Akron in Ohio, have developed a shatterproof screen for smartphones and tablets. The breakthrough centres on a transparent layer of electrodes bonded to a flexible and conductive film. In tests is has been bent 1000 times, and apparently was none the worse for wear. This contrasts with current touch screen technology, which relies on an Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) conductive layer, which is brittle, likely to shatter when deformed, and expensive to manufacture. According to the scientific paper in which the development is outlined the new screen material can be fabricated in rolls and, the team hope, will be significantly cheaper than existing screen materials.



Microsoft & Skype Speak Out

Real time voice translation comes a step closer with an announcement, and demonstration from Microsoft, who has been collaborating on the technology with Skype. It represents a coming together of several technologies that have been undergoing some dramatic improvements in the last few years. Machine translation of the written word has now achieved a impressive level of accuracy, and voice recognition systems are now capable of better than 75 percent accuracy, so the time is now ripe to bring them together, with more natural sounding speech synthesis – based on the speaker’s own voice – to create a system, using ‘deep neural networks’, that translates in near real time speech, from one language to another.  The Microsoft demo shows what appears to be a very convincing English to Chinese translation, at least the audience, who clearly include a fair number of Chinese speakers, were impressed. Could this be the real-life Babel Fish from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? Microsoft is already comparing it with the Star Trek Universal Translator, but it seems we won’t have to wait until the twenty-third century to try it out for ourselves and plans are afoot for a beta application for Windows 8 before the end of the year.




Robot Furniture Threat? Part 85

Okay, so I know that I have been wittering on about the very real danger of robots getting smarter and wiping out humanity; well, here’s yet more evidence that it could happen. Researchers at the Swiss Biorobotics Laboratory, have gone and invented robotic furniture. Basically it’s made up of small modular robots, called Roombots. They can ove around, and hook up with each other, allegedly with the intention of turning themselves into things, like tables, chairs and other useful human-friendly structures, right in front of your eyes. They can even climb walls. Need I say more? Well, yes. They communicate with each other wirelessly, so what is going to stop them developing a collective intelligence and deciding to put the squeeze on someone trusting, or should that be dumb enough, to sit down on one of these robo chairs? Consider yourselves duly warned. Photo courtesy Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL.



Solar Google Box

As you may know photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are getting cheaper and more efficient, though the latter is still painfully slow. However, the developments that improve the ways sunlight is converted into electricity tend to be overshadowed by the technology used to convert the electricity they produce into a form that can be used by everyday appliances and fed back into the power grid. The root of the problem is that solar panels generate direct current, over a wide voltage range, depending on the number of panels, the strength of sunlight, and how they are connected together. On the other hand mains powered devices, and the electricity grid uses a 230-volt 50Hz AC supply (in the UK). To convert the DC voltage from solar panels into mains electricity you need a box of tricks called an Inverter. Inverter technology has changed little in the past 20 years, and for the most part they are bulky, expensive and not especially efficient. That’s where search giant Google comes into the picture, and it has just announced The Little Box Challenge. The winner will receive $1 million to develop their work into a viable product. Details are still a bit sketchy, but the aim is to ‘…shrink inverters down significantly’, whilst at the same time making them more efficient. It’s a surprisingly tricky problem but the £1million prize should help kick-start the project and focus the minds of a lot of clever people, from back garden tinkerers to scientists and engineers. A cynic might also say it could be a nice little earner for Google but to be fair it has a pretty good track record in this area and has already spent more than 1$ billion investing in renewable energy schemes.



Happy (slightly belated) Birthday BASIC

Fifty years ago, at 4.07 am on May 1st 1964 to be precise, in a basement at Dartmouth College the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC, was born on this GE 225 computer. BASIC was the computer language that drew countless millions into computing and propelled a great many of them into careers in programming. Credit for typing in that first RUN command goes to Professor John Kemeny and an unnamed student programmer. It started a revolution that continues to this day and anyone learning programming can still feel that same sense of excitement the first time a computer does your bidding and follows a set of instructions that you have just typed in. Many may also recall the days when magazines were filled with pages of BASIC code, for games and simple utilities, that took hours to type in and like as not didn’t work. But that was how you learned and debugging a program, and getting it to work properly often led to creating your own original programs and games. If you want to relive those glory days there is more about the history of BASIC and even a copy of the first instruction book on the Dartmouth College website.




