Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Tuesday, 30 August 2016
Long before birds took to the air, pterosaurs ruled the skies. This enterprising group of reptiles emerged in the Triassic period and exploded into a spectacular diversity of forms over the next 160 million years, until they were wiped out alongside the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous by a massive asteroid strike.
To facilitate flight, pterosaur bones were lightweight and fragile, like a bird’s. But those important qualities also mean that decent fossils from these extraordinary animals are extremely rare, especially among species with smaller, more delicate frames.
Every now and then, however, the fossil record literally throws paleontologists a bone. A team led by Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, a palaeobiology PhD student based at the University of Southampton, presents just such a lucky find with new research published Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
The study describes the partial skeleton of a pterosaur with a relatively diminutive wingspan of 1.5 meters (five feet) unearthed on Hornby Island in British Columbia.
“It likely does represent a new species, but we have chosen not to name it due to the fragmentary nature of the specimen,” Martin-Silverstone told me. “However, the size and morphology does suggest it is a new animal.”
The unnamed flyer lived about 77 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous period. It belonged to a family of pterosaurs called the azhdarchoids, which produced the largest airborne creatures known, including the surreal Quetzalcoatlus northropi with its staggering 40-foot wingspan. Many azhdarchoids appear to have evolved disproportionately large heads, as illustrated by this delightful scale comparison of the new species with a house cat.
Cat v. pterosaur. Image: Dr. Mark Witton
“There really hasn’t been any work done on exactly why these animals would have had such big heads, just that we know from complete specimens that they did,” Martin-Silverstone told me. “We also know how they got so big—their heads were full of sinuses and air, keeping them light. But as for why, that is currently unknown and would just be speculation at this point.”
Though only the humerus, dorsal vertebrae, and some other stray skeletal parts from this small pterosaur have survived, close examination revealed that this animal was almost fully mature when it died, and was not a juvenile of a larger species like Quetzalcoatlus.
The humerus of the Hornby Island pterosaur. Image: Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone et al.
Adult pterosaurs with wingspans under two meters are scarce in Cretaceous formations, particularly in coastal British Columbia. Finding one suggests that small pterosaurs may have been as common as their more easily preserved (and much bigger) relatives, although they’re trickier to find.
This is essential information for researchers interested in reconstructing the rich ecological puzzle of this period. Though pterosaurs pioneered powered flight long before birds first spread their wings, the two clades were fighting over many of the same niches during the Cretaceous, so it’s important to know as much as possible about the sizes and shapes represented in each lineage.
“Other areas where pterosaurs are found at this time, like the Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta, have a documented bias against small animals,” Martin-Silverstone explained. “Since pterosaurs are already poorly preserved due to their hollow bones, this suggests that small pterosaurs would be even less likely [to be] preserved. In this case, I think we’re just lucky.”
This has been a big week for for pterosaur admirers. A separate team led by paleontologist Laura Codorniú of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Buenos Aires described another new species, named Allkaruen koi, in research published in PeerJ.
Though this animal hails from the Jurassic period and was found in Patagonia, Argentina, it is similar to the Hornby Island pterosaur in size, with a wingspan of only a few meters.
Concept art of Allkaruen koi. Image: Gabriel Lío
These exciting discoveries help to round out our understanding of the mind-boggling diversity of pterosaurs, both large and small, that shared Mesozoic Earth with the dinosaurs, along with early birds and mammals. They haven’t flown in our skies for millions of years, but fortunately, that doesn’t mean the fantastic legacy of these creatures has been erased.
from Paleontologists Find a Rare Type of Pterosaur Near Vancouver Island
Hackers have stolen over 60 million account details for online cloud storage platform Dropbox. Although the accounts were stolen during a previously disclosed breach, and Dropbox says it has already forced password resets, it was not known how many users had been affected, and only now is the true extent of the hack coming to light.
Motherboard obtained a selection of files containing email addresses and hashed passwords for the Dropbox users through sources in the database trading community. In all, the four files total in at around 5GB, and contain details on 68,680,741 accounts. The data is legitimate, according to a senior Dropbox employee who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Earlier this week, Dropbox announced it was forcing password resets for a number of users after discovering a set of account details linked to a 2012 breach. The company did not publish an exact figure on the number of resets, and said it had taken the move proactively.
“Our security teams are always watching out for new threats to our users. As part of these ongoing efforts, we learned about an old set of Dropbox user credentials (email addresses plus hashed and salted passwords) that we believe were obtained in 2012. Our analysis suggests that the credentials relate to an incident we disclosed around that time,” the company wrote.
These 60 million user accounts are related to the same data breach incident. Motherboard was provided the full set by breach notification service Leakbase, and found many real users in the dataset who had signed up to Dropbox in around 2012 or earlier.
“We've confirmed that the proactive password reset we completed last week covered all potentially impacted users," said Patrick Heim, Head of Trust and Security for Dropbox. "We initiated this reset as a precautionary measure, so that the old passwords from prior to mid-2012 can’t be used to improperly access Dropbox accounts. We still encourage users to reset passwords on other services if they suspect they may have reused their Dropbox password.”
Nearly 32 million of the passwords are secured with the strong hashing function bcrypt, meaning it is unlikely that hackers will be able to obtain many of the users' actual passwords. The rest of the passwords are hashed with what appears to be SHA-1, another, aging algorithm. These hashes seem to have also used a salt; that is, a random string added to the password hashing process to strengthen them.
Dropbox has changed its password hashing practices several times since 2012, in order to keep passwords secure.
The Dropbox dump does not appear to be listed on any of the major dark web marketplaces where such data is often sold: the value of data dumps typically diminishes when passwords have been adequately secured. One hacker told Motherboard he or she was already in possession of the data though.
This is just the latest so-called “mega-breach” to be revealed. This summer, hundreds of millions of records from sites such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Tumblr, and VK.com from years-old data breaches were sold and traded amongst hackers.
from Hackers Stole Account Details for Over 60 Million Dropbox Users
Zimbabwe has plans to cut poaching off at its source—quite literally. In a last ditch effort to protect its dwindling rhino populations, the country announced that every rhino living in its national parks will be dehorned by the end of the year.
Approximately 800 black and white rhinos are managed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Between 2007 and 2009, one quarter of the country’s rhinos were illegally killed for their horns. Last year, poachers killed 50 individuals, despite threats from Zimbabwe’s minister of environment that stricter criminal sentences would be enforced.
“Our strategy is to try and save the rhino, if the poachers know that the rhino at national park here does not have horns, he is unlikely to come here and kill it,” Cephas Mudenda, a board member of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, told Bloomberg last week.
A Southern white rhino at Lake Nakuru, Kenya. Image: Wikipedia/Ryan Harvey
Without a doubt, dehorning is one of the most controversial anti-poaching strategies. When performed safely by a veterinarian, the process removes 90 to 93 percent of the rhino’s horns, which are made up of keratin, like our hair and fingernails. In theory, once the incentive for poaching the animal is removed, the demand for killing them will decrease. According to Reuters, removing the horns of a single rhino can cost nearly $1,200.
But vocal critics of dehorning, such as the conservation organization Save the Rhino, are skeptical of its ability to effectively deter poachers. When rhinos in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park were dehorned during the 1990s, the group noted, the majority of them were killed one year later. In 2011, two dehorned rhinos were poached less than a week after the procedure occurred.
Once removed, a rhino’s horns will grow back at a rate of three to four inches per year, which makes this tactic impermanent and expensive. And, as the World Wildlife Fund has argued, approximately 5 percent of rhinos die under sedation. Because it’s so difficult to determine how wild animals will react to sedatives, each operation is a risk that some organizations deem too risky.
Some biologists also believe that dehorning rhinos can prevent them from behaving naturally. A recent survey, funded by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs in 2011, suggested the social impacts of dehorning were also significant. Dominance in male black rhinos, for instance, is closely tied to horn length. And in smaller populations, it may be difficult for rhinos to establish a hierarchy if all of the animals’ horns are removed.
A dehorned white rhino. Image: Pixabay/tracyhammond
However, even critics will admit that in the face of extreme adversity, there may be no better option. Dehorning could work, according to Save the Rhinos, if paired with another anti-poaching strategy, such as armed security forces. Recently, park rangers in Zimbabwe have started using military-style weapons to combat poachers in the field.
“Dehorning is not a significant issue for rhinos in terms of behavior and reproductive health,” Raoul du Toit, director of Zimbabwe’s Lowveld Rhino Trust, once told Real Clear Science. “The evolutionary advantages of possessing a horn were developed before AK-47s were invented and are not such advantages now.”
