Quotulatiousness

October 24, 2014

Google Design open sources some icons

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:19

If you have a need for system icons and don’t want to create your own (or, like me, you have no artistic skills), you might want to look at a recent Google Design set that is now open source:

Today, Google Design are open-sourcing 750 glyphs as part of the Material Design system icons pack. The system icons contain icons commonly used across different apps, such as icons used for media playback, communication, content editing, connectivity, and so on. They’re equally useful when building for the web, Android or iOS.

Google Design open source icons

October 21, 2014

A different approach to building your own PC case

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

Published on 13 Nov 2012

In this video I show the features of my homemade silent wooden PC case, and how I built it.

Most silent PCs compromise on speed for silence, but not this one. Specs:

i7 2600k @ 4.4Ghz
GTX 460
24GB RAM
3TB HDD space + SSD

October 20, 2014

Marc Andreessen still thinks optimism is the right attitude

Filed under: Technology, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:14

In NYMag, Kevin Roose talks to Marc Andreessen on a range of topics:

It’s not hard to coax an opinion out of Marc Andreessen. The tall, bald, spring-loaded venture capitalist, who invented the first mainstream internet browser, co-founded Netscape, then made a fortune as an early investor in Twitter and Facebook, has since become Silicon Valley’s resident philosopher-king. He’s ubiquitous on Twitter, where his machine-gun fusillade of bold, wide-ranging proclamations has attracted an army of acolytes (and gotten him in some very big fights). At a controversial moment for the tech industry, Andreessen is the sector’s biggest cheerleader and a forceful advocate for his peculiar brand of futurism.

I love this moment where you’re meeting Mark Zuckerberg for the first time and he says to you something like, “What was Netscape?”

He didn’t know.

He was in middle school when you started Netscape. What’s it like to work in an industry where the turnover is so rapid that ten years can create a whole new collective memory?

I think it’s fantastic. For example, I think there’s sort of two Silicon Valleys right now. There’s the Silicon Valley of the people who were here during the 2000 crash, and there’s the Silicon Valley of the people who weren’t, and the psychology is actually totally different. Those of us who were here in 2000 have, like, scar tissue, because shit went wrong and it sucked.

You came to Silicon Valley in 1994. What was it like?

It was dead. Dead in the water. There had been this PC boom in the ’80s, and it was gigantic—that was Apple and Intel and Microsoft up in Seattle. And then the American economic recession hit—in ’88, ’89—and that was on the heels of the rapid ten-year rise of Japan. Silicon Valley had had this sort of brief shining moment, but Japan was going to take over everything. And that’s when the American economy went straight into a ditch. You’d pick up the newspaper, and it was just endless misery and woe. Technology in the U.S. is dead; economic growth in the U.S. is dead. All of the American kids were Gen-X slackers — no ambition, never going to do anything.

October 4, 2014

The “Herod Clause” to get free Wi-Fi

Filed under: Britain, Business, Humour, Law, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:48

I missed this earlier in the week (and it smells “hoax-y”, but it’s too good to check):

A handful of Londoners in some of the capital’s busiest districts unwittingly agreed to give up their eldest child, during an experiment exploring the dangers of public Wi-Fi use.

The experiment, which was backed by European law enforcement agency Europol, involved a group of security researchers setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot in June.

When people connected to the hotspot, the terms and conditions they were asked to sign up to included a “Herod clause” promising free Wi-Fi but only if “the recipient agreed to assign their first born child to us for the duration of eternity”. Six people signed up.

F-Secure, the security firm that sponsored the experiment, has confirmed that it won’t be enforcing the clause.

“We have yet to enforce our rights under the terms and conditions but, as this is an experiment, we will be returning the children to their parents,” wrote the Finnish company in its report.

“Our legal advisor Mark Deem points out that — while terms and conditions are legally binding — it is contrary to public policy to sell children in return for free services, so the clause would not be enforceable in a court of law.”

Ultimately, the research, organised by the Cyber Security Research Institute, sought to highlight public unawareness of serious security issues concomitant with Wi-Fi usage.

September 19, 2014

QotD: Faster computers, and why we “need” ‘em

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

I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.

Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?

The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.

