Our Right To Repair Depends On A Minimally Viable Laptop

It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.

The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?

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1 Trillion USD Refund! (PDF Enclosed)

Security researchers have found that it is possible to alter a digitally signed PDF without invalidating its signatures. To demonstrate it, they produced a fake document “refund order” of $1,000,000,000,000 dollars, with a valid signature from Amazon. This sparked my attention, since I was quite sure that they didn’t use some sort of quantum device to break the cryptography involved in the signing process. So what exactly is going on?

The researchers claim to found at least three different ways to, in their words:

… use an existing signed document (e.g., amazon.de invoice) and change the content of the document arbitrarily without invalidating the signatures. Thus, we can forge a document signed by invoicing@amazon.de to refund us one trillion dollars.

That’s not good news if you take into account that the main purpose of digitally signing a document is, well, prevent unauthorized changes in that document. The good news is that you can update your software to fix this flaws because of this research; the main PDF readers companies were given time to fix the issues. The bad news is that if you rely on the signature verification for any sensitive process, you likely want to go back and see if you were using vulnerable software previously and check that documents were correctly validated. I’m thinking about government institutions, banks, insurance companies and so on.

The implications are yet to be seen and probably won’t even be fully known.

There are three classes of attacks that work on different software. I’ll try to go into each one from what I could tell from reading the research.

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Putting the Brakes on High-Frequency Trading with Physics

In the middle of the East Coast’s slow broil in the summer of 2018, a curious phenomenon surfaced. As a tropical air mass settled in and smothered the metropolitan New York area, a certain breed of stock speculator began feeling the financial heat as the microwave signals linking together various data centers and exchanges began to slow down. These high-frequency traders rely on getting information a fraction of a second before other traders see the same thing and take advantage of minuscule price differences to make money hand over fist.

While you won’t catch us shedding many tears over the billions these speculators lost during the hot spell, we did find the fact that humidity can slow microwave propagation enough to make this a problem for them a fascinating subject, enough so that we covered it in some detail at the time. While financial markets come and go and the technology to capitalize them changes at a breakneck pace, physics stays the same, and it can make or break deals with no regard to the so-called fundamentals.

So it was with great interest that we happened upon Tom Scott’s recent video outlining how one new stock exchange is using physics to actually slow down stock trades, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage over the other exchanges. In light of the billions lost over the summer to propagation delays amounting to a mere 10 microseconds, we couldn’t help but wonder how injecting a delay 35 times longer using a “magic shoebox” was actually good for business. It turns out to be an interesting story.

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Stethoscopes, Electronics, and Artificial Intelligence

For all the advances in medical diagnostics made over the last two centuries of modern medicine, from the ability to peer deep inside the body with the help of superconducting magnets to harnessing the power of molecular biology, it seems strange that the enduring symbol of the medical profession is something as simple as the stethoscope. Hardly a medical examination goes by without the frigid kiss of a stethoscope against one’s chest, while we search the practitioner’s face for a telltale frown revealing something wrong from deep inside us.

The stethoscope has changed little since its invention and yet remains a valuable if problematic diagnostic tool. Efforts have been made to solve these problems over the years, but only with relatively recent advances in digital signal processing (DSP), microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and artificial intelligence has any real progress been made. This leaves so-called smart stethoscopes poised to make a real difference in diagnostics, especially in the developing world and under austere or emergency situations.

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The Woeful World of Worldwide E-Waste

How large is the cache of discarded electronics in your home? They were once expensive and cherished items, but now they’re a question-mark for responsible disposal. I’m going to dig into this problem — which goes far beyond your collection of dead smartphones — as well as the issues of where this stuff ends up versus where it should end up. I’m even going to demystify the WEEE mark (that crossed out trashcan icon you’ve been noticing on your gadgets), talk about how much jumbo jets weigh, and touch on circular economies, in the pursuit of better understanding of the waste streams modern gadgets generate.

Our lives are encountering an increasing number of “how do I dispose of this [X]” moments, where X is piles of old batteries, LCDs, desktop towers, etc. This leads to relationship-testing piles of garbage potential in a garage or the bottom of a closet. Sometimes that old gear gets sold or donated. Sometimes there’s a handy e-waste campaign that swings through the neighborhood to scoop that pile up, and sometimes it eventually ends up in the trash wrapped in that dirty feeling that we did something wrong. We’ve all been there; it’s easy to discover that responsible disposal of our old electronics can be hard.

Fun fact: the average person who lives in the US generates 20 kg of e-waste annually (or about 44 freedom pounds). That’s not unique, in the UK it’s about 23 kg (that’s 23 in common kilograms), 24 kg for Denmark, and on and on. That’s quite a lot for an individual human, right? What makes up that much waste for one person? For that matter, what sorts of waste is tracked in the bogus sounding e-waste statistics you see bleated out in pleading Facebook posts? Unsurprisingly there are some common definitions. And the Very Serious People people at the World Economic Forum who bring you the definitions have some solutions to consider too.

We spend a lot of time figuring out how to build this stuff. Are we spending enough time planning for what to do with the gear once it falls out of favor? Let’s get to the bottom of this rubbish.
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Predicting Weather with the Internet of Cars

Follow this train of thought: cars have sensors, cars are in frequent use over large areas, cars are the ultimate distributed sensor network for weather conditions.

Many years ago, as I wasted yet another chunk of my life sitting in the linear parking lot that was my morning commute, I mused that there had to be a way to prevent this madness. I thought: What if there was a way for the cars to tell each other where slowdowns are? This was long before smartphones, so it would have to be done the hard way. I imagined that each vehicle could have a small GPS receiver and a wireless transceiver of some sort, to send the vehicle’s current position to a central server, which would then send the aggregate speed data for each road back to the subscriber’s car. A small display would show you the hotspots and allow you to choose an alternate route. Genius! I had finally found my billion dollar idea.

Sadly, it was not to be. Seemingly days later, everyone on the planet had a GPS-equipped smartphone in his or her pocket, and the complex system I imagined was now easily implemented as software. Comically, one of the reasons I chose not to pursue my idea is that I didn’t think anyone would willingly let a company have access to their location information. Little did I know.

So it was with great interest that I read an article claiming that windshield wiper data from connected cars can be used to prevent floods. I honestly thought it was a joke at first, like something from a Monty Python sketch. But as I read through the article, I thought about that long-ago idea I had had, which amounted to a distributed sensor platform, might actually be useful for more than just detecting traffic jams.

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In Space, No One Can Hear You Explode: The Byford Dolphin Incident

“It wouldn’t happen that way in real life.” One of the most annoying habits of people really into the “sci” of sci-fi is nitpicking scientific inaccuracies in movies. The truth is, some things just make movies better, even if they are wrong.

What would Star Wars be without the sounds of an epic battle in space where there should be no sound? But there are plenty of other examples where things are wrong and it would have been just as easy to get them right — the direction of space debris in the movie Gravity, for example. But what about the age-old trope of explosive decompression? Some movies show gross body parts flying everywhere. Others show distressed space travelers surviving in space for at least brief periods.

It turns out, dropping pressure from one atmosphere to near zero is not really good for you as you might expect. But it isn’t enough to just make you pop like some meat balloon. You are much more likely to die from a pulmonary embolism or simple suffocation. But you are a meat balloon if you experience a much greater change in pressure. How do we know? It isn’t theoretical. These things have happened in real life.

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