Most of us probably have a vision of how “The Robots” will eventually rise up and deal humanity out of the game. We’ve all seen that movie, of course, and know exactly what will happen when SkyNet becomes self-aware. But for those of you thinking we’ll get off relatively easy with a quick nuclear armageddon, we’re sorry to bear the news that AI seems to have other plans for us, at least if this report of dodgy AI-generated mushroom foraging manuals is any indication. It seems that Amazon is filled with publications these days that do a pretty good job of looking like they’re written by human subject matter experts, but are actually written by ChatGPT or similar tools. That may not be such a big deal when the subject matter concerns stamp collecting or needlepoint, but when it concerns differentiating edible fungi from toxic ones, that’s a different matter. The classic example is the Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) which varies quite a bit in identifying characteristics like color and size, enough so that it’s often tough for expert mycologists to tell it apart from its edible cousins. Trouble is, when half a Death Cap contains enough toxin to kill an adult human, the margin for error is much narrower than what AI is likely to include in a foraging manual. So maybe that’s AI’s grand plan for humanity — just give us all really bad advice and let Darwin take care of the rest.
Remember that time when the entire physics community dropped what it was doing to replicate the extraordinary claim that a room-temperature semiconductor had been discovered? We sure do, and if it seems like it was just yesterday, it’s probably because it pretty much was. The news of LK-99, a copper-modified lead apatite compound, hit at the end of July; now, barely three weeks later, comes news that not only is LK-99 not a superconductor, but that its resistivity at room temperature is about a billion times higher than copper. For anyone who rode the “cold fusion” hype train back in the late 1980s, LK-99 had a bit of code smell on it from the start. We figured we’d sit back and let science do what science does, and sure enough, the extraordinary claim seems not to be able to muster the kind of extraordinary evidence it needs to support it — with the significant caveat that a lot of the debunking papers –and indeed the original paper on LK-99 — seem still to be just preprints, and have not been peer-reviewed yet.
So what does all this mean? Sadly, probably not much. Despite the overwrought popular media coverage, a true room-temperature and pressure superconductor was probably not going to save the world, at least not right away. The indispensable Asianometry channel on YouTube did a great video on this. As always, his focus is on the semiconductor industry, so his analysis has to be viewed through that lens. He argues that room-temperature superconductors wouldn’t make much difference in semiconductors because the place where they’d most likely be employed, the interconnects on chips, will still have inductance and capacitance even if their resistance is zero. That doesn’t mean room-temperature superconductors wouldn’t be a great thing to have, of course; seems like they’d be revolutionary for power transmission if nothing else. But not so much for semiconductors, and certainly not today.
When it comes to cryptocurrency security, what’s the best way to secure the private key? Obviously, the correct answer is to write it on a sticky note and put it on the bezel of your monitor; nobody’ll ever think of looking there. But, if you’re slightly more paranoid, and you have access to a Falcon 9, you might just choose to send it to the Moon. That’s what is supposed to happen in a few months’ time, as private firm Lunar Outpost’s MAPP, or Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform, heads to the Moon. The goal is to etch the private key of a wallet, cheekily named “Nakamoto_1,” on the rover and fund it with 62 Bitcoins, worth about $1.5 million now. The wallet will be funded by an NFT sale of space-themed electronic art, because apparently the project didn’t have enough Web3.0 buzzwords yet. So whoever visits the lunar rover first gets to claim the contents of the wallet, whatever they happen to be worth at the time. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a human who visits.
Backing up. It’s such a simple thing on paper – making a copy of important files and putting them in a safe place. In reality, for many of us, it’s just another thing on that list of things we really ought to be doing but never quite get around to.
I was firmly in that boat. Then, when disaster struck, I predictably lost greatly. Here’s my story on what I lost, what I managed to hang on to, and how I’d recommend you approach backups starting today.
It looks like the ongoing semiconductor shortage isn’t getting any better, and if the recent spate of computer thefts from semi trucks is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. Thieves seem to be targeting the Freightliner Cascadia, probably the most popular heavy freight truck on the road in North America today, with “smash and grab” thefts targeting the CPC4, or Common Powertrain Control module. These modules are sitting ducks — they’re easy to locate and remove, the chip shortage has made legit modules nearly unobtanium from dealers, and the truck won’t run without them. That’s driven the black market price for a CPC up to $8,000 or more, making them a tempting target. And it’s not only individual trucks parked in truck stop lots that are being hit; gangs are breaking into trucking company lots and bricking dozens of trucks in short order. So the supply chain problem which started the semiconductor shortage caused the module shortage, which drives the thieves to steal modules and take trucks off the road, which only worsens the supply chain shortage that started the whole thing. Nice positive feedback loop.
