Friday, December 24, 2010

Credit card companies can kill spam

Wikileaks has polarised many people, especially with its latest round of revelations.

There are those who believe the site and its release of confidential documents is evil, potentially exposing innocent people to great risk and embarrassing governments all over the world.

There are others who believe it produces a long-needed level of transparency within government that none in power are prepared to deliver on a voluntary basis.

No doubt, the argument will continue for some time to come -- but there is one positive aspect to come from the latest chapter of this saga.

When PayPal and various credit card companies withdrew their services in handling payments and donations to Wikileaks, the set an important precedent. They have shown that they are not just a "carrier" of funds, they can also be a censor.

Why is this important?

Well for too long, our email boxes have been laden with spam promoting all kinds of fake and dubious products. Pitching everything from herbal weight-loss tablets to creams and potions guaranteed to increase the size of your manly bits, these emails have been the bane of our lives for too long.

A great deal of time and effort has been invested in creating clever software that automatically filters-out the spam that would otherwise clog our inboxes and each year, huge sums of money are wasted because of the need to provision bandwidth that is simply wasted delivering that spam to unwilling recipients.

Well perhaps now Visa, Mastercard and PayPal can come to our rescue.

By actively moving to halt the flow of funds to Wikileaks, these companies have shown that they have the ability and willingness to step in and try to intervene in activities that *may* be illegal -- even if that's only a suspicion and not proven.

So right now, I'm expecting them to step up to the plate and immediately stop providing merchant services to all these shady ventures and products that are promoted by way of spam.

If it's good enough to deny their services to Wikileaks then it must also be good enough to cut off all those spammers and others who regularly breach anti-spam laws. After all, there's no point in promoting a product by way of spam if you immediately lose the ability to accept payments; is there?

Visa, Mastercard and PayPal claim that the actions they took over Wikileaks were not politically motivated but simply part of their obligation not to provide services to those who engage in criminal activities. Well perhaps they ought to bone up on their lawbooks and take note of the fact that just about all Western nations have now banned spam by way of legislation.

So, here's to a 2011 in which we should be able to rely on the banks, PayPal and credit card companies to really "deal to" spam, or explain their apparent hypocrisy to the rest of us.

Merry Christmas all, and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Net, better than a bucket for catching leaks

It seems that the internet has become synonymous with leaked information this week.

If it's not a new chapter in the ongoing Wikileaks saga and the fate of its founder Julian Assange, it's a leaked screen shot from Yahoo which indicates where it'll be cutting costs and services or a snafu over at Facebook which prematurely exposed new features that nobody was supposed to know about.

And that's the problem with the internet and modern digital technology -- it's so damned fast and ubiquitous that a single slip of the fingers or mistaken click of the mouse can instantly expose your secrets to all the world. What's more, it's becoming increasingly difficult to protect your valuable digital data from being stolen or distributed without permission.

Take the Wikileaks situation for example...

There are hundreds of thousands of documents involved in the latest tranche of information being published from the secret files of the US government. Can you imagine how hard it would have been to smuggle that much data out of a government department before the advent of digital technology?

One hundred thousand A4 pages of typed material alone is a stack some 10 metres tall -- not something you can smuggle out past a security guard by slipping it into your sock.

However, with microSD cards now capable of storing 8GB of data, a single fingernail sized fragment of plastic encapsulated silicon can carry nearly quarter of a million typed pages worth of "secrets" and be easily secreted about one's person without raising suspicion. It's now quite practical to swallow a company or government's secrets along with your lunch and recover them a day or two later from the convenience of your "convenience".

A quick look on any of the popular Chinese online retail websites also shows that something as useful as a USB drive can be had in many different forms, many of which you'd never dream were actually concealing a huge chunk of digital flash memory.

But not only does this technology make it easy to actually smuggle information out of the places where it might be found but it also simplifies the process of duplication and dissemination.

Photocopying 200,000 typed documents would take an age -- copying the contents of a flash drive or memory card takes just a few minutes at most. Send those files via the internet and they can be half way around the world in just a few more minutes.

Just like privacy, it would appear that the concept of secrecy is now a dying concept -- something that has been rendered near-impossible by technology.

Even if you think your secrets are safe in the cloud -- think again. As the recent database break-in at Gawker Media shows, even online security is a myth.

It is true, we do live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The bomb in your pocket

Lithium batteries are a cornerstone of modern portable technology.

They allow an incredible amount of energy to be stored in a very small space and thus enable our mobile phones, laptops, tablets, media-players and other devices to run for reasonable periods of time between recharges.

However, there is a problem with concentrating all that energy into such a tiny package.

