Quotulatiousness

November 27, 2016

QotD: Fabric as technology

Filed under: History, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In February 1939, Vogue ran a major feature on the fashions of the future. Inspired by the soon-to-open New York World’s Fair, the magazine asked nine industrial designers to imagine what the people of ‘a far Tomorrow’ might wear and why. (The editors deemed fashion designers too of-the-moment for such speculations.) A mock‑up of each outfit was manufactured and photographed for a lavish nine-page colour spread.

You might have seen some of the results online: an evening dress with a see-through net top and strategically placed swirls of gold braid, for instance, or a baggy men’s jumpsuit with a utility belt and halo antenna. Bloggers periodically rediscover a British newsreel of models demonstrating the outfits while a campy narrator (‘Oh, swish!’) makes laboured jokes. The silly get‑ups are always good for self-satisfied smirks. What dopes those old-time prognosticators were!

The ridicule is unfair. Anticipating climate-controlled interiors, greater nudity, more athleticism, more travel and simpler wardrobes, the designers actually got a lot of trends right. Besides, the mock‑ups don’t reveal what really made the predicted fashions futuristic. Looking only at the pictures, you can’t detect the most prominent technological theme.

‘The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the World of Tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves,’ declared Raymond Loewy, one of the Vogue contributors. His fellow visionaries agreed. Every single one talked about textile advances. Many of their designs specified yet-to-be-invented materials that could adjust to temperature, change colour or be crushed into suitcases without wrinkling. Without exception, everyone foretelling the ‘World of Tomorrow’ believed that an exciting future meant innovative new fabrics.

They all understood something we’ve largely forgotten: that textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

Virginia Postrel, “Losing the Thread: Older than bronze and as new as nanowires, textiles are technology — and they have remade our world time and again”, Aeon, 2015-06-05.

November 22, 2016

Science, technology, and Il Donalduce

John Tierney on the President-elect’s stated views on science:

What will a Trump administration mean for scientific research and technology?

The good news is that the next president doesn’t seem all that interested in science, judging from the little he said about it during the campaign. That makes a welcome contrast with Barack Obama, who cared far too much — in the wrong way. He politicized science to advance his agenda. His scientific appointees in the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Food and Drug Administration were distinguished by their progressive ideology, not the quality of their research. They used junk science — or no science — to justify misbegotten crusades against dietary salt, trans fats, and electronic cigarettes. They cited phony statistics to spread myths about a gender pay gap and a rape crisis on college campuses. Ignoring mainstream climate scientists, they blamed droughts and storms on global warming and then tried to silence critics who pointed out their mistakes.

Trump has vaguely expressed support for federal funding of R&D in science, medicine, and energy, but he has stressed encouraging innovation in the private sector. His election has left the science establishment aghast. Its members were mostly behind Hillary Clinton, both because they share her politics and because she would continue the programs funded by Obama. Their fears of losing funding are probably overblown — there’s strong support in Congress for R&D — but some of the priorities could change.

Trump has vowed to ignore the Paris international climate agreement that committed the U.S. to reduce greenhouse emissions. That prospect appalls environmentalists but cheers those of us who consider the agreement an enormously expensive way to achieve very little. Trump’s position poses a financial threat to wind-power producers and other green-energy companies that rely on federal subsidies to survive.

November 15, 2016

An interview with Andrew Torba, founder of Gab.ai

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

I’ve got an account on Gab.ai, and from my short experience with it, it’s much more than just an alt-right echo chamber (but, as you’d expect, there are lots of alt-right folks there, too). Here’s Lexi Palmieri talking to Mr. Gab himself:

Ray Bradbury once said “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” If you know anything about the social media industry, or “Big Social”, you’ll know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are two such people, with Facebook and Twitter serving as both the book and the match. This isn’t surprising, considering that Silicon Valley employs their own specific bias. From the ashes of the banned speech comes the platform Gab. This week, I was lucky enough to speak with Gab creator, founder, and CEO Mr. Andrew Torba to discuss his platform, his inspirations, and the current state of social networking.

