Category Archives: News

R.I.P Ray Tomlinson

I have been so busy lately it’s hard to put into words, however I had to take some time to acknowledge the passing of Ray Tomlinson. That may not be one of the most famous names in computing history, but his invention certainly is.

Ray is the inventor of email, and the nomenclature including the ‘@’ sign to indicate the system on which the message was to be delivered. It’s a shame more don’t know his name, considering how profound his impact on computing was – not just for computery-y types back in 1971 when he first developed the thing, but for every single individual on the planet as the years went on. So important was it, that he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was the stereotypical engineer, very pragmatic and matter-of-fact when he spoke, however back in the very early seventies that’s the kind of person that made these incredible contributions. His developments set the tone for electronic communication for decades.

Although the use of email is on the decline and incline at the same time, it is still an entrenched, foundational component of what made the Internet the revolutionary, culture-changing thing it is. I mean, teens don’t use it, but that’s probably for the best.

What just happened?

In case you haven’t heard, there are competitions to see who can solve a Rubik’s Cube the fastest. It’s called cubing. And there are sites where you can learn about it and pick up new techniques (such as the Fridrich Method) and advice, such as the importance of keeping your cube lubricated. Seriously. There’s even official Rubik’s Lube. The people who do it refer to themselves as cubers, and the activity of solving a Rubik’s Cube as cubing. And they are fast. Very fast, with some solving it in under five seconds.

There’s even a World Cube Association and they have regulations on how a cube must be scrambled.

Why am I bringing this up? Because as is or will be the case with everything eventually, they were all just bested by a robot. A robot that can solve a Rubik’s Cube so fast the eye can barely register it. In under one second, .887 seconds to be exact, the cube is turned from a random mishmash of colors to a thing of six-sided, solid color beauty.

It was done using an interesting process, in which two open-shutter cameras took a picture of three sides of the cube, an algorithm on a connected laptop worked out the solution, then passed that solution to an Arduino controller that executed the previously-determined solution. It did this by anchoring the center square of each side with an arm, while also using that arm to spin its respective side. It sounds far better if I just paste the description from the YouTube page:

Prior to the world record attempt a WCA-conform modified speed cube was scrambled with a computer generated random array and positioned in the robot. Once the start button was hit two webcam shutters were moved away. Thereafter a laptop took two pictures, each picture showing three sides of the cube. Then the laptop identified all colors of the cube and calculated a solution with Tomas Rokicki’s extremely fast implementation of Herbert Kociemba’s Two-Phase-Algorithm. The solution was handed over to an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board that orchestrated the 20 moves of six high performance steppers. Only 887 milliseconds after the start button had been hit Sub1 broke a historic barrier and finished the last move in new world record time.

What’s truly amazing is that because it still utilized a multi-step process that handed off functionality two separate times, the time could still be significantly reduced! Watch the video, then watch it again because you’ll miss the actual solving-the-Rubik’s-Cube part. It’s quite incredible.

 

I don’t know why I bother

...

SplashData has, as they are wont to annually do, released their list of the worst passwords of 2015. Definitely look at the link, there’s  lot of additional information there regarding how dumb we are when it comes to this. Want to take a guess which terrible password takes the top spot? That’s right, 123456. Anyone suprised? Anyone? No? Frankly, if that’s your password, you deserve whatever happens. Not to be all alone, other number-based passwords made the list as well, including 12345678 and 123456789. Other idiotic passwords include qwertyuiop, login, and passw0rd. That last one is especially offensive, as though the person thinks they are pulling a fast one by having a zero instead of an o. They’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

I used a different header image than I originally had intended, one that showed the bad passwords from 2014. They’re generally the same as last year, but I ended up not going with it because it was redundant considering the list below, but the original version of this post still referenced it. So I made a fun edit, and instead I found the Facebook post used in the header which – although I sincerely hope it’s fake – really very much hope that it is fake – shows how gullible people can be. If it’s real, I wouldn’t at all be surprised. Now hold on while I allow a Nigerian prince access to my bank account.