Rhino horn was once coveted by practitioners of traditional medicine who mistook it as an aphrodisiac. Today, it’s most commonly viewed as a symbol of status and wealth. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that rhino horn provides any sort of medicinal benefit. Many conservationists are now focusing on educating communities about the plight of rhinos, in order to reduce demand for their horns.
Approximately 100 rhinos live in Zimbabwe’s state game parks, and authorities are now attempting to dehorn them. Rhinos that are found in private game reserves, however, will not be included in the purge, according to Lisa Marabini, director of operations at Aware Trust Zimbabwe.
“We want to send a message to poachers that they will not get much if they come to Zimbabwe.”
from Zimbabwe Wants to Dehorn Its 800 Rhinos to Prevent Poaching
Earlier this week, ex-congressman and documentary star Anthony Weiner wound up in the papers once more, his extramarital sexting back in the public eye for the third time in five years. Given all the story’s elements—Sex! Technology! Self-destructive behavior!—it was only a matter of time until Weiner’s woes became fodder for a bit of handwringing about the way we live now. Indeed, it only took a few hours for reporters to start asking if Weiner’s tale was a sign that sexting might actually be addictive.
If your automatic reaction to that question is to roll your eyes, you’re not alone. Mental health experts cited by The Wrap noted that “[s]exting, like drug use, leads to a rush of dopamine in the brain,” but since the exact same thing can be said about cupcakes, that’s not particularly compelling science. Given how many of us manage to sext responsibly, it’s hard to see filthy texts as some sort of time bomb waiting to destroy civilization.
Yet at the same time, Weiner’s descent into sext-fueled self destruction makes it hard to deny that sexting seems to have the potential to unlock something sort of dangerous, at least in a select group of people. So what, exactly, is going on, and is it something we should worry about?
"Our society is overly prone towards both technophobia and fear and condemnation of sex."
To find out, I turned to Dr. Eve, the South African sex therapist who literally wrote the book on cyber infidelity. Right from the outset, Eve rejects the notion of “sexting addiction,” telling me that the addiction model is an unhelpful way to understand people who, like Weiner, seem helpless in the face of their self-destructive sexual compulsions. We shouldn't define people with problematic sexting behaviors as “addicts,” with the easy pathology and rehab “cure” that that implies.
Eve said behavior that inspires claims of "sexting addiction" are more indicative of a hypersexual person engaging in “out of control behavior." What, exactly, does that mean? Broadly, Eve said, it’s often a sign that someone’s suffered a trauma that led the brain to be “dysregulated.” People with dysregulated brains lack the ability to regulate or healthily manage their emotions. Eve said that, “in order to deal with emotions, there is out of control behavior.”
Left untreated, those affected can “get to a stage where they just push the ‘fuck it’ button,” where their underlying pain is so bad that they continue to pursue destructive desires no matter the risks, because they’re incapable of considering other ways to manage their emotions and soothe their discomfort.
But does sexting, specifically, pose a greater danger to hypersexual people than good old fashioned infidelity? In some cases yes, though not because technology is somehow more addictive in and of itself. What’s actually at play here is that smartphones just make it really, really easy to engage in bad behavior. Eve cites the notion of the “triple A engine” of affordability, accessibility, and anonymity: sexting is cheap, easy, and distant enough from real life to feel free from consequences.
If you’re already primed to engage in out of control behavior, sexting offers a pretty immediate outlet. While a pre-internet Weiner might have been forced to leave his house and rent a porn flick, or go through the work of setting up an appointment with an escort, in the modern era, the capability for self-destruction is always present (even, as Weiner’s pictures proved, when your kid is taking a nap).
But ultimately sexting “addiction,” like most sex tech panics, is something of an overblown idea. “Our society is overly prone towards both technophobia and fear and condemnation of sex,” said David Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction. “As people employ this technology in sexual ways, the combination leads, inevitably, to these modern kinds of moral panics,” with all the attendant scare pieces employing lines about dopamine rushes to make us fear for our ability to control our behavior.
Yet most of us are able to sext, or watch porn, or engage in other online sexual outlets in a responsible and healthy way, finding pleasure in the experience without completely losing ourselves in compulsion. For that hypersexual minority with a tendency towards bad behavior, the story is different, and potentially deeply damaging. And while it’s tempting to hold up men like Anthony Weiner as some sort of cautionary tale of sexting gone too far, it’s important to remember that most of us aren’t Anthony Weiner.
And for those who are? Dr. Eve advises against making an appointment at your local addiction clinic, urging self-destructive sexters to seek out a good healthcare provider who can help work through issues without piling on shame.
“I have compassion for [Weiner],” she told me. “He’s acting out and letting people know that he’s struggling.” Hopefully that struggle won’t get ignored in the media’s rush to chalk this up to the evils of sex and smartphones—though when buzzwords like “sexting addiction” are on the table, it’s all too easy for us to avoid looking deeper at the real issues of how we collectively deal with the topics of sex, shame, and mental health.
As Ley said, “The social reaction to Weiner is more revealing of our social fear of sex, violations of monogamy, and technology, and our lack of ability to consider these complex issues in a world that wants simplistic, reductionistic answers like ‘he's an addict.’”
from Is 'Sexting Addiction' a Real Thing?
Before cannabinoid testing and genetic profiling of the cannabis plant, consumers would judge a batch of weed based on its smell, taste, and color. In fact, a whopping 93 percent of buyers make a purchasing choice contingent on the color and look of the bud.
The color of cannabis is not constant, but rather changes with the plant's maturity. According to the pH or acidity levels of the plant, its anthocyanins—water-soluble pigments—may appear blue, red, or purple. Anthocyanins appear in other plants as well, such as blueberries and eggplants.
The color of a cannabis plant is also influenced by temperature: In cooler environments, the plant produces less chlorophyll, green pigments critical to photosynthesis, which allows a plant to absorb energy from light. The colors of cannabis can be manipulated by managing the acidity levels and temperatures in which the plant is bred. Altering these various levels can bring out different colors and qualities, while inhibiting others.
Reddish cannabis. Image: Wikimedia
One of the most popular alternatives to green is purple—think Granddaddy Purple. Purple pigments occur fairly easily in the cannabis plant, as it begins to lose chlorophyll as it matures into old age. However, before the bud gets too old, purple pigmentation can also be engineered in neutral pH environments.
Reddish strains are harder to come by, but can be bred by manipulating nutrients and depriving the plant of phosphorus. The darker, even black appearing strains, are caused by an excess of pigmentation in the cannabis' leaves. These strains are also known for more intense visuals and psychedelic highs. They usually thrive in somewhat cooler temperatures, since in warmer environments the dark, deep reds and purples may become lighter.
Yellow strains, such as Lemon Kush, thrive in more alkaline conditions. Similarly, as the chlorophyll fades, if the plant is genetically predisposed for yellow pigmentation, the golden hues may come out later in the plant's life, as well. If a plant has a lower number of anthocyanins, it may produce yellow, gold, and earthy hues from carotenoids, pigmentation molecules also present in carrots, autumn leaves, and tomatoes.
Yellow/orange tinged cannabis. Image: Wikimedia
Cannabis produces anthocyanin, part of the flavonoid [plant pigmentation] family, for protection, according to a study. "Flavonoid accumulation [is] involved in many aspects of the plant growth including pathogen resistance, pigment production, and protection against ultraviolet radiation, which contributes to the growth of pollen and seed coat development," researchers wrote.
The various ways cannabis plants are bred, with different pH levels, temperatures, and pigmentation, may also influence their effects. However, when the crop is harvested, what nutrients it was fed, how much water and light it ingested, all contribute to a cocktail of qualities and effects unique to each plant, no matter what its main color may be.
from The Science Behind Purple Kush, and the Colors of Cannabis
The following contains spoilers for series 8 of Robot Wars, including the final result.
Robot Wars, the best show on British television, had its season finale over the weekend, with flipper-bot Apollo storming to the final and ultimately beating formidable death-spinner Carbide in a tense fight that ended up going to a judge’s decision.
For those who haven’t seen the show, the premise is simple: Get people to build weaponised robots and then battle them until one is pushed into a pit, flipped out of the arena, immobilised or, in the battle isn't finished before time expires, declared the victor by a panel of roboticist judges. The series was first broadcast in the late 90s and came back this year after a hiatus of over a decade. And oh, what a few years can mean for battling robots. The robots this year were formidable, and it made for damn good telly.
