Amazon Echo A Witness To Murder?

Suppose you owned an Amazon Echo, or Google Home, or similar digital assistant device. Further suppose the device is operating normally, awaiting it's "attention" phrase and ready to act upon it. 

Suppose something bad happens in your home - I mean really bad - could/would/should any audio recorded by such a device be made available to the authorities?

A technological Pandora's box, no doubt - and it has already happened.
A man’s body was found floating in a hot tub behind a house in Bentonville, Ark.
Besides the regrettable loss of a life, there wasn’t much remarkable about the crime, at least not until the investigation kicked into high gear the next day. That was when detectives found a number of smart devices, including a Nest thermostat and a smart security system. 
Police also found an Amazon Echo device at the murder scene, which they seized. Then detectives asked for and received a search warrant for the Echo and another for a cell phone belonging to James A. Bates, the home’s owner, who was charged with second degree murder.
I am very curious to see exactly what might be available, and what will actually be turned over (if anything).



Microsoft's Mild Mea Culpa Over Windows 10 Obscure Upgrade "Choice"

In a cleansing act before the turn of the year, a Microsoft bigwig has admitted that they may have gotten a little carried away in their zeal to upgrade as many users as possible to Windows 10.

Specifically, Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela referred to the upgrade notification that appeared to be deliberately deceptive in the way it handled a users response. If a user clicked the red "X" at the top right of the notice, that closed the dialog box but went ahead and installed the upgrade anyway.

To actually not accept the upgrade, you had to click a link in the notification window itself. Not a few users would come back later and find their system upgraded to Windows 10, or in the process of doing so, when they thought they had expressed their wish not to do so.
"Within a couple of hours of that hitting the world, with the listening systems we have, we knew that we had gone too far and then, of course, it takes some time to roll out the update that changes that behavior. Those two weeks were pretty painful and clearly a lowlight for us. We learned a lot from it obviously."


Consumer Reports Does Not Heart MacBook Pro Battery Life

Apple MacBook Pros seem to have very inconsistent battery life, according to Consumer Reports magazine which did quite a bit of testing. The article below from CultOfMac details the results, but to say they were all over the place would be a good summary. Even the comments following the article (anecdotal, of course) mention a huge range of battery life times.

Since a portable device such as a notebook may depend on battery power a lot of the time, it's kind of a big deal. It's not clear from the article if this is a hardware or software issue (or both). It may be that one or two specific things are affecting the battery life, but again, that's not really clear. 

Should be interesting to see how this develops and how Apple responds (if they do), since Consumer Reports is a pretty well-respected magazine.


Tesla Clamps Down On Autopilot

Tesla's autopilot feature is getting a lot more "nanny-like", more strictly limiting speed and putting in more "hold the steering wheel" prompts. While this is no doubt all in the name of safety, some owners feel they are getting squeezed and being pushed away from features they may have wanted when they originally purchased the vehicle.

Autopilot - as the name suggest - is similar to the systems on a commercial aircraft that allows the pilot (driver) to relax somewhat during the trip, while not being a fully "self drive" or autonomous system. It will maintain speed, keep the care in the lane and even steer around bends at speed.
Tesla is not only adding restrictions. The company also recently started pushing a new update 8.0.2 to add new convenience features to its vehicles. Additionally, CEO Elon Musk confirmed yesterday that Tesla is making progress to bring Autopilot 2.0 vehicles to parity with the previous generation and that the Autopilot’s vision neural net is ‘now working well.’



Turning Green Into Gold (The Wrong Way)

Those of us who work with electronics and computers realize and acknowledge that the equipment can produce a lot of nasty stuff when it comes time to get rid of it. Some of the materials such as gold and rare earth metals can be recovered, while other needs to be disposed of safely.

One would hope that your computer recycler is doing the job they are supposed to do - and there are pretty strict guidelines in place to ensure that happens. 

However, people being what they are, there are always those out to make a buck by any means necessary, and such appears to be the case with a couple of Midwestern recycling business owned by Brian Brundage.
...feds allege that Brundage shipped some of those electronics for illegal disposal in landfills overseas. Those electronics included Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) from old computer and TV monitors, which contained “hazardous amounts of lead,” as well as batteries. The electronics that weren't shipped to Asia were destroyed inappropriately on the premises of his businesses or stockpiled indefinitely in warehouses, which is forbidden by federal guidelines.
It's also alleged that in order to get certifications, the companies would set up elaborate "show" areas during inspections - making it appear they were doing everything by the book.



