Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Techie tesserae

The crafting of believable futures -- a big chunk of my job description -- entails considering the many ways in which a society can change. Any science or technology experiencing a major advance -- and when is just one so fortunate? -- generally has many consequences. Consider the myriad myriads of impacts of ever faster, ever cheaper, ever more efficient electronic chips.

The better to imagine fictional futures, part of my routine involves keeping my finger on the pulse of science and tech (and other changes!) in the real world. Alas, another part of my routine is tearing myself away from all the fascinating stuff and getting back to writing. Not everything interesting can make it into a story. That doesn't mean I can't share.

Let's start with the endlessly proliferating cameras in public spaces. If those cameras are used to identify terrorists, bank robbers, and red-light runners, that's keen. But will cameras in public be used only for such purposes? (Note the wording: cameras in public, not public cameras. In Baltimore alone, one repo company captures 10 million license-plate photos per year.)

And will license-plate snapshots be combined with other databases, such as GPS-tagged cell-phone records? Is the mere fact of driving down a public street sufficient reason to make a permanent record of your travels? From IEEE Spectrum, see, "License Plates, Cameras, and Our Vanishing Privacy."

One problem with the emergence of vast new databases that document everything we do and everywhere we go is ... no matter how worthy the original purpose, data tends to leak -- or spew -- out. I've often posted about the proven (in)security of major IT systems. Here are a couple new scary cases. From PC World, see, "Red October malware discovered after years of stealing data in the wild.":
It's not clear who is behind the attacks, but Rocra uses at least three publicly known exploits originally created by Chinese hackers. Rocra's programming, however, appears to be from a separate group of Russian-speaking operatives, according to the report from Kaspersky Lab.
The attacks are ongoing and targeted at high-level institutions in what are known as spear-fishing attacks. Kaspersky estimates that the Red October attacks have likely obtained hundreds of terabytes of data in the time it has been operational, which could be as early as May 2007.  

Or (again from IEEE Spectrum): "Cisco IP Phones Vulnerable: Computer scientists discover a way to take over whole networks of one of the most ubiquitous office phones in the United States." One of the researchers interviewed in the article says:

We could turn a phone into a walkie-talkie that was always on by rewriting its software with 900 bytes of code. Within 10 minutes, it could then go on to compromise every other phone on its network so that you could hear everything.
New topic. Have you, like me, followed the particle-physics doings at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe? (What doings? Most notably finding, after a long search, a "Higgs-like boson.") If so, you'll want to know that "Large Hadron Collider's heir likely destined for Japan." Good that such a research tool will be built. Not so good that, once again, the US is sitting out cutting-edge physics research. We've been eating our figurative seed corn for far too long ...

If you missed it in the holiday shopping rush: neighboring star Tau Ceti has planets. And not just any planets, either.  From Gizmodo, see, "Astronomers Discover Earth-Like Planet Close to Us." A mere twelve light-years away. Alpha Centauri B, a mere four LY away, likewise has a planet.

What's bigger than a boson, smaller than an exoplanet, hasn't (yet) been hacked, and is nonetheless of techie interest? For one, there's the Dreamliner, Boeing's latest venture -- this week removed from service worldwide due to overheating batteries. From Wired, see, "How a Battery Grounded Boeing’s Revolutionary Dreamliner."

Lithium-ion batteries have been problematical for years, with several laptop recalls to prove it. I wasn't above using exploding lithium-ion batteries as a plot device in Small Miracles -- but I don't want to see exploding batteries on a plane. To whom at Boeing do you suppose I can forward (from the University of Illinois, my alma mater), "Preventing Laptop Fires and 'Thermal Runaway' ", for insight into making these batteries self-healing?

And my subject line? With all these pieces, surely there's a mosaic in here somewhere :-)

No comments: