November 27, 2015

A different view of Uber and other ride-sharing services

Filed under: Business, Politics, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Robert Tracinski on Uber as a form of “Objectivist LARP“:

If it sometimes seems like it’s impossible to restore the free market, as if every new wave of government regulation is irreversible, then consider that one form of regulation, which is common in the most dogmatically big-government enclaves in the country, is being pretty much completely dismantled before our eyes. And it’s the hippest thing ever.

I was reminded of this by a recent report about yet another attempt to help traditional taxis compete with “ride-sharing” services like Uber and Lyft: a new app called Arro, which allows you to both hail a traditional taxi and pay for it from your phone. So Arro takes a twentieth-century business and finally drags into the twenty-first century. This certainly might help improve the taxi experience relative to how things were done before. But it won’t fend off Uber and Lyft, because it doesn’t change the central issues, which are political rather than technological.


Uber has been hit with complaints that it’s running “an Objectivist LARP,” a live-action role playing of a capitalist utopia from an Ayn Rand novel. That’s pretty much what it is doing, and the results are awesome. And the benefits don’t stop with more drivers and lower rates. Uber is ploughing a fair portion of its profits into another wave of technological innovation—self-driving cars—that promises to offer even greater improvements in the future.

All of this should counter some of the despair about how to promote free markets, especially among urban elites who have been programmed by their college educations to embrace the rhetoric of the Left. Give them half a chance, and they will flock to capitalist innovations run according to the laws of the market.

The problem is that they don’t want to admit it. That’s where the euphemism “ride-sharing” comes in. To cover up the capitalistic nature of the activity, they tell themselves they’re “sharing” something that they are quite obviously paying for, and paying at market rates. Imagine what could be accomplished if they were just willing to drop the euphemisms and embrace the free market.

November 23, 2015

Do you have a smartphone? Do you watch TV? You might want to reconsider that combination

Filed under: India, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Register, Iain Thomson explains a new sneaky way for unscrupulous companies to snag your personal data without your knowledge or consent:

Earlier this week the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) warned that an Indian firm called SilverPush has technology that allows adverts to ping inaudible commands to smartphones and tablets.

Now someone has reverse-engineered the code and published it for everyone to check.

SilverPush’s software kit can be baked into apps, and is designed to pick up near-ultrasonic sounds embedded in, say, a TV, radio or web browser advert. These signals, in the range of 18kHz to 19.95kHz, are too high pitched for most humans to hear, but can be decoded by software.

An application that uses SilverPush’s code can pick up these messages from the phone or tablet’s builtin microphone, and be directed to send information such as the handheld’s IMEI number, location, operating system version, and potentially the identity of the owner, to the application’s backend servers.

Imagine sitting in front of the telly with your smartphone nearby. An advert comes on during the show you’re watching, and it has a SilverPush ultrasonic message embedded in it. This is picked up by an app on your mobile, which pings a media network with information about you, and could even display followup ads and links on your handheld.

How it works ... the transfer of sound-encoded information from a TV to a phone to a backend server

How it works … the transfer of sound-encoded information from a TV to a phone to a backend server

“This kind of technology is fundamentally surreptitious in that it doesn’t require consent; if it did require it then the number of users would drop,” Joe Hall, chief technologist at CDT told The Register on Thursday. “It lacks the ability to have consumers say that they don’t want this and not be associated by the software.”

Hall pointed out that very few of the applications that include the SilverPush SDK tell users about it, so there was no informed consent. This makes such software technically illegal in Europe and possibly in the US.

November 22, 2015

The Problem with Time & Timezones – Computerphile

Filed under: Humour, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 30 Dec 2013

A web app that works out how many seconds ago something happened. How hard can coding that be? Tom Scott explains how time twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. It’s not to be trifled with!

H/T to Jeremy for the link.

November 21, 2015

Submarine cables

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Atlantic, Ingrid Burrington tries to persuade her editor that the submarine cable network is still of critical importance to understanding the cloud:

“So Ingrid,” Sam asked, “how exactly will you convince your editor that submarine cables are relevant to The Cloud?”

