Tag: Science

Disconnected computers can be hacked

wargames-hackerFor years the most basic method of super security for a computer was to unplug it from the network or internet.

However a team of security experts from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have discovered a new method to breach air-gapped computer systems.

Dubbed “BitWhisper” the hack enables two-way communications between adjacent, unconnected PC computers using heat.

According to a paper penned by Mordechai Guri, computers and networks are air-gapped when they need to be kept highly secure and isolated from unsecured networks, such as the public Internet or an unsecured local area network. Typically, air-gapped computers are used in financial transactions, mission critical tasks or military applications.

According to the researchers, “The scenario is prevalent in many organisations where there are two computers on a single desk, one connected to the internal network and the other one connected to the Internet. BitWhisper can be used to steal small chunks of data (e.g. passwords) and for command and control.”

BGU’s BitWhisper bridges the air-gap between the two computers, approximately 15 inches (40 cm) apart that are infected with malware by using their heat emissions and built-in thermal sensors to communicate. It establishes a covert, bi-directional channel by emitting heat from one PC to the other in a controlled manner.

By regulating the heat patterns, binary data is turned into thermal signals. In turn, the adjacent PC uses its built-in thermal sensors to measure the environmental changes. These changes are then sampled, processed, and converted into data.

“These properties enable the attacker to hack information from inside an air-gapped network, as well as transmit commands to it… Only eight signals per hour are sufficient to steal sensitive information such as passwords or secret keys. No additional hardware or software is required. Furthermore, the attacker can use BitWhisper to directly control malware actions inside the network and receive feedback.”


Boeing patents Star Trek shields

cheap_shields_03The US aircraft maker Boeing claims to have invented Star Trek style force fields even before it has built the US enterprise.

Everyone knows that the first Enterprise shipped with ablative plating and any defence involved charging the plating and real shielding did not come until much later.

However Boeing’s patent number 8,981,261 describes a force field that would use energy to deflect any potential damage.could provide a real-life layer of protection from nearby impacts to targets.

At the moment it will not protect from direct hits from a rifle, let alone a Klingon Bird of Prey.

The system can sense when a shock wave generating explosion occurs near a target. An arc generator then determines the small area where protection is needed from the shock waves.
It then springs into action by by emitting laser pulses that ionise the air, providing a laser-induced plasma field of protection from the shock waves.

“Explosive devices are being used increasingly in asymmetric warfare to cause damage and destruction to equipment and loss of life. The majority of the damage caused by explosive devices results from shrapnel and shock waves,” the patent says.

While Boeing may been granted the patent, it’s unclear how long it will be before the company deploys the real-life force fields.

Laser inventor dies

r6uhkgtsix9vtvl3pjd4The boffin who laid the foundations for the development of the laser has died. Charles Townes was 99.

Townes who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964 is  best known as the “inventor” of the laser but he was also a pioneer in the field of infrared astronomy and was the first to discover water in space.

He first built a maser in the mid-1950s, which used microwave amplification rather than light.

At the time Gordon Gould at ARPA and Ted Maiman at Hughes Labs were working on similar research in the late 1950s. I Maiman who built a practical laser in 1960, but he used the published research of Townes.

Townes shared his 1964 Nobel Prize with Russian scientists N. G. Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov because they were also working on the laser in the Soviet Union concurrently and independently of Townes.

Later in his life, he became famous for suggesting that one-day science and religion would one day merge, revealing the secrets of creation.

The committed Christian told some Harvard students: “I look at science and religion as quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge. It’s a fantastically specialized universe, but how in the world did it happen?”

He was honoured in 2005 with the Templeton Prize for contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

Townes never really stopped working and would show up at Berkeley until he became unwell last year.

He did live long enough for his laser to be turned into the sci-fi weapon that it was touted to be in the 1960s, although not long enough to see them strapped to sharks.

India invented the airplane 7,000 years ago

India_flagThe Indian Science conference has hit the interwebs for the number of bizarre presentations being made.

If you believe the government-backed presentations, the world’s first plane was invented by the Hindu sage Maharishi Bharadwaj. Indian mathematicians also discovered the Pythagorean Theorem but the Greeks got the credit and elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha got his head because of the superiority of ancient Indian plastic surgeons.