When asked why he robbed banks, career criminal Willie Sutton is reported to have said, “Because that’s where the money is.” It turns out that a reporter made up the quote, but it’s a truism that offers by extension insight into why ATMs and point-of-sale terminals are such a fat target for criminals today. There’s something far more valuable to be taken from ATMs than cash, though — data, in the form of credit and debit card numbers. And taking a look at some of the hardware used by criminals to get this information reveals some pretty sophisticated engineering. We’d heard of ATM “skimmers” before, but never the related “shimmers” that are now popping up, at least according to this interesting article on Krebs.
While skimmers target the magnetic stripe on the back of a card, simmers are aimed at reading the data from card chips instead. Shimmers are usually built on flex PCBs and are inserted into the card slot, where traces on the device make contact with the chip reader contacts. The article describes a sophisticated version of shimmer that steals power from the ATM itself, rather than requiring a separate battery. The shimmer sits inside the card slot, completely invisible to external inspection (sorry, Tom), and performs what amounts to man-in-the-middle attacks. Card numbers are either stored on the flash and read after the device is retrieved, or are read over a Bluetooth connection; PINs are stolen with the traditional hidden camera method. While we certainly don’t condone criminal behavior, sometimes you just can’t help but admire the ingenuity thieves apply to their craft.
In a bit of foreshadowing into how weird 2020 was going to be, back in January of that year we mentioned reports of swarms of mysterious UAVs moving in formation at night across the midwest United States. We never heard much else about this — attention shifted to other matters shortly thereafter — but now there are reports out of Arizona of a “super-drone” that can outrun law enforcement helicopters. The incidents allegedly occurred early this year, when a Border Patrol helicopter pilot reported almost colliding with a large unmanned aerial system (UAS) over Tucson, and then engaged them in a 70-mile chase at speeds over 100 knots. The chase was joined by a Tucson police helicopter, with the UAS reaching altitudes of 14,000 feet at one point. The pilots didn’t manage to get a good look at it, describing it only as having a single green light on its underside. The range on the drone was notable; the helicopter pilots hoped to exhaust its batteries and force it to land or return to base, but they themselves ran out of fuel long before the drone quit. We have to admit that we find it a little fishy that there’s apparently no photographic evidence to back this up, especially since law enforcement helicopters are fairly bristling with sensors, camera, and spotlights.
When is a backup not a backup? Apparently, when it’s an iCloud backup. At least that’s the experience of one iCloud user, who uses a long Twitter thread to vent about the loss of many years of drawings, sketches, and assorted files. The user, Erin Sparling, admits their situation is an edge case — he had been using an iPad to make sketches for years, backing everything up to an iCloud account. When he erased the iPad to loan it to a family member for use during the pandemic, he thought he’s be able to restore the drawings from his backups, but alas, more than six months had passed before he purchased a new iPad. Apparently iCloud just up and deletes everythign if you haven’t used the account in six months — ouch! We imagine that important little detail was somehere in the EULA fine print, but while that’s not going to help Erin, it may help you.
And less the Apple pitchfork crowd think that this is something only Cupertino could think up, know that some Western Digital external hard drive users are crying into their beer too, after a mass wiping of an unknown number of drives. The problem impacts users of the WD My Book Live storage devices, which as basically network attached storage (NAS) devices with a cloud-based interface. The data on these external drives is stored locally, but the cloud interface lets you configure the device and access the data from anywhere. You and apparently some random “threat actors”, as WD is calling them, who seem to have gotten into some devices and performed a factory reset. While we feel for the affected users, it is worth noting that WD dropped support for these devices in 2015; six years without patching makes a mighty stable codebase for attackers to work on. WD is recommending that users disconnect these devices from the internet ASAP, and while that seems like solid advice, we can think of like half a dozen other things that need to get done to secure the files that have accumulated on these things.
And finally, because we feel like we need a little palate cleanser after all that, we present this 3D-printed goat helmet for your approval. For whatever reason, the wee goat pictured was born with a hole in its skull, and some helpful humans decided to help the critter out with TPU headgear. Yes, the first picture looks like the helmet was poorly Photoshopped onto the goat, but scroll through the pics and you’ll see it’s really there. The goat looks resplendent in its new chapeau, and seems to be getting along fine in life so far. Here’s hoping that the hole in its skull fills in, but if it doesn’t, at least they can quickly print a new one as it grows.
Normally we like hearing about old military gear going on the surplus market. But if you encounter some late-model Russian radio and crypto equipment for sale you might want to make sure it isn’t hot (English translation). If you prefer not picking through the machine translation to English, the BBC also has a good write-up.
The Russians maintain four large planes set up as flying command and control bunkers in case of nuclear war — so-called “doomsday planes.” Like the U.S. ABNBC (better known as Looking Glass) fleet, the planes can provide the President or other senior leaders a complete command capability while in flight. As you might expect, the radios and gear on the plane are highly classified.