Category Archives: Technology

New technologies

How #USB became the undefeated king of #connectors


Parallel and serial ports, just a couple of the flakey old connectors USB replacedEricf / Flickr CC-BY 3.0Parallel and serial ports, just a couple of the flakey old connectors USB replacedEricf / Flickr CC-BY 3.0

Like all technology, USB has evolved over time. Despite being a “Universal” Serial Bus, in its 18-or-so years on the market it has spawned multiple versions with different connection speeds and many, many types of cables.

The USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that oversees the standard, is fully cognisant of this problem, which it wants to solve with a new type of cable dubbed Type-C. This plug is designed to replace USB Type-A and Type-B ports of all sizes on phones, tablets, computers, and other peripherals. Type-C will support the new, faster USB 3.1 spec with room to grow beyond that as bandwidth increases.

It’s possible that in a few years, USB Type-C will have become the norm, totally replacing the tangled nest of different cables that we all have balled up in our desk drawers. For now, it’s just another excuse to pass around that dog-eared XKCD comic about the proliferation of standards. While we wait to see whether Type-C will save us from cable hell or just contribute to it, let’s take a quick look at where USB has been over the years, what competing standards it has fought against, and what technologies it will continue to grapple with in the future.

What it replaced

If you’ve only been using computers for the last decade or so, it can be easy to take USB for granted. But for all of its ever-shifting specs and connectors, it’s still a huge improvement over what came before.

If you were using a computer anytime before the dawn of USB in the Pentium and Pentium II eras, connecting pretty much anything to your computer required any one of a large variety of ports. Connecting a mouse? Maybe you need a PS/2 connector or a serial port. A keyboard? PS/2 again, maybe the Apple Desktop Bus, or a DIN connector. Printers and scanners generally used big old parallel ports, and you could also use them for external storage if you didn’t want to use SCSI. Connecting gamepads or joysticks to your computer often required a game port, which by the 90s was commonly found on dedicated sound cards (these were the days before audio chips became commonplace on desktop and laptop motherboards).

You can see the problem. Some of these ports required their own dedicated expansion cards, they all took up a bunch of space, and they were often fussy when it came time to configure or troubleshoot them. By the late 90s, computers were starting to come with a couple of USB ports, usually a couple of them on the back of the system — these were usually USB 1.1 ports, capable of speeds up to 12Mbps (or 1.5Mbps for peripherals like keyboards and mice). Accessory makers didn’t all make the switch to USB right away, but keyboards, mice, printers, and other accessories began to include USB ports and connectors as an option, then as the primary interface.

When USB 2.0 became more widespread in the early-to-mid 2000s, it began to replace even more things. USB flash drives had a hand in the death of the floppy disk (and proprietary relatives like the Zip drive), and in the slow fade of optical media — why use CDs and DVDs for data storage and operating system install media when smaller, faster, more versatile USB drives can get the job done more quickly? USB 2.0 also made it feasible to connect external peripherals — like Wi-Fi adapters, optical drives, Ethernet ports, and so on — that previously needed to be installed inside the computer. Transfer speeds of up to 480Mbps helped make all of this possible, and in this era USB ports began to multiply and completely replace older legacy ports on desktops and (especially) laptops. It was pretty common to find four or more USB ports on the back of desktops, as well as one or two more mounted on the front for easy access.

USB really came of age with USB 2.0, and USB 3.0’s increase in speeds to 5Gbps has made it even more useful for all of the use cases mentioned above — it takes less time to perform system backups or to move giant video files around, and it relieves a bottleneck for 802.11ac or gigabit Ethernet adapters. It’s relatively comfortable to run entire operating systems from USB 3.0 hard drives or flash drives, especially useful if you’re trying to troubleshoot a machine or recover data from it. USB ports are often the only ports available on laptops, especially since Wi-Fi has reduced the need for dedicated Ethernet ports. The ubiquity of the interface guarantees support from all major chipmakers, from Intel to Qualcomm to AMD. (Intel’s current chipsets support a total of 14 USB ports, a far cry from the two-ish that were usually available on early systems.)

In other words, USB isn’t without its problems, but it’s managed to gain and keep wide support from technology companies and the basic USB Type-A connector found on most computers has stayed the same size and shape for close to 20 years. Considering the patchwork of interfaces it came to replace, that’s no small feat. Continue reading

Wired UK: How spies cracked the Malaysia Airlines #MH17 missile mystery


Artist conception of the Defense Support Program satellite.Artist conception of the Defense Support Program satellite. Northrop Grumman Corporation

When the only video evidence of a plane crash is shot after the smoke is filling the sky, how do you go about piecing the tragedy together, let alone determining it was brought down by a missile and what could have fired it?

The investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 began long before salvage teams recover the first black box recorder in the conflict-ridden region of East Ukraine. And with reports emerging from news agency Interfax that Russian separatists plan to hand the recorder over to the Russian interior, the impartiality of information when it is released to investigators is already coming under question. But other, external methods have already determined a great deal about the final moments of MH17.

The most important of which, coming only hours after the crash, was the lofty claim by Ukrainian and US intelligence officials that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). Who fired the missile is sure to be a matter of great political importance over the coming days and weeks, with the prospect of international intervention looming in an already tense situation. To make such a claim before the dust had even settled would require quite the metaphorical ace up the sleeve, but in America’s case the Cold War has armed them with plenty of cards.

The US Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP) operates a web of satellites positioned around the Earth that act as an early warning system for weapons launches, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and spacecraft. Using infrared cameras, they are capable of detecting even smaller heat signatures — such as launch blasts and booster plumes — proving their usefulness in the first Iraq invasion, detecting the launches of Scud missiles and providing evacuation warnings to civilian and military targets alike. These satellites form part of the larger field of Measurements and Signals Intelligence service (MASINT) operated by many national military and spy agencies, including the US Department of Defence.

