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FCC wants to stop spending on gear from companies that ‘pose a national security threat’

The U.S. maneuvers against China’s tech giants continue today with an official announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the agency may soon ban purchasing anything from companies that “pose a national security threat.” Huawei, ZTE and other major tech manufacturers aren’t named specifically, but it’s clear what is meant. Pai lists the risk of backdoored routers, switches and other telecoms equipment as the primary threat; Huawei and ZTE have been accused of doing this for years, though hard evidence has been scarce. The proposal would prohibit any money from the FCC’s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund, used for all kinds of projects and grants, to be spent on companies beholden to “hostile governments.” Pai mentioned the two Chinese giants in a previous letter describing the proposed plan. Both companies in question have strenuously denied the charges; perhaps most publicly by Richard Yu, CEO of the company’s consumer business group, at CES this year . But warnings from U.S. intelligence services have been ongoing since 2012, and Congress is considering banning Huawei equipment from use by government entities, saying the company “is effectively an arm of the Chinese government.” Strong ties between these major companies and the Chinese government are hard to deny, of course, given China’s particularly hands-on methods in this sort of thing. Ironically, however, it seems that our spy agencies are so sure about this in great part because they themselves have pushed for and occasionally accomplished the same compromises of network infrastructure. If they’ve done it, they can be sure their Chinese rivals have. The specifics of the rule are unknown, but even a relatively lax ban would likely be a big hit to Huawei and ZTE, which so far have failed to make a dent in the U.S.

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Rainforest Connection enlists machine learning to listen for loggers and jaguars in the Amazon

The vastness that makes the Amazon rainforest so diverse and fertile also makes it extremely difficult to protect. Rainforest Connection is a project started back in 2014 that used solar-powered second-hand phones as listening stations that could alert authorities to sounds of illegal logging. And applying machine learning has supercharged the network’s capabilities. The original idea is still in play: modern smartphones are powerful and versatile tools, and work well as wireless sound detectors. But as founder Topher White explained in an interview, the approach is limited to what you can get the phones to detect. Originally, he said, the phones just listened for certain harmonics indicating, for example, a chainsaw. But bringing machine learning into the mix wrings much more out of the audio stream. “Now we’re talking about detecting species, gunshots, voices, things that are more subtle,” he said. “And these models can improve over time. We can go back into years of recordings to figure out what patterns we can pull out of this. We’re turning this into a big data problem.” White said he realized early on that the phones couldn’t do that kind of calculation, though — even if their efficiency-focused CPUs could do it, the effort would probably drain the battery.

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More evidence ties alleged DNC hacker Guccifer 2.0 to Russian intelligence

It may be a while since you’ve heard the handle “Guccifer 2.0,” the hacker who took responsibility for the infamous DNC hack of 2016 . Reports from the intelligence community at the time, as well as common sense, pegged Guccifer 2.0 not as the Romanian activist he claimed to be, but a Russian operative. Evidence has been scarce, but one slip-up may have given the game away. An anonymous source close to the U.S. government investigation of the hacker told the Daily Beast that on one single occasion, Guccifer 2.0 failed to log into the usual VPN that disguised their traffic. As a result, they left one honest IP trace at an unnamed social media site. That IP address, “identified Guccifer 2.0 as a particular GRU officer working out of the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow,” the Daily Beast reported. (The GRU is one of the Russia’s security and intelligence organs.) Previous work by security researchers had suggested this, but it’s the first I’ve heard of evidence this direct. Assuming it’s genuine, it’s a sobering reminder of how fragile anonymity is on the internet — one click and the whole thing comes crashing down. It’s a bit of a foregone conclusion now, since in the time since the hack the notion of Russian interference with the election has gone from unnerving possibility to banal fact . And while a single impression like that may sound a bit flimsy, investigators would of course be putting it together with all kinds of other activity and patterns to be clear this wasn’t just a random intern checking his feeds at an open terminal.