Apollo’s ultimate victory was well deserved, if surprising. Most had money on Carbide, a 110 kg robot with an 85 cm spinning bar and military-grade steel armour, which was a favourite to win pretty much from the moment of its first appearance in the new series; the hum of its spinning blade (apparently capable of an impact at 60 times the energy of a sniper bullet) made its opponents go weak at the wheels as it proved its ability to slice up and immobilise almost any robot in its path, and even destroy part of the steel-walled arena.
Apollo (in white) flips Carbide (with yellow wheels) in the season final. Image: Robot Wars wiki
The sheer power of the robots is testament to what made series 8 of Robot Wars so good. Sure, the show owes a lot to nostalgia for its previous years, but from the beginning it was clear that times have changed. Robotics have advanced enough that these robots are genuinely dangerous, and the best one from the past (Hypno-Disc, naturally) wouldn’t stand a chance in the new arena. The first official rule for series 8 builders reads, “All participants build and operate Robots at their own risk. Robot Wars is inherently dangerous.” They’re not lying.
When we spoke to head judge Noel Sharkey last week, he put the uptick in robot ability down to advances in battery tech and materials. (In case you were wondering how dangerous these robots really are, he also related a tale in which a technician had his leg impaled on the end of a robot’s spike weapon, resulting in the enduring rule that requires every robot to have a removable “link”—a kind of kill switch that cuts power to the machine and is the bane of many a roboteer if it falls out mid-battle.)
Despite its unbeatable aggression and fearsome weapon, Carbide didn’t end up taking the Robot Wars trophy, because of another enduring feature of Robot Wars that makes even potentially predictable fights hard to call: Every bot has its weakness. You can have the baddest bot, but if it gets bashed in the wrong way, it’s a hunk of junk. It’s not entirely clear what happened to Carbide, but pretty early in its final death match against Apollo, its spinning blade just… stopped. When your robot’s basically just a weapon on wheels, a breakdown in the weapon motor reveals a bit of a massive Achilles heel.
Carbide in an earlier battle with functioning weapon.
And so we got our winners, the likeable lads of Apollo, who impressed in earlier rounds by flipping over even the house robots, which weigh three times the maximum weight of competitors, at over 300kg. Flippers are generally pretty lame weapons—watching two robots try to flip each other over without causing any real damage is a snorefest of a fight—but Apollo proved they’re effective when used properly (take note, Foxic).
Sharkey told us the judges have been known to take up to two hours to make a decision, but Apollo’s win was easily justified and it was impossible not to share in the team’s celebrations. As Sharkey put it, “Robot Wars is really about human struggle and triumph.”
We laughed with Team Nuts and their out-of-control robotic flail; we cried with Team Chompalot when its dragon-inspired bot was forced to retire after a battery fire; and we stood proud with unflappable Thor controller Jason, the lone operator who got through to the final on a wild card—and frankly did well just to keep his robot running.
When so often robots in the real world seem to fall, fail, and generally not live up to expectations, Robot Wars is a testimony to the ability of hobbyists to deliver bots fit for death-battling purpose. Bring on season 9.
from A Love Letter to 'Robot Wars,' the Best Show on British TV
Written By Joseph Neighbor
Alzheimer’s Disease is perhaps the most famous, least understood medical crisis facing our generation. Though only five million Americans suffer with it, the cost of care exceeds $230 billion a year, making Alzheimer’s the single most expensive disease to treat. And that burden will grow exponentially in the near future. By 2050, the number afflicted will triple. The cost of care will triple, too.
Of the top 10 cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer’s Disease stands alone as the only one for which we have no cure, nor method of prevention. We don’t even have a way to slow it down. Existing medications treat only symptoms, and there hasn’t been a new drug approved by the FDA in a decade. The degeneration of neurons in the brain remains a mysterious process. We’re running out of time to figure it out.
The Federal government recognizes this. After all, it’s in their interest to find a solution: Medicaid and Medicare picks up roughly 70% of the total cost of care. The long-term solvency of those programs depends on a cure. Accordingly, in 2010, Congress unanimously passed, and the President signed into law, the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which aims to have a treatment for Alzheimer’s by 2025. The NIH has doubled the amount of funds earmarked for research into the disease over the last two years, bringing the sum to nearly a billion dollars a year—an unprecedented increase.
There are reasons for optimism. Seldom has so much money and effort been directed toward solving a specific medical problem. No doubt this will lead to a better understanding of the disease, which will hopefully lead to more effective therapies. But it will also, presumably, lead to a more general understanding of the basic workings of memory and cognition. This begs the question: If researchers develop a drug to improve how the brain functions, could it be useful for healthy people? Might we unintentionally find a way to hotwire the mind? Could Alzheimer’s research pave the way for the general cognition-enhancing pill so often depicted in science fiction?
Cutting out the beta-amyloid fragment may not be the only benefit to these drugs. Photo: WikiCommons
After all, it’s not unknown in the history of medicine for researchers to set out to solve one problem and accidently solve another. Viagra was originally intended to treat coronary disease. Modafinil—often cited as a magic cognitive-booster, a la Limitless—was designed for narcoleptics. That’s why current laws reserve a good deal of leeway for physicians to prescribe medications for off-label uses. Basically, once a drug is FDA approved for one purpose, doctors can then use it for other things if they think it would be helpful, barring any studies demonstrating that particular off-label use is exceedingly dangerous.
So, legally, prescribing drugs off-label is fair game. This makes it possible, theoretically, for medication designed to treat memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients to be prescribed to ordinary people who want a better, more efficient mind.
In fact, some researchers are testing what would happen if we did just that. A study at UC-Berkeley measured the effect of donepezil, the most common drug for treating Alzheimer’s symptoms, on healthy people doing various visual learning tests. Donepezil works by fighting the enzyme in the brain that naturally breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Essentially, the thinking is that more acetylcholine in the cerebral cortex leads to better cognition.
Though the sample size of the study was limited, and the tests focused on very specific forms of cognition, the results were promising. According to Dr. Michael Silver, the primary investigator of the study, there’s evidence that donepezil enhances visual perception, spatial attention, and some forms of perceptual learning.
In 2014, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital conducted a donepezil study on kids with amblyopia, a defect of the eye that impairs its ability to focus and take in visual information. In order for a child’s brain to develop properly, it needs that visual information. The study found that donepezil chemically re-wired the brain to allow it to process visual stimuli better, as well as increase its neuroplasticity, so patients can learn faster.
That doesn’t mean donepezil is a miracle cognitive booster. “If you could just increase your acetylcholine signaling and get better at perception, attention and learning, how come evolution hasn’t figured that out yet? Why don’t we just have more acetylcholine, all the time?” said Dr. Silver. “The big caveat is maybe you’re worse at other things that aren’t being measured.”
Vitamins are just the beginning of neurological enhancement. Photo: WikiCommons
Tinkering with the delicate chemical balance arrived at by tens of thousands of years of evolution is a dicey enterprise. It’s something that should be pursued with caution. But donepezil is just one drug that happens to exist right now. Now that Alzheimer’s is recognized as an exigent health crisis on the order of cancer and HIV, and research funding is setting new records both here and abroad, it’s possible that a breakthrough era in medicine might be at hand. If we understand the brain well enough to slow or stop the process of neurodegeneration, maybe we can find a way to make the brain operate just plain better for the rest of us.
There will be protests. After all, the point is to develop a drug to treat a disease, not hotwire a healthy brain. From DIY bodyhackers and genetic manipulators to doping students and athletes, attempts at human augmentation are always confronted with thorny ethical questions such as what is cheating, who should have access to these enhancements, and, crucially, whether anyone should have them at all. Often, the discussion comes down to the precise difference between “therapy” and “enhancement.”
Alzheimer’s muddies those distinctions. Amyloid plaques and Tau tangles—the pathological hallmarks of the disease—can be observed 20 years before actual symptoms appear. Surely, a person showing those hallmarks should be entitled to medicine that could halt the disease’s progression, regardless of whether it’s actually impairing his or her life yet. If these therapies, used as a preventive measure, also happen to have ancillary benefits for cognition, memory or learning that allow such a person to excel at school or work, would we deem that an unfair advantage? Besides, if the drug is safe and boosts brainpower, why shouldn’t we all take it?
A firm understanding of the inner workings of the brain continues to elude us. The implications of arriving at that understanding are unimaginable. Perhaps Alzheimer’s Disease could provide the urgency, the direction and the money to propel us not only to its cure, but also to a better brain for humankind.
Made possible by Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In stores now.
from Drugs Designed to Aid Alzheimer's Patients Could Enhance Healthy Brains
Almost every day, cybercriminals hack and steal personal information of internet users. Sometimes, they have to break in somewhere to get it. But other times, that sensitive information is accidentally left exposed with no security for all to see—or at least for those who know where to look.
