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Interesting snippets from around the globe

The right to be forgotten


The European Court of Justice has ruled that Google, Bing and others, acting as internet search engine operators, are responsible for the processing they carry out on personal data which appears on web pages published by third parties.

As a result, any searches made on the basis of a person's name that returns links/descriptions for web pages containing information on the person in question must, upon request by the related individual, be removed. The decision supports calls for a so-called 'right to be forgotten' by Internet privacy advocates, which ironically the European Commission are already working to implement via new legislation.

It all started in 2010 when a Spanish lawyer named Mario Costeja González complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that Google had indexed pages in a Spanish newspaper which announced an auction notice had been placed on his home in 1998. He wanted both Google and the newspaper to remove the offending pages, or at least conceal the damaging information they contained. The pages ranked highly against searches on his name, which he argued infringed on his right to privacy.

As those events happened over a decade ago, he contended that they were no longer relevant to his current situation. Google's response was to staunchly oppose Costeja, resist pressure from Spain's privacy regulator, and ignore rulings by its national high court. Google said such actions amounted to censorship. Google's refusal to comply saw the case referred to the European Court of Justice for a tougher examination. On May 13th, the Court of Justice arrived at its decision and unexpectedly decided that Costeja's right to be forgotten outweighed the importance Google places on linking to publicly available information. Deeming the search giant a "data controller," the court said users must have an option to erase search results that are "inadequate, irrelevant...or excessive," but also "outdated.”

Since then Google has been inundated with thousands of takedown requests and has to somehow assess each one as to whether the request meets these impossibly vague definitions.

Bear in mind that if the request is approved, the information will still exist on the websites that published the original information, Google just won't be able to deliver matches to some queries that are entered. That's to say: the information isn't being erased from the web, just made less easily searchable.

The ruling applies to EU citizens and all search engines in Europe, including Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing. It has no immediate impact on the way Google and other search engines display their results in other countries outside Europe.

(June ‘14)


France bans work emails after 6 p.m.


Move to France. The Guardian reports that France has made it illegal for employees to attend to "work-related material on their computers or smartphones" after they clock out for the day:

Now employers' federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require staff to switch off their phones after 6pm. Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones – or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita.

So, in addition to 35-hour work weeks, it is now frowned upon for the French workforce to tend to business once it's time to eat dinner. Germany already does this. It's unclear exactly how this will be enforced though.

C'est la vie.

(Apr ‘14)


Hackers create fake traffic jam


A couple of Israeli students figured out a way to create fake traffic jams using the Google-owned Waze GPS app. The hack was pretty simple.

Shir Yadid and Meital Ben-Sinai from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology registered thousands of phony Waze users by impersonating smart phones. Then they simply sent all the fake users to the same GPS location, creating a massive traffic jam in the eyes of other Waze users. While they pulled off the hack just to show how it could be done, a trick like this could spoil the morning commute for thousands of people.

And while it sounds like a silly prank, these kinds of infrastructure hacks could have serious consequences as we become more dependent on data to help us get around.

Imagine how fake data could derail our whole infrastructure system?

(Apr ‘14)


Generate your own credit card numbers


First of all, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea – we are not trying to assist you to commit fraud. We are just going to help you protect your personal information and perhaps save you a few dollars.

In the same way you may use a junk email address to sign up for special offers, you may want a junk credit card number for the Internet too. That’s because free things are rarely ever free and that’s especially true of free trials.

Companies frequently offer “free” trials in exchange for your billing info. They’re betting against you and hoping you’ll forget to cancel your subscription so they can get some money out of you for at least one month, or maybe a couple months if you forget to cancel by the end of the free trial period.

So, before you know if it’s a service or subscription you might want, you may want to test drive the site via the free trial. A generated credit card number will help you cut the strings and keep you safe from fake sites looking to capture your personal info.

Credit card numbers are generated based on a formula. A valid number is simply a number that conforms to a validation algorithm using check digits.

For free trials, you don’t actually need an active number (one issued by a financial institution to a customer) since it shouldn’t be charged during the free trial period anyway. You just need a number that is valid according to the algorithm to enable you to create a trial account.

While it’s technically possible that you could generate a number that is currently active, it’s highly unlikely since there are trillions of possible numbers. The odds are far greater that you’d win Lotto’s Powerball and we know the likelihood of that happening. Also, the website doesn’t have the correct billing info for the customer, so a charge would never be approved anyway.

Various sites on the Internet offer lists of “test credit card numbers” but the odds are high that these numbers may have been used on the most popular sites already and they’re not going to work.

To generate your own number, try the site at the link below. Each time you reload the site, a new batch of numbers will appear.

(Apr ‘14)


Crims use drones to spot pot farms


While police departments in the U.S. are now starting to adopt drone technology for surveillance, some criminals in England have been turning the technology to their advantage to target victims – specifically, marijuana growers.

According to the report, criminals have taken a page out of the playbook of law enforcement and the military, using drones to carry aloft an infrared camera to search for the heat given off by the grow lights used by large-scale pot growers. Once spotted, the criminals move in to steal the marijuana or extort the growers for a cut, according to one man who claimed to be involved in such a scheme.

“It’s not like I am using my drone to see if they have nice televisions,” he told the Halesowen News, the local newspaper of a community outside Birmingham. “I am just after drugs to steal and sell… If you break the law then you enter me and my drone’s world. Half the time we don’t even need violence to get the crop. Growing cannabis has gone mainstream, and the people growing it are not gangsters.” Nice.

(Apr ‘14)


Legendary newsreel collection on YouTube


Pathé News, perhaps the most well-regarded news agency of the 1900s, has now put its entire 85,000 video newsreel archive on YouTube. That’s 3,500 hours of footage!

The stash of videos stretches as far back as 1896 and goes right up to 1976. There are clips from the First and Second World Wars, scenes of the 1937 Hindenburg Disaster, the Hiroshima bombing and even Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on their official visit to New Zealand in 1954?

Something for everyone.

(Apr ‘14)

Back to top


Video calls 50 years ago


Fifty years ago, on 20 April 1964, Bell Telephone showed off the Mod 1 Picturephone at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Visitors were able to step into a booth and have a conversation with a person thousands of miles away in Disneyland, California.

But instead of just talking into a handset, users sat in front of an oblong device that housed both a video screen and a camera. The service delivered a 30 frame-per-second black-and-white feed to wowed fair-goers.

A few months later, in June of the same year, AT&T took the service commercial and it was a total flop. At $US16 for three minutes of video calling, Picturephone was prohibitively expensive and, despite pumping millions of dollars into the effort, Bell could never get any traction. Mod II was released in 1969 but also failed to capture anything more than the imagination.

Decades later along came Skype.

(Apr ‘14)


When the restaurant you Googled Googles you


A New York restaurant with three Michelin stars is trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Internet site on NY’s restaurant scene, the maitre d’ at a restaurant called Eleven Madison Park performs Internet recon on every guest in the interests of customising their experience.

He tries to ascertain things like whether a couple is coming to the restaurant for an anniversary, and if so, which anniversary that is. If it's a birthday, he wants to wish them "Happy Birthday" when they arrive. He'll scan for photos of the guests in chef's whites or posing with wine glasses, which suggest they might be chefs or wine buffs.

If a particular guest appears to come from another state, he will try to pair up the table with a server who is from the same state. If the guest is into jazz, he’ll give them a sommelier that also happens to like jazz.

Obviously, the restaurant is trying to be better in tune with the people coming to the establishment, but it seems a little creepy. Imagine, you arrive at the restaurant and someone you’ve never met before, as if by telepathy, wishes you a happy birthday.

(Apr ‘14)


Serious reading taking a hit from online skimming


Cognitive neuroscientists say humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through mountains of information online at the expense of traditional deep reading circuitry.

Maryanne Wolf, one of the world's foremost experts on the study of reading, found that after a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read a novel and couldn’t do it. In her words, ‘It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn't force myself to slow down so that I wasn't skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.'

The brain was not designed for reading and there are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways – one page led to the next page without a lot of distractions. The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all – scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is non-linear reading, and it has been documented in a variety of academic studies as the article in The Washington Post points out.

We’re becoming digital dummies.

(Apr ‘14)


50 trillion dollars for $US1.18


The “Bank of Zimbabwe" is selling a quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars for $US120 which is really quite a rip off. Why not buy Zimbabwe 50 trillion dollars for only $US1.18?

These great deals are both available on Amazon.

Don’t spend it all in one place.

(Apr ‘14)


Mushrooms mine gold from old cellphones


Crack open an old phone, and you'll find lots of circuits and no lack of precious metals. In 100,000 cell phones, it's estimated that there is 2.4 kilograms of gold, more than 900 kilograms of copper, 25 kilograms of silver, and more, according to Motherboard.

Recovering gold from old electronics is profitable but not pretty. In Europe and the U.S., it requires the use of toxic chemicals like sulphuric acid and cyanide to dissolve out the precious metals. In some developing countries where much of the e-waste is now sent, open-air burning releases toxic fumes.

Fungi, in comparison, are a gentler scavenger of gold. Finnish scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre have figured out a way to filter out gold with biomats made of mycelium, the part of a fungi that lives underground. The first step is crushing the old phones into a fine powder. That powder is sieved and passed through the mycelium, which was chemically engineered to attract gold. The researchers say this process recovers 80% of the gold, compared to just 10 – 20% in the common but toxic, chemical processes.

Tweaking the process for making the mycelium mats could allow them to recover other precious metals in e-waste as well. In fact, this is all a new twist old idea: mycoremediation. As natural decomposers, fungi are fantastic at breaking things down, like the goopy stuff from oil spills, and they can absorb toxic heavy metals, like lead, as they grow.

Heavy metals in my mushrooms on toast?

(Apr ‘14)


Death by caffeine


Caffeine Informer is a website to educate the public about the effects of caffeine, advise the amounts of caffeine in various products and to lobby food and beverage manufacturers to label their products with the amounts of caffeine accurately.

On their site, they have a “Death by caffeine” calculator where you choose your favourite caffeinated beverage, type in your weight and find out how much you would have to drink in a single day to be fatal.

It appears it would take 114.77 cups of brewed coffee to "put me down." Thank goodness for that extra 0.77 cup, or I'd be ‘pushing up daisies’ according to the calculator.

(Apr ‘14)

There are 90 seconds in a moment


This will only take you a minute to read.

Although a minute is a precise amount of time, we often use it to mean a short amount of time. The same goes for “moment”, the difference being that most people don’t know that a moment is also a precise measure of time.

Technically, a moment is 90 seconds.

This reckoning is derived from the work of Bartholomeus Anglicus, writing in 1240 that each hour was divided into four points, each point into ten moments, each moment into twelve ounces, and each ounce into 47 atoms.

In other words, each moment is 1/40 of an hour, or 90 seconds.

(Apr ‘14)



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