Category Archives: Technology

Ethanol Research Grants Coming to an End

This is a revealing story.

A UW-Madison research center that has used the university’s largest-ever federal grant to develop ethanol technology over the past decade will shift its focus to other alternative fuels after winning another major award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will use the five-year grant to learn more about how to sustainably produce energy from switchgrass, poplar trees, sorghum and other dedicated bioenergy crops — those that, unlike ethanol, are not also used for food, director Tim Donohue said Monday.

The center received $267 million over 10 years from the Department of Energy for its ethanol research, which Donohue said will wind down over the next six to 18 months.

[…]

Ethanol has been embraced by the energy industry over the years, Donohue said, and putting greater emphasis on research to develop other biofuels fulfills the center’s mission “to generate next-generation technologies.”

Donohue said the Department of Energy encouraged the shift, pushing researchers to focus on potential fuels that would not be grown on land that is now used for agriculture, or compete with other uses for crops such as corn — what he described as a “food-vs.-fuel” issue.

The other biofuels could also have greater potential than ethanol when it comes to replacing fossil fuels across different transportation industries, said Donohue, a professor of bacteriology.

It is a maxim of employee compensation models that people will do what they are paid to do. It is a nod to human nature that people will usually act within their own self interests. That is not a bad thing, but it is something that one must acknowledge and understand when crafting policies. It is something that our Founders understood when creating our Constitution based on competing self interests instead of appealing to people’s idealistic nature.

Many of us have long argued that a significant amount of the “science” that supports some political initiatives like global warming policies or ethanol subsidies are the result of the fact that the scientists are being paid to have those opinions. Look at this story as an example of that. For a decade, the researchers at  Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center received hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to conduct research on the use of ethanol as a fuel. Accordingly, they have spent the last decade telling us that ethanol is great and a wonderful fuel alternative.

Now they will receive a ton of money to study other biofuels. And right on cue, here is the director telling us that “other biofuels could also have a greater potential than ethanol…” Of course they could, because that is what he is being paid to study. The money would dry up pretty quickly if he said, “nah, ethanol is still the best.”

People do what they are paid to do.

Cyberattack Sweeps Globe

Ouch. We need an answer.

Companies across the globe are reporting that they have been struck by a major ransomware cyber-attack.

British advertising agency WPP is among those to say its IT systems have been disrupted as a consequence.

The virus, the source of which is not yet known, freezes the user’s computer until a ransom in untraceable Bitcoin is paid.

Ukrainian firms, including the state power company and Kiev’s main airport, were among the first to report issues.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant has also had to monitor radiation levels manually after its Windows-based sensors were shut down.

Uber Implements In-App Tipping

I don’t like this at all (from the email).

In-app tipping is here. From 5-star ratings to compliments, and now with tipping, our app gives you many ways to say thanks. To ensure a smooth, uninterrupted ride, you can tip drivers after your trip at a time when it’s convenient for you. Tips go directly to drivers; Uber takes zero service fees.

I am a frequent Uber user. One of the selling points for it is the ease of use and the fact that I can grab a ride without the need to carry cash or tip. I did occasionally tip, but only if the driver did something out of the ordinary (like stop at a shop or run through a drive through for me). There was never, however, any expectation of a tip.

The problem is that while Uber has a rating system where I can rate the driver, it also has a rating system where the driver can rate the passenger. The intent of that is that if a passenger is abusive, messy, drunk, or just gross, a bad rating will discourage other Uber drivers from having to put up with a bad passenger. Eventually, bad passengers will never be able to get an Uber ride.

Now that there is tipping, however, there is an incentive for the passenger to give big tips – even when it is undeserved – just to prevent being blackballed by bad ratings from grumpy drivers. Uber should have one or the other. Either have tipping or do away with the passenger rating system. Having both promotes undeserved tipping. It also increases the overall cost of using Uber versus other transportation alternatives.

Massive Data Breach Includes 62% of Americans

Yikes.

Sensitive personal details relating to almost 200 million US citizens have been accidentally exposed by a marketing firm contracted by the Republican National Committee.