Sometimes, they go bang!

The average mobile phone battery, for instance, may have a capacity of around 1 amp/hour at 3.7V which is a total of 3.7 watt-hours (13 KiloJoules for the physicists amongst us), or about
the same as a rifle bullet in flight.

When released over several hours, most of that energy is put to good use, running processors, illuminating LEDs and LCD backlights, even sending and receiving data via radio-frequencies.

Release the same amount of energy in just a fraction of a second though -- and "boom!" -- you have a problem.

Most of the time, these lithium batteries work as intended and simply release their energy in a trickle, as demanded by whatever appliance or device they're installed in. On occasion however, something goes wrong and the result is a fire or explosion.

But just what is it that makes a lithium battery so prone to the kind of unexpected and sudden energy release we're talking about?

Well this article gives an insight into what goes on when these batteries are charged. As you can see, massive physical changes take place within the tiny conductors that make up the plates of the batteries and, over repeated charge/discharge cycles, this can cause physical damage to the cells -- eventually resulting in catastrophic failure.

So what is being done to try and make lithium batteries safer?

Well there have been alternative chemistries developed such as lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4). Batteries based on this chemistry have proven to be far safer and almost immune to the kind of fiery venting that the more common lithium-ion and lithium-polymer cells sometimes produce. Unfortunately, LiFePO4 are more expensive and don't have the same energy-density hence, are not favoured by gadget-makers.

In fact, it looks as if lithium batteries may get even more dangerous before they get safer because their energy density looks set to see a ten-fold increase, if this article is anything to go by.

Personally, I find it amusing that in this era of paranoia, when passengers are frisked before they're allowed on an aircraft and at one time it was even forbidden to take more than a few ml of any liquid onboard for fear it may be part of an incendiary device -- nobody cares that most of us are carrying a rather potent bomb everywhere we go -- in the form of our mobile phones, netbooks, ipads, ipods and other lithium-powered devices.

But fear-not, airlines are aware of the danger and train their staff to respond accordingly -- as in this FAA video.

I never had these problems with my old zinc-carbon Eveready AA cells. Ain't progress a wonderful thing?

Friday, December 3, 2010

IBM to be arrested for breaking Moore's Law?

Moore's law has been one of the most enduring truisms of the computer era.

For those who aren't familiar with Moore's Law (and there must be at least one person in the world who's been sleeping for the past 45 years), Gordon Moore of Intel once claimed that the number of transistors that could be scaled onto a single chip would double ever 12 months.

And you know what? He was dead right.

The effect of this non-linear growth in the density of integrated circuits is that computing power has grown roughly in unison to this ever-increasing complexity of the chips that comprise our modern CPUs.

However, physics looked as if it was catching up to Moore's law and might even render it invalid.

The problem is that in order to increase the number of transistors and provide faster computer chips, the size of each individual transistor and the paths that connect them has been shrinking.

Eventually, we must reach a point where we just can't make things any smaller, for a number of reasons.

Once things get too small, the weired world of quantum effects start to replace those of classic science. Instead of flowing smoothly from junction to junction, as they do on larger scales, electrons start falling prey to those quantum effects, with certainty replaced by probability.

Those who develop our computer chips have been warning for some time that we're rapidly approaching the threshold of miniaturization that will effectively create a wall to the seemingly endless rule of Moore's law.

However, when faced with a wall that blocks your path, what do you do?

The smart money says that instead of banging your head against it and drawing blood, you're much better to set off in a new direction, one where the wall won't be a problem.

And indeed, that's exactly what some researchers are doing. What's more, these scientists claim that when they succeed, Moore's law will be eclipsed by new laws that dictate a massive leap in computing power hitherto unimagined by Gordon Moore or any of his fellow workers at Intel.

Researchers at IBM now claim that the future of computing is something they call "nanophotonics" (hooray, a new buzzword!).

The increase in raw computing power that this blend of conventional silicon technology and optical computing promises to deliver is mind-boggling.

IBM says that its nanophotonic processors will deliver speeds measured in exaflops (10^18 floating-point operations per second) rather than the current record-holding super-computer performance of a meagre 2.67 petaflops (2.762 * 10^15 floating point instructions per second).

The first of IBM's new computers using this technology is due to be installed next year and, although it will deliver a humble 10 petaflops, it will do so using far less space and power than a conventional computer this size would require.

So the future of super-computing is bright -- quite literally.

And Moore's law?

Well that may become a quaint relic of the 20th century -- itself eclipsed and replaced by a new law that defines much faster growth over shorter timeframes.

I love this industry.