Covers the period:
2017-01-01 .. 2017-02-22
(SPIDs: [586..612]) --martyb
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Two Republican members of Congress sent a formal letter Tuesday to the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General, expressing concern that "approximately a dozen career EPA officials" are using the encrypted messaging app Signal to covertly plan strategy and may be running afoul of the Freedom of Information Act.
The open source app has gained renewed interest in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump.
As Ars has reported previously, all Signal messages and voice calls are end-to-end encrypted using the Signal Protocol, which has since been adopted by WhatsApp and other companies. However, unlike other messaging apps, Signal's maker, Open Whisper Systems, makes a point of not keeping any data, encrypted or otherwise, about its users. (WhatsApp also does not retain chat history but allows for backups using third-party services, like iCloud, which allows for message history to be restored when users set up a new device. Signal does not allow messages to be stored with a third party.)
Tata Steel UK workers have voted in favour of proposals to turn around the struggling business, potentially saving 8,000 jobs but also leading to cuts to their pension benefits.
Workers from the Community, Unite, and GMB unions all backed the plan in separate ballots. Approximately three-quarters of votes supported the proposals, which involve saving the Port Talbot steelworks in south Wales.
[...] Tata Steel had proposed saving 8,000 jobs in its UK business and the Port Talbot steelworks by investing £1bn in modernising its operations over the next 10 years.
This investment depends on spinning off the pension fund into a separate entity and replacing the final salary pension scheme with a less generous contribution scheme.
The existing scheme – the British Steel pension scheme (BSPS) – could enter the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) as part of the arrangement, which would result in a 10% cut to members' benefits. For this to occur Tata Steel must convince the Pensions Regulator that its UK business is on the brink of insolvency and is likely to have to pump hundreds of millions of cash into the scheme.
[...] The jobs have been at risk since last March when Tata Steel announced it was putting its UK business up for sale amid losses of more than £1m a day. The decision sparked a political crisis as the government scrambled to secure the future of the Port Talbot plant. Port Talbot is one of only two sites in Britain that makes steel in blast furnaces.
The government welcomed the result of the vote. A spokesperson said: [...]
"It is testament to the commitment of its workforce that they are willing to work so constructively with the owners to secure the future of the plant. The government will play its role in supporting the steel industry to help deliver a sustainable future."
Source: The Guardian
Goats know who their real friends are. A study published today in Royal Society Open Science shows that the animals can recognize what other goats look like and sound like [open, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160346] [DX], but only those they are closest with. Up until the late 1960s, the overwhelming assumption was that only humans could mentally keep track of how other individuals look, smell, and sound—what scientists call cross-modal recognition. We now know that many different kinds of animals can do this like horses, lions, crows, dogs, and certain primates.
When identifying other individuals, animals may match current cues with stored information about that individual from the same sensory modality. Animals may also be able to combine current information with previously acquired information from other sensory modalities, indicating that they possess complex cognitive templates of individuals that are independent of modality. We investigated whether goats (Capra hircus) possess cross-modal representations (auditory–visual) of conspecifics. We presented subjects with recorded conspecific calls broadcast equidistant between two individuals, one of which was the caller. We found that, when presented with a stablemate and another herd member, goats looked towards the caller sooner and for longer than the non-caller, regardless of caller identity. By contrast, when choosing between two herd members, other than their stablemate, goats did not show a preference to look towards the caller. Goats show cross-modal recognition of close social partners, but not of less familiar herd members. Goats may employ inferential reasoning when identifying conspecifics, potentially facilitating individual identification based on incomplete information. Understanding the prevalence of cross-modal recognition and the degree to which different sensory modalities are integrated provides insight into how animals learn about other individuals, and the evolution of animal communication.
A newly unearthed essay by Winston Churchill reveals he was open to the possibility of life on other planets.
In 1939, the year World War Two broke out, Churchill penned a popular science article in which he mused about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life.
The 11-page typed draft, probably intended for a newspaper, was updated in the 1950s but never published.
[...] More than 50 years before the discovery of exoplanets, he considered the likelihood that other stars would host planets, concluding that a large fraction of these distant worlds "will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort". He also surmised that some would be "at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature".
Churchill also outlined what scientists now describe as the "habitable" or "Goldilocks" zone - the narrow region around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life.
[...] In an apparent reference to the troubling events unfolding in Europe, Churchill wrote: "I for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time."
Grant Sinclair, nephew of Sir Clive Sinclair, is promoting a new version of the C5, his uncle's electric trike of 32 years ago. The new one, called IRIS, is faster and has a weather enclosure. Both can be seen in this BBC article. The original C5 was launched back before people had become punch-drunk with announcements of personal transport revolutions; and in the UK, before the launch, there was great excitement and a general expectation of a small electric car.