Brian Micklethwait, “Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old”, Samizdata, 2014-09-17.

July 25, 2014

QotD: The singularity already happened

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

The gulf that separates us from the near past is now so great that we cannot really imagine how one could design a spacecraft, or learn engineering in the first place, or even just look something up, without a computer and a network. Journalists my age will understand how profound and disturbing this break in history is: Do you remember doing your job before Google? It was, obviously, possible, since we actually did it, but how? It is like having a past life as a conquistador or a phrenologist.

Colby Cosh, “Who will be the moonwalkers of tomorrow?”, Maclean’s, 2014-07-24.

July 15, 2014

The attraction (and danger) of computer-based models

Filed under: Environment, Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Warren Meyer explains why computer models can be incredibly useful tools, but they are not the same thing as an actual proof:

    Among the objections, including one from Green Party politician Chit Chong, were that Lawson’s views were not supported by evidence from computer modeling.

I see this all the time. A lot of things astound me in the climate debate, but perhaps the most astounding has been to be accused of being “anti-science” by people who have such a poor grasp of the scientific process.

Computer models and their output are not evidence of anything. Computer models are extremely useful when we have hypotheses about complex, multi-variable systems. It may not be immediately obvious how to test these hypotheses, so computer models can take these hypothesized formulas and generate predicted values of measurable variables that can then be used to compare to actual physical observations.

[...]

The other problem with computer models, besides the fact that they are not and cannot constitute evidence in and of themselves, is that their results are often sensitive to small changes in tuning or setting of variables, and that these decisions about tuning are often totally opaque to outsiders.

I did computer modelling for years, though of markets and economics rather than climate. But the techniques are substantially the same. And the pitfalls.

Confession time. In my very early days as a consultant, I did something I am not proud of. I was responsible for a complex market model based on a lot of market research and customer service data. Less than a day before the big presentation, and with all the charts and conclusions made, I found a mistake that skewed the results. In later years I would have the moral courage and confidence to cry foul and halt the process, but at the time I ended up tweaking a few key variables to make the model continue to spit out results consistent with our conclusion. It is embarrassing enough I have trouble writing this for public consumption 25 years later.

But it was so easy. A few tweaks to assumptions and I could get the answer I wanted. And no one would ever know. Someone could stare at the model for an hour and not recognize the tuning.

June 18, 2014

This is why computer security folks look so frustrated

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:41

It’s not that the “security” part of the job is so wearing … it’s that people are morons:

Security white hats, despair: users will run dodgy executables if they are paid as little as one cent.

Even more would allow their computers to become infected by botnet software nasties if the price was increased to five or 10 cents. Offer a whole dollar and you’ll secure a herd of willing internet slaves.

The demoralising findings come from a study lead by Nicolas Christin, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab which baited users with a benign Windows executable sold to users under the guise of contributing to a (fictitious) study.

It was downloaded 1,714 times and 965 users actually ran the code. The application ran a timer simulating an hour’s computational tasks after which a token for payment would be generated.

The researchers collected information on user machines discovering that many of the predominantly US and Indian user machines were already infected with malware despite having security systems installed, and were happy to click past Windows’ User Access Control warning prompts.

The presence of malware actually increased on machines running the latest patches and infosec tools in what was described as an indication of users’ false sense of security.

April 17, 2014

QotD: User interface design for all ages

Filed under: Humour, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

As your body staggers down the winding road to death, user interfaces that require fighter pilot-grade eyesight, the dexterity of a neurosurgeon, and the mental agility of Derren Brown, are going to screw with you at some point.

Don’t kid yourself otherwise — disability, in one form or another, can strike at any moment.

Given that people are proving ever harder to kill off, you can expect to have decades of life ahead of you — during which you’ll be battling to figure out where on the touchscreen that trendy transdimensional two-pixel wide “OK” button is hiding.

Can you believe, people born today will spend their entire lives having to cope with this crap? The only way I can explain the web design of many Google products today is that some wannabe Picasso stole Larry Page’s girl when they were all 13, and is only now exacting his revenge. Nobody makes things that bad by accident, surely?