We were maybe still in New Mexico or somewhere in Kansas. It was a night drive. Time moves weirdly during night drives. All roads basically become the closing moments of Terminator 2. Whenever it was and wherever it was, it was apparently a good time for my driving partner to pose questions about some of the stories I had lined up for this series, including one exceptionally long piece about a submarine cable (which, dear reader, will run later this week).

“Well,” I replied, “clouds are just evaporated molecules of water that emerge from larger bodies of water. Oceans are bodies of water. It’s … it’s relevant.”

Look, I was pretty tired. But if there is a case to be made for placing submarine cables within the landscape of The Cloud, it’s more a case for historical continuity and resonance. Cloud infrastructure is a landscape of interdependent systems, submarine cables among them.

Submarine cables don’t come up in the news that often, but if they do it seems to be in two forms: short articles reminding everyone that the Telegeography Submarine Cable Map exists, and short articles of hand-wavey reminders that submarine cables are vulnerable to harm (from tectonic plates, ship anchors, sharks, and terrorists, among others).

While these are totally valid topics to explore, I often find these stories lacking in context about the various systems, geographies, and politics that shape submarine networks. While there are lots of other super compelling aspects of submarine-cable law and policy (says the person who owns a copy of Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy), here are two questions that might help readers take in Telegeography takes with a little less gee-whiz and a little more clarity.

Speaking of submarine cables, I was unaware of how many northern Canadian communities are connected via that method:

Submarine cables in Canada's Arctic

This is just creepy – post-mortem photography of the Victorian era

Filed under: Europe, History, Technology, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Open Culture on the thankfully brief popularity of post-mortem photography (photos of the recently deceased as if they were merely sleeping):

The 19th century witnessed the birth of photography. And, before too long, Victorian society found important applications for the new medium — like memorializing the dead. A recent post on a Dutch version of National Geographic notes that “Photographing deceased family members just before their burial was enormously popular in certain Victorian circles in Europe and the United States. Although adults were also photographed, it was mainly children who were commemorated in this way. In a period plagued by unprecedented levels of infant mortality, post-mortem pictures often provided the only tangible memory of the deceased child.”


November 18, 2015

ESR on “Hieratic documentation”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Eric S. Raymond explains how technical documentation can manage the difficult task of being both demonstrably complete and technically correct and yet totally fail to meet the needs of the real audience:

I was using “hieratic” in a sense like this:

hieratic, adj. Of computer documentation, impenetrable because the author never sees outside his own intimate knowledge of the subject and is therefore unable to identify or meet the expository needs of newcomers. It might as well be written in hieroglyphics.

Hieratic documentation can be all of complete, correct, and nearly useless at the same time. I think we need this word to distinguish subtle disasters like the waf book – or most of the NTP documentation before I got at it – from the more obvious disasters of documentation that is incorrect, incomplete, or poorly written simply considered as expository prose.

November 17, 2015

Beyond Wires and Pigeons – Communications in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 16 Nov 2015

If one thing was vital to the the new kind of modern warfare in the First World War, it was communications. The Industrial Revolution had brought wireless transmission of signals with it and the huge armies of World War 1 needed to be in contact constantly to be successful in the field. In this special episode we introduce you to the birth hour of modern military communication and signals.

The “cult of meritocracy” in hacker culture

Filed under: Politics, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Eric S. Raymond on the demands for political correctness even within the hacker community:

I’m not going to analyze SJW ideology here except to point out, again, why the hacker culture must consider anyone who holds it an enemy. This is because we must be a cult of meritocracy. We must constantly demand merit – performance, intelligence, dedication, and technical excellence – of ourselves and each other.

Now that the Internet – the hacker culture’s creation! – is everywhere, and civilization is increasingly software-dependent, we have a duty, the duty I wrote about in Holding Up The Sky. The invisible gears have to turn. The shared software infrastructure of civilization has to work, or economies will seize up and people will die. And for large sections of that infrastructure, it’s on us – us! – to keep it working. Because nobody else is going to step up.