That’s what happened with a luxury hotel chain in Vietnam, which left a shocking amount of sensitive personal information of thousands of its customers, including their names, trip details and credit card information, completely unprotected for weeks. The data was left in a database that had no security to prevent anyone from logging in and looking at the information, according to group of researchers who found it on August 12.
“[I was] absolutely surprised and shocked.”
The hotel chain Silverland Hotel & Spas, which operates five hotels in Vietnam’s popular destination Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, left a database online with no password, according to the researchers, who work for the MacKeeper Security Research Team.
The data on display included customers’ IP addresses, booking status, flight information (flight number, arrival and departure time), detailed guest information (name, age, gender, phone, email address), and detailed credit card information (card type, number, name on card, expiration date and CVV), as the researchers detailed in a blog post published on Tuesday, after the hotel finally secured the database.
A redacted screenshot that shows the personal information left exposed by Silverland Hotels. (Image: MacKeeper)
“[I was] absolutely surprised and shocked,” Volodymyr Dyachenko, a member of the MacKeeper Security Research Team, told Motherboard in an online chat. “Sometimes we do encounter [databases] with payment info, but at least they have it hashed or encrypted.”
In this case, Dyachenko said there were 6,377 entries in the database, most of them with full credit card details, and all the information was in the clear and unprotected, meaning hackers who found it could’ve simply copied and pasted the credit card information and used it for their personal purchases, or sold it online in the underground.
Dyachenko explained that the database was hosted on the same IP address as the hotel’s website homepage, making it very easy to find just scanning that IP address for open ports.
The database was secured on Tuesday, Dyachenko said, 62 days after it had been left exposed, and 18 days after him and his colleagues reached out for the first time to alert of the issue. The hotel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As it’s happened in several cases in the past few months, including once by MacKeeper itself, which left the information of 13 million of its customers exposed, the leaky database was created with MongoDB. This is software used for constructing and maintaining databases, and by itself, MongoDB isn’t insecure, but customers often forget to set it up securely. And therein lies the problem.
“Each month we report and fix two-three databases, but the total amount of the leaking ones is not decreasing,” Dyachenko told me. “People just don’t want to listen and learn simple security rules.”
In this case, there’s no evidence that anyone else found the data and misused it. But if the researchers could find it, anyone else could have too.
from Whoops! Hotel Left Thousand of Customers' Credit Cards Online For All To See
It’s a balmy summer day, and you’re cooling off with a frosty beer. To you, your drink looks like, well…a drink. But all around it, invisible to the naked eye, cold vapors are sinking into space, creating ripples of bubbling air. It would look pretty cool, if only you could see it.
This is called the “Schlieren effect” or “Schlieren flow,” and it’s based on the principle of refraction. When light passes through air of different densities, it fluctuates and bends in a particular way. The end result is pretty trippy, and according to the YouTube channel brusspup, it’s also easy to recreate in a simple household experiment.
First, you’re going to need a few gadgets. Mainly, a parabolic mirror, camera, point light source, and some type of sharp edge, like a razor blade. If you don’t have any of these things, don’t fret, because this video does it all for you.
As you can see, objects that generate heat produce “bubbles” that seem to rise upward in front of the mirror. Whereas cold objects, such as a popsicle, produce descending vapors. The forces at play are best described by Bryan Rolfe, who explains that “when light passes through air of higher density, it refracts and passes to one side of our focal point. Likewise, light passing through less dense air will bend slightly in the other direction, and pass to the other side of our focal point.”
Image: YouTube/Bryan Rolfe
The crux of this experiment is the razor blade, which helps to create an optical path of focused light. According to Rolfe, “light that’s refracted through the less dense air gets rejected, and light that’s refracted through the denser air gets passed.” This trick reveals pockets of air that would otherwise be invisible.
The Schlieren effect earned its name from the German word “schliere,” which means “streak.” In 1665, the curious phenomenon was first described by the English philosopher, Robert Hooke, who observed the flow of hot air produced by a candle flame. More recently, the principle has been used in certain video projectors, though this method has been largely replaced by the LCD projector.
from Try This Trippy Experiment To See Invisible Ripples in Air Pressure
Brock Lesnar is on the cover of WWE 2K17. Image: 2K Sports
On August 19, the Friday before SummerSlam, 2K Games gave Motherboard an exclusive peek at WWE 2K17. This latest, annual installment comes out on October 11, a little under a year after the release of WWE 2K16.
2K is hyping the more obvious additions—the ones that are easily expressed as bullet points in marketing materials. There are new faces such as Sasha Banks, the charismatic “Boss” of women’s wrestling on Monday Night Raw. There’s Shinsuke Nakamura, the “King of Strong Style” and the newly crowned NXT Champion. There’s the returning, much-demanded Backstage Brawl mode that allows you to fight behind the curtain. There’s a deeper, improved reversal system. There’s a “Promo Engine,” that lets you personalize your trash talk.
The visuals have improved. Randy Orton’s lip curls with the right amount of disdain. But it’s one thing to make Orton (below) look like himself in screenshots and promotional stills. It’s quite another thing to make him wrestle and move like Orton, in a way that feels natural and unrehearsed.
Randy Orton, looking mighty proud of himself. Image: 2K Sports
The sheer labor that goes into programming a wrestler’s natural movement is incalculable. Say, for instance, that you, the attacking wrestler, is standing. The opponent is lying on the mat, face-up. Depending on where you are in relation to the opponent—near his head, near his left arm, near his right leg—you’re going to interact with him differently, and each scenario requires its own animation. If the opponent is lying face down, that’s another set of animations.
Then, throw in mitigating factors like height differences, strength differences, and weight differences between the two wrestlers. And lastly, account for the length of the match itself; a person moves differently when he’s tired than when he’s fresh. It’s less a question of ‘how’ to do it—the technology is definitely there—and more a question of ‘how long’ it will take to do it. It’s a voluminous chore with slow, incremental benefits from one game to the next.
“Our game has thousands of moves in it, so it takes us years to go through the entire move library and update,” WWE 2K17 Executive Producer Mark Little told Motherboard. “This year, we shot another couple thousand animations for the game. It’s going to be a continual process.”
Years ago, WWE games would have dodged these complications by creating pre-rendered, catch all sequences. If you wanted to perform the People’s Elbow, you’d press a button, and no matter where The Rock and his opponent were, they would miraculously relocate to the center of the ring.
Little, who is receptive to fan feedback, seeks to eliminate those sort of immersion-breaking shortcuts.
“A lot of what we have done this year for WWE 2K17 is to smooth out the flow for transitions—where one move stops, another move begins, and how to get between them,” says Little. “If they’re not shot well, moves will start in one spot and end in a different spot.”
2K markets its sports titles not as “video games,” but as “simulators.” In keeping with this philosophy, 2K built an authentic WWE ring in their studio. Then, they got real professional wrestlers to suit up and perform the various holds, throws, and strikes against one another. In past iterations, they’ve invited WWE Superstars like Cesaro and Finn Balor to perform their signature stunts.
“[For WWE 2K17], while we didn’t have the opportunity to work with active WWE Superstars because of their crazy schedules, we did have the opportunity to work with a number of the very best talents in the industry,” Little says. “Many of these guys were actually featured in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, so we hope to one day see them in NXT or on the main roster.”
Little is hesitant to name the specific wrestlers who do the motion capture, lest it breaks the immersion and fans’ suspension of disbelief. But he singles out former WWE Superstar Mike “Mikey” Mondo for praise. Mondo, who was a former member of the infamous Spirit Squad stable, stands at 5’6. Thus, Mondo performed the motion capture for a lot of the smaller wrestlers on WWE’s roster.
In the time I got to preview and play WWE 2K17, the new animations did not immediately stand out to me. Rather, they had an imperceptible, cumulative effect; I left the booth with an overall impression that things looked and moved more smoothly. The wrestlers also moved a bit slower; this was far removed from the button mashing, frenetic, "pick up and play" style. This was sports entertainment at a more thoughtful, deliberate pace. Strategy over flash. Realism over fantasy. It all fits perfectly into WWE’s “New Era," which is less about the crazy gimmicks and more about the matches themselves, which must look real and competitive.