However the C5 turned out to be an open three-wheeled pedal car with feeble electric assistance. The C5 (and Clive Sinclair himself) instantly became laughing stock, and it has been described as the "worst gadget of all time" and the "biggest technical flop ever". Nobody thought it was "cool", as the BBC commentator claims.
Arguably, the C5 set back the cause of EVs by a generation, as people assumed that any EV would be similar. One commentator said that it seemed axiomatic that EVs had to be "quirky, ugly and tiny". Indeed, IRIS joins quite a range of similar tiny EVs, none of which are showing much sign of revolutionising transport. Meanwhile conventional car type EVs look set to thrive.
[Ed. Note: The BBC link is a short video. This article on techmash has more words.]
John Regehr, Professor of Computer Science, University of Utah, writes:
Undefined behavior (UB) in C and C++ is a clear and present danger to developers, especially when they are writing code that will execute near a trust boundary. A less well-known kind of undefined behavior exists in the intermediate representation (IR) for most optimizing, ahead-of-time compilers. For example, LLVM IR has undef and poison in addition to true explodes-in-your-face C-style UB. When people become aware of this, a typical reaction is: "Ugh, why? LLVM IR is just as bad as C!" This piece explains why that is not the correct reaction.
Undefined behavior is the result of a design decision: the refusal to systematically trap program errors at one particular level of a system. The responsibility for avoiding these errors is delegated to a higher level of abstraction. For example, it is obvious that a safe programming language can be compiled to machine code, and it is also obvious that the unsafety of machine code in no way compromises the high-level guarantees made by the language implementation. Swift and Rust are compiled to LLVM IR; some of their safety guarantees are enforced by dynamic checks in the emitted code, other guarantees are made through type checking and have no representation at the LLVM level. Either way, UB at the LLVM level is not a problem for, and cannot be detected by, code in the safe subsets of Swift and Rust. Even C can be used safely if some tool in the development environment ensures that it will not execute UB. The L4.verified project does exactly this.
Rapidly becoming more important than even the 24/7 hairdresser, the social media manager and the "paleo genius" personal chef, top cyber-security consultants are the most in-demand for the super-rich, business tycoons and the A-list as they look to keep their embarrassing secrets, naked photos and diva-ish demands out of the hands of hackers.
After Beckileaks, those consultants might just be ramping up their rates because, for brand-reliant celebrities, the financial damage, reputational risk and sheer embarrassment of such revelations are one of the most serious threats to their careers.
[...] Benjamin Arnold, whose SORTED personal management firm acts as a fixer for London's super-rich, says "There's been a definite increase in concern about cyber-protection among high-net-worth [HNW] and celebrity clients, especially following hacking incidents such as the [Lawrence] iCloud hack which exposed — quite literally — a number of high-profile celebrities. We are all exposed to the same risk but high-profile or HNW individuals are at a much bigger threat, as the value of their assets make them more of a target."
His clients will pay "anything from £2,500 up to £15,000 for a security sweep" and another £5,000 for training, "putting in best practice for the family, just as you would for locking up the house". It's small cash for some celebs, who believe that a brutal data-hack could cost them their career.
[...] Consultants say one-off "cyber-hygiene" sessions, costing as much as £3,000, are increasingly popular: tech sleuths will comb through clients' smartphones, laptops, tablets, external hard drives and cloud accounts, set up two-factor authentication (where logging into, say, a Gmail or Twitter account involves filling in a unique code that's sent to a smartphone), work on complex passwords (and insist on clients using different ones for every account), set up encrypted email services and install cyber-security software onto their home and work networks.
NASA has a problem with #1 and #2 in space. What to do? Crowdsource it, in the form of a contest where anyone can submit a superior method. The contest just ended with NASA awarding $30,000 to the winning entries.
NASA astronauts' current method of waste disposal involves using a diaper during spacewalks and launch and entry, but these systems can be used only for about a day. The agency noted that it is difficult to design pooping systems for microgravity, where fluids and other things float. Maintaining good hygiene for these systems was among the primary challenges participants were tasked with solving.
In a description of the challenge, NASA said it was looking for technologies that have a "technical readiness level of 4" on its "ready for flight" scale, meaning that the solution could be tested in one year and be ready for space in three years. NASA added that it would consider solutions that would need more time if they were considered breakthroughs.
The goal is to use the system on a mission in the next three or four years, the challenge page said.
An earlier article about the problem: http://www.space.com/35576-space-poop-system-orion-deep-space.html.
Dr. Derek Lowe, from In the Pipeline, writes about another disappointing failure to treat Alzheimer's Disease:
Merck announced last night that the first Phase III trial of their beta-secretase (BACE) inhibitor verubecestat was stopped because of futility. The monitoring committee, after looking over the data so far (the trial's been running since 2012) concluded that there was no real chance of seeing efficacy.