We dare not give less than our best. If we fall away from meritocracy – if we allow the SJWs to remake us as they wish, into a hell-pit of competitive grievance-mongering and political favoritism for the designated victim group of the week – we will betray not only what is best in our own traditions but the entire civilization that we serve.

This isn’t about women in tech, or minorities in tech, or gays in tech. The hacker culture’s norm about inclusion is clear: anybody who can pull the freight is welcome, and twitching about things like skin color or shape of genitalia or what thing you like to stick into what thing is beyond wrong into silly. This is about whether we will allow “diversity” issues to be used as wedges to fracture our community, degrade the quality of our work, and draw us away from our duty.

When hackers fail our own standards of meritocracy, as we sometimes do, it’s up to us to fix it from within our own tradition: judge by the work alone, you are what you do, shut up and show us the code. A movement whose favored tools include the rage mob, the dox, and faked incidents of bigotry is not morally competent to judge us or instruct us.

I have been participating in and running open-source projects for a quarter-century. In all that time I never had to know or care whether my fellow contributors were white, black, male, female, straight, gay, or from the planet Mars, only whether their code was good. The SJWs want to make me care; they want to make all of us obsess about this, to the point of having quotas and struggle sessions and what amounts to political officers threatening us if we are insufficiently “diverse”.


It has been suggested that djangoconcardiff might be a troll emulating an SJW, and we should thus take him less seriously. The problem with this idea is that no SJW disclaimed him – more generally, that “Social Justice” has reached a sort of Poe’s Law singularity at which the behavior of trolls and true believers becomes indistinguishable even to each other, and has the same emergent effects.

November 16, 2015

“Skunk Works” founder Kelly Johnson’s Rules Of Management

Filed under: Business, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tyler Rogoway recounts the set of formal and informal rules Kelly Johnson used while running the famous “Skunk Works”:

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson is the Babe Ruth of aerospace design. Aircraft programs under Johnson were so cutting edge and historically influential, and his cult of personality and management strategy so effective, that he and Lockheed’s Skunk Works (which he also founded) are forever enshrined in mankind’s technological hall of fame.


Kelly’s Rules

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated near complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are often better than military ones.

8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware, including rationale for each point, must be agreed upon well in advance of contracting.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, and there must be very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

Kelly also had a unofficial 15th, 16th, and 17th rules, which he is known to have stated repeatedly to his subordinates:

15. Never do business with the Navy!

16. No reports longer than 20 pages or meetings with more than 15 people.

17. If it looks ugly, it will fly the same.

It is amazing to think that one man did so much to advance mankind’s aerospace capability. Even his few dead-ends and failures had key technologies that would lead to wins or lessons learned down the road.

H/T to @NavyLookout for the link.

November 7, 2015

3D printing is coming to all sorts of markets

Filed under: Cancon, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Lee Valley now offers a 3D-printed plumb bob and shows the advantages of using 3D print capabilities:

Lee Valley 3D printed plumb bob

November 4, 2015

The XM-25 “Punisher” isn’t dead yet

Filed under: Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Five years back, there were interesting reports about a prototype weapon that seemed to have an inside edge for getting into the hands of front-line troops in Afghanistan for specific bunker-busting and similar missions. Then it went silent. Recently, Strategy Page says it may be back in the running:

Two years after having its budget sharply cut in 2013 the U.S. Army XM25 grenade launcher is back on track and is now expected to enter service by 2017. It’s been a long road from concept to acceptance and mass production. The army began working on this type of weapon back in the 1990s as the OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) and that mutated into the XM25 (the “X” in XM25 designates a system that is still in development). Since then the similar South Korean K11 and Chinese ZH05 have appeared. The XM25 is the only one of three to have been tested extensively in combat but because of a misfire during a demonstration, budget cuts and some troops finding there were not really that many situations calling for the XM25, the system was thought to be cancelled (development funding was eliminated) in 2013. But the army managed to keep the project on life support. That was mainly because a lot of troops who got to use it in combat liked it a lot and even gave it a nickname; “punisher.”