All this is part of a cunning plan by the more nationalist Indian government to push its country’s achievements the only problem is that they appear to have lost their marbles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the conference on Saturday and urged the nation’s scientists to “explore the mysteries of science.” Modi was the one that said the elephant-trunked, pot-bellied Hindu god Ganesha got his head because of the presence of plastic surgeons in ancient India.

Anand Bodas, the retired principal of a pilot training facility claimed that the Indians invented the airplane because the ancient Vedas say so.

“The ancient planes had 40 small engines.” Also, he said, a flexible exhaust system that modern aviation can’t even approach – probably because they have to obey things like the laws of physics.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who was present at the session, said ancient Indian science was based on “experience and logic” and “that wisdom must be recognised”.

India’s science and technology minister, Harsh Vardhan, made another startling claim at the conference, saying that ancient Indian mathematicians also discovered the Pythagorean Theorem but that the Greeks got the credit.

Needless to say, Indian boffins are jolly cross about their conference being hi-jacked by pseudo-science nationalists. More than 200 scientists signed an online petition opposing Sunday’s scheduled lecture, called “’Ancient Indian Aviation Technology,” saying it amounted to “giving a scientific platform for a pseudo-science talk”.

“If we scientists remain passive, we are betraying not only the science, but also our children,” the petition said.

Computers crack catalogue conundrum

University of Wisconsin-Madison campus (Wikimedia)Boffins at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) believe they’ve developed a computer system for extracting data from scientific publications that equals or even betters human ability.

The problem is that after machine reading, computers have difficulties figuring out even simple statements, so the scientists who devised the software program has used probability to decipher the text.

Christopher Ré, a professor of computer sciences, project managed the software development in a bid to quickly summarise, collate and index the mountain of data produced by scientists worldwide.

They tested their system called PaleoDeepDive against human scientists manually entering data into the Paleobiology database.  The software mimics the action of the human scientists and the machine accessed tens of thousands of articles.

Shanan Peters, a professor of science at UWM, said: “Ultimately, we hope to have the ability to create a computer system that can do almost immediately what many geologists and paleontologists try to do on a smaller scale over a lifetime: read a bunch of papers, arrange a bunch of facts, and relate them to one another in order to address big questions”.

NSF spends a fortune on cloud-based supercomputers


The National Science Foundation (NSF) has invested $16 million to build cloud-based and data-intensive advanced computing systems for the open science community

In a statement the NSF said that high performance computing (HPC) had become central to the work and progress of researchers in all fields, from genomics and ecology to medicine and education, new kinds of computing resources and more inclusive modes of interaction are required.

It has splashed out on two new supercomputing acquisitions for the open science community that it says will complement existing resources with capabilities that allow advanced computing to be available to a broader portfolio of emerging scientific frontiers and communities. The new resources are anticipated to come online in early 2016.

The “Bridges” system will be housed at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) and the “Jetstream” computer will be  co-located at the Indiana University Pervasive Technology Institute (PTI) and The University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC).

Irene Qualters, division director for Advanced Cyberinfrastructure at NSF  said that Bridges and Jetstream will expand the capabilities of the NSF-supported computational infrastructure, pushing the frontiers of science forward in the life sciences, the social sciences and other emerging computational fields by exploiting interactive and cloud systems.

“Bridges and Jetstream offer a mix of new capabilities and usage modalities, from large memory nodes to virtualization technologies that allow a PC-like experience via the cloud. Together, these technologies will let a broader swath of researchers use advancing computing while making new kinds of scientific inquiry possible.”

A $9.6-million NSF grant will fund the acquisition of the system, to begin in November 2014, with a target production date of January 2016.

Jetstream–led by Indiana University’s Pervasive Technology Institute (PTI)–will add cloud-based computation to the national cyberinfrastructure. Researchers will be able to create virtual machines on the remote resource that look and feel like their lab workstation or home machine, but are able to harness thousands of times the computing power.

Craig Stewart, PTI executive director and associate dean for research technologies at Indiana University said that the new Jetstream cloud system will operate at the border between the existing NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure and thousands of researchers and research students who will be new to use of NSF XD program resources. Jetstream will give researchers access to cloud computing and data analysis resources interactively, when they need them.

Jetstream is supported by a $6.6-million NSF grant and will go into production in January 2016.

Boffins will have a personal cloud

tornadoResearchers will soon have their own clouds, thanks to the efforts of a non-Profit organisation Internet2.

Internet2 has worked out a way to let scientists create and connect to virtual spaces, within which they will be able to conduct research across disciplines and to experiment on the nature of the web.

