Show of 11-19-2016

Tech Talk

November 19, 2016

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Feroze in Fredericksburg: Dear Tech Talk. I have tried to take sunset photos and have not really be satisfied with the results. Do you have any suggestions for a good sunset photos? Love the show. Feroze in Fredericksburg
  • Everyone, at some point, tries to take a photo of a spectacular sunset. Sunset photos are all about light and color. Light levels change rapidly at sunset, so there are no one-size-fits-all settings. The light drops as the sun does, but it also falls when the sun’s obscured by clouds or anything else
  • If you’ve got a tripod, I’d recommend using one for sunset photos. There are two reasons: first, you can keep a tight aperture and low ISO even as your shutter speed gets slower, and second, you can shoot HDR (high dynamic range) images.
  • When I’m doing sunset shots, you shoot a few different exposures, one darker than what it should be and one brighter than what it should be. This means I’ll have details from everything in the scene. In post-production, you can combine them into one image using HDR.
  • If you are simply using an iPhone, you can take HDR photos directly. Make certain to brace the camera, if you don’t have a tripod.
  • In a sunset photo, the sun should never be the main subject. Use the light it creates to show off another subject. Start by finding something interesting to photograph. Cool landscapes, landmarks, models, your dogs, or anything else are better than a boring shot of the sky from an industrial park.
  • One more thing. Try taking multiple exposures. A slightly underexposed sunset photo often looks better than a correctly exposed one. The colors will seem deeper and richer.
  • Email from Macy in San Francisco: Dear Doc and Jim. A neighbor has named his unprotected wireless network after my own. I immediately changed my network’s SSID and increased the security level to WPA. However, as the neighbor’s network has a strong signal and is unprotected, my laptop insisted on logging on to it until I realized what was going on and deleted it from the preferred nets list. However, I would feel safer if I could simply block the network altogether. Is that possible? By the way, could this be what I think it is? The neighbor setting up an unprotected network with the same name as mine in the hope that my computer would connect to his net if mine happened to be down? Macy from San Francisco
  • Tech Talk Responds: On the surface, it certainly seems like your neighbor is up to something. If you use his access point, he may be able to sniff you passwords if you are not using https.
    • Rename your wireless access point. You will have to log into your router to do this.
    • Make sure your wireless access point has WPA2 enabled, with a good password. Once again, exactly how you set this will vary based on your specific device.
    • Make sure you connect only to your preferred connections. It sounds like you may already have done this. Click on the wireless network icon in your taskbar, and then on Network settings. In the resulting Settings app, click on Manage known networks. This is a list of wireless access points you’ve connected to in the past, which will be remembered and connected to automatically in the future. Scan through this list, click on any you don’t want to connect to automatically, and click on Forget to remove them from the list.
  • There is one additional change that, while not adding a lot of real security, would at least confirm your neighbor’s bad intentions, if compromised. Configure your access point to stop broadcasting the SSID (aka network name), and then change the SSID.
  • The downside here is that Windows won’t automatically detect your network; you’ll have to configure it manually; fortunately, you should only need to do this once.
  • This prevents your neighbor from seeing your new network name – at least from seeing it easily. If your neighbor is technically savvy enough to sniff your wireless packets, the SSID can still be viewed. But if another open access point appears with your new, “hidden” network name, you’ll know your neighbor is up to no good.
  • Email from Sophia in Fairfax: Dear Tech Talk. I would like my kids to learn programming. They are all in elementary school now. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to help them. What resources are available for parents in this area. Love the show. Sophia in Fairfax.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Introducing computer programming to your kids can be a challenge, especially if you aren’t familiar with code. Here are a few good resources for you to use.
    • Programming Tutorials from Made With Code by Google. Google’s Made With Code project has a mission of encouraging girls to pursue careers in computer science.
    • Resources for Parents From MIT Media Lab’s Scratch Team. Scratch is one of the most popular coding tools for kids, and it’s designed to help students with little to no coding experience. The software lets students create animations and stories with building blocks that mimic the structure of computer code. Luckily, the team behind the software has made it easy for beginners.
    • Tynker’s Hour of Code Free Activities. Tynker is a fun, intuitive suite of games that make it easy for kids to learn basic “computational thinking and programming skills.”
    • Lessons and Tutorials From was launched in 2013 to advocate for wider access to computer science learning in schools and for underrepresented students of color.
    • Computing Lessons on Khan Academy. Khan Academy’s self-paced courses introduce a number of fascinating coding concepts to kids. From learning the basics of computer programming and animation, to more complex computer science subjects, these lessons are the perfect jumping off point for curious students.