The 1.1 terabytes of data includes birthdates, home addresses, telephone numbers and political views of nearly 62% of the entire US population.

The data was available on a publicly accessible Amazon cloud server.

Anyone could access the data as long as they had a link to it.

Ask not for whom the politicians toll

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

As one drives around these great United States, one is bound to find oneself on a toll road at some point. Thirty-five states require drivers to pay tolls on some 5,000 miles of roads as a way to raise money to pay for their transportation infrastructure. Is Wisconsin set to become the 36th?

Toll roads are nothing new. In fact, toll roads predate our nation. The first toll roads in the United States were constructed in the years immediately after the signing of the Constitution. The 1790s saw the construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and the Great Western Turnpike in New York.

For many of us who grew up in the previous century, our memories of toll roads are long lines of cars jostling for position at a row of toll booths while digging for the correct change. Toll roads have come a long way since then. We have David Cook to thank for revolutionizing toll roads in 1989. David Cook is the Dallas entrepreneur who founded Blockbuster. Before 1985, video rental stores existed as small, independent, unremarkable enterprises. Cook’s innovation was to utilize barcode scanning and database-driven inventory management to rent videos on a large scale. He then used a centralized distribution system and leveraged the behavioral and demographic information his databases held to get the movies people wanted into their local stores. Until the next wave of digital transformation obliterated its business model, Blockbuster was a remarkable business.

While still at Blockbuster, Cook invested in Amtech, a company that was tinkering with technology that used radio frequencies to identify moving objects. They hoped to use the technology for railroads. Cook envisioned another use for the technology to make toll roads faster by removing the need to collect cash. Cook installed the technology for free in Dallas in 1989 with tremendous results. Other companies and toll road authorities quickly followed suit.

Most toll roads in the U.S. still use a variation of Cook’s transponder technology, but it has been improved to where vehicles can travel at full speed. Newer technologies are also being developed. For example, in Colorado, a sophisticated camera system eliminates the need for a transponder by taking a picture of each car’s license plates and sending the bill to the owner.

But while the technology of separating drivers from their money has become remarkably convenient and easy, that does not resolve the essential economic and political problems associated with tolling.

One of the core responsibilities with which we have tasked our governments is to construct and maintain an adequate transportation infrastructure. This is necessary primarily for economic reasons since the movement of goods and labor is vital for economic prosperity. But it is also for the pleasure and enjoyment of citizens to be able to move around our great nation with relative ease.

A good transportation infrastructure is not inexpensive and there are a variety of philosophies on how to pay for it. One way is to just use general taxes under the notion that every taxpayer benefits from the transportation system either directly or indirectly. This spreads the cost over the greatest number of taxpayers and our political leaders must balance transportation priorities against all of the other demands on general funds like education, law enforcement, etc.

Another way to fund transportation is to levy taxes and fees from the direct users of the transportation system. This is largely how the state of Wisconsin does it by using the vehicle registration fee and gas tax as proxies for users. In Wisconsin, if you register several or larger vehicles, or buy a lot of gas, you pay more transportation taxes because you are presumably using the transportation infrastructure more. In the age of electric cars, however, the proxy of the gas tax is less valid than it once was.

Toll roads are merely an extension of the latter philosophy for transportation funding. It is a direct tax on the people using a specific road at a specific time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept, but it must be put into perspective.

The reason that Wisconsin Republican politicians are talking about toll roads is because they want to spend more money on transportation and they cannot find the money elsewhere. Wisconsin’s gas tax and registration fee are already well above the national average and the public has no appetite to raise our ranking any higher. State lawmakers could tap the state’s general fund for more money or borrow more, but there is also stiff opposition to those ideas. The idea of toll roads are being floated as another possible option to get more money from taxpayers.

The intractable problem with the transportation budget in Wisconsin is not that there is too little money for our needs. The problem is that politicians want to spend far more than Wisconsinites can afford. Toll roads will not fix that problem. Fiscal restraint and leadership will. Are Wisconsin’s Republicans capable of that anymore?

