Show of 01-13-2018

Tech Talk

January 13, 2018

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Doug in Baton Rouge, LA: Dear Dr. Shurtz, Before I begin, be sure to say hi to Jim and also Mr. Big Voice (if you can get his attention). Back in the days of yore, hard disc were expensive and only in megabyte sizes. The hard drive recording platters turned at low speeds and had relatively reliable recording surfaces. However, over long periods of time the recording magnetic surface would weaken and would drop bits of data. Programs were available to re-energize the hard disc recording surface data on each cylinder, sector and track. So, what is your opinion on today’s hard drives if removed from a computer and stored for about a year or so with data? Cloud storage is not preferred at this time. Do you think that the magnetic data on the cylinders will weaken and be prone to corruption? If you think that there will be some degradation, what programs would you recommend to renew the magnetic data on the entire hard drive and at what time period for refreshing? While we are on the subject of hard drives, can you give an explanation of their HEAD and CYLINDER jargon? I have seen on many hard drive labels were they state the number of CYLINDERS, HEADS, SECTORS and LBA. These labels indicate huge number of cylinders and heads. But, when I disassemble a damaged hard drive I find only one or two platters and maybe 2 or 3 recording heads. If you can demystify the cryptic meaning of cylinders, heads, sectors and LBA as related to hard drives, I would appreciate the teaching. Also, long ago, I had a program that would allow me to look at what is on a hard drive tracks and sectors and to edit them. Do you know of any good open source programs out there that would do this today? Your radio program remains consistently GREAT! Thanks-Doug in Baton Rouge, LA
  • Tech Talk Responds: Hard drives, unlike RAM, don’t need electricity to keep data once it’s been written. A standard hard drive can store and maintain your files for long periods. The actual storage lifespan will vary, though.
  • The standard hard drive warranty runs about 5 years. That number is assuming regular use, so if a drive were to be plugged in and have data written to it infrequently, and stored in a dry space with optimal temperatures, there’s no reason that it couldn’t last far longer than that—in the range of seven or even eight years. Always keep the drive safe from large magnetic fields, since they could help to degrade the data much more quickly, and keep that temperature rule in mind, since there are movable parts with grease. Keeping it somewhere between 50 and 110 degrees is a pretty safe bet. You should cycle the drive periodically, since the most common cause of failures are the bearings and motors seizing.
  • Cylinder-head-sector (CHS) is an early method for giving addresses to each physical block of data on a hard disk drive. Early hard drives didn’t come with an embedded disk controller; a separate controller card was used, and the operating system had to know the exact physical “geometry” of the drive behind the controller to use it. As the geometry became more complicated and drive sizes grew over time, the CHS addressing method became restrictive.
  • Since late 1980s, hard drives begun shipping with an embedded disk controller that had good knowledge of the physical geometry; they would report a false geometry to the computer, e.g. a larger number of heads than actually present, to gain more addressable space. These logical CHS values would be translated by the controller, thus CHS addressing no longer corresponded to any physical attributes of the drive.
  • Logical block addressing (LBA) is a common scheme used for specifying the location of blocks of data stored on computer storage devices, generally secondary storage systems such as hard disk drives. LBA is a particularly simple linear addressing scheme; blocks are located by an integer index, with the first block being LBA 0, the second LBA 1, and so on. Most hard disk drives released after 1996 implement logical block addressing.
  • Email form Thuy in Ohio: Dear Doc and Jim. I use Facebook quite a bit. Sometimes my friends make so many posts that they become annoying, like when they are on vacation. Is there a way to temporality block someone posts until they cool down? Love the podcast here in Ohio, Thuy
  • Tech Talk Responds: Recently, Facebook introduced Snooze, a feature that lets you hide someone from your News Feed for 30 days. This is perfect for the times that your friends are posting too often. At the moment, the only way to Snooze a person or Page is from one of their posts in your News Feed. When a post by the person or Page you want to Snooze pops up, tap or click the three little dots in the top right corner, and then choose the “Snooze XXX for 30 Days” option. The post will vanish from your News Feed, and you won’t see any more posts from that person for the next 30 days. The person will not know you’ve done anything, so you don’t have to worry about offending people when you Snooze them. If you want to un-Snooze someone, visit their Profile, and then tap or click the “Snoozed” setting. You’ll see how long they have left on Snooze, and you can select “End Snooze” to end it immediately.
  • Email from Helen in Maryland: Dear Tech Talk: I have always wanted to know how to buy a surge protector. What do all those specs mean? How can I select one that will protect my computer? Love the show. Helen in Maryland
  • Tech Talk Responds: Surge protectors also have electronics built in that help prevent power surges from damaging connected devices. Connecting a device to a surge protector provides more protection than simply connecting it to a wall outlet.
  • While common power strips and surge protectors look similar, not all power strips are surge protectors. Surge protectors are a bit more expensive. For example, you might pay $20 for a surge protector, while a similar-looking power strip costs only $10.
  • When shopping for a surge protector at a store, be sure to look for the words “surge protector” or at least “protection” or “suppression.” Surge protectors are often rated in the amount of Joules of energy they can absorb, so you’re likely to see this information clearly advertised on the surge protector. For example, the Belkin surge protector we linked above boasts a 3,940-joule energy rating. When you’re looking at ratings, a surge protector rated at 1000-2000 Joules is typically good enough for smaller electronics—networking gear, smartphones, printers, and so on. If you’re protecting home theater gear, gaming consoles, or desktop and laptop computers, look for something over 2000 Joules.
  • In the most common type of surge protector, a component called a metal oxide varistor, or MOV, diverts the extra voltage. An MOV forms a connection between the hot power line and the grounding. The MOV can be damaged during a surge. Surge protectors often (but not always) have a “Protected” or “Protection” light on them that lights up when they’re plugged in. This tells you that the surge protector is functional and doesn’t need to be replaced.