Profiles in IT: Robert Nimrod Miner

  • Robert Nimrod “Bob” Miner was the architect of Oracle’s database and for most of his career at the company he led product design and development.
  • Bob Miner was born on Dec 23, 1941 in Cicero, Illinois to an Iranian family.
  • Bob Miner graduated in 1963 with a MS Math from the University of Illinois.
  • In 1977 Bob Miner met Larry Ellison at Ampex, where he was Larry’s supervisor.
  • Bob Miner left Ampex soon to found a company called Software Development Laboratories (SDL) with Ed Oates and Bruce Scott. Larry Ellison joined later.
  • Ellison and Miner had come up with RDBMS idea after reading a paper by E. F. Codd about it in the IBM Journal of Research and Development.
  • The key insight Ellison and Minor had was that IBM was interested in RDBMS, which many believed would allow computer users to quickly retrieve corporate data.
  • This came from an IBM innovation called the Structured Query Language (SQL), a computer language that could extract from a relational database.
  • Ellison and Miner had a hunch that IBM would incorporate the new relational database and SQL into future mainframes, but not in smaller computers.
  • They set out to provide a similar program for digital minicomputers and other types of machines, when conventional wisdom was that it wouldn’t be practical.
  • To start the company, Ellison and Miner pooled $1,500 in savings to rent office space in Belmont, California. Ellison became President and CEO and took charge of sales and marketing, while Miner supervised software development.
  • Miner and Ellison persuaded the CIA to let them work on a lapsed $50,000 contract to build a relational database program. They completed their first product based, Oracle Version 1, in less than one year.
  • Version 2 came out in 1979, two years before the IBM version. It was the first commercial SQL relational database management system (RDBMS), on a PDP-11.
  • Bob Miner programmed the majority of Oracle Version 3 by himself.
  • The founders changed the company name to Relational Software, Inc (RSI) in 1979, then again to Oracle Systems Corporation in 1982. It main product was Oracle.
  • From 1977 until 1992, Bob Miner led product design and development for the Oracle relational database management system. In Dec., 1992, he left that role and spun off a small, advanced technology group within Oracle.
  • If Ellison was considered the hard-driving “brains” of the company, Miner was considered its heart. He wanted his employees to see their families.
  • Bob Miner was diagnosed in 1993 with pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. He died on Friday, 11 November 1994, with a net worth of $600M.


Google and Facebook Confront Fake News

  • Facebook and Google have been under fire this week for failing to control the flow of misinformation about the 2016 election through their platforms.
  • In a Facebook post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic” and argued that it’s “extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
  • Zuckerberg’s denied that Facebook’s affected the election with his insistence that Facebook is not a news source. However, it is known that Facebook has used its platform to run experiments on how it can influence its users’ behavior.
  • But even setting aside fake news, it’s known that every Facebook user’s content experience is unique. The social media site uses algorithms that tailor what a user sees based on their individual interests. So the news feeds could be biased too.
  • A Wall Street Journal interactive attempts to show this by displaying what “Liberal Facebook” and “Conservative Facebook” look like, side-by-side. The graphic demonstrates how social media can put users in echo chambers that prevent them from seeing views contrary to their own.
  • Google took a more direct approach when faced with flak about fake news. The search giant announced that it would ban websites that publish fake news from using AdSense, Google’s advertising service.
  • Facebook changed its advertising policy along the same lines hours after Google’s announcement, according to the New York Times.
  • A Pew Research Center study from earlier this year showed 62 percent of U.S. adults get news from social media and that 44 percent of them get news from Facebook.

Three Technologies at Center of Presidential Election

  • There are three big tech themes of the 2016 campaign. These can be a clue to those interested in getting into information technology.
  • Big data wins campaigns.
    • Winning campaigns use social media and big data platforms like L2 Political and NationBuilder to target voters online and in person, at home, and on the phone. For example,
    • Ted Cruz won in Iowa in part because his campaign outspent Trump on voter and social media data. Voter details and social media data help campaigns target and activate voters. After Iowa, when Trump realized the importance of big data, he bought more data and started winning again.
    • Using demographic and social media data, campaigns run election simulations and adjust their tactics based on the results.
    • Machine learning will impact big data in the future
  • Social media has changed the conversation.
    • Social platforms and mobile phones have become essential recruiting tools for campaigns. Modern campaigns have built apps that gamify voter involvement by providing incentives for engaged users to participate in campaign events, find polling places, and recruit friends directly from the device.
    • Twitter allows campaigns to read and interpret the issues voters care about. For the Clinton campaign, follower sentiment translates into vertical social media content for specific networks like Snapchat and Instagram. Trump’s use of Twitter to distribute and amplify messaging that resonates with his base is unprecedented by a presidential candidate.
    • AI bots will affect social media interaction in the futue.
  • Every campaign is concerned about cybersecurity.
    • The Clinton and Cruz campaigns in particular have teams developing cybersecurity policy. In the General Election expect discussion about Clinton’s email security to serve as a springboard for a larger debate about offensive and defensive security policy. All campaigns are working on ways to determine how to balance public and the private sector security needs.
    • At the GOP debate prior to the New Hampshire primary Ben Carson discussed cyber defense policy with TechRepublic. “We have excellent offensive cyber capabilities. Our defense needs a little shoring up… If anybody attacks us, we should hit them so hard they’ll never think about it again.” And although Carson has dropped out of the race, his view is widely shared amongst most GOP contenders.