Trump Plans to Privatize Air Traffic Controllers

Excellent!

President Trump is expected to announce Monday that he will move to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system as part of an infrastructure reform push this week.

A White House official confirmed to ABC News that, as first reported by the Washington Post, the administration will hold multiple events next week related to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

In related news, Sweden deregulated its air traffic controllers a few years ago and they are innovating up a storm.

THE 67-metre-tall control tower that opened at San Francisco International Airport in October is a stylish structure that cost $120m. It is supposed to resemble a beacon of the sort used in ancient times to guide ships safely to harbour. Those in the know might be forgiven for wondering if the new control tower is less a beacon than a white elephant. Elsewhere, airport managers are starting to abandon the panopticons that have dominated airfields for decades in favour of remote-controlled versions that promise to be cheaper and safer. Instead, they are housed in ordinary low-rise buildings, in some cases hundreds of kilometres away from the facility they are monitoring.

These remote control towers receive a live video feed from cameras positioned around an airfield. The images are stitched together by computer and displayed on screens (as pictured above) to create a virtual view of the runways and taxiways being monitored. In some cases the screens surround the air-traffic controllers, creating a 360° image. Separate screens can be used to display different airfields, because some remote towers will control flights in and out of a number of airports.

The first airport to deploy a virtual control tower was the one that serves Ornskoldsvik, in northern Sweden, which is used by about 80,000 passengers a year. In April 2015 the conventional tower at this airport was closed. The controllers moved to a remote tower at Sundsvall, some 130km to the south, that had been built by LFV, Sweden’s air-navigation agency, and Saab, a Swedish technology firm. Last year, this tower also began monitoring flights at its local airport, Sundsvall-Timra. Next year it will start looking after those at Linkoping City Airport, in southern Sweden, too.

Meanwhile in the U.S.

At any given time, around 7,000 aircraft are flying over the United States. For the past 40 years, the same computer system has controlled all that high-altitude traffic—a relic of the 1970s known as Host. The core system predates the advent of the Global Positioning System, so Host uses point-to-point, ground-based radar. Every day, thousands of travelers switch their GPS-enabled smartphones to airplane mode while their flights are guided by technology that predates the Speak & Spell.

The Exorcist

Well played, Hennessey… well played

Dodge has been anything but coy regarding the fact it has a pretty powerful Challenger coming in the form of the Demon. However, Hennessey Performance Engineering thinks it can beat back Mopar’s devilish muscle car. Meet Hennessey’s The Exorcist.

The Exorcist begins life as a normal 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which is already no angel with 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Hennessey cranks the dial way past 11 to push the supercharged 6.2-liter LT4 V-8 out to 1,000 hp and 996 lb-ft of torque thanks in part to a larger, higher flowing supercharger and intercooler system, which is dialed in to produce 14 psi of boost pressure.

Live Facebook Arrest

That’s hilarious.

A Florida man joyfully flashing money live on the internet got a sudden surprise when police officers barged in and arrested him for allegedly selling drugs.

A man identified by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office as 22-year-old Breon Hollings went on Facebook Live to show friends a handful of money, saying, “It don’t stop, man, it don’t stop.”

He then retrieves more money from another room and starts shuffling it when he hears Jacksonville officers warning over a loudspeaker they are about to raid the house. A stunned Hollings runs out of the room. Seconds later, officers barge in. Hollings was arrested off camera.

Hollings faces numerous drug charges and was being held on $425,000 bail Saturday. It could not be determined if he has an attorney.

World’s Largest Plane Unveiled

Very cool.

s079697138-300-1496282095

Even if you had been allowed to kick the tires as the world’s largest airplane was rolled out for the first time Wednesday, it might have taken you a while

Stratolaunch — which is designed to release rockets that will carry satellites into space — has a 385-foot wingspan, features six engines used by the Boeing 747, stands 50 feet tall and can carry more than 500,000 pounds of payload.

And it has those 28 wheels.

The twin-fuselage aircraft, the baby of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was pulled out of its Mojave Air and Space Port hangar in California to begin fueling tests — the first of many ground tests.