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Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams that can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists. The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter .” Is that even possible?! For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250,000 “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order: Hydro Harvest : This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity. JMCC Wing : This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy. Skydra : Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.” The Veragon & Thinair : Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. U.K. collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals. Uravu : Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though

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Get the latest TC stories read to you over the phone with BrailleVoice

For the visually impaired, there are lots of accessibility options if you want to browse the web — screen readers, podcast versions of articles and so on. But it can still be a pain to keep up with your favorite publications the way sighted app users do. BrailleVoice is a project that puts the news in a touch-tone phone interface, reading you the latest news from your favorite publications (like this one) easily from anywhere you get a signal. It’s from SpaceNext , AKA Shan, who has a variety of useful little apps he’s developed over the years on his page — John wrote up one back in 2011 . Several of them have an accessibility aspect to them, something that always piques my interest. “Visually challenged users will find it difficult to navigate using apps,” he wrote in an email. “I thought with text to speech readily available… they would be able to make a call to a toll free number to listen to latest news from any site.” All you do is dial 1-888-666-4013, then listen to the options on the menu. TechCrunch is the first outlet listed, so hit 1# and it’ll read out the headlines. Select one (of mine) and it’ll jump right in. That’s it! There are a couple of dozen sites listed right now, from LifeHacker (hit 15#) to the Times of India (hit 26#). You can also suggest new sites to add, presumably as long as they have some kind of RSS feed. (This should be a reminder why you should keep your website or news service accessible in some like manner.) “More importantly,” he continued, “this works even without internet even in the remotest of places. You can listen to your favorite news site without having to spend a dime or worry about internet.” Assuming you can get a voice signal and you’ve got minutes, anyway

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Now would be a good time for Mark Zuckerberg to resign

Facebook is at the center of a dozen controversies, and outrage is peaking. The social network has failed again and again at expanding beyond a handful of core features. Doubts of its usefulness, and assertions of its uselessness, are multiplying. A crisis of confidence at multiple levels threatens the company’s structure and mission. Now is the time for Mark Zuckerberg to spare himself the infamy and resign — for Facebook’s sake and his own. I’m not calling for his resignation, and I don’t say this out of any animus toward Zuckerberg; I personally believe him to be genuine and driven in his stated desire to connect the world — but likely increasingly frustrated by the unexpected consequences of this naive ambition and the haste with which he has pursued it. I just think that it has come to the point where the best way for him to advance that ambition is to leave. There are three major reasons why. Facebook has failed Of course, it’s also true that Facebook has succeeded beyond every expectation. But its success arrived early and remains essentially a simple thing: being a broadly accessible, functioning social network. A single network of friends, a basic news feed from them and a few adjunct capabilities were industry-defining ideas and to a certain point were executed quite well. Beyond that admittedly towering success, Facebook has accomplished remarkably little. Attempts to make Facebook a ubiquitous social graph layer connecting all apps and services failed because consumers found it creepy, companies found it threatening to rely completely on the company for demographic data and tech was moving too quickly for the data Facebook had to be universally applicable. (Except, of course, in advertising, where it is evergreen.) Attempts to make Facebook a gaming platform failed partly because the social aspect of gaming is radioactive, and partly because the attention economy produces really bad games. Repurposing an established community into a gaming one was a non-starter, and what’s left of the brief Facebook gaming flash in the pan is just an oily residue clinging to the side of the news feed

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Tempe police chief says Uber “preliminarily…would likely not be at fault” for fatal crash

The chief of police in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber self-driving car just hit and killed a pedestrian, has told the San Francisco Chronicle that “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident.” Chief Sylvia Moir explained after viewing the car’s own video of the event that “she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” and that “it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode.” A lighted crosswalk was nearby but the place where the accident occurred was in the dark. The car would almost certainly have been aware of the pedestrian, but it’s also possible that she moved out in front of the car faster than the car could reasonably be stopped. The details are known only to Uber and the authorities at present and it wouldn’t be right to speculate too far, but Moir certainly seems to suggest that the latter scenario is a possibility.

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Selling data on millions ‘is the opposite of our business model,’ says Facebook’s Boz

