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Tag Archives: devin-coldewey

Venezuela ties its currency to a state-run cryptocoin

Venezuela has just taken drastic and unprecedented steps to stabilize its currency as it grapples with hyperinflation and other economic issues. The country’s currency has not only been massively devalued and renamed, but is now tied to a state-issued cryptocurrency called the Petro, which itself fluctuates based on oil prices. Hardly anyone knows what to expect out of this. The Petro is not new; it arrived earlier this year in the form of a stepped offering to private and then public buyers, raising more than $3 billion from foreign governments and presumably some private buyers. President Trump forbade the U.S. from taking part . It is supposed to be a liquid asset reflective of the price of oil, and there is of course a whitepaper that describes the system in broad strokes, though it lacks almost any real technical detail. But the country’s own national assembly called the state-issued cryptocurrency unconstitutional, blockchain industry experts have called it a scam and there are Russian machinations to consider as well. Bloomberg has a good roundup of official communications about the token. The scheme originated in the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and seems to be an attempt to lend some credibility and stability to the country’s currency. The strong bolivar, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value over the last decade, has been renamed the sovereign bolivar and artificially returned to pre-inflation values.

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It’s Friday so relax and watch a hard drive defrag forever on Twitch

It’s been a while since I defragged — years, probably, because these days for a number of reasons computers don’t really need to. But perhaps it is we who need to defrag. And what better way to defrag your brain after a long week than by watching the strangely satisfying defragmentation process taking place on a simulated DOS machine, complete with fan and HDD noise? That’s what you can do with this Twitch stream , which has defrag.exe running 24/7 for your enjoyment. I didn’t realize how much I missed the sights and sounds of this particular process. I’ve always found ASCII visuals soothing, and there was something satisfying about watching all those little blocks get moved around to form a uniform whole. What were they doing down there on the lower right hand side of the hard drive anyway? That’s what I’d like to know. Afterwards I’d launch a state of the art game like Quake 2 just to convince myself it was loading faster. There’s also that nice purring noise that a hard drive would make (and which is recreated here). At least, I thought of it as purring. For the drive, it’s probably like being waterboarded. But I did always enjoy having the program running while keeping everything else quiet, perhaps as I was going to bed, so I could listen to its little clicks and whirrs. Sometimes it would hit a particularly snarled sector and really go to town, grinding like crazy.

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The Automatica automates pour-over coffee in a charming and totally unnecessary way

Most mornings, after sifting through the night’s mail haul and skimming the headlines, I make myself a cup of coffee. I use a simple pour-over cone and paper filters, and (in what is perhaps my most tedious Seattleite affectation ), I grind the beans by hand. I like the manual aspect of it all. Which is why this robotic pour-over machine is to me so perverse… and so tempting. Called the Automatica , this gadget, currently raising funds on Kickstarter but seemingly complete as far as development and testing, is basically a way to do pour-over coffee without holding the kettle yourself. You fill the kettle and place your mug and cone on the stand in front of it. The water is brought to a boil and the kettle tips automatically. Then the whole mug-and-cone portion spins slowly, distributing the water around the grounds, stopping after 11 ounces has been distributed over the correct duration. You can use whatever cone and mug you want as long as they’re about the right size. Of course, the whole point of pour-over coffee is that it’s simple: you can do it at home, while on vacation, while hiking or indeed at a coffee shop with a bare minimum of apparatus. All you need is the coffee beans, the cone, a paper filter — although some cones omit even that — and of course a receptacle for the product. (It’s not the simplest — that’d be Turkish, but that’s coffee for werewolves.) Why should anyone want to disturb this simplicity? Well, the same reason we have the other 20 methods for making coffee: convenience. And in truth, pour-over is already automated in the form of drip machines. So the obvious next question is, why this dog and pony show of an open-air coffee bot?