Team solves mystery of London killer fog

  • In 1952 a killer fog that contained pollutants covered London for five days, causing breathing problems and killing thousands of residents.
  • The exact cause and nature of the fog has remained mostly unknown for decades, but an international team of scientists believes that the mystery has been solved.
  • Their research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 9, 2016, also suggests that the same air chemistry also happens today in China and other places.
  • When the fog first arrived, in December of 1952, London residents gave it little notice because it appeared no different from the familiar natural fogs that have swept over Great Britain for thousands of years. But over the next few days, conditions deteriorated, and the sky became dark.
  • Visibility was reduced to only three feet in many parts of the city. All transportation was shut down and tens of thousands of people had trouble breathing. By the time the fog lifted on December 9, at least 4,000 people had died and more than 150,000 had been hospitalized.
  • The 1952 killer fog led to the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956 by the British Parliament and is still considered the worst air pollution event in the European history.
  • People have known that sulfate was a big contributor to the fog, and sulfuric acid particles were formed from sulfur dioxide released by coal burning for residential use and power plants, and other means.
  • But how sulfur dioxide was turned into sulfuric acid was unclear. Their results showed that this process was facilitated by nitrogen dioxide, another co-product of coal burning, and occurred initially on natural fog.
  • The study shows that similar chemistry occurs frequently in China, which has battled air pollution for decades. Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, China is home to 16 of them. Fortunately, the exact condition that triggered sulfuric acid have not occurred to date. Apparently ammonia from fertilized has neutralized the haze.

These AI Traffic Lights Could Shorten Your Commute

  • Your commute could get a lot shorter without you even knowing thanks to traffic lights with artificial intelligence brains inside.
  • Over the past couple years, a startup named Surtrac has been upgrading traffic light controls in Pittsburgh with artificial intelligence. These lights collect data on the amount of traffic from cameras and radar signals, and the network of lights coordinates to ensure that all the traffic passes through intersections as fast as possible.
  • The AI system began with nine intersections in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood in 2012 and has quietly expanded to 50 intersections. The startup plans to implement their network across the whole city. Then, it is expected to take this technology to other cities around the country.
  • The technology involves a series of lights that use artificial intelligence to get as many cars through each intersection as possible. The system is decentralized, which means each light is only responsible for one intersection. The lights coordinate by sending information on incoming cars to nearby lights. This technique reduces the load on the network and makes it easier to scale up.
  • Surtrac also plans to enable the system to communicate directly with cars. Such a system could notify drivers of traffic conditions in advance. It could also prioritize certain types of traffic, such as emergency vehicles or city buses.
  • This AI network has so far reduced travel time for drivers by 25 percent, and time spent idling in traffic by 40 percent. It is also estimated to reduce emissions by 21 percent.
  • Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive deadline for when AI traffic lights will be exported outside of Pittsburgh to other U.S. cities. But with the advent of self-driving cars quickly approaching, chances are it’ll be sooner than later.

The Sun’s Mysterious Tilt Gets A Surprising Explanation

  • For more than a century and a half, astronomers have known that the sun is tilted.
  • That is, the sun rotates on an axis that isn’t quite perpendicular to the orbits of Earth and the other major planets ? all of which lie in the same plane because all formed out of a disk-shaped cloud of gas and dust that was spinning around the sun early in the solar system’s 4.6-billion-year history.
  • But no one has ever come up with a convincing explanation for this peculiar tilt ? until now.
  • In a new study slated for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, three planetary scientists at Caltech in Pasadena, California, contend that the tilt was caused by Planet Nine. That’s the massive and as-yet-unseen planet whose existence at the outer edges of the solar system was predicted in research published earlier this year.
  • Planet Nine is thought to be about 10 times bigger than Earth and about 500 times farther from the sun, according to Its orbit is believed to be inclined at an angle of about 30 degrees from the other planets’ orbital plane.
  • Planet Nine’s gravitational forces have been tugging on the other planets in a way that has gradually caused their orbital plane to shift.
  • The sun’s spin axis has a tilt of about 6 degrees off the orbital plane of the major planets. And when the scientists calculated how much of a tilt Planet Nine would have caused, they came up with the same number.
  • Batygin said several groups of astronomers are searching for Planet Nine using some of the world’s biggest telescopes.

Higgs Boson Physicist Competes with Birth Control Pill

  • When the physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN discovered the Higgs boson “God particle,” the scientific community threw their version of a party, a series of heady conferences, and Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize.
  • But Elina Berglund, who is part of that team, wasn’t content to simply change physics and confirm Einstein’s model of the universe.
  • She created an app. Dubbed Natural Cycles, Berglund’s venture into software is revolutionary. Using statistics and an advanced algorithm, the app brings the “rhythm method” of birth control into the second space age.
  • Natural Cycles works like this: Users take their temperature every morning and record that reading with the Natural Cycles app. Using that data, Natural Cycles tracks and analyzes menstrual cycles to determine ovulation and windows of fertility and infertility.
  • According to trials under real-world conditions, Natural Cycles has a 99.5 percent efficacy rating, putting it on par with the pill.
  • Berglund used the tools at her disposal at CERN to create an algorithm that helps users take advantage of advanced statistical methods similar to those used to give the Higgs boson discovery a five-sigma distinction for a fraction of the price of other fertility monitors.