Profiles in IT: Frank S. Greene, Jr.

  • Frank S. Greene, Jr. is one of the first African-Americans to break the color barrier in Silicon Valley, as an electronics technologist, venture capitalist, and executive.
  • Greene was born on October 19, 1938, in Washington, D.C. He grew up in the highly segregated St. Louis of the 1950s.
  • In 1961, he received a BSEE from Washington University in St. Louis. He was in the second class that included black students at the university.
  • He went to sit-ins to see if they could integrate some places around the school.
  • One time, Greene and his friends went to a pizza joint, where the owners were willing to serve them. The problem was that they did not have enough money for one order. From that day, he was always prepared for opportunity when it arrives.
  • In 1962, he received a MS from Purdue University.
  • Greene was the first black cadet to make it through the four-year U.S. Air Force ROTC program in 1961. He became an Air Force captain.
  • After completing his master’s degree, Greene served in the United States Air Force as an Electronics Officer for four years, during which time he helped develop high performance computers for the National Security Agency.
  • In 1965, he started as a test engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor, and then moved into research and development in chip design. He worked on development of a patented high-speed memory chip, the fastest at the time. He held one of the key patents.
  • In 1970, he received his PhD from Santa Clara University.
  • In 1971, Greene became the founding CEO of Technology Development Corporation, a computer software and technical services company. At the same time, he served as assistant chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department at Stanford until 1975.
  • By 1985 TDC was traded publicly, had more than 300 employees with annual revenues of over $30M. It was recognized by Black Enterprise as one of the top 100.
  • In 1985, after the sale of an equity interest to Penn Central, Greene launched ZeroOne Systems to sell large-scale scientific computer systems to the government market.
  • ZeroOne reached $15M in annual revenue within two years and was sold to Sterling Software, with Greene remaining as group president until 1989.
  • In 1993, he served as the founding General Partner of New Vista Capital Funds, a VC fund that focused on minority and women owned businesses.
  • Greene also launched the GO-Positive Foundation, which offers leadership programs with “core positive values” for high school and college students.
  • Greene was inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame in 2001; and was awarded the title of the Santa Clara University Distinguished Engineering Alumnus in 1993.
  • Frank was also an enthusiastic skier, squash player and contemporary music
  • Greene passed away on December 26, 2009.

House Votes to Renew Foreign Intelligence Surviellance Act (FISA).