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches tonight to ‘touch the sun’

NASA’s ambitious mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before is set to launch in the small hours between Friday and Saturday — at 3:33 AM Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be precise. The Parker Solar Probe, after a handful of gravity assists and preliminary orbits, will enter a stable orbit around the enormous nuclear fireball that gives us all life and sample its radiation from less than 4 million miles away. Believe me, you don’t want to get much closer than that. If you’re up late tonight (technically tomorrow morning), you can watch the launch live on NASA’s stream . This is the first mission named after a living researcher, in this case Eugene Parker, who in the ’50s made a number of proposals and theories about the way that stars give off energy. He’s the guy who gave us solar wind, and his research was hugely influential in the study of the sun and other stars — but it’s only now that some of his hypotheses can be tested directly. (Parker himself visited the craft during its construction, and will be at the launch. No doubt he is immensely proud and excited about this whole situation.) “Directly” means going as close to the sun as technology allows — which leads us to the PSP’s first major innovation: its heat shield, or thermal protection system . There’s one good thing to be said for the heat near the sun: it’s a dry heat. Because there’s no water vapor or gases in space to heat up, find some shade and you’ll be quite comfortable. So the probe is essentially carrying the most heavy-duty parasol ever created. It’s a sort of carbon sandwich, with superheated carbon composite on the outside and a carbon foam core. All together it’s less than a foot thick, but it reduces the temperature the probe’s instruments are subjected to from 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 — actually cooler than it is in much of the U.S. right now. Go on – it’s quite cool.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 sees Rockstar raising the bar for realism in open-world games

Open worlds have been a staple of gaming for a long time, but recent titles like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn have significantly pushed the boundaries of what players expect from their environments. Rockstar, of Grand Theft Auto fame, is looking to make them all look like toys with Red Dead Redemption 2 and its wild west frontier that looks to be not just huge, but refreshingly real . Rockstar is certainly best known for the immensely popular GTA series; but it’s arguable its most beloved game is actually 2010’s Red Dead Redemption , which, though a sequel, so spectacularly transplanted the run-and-gun outlaw freedom of GTA to the American West that gamers have been clamoring for a sequel for years. RDR2 was teased back in late 2016, but only recently have we seen hints of what it will actually look like. And today brings the first of a series of videos from the developer detailing the world, character and gameplay systems. The natural beauty of the frontier is, of course, simply amazing to see rendered in such fidelity, and Rockstar’s artists are to be commended. And it is realism that seems to be defining the project as a whole — which makes it a departure from other games whose creators bruit a living, breathing open world to explore. Take Far Cry 5 , which came out last year to mixed reviews: The natural landscape of fictional Hope County in Montana was roundly agreed to be breathtaking, but the gameplay and story were criticized as artificially and (strange juxtaposition) monotonously intense. It’s clear that Far Cry 5 , like other Ubisoft games, was a sandbox in which interesting but unrealistic situations were bred by the developers — a helicopter crashing on the person you’re rescuing from bandits, and then a cougar mauling the pilot. Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild were both praised for the depth and extent of their worlds and gameplay, but they both had the significant advantage of being fantasies. A mechanical dinosaur or ancient killing machine (same thing?) arrests the eye and imagination, but because one can’t really compare them to reality, they can stay definitively unrealistic. Creating a compelling sci-fi or fantasy world has its own significant challenges, but on the whole it’s considerably easier than creating a convincing replica of the real world. RDR2  seems to be attempting real realism in its game, to the extent that it’s possible.

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NASA puts $44 million toward cryogenics and mid-air spacecraft retrieval

NASA has announced a set of public-private partnerships with several U.S. space companies, totaling an impressive $44 million . Blue Origin, Astrobotic Technology, United Launch Alliance and more are the recipients of up to $10 million each for a variety of projects aimed at exploring and utilizing space safely and efficiently. The 10 awards are for “tipping point” technologies, as NASA calls them, that are highly promising but need funding for a ground or flight demonstration — in other words, to get it out of the lab. ULA is the big winner here, taking home $13.9 million split between three projects — $10 million will go to looking into a cryogenic vehicle fluid management system that could simplify and improve lunar landers. The rest of the money is split between another cryogenic fluid project for missions with long durations, and a project to “demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities up to 8,000 pounds… on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity.” Really, that last one is the cheapest? Blue Origin has $13 million coming its way, primarily for… yet another cryogenic fluid management system for lunar landers. You can see where NASA’s priorities are — putting boots on the regolith. The remainder goes to testing a suite of advanced sensors that could make lunar landings easier. The company will be testing both these systems on its New Shepard vehicle from as high as 100km. The other big $10 million prize goes to Astrobotic Technology, which will, like Blue Origin, be working on a sensor suite for Terrain Relative Navigation. It’s basically adding intelligence to a craft’s landing apparatus so it can autonomously change its touchdown location, implement safety measures and so on, based on the actual local observed conditions. The Mars 2020 Rover will be using its own TRN system, and the ones funded here will be different and presumably more advanced, but this gif from NASA does a good job illustrating the tech: Several other endeavors were selected by NASA for funding, and you can find them — and more technical details for the ones mentioned above — at the partnership announcement page