Q: What is Gab’s backstory? What inspired you to create Gab?
T: Prior to Gab I co-founded an ad tech company called Automate Ads. We worked with and built on top of the three Big Social ecosystems of Facebook, Twitter, and Google in Silicon Valley. I was also in Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 batch. After moving to Silicon Valley and working closely with these companies for five years, I got to see the dirty underbelly of how they operate. For years I knew that progressive agendas were being pushed and conservative voices were slowly being shut up. When news broke of the Facebook Trending Topics team member admitting to it at scale, I knew something needed to be done. Shortly after I resigned as CEO from Automate Ads, passing control of the business to my co-founder, and started Gab.

Q: What is your company philosophy/mission statement?
Gab‘s mission is to put people and free speech first. We believe that the only valid form of censorship is a user’s individual choice to opt-out of seeing certain content they don’t want to see. Gab is for everyone. All are welcome on Gab and always will be.

About how big is Gab’s user base right now, and what are your expectations for growth in the next year?
Currently Gab has 50,000 monthly active users from around the world in less than 90 days of being in beta. We have 110,000 people on our waitlist and are sending out thousands of invites every week. We expect this rapid growth to continue and to have millions of users by this time next year.

November 13, 2016

QotD: Don’t call it software engineering

Filed under: Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The #gotofail episode will become a text book example of not just poor attention to detail, but moreover, the importance of disciplined logic, rigor, elegance, and fundamental coding theory.

A still deeper lesson in all this is the fragility of software. Prof Arie van Deursen nicely describes the iOS7 routine as “brittle”. I want to suggest that all software is tragically fragile. It takes just one line of silly code to bring security to its knees. The sheer non-linearity of software — the ability for one line of software anywhere in a hundred million lines to have unbounded impact on the rest of the system — is what separates development from conventional engineering practice. Software doesn’t obey the laws of physics. No non-trivial software can ever be fully tested, and we have gone too far for the software we live with to be comprehensively proof read. We have yet to build the sorts of software tools and best practice and habits that would merit the title “engineering”.

I’d like to close with a philosophical musing that might have appealed to my old mentors at Telectronics. Post-modernists today can rejoice that the real world has come to pivot precariously on pure text. It is weird and wonderful that technicians are arguing about the layout of source code — as if they are poetry critics.

We have come to depend daily on great obscure texts, drafted not by people we can truthfully call “engineers” but by a largely anarchic community we would be better of calling playwrights.

Stephan Wilson, “gotofail and a defence of purists”, Lockstep, 2014-02-26.

November 9, 2016

QotD: The power of Twitter’s shame-storms

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Twitter makes it absurdly easy to shame someone. You barely have to take 30 seconds out of your day to make an outraged comment that will please your friends and hurt the person you’ve targeted. This means it is also absurdly easy to attack someone unfairly, without pausing to think about context — or the effect you are having on another human being much like yourself. No matter what that person did, short of war crimes, you probably would not join a circle of thousands of people heaping abuse upon a lone target cowering in the center. But that is the real-world equivalent of what online shame-stormers do.

This sort of tactic may buy silence, though it is likely to be the most effective on people who already agree with you and simply said something infelicitous. What it cannot buy is community, beyond the bonds that build between people who are joined in collective hate. With the exception of Lehrer — who clearly realized he’d done something wrong without needing to be told — the people whom Ronson interviews do not think that they were the victims of perhaps excessively harsh justice; they think they were victims of abuse. They often recognize that they did something stupid, but they don’t think they deserved to be fired after having their lives dissected and their character impugned by thousands of people who had never even met them.