Facebook’s former VP of ads has weighed in on the ongoing disaster involving his company’s apparent negligence in allowing data on as many as 50 million users to be used for nefarious purposes by Cambridge Analytica. In a post on (what else) Facebook , Andrew “Boz” Bosworth gave variations on the line we’ve come to expect from tech in these situations: They’re not supposed to do that, and anyway how could we have known? “This is the opposite of our business model,” he wrote. “Our interests are aligned with users when it comes to protecting data.” What reason could you possibly have to be skeptical of this declamation? He said much more than that, of course, and very earnestly indeed, but if you cut through the prevarication here’s the simplified timeline: Facebook deliberately allows developers to collect a bunch of data from users who authorize it, plus a bunch of their friends. (But developers have to promise they won’t use it in certain ways.) Shady people take advantage of this choice and collect as much data as possible for use off the Facebook network in ways Facebook can’t predict or control. (The quiz app in question is surely just one of many — this was an incredible opportunity for data snatchers.) Facebook fails to predict or control use of the data it released, and fails to protect users who never even knew their data had been released. (It also fails to learn that it has failed to control it.) The rest is noise, as far as I’m concerned. Even if anyone really believes that sharing data about users is not the Facebook business model, who cares what its business model is? Whatever plausible sounding business model it had before didn’t protect anyone, and didn’t stop these characters from collecting and using data in all sorts of shady ways. Of course there’s the strong possibility that Cambridge Analytica and others misused the data, didn’t delete it as promised, performed unsanctioned analyses on it. Oh no! Who would have thought someone would do that?

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Internet Archive adds trove of cheap LCD handhelds to its emulation collection

During CES, the single piece of electronics I spent the most time with, apart from my laptop and camera, was a Mattel Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game handheld. This decades-old device held the attention of John Biggs and myself through quite a few drinks as we navigated its arcane interface (eventually slaying the dragon, thank you). These cheap handhelds, sold as impulse buys at drug stores and Toys ‘R Us (RIP), are the latest thing to be collected and emulated in full by MAME and the Internet Archive. At first when I heard this, I was happy but not particularly impressed. They’re great little devices — mostly terrible games, albeit a nostalgic kind of terrible — but how complicated can they be? Oh, quite complicated, it turns out. Unlike, say, an NES ROM, these little gadgets don’t have their graphics palettized, their logic isolated, etc. No, each one of these things is a strange and unique little machine. They must be carefully taken apart and their logic teased out by experts. For one thing, the graphics aren’t pixels accounted for digitally. They’re etched into the liquid crystal system, to be activated when a charge runs through them. In other words, all the graphics are right there on the same screen, arranged like puzzle pieces

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Here’s how Uber’s self-driving cars are supposed to detect pedestrians

A self-driving vehicle made by Uber has struck and killed a pedestrian. It’s the first such incident and will certainly be scrutinized like no other autonomous vehicle interaction in the past. But on the face of it it’s hard to understand how, short of a total system failure, this could happen, when the entire car has essentially been designed around preventing exactly this situation from occurring. Something unexpectedly entering the vehicle’s path is pretty much the first emergency event that autonomous car engineers look at. The situation could be many things — a stopped car, a deer, a pedestrian — and the systems are one and all designed to detect them as early as possible, identify them and take appropriate action. That could be slowing, stopping, swerving, anything. Uber’s vehicles are equipped with several different imaging systems which work both ordinary duty (monitoring nearby cars, signs and lane markings) and extraordinary duty like that just described. No less than four different ones should have picked up the victim in this case. Top-mounted lidar. The bucket-shaped item on top of these cars is a lidar, or light detection and ranging , system that produces a 3D image of the car’s surroundings multiple times per second. Using infrared laser pulses that bounce off objects and return to the sensor, lidar can detect static and moving objects in considerable detail, day or night. This is an example of a lidar-created imagery, though not specifically what the Uber vehicle would have seen.

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IBM working on ‘world’s smallest computer’ to attach to just about everything

IBM is hard at work on the problem of ubiquitous computing, and its approach, understandably enough, is to make a computer small enough that you might mistake it for a grain of sand. Eventually these omnipresent tiny computers could help authenticate products, track medications and more. Look closely at the image above and you’ll see the device both on that pile of salt and on the person’s finger. No, not that big one. Look closer: It’s an evolution of IBM’s “crypto anchor” program, which uses a variety of methods to create what amounts to high-tech watermarks for products that verify they’re, for example, from the factory the distributor claims they are, and not counterfeits mixed in with genuine items. The “world’s smallest computer,” as IBM continually refers to it, is meant to bring blockchain capability into this; the security advantages of blockchain-based logistics and tracking could be brought to something as benign as a bottle of wine or box of cereal. A schematic shows the parts (you’ll want to view full size). In addition to getting the computers extra-tiny, IBM intends to make them extra-cheap, perhaps 10 cents apiece. So there’s not much of a lower limit on what types of products could be equipped with the tech. Not only that, but the usual promises of ubiquitous computing also apply: this smart dust could be all over the place, doing little calculations, sensing conditions, connecting with other motes and the internet to allow… well, use your imagination. It’s small (about 1mm x 1mm), but it still has the power of a complete computer, albeit not a hot new one. With a few hundred thousand transistors, a bit of RAM, a solar cell and a communications module, it has about the power of a chip from 1990. And we got a lot done on those, right? Of course at this point it’s very much still a research project in IBM’s labs, not quite a reality; the project is being promoted as part of the company’s “five in five” predictions of turns technology will take in the next five years.