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Pokémon GO is getting PvP by the end of the year

As popular as Pokémon GO is, it has always been missing one major feature: pitting your Pokémon directly against another trainer’s. Strange, since that was the entire basis of the franchise to begin with! But the mobile game will at last get this much-requested feature by the end of the year, the company told Polish news site Gram . After a record-shattering debut and then a long slump as players perceived the game’s shallowness and abandoned it en masse, Pokémon GO is having something of a renaissance. Improved gym and social mechanics, better reliability and, of course, a host of new ‘mon have brought players back, and it seems that features will continue to be rolled out. What exactly the PvP mode will consist of is not clear. Chances are it will require players to be near each other, like the trading function. Though it is likely to produce some kind of reward, it likely will be limited in some other way, via a stardust or candy cost, to prevent people gaming the system. Niantic’s Anne Beuttenmüller, in her interview with Gram, didn’t get specific. She was more interested in talking about the upcoming Ingress Prime, a sort of relaunch of the game on which Pokémon GO is essentially based; that will also be released toward the end of the year. As for the highly anticipated Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which will no doubt involve people waving their phones around and uttering magic nonsense in full view of the public, her lips were sealed. It too will release around the end of the year! It’s going to be a busy holiday season.

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This 3D-printed camp stove is extra-efficient and wind-resistant

I love camping, but there’s always an awkward period when you’ve left the tent but haven’t yet created coffee that I hate camping. It’s hard not to watch the pot not boil and not want to just go back to bed, but since the warm air escaped when I opened the tent it’s pointless! Anyway, the Swiss figured out a great way to boil water faster, and I want one of these sweet stoves now. The PeakBoil stove comes from design students at ETH Zurich, who have clearly faced the same problems as myself. But since they actually camp in inclement weather, they also have to deal with wind blowing out the feeble flame of an ordinary gas burner. Their attempt to improve on the design takes the controversial step of essentially installing a stovepipe inside the vessel and heating it from the inside out rather than from the bottom up. This has been used in lots of other situations to heat water but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a camp stove. By carefully configuring the gas nozzles and adding ripples to the wall of the heat pipe, PeakBoil “increases the contact area between the flame and the jug,” explained doctoral student and project leader Julian Ferchow in an ETH Zurich news release. “That, plus the fact that the wall is very thin, makes heat transfer to the contents of the jug ideal,” added his colleague Patrick Beutler. Keeping the flames isolated inside the chimney behind baffles minimizes wind interference with the flames, and prevents you having to burn extra gas to keep it alive. The design was created using a selective laser melting or sintering process, in which metal powder is melted in a pattern much like a 3D printer lays down heated plastic. It’s really just another form of additive manufacturing, and it gave the students “a huge amount of design freedom…with metal casting, for instance, we could never achieve channels that are as thin as the ones inside our gas burner,” Ferchow said. Of course, the design means it’s pretty much only usable for boiling water (you wouldn’t want to balance a pan on top of it), but that’s such a common and specific use case that many campers already have a stove dedicated to the purpose. The team is looking to further improve the design and also find an industry partner with which to take it to market. MSR, GSI, REI… I’m looking at you. Together we can make my mornings bearable

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Amazon patents a real-time accent translator