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - A Few Mouthfuls Of Crow

A little while ago I posted how I was yawning over the prospect of the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and how I didn't really "get" the whole prequel concept in general. I saw Rogue One earlier today, and I enjoyed it very much - I am not raving about it as much as some, but it was engaging and exciting and sometimes funny, with a killer third act.

No spoilers here, but I was a little surprised at the amount of "guest appearances" of characters from Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. There are several major characters (and a few minor ones) that show up to a greater or lesser degree throughout the movie. Most are accomplished by the use of "movie magic", and generally feel integral to the story and don't distract.

The one big justification that I came up with for Rogue One's existence is that it definitely fleshes out the Rebel Alliance and their sense of desperation, and I think it actually does a nice job of setting up the events in the movie Star Wars: A New Hope.

So yeah, I will eat a couple of mouthfuls of crow over that.

Break Out The Robot Cockroaches!

We are, unfortunately, all pretty familiar with the use of rescue dogs in disasters; the trained animals can scramble around in areas that human responders can't quickly get to, and can use their keener hearing and sense of smell to find victims more effectively.

In some situations even a smaller dog might not be able to gain access to certain areas, so maybe we could use something smaller such as, er, a cockroach? Not just any cockroach, but a big fat remote controlled one carrying a small sensor package - and if you want to see a photo, check out the article below, I don't to have to see it here *shudders* (not a fan of creepy-crawlies in general).

The cockroach "pilot" can actually make the critter stop and start and go right and left, although generally the insect would be allowed to do it's thing while the changing surroundings are remotely monitored. The thinking is that evolution can do a better job of scurrying and swarming than any currently available small robots. 

The researchers are referring to these sensor-equipped insect conscripts as "biobots", probably because "remote-controlled robot cockroach" just sounds flat out creepy...


Some Of The Fallout From The Latest Yahoo! Breach

I closed my Yahoo! account a few weeks ago following a parade of security breaches and the revelation that the company was being disturbingly chummy with government agencies in regards to user data.

While I am no doubt late in making that move, it's my own way of shaking my little fist at the sky in frustration.

The latest straw straining the camels' back is the admission of yet another breach, this time affecting a total of about a billion user account - pretty much all of Yahoo!, in effect.

The Bloomberg Digital Defense video article below has some quite interesting/depressing backstory to the latest incident, and offers some good Q&A after the initial report.

Skype Translator Thinks It's A Babelfish

The Microsoft Skype Translator app may not quite match the fantastical Babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (stick one in your ear, and you can instantly understand any language), but it's pretty cool for a real world achievement.

Skype Translator lets you make Skype calls and provides real-time translations in several languages. Real-time translation - consider the implications of that. Now, you can also call land lines of cell phones with Skype and still invoke the translation service.
Skype Translator supports a total of nine spoken languages so far, namely English, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian and Spanish. "Once the person on the other side picks up they will hear a short message stating that the call is being recorded and translated through Skype Translator and then you can start talking," according to the teams blog post.


FAA - Did You Turn It Off And On Again?

Many, many things these days rely heavily upon computer control - TVs, cars, dishwashers, airplanes, et al. The airplane is the one we are concerned with here. The FAA has issued a directive to carriers using the Boeing Dreamliner that they must reboot the aircraft flight systems at least once every three weeks, until a software issue is resolved.

Aircraft generally don't have a lot of downtime, unless they are actually being repaired, but industry insiders said it would probably be unusual for a passenger aircraft to be "on" for more than a week at a time. Nevertheless, the FAA is requiring this practice until the issue is resolved by Boeing engineers.


Michigan Introduces Cutting Edge Driverless Vehicle Legislation

The state of Michigan is bringing in legislation to allow the testing, certification and operation of self-drive vehicles in that state, taking back some of the spotlight from Silicon Valley. 
Automotive and technology companies will now be able operate self-driving vehicle ride-sharing services and driverless cars may be sold to the public once the technology has been tested and certified.
Governor Rick Snyder signed 4 bills into legislation, for one thing allowing the operation of vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, something that current California law does not provide for.  

