Archive for the ‘Geekery’ Category


It may be worse than Snowden said

October 5, 2016

Paul sends a link to this story from Reuters.

Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for U.S. intelligence

Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified. […]

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc. […]


IoT security

October 5, 2016

Heh… Pornhub on a refrigerator’s display at Home Depot (from John McAfee).



The time and place for paper records

October 3, 2016

From MIT Technology Review. RTWT.

The Internet Is No Place for Elections

Despite what your local election officials may tell you, you can’t trust the Internet with your vote.

This election year we’ve seen foreign hackers infiltrate the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail system as well as voter databases in Arizona and Illinois. These attacks have reinforced what political scientists and technical experts alike have been saying for more than a decade: public elections should stay offline. It’s not yet feasible to build a secure and truly democratic Internet-connected voting system. […]

Nevertheless, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow at least some absentee voters (in most cases just voters who live overseas or serve in the military) to return their completed ballots using poorly secured e-mail, Internet-connected fax machines, or websites. In the most extreme example, all voters in Alaska are allowed to return their completed ballots over a supposedly secure website. And there is a danger that Internet voting could expand. Vendors like the Spanish company Scytl, which supplied Alaska’s system, and Southern California-based Everyone Counts keep marketing these systems to election boards against the advice of security experts. And they haven’t opened their systems to public security testing. […]

Even if the risk of cybercrime could be mitigated, building an online voting system that preserves the core components we expect from democratic elections would be technically complex. Today’s commercial systems do not achieve this; most of the states that offer ballot return via the Internet ask that voters first waive their right to a secret ballot. The key challenge is building an online system that generates some sort of credible evidence that proves the outcome “is what you say it is” during an audit, while maintaining voter privacy and the secret ballot, says Rivest. […]

In the 90s, when my business partner and I were trying to solve problems with telephone automation*, we kicked around the idea of voting by phone. After several goes at that idea, we concluded there was no practical way to (a) make it secure and (b) keep it secret. Not much as changed in the interval, despite different technologies.

*For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.


What’s it worth to you?

September 19, 2016

Mark Perry at Carpe Diem has a good post about what I’ll call the Information Economy (for lack of a better term). He starts out writing about the different ways music has been delivered for sale and then moves on to the more general point of how information of all kinds gets delivered now.

I particularly liked the "What’s the internet worth to you?" question.

[t]he limitations of GDP accounting

Thanks to the advances in computer technologies, the Internet and smartphone apps, consumers are getting more and more services like GPS for free (or at a significantly reduced cost compared to the past) today and displacing services that used to get accounted for as market-based production (maps and road atlases). In past decades like the 1950s, maybe economic output measured by GDP was a pretty good measure of both economic performance and Americans’ economic well-being. In 2016, that may no longer be the case.

Finally, the video below captures the point I’m trying to make by asking people:

How much would someone have to pay you to give up the Internet for the rest of your life? Would a million dollars be enough? Twenty million? How about a billion dollars?

“When I ask my students this question, they say you couldn’t pay me enough,” says Professor Michael Cox, director of the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. The free market, says Cox, creates a huge gap between what consumers would be willing to pay for Internet access and how much it actually costs.
From the video: Since we’re getting something that we really value that is almost free, and wouldn’t give it up for even $1 million or more, “In some ways, maybe we’re all millionaires and billionaires, if we have something that’s worth that much to us… You might just be richer than you realize…”

Update/Related (HT: Joe Sullivan): From a July 2015 WSJ interview with Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist — “Silicon Valley Doesn’t Believe U.S. Productivity Is Down: Contrarian economists at Google and Stanford say the U.S. doesn’t have a productivity problem, it has a measurement problem”:

“There is a lack of appreciation for what’s happening in Silicon Valley,” says Hal Varian, “because we don’t have a good way to measure it.” One measurement problem is that a lot of what originates here is free or nearly free.

Take, for example, a recent walk Mr. Varian arranged with friends. To find each other in the sprawling park nearby, he and his pals used an app that tracked their location, allowing them to meet up quickly. The same tool can track the movement of workers in a warehouse, office or shopping mall. “Obviously that’s a productivity enhancement,” Mr. Varian says. “But I doubt that gets measured anywhere.”

Consider the efficiency of hailing a taxi with an app on your mobile phone, or finding someone who will meet you at the airport and rent your car while you’re away, a new service in San Francisco. Add in online tools that instantly translate conversations or help locate organ donors—the list goes on and on.


Pure geekery

August 20, 2016

I had an e-mail recently from my alma mater and it mentioned Bill Hammack, who makes videos uing the handle EngineerGuy. (Check his site.)

Mr. Hammack made a series of videos about Albert Michelson’s Harmonic Analyzer, which was a mechanical computer for doing Fourier analysis. Here’s the first of four clips describing how the Analyzer worked and how to operate it.

There’s a book about the machine if you’re interested. And it’s also available in PDF at no cost.

Machines like this have always amazed me when I think of the mechanical creativity their designers showed. Nowadays you can do Fourier analysis with MS Excel but not that long ago (100+ years) just performing the calculations was such a tedious, error-prone task that people invented purpose-built machines to do it.

But the icing on the cake was that I came across Hammack’s video adaptation of one of my favorites, Faraday’s lectures on The Chemical History of a Candle.

Here’s the first of five videos (not counting Hammack’s introductory clip).

As with Michelson’s Harmonic Analyzer, Hammack and his collaborators wrote a book about this too (also available for free in PDF).

Or if you prefer the old school, here are Faraday’s lectures in PDF.


Dark humor

July 17, 2016

Positively dystopian – from McSweeney’s. RTWT.


FROM: Office of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
RE: Great Work On Pokémon Go


I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate everyone on the extremely successful rollout of Operation Pokémon GO to Raise Public Morale. I know we had to hustle to speed up this launch by several weeks from its scheduled release on September 10th but it seems to have paid off. More people have downloaded this game in the last 72 hours than have voted in every Democratic primary combined.

It seemed crazy when we floated this idea last year, between Mass Shootings #188 and #189: could “augmented reality” really distract people from regular, awful reality? We took a bold gamble that it would, and it paid off!

Thank you for giving the American public something to engage with mindlessly after two Black men and five police officers were shot in cold blood within three days. It seemed, for a fraught 48 hours, like Americans would have to engage with the news, and as past history evidences, that’s not great for us. Luckily, we can leave that discussion to the talking heads; good, ordinary Americans can find solace in locating Jigglypuffs in public spaces.

In an unprecedented threat, it seemed even Twitter and Snapchat were getting away from us: a huge number of users were seriously grappling with police brutality and racial politics. Were it not for the power of ’90s nostalgia and dynamic animation, this may have been a turning point for these platforms. I am incredibly moved to see Twitter repopulated with hilarious photos of Pokémon in inopportune places, like a frying pan. […]

H.T. Paul B


The future’s so bright…

July 15, 2016


Via Instapundit. ‘Heh’, as he likes to say.

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