Monday, February 2, 2015

Science (and "science") news

"On 20 December 2013, The United Nations (UN) General Assembly 68th Session proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015)." (That's from the IYL home page.)

What could be more appropriate than a moment of respectful reflection (no pun intended) on the recent passing of a major pioneer of light technology? See "Charles Townes, who helped invent now-ubiquitous laser, dies." Lasers are essential -- to name only a handful of their applications -- to precision scalpels, retail scanners, DVD drives, telecommunications, and (now in field test aboard the USS Ponce) directed-energy weapons. That's quite the legacy.

Less commented upon, but also recent and noteworthy, "Illinois LED pioneers receive Draper Prize." That's Illinois, as in the university of: my alma mater. The Draper Prize (if less publicized than the Nobel Prize, one of which Townes won) is a Big Deal: the annual award of the National Academy of Engineering. Many a laser is, of course, an LED laser.

The Draper announcement speaks to me because -- decades ago, back at the U of Illinois -- I took a class on semiconductor physics from Prof. Nick Holonyak, the senior member among the aforementioned pioneers. Holonyak was a terrific teacher and, it was clear to me even then, a researcher doing groundbreaking work. He's now widely recognized for developing the first practical light-emitting diode. I am delighted on his behalf.

I've posted here often about computer (in)security, system vulnerabilities, hacking exploits, and privacy breaches. Most often such posts deal with all too common weaknesses of software design and implementation -- but hack attacks can also hide in hardware.

A state-of-the-art integrated circuit (such as the microprocessor or system-on-a-chip at the heart of your PC, tablet, or phone) can hold a billion or more transistors, and that complexity will only increase in future chip generations. How does one defend against malicious circuits hidden in such a sea of circuitry? You and I can't. The typical product manufacturer can't. The DOD wonders whether the manufacturers of their weapons, comm networks, and warning systems can. Hence it's encouraging to read "Stopping Hardware Trojans in Their Tracks: A few adjustments could protect chips against malicious circuitry."

Not that threats to our privacy and security are limited to hacking .... The drone your neighbor or his kid received for Christmas can be as intrusive as -- while much less technically demanding than -- a computer hack. Having said that, be of good cheer, because there may be a drone defense: "Rapere: An Intercept Drone to Seek and Destroy Other Drones." Seriously.

Even as Google pulled the plug on Google Glass, its augmented-reality product, Microsoft was introducing its somewhat similar Hololens product. Puzzled where this product category is going, and how soon it might arrive? Join the club! For a couple takes on the subject, check out "Google Glass: Down but not out" and "Google Glass vs Microsoft Hololens - the industry arguments."

An opinion/prediction: augmented reality in glasses and contact lenses will catch on within a few years, for specialized purposes like hands-free access to reference materials. Example: a surgeon, mid surgery, superimposing an MRI image over the patient open in front of her. Example: a mechanic, up to his elbows inside a jet engine, doing a hands-free look-up of the next step in a maintenance procedure. For consumer use, IMO, AR specs will remain for awhile mere high-tech toys; we'll first see them break out as a consumer product in gaming.

Speaking of high-tech toys -- and hacking -- consider (from Forbes; I'm not making this up): "Cracking Dildos And Dollies: Hackers Expose Vulnerabilities In Connected Toys." Shades of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper.

Are online sex toys the height (or depth) of folly? Perhaps not. Consider that in a recent study "Over 80 percent of Americans support 'mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.' " Sad, but not a joke: this was a University of Oklahoma study, reported in the Washington Post. One has to wonder ... what do the 80% suppose is in natural food?

And now completely changing the subject ...

Aside #1: In the past week this blog has gotten over three thousand hits from Ukraine. Visitors are always welcome, of course, but I'm more than a little curious about this surge of interest.

Aside #2, for regular readers (or those who plan to be): Have you taken the SF and Nonsense reader survey? It'll remain open till February 16.

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