Natural motion is flawed motion; wrestlers bend their knees when they’re lifting someone. They buckle when positioning their opponent on their shoulders. Accounting for every scenario is an endless, intimidating task. But 2K Games is doing what it can to animate as many of them as possible. Because it’s these small touches—these minor, incidental subtleties—that make a simulation seamless and challenge our perception of real.
from How ‘WWE 2K17’ Fixes the Series’ Longstanding Animation Awkwardness
If you are an aspiring penetration tester, you’ve come to the right place. We not only have tons of resources to help you get started, we also have a list of professional certifications that help you gear up for a professional career as a pen tester.
What the experts have to say?
If you ask an expert, the real answer would be to start by gaining some practical knowledge. For example, a site known as Hack This Site helps aspiring hackers to understand system penetration.
You can also use the virtualization technique to learn pen testing. Simply set up a Hyper-V or VMware image on a web server or any db server. Then get a friend to set up passwords on these servers which you are not aware of. Start doing this on the rest of VM you have set and start breaking them down. Since this is a virtual machine, you will get an experience of actually hacking a machine. This way you will learn a multitude of skills.
If practical stuff doesn’t work for you, you can select a number of professional certifications to learn penetration testing. If you want to prepare for these certifications, there are even free online courses to help you get started.
Benefits of doing free courses
Cybersecurity is an industry that is constantly growing and the need to defend information rich systems is growing day by day. Hence a lot of people are now offering online courses to help you get started. In these courses, you will learn to hack systems step by step. You will also learn how certain networks work and react to outsiders when attacked. These are extremely important to learn about if you are looking for a good career in pen testing.
Once you have gained the skills needed to land a job, head over to our penetration tester page to learn more about where to seek jobs, how to hone your skills and which degree programs can help you enhance your skills and add positive points to your resume.
The post Here Are Some Ways You Can Learn About Penetration Testing As A Beginner appeared first on Cyber Security Portal.
from Here Are Some Ways You Can Learn About Penetration Testing As A Beginner
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from Dealmaster: Get 30 percent off the X1 Carbon and all ThinkPads
Monday, 29 August 2016
On Monday, Yahoo reported the FBI had uncovered evidence that foreign hackers had breached two US state election databases earlier this month. The article, based on a document the FBI distributed to concerned parties, was heavily framed around other recent hacks which have generally been attributed to Russia, including the Democratic National Committee email dump.
The thing is, voter records are not some extra-special commodity that only elite, nation-sponsored hackers can get hold of. Instead, ordinary cybercriminals trade this sort of data, and some states make it pretty easy to obtain voter data through legal means anyway.
In December of last year, CSO Online reported that a database of some 191 million US voter records had been exposed online. They weren't grabbed through hacking, per se: the dump was available to anyone who knew where to look, or was happy to just cycle through open databases sitting on the internet (which, incidentally, common cybercriminals are).
Tech Insider previously spoke with a hacker advertising registration records for voters from all 50 US states. Although the publication did not see the full set of data, they did manage to confirm a small number of samples provided to them.
And back in January, we reported that alleged voting records of millions of American citizens were uploaded to dark web site linked to the well-known hacking forum Hell. Those files appeared to include voters' full names, dates of birth, the date they registered to vote, their physical address, local school districts, and other information too.
The dumps had been uploaded to a databin, where anyone with the password could easily just log in and help themselves to all of those details. (The password was also openly advertised on the Hell forum, so it wasn't an exclusive cache either.)
SQLi on state election systems is probably to get the same data voter-data-brokers sell, but in bulk.Nicholas Weaver August 29, 2016
It's likely that plenty of those records were obtained through semi-public sources, too: many states make this sort of information available to political campaigns, or advocacy groups. After the 191 million voting records were found online, Jim Gilliam, the CEO of NationBuilder, a company that provides records to various groups, said, “From what we've seen, the voter information included is already publicly available from each state government so no new or private information was released in this database.” (The 191 million records didn't come directly from NationBuilder, Gilliam wrote, although some of the information may have come from data the company has made available.)
The FBI did not make clear which states this latest breach concerns; Yahoo points to Arizona and Illinois. Voter data for both of those states is available from NationBuilder, as long as one agrees to only use it for political purposes. Maybe the hackers just didn’t fancy paying? But, without a bit more information, it’s not known what exactly the hackers took, and whether it differs from the data provided by brokers such as NationBuilder.
(And as a side note, Yahoo says that a mere 200,000 records from Illinois were obtained. Small fry when compared to what is readily available across the internet, or what has been exposed before. Although it isn't comprehensive, there is even a website literally called VoterRecords.com, where you can look up over 50 million voter records for free. You don't get much further away from super-secret-hacker-goods than that.)
Voting data on the hacking forum Hell.
Sure, it may turn out that Russian intelligence hacked these latest voter databases, for reasons unknown. But to not acknowledge that voter records are relatively easy to obtain, and generally overstate their value, seems misguided. I'm willing to bet that, if this breach had happened, say, a year ago, before the widespread coverage of the DNC dump, it would not be receiving as much attention as it is now.
from Voting Records Get Hacked a Lot, And You Can Just Buy Them Anyway
Around Christmas in 2013, a German newsmagazine published a large cache of leaked NSA files, detailing several spy tools used by the NSA.
The leaked documents were dubbed ANT (Advanced Network Techniques) Catalog, and showed that the US spy agency had a wide array of tools to spy on people’s computers and, as they put it, get the “ungettable.” The tools ranged from a set of fake cellular base stations that hijack phone calls, a USB plug to steal data as soon as it’s connected to a computer, and “radio frequency reflectors,” devices that beam radio signals to other devices, forcing them to beam data back.
The dump motivated a group of hardware hackers in the US to team up and try to recreate and open-source the tools on their own. And they did, successfully mimicking the NSA’s spy tools in their lab.
As part of VICELAND’s first season of CYBERWAR, we met with one of the security researchers who worked on what him and his friends called the NSA Playset. Joe Fitzpatrick showed us how to use the NSA’s SLOTSCREAMER to bypass a laptop’s lockscreen and hack into it. Check out the deleted scene above to learn about SLOTSCREAMER and check out the archive of CYBERWAR’s episodes on VICELAND.com.
from Hacker Shows Us How to Unlock a Laptop Using an NSA Tool
Earlier this summer, the north Indian state of Kashmir was hit with a new wave of riots when young militant leader Burhan Wani was killed by state police. Wani was the controversial head of Hizbul Mujahideen, a group fighting for the state to separate from India. He was embraced as a freedom fighter by many in Kashmir, and considered a terrorist by Indian officials.
Kashmiris have been forced to live with regular curfews and military presence in their daily lives. Their mountain and valley homes have been caught in the crosshairs of border wars between India, Pakistan and China for decades. But in moments of peak violence the law enforcement in Kashmir has started wielding a new means of control: mobile and digital blackouts.
This is a new burden for the people of Kashmir, who have endured endless violence since India became independent in 1947. In just the past two decades there have been 22,000 incidents involving significant violence, and more than 44,000 people have died in terrorist attacks. And the uprising that left dozens dead after Wani was killed was yet another reason to mourn.
When 21-year-old Wani was shot on July 8, 2016, the police in Kashmir shut down all mobile networks and mobile data, except for the government-run BSNL, almost immediately. In some areas, broadband internet was unavailable as well. Almost two months later, some people still do not have mobile internet on their devices and phones.
In a region already complicated by geography and turbulence, the impact of telecom blackouts is significant. “There is no getting around the fact that cutting mobile links [and internet] affects flow of information, from basic human contact to people facing health issues, to the injured—and there are thousands—not being able to reach families,” said Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist in Kashmir.
Kashmir's shared borders makes it vulnerable to power play. Image: Wikimedia
He told me the blackout means Kashmiris don’t know what is happening in their own communities, and try to send messages with people or ambulances traveling through their towns. Newspapers have resorted to working from memory sticks, and many people attempt to piggyback from the few wifi spots that are still working.
Police usually justify telecom shutdowns with section 144 of the federal penal code, a law that permits Indian states to disrupt the assembly of ten or more people if they suspect violence. Burhan Wani was popular on social media, and Hizbul Mujahideen gained traction through videos shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. Some of them included threats of attack on communities they deemed non-Kashmiri. The police in Kashmir cite violence, and militants organizing online and through apps like WhatsApp, for their crackdown.
But Wani’s death doesn’t explain an elongated two-month blackout, or why it was implemented with little public notice. And Madeline Earp, the Asia research analyst with civil liberties organization Freedom House, said the internet in Kashmir has been intentionally disrupted more than any other Indian state, and at least three times in the past year. This does more than cut people off from their families. She said a free and open internet could counter the same violence police are hoping to avoid.
“You have people trying to debunk aggressive messages, and then you’re essentially cutting off access to information that would be countering threat in a more effective way.”