[...] The list of Alzheimer's clinical failures is impressive, but the list of failures to clinically validate the amyloid hypothesis is even more so.
[...] Beta-secretase inhibitors have failed in the clinic. Gamma-secretase inhibitors have failed in the clinic. Anti-amyloid antibodies have failed in the clinic. Everything has failed in the clinic. You can make excuses and find reasons – wrong patients, wrong compound, wrong pharmacokinetics, wrong dose, but after a while, you wonder if perhaps there might not be something a bit off with our understanding of the disease. Remember, every time one of these therapies comes around, it builds on the failures before it. Better and better attempts are made – I mean, verubecestat seems to be a pretty good compound, from the preclinical drug discovery perspective. It's surely the best swing anyone's taken at beta-secretase (and there have been many). But it just flat out did not work.
The good news about this study is that it adds to the evidence that the amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer's Disease is a blind alley and that the presence of amyloid plaques is simply correlative and not causative. As more data comes in from the study, I hope that the evidence will be conclusive enough that more effort will be spent on pursuing other therapeutic targets.
[Ed note: Updated to include actual examples of how some Indians dodged the clampdown. --martyb]
On November 8, 2016, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a shock decision declared all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes to be "worthless pieces of paper" from midnight onwards. This surprise demonetisation sucked out 86 percent of cash from circulation, ostensibly in an attempt to flush out unaccounted wealth, or "black money".
More than one billion Indians had less than eight weeks to return all of their old notes. For the nation's largely cash-based society, this unprecedented move induced a period of chaos. Banks scrambled to keep up while lines trailed out their doors and around street corners. Life's basic daily transactions screeched to a standstill as people struggled to withdraw cash, causing immense stress and even death in some cases.
[...] "As far as my business is concerned, we were never affected, nor are we going to be affected," says Sunil*, a young businessman with garment factories on the suburb outside of New Delhi. Though he had stored hundreds of thousands of rupees in untaxed cash, he claims demonetisation left him without any significant losses.
[...] He contacted his suppliers and purchased fabrics in advance, all in 500 and 1,000 rupee notes worth $7.4 and $14.8 respectively. He said that for him, this was "the main source of getting rid of old currency notes".
Of Sunil's 400 employees, many are low-paid tailors and labourers that normally receive cash payments. He decided to give them all hefty cash advances, also in old notes.
[...] Uraaj*, a casino manager who was sitting on a substantial stack of untaxed cash, says he paid the trusted members of his house staff six months in advance as one way to dispose of his money.
In situations where there are pronounced power dynamics between employers and employees, it can be difficult for a labourer to refuse advance payments. "It’s actually like indentured servitude. You are kind of sugar-coating it when you say, I’m paying you in advance for three months," says Udayan Baijal, a Delhi-based filmmaker.
[...] Some people seized the opportunity to pay off debts in cash. Ramya Pothuri, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Mumbai, had not received payment for months from the restaurant where she performs weekly. After demonetisation, the restaurant manager "dumped 40K on [her]" in old notes.
"At first, I was like, no," she says, "because I didn’t want to go to the bank and stand in that line. But I knew that if I didn’t take that cash then, it would take ages for me to get paid".
Other black money hoarders paid professionals to change their currency. Ashish*, who works for a political party, claimed he sent 3 million rupees to his contact within a bank, who exchanged the currency for a 35 percent commission.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Could a better designed demonetisation tactic help elsewhere?
Submitted via IRC for TheMightyBuzzard
A group of researchers from the Systems and Network Security Group at VU Amsterdam have discovered a way to bypass address space layout randomization (ASLR) protections of major operating systems and browsers by exploiting a common feature of computer microprocessors.
"Our attack relies on the interplay between the MMU and the caches during virtual to physical address translation—core hardware behavior that is central to efficient code execution on modern CPUs. We have built a side-channel attack, specifically an EVICT+TIME cache attack, that can detect which locations in the page table pages are accessed during a page table walk performed by the MMU. As a result, an attacker can derandomize virtual addresses of a victim's code and data by locating the cache lines that store the page-table entries used for address translation."
This knowledge allows attackers to successfully execute malicious payloads on the targeted system, instead of crashing it.
The sale, which leaves Buffett with nearly no shares in Walmart, comes as the US's largest traditional retailer has been rushing to catch up to Amazon and other online competitors.
Amazon's market value is now $356 billion, compared with Walmart's $298 billion. Last year, Buffett acknowledged that traditional brick-and-mortar retailers were struggling in the face of competition from the e-commerce giant.
Yes, but is he still long on Big Cola?