Dominic Connor, “Is tech the preserve of the young able-bodied? Let’s talk over a fine dinner and claret”, The Register, 2014-04-17

April 16, 2014

QotD: The wizards of the web

Filed under: Business, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

You would have thought this would have sunk in by now. The fact that it hasn’t shows what an extraordinary machine the internet is — quite different to any technology that has gone before it. When the Lovebug struck, few of us lived our lives online. Back then we banked in branches, shopped in shops, met friends and lovers in the pub and obtained jobs by posting CVs. Tweeting was for the birds. Cyberspace was marginal. Now, for billions, the online world is their lives. But there is a problem. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the people who use the internet have even the faintest clue about how any of it works. “SSL”, for instance, stands for “Secure Sockets Layer”.

I looked it up and sort of understood it — for about five minutes. While most drivers have at least a notion of how an engine works (something about petrol exploding in cylinders and making pistons go up and down and so forth) the very language of the internet — “domain names” and “DNS codes”, endless “protocols” and so forth — is arcane, exclusive; it is, in fact, the language of magic. For all intents and purposes the internet is run by wizards.

And the trouble with letting wizards run things is that when things go wrong we are at their mercy. The world spends several tens of billions of pounds a year on anti-malware programs, which we are exhorted to buy lest the walls of our digital castles collapse around us. Making security software is a huge industry, and whenever there is a problem — either caused by viruses or by a glitch like Heartbleed — the internet security companies rush to be quoted in the media. And guess what, their message is never “keep calm and carry on”. As Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University says: “Almost all the cost of cybercrime is the cost of anticipation.”

Michael Hanlon, “Relax, Mumsnet users: don’t lose sleep over Heartbleed hysteria”, Telegraph, 2014-04-16

April 9, 2014

XKCD on the impact of “Heartbleed”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:00

Update: In case you’re not concerned about the seriousness of this issue, The Register‘s John Leyden would like you to think again.

The catastrophic crypto key password vulnerability in OpenSSL affects far more than web servers, with everything from routers to smartphones also affected.

The so-called “Heartbleed” vulnerability (CVE-2014-0160) can be exploited to extract information from the servers running vulnerable version of OpenSSL, and this includes email servers and Android smartphones as well as routers.

Hackers could potentially gain access to private encryption key before using this information to decipher the encrypted traffic to and from vulnerable websites.

Web sites including Yahoo!, Flickr and OpenSSL were among the many left vulnerable to the megabug that exposed encryption keys, passwords and other sensitive information.

Preliminary tests suggested 47 of the 1000 largest sites are vulnerable to Heartbleed and that’s only among the less than half that provide support for SSL or HTTPS at all. Many of the affected sites – including Yahoo! – have since patched the vulnerability. Even so, security experts – such as Graham Cluley – remain concerned.

OpenSSL is a widely used encryption library that is a key component of technology that enables secure (https) website connections.

The bug exists in the OpenSSL 1.0.1 source code and stems from coding flaws in a fairly new feature known as the TLS Heartbeat Extension. “TLS heartbeats are used as ‘keep alive’ packets so that the ends of an encrypted connection can agree to keep the session open even when they don’t have any official data to exchange,” explains security veteran Paul Ducklin in a post on Sophos’ Naked Security blog.

The Heartbleed vulnerability in the OpenSSL cryptographic library might be exploited to reveal contents of secured communication exchanges. The same flaw might also be used to lift SSL keys.

This means that sites could still be vulnerable to attacks after installing the patches in cases where a private key has been stolen. Sites therefore need to revoke exposed keys, reissue new keys, and invalidate all session keys and session cookies.

Bruce Schneier:

“Catastrophic” is the right word. On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.

Half a million sites are vulnerable, including my own. Test your vulnerability here.

The bug has been patched. After you patch your systems, you have to get a new public/private key pair, update your SSL certificate, and then change every password that could potentially be affected.

At this point, the probability is close to one that every target has had its private keys extracted by multiple intelligence agencies. The real question is whether or not someone deliberately inserted this bug into OpenSSL, and has had two years of unfettered access to everything. My guess is accident, but I have no proof.