Robert Ricci, a research assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Computing said that this will allow computer-science researchers to look at new ways of potentially designing networks that could influence how the internet itself works.

Internet2 connects more than 250 American colleges and universities, as well as corporations, research groups, and government agencies. The group also facilitates research by connecting campuses and transmitting large amounts of data at a faster speed than commercial networks offer.

New software developed by the group divides the Internet2 network into private sectors with two projects, CloudLab and Chameleon, provide frameworks for the creation of clouds connected by Internet2.

Ricci said that this will enable computer scientists to do is come up with better network-management systems to support scientists who have these large data transfers.

Boffins will benefit from the project, but so should computational scientists and researchers in other fields.

This will be a big hand in situations where digital and physical worlds intersect, such as in the collaboration between researchers.

The programme is funded by a $10-million grant from the National Science Foundation, and will be free to researchers whose proposals are approved.

It means that Universities with a large hardware budget will not be the only ones who benefit from this sort of technology.

It is a Luddite world, claims PayPal co-founder

LudditePeter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, said that we live in a world where science is hated and real technological progress has stalled.

Thiel told the Gartner Symposium/IT this week that there is little innovation out there and he blames the fact that we are living in a financial, capitalistic age.

He said that this is a period in history when  people generally dislike science and technology. Movies “all show technology that doesn’t work, that … kills people, that it is bad for the world.”

Terminator, The Matrix, Avatar, Elysium and Gravity. The message of Gravity is that “you never want to go into outer space”. The movie industry is reflecting and feeding a public bias against science, he said.

Thiel added that technology has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1950s or 1960s. During that period, it meant computers and rockets, underwater cities, new forms of energy and all sorts of supersonic airplanes. Since then, there “has been this narrowing” view that technology is mostly information technology, he said.

While advances today may be enough to dramatically improve business efficiencies and create great new companies, “it’s not clear it’s always enough to take our civilization to the next level,” said Thiel.

Thiel thinks that there is a lack of any conviction. If you have conviction around getting certain things done, a very short list of things, that’s how you really push for progress,” whether in a corporation or government.

He said that the Manhattan project, which built a nuclear bomb in 3.5 years, and led to the moon landing in the 1960s was a complex coordination around a well-defined plan, which is very out of fashion.

Brown Dog snuffles the 99 percent

cover-image-530x360A team of boffins is developing a search engine which can find all the data on the world wide web which cannot be seen by search bots.

The engine, dubbed Brown Dog, searches the web for uncurated data and makes it accessible to scientists.

Kenton McHenry, who along with Jong Lee lead the Image and Spatial Data Analysis division at the National Center for Supercomputing Application (NCSA) said that the information age has made it easy for anyone to create and share vast amounts of digital data, including unstructured collections of images, video and audio as well as documents and spreadsheets.

But the ability to search and use the contents of digital data has become exponentially more difficult because digital data is often trapped in outdated, difficult-to-read file formats and because metadata–the critical data about the data, such as when and how and by whom it was produced–is nonexistent.

McHenry and his team at NCSA have been given a $10 million, five year award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to manage and make sense of vast amounts of digital scientific data that is currently trapped in outdated file formats.

So far they have come up with a Data Access Proxy (DAP) which transforms unreadable files into readable ones by linking together a series of computing and translational operations behind the scenes.

Similar to an internet gateway, the configuration of the Data Access Proxy would be entered into a user’s machine settings and then forgotten. Data requests over HTTP would first be examined by the proxy to determine if the native file format is readable on the client device. If not, the DAP would be called in the background to convert the file into the best possible format readable by the client machine.

The second tool, the Data Tilling Service (DTS), lets individuals search collections of data, possibly using an existing file to discover other similar files in the data.

Once the machine and browser settings are configured, a search field will be appended to the browser where example files can be dropped in by the user. Doing so triggers the DTS to search the contents of all the files on a given site that are similar to the one provided by the user.

While browsing an online image collection, a user could drop an image of three people into the search field, and the DTS would return images in the collection that also contain three people. If the DTS encounters a file format it is unable to parse, it will use the Data Access Proxy to make the file accessible.

The Data Tilling Service will also perform general indexing of the data and extract and append metadata to files to give users a sense of the type of data they are encountering.

McHenry said the two services are like the Domain Name Service (DNS) in that they can translate inaccessible uncurated data into information.