Detecting the launch of a missile is as simple as watching for a white spot on an aerial shot, then tracking the missile’s trajectory back to its launchpad. This, in theory, would make it easy to discover the weapon used. However, infra-red sensors are not the same as the high-resolution cameras that provide us with a detailed view of our own home on Google Earth, and without additional surveillance satellites trained on the area at the right time, that information would be lost. That is, without some lateral thinking, a practice the intelligence industry excels in. Continue reading

Wired UK: Russia caught editing Wikipedia entry about Flight MH17


Wikipedia ScreenshotScreenshot. Click here to view Wikipedia page

The world is still reeling from the shock of the deaths of 298 people on Malaysian flight MH17, which was shot down in Ukraine yesterday, but the battle to write and re-write history has already begun online.

Thanks to a Twitter bot that monitors Wikipedia edits made from Russian government IP addresses, someone from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) has been caught editing a Russian-language Wikipedia reference to MH17 in an article on aviation disasters.
RuGovEdits tweetThe tweet reads: “Wikipedia article List of aircraft accidents in civil aviation has been edited by RTR [another name for VGTRK]” (Google Translate).

The edit was in response to an initial edit to the MH17 section that said the plane was shot down “by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation,” according to the website Global Voices.

In a counter-edit less than an hour later, the entry was changed to say, “The plane was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers”.

Edit wars in Wikipedia are nothing new. Politicians, PR companies and individuals of all stripes have been caught out editing Wikipedia pages to better suit their interests and reputations.

With deeply controversial and breaking news events like the shooting down of MH17 the motivation to rewrite the first draft of history is even stronger. Although the evidence appears to place the blame at the hands of pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels ( with The Sun going even further with their front-page headline “Putin’s Missile”), Russia has denied any involvement in the incident.

Luckily edits on Wikipedia are recorded and the IP addresses of the person editing it are publicly viewable, meaning that at the very least underhand editing can be exposed.

The Twitter bot that spotted the edit, @RuGovEdits, is one of a host of government-monitoring bots that include the US congress-focussed @CongressEdits, which were inspired by the UK’s @ParliamentEdits.

Wired UK.

BBC News: CNET News Site attacked by Russian hacker group


CNET twitter feedCNET was informed about the hack attack via a Twitter conversation

A Russian hacker group has attacked the news site CNET. It later said it stole usernames, encrypted passwords and emails for more than one million users.

CNET said a representative from the group – which calls itself ‘w0rm’ – informed it about the hack via a Twitter conversation.

A spokeswoman for CBS Interactive – the owner of CNET – said the firm had “identified the issue and resolved it”.

According to CNET, w0rm offered to sell the database for 1 Bitcoin, or $622.

But it added that the hacking group said the plan to sell the database was to gain attention and “nothing more”.

Improve security?

The representative of the group claimed that it hacked CNET servers to improve the overall security on the internet.

The group has claimed to have successfully hacked the BBC last year, as well as websites of Adobe and Bank of America.

It says that by targeting high-profile websites it can raise awareness of security issues.

“We are driven to make the Internet a better and safer [place] rather than a desire to protect copyright,” the representative said in a Twitter exchange with CNET.

On Monday, the representative offered a security solution to CNET by tweeting: “#CNET I have good protection system for u, ping me”.

According to CNET, 27.1 million unique users visited its desktop and mobile sites in the US in June this year.

BBC News

Wired: The Brilliant Machine That Could Finally Fix Airport Security


Fans at a World Cup game at Arena de Baixada stadium in Curitiba, Brazil use the Qylatron to go through security.Fans at a World Cup game at Arena de Baixada stadium in Curitiba, Brazil use the Qylatron to go through security. PHOTO: Qylur

Australian fans pumped to see their team take on Spain during the first round of the World Cup were intrigued by the honeycomb-like machine that had replaced the standard manual search process at Arena de Baixada stadium in Curitiba, Brazil. They were less thrilled when the machine spotted the toy kangaroos they were trying to sneak into the match.

That machine is the Qylatron Entry Experience Solution, and it could soon replace a crappy experience of going through security checks at airports and other venues with one that’s faster and less invasive. Instead of having a human poke around in your bag, the machine scans it for a variety of threats in just a few seconds. Searching those Aussies and other soccer fans may prove to be a watershed moment for the system, a successful test of how well it can spot trouble and move people through security, efficiently and with their dignity intact.

The system is the work of Silicon Valley-based Qylur Security Systems, and it consists of five pods that sit around a central sensor. The process is a much closer to being pleasant than having your stuff searched by hand at a stadium or going through the mundane horrors of TSA security. You don’t have to open your bag or let any else touch it. And with five people moving through at once, you’re through security before you have time to really get annoyed.

The whole process is simple. You hold your ticket up to the machine, and it assigns you a pod, in which you place your bag in. Each pod is about the size of a big microwave, so will fit most bags, but maybe not the biggest carry-ons you can take on a plane (though Qylur presumably could tweak the size). Close the door and walk around to the other side. In the time it takes you to get over there, the machine scans the bag for a range of threats. Qylur isn’t keen on explaining how the technology works, but we know it has radiation and chemical sensors to pick out explosives. With a multi-view X-ray, it runs the images it sees through a detection engine that uses machine learning to pick out prohibited items like guns and knives. If it sees a threat, it alerts a security officer, and the door of the pod turns red. If not, the door turns green, and you unlock it with your ticket. Take your bag and go.

Before Qylur can lock down contracts to move into airports and other venues, it has to prove the system works. So it went to Brazil, where it was hired by an event operations company running some World Cup games. Qylur was given responsibility for one entrance to Arena de Baixada stadium, for four games. Continue reading