STEM Gifts For Young Folks

Since we are all probably going to have our jobs taken over by robots in the next 20 years, we had better start encouraging the younger generation to invest themselves into STEM subjects and careers - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

A tasteful way to nudge them in that direction might be with a STEM-related toy, and if you feel so inclined Amazon has lined up a collection under the STEM banner right here.  

technology - yeah, that's the ticket

The Dirty (But Good) Side To Electric Vehicles

Never mind the Tesla sportscars, the real money (and impact) to be made in electric vehicles may be in the humble garbage truck, and similar vehicles.

New Zealand engineer Ian Wright should know; he worked on the Tesla vehicle, and built his own electric sports car. Now he has set his sights and talent on cleaning up garbage trucks and other heavy (traditionally diesel-powered) vehicles.
Wright knew electric drive technology, but what to do with that knowledge was the million dollar question. The answer didn't come quickly or easily. It took the intervening decade between the 2005 launch of Wrightspeed and last week's debut of his company's new Fulcum microturbine range extender for heavy trucks.


How About An Electric Tractor?

Tractors are the workhorse around most farms, used for all manner of hauling and other duties. John Deere is showing a video of a concept electric tractor - which makes sense if you think of it. I'm not sure how much difference a green tractor would make in the grand scheme of things, but it might just work.
In some ways, tractors seem like an ideal candidate for electrification. Electric motors are great for generating the kinds of huge torque figures tractors require, and tractors are generally fairly short range vehicles that live in the same shed every night, making for convenient recharging. They're also very low-maintenance in comparison with diesel gear.
The current model featuring the ginormous battery pack shown below has a not-very-practical 4 hour operational ceiling, but of course this is just a concept at this stage. Farmers work long hours (dawn to dusk most of the time), so they would need a bit more oomph than that.

image courtesy Jalopnik


Canada Wants To Follow UK's "Snooper's Charter"

Canada is looking to increase it's surveillance along the lines of the UK's new, draconian "Snoopers Charter". Canadian officials want record storage, mandatory decryption powers and software backdoors; all to protect it's citizens from terrorism, of course, in line with the UK's legislation.

In the "never let a good crisis go to waste" mode, Western governments seem to be bending over backwards to "protect us" by monitoring our web and data traffic relentlessly, something we were appalled at when the Soviet Union and China did it...
If the government can’t outlaw end-to-end encryption and can’t require companies to use only encryption that can be decrypted, the next best thing is going to be some kind of software backdoor that disables and bypasses an application’s end-to-end encryption. Then the communications could pass through the company’s servers, where law enforcement could intercept it. The government could even get direct access to the backdoor, and then it could use it whenever it wants, with or without a warrant. 



Baby Groot Is Back For Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 Trailer

For those of us who saw Guardians of the Galaxy (spoiler!), one of the main characters made a big sacrifice to save his friends at the end of that movie. However, Groot's remains started to grow again, and baby Groot was seen in the end credits. 

He's back again in the newly-released official teaser trailer for the sequel Guardians of the Galaxy 2, along with Star Lord, Drax, Gamora and Rocket - and a soundtrack heavily featuring Sweet's 1974 song "Fox On The Run".

Yawning Over Rogue One (So Far)

I can't properly explain why (although I will try some self-therapy here), but I find myself more-or-less indifferent about the imminent release of Rogue One, the sort-of prequel to Episode IV: A New Hope (i.e. the first Star Wars move released back in 1977).

While it's nice to get another Star Wars fix before Episode 8 comes out next Christmas, I am generally not a fan of prequels; you already know the ultimate outcome, so what's the point? A gross oversimplification, I know, but that is often how I feel about movie prequels.

I am not that interested in how the small band of rebels actually got the plans to the Death Star, we already know it got blowed up real good (twice). Yet I expect there could be a gripping story there - but  will need to be convinced.

My secret fear is that I am losing a degree of geekiness as I age; I have never read any Star Wars novels or comics, nor watched any of the animated adventures set in that universe. Even though others are making a big deal about it, I don't really care that Mon Mothma appears in Rogue One - I barely know who Mon Mothma is (she was essentially a politician who was also the leader of the Rebels).

I will go and see the movie - hey, it's Star Wars, even if there is no opening crawl - and I may be pleasantly surprised, or even blown away. I will certainly choke down that piece of crow if it comes to it.