The initial spectacular success and popularity of the XM25 grenade launchers in Afghanistan led the army to request that the weapon enter regular service as the M25 in 2014. But Congress, looking for ways to reduce military spending in 2013 cut all money for the M25. The army never gave up and managed to scrounge enough cash to build 1,100 of them. Currently the XM25 cost $35,000 each with the 25mm ammo going for $55 per round. Initially SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had some XM25s and some enthusiastic users but in 2013, with few American troops in combat there is not a lot of demand for a weapon like this. The resumption of counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan changed that led to more support for reviving the project.

When the first evaluation models of the XM25 arrived in Afghanistan in 2011 the weapon soon became much sought after by infantry troops. There were never more than a few dozen XM25s in Afghanistan and limited supplies of ammunition. Despite that the weapon quickly developed a formidable reputation. The Special Forces had priority on the weapon because it is very useful for special operations missions. The army planned to buy enough so that they could issue one per infantry squad. There are 27 squads in an infantry battalion.

November 2, 2015

The National Air Force Museum of Canada

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Elizabeth and I spent the weekend in the Bay of Quinte area, visiting Prince Edward County, Belleville, and Trenton. While we were in Trenton, we stopped in at the National Air Force Museum of Canada. While the Sea King may not be in the collection yet (at least, not in the collection visible to the public), many other Canadian Armed Forces aircraft are, including the prize of the museum, the Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber:

Handley Page Halifax 1

It’s a big enough aircraft that it’s hard to do it justice in a photograph.

Handley Page Halifax 2

This particular restored aircraft was shot down late in the war on a mission to deliver supplies to Norwegian resistance fighters and later recovered from a Norwegian lake.

Handley Page Halifax 3

Other aircraft in the collection include a replica of the Silver Dart, the first powered aircraft to fly in Canada (February 23, 1909), a replica of the Burgess-Dunne floatplane, the first aircraft purchased for the Canadian military (September, 1914), a CF-86 Sabre, a CF-100 Canuck, a CF-5 Freedom Fighter, a CF-104 Starfighter, a CF-101 Voodoo, a CF-18 Hornet, a CP-107 Argus, a CC-130 Hercules, and a CP-102 Tracker among other aircraft.

October 29, 2015

Free HTTPS certificates coming soon

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Ars Technica, Dan Goodin discussed the imminent availability of free HTTPS certificates to all registered domain owners:


A nonprofit effort aimed at encrypting the entire Web has reached an important milestone: its HTTPS certificates are now trusted by all major browsers.

The service, which is backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, Cisco Systems, and Akamai, is known as Let’s Encrypt. As Ars reported last year, the group will offer free HTTPS certificates to anyone who owns a domain name. Let’s Encrypt promises to provide open source tools that automate processes for both applying for and receiving the credential and configuring a website to use it securely.

HTTPS uses the transport layer security or secure sockets layer protocols to secure websites in two important ways. First, it encrypts communications passing between visitors and the Web server so they can’t be read or modified by anyone who may be monitoring the connection. Second, in the case of bare bones certificates, it cryptographically proves that a server belongs to the same organization or person with control over the domain, rather than an imposter posing as that organization. (Extended validation certificates go a step beyond by authenticating the identity of the organization or individual.)

October 26, 2015

Going price for a working Enigma machine – $365,000

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Lester Haines reports on a recent record auction price for an Enigma machine:

A fully-functioning four-rotor M4 Enigma WW2 cipher machine has sold at auction for $365,000.

Enigma machine

The German encryption device, as used by the U-Boat fleet and described as “one of the rarest of all the Enigma machines”, went under the hammer at Bonham’s in New York last night as part of the “Conflicts of the 20th Century” sale.

The M4 was adopted by the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, in early 1942 following the capture of U-570 in August 1941*. Although the crew of U-570 had destroyed their three-rotor Enigma, the British found aboard written material which compromised the security of the machine.

The traffic to and from the replacement machines was dubbed “Shark” by codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Decryption proved troublesome, due in part to an initial lack of “cribs” (identified or suspected plaintext in an encrypted message) for the new device, but by December 1942, the British were regularly cracking M4 messages.