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Teacher in Ghana who used blackboard to explain computers gets some Microsoft love

Teaching kids how to use a computer is hard enough already, since they’re kids, but just try doing it without any computers. That was the task undertaken by Richard Appiah Akoto in Ghana, and his innovative (and labor-intensive) solution was to draw the computer or application on the blackboard in great detail. His hard work went viral and now Microsoft has stepped in to help out . Akoto teaches at Betenase Municipal Assembly Junior High in the small town of Sekyedomase. He had posted pictures of his magnum opus, a stunning rendition of a complete Microsoft Word window, to Facebook. “I love ma students so have to do what will make them understand wat am teaching,” he wrote. He looks harried in the last image of the sequence. The post blew up (9.3K reactions at this point), and Microsoft, which has for years been rather quietly promoting early access to computing and engineering education, took notice. It happened to be just before the company’s Education Exchange in Singapore, and they flew him out. Akoto in Singapore. It was Akoto’s first time outside of Ghana, and at the conference, a gathering of education leaders from around the world, he described his all-too-common dilemma: The only computers available — one belonging to the school and Akoto’s personal laptop — were broken

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Alas, Digg Reader is shutting down at the end of March

After the death — no, let’s not mince words — murder of Google Reader, I tried out a dozen or so other RSS readers to see if I could get a similar experience. Of all the ones I tested, I was very surprised to find that Digg Reader was the best of them all, for my purposes anyway. It was simple, clean, compact, kept up to date, had no weird fluff, no “recommendations” or “trending articles” unless you accidentally visited Digg itself by accident, and since I started using it it has never had any downtime that I’ve noticed. I’ve come to rely on it as much as I did Google Reader in the past few years, so I am sad to see that the service is shutting down in two weeks. You’ll still be able to export your feeds for a while afterwards, though. Digg itself will live on, but the Reader portion is being retired. I understand why — RSS readers aren’t exactly glitzy or profitable, they’re more a public service than anything. At some point a company has to reckon with that and decide whether they want to continue subsidizing a tool used by relics like me instead of whatever most people use, probably Twitter or something. Well, Digg Reader, you were a great tool and I’m sad to leave you. Guess it’s time for me to test out another dozen RSS readers, or maybe bite the bullet and host my own.

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MIT gadget puts multiple artificial organs into a paperback-sized connected system

If you want to see how a proposed drug affects human physiology, your options are limited — and usually you end up using mice, which are in many ways poor analogues. What’s a pharmacologist to do? MIT researchers have a solution: a “body on a chip” that simulates up to 10 interconnected human organs at once using millions of living cells. Anyone can understand the problem, which is simply that mice aren’t humans, and tests on them are necessarily limited. There exist quite a few “organ on a chip” platforms (more properly “microphysiological systems”), and while they’re useful, organs don’t exist in isolation — they’re part of complex systems that vary from person to person. What if you only tested a drug on a bunch of liver cells, but failed to account for the effect of certain byproducts produced by the kidneys? Or what if a byproduct of the drug interferes with some critical process two organs down the line? In case you can’t tell, I am not a medical doctor, but the idea is there: without accounting for these complexities, the testing is incomplete. Say what you will about mice — at least they’re complete organisms. To better simulate the body, MIT researchers created a much more complex platform where researchers can put up to 10 organ tissues in separate compartments, regulating the flow of substances and medications between them in real time. MIT’s news release calls this a “body on a chip,” but in the paper, published today in Science Advances , the researchers demur — they prefer the term microphysiological system, “to avoid the implication that an entire organ system is recapitulated in vitro .” You can call it whatever you want, guys. It’s your thing. (“Physiome on a chip” is another popular option.) It’s nothing new to do this with a handful of tissues, but to have 10 tissues stable for weeks, as the researchers’ paper demonstrates, is unprecedented and represents a huge jump in the capabilities of this kind of system

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