According to IDC, a research firm, up to 90 percent of big data is “dark,” meaning the contents of such files cannot be easily accessed.

Brown Dog is not only useful for searching the Deep Web, it could one day be used to help individuals manage their ever-growing collections of photos, videos and unstructured/uncurated data on the Web.

Beer improves your memory, claim mice

4-mouse-in-beer-alternative-uses-for-beer-things-beer-is-good-for-besides-drinkingThirsty boffins at Oregon State University have discovered that doses of xanthohumol, a flavonoid found in beer improved memory and thinking.

True, the experiment was conducted on a group of mice who were not knocking back pints in the snug at the Rat and Handgun. Instead they were injected with flavonoids, found in hops.

Last year, researchers discovered that a flavonoid found in celery and artichokes could potentially fight pancreatic cancer, which is less headline worthy than anything mentioning beer.

The researchers treated the mice with dietary supplements of xanthohumol over the course of eight weeks to see if xanthohumol could affect palmitoylation, a naturally occurring process in animals  – including humans – that’s associated with memory degradation.

The mice then went through a series of tests to gauge whether or not the treatments had improved their spatial memory and cognitive flexibility. For the younger mice in the group, it worked. Tragically older mice in the group found that xanthohumol didn’t seem to have any effect and they just sat around moaning about the rodents of today and how Margaret Thatcher was a brilliant leader.

Xanthohumol is rare and hops are the only known source. The dose the mice were given could be found by drinking 2,000 litres of beer a day for six weeks.

Still, the findings suggest the compound could one day be used medicinally to treat cognitive problems in humans.  Which is ironic because we drink beer to forget.  We can’t remember what, which means that it is working.


Tablets and smartphones kill your brain

mybrianhurtsUsing mobile phones, laptops and other media devices at the same time could be changing the structure of our brains and not in a good way.

University of Sussex research reveals that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower grey-matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who use just one device occasionally.

This supports the view that high media-multitasking activity and poor attention in the face of distractions, along with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

Neuroscientists Kep Kee Loh and Dr Ryota Kanai point out that their study reveals a link rather than causality and that a long-term study needs to be carried out before anyone can be certain.

The researchers at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain structures of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media.

People who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.

Kep Kee Loh said his study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure.

Scientists have previously demonstrated that brain structure can be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience. The neural pathways and synapses can change based on our behaviours, environment, emotions, and can happen at the cellular level (in the case of learning and memory) or cortical re-mapping, which is how specific functions of a damaged brain region could be re-mapped to a remaining intact region.

Kep Kee Loh said that the mechanisms of these changes are still unclear. It is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC.

Scientists twist to get more radio bandwidth

twistScientists from three international universities have twisted again, like they did last summer, and  managed to transfer data at the speed of 32 gigabits per second.

This is 30 times faster than 4G LTE wireless technology.

The team, led by Alan Willner, of the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, successfully demonstrated data transmission rates of 32 gigabits per second across 2.5m of free space in his basement.

He pointed out that this is one of the fastest data transmission via radio waves that has been demonstrated.

Dubbed “High-capacity millimetre-wave communications with orbital angular momentum multiplexing” is published in the latest issue of journal Nature Communications.

This speed can only be eclipsed by twisting light, Willner did this two years ago, and achieved data transmission speeds of 2.56 terabits per second. But radio is more reliable because it uses wider, more robust beams. Wider beams are better able to cope with obstacles between the transmitter and the receiver, and radio is not as affected by atmospheric turbulence as optics.

Millimetre waves occupy the 30GHz to 300GHz frequency bands.. They are found in the spectrum between microwaves, which take up the 1GHz to 30GHz bands, and infrared waves, which are sometimes known as extremely high frequency (EHF).

Mobile operators are becoming interested in millimetre waves as they seek to create faster 4G LTE networks and beat congestion from too many users accessing the internet on their phones at one time.

The next plan is to extend the twisted radio beams’ transmission range and capabilities. The technology could have potential applications in data centres, where large bandwidth links between computer clusters are required.


US begins McCarthyite purge of scientists

mccarthyism-3The US’s obsession with imaginary terrorists has resulted in what appears to be a McCarthy style purge of academics.

According to Science the latest to be purged is Valerie Barr who, in 1979, when she was 22, handed out leaflets, stood behind tables at rallies, and baked cookies to support two left-wing groups, the Women’s Committee Against Genocide and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence.