Amazon has applied for a patent for an audio system that detects the accent of a speaker and changes it to the accent of the listener, perhaps helping eliminate communication barriers in many situations and industries. The patent doesn’t mean the company has made it (or necessarily that it will be granted), but there’s also no technical reason why it can’t do so. The application, spotted by Patent Yogi , describes “techniques for accent translation.” Although couched in the requisite patent-ese, the method is quite clear. After a little translation of my own, here’s what it says: In a two-party conversation, received audio is analyzed to see if it matches with one of a variety of stored accents. If so, the input audio from each party is outputted based on the accent of the other party. It’s kind of a no-brainer, especially considering all the work that’s being done right now in natural language processing. Accents can be difficult to understand, especially if you haven’t spoken with an individual before, and especially without the critical cues from facial and body movements that make in-person communication so much more effective. The most obvious place for an accent translator to be deployed is in support, where millions of phone calls take place regularly between people in distant countries. It’s the support person’s goal to communicate clearly and avoid adding to the caller’s worries with language barriers. Accent management is a major part of these industries; support personnel are often required to pass language and accent tests in order to advance in the organization for which they work. A computational accent remover would not just improve their lot, but make them far more effective. Now a person with an Arabic accent can communicate just as well with just about anyone who speaks the same language — no worries if the person on the other end has heavily Austrian, Russian or Korean-accented English; if it’s English, it should work.

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NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs. The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t. The result is the JPL Open Source Rover , a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR . “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.” The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

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DHS launches a new cyber hub to coordinate against threats to US infrastructure

Among the many things the current administration has been criticized for is its lack of a unified strategy to combat cyber threats, especially in light of ongoing election interference and psy ops perpetrated by Russia. The Department of Homeland Security is advancing the ball with the creation of the National Risk Management Center, intended on protecting critical infrastructure from attacks and subversion by online adversaries. The NRMC was announced today at a cyber summit in New York held by the agency, where DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen explained the purpose and justification for this new entity. Remarkably, she directly contradicted the ongoing soft-pedaling by the Executive of Russian operations targeting the country. “Let me be clear: Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians. It was directed from the highest levels. And we cannot and will not allow it to happen again,” she said. DHS Secretary Nielsen in 2017. Thus the creation of the NRMC, which will work directly with various entities and federal agencies to protect infrastructure like banking systems and the power grid (not to mention election systems ). These are such obvious targets for foreign intelligence to attack, either for destructive or informative purposes, that they merit special attention from our side as well, and DHS is in fact the one to provide it. The new center will be online and staffed tomorrow, though it will take some time to spin up completely as DHS allocates space, personnel and resources. Its exact duties, jurisdictions and connections with other units will no doubt be made clear as well

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Cult classic indie game La-Mulana finally gets a proper sequel

The sequel to the legendary, and legendarily difficult, indie sleeper hit La-Mulana has finally been released , and all gamers with a penchant for retro-style platforming and a broad masochistic streak are encouraged to descend into its depths. If there were a gaming achievement hall of fame, surely one of the rarest feats would be beating La-Mulana . The original game was a contemporary of the revered and influential Cave Story ; both were wonderful free games made with charming retro pixel art, but beyond that the stories diverged. While Cave Story was a relatively accessible action-adventure that took seven or eight hours to complete, La-Mulana’s tale of an archaeologist delving into the titular ruin was so deep, complex, obscure and difficult that only the truly dedicated were able to survive even the first few hours, let alone the dozens to come. The new game goes for a sort of 32-bit look, like the 2012 remake of the original. This gem, lovingly crafted to closely mimic the look and feel of an MSX game (though enormously expanded), received a screen-for-screen remake for the Nintendo Wii in 2012, but it wasn’t until early 2014 that the original team of three decided to make a whole new game. They raised $266,000 on Kickstarter , with an estimated delivery date of December 2015. That date slipped and slipped, but seemingly because the game they were creating was one worth taking the time to do right. Fast-forward a few more years and here we are: La-Mulana 2 was released today. It’s substantially the same: a labyrinthine underground ruin to explore, deadly traps and monsters to avoid and maddening puzzles to solve. I’ve played the first couple of hours and from what I can tell it is true to form. You’ll play as the daughter of the original explorer, who has arrived at the ruins to find them turned into a tourist trap — but soon it becomes clear that a twin ruin, hitherto unexplored, is wreaking havoc on the first one and must be investigated. If this game is even half the size and depth of the original it will be well worth the $25 price tag — plus you get the warm fuzzy feeling of supporting an indie developer that’s been doing its own weird thing for 15 years or so now. Just don’t expect any hand-holding — this game is the real deal, “Nintendo hard” all the way. It may not be up everyone’s alley, but I wanted to celebrate La-Mulana and its new sequel

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OpenAI’s robotic hand doesn’t need humans to teach it human behaviors