I recently read David O’Keefe’s One Day in August, which seems to explain the otherwise inexplicable launch of “Operation Jubilee”, the Dieppe raid … in his reading, the raid was actually a cover-up operation while British intelligence operatives tried to snatch one or more of the new Enigma machines (like the one shown above) without tipping off the Germans that that was the actual goal. Joel Ralph reviewed the book when it was released:

One Day in August, by David O’Keefe, takes a completely different approach to the Dieppe landing. With significant new evidence in hand, O’Keefe seeks to reframe the entire raid within the context of the secret naval intelligence war being fought against Nazi Germany.

On February 1, 1942, German U-boats operating in the Atlantic Ocean switched from using a three-rotor Enigma code machine to a new four-rotor machine. Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, which had broken the three-rotor code and was regularly reading German coded messages, was suddenly left entirely in the dark as to the positions and intentions of enemy submarines. By the summer of 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a state of crisis and was threatening to cut off Britain from the resources needed to carry on with the war.

O’Keefe spends nearly two hundred pages documenting the secret war against Germany and the growth of the Naval Intelligence Division. What ties this to Dieppe and sparked O’Keefe’s research was the development of a unique naval intelligence commando unit tasked with retrieving vital code-breaking material. As O’Keefe’s research reveals, the origins of this unit were at Dieppe, on an almost suicidal mission to gather intelligence they hoped would crack the four-rotor Enigma machine.

O’Keefe has uncovered new documents and first-hand accounts that provide evidence for the existence of such a mission. But he takes it one step further and argues that these secret commandos were not simply along for the ride at Dieppe. Instead, he claims, the entire Dieppe raid was cover for their important task.

It’s easy to dismiss O’Keefe’s argument as too incredible (Zuehlke does so quickly in his brief conclusion [in his book Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942]). But O’Keefe would argue that just about everything associated with combined operations defied conventional military logic, from Operation Ruthless, a planned but never executed James Bond-style mission, to the successful raid on the French port of St. Nazaire only months before Dieppe.

Clearly this commando operation was an important part of the Dieppe raid. But, while the circumstantial evidence is robust, there is no single clear document that directly lays out the Dieppe raid as cover for a secret “pinch by design” operation to steal German code books and Enigma material.

October 20, 2015

Soviet bugging technology and the US embassy’s IBM Selectric typewriters

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

John Turner sent me this link on a remarkably adept (and technologically sophisticated) hack the Soviets slipped over the US government at their Moscow embassy:

A National Security Agency memo that recently resurfaced a few years after it was first published contains a detailed analysis of what very possibly was the world’s first keylogger — a 1970s bug that Soviet spies implanted in US diplomats’ IBM Selectric typewriters to monitor classified letters and memos.

The electromechanical implants were nothing short of an engineering marvel. The highly miniaturized series of circuits were stuffed into a metal bar that ran the length of the typewriter, making them invisible to the naked eye. The implant, which could only be seen using X-ray equipment, recorded the precise location of the little ball Selectric typewriters used to imprint a character on paper. With the exception of spaces, tabs, hyphens, and backspaces, the tiny devices had the ability to record every key press and transmit it back to Soviet spies in real time.

The Soviet implants were discovered through the painstaking analysis of more than 10 tons’ worth of equipment seized from US embassies and consulates and shipped back to the US. The implants were ultimately found inside 16 typewriters used from 1976 to 1984 at the US embassy in Moscow and the US consulate in Leningrad. The bugs went undetected for the entire eight-year span and only came to light following a tip from a US ally whose own embassy was the target of a similar eavesdropping operation.

“Despite the ambiguities in knowing what characters were typed, the typewriter attack against the US was a lucrative source of information for the Soviets,” an NSA document, which was declassified several years ago, concluded. “It was difficult to quantify the damage to the US from this exploitation because it went on for such a long time.” The NSA document was published here in 2012. Ars is reporting the document because it doesn’t appear to have been widely covered before and generated a lively conversation Monday on the blog of encryption and security expert Bruce Schneier.

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