There are some passwords on the list that are less offensive, as though the person tried, including dragon and starwars, but geez oh man, at least throw a capital letter or exclamation point or something in there, even the passw0rd people up above did that. If you really need to make a strong password, remember a sequence of at least four random words is the best alternative, and hopefully one day passwords will go the way of the dinosaurs and disco (although I do love disco), and we can switch to things like biometrics full time. Here’s the full list, pasted from Cnet:

1 – 123456 (unchanged from 2014)
2 – password (unchanged)
3 – 12345678 (up 1)
4 – qwerty (up 1)
5 – 12345 (down 2)
6 – 123456789 (unchanged)
7 – football (up 3)
8 – 1234 (down 1)
9 – 1234567 (up 2)
10 – baseball (down 2)
11 – welcome (new)
12 – 1234567890 (new)
13 – abc123 (up 1)
14 – 111111 (up 1)
15 – 1qaz2wsx (new)
16 – dragon (down 7)
17 – master (up 2)
18 – monkey (down 6)
19 – letmein (down 6)
20 – login (new)
21 – princess (new)
22 – qwertyuiop (new)
23 – solo (new)
24 – passw0rd (new)
25 – starwars (new)

Incidentally, if you think you have a pretty robust password, and want to test if you really have the goods, you can go to howsecureismypassword.net and see. The site is legitimate, I promise, it’s not stealing your credentials or anything like that, and it will show you how strong your password really is. Here’s mine – I’ve got the process down.

That's right

That’s right

The Ogre-Faced spider of drones

Ogre-faced spider

As many of you know, I considered going to grad school for biology, specifically because I wanted to investigate the cognitive capabilities of spiders. I believed there were certain species of spider that had the genuine ability to think and plan out strategy, and although I decided to pursue another path, I would also like to note that I have since been proven right. I knew it all along. Not all of them have the ability to think, of course, in fact I frequently use the example of a black widow and her behavior to illustrate concepts in artificial intelligence, specifically to define what is and isn’t intelligence.

So if you take a look at the lovely lady in the header image, you’ll see a spider that is unique in many ways, not the least of which is that it has two different and distinct colloquial names – one based on her appearance, and one based on her behavior. That’s unusual in the insect kingdom (which isn’t really a kingdom in the biological sense, but you know what I mean). Her first name is the ogre-faced spider, for reasons I think are pretty obvious. Her other name, however, is the one we’re concerned with and it describes not just her behavior but what I believe is at least a low-level ability to cognate: the net-casting spider.

Net-casting spider in action

Net-casting spider in action

That’s right! This spider makes a net, waits for some unsuspecting bug to mosey underneath, then not only traps the bug in the net, but will expand the net to fit the bug if necessary, or in some cases allow the bug to pass if she feels it will put up too much of a fight. And people say spiders can’t think. Or maybe they don’t say that, but if they do, they shouldn’t.

So why all the talk of spiders that can do the thinky thinky? Well, besides the fact that I use spider cognition – insomuch as it is – to explain artificial intelligence concepts, the netcasting spider is also the first thing I thought of when I saw this post over at Engadget: It turns out students at Michigan Tech are developing a drone that, just like the netcasting spider, can throw out a net to catch other drones in midair! How badass is that? Here’s the gif, borrowed from Engadget’s post:

Dronecatcher

Dronecatcher

The designers call it ‘Robotic Falconry,’ which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever seen a falcon hunt; they often pluck their prey, if it’s a bird, out of midair. The rogue drone, as it were, is similarly plucked right out of the air via net and hauled away, helpless, to someplace for…well, I’ll say tea and cake, but more likely disassembly.

