Show of 11-17-2018

Tech Talk

November 17, 2018

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Brian in Kansas: Dear Doc, Can I ZIP my pictures or MP3 files to save space? Love the podcast. Thanks, Brian.
  • Tech Talk Responds: ZIP is a very popular compression algorithm created by Phillip Katz. It is supported by many popular programs such as WinZip, 7-Zip, and recent versions of Microsoft Windows. ZIPping a file or set of files can often reduce their size significantly at the cost of needing to be unzipped before they can be used. Unfortunately, “often” does not mean “always.”
  • The concepts of compression are actually fairly simple. The idea is that information stored on disk is often stored in a way that is less than optimal for storage. It may be optimal for other purposes, but as a side effect, there may be redundant information in the data that could be represented differently.
  • A simple compression algorithm is “run length encoding.” Consider the following text: This is a row of 10 asterisks: ********** followed by text. That’s 59 characters long. If we define the character “+” to not be a plus character, but rather an indicator that the next two characters are a count, and the third character the character that should be repeated that many times, we get this: This is a row of 10 asterisks: +10* followed by text. We’ve shortened or “compressed” the text to only 53 characters, but it still means exactly the same thing.
  • One of the most common ways that compressed data can end up larger than the original is if the original is itself already compressed. ZIPping photographs, music, and videos will typically not make them significantly smaller and can even make them slightly larger.
  • Email from Joseph in Baltimore: Dear Tech Talk. I have an Nikon DSLR and need to replace the batteries. They are expensive. Is it safe to buy cheaper off-brand camera batteries. Enjoy the podcast. Joseph in Baltimore.
  • Tech Talk Responds. Batteries can be dangerous, so you need to be careful when you buy them. A bad battery could definitely damage your camera. The battery that came with your camera is called a “first-party” battery because it was made by the manufacturer of the camera (or at least by a licensee). It’s the battery with which your camera is designed to work. They tend to be quite expensive.
  • Third-party batteries are made by a company other than your camera’s manufacturer. They range from high-quality batteries made by reputable camera manufacturers to cheap Chinese knock-offs, churned out by factories where safety standards and testing are foreign concepts.
  • With first-party batteries, you always know what you’re getting. With third-party batteries, however, things aren’t quite as certain. Third-party batteries are almost always cheaper than original batteries. The problem here is that money has to be saved somewhere. Not all third-party batteries are bad, but you do need to be careful, especially with where you buy them from.
  • Amazon has a lot of scams. Most of the issues are with “Fulfilled by Amazon” sellers; Amazon is doing very little to police their inventory. You should buy batteries from your local camera shop or a high quality, dedicated online photo store like B&H. In the end, I prefer to stick with first-party batteries.
  • Email from Duane in New York: Dear Doc and Jim. I am thinking of getting a 3D printer. What do I need and how does it work? Are they very expensive? Love the show. Duane in New York.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Picture a robot-controlled hot glue gun that uses plastic instead of glue, and you have the basics of a 3D printer. Strands of plastic are fed into a print head, which is heated up to melt the material. The print head moves around very precisely in three dimensions and drops lines of plastic onto the print bed. The printer does this over and over, building up layers of plastic until it forms a 3D part.
  • Every object printed on a 3D printer starts with a 3D model. These are usually made in a CAD program designed for working on real-world 3D models, like TinkerCAD, Fusion360, or Sketchup.