Policing and censorship in Kashmir is heavier than the rest of India given its perception as a war zone. But the entire country has a history of draconian laws when it comes to free speech, particularly on the internet. In recent years, India has threatened press freedom (27 reporters have been killed with complete impunity since 1992), curbed mobile data access during protests, and shut down accounts on Twitter that mocked the prime minister.
In the world’s largest democracy, not all of these bans are constitutional, said Karuna Nundy, a Delhi-based lawyer who was instrumental in striking down 66A, a section of the Information and Technology Act that prohibited any “objectionable” online content, at the Supreme Court of India. She said the police were only allowed to exercise blackouts with proper notice, with good reason and at a proportionate scale, neither of which happened in Kashmir.
In addition, an attempt to crackdown on violence still needs to comply with 69A, a law that governs speech on the internet and regulates when the government can prevent access to websites, including Twitter. “There’s an incentive problem. Officials tend to be conservative on anything related to security. No one wants to be the guy who allowed the free speech but then something happens,” Nundy told Motherboard.
“These kind of blanket bans are hugely problematic. People use these [mobile networks] to socialize, to work, to look people up in case of an emergency.”
Meanwhile, Kashmiri families are nervous their connection to the world can be cut off at any given time. Some reports say the connectivity has been restored, but Mubarki has been forced to report and live from the city of Srinagar without internet on his devices. He said the police’s arbitrary control of their phones and internet is not about security.
“Cutting those links is thus actually meant, classical authoritarian-style, to further cage a population,” he said.
from Two Months of Internet Blackouts Have Taken a Toll on Kashmir
You may have already heard the news that will surely terrify Rudolph-loving children for the next few months: 323 reindeer were killed by lightning in Norway this weekend. On Sunday, the country’s Environment Agency released some pretty gnarly images and reported that the herd, which included 70 calves, was killed during some intense thunderstorms Friday.
Though the number of animals killed is unusual—I poked around and couldn’t find solid evidence of this many animals being killed by lightning before—animals being killed by lightning isn’t. Just a few months ago, 21 cows in South Dakota died when a lightning bolt hit the metal bale feeder where they were having a mid-rainstorm snack. It happens pretty frequently to cows, sheep, deer, and yes, reindeer.
But what exactly is happening when dozens, or hundreds, of animals are killed by lightning? Do multiple bolts strike in the same area, or does one bolt jump from animal to animal? Norway’s environmental agents are investigating the incident, so they’re still not 100 percent sure what happened, but looking at previous, similar mass animal lightning deaths gives us a likely answer.
Back in June of 1972, 53 caribou (which are also known as reindeer) were found dead in the Alaska tundra. A US Army helicopter crew doing training exercises spotted the downed herd and reported it to the state’s department of fish and game, which investigated. They checked for signs of depredation, or poisoning, but quickly came to the conclusion that lightning might have been the culprit. For one, two caribou herds less than two miles away were complete fine. For another, there was a giant Lichtenberg figure—tree-like patterns created by high voltage electric charges—carved into the earth under the dead caribou bodies. Real good detective work, guys.
"A potential difference developed between the animals’ front and back hooves."
After investigating the pattern of the Lichtenberg figure, researchers were able to make an educated guess as to what happened, which they published in The Journal of Wildlife Diseases. At that time of year in Alaska, the frost has thawed, making the top layer of soil wet, but only a few inches down. Water, as you may recall from third grade science, has good conductivity. When the lightning bolt hit, it would have travelled horizontally along the top of the ground, spreading out to where the herd was standing as it snaked toward the nearest body of water: a nearby creek.
Unfortunately, quadrupedal animals like caribou are particularly susceptible to electrocution because their front and back legs are so far apart, allowing a greater potential difference to develop as the current travels from front to back (or vice versa). It’s the same reason squirrels can chill on a power line without being electrocuted: there’s no difference in voltage along the wire, so the current doesn’t flow through the squirrel. But if Rocky touches a tree while still sitting on the wire, there’s a difference in voltage (a tree has none, the wire has a lot), and the current flows through and fries him.
That’s what the researchers suspect happened to the caribou: a single bolt of lightning hit the ground and the electric current spread horizontally along the moist top soil. As it hit the front legs of the caribou, a “potential difference developed between the animals’ front and back hooves.” That causes a jolt, which stopped their hearts, and that’s how you kill 53 caribou in a split second.
And it’s likely what happened in Norway this weekend. Just like the thawing Alaska tundra, the ground on Norway’s Hardangervidda mountain plateau was soaked from the rainstorms. When lightning hit, it could travel horizontally along the top of the soil too, and the four-legged reindeer wouldn’t have much hope of survival as the current hit them.
It’s a bummer to see so many animals felled in one swoop, even if it was just Mother Nature being her brutal self. On the plus side, think about how psyched the scavenger species would have been to come across this giant, barbecued reindeer buffet. It was a good day for them.
from A Very Simple Explanation for How Lightning Killed 323 Reindeer at Once
"'Properties' are things that you own or things about you," Thomforde continued. "When I ask, 'What's something about Beyoncé that can change?' everyone always says her hair. Now we have 'beyonce.hair', since hair is a property of Beyoncé. What's a thing about her hair that can change? Now we have 'beyonce.hair.color'. Then we can set it equal to something: 'beyonce.hair.color=red.'"
The class happens in three sessions throughout the year, before teachers take their newfound knowledge back to their own classrooms.
Thomforde (right) in the classroom. Image courtesy Emily Thomforde
"I relate all these arcane, technical, traditionally geeky things into ways my audience can relate to, and we found Beyonce was super relatable," Thomforde said. She consults and writes the curriculum for Vidcode, an online platform that teaches teens to code. In collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, Vidcode teaches elementary through high school teachers not just how to code themselves, but also how to teach their own students.
Beyoncé is not only someone everyone knows and looks up to, but the metaphor also has a "girl power message running through it," said Thomforde. "If we can attach coding to things everyone loves, we can normalize it, make it accessible to everyone, and de-stigmatize it." Teaching teachers (and all their students) to code can help close the gender gap in computer science, she added.
Over the past 30 years, women have fallen out of tech. They've declined from 37 percent of computer science graduates in the early 80s to 18 percent today. (The term "software engineering" itself was coined by female engineer and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton.) According to the Planet Money episode "When Women Stopped Coding," by 1984 it became nearly impossible to succeed in computer science courses unless you already had a home computer. At that point, the stereotype of computers as toys for boys—especially, geeky hacker boys—became ingrained in advertising and public attitudes about tech. Excluded from that stereotype, girls pursued other professional fields instead.
"Bey Script," however, is an example for teachers of how they can take something relatable and use it to teach their students coding, or to integrate coding into a larger lesson plan that's accessible to all genders. For instance, in a history or English class, students can choose a vocab word or concept and make a video around it, said Leandra Tejedor, cofounder and design lead at Vidcode. "They can record videos and then code effects on top of them," she said.
"Coding is like giving kids a hammer," said Thomforde. It's a tool they can apply to all different areas, even outside computer science. "We're trying to get those kids at a young age before they have the chance to disenfranchise themselves based on stereotypes."
Moreover, a more diverse body of programmers will lead to better software that fits a larger market. "Coding is for everyone," said Thomforde. "We're trying to open it up to all people."
from ‘Bey Script’ Uses a Clever Beyoncé Analogy to Teach Non-Techies How to Code
There may be more to contact lenses than meets the eye, according to a study released Monday in the journal Ophthalmology. In addition to correcting vision problems, these flexible lenses can be used to deliver drugs directly into the eyeballs of glaucoma patients, eliminating the need for self-administered eye drops.
Many scientists have already experimented with the concept of using contact lenses as a vector for medications to both prevent and treat eye diseases. But a common stumbling block past teams have encountered is preventing the drugged-up lenses from dumping medication into the patient’s eyes all at once, after contact with the cornea. A more mediated approach, in which lenses gradually deploy their palliative payload, is expected to produce better outcomes.
The new research, led by Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary ophthalmologist Joseph B. Ciolino, focuses on the development of this kind of slow-release drug delivery system.
Ciolino eyeballs the specialized lens. Image: John Earle Photography
Ciolino and his co-authors created lenses lined with a circumference layer of latanoprost, a glaucoma medication typically administered as eye drops. The peripheral latanoprost was encased in slow-dissolving polymers, allowing for a steadier, continuous release into the eyes of the four monkeys that served as test subjects for the study.