Mug on A Mug

A good strong cup of coffee is just what you need to get energised in the morning but here’s something that harnesses the power of hot coffee in a new and novel way. Built in to the base of the MukI insulated mug, from Finnish coffee and flavourings company Paulig, there’s what looks suspiciously like a Peltier cell. This is a clever device that converts heat into electricity, which this is used to power a small circuit, connected to a small e-ink screen. This displays an image of your choice, which you can upload from your smartphone. The great thing about this e-ink display – similar to the ones used in e-books like the Kindle -- is that the image is showing all of the time and it only consumes power when the image changes. It’s still in development so no price as yet; beta testing is due to begin in August, and there’s a chance to put your name down for a trial on the website, just send them your name age and email address.



Tizen On The Horizon

Irritated by iOS, annoyed by Android or just weary of Windows? Well, here’s another smartphone. Tablet PC and smart TV operating system to grumble about, or possibly not, especially if you’re a fan of Linux. It’s called Tizen and it has actually been around for a year or two but now its out in the big wild world with the likes of likes of Intel and Samsung getting behind it with actual hardware. Samsung are already using it in its NX300 smart camera and the Gear 2 smartwatch and plans are afoot for Tizen-powered phones, starting with the ZEQ 9000, due out in the next few months. So what will Tizen do for you? Well, it’s Open Source, which means manufacturers won’t have to stump up costly licence fees to the likes of Google and Microsoft. It is based on and around HTML5, which makers it easier for developers to create apps that will run on a wider range of devices. More importantly, it also means that some HTML5 apps created for Android will also run on Tizen, with little or no modification. Some reports suggest that Tizen devices may have longer battery life but from the user’s standpoint there probably won’t be any seismic changes. Tizen smartphones will look and work a lot like Android devices though there is the possibility they could be a little cheaper but otherwise it should be pretty much business as usual. By the way, in case you were wondering, the name comes from a mashup of the word Tie – suggesting connectivity -- and the meditative qualities of Zen…



Google's Globetrotter

One of Google's balloons has just travelled around the world in just 22 days, ten days faster than expected. The balloon, codenamed Ibis 167, is part of Google X Lab's Project Loon,  -- a study into providing Internet access to the most remote, poorest and least developed parts of the world. The data collected by the remotely controlled hot air balloons is being used to forecast wind speeds and trajectories, to calculate the most effective and efficient distribution of the proposed fleet of aerial hotspots. It also allows them to test the pumps that move air in and out of the balloons; this changes their altitude and gives them some manoeuvrability, by moving them into wind streams travelling in different directions.



Eyes Everywhere

If you thought the proliferation of CCTV cameras was worrying, you ’aint seen nothing yet. Recently Bell Labs came up with a digital camera chip that doesn’t need a lens and this idea has been developed by a several companies, including one called Rambus, which has created a camera on a tiny glass chip that is just 200 micrometers across. That’s actually too tiny for it to be fitted with a lens, as they’re next to impossible to make that small. Instead of a lens it uses a combination of spiral shaped gratings, which capture the light and direct it onto an array of sensors, and some fancy processing, to ‘map’ the light and turn it into an image. Thus far the captured images are a bit low-res, but they are recognisable – the image on the right is what it makes of the Mona Lisa (the original is on the left)  -- and the real point is these chips could eventually be cheap enough to fit them just about anything. The big question is what could they be used for and this is where it gets scary. Imagine a world where just about every gadget is to ‘see’. It’s happening people, toasters and kettles will take over, mark my words…