A W.M. Keck Observatory dataset covering two decades of observations of nearly 1,600 nearby stars has been released:
Today, a team that includes MIT and is led by the Carnegie Institution for Science has released the largest collection of observations made with a technique called radial velocity, to be used for hunting exoplanets. The huge dataset, taken over two decades by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, is now available to the public, along with an open-source software package to process the data and an online tutorial. By making the data public and user-friendly, the scientists hope to draw fresh eyes to the observations, which encompass almost 61,000 measurements of more than 1,600 nearby stars.
"This is an amazing catalog, and we realized there just aren't enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset," says Jennifer Burt, a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. "We're trying to shift toward a more community-oriented idea of how we should do science, so that others can access the data and see something interesting." Burt and her colleagues have outlined some details of the newly available dataset in a paper to appear in The Astronomical Journal. After taking a look through the data themselves, the researchers have detected over 100 potential exoplanets, including one orbiting GJ 411, the fourth-closest star to our solar system.
An international team of astronomers released the largest-ever compilation of exoplanet-detecting observations made using a technique called the radial velocity method. They demonstrated how these observations can be used to hunt for planets by detecting more than 100 potential exoplanets, including one orbiting the fourth-closest star to our own Solar System, which is about 8.1 light years away from Earth. The paper is published in The Astronomical Journal.
[...] But the team is not just giving everyone the keys to their exoplanet-finder; they are also taking it out for a spin themselves. Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire led a sophisticated statistical analysis of the large data set to tease out the periodic signals most likely to be planets. "We were very conservative in this paper about what counts as an exoplanet candidate and what does not," Tuomi explained, "and even with our stringent criteria, we found over 100 new likely planet candidates."
One of these probable planets is around a star called GJ 411, also known as Lalande 21185. It is the fourth-closest star to our own Sun and is only about 40 percent the mass of the Sun. The planet has a very short orbital period of just under 10 days, so it is no Earth-twin. However, the inferred planet, GJ 411b, continues a trend that has been seen in the overall population of detected exoplanets: the smallest planets are found around the smallest stars.
India's space agency ISRO launched a record 104 satellites on a single rocket from the Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh today. India has become the first country to successfully carry so many satellites in a single mission. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C37 is the star of what has been described as an incredible step for the country's space programme.
In 28 minutes, all 104 satellites were successfully placed into the Earth's orbit. 101 of the 104 satellites belong to six foreign countries, including 96 from the U.S. and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan. According to Times of India, "Russian Space Agency held a record of launching 37 satellites in one go during its mission in June 2014. India previously launched 23 satellites in a single mission in June 2015."
TechSpecs Blog ponders:
I decided to dig through open source to examine the state of Google's upcoming Andromeda OS. For anyone unfamiliar, Andromeda seems to be the replacement for both Android and Chrome OS (cue endless debates over the semantics of that, and what it all entails). Fuchsia is the actual name of the operating system, while Magenta is the name of the kernel, or more correctly, the microkernel. Many of the architectural design decisions appear to have unsurprisingly been focused on creating a highly scalable platform.
It goes without saying that Google isn't trying to hide Fuchsia. People have clearly discovered that Google is replacing Android's Linux kernel. Still, I thought it would be interesting for people to get a better sense of what the OS actually is. This article is only intended to be an overview of the basics, as far as I can comment reasonably competently. (I certainly never took an operating systems class!)
To my naive eyes, rather than saying Chrome OS is being merged into Android, it looks more like Android and Chrome OS are both being merged into Fuchsia. It's worth noting that these operating systems had previously already begun to merge together to an extent, such as when the Android team worked with the Chrome OS team in order to bring Update Engine to Nougat, which introduced A/B updates to the platform.
Google is unsurprisingly bringing up Andromeda on a number of platforms, including the humble Intel NUC. ARM, x86, and MIPS bring-up is exactly what you would expect for an Android successor, and it also seems clear that this platform will run on Intel laptops.
Although scientists have been able to levitate specific types of material, a pair of UChicago undergraduate physics students helped take the science to a new level.
Third-year Frankie Fung and fourth-year Mykhaylo Usatyuk led a team of UChicago researchers who demonstrated how to levitate a variety of objects—ceramic and polyethylene spheres, glass bubbles, ice particles, lint strands and thistle seeds—between a warm plate and a cold plate in a vacuum chamber.
In the experiment, the bottom copper plate was kept at room temperature while a stainless steel cylinder filled with liquid nitrogen kept at negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit served as the top plate. The upward flow of heat from the warm to the cold plate kept the particles suspended indefinitely.
"The large temperature gradient leads to a force that balances gravity and results in stable levitation," said Fung, the study's lead author. "We managed to quantify the thermophoretic force and found reasonable agreement with what is predicted by theory. This will allow us to explore the possibilities of levitating different types of objects." (Thermophoresis refers to the movement of particles by means of a temperature gradient.)