U.S. Shoots Down Missile

Wow. Shooting a bullet with a bullet.

Washington (CNN)The Pentagon successfully shot down an intercontinental ballistic missile using its own upgraded long-range interceptor missile on Tuesday in what was widely seen as a test of US ability to counter a North Korean missile launch.

The Missile Defense Agency launched a ground-based interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to intercept a US-launched mock ICBM target over the Pacific Ocean, according to a US defense official.
The interceptor “destroyed the target in a direct collision,” according to a statement from the Missile Defense Agency.
“The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment … and a critical milestone for this program,” said MDA Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring.

Microsoft President Hammers Government Secrecy

He’s got a point.

In a blog post on Sunday, Microsoft President Brad Smith appeared to tacitly acknowledge what researchers had already widely concluded: The ransomware attack leveraged a hacking tool, built by the U.S. National Security Agency, that leaked online in April.

“This is an emerging pattern in 2017,” Smith wrote. “We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world.”

He also poured fuel on a long-running debate over how government intelligence services should balance their desire to keep software flaws secret – in order to conduct espionage and cyber warfare – against sharing those flaws with technology companies to better secure the internet.

“This attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem,” Smith wrote. He added that governments around the world should “treat this attack as a wake-up call” and “consider the damage to civilians that comes from hoarding these vulnerabilities and the use of these exploits.”

Accidental Hero

Excellent!

A UK security researcher has told the BBC how he “accidentally” halted the spread of the malicious ransomware that has affected hundreds of organisations, including the UK’s NHS.

The 22-year-old man, known by the pseudonym MalwareTech, had taken a week off work, but decided to investigate the ransomware after hearing about the global cyber-attack.

He managed to bring the spread to a halt when he found what appeared to be a “kill switch” in the rogue software’s code.

“It was actually partly accidental,” he told the BBC, after spending the night investigating. “I have not slept a wink.”

Although his discovery did not repair the damage done by the ransomware, it did stop it spreading to new computers, and he has been hailed an “accidental hero”.

“I would say that’s correct,” he told the BBC.

Wannacrypt Races Across the World

Please, folks… keep your computers updated.

LONDON — As many as 74 countries have been hit by a huge, fast-moving and global ransomware attack that locks computers and demands the digital equivalent of $300 per computer, Kaspersky Lab, a Russian-based cybersecurity company, said Friday.

The infections have disabled more than a dozen hospitals in the United Kingdom, Spain’s largest telecom company and universities in Italy as well as some FedEx computers. Ransomware encrypts the files on a computer or network demanding that payment be made in Bitcoin or another untraceable digital currency before the criminals will unlock the files.

Infected computers showed a screen giving the user three days to pay the ransom. After that, the price would be doubled. After seven days the files would be deleted, it threatened.

[…]

Kasperksy’s Baumgartner did note that although the ransomware was able to offer “how to pay” documents in dozens of languages, the only language whose writing was perfect was Russian, with the others showing distinct signs that a non-native speaker had written them. “The English is very good, but there are a couple of quirks that would lead me to believe it wasn’t written by a native English speaker,” he said.

Presidential Campaign Hacked

In France.

(CNN)Leading French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has been the victim of a “massive and coordinated hacking operation,” after files purporting to be from the campaign were posted online via social media, his campaign said Friday.

Campaign officials said the perpetrators of the hack — revealed just two days before the election — had mixed fake documents with authentic ones “in order to create confusion and misinformation.”
About 14.5 gigabytes of emails, personal and business documents were posted, a CNN look at the data shows. Links to the 70,000-plus files were posted on pastebin, a text-sharing site, just before 2 p.m. ET Friday.
This does seem to be an ongoing tactic by anarchists and malcontents. Campaigns are going to have to go back to doing everything in person in smoky back rooms.

DNA Found in Sediment

It’s truly amazing how far DNA technology has come.

The DNA of extinct humans can be retrieved from sediments in caves – even in the absence of skeletal remains.