  • Since a printer doesn’t understand how to take a complex 3D mesh and turn it into a printed model, the 3D model must be decoded into information that the printer can understand. This process is called slicing since it takes scans of each layer of the model and tells the printer how it should move the print head to create each layer in turn. It is done with the aid of a slicer, a program that handles all of this for you, like CraftWare or Astroprint.
  • The main problem with 3D printing is speed. Most 3D prints will take several hours, if not days, to finish printing. The printers most consumers will buy usually print in plastic, though there are exotic (and expensive) printers used in the industry that can print pretty much anything.
  • Email from Richard in Madison: Dear Doc and Jim. I love my Android phone. However, I have heard that it is not as secure as an iPhone. How can I make my Android phone as secure as possible? Richard in Madison
  • Tech Talk Responds: Here is how to keep your Android phone secure.
  • Enable Two-Factor Authentication On Your Google Account. You can find Google’s 2FA settings in My Account > 2-Step Verification (and you’ll have to sign in, of course).
  • Use a Lock Screen. This is your absolute first line of defense when it comes to keeping your phone safe. And don’t forget to add your fingerprint if your phone has a scanner, too.
  • Activate find my phone. You have a way to track it and, worse case scenario, remotely reset your phone if there’s no chance of getting it back. Go into Settings > Google > Security > Find My Phone.
  • Disable “Unknown Sources” and Developer Mode. This setting allows you to install apps that are not from the Google Play Store—a process called “sideloading.” You cannot trust unverified applications. Go to Settings > Security > Unknown Sources. Go to Settings > Developer Option and slide the toggle to the off position.
  • Email from Dave in Elkridge: Hello Doc and Jim, I would like to set our Android and iOS phones to only connect to our home Wi-Fi network, and never to public Wi-Fi, whether in restaurants, airports, or wherever. We have a 10GB per month family plan that we never use up, so I would like to stay on the Cellular connection all the time, except when at home. But I don’t want to have to disable Wi-Fi every time we leave the house. When we return to the house, we always forget to re-enable Wi-Fi. Also, out in public, I don’t want pop-up Wi-Fi screens asking me to connect to a public Wi-Fi network. Thanks, Dave in Elkridge
  • Tech Talk Responds: You need to forget all networks that you don’t want to connect to. Go to each of those networks and bring up network properties. Then click on Forget this Network. Then you want to turn off Wi-Fi notification when another Wi-Fi signal is detected. Turn off Ask to Join Networks. I did both of these things a while ago and it works like a charm. If you have Sprint, you also have to turn off the Sprint Connection Optimizer. This will also be located in Settings.
  • Doc: I was assigned a new office computer last week and it came with Windows 10. I hate it. One of my biggest complaints is that, in my pictures folder, instead of showing tiles of each picture, I see a generic blue and white tile of a mountain, with the file name below. How do I fix this? Thanks. Signed, Ansel Adams.
  • Tech Talk Responds: If File Explorer (also called Windows Explorer) is not showing thumbnail previews for videos or photos in Windows 10, try out the following solutions.
  • Check if thumbnail preview supported view is turned on. Open File Explorer. To turn on thumbnail preview supported view, click on the View tab, and then click on one of the following views: # Extra large icons, # Large icons, # Medium icons, # Tiles, or # Content. All the above mentioned views support thumbnail previews. Select on one of the above mentioned views to turn on thumbnail view and then click Apply button to set the icon size in Windows Explorer.
  • Check if thumbnails are disabled. Open up File Explorer. Click the File menu and then click Change folder and search options to open Folder Options. Switch to the View tab. Under Advanced settings section, uncheck the option labelled Always show icons, never thumbnails, and then click Apply button to enable thumbnails in Windows Explorer.