Gripping something with your hand is one of the first things you learn to do as an infant, but it’s far from a simple task, and only gets more complex and variable as you grow up. This complexity makes it difficult for machines to teach themselves to do, but researchers at Elon Musk and Sam Altman-backed OpenAI have created a system that not only holds and manipulates objects much like a human does, but developed these behaviors all on its own. Many robots and robotic hands are already proficient at certain grips or movements — a robot in a factory can wield a bolt gun even more dexterously than a person. But the software that lets that robot do that task so well is likely to be hand-written and extremely specific to the application. You couldn’t for example, give it a pencil and ask it to write. Even something on the same production line, like welding, would require a whole new system. OpenAI’s ‘Dota 2’ neural nets are defeating human opponents Yet for a human, picking up an apple isn’t so different from pickup up a cup. There are differences, but our brains automatically fill in the gaps and we can improvise a new grip, hold an unfamiliar object securely and so on. This is one area where robots lag severely behind their human models. And furthermore, you can’t just train a bot to do what a human does — you’d have to provide millions of examples to adequately show what a human would do with thousands of given objects.

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Tapping into the power grid could predict the morning traffic

Why is there traffic? This eternal question haunts civic planners, fluid dynamics professors, and car manufacturers alike. But just counting the cars on the road won’t give you a sufficient answer: you need to look at the data behind the data. In this case, CMU researchers show that electricity usage may be key to understanding movement around the city . The idea that traffic and electricity use might be related makes sense: when you turn the lights and stereo on and off indicates when you’re home to stay, when you’re sleeping, when you’re likely to leave for work or return, and so on. “Our results show that morning peak congestion times are clearly related to particular types of electricity-use patterns,” explained Sean Qian, who led the study. They looked at electricity usage from 322 households over 79 days, training a machine learning model on that usage and the patterns within it. The model learned to associate certain patterns with increases in traffic — so for instance, when a large number of households has a dip in power use earlier than usual, it might mean that the next day will see more traffic when all those early-to-bed people are also early to rise. The researchers report that their predictions of morning traffic patterns were more accurate using this model than predictions using actual traffic data. Notably, all that’s needed is the electricity usage, Qian said, nothing like demographics: “It requires no personally identifiable information from households. All we need to know is when and how much someone uses electricity.” Interestingly, the correlation goes the other way as well, and traffic patterns could be used to predict electricity demand. A few less brownouts would be welcome during a heat wave like this summer’s, so I say the more data the better.

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New York kicks Charter out of the state after failure to honor conditions of Time-Warner merger

Broadband providers! They love to make noise about how dedicated they are to improving your service, rolling out new features, and generally adhering to both the law and their own code of ethics. So how can it be that Charter has so badly failed the terms imposed on its purchase of Time-Warner Cable in 2016 that the state of New York is showing them the door? Could all these promises be only so many words? Say it ain’t so! Yes, to the surprise of no one but to the continued detriment of New York’s broadband customers, Charter has failed to meet various obligations, lied about compliance and performance, and apparently has even been operating unsafely out in the field. New York’s Public Service Commission approved the merger at the state level in 2016 on condition that the company expand broadband offerings in both quality and quantity; at a national level the FCC set its own conditions . Unfortunately Charter has failed repeatedly and publicly to meet the NY PSC’s requirements. The latter wrote in a press release (PDF) : Charter, doing business as Spectrum, has — through word and deed — made clear that it has no intention of providing the public benefits upon which the Commission’s earlier approval was conditioned. These recurring failures led the Commission to the broader conclusion that the company was not interested in being a good corporate citizen and that the Commission could no longer in good faith and conscience allow it to operate in New York. Charter is the largest cable provider in the state, serving some 2 million people in a variety of urban communities, so this isn’t a matter of swapping out a couple neighborhoods. The company has 60 days to provide a plan for “an orderly transition to a successor provider(s).” Difficulty level: “Charter must ensure no interruption in service is experienced by customers.” The PSC has clearly had it with the company and gladly recounts its sins: By its own admission, Charter has failed to meet its commitment to expand its service network that was specifically called for as part of the Commission’s decision to approve the merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable. Its failure to meet its June 18, 2018 target by more than 40 percent is only the most recent example. Rather than accept responsibility Charter has tried to pass the blame for its failure on other companies, such as utility pole owners, which have processed tens of thousands of pole applications submitted by Charter.

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