  • After a contentious debate, the House of Representatives has voted to extend a controversial government surveillance program that powers American spying operations.
  • The debate centers on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for collection of foreign intelligence data, and that privacy advocates say invasively scoops up Americans’ communications.
  • The authorization for the program is set to expire later this month, if not reauthorized. Section 702 allows the National Security Agency to continue controversial surveillance activities like PRISM, which the agency uses to scan through data held by American tech companies.
  • Problematic for privacy advocates is a section in the reauthorization bill that would allow for so-called “about” surveillance.
  • For some time, the National Security Agency intercepted communications that mentioned a surveillance target, even if that information was not sent directly to or from the target.
  • The agency recently stopped, but the bill would give the government the legal leeway to restart its efforts, so long as Congress doesn’t explicitly block them soon.
  • The bill was approved by a margin of 256 to 164, and will now move to the Senate.

Tech Trends at CES 2018

  • Wireless Charging Everywhere is Primetime. The Qi wireless standard will dominate. It works on both iPhones and Androids.
  • The All-in-One Voice Assistant has arrived. While Amazon’s Echo line and Google’s trio of Home devices brought voice assistants into more homes than ever, 2018 seems to be the year where your voice assistant will live everywhere. Google dominated this year’s event (after Alexa’s integration with basically everything at CES 2017) and showed off a plethora of new Assistant-enabled devices from companies like LG, Lenovo, and Sony, featuring “smart displays” that show off information like your schedule, cooking recipes, and other bits of visual accoutrement whenever you ask your Assistant for something.
  • VR is Good Now. Virtual reality headsets are back at CES, and this time they are a lot better. HTC showed off its Vive Pro, an upgraded version of its first VR headset, complete with a higher-resolution display and optional wireless adapter. Google and Lenovo are releasing a standalone VR headset powered by Google’s Daydream VR platform.
  • Your 4K TV is Already Outdated. Now there is 8K. LG showed off its 8K concept television, an 88-inch wide OLED screen that houses 33 million pixels.

GM plans to release cars with no steering wheel in 2019

  • If the Department of Transportation grants GM’s latest Safety Petition, the automaker will be able to deploy its no-steering-wheel, pedal-less autonomous car.
  • GM has not only revealed what its level 4 self-driving vehicle will look like, but also announced that it filed a Safety Petition to be able to deploy its completely driverless version of Chevy Bolt called Cruise AV in 2019.
  • The company describes it as “the first production-ready vehicle built from the start to operate safely on its own, with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls.”
  • It has no controls whatsoever, not even buttons you can push. It treats you as a passenger, no matter where you sit. The car can even open and shut doors on its own.
  • Ford, Mercedes and Waymo all plan to release cars with no steering wheels of their own.

Americans still Skeptical about Driverless Cars

  • Americans still don’t trust self-driving cars.
  • Asked how concerned they’d be to share the road with a driverless car, 31 percent said they’d be “very concerned,” 33 percent said “somewhat concerned,” according to the poll by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
  • A majority (63 percent) said they would not support “mass exemptions” from federal motor vehicle safety standards for self-driving cars, and were not comfortable (75 percent) with automakers having the power to remotely disable vehicle controls.
  • And people overwhelmingly support (75 percent) the US Department of Transportation developing new standards related to driverless vehicles.
  • Congress is considering legislation that gives the industry wide latitude to deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads without having to adhere to existing safety standards.
  • Congress has been under intense lobbying by the tech and auto industries to take a hands-off approach to autonomous vehicles.
  • Congress has complied, passing bills that maintain the laissez-faire approach first perfected by the Obama administration and now carried over to the Trump White House.

Google says Spectre and Meltdown were the worst vulnerabilities in a decade

  • Now that the patches across various platforms for the recently discovered Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities have been deployed, Google has detailed how it managed to address these threats on its cloud services such as Gmail and Search before the public even knew about them.
  • In a lengthy blog post Thursday, Google’s VP Ben Treynor Sloss explains how long it took Google to fully fix them, even though it was Google’s own Project Zero team that had discovered them.
  • According to Sloss, Spectre and Meltdown are actually three different vulnerabilities, one of which, a variant of Spectre, was particularly hard to protect from. One solution involved disabling some CPU features, which would inevitably lead to slower performance.
  • For months, hundreds of engineers across Google and other companies worked continuously to understand these new vulnerabilities and find mitigations for them.
  • Finally, software engineer Paul Turner created Retpoline, a software that does the job without slowing down the machines it’s applied to.
  • Sloss said that by December, all Google Cloud Platform services were protected from all variants of these vulnerabilities. The company deployed this solution across its infrastructure and open-sourced it so that others can benefit from it as well.
  • According to Google, this set of vulnerabilities was perhaps the most challenging and hardest to fix in a decade, requiring changes to many layers of the software stack. It also required broad industry collaboration since the scope of the vulnerabilities was so widespread.