Chromecast Has Landed

The long wait is over and Google has finally launched the Chromecast media streaming dongle in the UK. It has been on sale in the US since the middle of last year, and such was the demand that small cottage industry grew up around importing the device for sale here, often at wildly optimistic prices, so in case you haven’t heard, this is what it does. All you need is a TV with an HDMI socket, and preferably a USB socket as well, though the latter isn’t compulsory. Plug it in, spend a couple of minutes configuring it and you are ready to stream HDMI video from your smartphone, Android or iPad tablet, PC or MAC, over your home wireless network. It works on several levels, it can stream media – video, photos or music – stored on your device or PC (you may also need to download and install an app like Avia), and, this is the good bit, it can stream direct from apps, including BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix, with more to come now that Google has made the Software Developer Kit (SDK) available to anyone who want to use it. Here’s the even better bit, it only costs £30.00 from the likes of Curry’s and Amazon. That means we’re not being horribly ripped off, as it is pretty much the same price in the US where it sells for $38 in stores like WalMart. Performance is outstanding – we’ve been trialling it for several months – it is really easy to set up and use, and it knocks the socks off the competition, which are either dearer, bigger or harder to use. The only thing it can’t do, at least not yet, is mirror your device or PC screen, though at least one Android app, still in Beta and currently only for Nexus 7, is available for that, so it’s clearly not an insurmountable problem. By the way, don’t worry if your PC doesn’t have a USB socket, it is only used to power the device and it comes with a mains adaptor.



In The Beginning…

This is where it all began, on the campus of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in room 3420 Boelter Hall. This rather inauspicious and very green coloured room is almost widely recognised as the birthplace of the Internet. We’ll sidestep the age-old argument about the importance of the World Wide Web because there would be no web without the Internet on which it runs. Anyway, at precisely 10.30pm on October 29th, 1969 the first message was sent over the computer network that would evolve into the Internet, called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency). It was keyed in on a computer in room 3420 at UCLA and sent to another machine at the Stanford Research Institute. The key innovation was packet switching, the means by which all data now travels around the Internet, and that first message was just two letter ‘LO’. The story goes that it was meant to be ‘LOGIN’ but the system crashed. Nothing changes… It was up and running again in an hour and this time it worked and by the end of the year four other computers or nodes were in operation. That number had risen to 57 by 1975 as other US universities joined the network; in 1981 it had risen to 213 and you know how it went from there. We can thank Leonard Kleinrock for developing the mathematical theory behind packet switching, whilst a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and it was his work that came to the attention of ARPA, a division of the US Defence Department who saw the potential in packet switching as a way to distribute research materials, information and software. You might want to put October 29th 2019 in your diary, it should be quite a party!



Suicidal Spookphone

Q Branch has been working on a new toy for spies and spooks, and those who need to keep their communications and the contents of their smartphone secret. Sadly it doesn’t exactly explode but it does self-destruct if anyone tries to take it apart, according to the Myce technology blog. It has been dubbed the ‘Black’ phone and oddly enough it comes from Boeing; stranger still, it uses the Android operating system, though not your common or garden variety but a specially developed, secure version. Before you get too excited you won’t find this model in your local Carphone Warehouse, it is only being issued to selected US Government employees, agencies and contractors and anyone getting one will be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The dual SIM phone, model number H8V-BLK1, has been designed not to be taken apart and any attempt to do so will result in all the data it contains being destroyed and the phone rendered unusable. So here’s a tip to anyone finding one and hoping to probe it’s inner secrets, take the battery out first, though that probably won’t do you much good as the works are encased in epoxy resin.