And perhaps this satisfies the shame-stormers; they may want to change hearts and minds but be willing to settle for silence. This sort of shaming has costs, however. If you haven’t changed someone’s mind, you haven’t changed their behavior, only what they say. If they do harbor the bad beliefs you accused them of, those beliefs are now festering in private rather than being open to persuasion. And you haven’t even necessarily changed what they say in a good direction, because people who are afraid of unjust attacks aren’t afraid of being punished for saying things they know they ought to be ashamed of, but of being punished for saying something they didn’t know would attract this kind of ire. So they’re afraid to say anything at all, or at least anything more interesting than “Woo, puppies!” That’s not norm enforcement; it’s blanket terror.

Megan McArdle, “How the Internet Became a Shame-Storm”, Bloomberg View, 2015-04-17.

November 4, 2016

Blend your own favourite wines right at your kitchen table

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

In the Economist, a look at a very different kind of wine appliance:

vinfusion-machineTo create a new wine the customer manipulates three sliders on a touch screen attached to the machine. One moves between the extremes of “light” and “full-bodied”. A second runs from “soft”, via “mellow” to “fiery”. The third goes from “sweet” to “dry”. No confusing descriptions like “strawberry notes with a nutty aftertaste” are needed.

The desired glass is then mixed from tanks of each of the four primaries, hidden inside the machine’s plinth. The requisite quantities are pumped into a transparent cone-shaped mixing vessel on top of the plinth. Added air bubbles ensure a good, swirling mix and flashing light-emitting diodes give a suitably theatrical display.

Traditionalists may be appalled by all this, but they should not be. In Mr Wimalaratne’s mind, the function of the Vinfusion system is in principle little different from the blending of grape varieties that goes on in many vineyards, to produce wines more interesting than those based on a single variety. Moreover, if Vinfusion works as intended, it will let people experiment with oenological flavours in a way that is currently impossible and which lets them discover what appeals. A decent sommelier ought then to be able to recommend wines vinified in the conventional way that will taste similar.

In the longer run, recording and collating the requests made to a group of Vinfusion machines might even help restaurants and bars stock bottles that people will like, rather than merely tolerate. And if all this happens, the snobbery and mystique surrounding wine—whether blended in the vineyard or the restaurant—may disappear for good.

The selected “component” wines are chosen for their vintage-to-vintage consistency, so that there’s a lower variability in the wines used to blend your personal selection. This almost certainly wouldn’t work as well with wines from cool climate areas (like Ontario).

November 2, 2016

Online security theatre: “We sell biometric authentication systems to people who need a good password manager”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:06

Joey DeVilla linked to this discussion of the Mirai botnet and the distressing failures of online security … not for the brilliance and sophistication of the attack (it was neither), but the failure to address simple common-sense security issues:

I’ve written about 1988’s Morris worm, and I wanted to dig into the source of the Mirai botnet (helpfully published by the author) to see how far we’ve come along in the past 28 years.

Can you guess how Mirai spreads?

Was there new zeroday in the devices? Hey, maybe there was an old, unpatched vulnerability hanging — who has time to apply software updates to their toaster? Maybe it was HeartBleed 👻?

Nope.

Mirai does one, and only one thing in order to break into new devices: it cycles through a bunch of default username/password combinations over telnet, like “admin/admin” and “root/realtek”. For a laugh, “mother/fucker” is in there too.

Default credentials. Over telnet. That’s how you get hundreds of thousands of devices. The Morris worm from 1988 tried a dictionary password attack too, but only after its buffer overflow and sendmail backdoor exploits failed.

Oh, and Morris’ password dictionary was larger, too.

October 26, 2016

A primer on last week’s IoT DDos attacks

Filed under: Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:18

Joey DeVilla provides a convenient layman’s terms description of last Friday’s denial of service attacks on Dyn:

A map of the parts of the internet affected by Friday’s attack. The redder an area is, the more heavily it was affected.

A map of the parts of the internet affected by Friday’s attack. The redder an area is, the more heavily it was affected.

If you’ve been reading about the cyberattack that took place last Friday and are confused by the jargon and technobabble, this primer was written for you! By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what happened, what caused it, and what can be done to prevent similar problems in the future.