Next-generation WI-Fi is finally coming

  • The Wi-Fi Alliance said in a statement timed for the opening of the annual Consumer Electronics Show that the new generation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption protocol, called WPA3, would harden the connection between users’ devices and Wi-Fi routers.
  • The current Wi-Fi standard, WPA2, has been around for almost 15 years. WPA2 has been remarkably robust, but the discovery of the Krack vulnerability in October made it clear that it must be replaced.
  • The alliance disclosed few technical specifics, but it said WPA3 will protect against Krack by default and will be easier to set up and use, especially on screenless devices, like smartwatches and connected-home systems, such as “smart” thermostats and refrigerators.
  • It will even protect users who choose simple passwords that are easy to crack by entering random words over and over, a strategy that’s called a “dictionary attack.”
  • It will include a more secure handshake, stopping the Krack attack.
  • And it will make it much harder for hackers to snoop on your connection to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, by setting a unique encrypted data channel for each individual user on a network.
  • WPA3 will likely require newer hardware and software, meaning it will take time for it to reach industry-wide use. In the meantime, the Wi-Fi Alliance said, WPA2 will continue to be maintained and improved, starting with new tests for badly configured networks.

Supreme Court to Review Internet Sales Tax

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will consider freeing state and local governments to collect billions of dollars in sales taxes from online retailers, agreeing to revisit a 26-year-old ruling that has made much of the internet a tax-free zone.
  • Online retailers Wayfair Inc., Inc. and Newegg Inc. are opposing South Dakota in the court fight. Each collects sales taxes from customers in only some states.
  • The Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill v. North Dakota ruling, which involved a mail-order company, said retailers can be forced to collect taxes only in states where the company has a “physical presence.”
  • South Dakota passed its law in 2016 with an eye toward overturning the Quill decision. It requires retailers with more than $100,000 in annual sales in the state to pay a 4.5 percent tax on purchases. Soon after enacting the law, the state filed suit and asked the courts to declare the measure constitutional.
  • Wayfair, Overstock and Newegg said the court should reject the appeal and leave it to Congress to set the rules for online taxes.
  • Those supporting South Dakota at the high court include 35 other states, as well as lawmakers who say they’ve been trying for years to get Congress to address the issue.
  • Amazon backs a nationwide approach that would relieve retailers from dealing with a patchwork of state laws.

Hundreds of Smartphone Apps Are Spying You

  • The New York Times reported in late December that hundreds of apps have been found snooping on their users with the built-in microphones on smartphones.
  • Specifically, these apps are listening for TV show broadcasts, commercials, and even movies you watch in the theater, amassing information on what kind of things you like to watch.
  • The third-party software, from a company called Alphonso, has been embedded in many apps available for free.
  • Alphonso’s software uses the same technology that Shazam and similar services employ to automatically detect the song you’re listening to.
  • Why? It’s all about the advertising. Marketing firms know that people who watch certain TV shows are more likely to buy certain products.
  • That purpose is to make you more likely to buy stuff, and that makes the data collected incredibly valuable.
  • The easiest way to stop these apps from snooping in on your TV binging is simply to uninstall them, or never install them in the first place
  • The next best thing is to keep an eye on those permissions as you use apps. Simply don’t allow any permission you don’t think the app really needs to use.

Apple Battery Replacement Program Update

  • Apple promised to replace old iPhone batteries for $29 after its slowdown backlash.
  • This program created a spike in battery demand.
  • Apple won’t have batteries in stock for the 6S until late March to early April.
  • When the $29 replacement offer was first made in December, the company said the batteries would be available in late January, before updating that timeframe later in the month to available “right away.” Wait times vary from two weeks to “available without extended delays”
  • Apple first made the offer for $29 battery replacements last December, after benchmark tests showed significant slowdowns in old devices after they received the latest software updates.
  • In other words, Apple decided on behalf of its customers that they’d prefer an iPhone that performed worse for the same amount of time, than an iPhone that performed just as well for a shorter amount of time.
  • It’s a decision that does nothing to dispel the characterization of Apple as a company that does what it can to push customers into buying new phones.