Glassiquette For Glassholes…

With Google’s tricksy smartphone-connected Glass specs soon to be visited upon us, it has come up with a list of Do’s and Don’ts for Glass wearers or ‘Explorers’. We also now have a term for Google Glass owners who are being creepy or rude, they’re ‘Glassholes’, and to avoid becoming one Google advises Explorers to respect others, explain politely what Glass does, maybe offer a quick demo, and to switch Glass off in places where cellphones are not allowed. Other breaches of Glassiquette (Glass Etiquette, geddit…?) include not wearing it (or ‘Rocking’ in Glassspeak) whilst doing high impact sports, lest it becomes lodged in your brain -- they’re probably working on that too – and not wearing it for long periods, which is not really an option anyway due to limited battery power. The Do’s cover such things as asking for permission before taking photos or videos, explore and engage with the world around you and use the Screen Lock feature when you take it off to stop ne’er do-wells from using it and stealing all your data if it gets nicked by what it describes as budding online resale entrepreneurs.



Budget Booster

As anyone from NASA will tell you getting things into space is a fantastically expensive business, so anything that can make it cheaper has to be welcome, which brings us to Richard Graf. He’s the inventor of the Starfire Space Cannon, and the name says it all. It is a 13.7 metre long tube, with a 23cm diameter and it shoots things into space. Now this isn’t a new idea, and we’ve all seen those old movies, but the reality is that the incredible G-forces involved in a conventional gun setup would almost certainly destroy most scientific type payloads, or at the very least rule it out for delivering delicate stuff like satellites and so on. Mr Graf’s gun gets around the problem by using multiple charges, along the length of the tube, rather than one big one. These fire sequentially, gradually building up the speed, though it’s still going to have pack quite a wallop to get anything airborne. It’s still a work in progress, and the project is using Kickstarter crowd funding to raise the necessary $65,000, to get the thing off the ground, as it were. So far he’s raised more than $4500, and there’s still a couple of weeks to join in the fun. A contribution of $70 gets you a Polo shirt and Patch plus your name on the gun, but if you can stump up $250 you will get to see it go bang on one of the test launches, and for $6000 or more you can send up your own payload.



Transparently TED

Most of us like to think that we have a reasonable handle on the physical world. You don’t need a degree in science to grasp the idea that everything made up of tiny particles called atoms, and it all seems to make sense, more or less. So far so good but here’s a seemingly simple question that might have you stumped; why is glass transparent? Even if you know a thing or two about the structure of materials and the sub atomic world it’s still a bit of a puzzle. As it turns out, the real question should be why isn’t everything transparent? Confused? Wonder no longer; spend four minutes watching this excellent animated TED ed lesson on YouTube, by Mark Miodownik. It neatly explains, in a really friendly and easy to understand way, what’s going on. This is just one of the hundreds of brilliant TED (Technology Entertainment Design) lectures, talks and lessons from some of the world’s smartest folk. So if there’s something you would like to know more about, or reassurance that your crazy ideas are not so crazy after all, there’s almost certainly a TED talk that will start you thinking….



Apple Under Pressure

Patents recently filed by Apple in the US suggest that future iPads, Pods and Phones may be equipped with pressure-sensitive touch screens. In fact this idea has been around for quite a while but to date it has rarely ventured beyond the prototype and proof of concept stages. Now that Apple have started taking an interest in the technology it’s a fair bet that it has its sights set on putting it into production and clues to how it may be used have been emerging in various blogs from Apple watchers and insiders. Possibilities include enhanced gesture recognition and an improved ability to reject accidental touches and brushes. One of the more intriguing ideas is to extend touch/pressure sensitive areas beyond the edges of the screen, decluttering the display and leaving more space for the visuals. Before you rush out to bag your place in the queue outside your local Apple store be warned that if even anything comes of it, it will still take a year or two before it makes it products, and if it does, be assured, you will know all about it…



Windows 9 For 2015?