Profiles in IT: Luis von Ahn

  • Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist, best known as inventor of the CAPTCHA, creators of Games with a Purpose, founder of reCAPTCHA and co-founder Duolingo.
  • Von Ahn August 19, 1978 in Guatemala City.
  • In 2000, he received his BS in Mathematics in from Duke University.
  • In 2000, he did early pioneering work on CAPTCHAs, computer-generated tests that humans are routinely able to pass but that computers have not yet mastered. He gave CAPCHA to Yahoo because selling it had not occurred to him.
  • With Nicholas J. Hopper and John Langford, he was the first to provide rigorous definitions of steganography and to prove that private-key steganography is possible.
  • In 2005, he received his PhD in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Ahn’s thesis coined the term “human computation”, which is combining human brainpower with computers to solve problems that neither could solve alone.
  • His thesis included Games With A Purpose, which are games played by humans that produce useful computation as a side effect.
  • The most famous example is the ESP Game, an online game in which two randomly paired people are simultaneously shown the same picture, with no way to communicate. Each then lists a number of words or phrases that describe the picture within a time limit. This match turns out to be an accurate description of the picture.
  • Within four months it had lured 13,000 bored Web cruisers into producing 1.3 million labels for roughly 300,000 images. It was purchased by Google in 2005.
  • In 2006, Von Ahn became a faculty member at CMU School of Computer Science.
  • Von Ahn estimates that 200 million Captchas are typed every day around the world, or a collective estimate of 500,000 man-hours (at 10 seconds per puzzle).
  • In 2007, von Ahn invented reCAPTCHA, a new form of CAPTCHA that also helps digitize books. In reCAPTCHA, the images of words displayed to the user come directly from old books that are being digitized. The CAPTCHA includes an unknown word to identify and a known word.
  • In 2009, Google acquired reCAPTCHA for an undisclosed amount to digitize material for Google Books and the New York Times archives. In 2012, it was translating about 150 million distorted words a day.
  • In 2011, von Ahn started Duolingo, a language education platform. The goal of Duolingo is to translate the web. As volunteers are learning a new language, they translate a portion a document. Crowd sourced translations are then combined.
  • In 2012, Duolingo was launched for the public with initial $20M investment.
  • In 2012, Duolingo released its iOS app. In 2014, Von Ahn assumed the role of CEO.
  • Spending 34 hours on Duolingo teaches the equivalent of one semester of a college language course. Eighty percent of traffic to the app comes from mobile.
  • Von Ahn said Duolingo is preparing for an IPO by 2020. The company has raised $108.3M.

Tim Berners-Lee is Trying to Fix Web Privacy

  • The creator of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Father of the WWW, has built a new product geared towards returning the power of data back to the general population.
  • His new initiative, Inrupt, is aiming to decentralize the web and rewrite the rules of online business with its new open-source project, Solid.
  • Solid as an alternative to Big Tech data centers, allowing users to instead store their information in personal online data stores, or “pods.” which would allow companies access only when the user granted permission.
  • Solid’s “pods” are just one piece of the Solid ecosystem, however. In addition to independent data storage, Berners-Lee envisions a much larger environment including decentralized applications built using tools from the Inrupt website.
  • One of Berner-Lee’s ideas is to build a new version of Amazon’s Alexa which he calls Charlie. For Berner-Lee, Charlie will provide all of the benefits of Alexa, except users will remain in control of data obtained by Charlie.
  • Berner-Lee hopes that these apps will shake-up the power dynamics between consumers and the tech behemoths that currently rule the web:
  • Whether or not the ‘new web’ will be built on Berners-Lee’s latest endeavor remains to be seen.

Google Internet Traffic Routed Through China

  • Google’s brief outage on Monday, November 12, 2018, saw some of its internet traffic mistakenly rerouted through networks in Russia, China and Nigeria.
  • The outage put “valuable Google traffic in the hands of ISPs in countries with a long history of Internet surveillance.
  • Incorrect routing instructions sent some traffic to the Russian network operator TransTelekom, as well as China Telecom and Nigerian provider MainOne, Naik wrote.
  • Google resolved the issue on Tuesday. The company wrote in the Google Cloud Platform performance report that it believes the root cause of the issue was external, and the company plans to conduct an internal investigation to make the appropriate improvements to the system.
  • Google told The Wall Street Journal that the incident did not compromise any data.
  • Network-based attacks can send data off course. The attacks are possible because exchange traffic through a system is mostly based on mutual trust through protocols that are nearly as old as the internet itself.
  • This incident “underscores” a weakness of the Internet.