The goal here is to boost prevention and management of eye diseases by simplifying the treatment process. Eye drops are notoriously underused by patients for a variety of reasons, from the pains associated with their use to sheer forgetfulness. As many as one in two patients prescribed eye drops does not follow through on the treatment plan. Drug-delivering contact lenses could counteract these high rates of eye drop truancy by bundling medication into a more familiar package.
"If we can address the problem of compliance, we may help patients adhere to the therapy necessary to maintain vision in diseases like glaucoma, saving millions from preventable blindness," said Ciolino in a statement.
"This study also raises the possibility that we may have an option for glaucoma that's more effective than what we have today."
from These Contact Lenses Deliver Drugs Right to Your Eyeball
Tens of thousands of subscriber accounts for media company Infowars are being traded in the digital underground.
Infowars, created by famed radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, produces radio, documentaries and written pieces. The dumped data relates to Prison Planet TV, which gives paying subscribers access to a variety of Infowars content. The data includes email addresses, usernames, and poorly hashed passwords.
The administrator of breach notification site Databases.Land provided a copy of 100,223 records to Motherboard for verification purposes. Vigilante.PW, another breach notification service, also has the Infowars dump listed on its site, and says the data comes from 2014. However, every record appears to have been included twice in the data, making the actual number of user accounts closer to 50,000.
Motherboard tested 20 random email addresses and their corresponding usernames on the signup page for Prison Planet TV. Of those, 19 were already linked to accounts on the site, and although one email address wasn't registered, its username was.
At the time of writing, two victims in the dump reached by Motherboard confirmed that they had signed up to Infowars/PrisonPlanet.
Infowars did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The passwords are hashed with the notoriously weak MD5 algorithm, meaning they should be trivial for hackers to crack. Indeed, Motherboard successfully obtained the actual password for a number of users with a free online service.
The user accounts are in a SQL format file, implying that the data may have been obtained via SQL-injection, an ancient and yet often still effective type of web attack. (However, exactly how the data was stolen from the site is not confirmed).
The lesson: Users can never really be sure how a website is going to store their passwords. Instead of gambling, and just hoping that they've been hashed appropriately, users should make sure to sign up to different services with unique passwords. That way, when one site is hacked and its hashes cracked, the damage will be largely limited to that one site.
Another day, another hack.
from Tens of Thousands of Infowars Accounts Hacked
The term “machine learning” covers a grab bag of algorithms, techniques, and technology that are by now pretty much everywhere in modern life. However, machine intelligence has recently started to be used not just for identifying problems but to build better products. Amongst the first is the world’s only beers brewed with the help of machine intelligence, which went on sale a few weeks ago.
The machine learning algorithms uses a combination of reinforcement learning and bayesian optimisation to assist the brewer in deciding how to change the recipe of the beer, with the algorithms learning from experience and customer feedback.
Perhaps the most obvious intrusion of machine learning into the physical world is the voice recognition that drives Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. However, every time you search using Google, or take Netflix’s advice on what to watch this evening, you’re using it. Machine learning has proved itself useful in quickly identifying patterns that humans would overlook, or just be unable to find at all, in the vast amounts of data that we generate every day. Traditionally though, it does poorly when confronted with smaller amounts of data.
The machine learning approach used to brew the new beers is a Bayesian technique, in the form of Bayesian non-parametrics. This class of algorithm is efficient with data, but also very good at handling uncertainty.
Image: Alasdair Allan
“The critical problem you have when dealing with small amounts of data is that it generates uncertainty in areas where you have little experience. Many machine learning models don't deal with uncertainty very well—instead they rely on a lot of data in order to be able to generalise and form good predictions,” says Rob McInerney, co-founder of IntelligentX.
He went on to say that, “The beauty of the real world is that the surface we are optimising over is very complex and has many hills and troughs. The reality is it's very hard to know if you've hit a local minimum or whether something slightly better is just around the corner. I feel very strongly that a lot of data science doesn't really accept this and so pushes for trying to find some sort of 'perfect setting' in massive parameter spaces.”
As the Internet of Things becomes more pervasive the amount of data we leave in our wake will multiply and, as the intrusion of machine learning into our lives more pervasive and more obvious, it’s likely the world around us starts to customise itself to us without us asking— With a thin layer of computing, of machine intelligence, standing between us and the world. In the same way augmented reality technologies will sit between our own vision of the world, mixing the simulated and the real world, machine intelligence will sit between our actions and the world.
Image: Alasdair Allan
“The brewer's interaction with the algorithm is very much part of the technology and generates additional learning data—we like to think of the algorithm as being a bit like an apprentice, listening and learning from a master,” says McInerney, “However, unlike a human apprentice the tech can listen to multiple different master brewers as well as all the customers at the same time.”
Of the four beers beers released into the wild, I got to try three. The two I liked best were the Golden and the Pale Ale. The Golden is frothy, with a sharp taste, whilst the Pale has a taste almost that of sour apples. “The beer has taken a number of directions we didn't anticipate. For example, [the algorithm] has a bank of wildcard ingredients, like adding fruit to a recipe, in a bid to create beer that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible within craft brewing. That led to one of the beers having a hint of grapefruit added to it,” says McInerney. The beers taste almost, but not entirely, unlike what you’d expect. I rather enjoyed them.
“What's different for our use case is that we are seeing how this can help with creativity — ultimately creativity does have a lot to do with drawing from many different influencers,” says McInerney, “It's not that creativity should just be the average of whatever data we receive from our customers — rather the machine intelligent and the brewer, as a cooperative, can take inspiration from these conversations to create something new. In many ways 'art' is all about the relationship between the creator and the consumer, so we think this is all compatible to the notion of creativity.”
Obviously it’s not all about beer. The same technologies used here to brew beer are equally applicable in other verticals, including ones that are a bit less anthropocentric — Google for instance has reduced energy usage in its data centres by 40 percent using similar techniques.
With all the warnings that the robots are coming to take our jobs, it's perhaps then somewhat reassuring to know that amongst the first creative tasks that our new artificially intelligent overlords have been set is to brew better beer.
from The Arrival of Artificially Intelligent Beer
Somehow, against all odds, World of Warcraft is still with us. BlackBerry was the king of the smartphones when it first appeared, and "The Facebook" was still a thing you usually only found in the nation's elite colleges. But it's hung on, adjusting with the times. And after all the concerns about falling subscriber numbers and year-long stretches without patches, it's currently on the eve of its sixth expansion and it looks as lively as ever. Drop into the servers right now, and you'll find thousands of players fighting back demon invasions for loot and experience for their characters, and there's hardly a negative word around.
It's a good time to come back. In Legion, you can play through most of the new zones in any order you wish, allowing a break for the first time from the dogged treadmill of leveling progression. You share credit with players of your faction while killing quest enemies regardless of if you're grouped or not, which removes the frustration of not being able to finish a quest because other people are quicker at grabbing enemies than you. The new zones brim with classic Warcraft lore like Burning Legion demons and high elves, and each spec gets its own "artifact" weapons to level along with the class itself. Abilities and animations have been overhauled. allowing for things like the new "outlaw" rogue spec inspired by pirates. Even the new Demon Hunter class is a joy to play. It's fast, versatile, and it kicks off with one of WoW's best starting zones so far.
Keep in mind, though, that this is not the World of Warcraft that was; the World of Warcraft of Leeroy Jenkins and the one that Mr. T and William Shatner sang the praises of in a set of goofy commercials. The original game placed a heavy emphasis on grouping up with other players in the world while questing, and the challenges forged friendships that often carried over into "real life." Now, though, you can quest almost to the level cap without ever having to interact with another person.
This kind of sucks (unless, of course, you're opposed to the idea of playing with other people in the first place, in which case you probably shouldn't be playing an MMO). It's but one of the reasons why the fan-run Nostalrius Begins server that Blizzard shut down earlier this year was so popular. It recaptured the cooperative beauty of those early years and a time when the game's other elements were not quite as accessible as they are now.
But there's some necessity in the design. A heavy emphasis on grouping while leveling worked fine when WoW was in its infancy, but with each passing expansion the bulk of the player base and the endgame fun got pushed into new zones held ever farther away from new players. And thus Blizzard literally destroyed much of the old world's design with 2010's Cataclysm expansion, chucking much of the old world's quests in favor of a single-player focused story that made you the world's greatest hero.
Image: Blizzard/Leif Johnson
Fair enough. That still leaves the problem of having to slog through 100 freakin' levels of content as a new player if you want to experience the new stuff. It's a common problem with attracting lapsed and new players to aging MMOs, and I'd say it's played no small role in the decline of other worthy competitors like Lord of the Rings Online. With Legion, though (and Warlords of Draenor before it), Blizzard lets you skip all that with one free boost with your purchase that pushes your character to the relevant level at once.