April 7, 2014

Big data’s promises and limitations

Filed under: Economics, Science, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:06

In the New York Times, Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis examine the big claims being made for the big data revolution:

Is big data really all it’s cracked up to be? There is no doubt that big data is a valuable tool that has already had a critical impact in certain areas. For instance, almost every successful artificial intelligence computer program in the last 20 years, from Google’s search engine to the I.B.M. Jeopardy! champion Watson, has involved the substantial crunching of large bodies of data. But precisely because of its newfound popularity and growing use, we need to be levelheaded about what big data can — and can’t — do.

The first thing to note is that although big data is very good at detecting correlations, especially subtle correlations that an analysis of smaller data sets might miss, it never tells us which correlations are meaningful. A big data analysis might reveal, for instance, that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply. But it’s hard to imagine there is any causal relationship between the two. Likewise, from 1998 to 2007 the number of new cases of autism diagnosed was extremely well correlated with sales of organic food (both went up sharply), but identifying the correlation won’t by itself tell us whether diet has anything to do with autism.

Second, big data can work well as an adjunct to scientific inquiry but rarely succeeds as a wholesale replacement. Molecular biologists, for example, would very much like to be able to infer the three-dimensional structure of proteins from their underlying DNA sequence, and scientists working on the problem use big data as one tool among many. But no scientist thinks you can solve this problem by crunching data alone, no matter how powerful the statistical analysis; you will always need to start with an analysis that relies on an understanding of physics and biochemistry.

March 28, 2014

McGuinty staffer alleged to have wiped key computer hard drives

Filed under: Cancon — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:43

I’m sure there’s a perfectly simple, non-suspicious reason for the outgoing chief of staff of a provincial premier to arrange a non-government employee having access to key computers at a change of administration… because otherwise this would look particularly bad:

The Kathleen Wynne minority government went into serious damage control mode after the release of an OPP warrant which alleges criminal behaviour in the office of the premier.

The explosive document, made public by a judge Thursday but not proven in court, alleges a former chief of staff for ex-premier Dalton McGuinty committed a criminal breach of trust by arranging for another staffer’s techie boyfriend to access 24 desktop computers in the premier’s office as Wynne took over the reins in 2013.

A committee investigating the Ontario Liberals’ cancellation of gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga, at a loss of up to $1.1 billion, had already ordered the government to turn over all records related to that decision.

Wynne said the allegations, if true, are “disturbing” but she was not aware of and would not have condoned such activity.

“I was not in charge of the former chief of staff, I did not direct the former chief of staff, I did not direct anyone in my office to destroy information, nor would I ever do that,” Wynne said. “And, in fact, we have changed the rules about the retention of information.”

OPP investigators probing the alleged illegal deletion of e-mails executed a search warrant last month on a Mississauga data storage facility used by the Ontario government.

March 26, 2014

Oculus in the news

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:33

Raph Koster reflects on the promise of Oculus:

Metaverse RoadmapRendering was never the point.

Oh, it’s hard. But it’s rapidly becoming commodity hardware. That was in fact the basic premise of the Oculus Rift: that the mass market commodity solution for a very old dream was finally approaching a price point where it made sense. The patents were expiring; the panels were cheap and getting better by the month. The rest was plumbing. Hard plumbing, the sort that calls for a Carmack, maybe, but plumbing.

[...]

Look, there are a few big visions for the future of computing doing battle.

There’s a wearable camp, full of glasses and watches. It’s still nascent, but its doom is already waiting in the wings; biocomputing of various sorts (first contacts, then implants, nano, who knows) will unquestionably win out over time, just because glasses and watches are what tech has been removing from us, not getting us to put back on. Google has its bets down here.

There’s a beacon-y camp, one where mesh networks and constant broadcasts label and dissect everything around us, blaring ads and enticing us with sales coupons as we walk through malls. In this world, everything is annotated and shouting at a digital level, passing messages back and forth. It’s an ubicomp environment where everything is “smart.” Apple has its bets down here.

These two things are going to get married. One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.

[...]

The virtue of Oculus lies in presence. A startling, unusual sort of presence. Immersion is nice, but presence is something else again. Presence is what makes Facebook feel like a conversation. Presence is what makes you hang out on World of Warcraft. Presence is what makes offices persist in the face of more than enough capability for remote work. Presence is why a video series can out-draw a text-based MOOC and presence is why live concerts can make more money than album sales.