Innovation of the Week: AI Anchor Reads News in China

  • The state-run press agency in China, Xinhua, will now deliver news using “AI anchors” made of digital composites that use synthesized voices to “read” the news.
  • These anchors look realistic, but are actually digital composites that are rendered using actual footage of human anchors reading the news.
  • The AI anchors are able to “read” any text fed into the artificial intelligence using synthetic voices that are created through the use of composite audio recorded from the real-life anchors.
  • An English-language anchor and a Chinese-language anchor were created by Xinhua in partnership with local Beijing search engine company Sogou.
  • The anchors premiered at the World Internet Conference in China.
  • Xinhua News Agency says that the AI anchor, can work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs.
  • Xinhua didn’t divulge any additional information into the technology being used to create the AI anchors, but the final product feels very reminiscent of the “deep fakes” videos that emerged in the West.
  • Deep fakes are essentially “face-swapped” videos created by artificial intelligence that scans hundreds of still frames from a video and then uses those analyzed frames to create new, manipulated video that looks like the real thing.
  • Earlier this year, sites like Reddit were inundated with digitally altered video that convincingly superimposed Hollywood stars’ faces onto adult film actresses’ bodies. Another emerging example of its use case is for fake news.
  • The U.S. Defense Department is concerned enough about people believing fake AI-created imagery to have already started working on tools to combat it.

Three US Senators Accuse Carriers of Hidden Throttling.

  • Three US Senators sent an letter to the Big Four wireless carriersaccusing them of throttling customers’ video streams without disclosure.
  • According to research collected by a testing platform called Wehe, each of the Big Four carriers is throttling video streams from major media apps. In the case of Sprint, it is additionally accused of throttling Skype calls.
  • The Senators sent the letter Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, inquiring as to what is going on and demanding answers.
  • The three senators — Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — are asking for “a list of all applications or services that are subject to traffic discrimination,” among other pieces of information.
  • Although mobile throttling did not explicitly violate Net Neutrality laws when they were in action (and obviously does not now that they are gone), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does explicitly require mobile carriers to disclose any mobile throttling to its customers.
  • The data collected from the Wehe platform suggests there is hidden throttling occurring of which customers are likely unaware.

Four Base Metric Units to be Changed

  • Officials with the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) have announced four of the base units used in the metric system will be redefined. The four units under review are the ampere, kilogram, mole and kelvin.
  • Currently, the kilogram is officially defined as the mass of a cylinder made of a platinum-iridium alloy housed in a bell jar in France—it has been removed from its protected spot every 40 years to serve as a calibration tool for other weights.
  • According to officials with CGPM, its days are numbered. This is because the 60 member nations that make up the body will be voting to change to a system in which the kilogram will be defined indirectly—by using the Planck constant.
  • The German physicist Max Planck introduced the constant in 1900 in his accurate formulation of the distribution of the radiation emitted by a blackbody, or perfect absorber of radiant energy. The significance of Planck’s constant in this context is that radiation, such as light, is emitted, transmitted, and absorbed in discrete energy packets, or quanta, determined by the frequency of the radiation and the value of Planck’s constant. The energy E of each quantum, or each photon, equals Planck’s constant h times the radiation frequency symbolized by the Greek letter nu, ν, or simply E = hν.
  • The tool used to provide the new base unit is the Kibble balance—a very complex piece of equipment that first measures the amount of electric current necessary to create an electromagnetic force that is equal to a force acting on a given mass.
  • Most people will neither understand the changes that have taken place, nor notice that a change has occurred.
  • Prior meetings have already resulted in updating the other three base units in the system: the second, meter and candela. If the measures pass, the changes will take effect in May 2019.

IBM Bought Red Hat for $34B

  • IBM is making one of the biggest acquisitions of all time in the tech sector, shelling out $34 billion to buy Red Hat, best known for its the open-source Linux operating system that runs on servers.
  • IBM is making a bet on cloud computing.
  • Red Hat, which was founded 25 years ago and is based in North Carolina, was valued at about $20.5 billion at the end of trading on Friday, which means the offer represents a roughly 60 premium.
  • This is the third-biggest tech deal in the history of U.S. tech, according to CNBC.
  • Microsoft just bought Github for $7.5 billion earlier this year. Amazon and Google are also striving to gain the edge in cloud computing.
  • IBM has struggled for relevance, and has seen its share price fall by 30 percent over the last five years. It is clearly betting that a big acquisition can change that.
  • “The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer,” said IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. “It changes everything about the cloud market.”