There's thus no need to miss out on the fun at launch, when the player populations are at their highest. The "only" thing you're missing out on is the deep understanding of your character class that comes from playing it for 100 levels, but there's enough in Legion's 10 levels of leveling content that you can probably put it aside anyway.
Legion's strengths is that it brings back some of the social play. We'll likely never again see the type of bonds that were forged at the game's birth in 2004; the internet as a whole has moved on from that. But I admire the way Legion's faction-tagging lets me cooperate with players on the same quest without grouping with them, and the way the custom Group Finder (also introduced in Warlords of Draenor) lets me find people who are looking to do the same thing I'm doing, whether it's running old raids for cosmetic gear or finding people to run Challenge dungeons with.
Image: Blizzard/Leif Johnson.
As mentioned above, World of Warcraft allows for more solo-friendly play than it used to, but its Warlords of Draenor expansion pushed that tendency to absurd lengths with its "garrisons" that let you hang out in your own join for weeks at a time, collecting gear and gold and crafting supplies without any real incentive to leave. Elements of garrisons remain in the new "class halls," but these at least let you hang out with members of your own class in a setting that caters to the class' "feel." Mages, for instance, get a big library, while warriors get a Azerothy version of Valhalla. For the first time, it makes you feel like you're a part of a community, although I wonder how the feeling with last as the expansion marches on.
So far, in fact, Legion looks wonderful. There's already a new dungeon patch in the works for after the launch, which for me allays some fears that Blizzard will flat out ignore the game again like it did for over a year as it did in Warlords of Draenor. That content drought, I believe, killed World of Warcraft's subscribers far more than anything to do with the game's age. When there's nothing to do, people will leave.
But for now, they're coming back. And even if you only stick around for the ride from levels 100 to 110, I'd say it's safe to join them. Even if you haven't played for years, you'll find a World of Warcraft that looks as though it's finally fully adjusted to meeting the challenges of maintaining its relevance. And if for nothing else, stick around for the story. Legion brings us to the Tomb of Sargeras, the apocalyptic figure around whom all of Warcraft's lore revolves. In fact, sometimes I wonder if Legion's end will be Warcraft's. If it does, based on what I've seen, it's going out in style.
from It's a Good Time to Go Back to 'World of Warcraft'
When I was a kid, my friends and I spent hours in our school’s computer lab playing round after round of Scorched Earth on a beat up IBM PS/1. The game was simple and beautiful—each player controlled a tank and took turns lobbing explosives across the map at their opponent. Players charted a parabola meant to arc their munitions over mountains, through wind and onto the enemy’s tank.
It was easy to learn, impossible to master, and so much fun that it kept me and my friends in school long after we were supposed to go home. Scorched Earth is just one example of one of gaming’s oldest genres—the artillery shooter. It’s a genre most people have played, even if they don’t realize it.
Angry Birds—one of the most popular video games of all time—is a single player artillery game. And birds wouldn't hate pigs if millions of kids like me hadn’t spent countless hours lobbing explosives at each other in games such as Scorched Earth, Gorillas, and Worms.
Worms is a special case. The brightly colored, arcadey artillery shooter puts players in control of a team of worms fighting over a desolate wasteland. It’s wacky where other artillery games are grim, hilarious where others are serious and full of customization where so many of the artillery shooters are stripped down and simple.
Worms is an old mainstay in the genre, arguably the longest running artillery game still in production. MicroProse published the first Worms in 1995, just four years after Scorched Earth hit the market.
Scorched Earth defined the genre and showed a generation of game developers what artillery games could be. Worms took that ball and ran with it. The game evolved, stayed popular and ran through dozens of iterations. Developer Team17 just celebrated more than 20 years of Worms with the recent release of Worms W.M.D, the 25th installment in the long running series.
‘Scorched Earth’ in action. Image: Wendell Hicken/screengrab
Artillery games are almost as old as computers and video games themselves. Geeks working on mainframe computers back in the ‘60s programmed early artillery simulators and swapped the codes among themselves.
As personal computing took off in the ‘70s and ‘80s, hobby magazines such as Creative Computing published simple programs for their readers to try on their home PCs. The earliest of these was Artillery by Mike Forman from the Winter 1976 issue of Creative Computing.
The genre exploded and clones and variations of Artillery littered the personal computers and home console systems of the ‘80s. The Magnavox Odyssey2 has Smithereens and the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64 had Artillery Duel. If you played video games in the ‘80s, there’s a good chance you spent a lot of time firing tank shells at your friends in an artillery game.
The history of artillery shooters is the history of early PC video games. Early adopters and young coders swapped their favorite versions of Artillery, refined the code and created their own small variations. It’s an intimidating legacy and one Worms developers Team17 is well aware of.
“Without them there probably wouldn’t be Worms,” John Eggett Lead Designer for Worms W.M.D. told me. Eggett has been working on Worms games almost as long as the series has been around. He started working on the series as a quality assurance tester—a kind of paid beta tester—in 1997.
In the world of video game development, working QA is like starting in the mail room. Now, almost two decades later, he’s the lead developer of Team17’s latest installment in the franchise. He’s played a lot of artillery shooters and he knows he stands on the shoulders of giants.
Among the classics, none is as powerful and important as Scorched Earth. Wendell Hicken released the game in 1991 for DOS systems and it spread like wildfire.
The game defined the artillery shooter genre the way Half Life defined first person shooters. It was bright and colorful, it randomly generated its maps and it let players access a vast array of weapons such as napalm and cluster bombs. For the first time, players had robust control over the variables of the match, everything from wind speed to their tanks munitions loadout.
For early gamers, Scorched Earth was a revelation. For Eggett, the best part of the game was that it was as much fun to watch as it was to play, it’s a philosophy he’s carried into Worms. “Even if you were not playing there was still a lot of fun to be had in watching others play,” he explained. “The anticipation while they line up a shot, the screams when it goes right... or wrong.”
“Just about everyone has played a game of this type at some point,” Eggett said. “They are often easy to play but difficult to master, that's one reason I think they are attractive. I can sit down with anyone and if they can throw a ball they will understand how to play. Most are turn based which also opens up the genre to a larger audience. You don't need fast reactions and dexterity, a good eye and judgment will suffice.”
The original ‘Worms.’ Image: Team17/screengrab.
The importance of artillery games goes beyond playing and spectating. The popular genre was also a lot of developers' introduction to coding and development. As a kid, I learned the foundations of coding from a simple book called The Absolute Beginner's Guide to QBasic.
The book’s final project had aspiring coders programming Gorillas—a simplistic artillery game where giant apes stood on opposite ends of a vast city and lobbed explosive bananas at each other. I wasn’t the only one who learned how to code by creating an artillery game.
I asked Eggett about the book and Gorillas. It was a shot in the dark and his reply surprised me. “A lot of the more veteran team members [coded Gorillas] when we got our first PCs way back,” he said. “How's this for a coincidence, I asked one of our coders on W.M.D how he got into programming just the other day, and it was tinkering with Gorillas in QBasic.”
“At first glance Worms can look quite simple but behind the scenes there are so many mechanics at work."
Artillery shooters aren’t as popular as they once were. Successes such as Angry Birds and Worms are rare and poorly designed Scorched Earth knock offs litter digital storefronts. Artillery shooters seem so simple and Angry Birds was such a success that it’s hard to believe no other developer has released an Angry Birds killer.
But Eggett isn’t surprised. He told me the genre only seems easy to make. “At first glance Worms can look quite simple but behind the scenes there are so many mechanics at work. It also takes a lot of balancing. To make a good artillery game takes a lot of effort.”
That’s part of what’s kept Worms around for so long—Team 17 keeps innovating. “We update and refine,” he told me. The games took the dark humor of games such as Atari’s Smithereens and took it to absurd heights.
“Worms is well renowned for its sense of humor, especially weapons such as the Banana Bomb, Holy Hand Grenade and Concrete Donkey,” a giant, donkey statue that falls from the sky and explodes on contact, Eggett explained.
Worms also kept itself alive by learning from Scorched Earth—customization is king. Worms W.M.D. lets players personalize their army of crawlers as well as alter dozens of variables such as wind speed and weapon damage. The militant worms can even craft new weapons during the round.
Those changes keep an old game new and interesting. It’s how Worms survived in a market that’s largely forgotten artillery shooters. The tiny, hilarious, and high pitched screams of the worms as they burn when blasted by a flamethrower don’t hurt either.
from 'Worms' Is the World's Best 'Scorched Earth' Clone