I like this idea. It seems a less-lethal way of dealing with a rogue drone. If you think that perhaps this is addressing an issue that isn’t a real problem, you might want to read this post from Ars Technica. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt, and this guy was ready to do it. There’s a fascinating follow-up to that whole thing as well that could set law and policy about drones and would necessarily be very wide-ranging, covering ownership, privacy, property, and how all these things interact and overlap where drones are concerned. Additionally, as Engadget’s post also points out, Japan is testing a net-casting drone because shooting them down could be harmful if they are loaded with a dangerous substance, a problem they’ve already had to deal with.

This could all be focused into something productive, though. What we REALLY need is some kind of gladiatorial drone-combat sport thing – that would be fun to watch. Just like the BattleBots competitions they have, drone wars could become a real thing. A real, exciting thing. Drones with nets, drones with lasers, drones that shoot flames and crash into each other. I’d watch that.

And again

Bowie

Once again, I am here writing about the loss of a giant in the recording industry. Mine is but a small voice in the sea of condolences flooding the Internet, but David Bowie, whom everyone knows and everyone loves, has passed away in a death that unlike that of Lemmy, I – and apparently many others – never saw coming. His last album, Blackstar, had the clues but we were all too busy enjoying it to notice.

Before I continue, it must be noted that another icon of another type, but no less important of stature, passed away the day before we lost Mr. Bowie. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a gargantuan fan of horror movies, and so it was with equal sadness I learned of the death of Angus Scrimm, otherwise known as the Tall Man from one of the crowning, best examples of low-budget 70’s horror, 1979’s Phantasm. I loved this movie, for a brief time I was even comrades with some of the people involved with its creation, and it has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. It was very unique, offered some novel horror-movie ideas, and the silver ball sentinels were genius. I will simply acknowledge Angus Scrimm’s significance with a respectable BOY!

Now back to David Bowie, and why you may be wondering why I would be writing about him on what is primarily a tech blog. First, it’s because I’ve always been a huge fan, from his eclectic to his standard. I’m a fan because his music is magic. And I’m a fan because he wrote and sang about technology and science quite a bit. Songs like Space Oddity, the lyrically brief Sound and Vision, the spoken-word Future Legend, and, frankly, the entire Ziggy Stardust album, not to mention his movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (a movie I dare to watch and not be deeply impacted by) put technology and science into mainstream pop and made it acceptable to be into those kinds of things, things that were never considered to be all that cool. If you read science fiction,. if you dreamed of outer space, if you thought about the future, David Bowie was telling you it was ok. I have read tribute after tribute addressing these ideas, and now more than ever it seems like his influence in that sphere is coming true. Now, these things are considered part of regular life and many bands write songs dealing with science and tech; back then, not so much (so thank you Rolling Stones and Zager and Evans for also being innovators). There are even chiptune bands!

EDIT: I don’t know how I forgot about this, but I was just reminded that he also starred in and contributed to the eccentric 1999 PC game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, and even had his own ISP! His influence is obvious throughout both of these, and they’re just more examples of how much foresight and influence he had.

Even the way I found out about it was technically eerie. It was 11:34pm, I was in bed, the house was dark, yet I noticed a glow coming from the adjacent room. It was my Mac’s screen glowing brightly, which was unusual since it goes to sleep after 5 minutes of inactivity. I got up to see what the issue was, and as I sat down the browser refreshed the news site it was on to show the new stories, and the page was flooded with the news of his passing. It’s like someone or something wanted me to know right then.

David Bowie was transformative and transcendent in his style, his music, and his influence. Also, Labyrinth is a masterpiece.

The recent loss of Lemmy, by the way, is not void of this concept either. He played for a brief stint in Hawkwind, a surreal prog-rock group that sang about science and technology with as much – if not more – zeal than even Bowie, it was their conceptual anchor. Here’s their video for Silver Machine, a song about spaceflight.

Honestly, I’d be happy if these people who influenced so much of my personality, my character, my tastes, and my individuality would just stop dying – can someone meet Joe Black already? Give me a break, it’s been too much too soon!

Going Up