The usually very reliable Microsoft watcher and blogger Paul Thurrot reports that a Microsoft development project, codenamed Threshold, is a strong candidate for the next operating system release. In keeping with recent tradition it will be called Windows 9, and if he’s right, it could be with us as soon as April 2015. He’s basing his predictions on Microsoft’s fairly regular habits of making announcements, issuing previews, updates and new versions of Windows. The next big release is likely to be a Service Pack for Windows 8.1 that’s probably going to be rolled out in April. It is no secret that Windows 8 has not been a success Microsoft, echoing the troubled release of Windows Vista, and that coupled with the steady decline of desktop and laptop sales means that there is a urgent need to revitalise the Windows brand. Needless to say details are few and far between but like as not W9 will tighten the links between its tablet, phone and games products and attempt to repair the damage done by W8’s insistence on using the Metro interface by default, which can be a real pain on non touch screen devices. This upset a great many users and was only partially resolved by the return of the traditional desktop and a watered down Start button in Windows 8.1. Beyond that we’ll just have to wait and see but it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out that Microsoft is seriously worried bythe success of Apple and Android, and it is going to have to pull something really special out of the hat. Windows 7 definitely helped it to regain lost ground after Vista, but can they do it again?



Wearable Tech, Dismiss NIS…

That’s Neuro Imaging Surveillance, which is the suggestion that ‘they’ can use technology, like brain scanners, to read your thoughts without you knowing. The traditional countermeasure for those worried about such things is to make a hat out of tinfoil; putting a large saucepan on your head would probably work as well, but from a sartorial point of view they don’t look great, so how about this for a piece of wearable tech? It’s anti NIS headgear, one of a range of designs from Lisa Kori Chung, and it works in a rather unusual way. Instead of blocking those pesky thought rays, probing your brain, these work by detecting the scan and producing a reaction – a gentle electric shock -- that attracts the wearer’s attention and changes your current train of thought, providing a moment of privacy, it says here… The technology used to accomplish this impressive feat isn’t discussed in any depth, it is after all still a proposal, but if this brain probing business turns out to be the real deal, then when it comes to looking snappy on the street, and keeping your thoughts private, it’s either this, or the tinfoil hat, and we know which one we’d rather have.



Transistors -- Not Much To Look At

Here’s another one of those promising developments to keep an eye on, literally. It has the potential to become a new way of making flat panel displays, using organic semiconductors, which, as we all know, are more transparent and have higher carrier mobility, compared with their silicon semiconductor counterparts. In case you haven’t been keeping up with this technology the new thin film material, known to its friends as C8-BTBT or dioctybenzothieno benzothiophene, if you want to get picky, is blended with polystyrene and using a off-centre spin-coating technique, results in the growth of a highly meta-stable structure.  Anyway, to cut a very long story short, researchers at the University of Nebraska and Stanford University have discovered that by combining films made from these materials it is possible to construct fast and highly efficient, transparent transistors that are ideal for making high performance displays. What this all boils down to is a promising new field of research that could lead to all sorts of transparent electronic gizmos, including displays, being deposited on clear plastics and glass. Stay tuned and we’ll let you know the moment it results in something useful you can rush out and buy…



Spy Cards

Just when you have got used to the idea that your emails and phone calls are being intercepted and logged here’s something else for you to worry about, if you take your privacy and security seriously. Now, you might think that SD memory cards, flash drives and the memory chips used in just about every electronic gadget are innocuous, and largely inert data storage components. Wrong! Many of them have on-board micro-controller chips. These are needed to maintain the functions of the memory device, correct errors, bypass bad sectors and so on. So far so good, and essentially it’s a good thing because it helps to keep prices down, allowing manufacturers to get greater yields from batches of microchips. However, these chips could have a serious downside and Bunnies Blog reports that white hat hackers at the recent Chaos Computer Congress have found a way to exploit vulnerabilities in some SD cards. In theory this would allow the bad guys to implant code into a card’s microcontroller chip’s firmware, which could be used to carry out so-called Man In The Middle (MITM) attacks on users data. It’s fairly complex stuff and by no means applicable to every SD card, but as we speak someone, somewhere is probably doing their best to refine the technique. On the plus side, and yes, there is one, the authors of the article reason that SD cards could turn out to be useful as inexpensive and powerful microcontrollers in their own right, with the added bonus that they come with their own on-board memory.


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