Facebook is laying its bet on people, instead of smart objects. It’s banking on the idea that doing things with one another online — the thing that has fueled it all this time — is going to keep being important. This is a play to own walking through Machu Picchu without leaving home, a play to own every classroom and every museum. This is a play to own what you do with other people.

Update: Apparently some of the folks who backed the original Kickstarter campaign have their panties in a bunch now that there’s big money involved.


Attendees wear Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted displays as they play EVE: Valkyrie, a multiplayer virtual reality dogfighting shooter game, at the Intel booth at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus for $2bn in stocks and shares is big news for a third company: Kickstarter, which today celebrates the first billion-dollar exit of a company formed through the crowdfunding platform.

Oculus raised $2.4m for its Rift headset in September 2012, exceeding its initial fundraising goal by 10 times. It remains one of the largest ever Kickstarter campaigns.

But as news of the acquisition broke Tuesday night, some of the 9,500 people who backed the project for sums of up to $5,000 a piece (the most popular package, containing an early prototype of the Rift, was backed by 5,600 for a more reasonable $300) were rethinking their support.

[...]

For Kickstarter itself, the purchase raises awkward questions. The company has always maintained that it should not be viewed as a storefront for pre-ordering products; instead, a backer should be aware that they are giving money to a struggling artist or designer, and view the reward as a thanks rather than a purchase.

Kickstarter Is Not a Store” is how the New York-based company put it in 2012, shortly after the Oculus Rift campaign closed. Instead, the company explained: “It’s a new way for creators and audiences to work together to make things.”

But if Kickstarter isn’t a store, and if backers also aren’t getting equity in the company which uses their money to build a $2bn business, then what are they actually paying for?

“Structurally I have an issue with it,” explains Buckenham, “in that the backer takes on a great deal of risk for relatively little upside and that the energy towards exciting things is formalised into a necessarily cash-based relationship in a way that enforces and extends capitalism into places where it previously didn’t have total dominion.”

March 16, 2014

Defining hackers and hacker culture

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:49

ESR put this together as a backgrounder for a documentary film maker:

In its original and still most correct sense, the word “hacker” describes a member of a tribe of expert and playful programmers with roots in 1960s and 1970s computer-science academia, the early microcomputer experimenters, and several other contributory cultures including science-fiction fandom.

Through a historical process I could explain in as much detail as you like, this hacker culture became the architects of today’s Internet and evolved into the open-source software movement. (I had a significant role in this process as historian and activist, which is why my friends recommended that you talk to me.)

People outside this culture sometimes refer to it as “old-school hackers” or “white-hat hackers” (the latter term also has some more specific shades of meaning). People inside it (including me) insist that we are just “hackers” and using that term for anyone else is misleading and disrespectful.

Within this culture, “hacker” applied to an individual is understood to be a title of honor which it is arrogant to claim for yourself. It has to be conferred by people who are already insiders. You earn it by building things, by a combination of work and cleverness and the right attitude. Nowadays “building things” centers on open-source software and hardware, and on the support services for open-source projects.

There are — seriously — people in the hacker culture who refuse to describe themselves individually as hackers because they think they haven’t earned the title yet — they haven’t built enough stuff. One of the social functions of tribal elders like myself is to be seen to be conferring the title, a certification that is taken quite seriously; it’s like being knighted.

[...]

There is a cluster of geek subcultures within which the term “hacker” has very high prestige. If you think about my earlier description it should be clear why. Building stuff is cool, it’s an achievement.

There is a tendency for members of those other subcultures to try to appropriate hacker status for themselves, and to emulate various hacker behaviors — sometimes superficially, sometimes deeply and genuinely.

Imitative behavior creates a sort of gray zone around the hacker culture proper. Some people in that zone are mere posers. Some are genuinely trying to act out hacker values as they (incompletely) understand them. Some are ‘hacktivists’ with Internet-related political agendas but who don’t write code. Some are outright criminals exploiting journalistic confusion about what “hacker” means. Some are ambiguous mixtures of several of these types.

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