Researchers found the genetic material in sediment samples collected from seven archaeological sites.

[…]

Back in the lab, they fished out tiny fragments of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – genetic material from the mitochondria, which act as the “powerhouses” of biological cells. Even sediment samples that had been stored at room temperature for years yielded DNA.

Dr Meyer and his team members were able to identify the DNA of various animals belonging to 12 mammalian families, including extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave bear and cave hyena.

The scientists looked specifically for DNA from ancient humans in the samples.

“From the preliminary results, we suspected that in most of our samples, DNA from other mammals was too abundant to detect small traces of human DNA,” said co-author Viviane Slon, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

“We then switched strategies and started targeting specifically DNA fragments of human origin.”

Engaged to a Robot

The next frontier in civil rights?

A young woman named Lilly greeted me when I arrived. She was glowing as she set the table with cheese, crackers and French pastries. We were surrounded by picture frames of her and the token of her affection. She poured champagne, and together we toasted her engagement … to a robot.

She calls the robot inMoovator, and in a story reminiscent of the Greek myth of Pygmalion, Lilly built inMoovator herself, 3D printing dozens of parts in a lab nearby. She plans to eventually add artificial intelligence. The first words she wants to program: “I love you.”

Lilly says she was 19 when she realized she didn’t like people.

“It was a slap in the face. I wondered what was happening to me,” she said. “I wanted myself to be attracted to humans, so after my first relationship, I had a second one. But I went against my own nature. So it was all the more disastrous.”

Guy Arrested for Tweet

This will be an interesting bit of case law.

A man accused of sending a flashing image to a writer in order to trigger an epileptic seizure has been arrested, the US justice department says.

John Rayne Rivello, 29, of Maryland, sent Kurt Eichenwald an animated image with a flashing light on Twitter in December, causing the seizure.

He has been charged with criminal cyber stalking and could face a 10-year sentence, the New York Times reports.

“You deserve a seizure for your post,” he is alleged to have written.

Mr Eichenwald is known to have epilepsy. He is a senior writer at Newsweek magazine, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a best-selling author of books including The Informant.

On the one hand, if the allegations are true, Rivello clearly acted with malicious intent to cause harm to Eichenwald and succeeded in causing that harm. On the other hand, we are treading in dangerous territory if we are going to start arresting people for stuff that they wrote on Twitter.

NASA Finds Lost Lunar Orbiters

Cool.

(CNN)It made history as India’s first unmanned lunar spacecraft. Then it vanished.

Nearly a decade later, NASA has located two unmanned spacecraft orbiting the moon, including India’s Chandrayaan-1, which went quiet in 2009.
Scientists used a new ground radar to locate the two spacecraft — one active and one dormant, NASA said Thursday.
“We have been able to detect NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO] and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar,” said Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission’s navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located.”
The Chandrayaan-1 was more of a challenge because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August 2009.

Wikileaks Drops a Bomb on CIA

This is horrible.

Wikileaks has published details of what it says are wide-ranging hacking tools used by the CIA.

The alleged cyber-weapons are said to include malware that targets Windows, Android, iOS, OSX and Linux computers as well as internet routers.

Some of the software is reported to have been developed in-house, but the UK’s MI5 agency is said to have helped build a spyware attack for Samsung TVs.

A spokesman for the CIA would not confirm the details.

No, I’m not talking about CIA surveillance techniques. I’m talking about the massive breach in our national security. The continuing disclosures of national secrets needs to stop. Perhaps if we start executing traitors again it would deter such behavior.

Tesla Roof to be Cheaper than Normal Roof

Awesome. I’d buy one.

Elon Musk made quite the announcement today. During the special shareholders meeting to approve the merger with SolarCity, which they approved by 85%, he said that he was coming back from a meeting with the SolarCity engineering team about the solar roof and that he now feels confident that they could deliver the product at a lower cost than a regular roof – even before energy production.

That’s different from what the company was claiming before the meeting today.

And it’s an incredibly bold claim since if it turns out to be true, no homeowner would have any reason not to choose a solar roof when buying a new roof.