[…]

Hackread’s animation of what happened last Friday. Click the image to see the source.

Hackread’s animation of what happened last Friday. Click the image to see the source.

On Friday, October 21, 2016 at around 6:00 a.m. EDT, a botnet made up of what could be up to tens of millions of machines — a large number of which were IoT devices — mounted a denial-of-service attack on Dyn, disrupting DNS over a large part of the internet in the U.S.. This in turn led to a large internet outage on the U.S. east coast, slowing down the internet for many users and rendered a number of big sites inaccessible, including Amazon, Netflix, Reddit, Spotify, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Flashpoint, a firm that detects and mitigates online threats, was the first to announce that the attack was carried out by a botnet of compromised IoT devices controlled by Mirai malware. Dyn later corroborated Flashpoint’s claim, stating that their servers were under attack from devices located at millions of IP addresses.

The animation above is a visualization of the attack based on the devices’ IP addresses and IP geolocation (a means of approximating the geographic location of an IP address; for more, see this explanation on Stack Overflow). Note that the majority of the devices were at IP addresses (and therefore, geographic locations) outside the United States.

October 18, 2016

This is really what the Internet of Things will be like

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

A realistic view by joyoftech.com:

internet-of-things-by-joyoftech

H/T to The Arts Mechanical for the link.

October 14, 2016

Twitter’s ailing business model

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

I’ve been on Twitter for several years, and I have to admit that along with John Brandon, I’m finding it less useful as time goes by:

What does it mean when a major tech company starts slipping like a seal on wet rocks? Rumors about an acquisition start to rumble then quiet down, the CEO seems beleaguered and frustrated, there’s more news about Internet trolls beating up on people than the firm adding any new features, and an identity crisis becomes so pronounced it obfuscates any real purpose. Who you once were becomes less important; the big news is that you’ve lost all momentum. That’s essentially the story of Twitter, a company that seems perpetually stuck in the past. They created micro messaging and now they can’t seem to do anything else.

I use Twitter all day, but the truth is — tweets are becoming like white noise on a lost FM radio station. A colleague mentioned how the service is mostly used by celebrities, journalists and Donald Trump. That’s a vast oversimplification, but of 20 or 30 friends, not a single one bothers with the service anymore. That means my friends not only removed their account long ago, they don’t browse the feeds anymore and don’t care what anyone posts. Guess what? They’re too busy using Facebook, which provides all of the social networking they will ever need. Twitter has lost the mass market.

The phrase “pedaling backwards” comes to mind. Also, the one about “reliving former glories”. Oh, and you might as well throw in “retracing your steps” to the mix.

My primary use of Twitter these days is my various lists: my Vikings list, my Military list, and my Libertarian list are the ones I most frequently look at. My main Twitter feed? Too busy and too unfocussed to be worth more than a few minutes of scrolling. That, plus the “shadowbanning” of certain controversial users (so they’re not actually banned, but their tweets aren’t being propagated to their followers, who have to actually visit the poster’s feed to see the tweets), help to make the service less than it used to be.

H/T to Andrew Torba on Gab.ai for the link.

QotD: You can’t fix network security by changing the users

Filed under: Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Every few years, a researcher replicates a security study by littering USB sticks around an organization’s grounds and waiting to see how many people pick them up and plug them in, causing the autorun function to install innocuous malware on their computers. These studies are great for making security professionals feel superior. The researchers get to demonstrate their security expertise and use the results as “teachable moments” for others. “If only everyone was more security aware and had more security training,” they say, “the Internet would be a much safer place.”

Enough of that. The problem isn’t the users: it’s that we’ve designed our computer systems’ security so badly that we demand the user do all of these counterintuitive things. Why can’t users choose easy-to-remember passwords? Why can’t they click on links in emails with wild abandon? Why can’t they plug a USB stick into a computer without facing a myriad of viruses? Why are we trying to fix the user instead of solving the underlying security problem?