In a few years, she had become a top software academic and found herself too business for such causes and a quarter-century later, she’s a tenured professor of computer science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a national reputation for her work improving computing education and attracting more women and minorities into the field.

In August 2013 she took a leave from Union College to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in its Division of Undergraduate Education and that is when she found herself in trouble with the terror police.

The FBI insists that Barr lied during a routine background check about her affiliations with “a domestic terrorist group” that had ties to the two organisations to which she had belonged in the early 1980s.

On 27 August, NSF said that her “dishonest conduct” compelled them to cancel her temporary assignment immediately, at the end of the first of what was expected to be a two-year stint.

Behind all this craziness is an obscure agency within the White House called the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) it has huge control over hiring workers because it is supposed to arrange background checks.

Ironically labelling her a terrorist and booting her off the progamme is a security own goal. Barrs job was to help the US combat cyberterrorism.

So how much of a security threat was she?  Well the two groups she was involved with were affiliated with a third, the May 19 Communist Organization (M19CO), that carried out a string of violent acts, including the killing of two police officers and a security guard during a failed 1981 robbery of a Brink’s truck near Nyack, New York.

When she was asked if she had ever been a member of an organization “dedicated to the use of violence” to overthrow the U.S. government or to prevent others from exercising their constitutional rights she had said no.

But since in the mind of the FBI the three groups were all linked she must have known that she was a member of the M19CO/

“I found out about the Brink’s robbery by hearing it on the news, and just like everybody else I was shocked,” she recalls.

Barr says she was casually acquainted with two of the convicted murderers, Judith Clark and Kuwasi Balagoon (née Donald Weems) but had no prior knowledge of their criminal activities.

Barr also has some ammunition in the form of the fact that the FBI investigator into her case was, according to his own blog, somewhat of a conservative who likes to tell stories about thumping atheist academics. Barr is a feminist and a lesbian.

All this calls into question whether the US government is hiring scientists on the basis of their ability to do a job or shooting itself in the foot following the same McCarthest mindset which paralysed the US for years.

Basically it means that it does not matter how good a scientist or computer security expert you are, if you are a woman, a lesbian or belonged to groups when you were a kid which we think might have been left wing extremists, we don’t want you working for our government.


Get your mind melded

mind-meldHumans just got a step closer to being able to think a message into someone else’s brain on the other side of the world.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Starlab Barcelona in Spain, and Axilum Robotics in Strasbourg, France have successfully achieved brain-to-brain transmission of information between humans.

The team used a number of technologies that enabled them to send messages from India to France without performing invasive surgery on the test subjects.

The test involved seeing if a person could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre wondered if it was possible to bypass the talking or typing part of internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication long distance.

Using a combination of internet-connected electroencephalogram and robot-assisted, image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation, the team was able to communicate words from one human to another.

The set up was similar to those used in brain-computer interface studies. A human subject had electrodes attached to their scalp, which recorded electrical currents in the brain as the subject had a specific thought.

Normally the data is interpreted by a computer however this time it the output device was another human.

The words “Ciao” and “Hola” were translated into binary. This was then shown to the emitter subject, who was instructed to envision actions for each piece of information: moving their hands for a 1 or their feet for a 0. An EEG then captured the electrical information in the sender’s brain as they thought of these actions, which resulted in a sort of neural code for the binary symbols — which in turn was code for the words.

The researchers think that this represents an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional means of communication.

It is not quite a Vulcan mild meld yet. The bit rates were two bits per minute which is slower than an asthmatic ant with a heavy load of shopping.

Potential applications, however, include communicating with stroke patients.

Russian sex mad geckos die in space

lizardA team of sex mad geckos who were sent by the Russians to see what they could do in zero gravity returned to earth stone dead.

The geckos were sent aboard Russian satellite Foton M-4 to study effects of zero gravity on reproductive systems.

According to officials at the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, the geckos – four females and one male died a week before the landing.

Apparently the satellite’s other randy cargo, the fruit flies were still alive and bred like crazy in space.

As the Foton satellite was not equipped to transmit live feeds back, Russian scientists will have to pick apart the 44 days of footage to know when exactly and why the geckos met their death.

Other than the fruit flies the entire experiment was a disaster. The Foton-M4 satellite was launched on 19 July, 2014 from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan. Though slated for two months, the capsule was recalled after 44 days following problems that began a few days after the launch.