Bruce Schneier, “Security Design: Stop Trying to Fix the User”, Schneier on Security, 2016-10-03.

October 4, 2016

When you suppress hate speech, you don’t actually eliminate it

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

People seem to be surprised that censorship generates pushback from the censored. In this case, the more active censorship of certain words by Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies has encouraged the targets of the censors to come up with other ways to communicate with fellow-minded people, in this case a simple substitution code:

Now a new type of hateful internet code appears to be emerging: The systematic use of innocuous words to stand in for offensive racial slurs. Search Twitter for “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos,” and you will encounter some shocking results, like this tweet: “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.” Or this one, reading “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos.”

What does this mean? Nothing good. In this lexicon, “googles” means the n-word; “skypes” means Jews; and “yahoos” means “spic.” The word “skittles” has come to refer to Muslims, an obvious reference to Donald Trump Jr.’s comparing of refugees with candy that “would kill you.”

By all accounts the lexicon seems to have been conceived on 4chan — a message board famous for its trolls — as a response to Google’s improved method for identifying pages and comments with offensive content and potentially removing or flagging them. The title of the 4chan post that seems to have started it all is “RIP alt-right trolls, SkyNet is coming for you.” The trolls responded with a loosely organized effort called “Operation Google,” which aims to get around these algorithms, and to trick them into blocking the names of their own services and companies.

Hence the use of “google” to mean what is arguably the most offensive term of them all. For a fuller list, including coded anti-LGBT terms, click here. (Warning: It’s not pretty.) This list appeared on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” /pol/ board, and has been widely shared on Twitter and elsewhere, and similar terms can be found as well.

September 17, 2016

A contrarian view of the introduction of the tank

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Samizdata, Patrick Crozier gets all contrarian about the tank in a post he titles “Haig’s greatest mistake”:

On 15 September 1916 tanks made their debut at Flers-Courcelette, one of the many engagements which took place during the Battle of the Somme.

The battle marked the beginning of a sorry chapter in British military history because the truth – a truth that to this day few seem prepared to acknowledge – is that the First World War tank was useless.

The list of its failings is lengthy. It was slow, it was unreliable, it had no suspension and it was horrible to operate. The temperature inside was typically over 100°F and as exhaust gases built up so crew effectiveness collapsed. It was also highly vulnerable. Field artillery could take it out easily. Even rifle ammunition could be effective against it. While normal bullets might not be able to penetrate the armour they could knock off small pieces of metal from the inside – known as spall – which then whizzed round the interior wounding all and sundry.

That the tank was the brainchild of Winston Churchill from his days as head of the Admiralty should have alerted senior commanders to the possibility that it was yet another of his crackpot schemes. But they persisted. For his part, Haig being a technophile put a huge amount of faith in the new invention. His diary is littered with references to the tank and he seems to have made great efforts to secure ever more of them. In consequence, huge amounts of effort went into a technological dead end when it would have been far better spent on guns, shells and fuzes.

Not that such efforts were ever likely to satisfy the snake-oil salesmen who made up the ranks of the tank enthusiasts. In the face of tank failure after tank failure they simply claimed that their beloved weapon just wasn’t being used properly.

September 16, 2016

Beasts of Steel – The First Tanks On The Battlefield I THE GREAT WAR Week 112

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 15 Sep 2016

For years the British had developed the idea of the “landship” or tank and now it was finally ready for the first deployment during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. And even though technical problems plagued the new invention, the British leadership was confident that this new weapon would break the stalemate at the Western Front for good. In the meantime Germany was focusing all offensive efforts on the Romanian front to mercilessly crush the new enemy.

September 13, 2016

Tank Development in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

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

Published on 12 Sep 2016

The idea for an armoured vehicle that could withstand fire and travel across battlefields was already developed in 1914 after the Race to the Sea. The British “Landship Committee” developed the tank weapon in secrecy. The French were also trying out different designs at the same time. Learn all about the development and the invention of the tank in our special episode.

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