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Interesting snippets from around the globe

Beware Microsoft Word


Microsoft has warned that attackers are exploiting a previously unknown security hole in Microsoft Word that can be used to foist malicious code if users open a specially crafted text file, or merely preview the message in Microsoft Outlook.

From the notice published by Microsoft:

Microsoft is aware of a vulnerability affecting supported versions of Microsoft Word. At this time, we are aware of limited, targeted attacks directed at Microsoft Word 2010. The vulnerability could allow remote code execution if a user opens a specially crafted [rich text format] RTF file using an affected version of Microsoft Word, or previews or opens a specially crafted RTF email message in Microsoft Outlook while using Microsoft Word as the email viewer. An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user.

Microsoft said the exploits it has seen so far attacking this vulnerability have targeted Word 2010 users, but according to Microsoft’s advisory, the flaw is also present in Word 2003, 2007, 2013, Word Viewer and Office for Mac 2011.

Microsoft says it’s working on an official fix for the flaw, but that in the meantime affected users can apply a special “Fix-It Solution” (at the second link) that disables the opening of RTF content in Microsoft Word. 

One way to harden your email client is to render emails in plain text only.

(Mar ‘14)


Make your phone 1/1,000,000th of a supercomputer


At this year’s Mobile World Congress (24-27th February, Barcelona), HTC the Android smartphone maker, unveiled the ‘Power to Give’ app that harnesses the processing power of your phone while you are asleep and feeds it to a supercomputer that passes it on to charity.

Around the world supercomputers are used to crunch enormous amounts of data created by satellites searching the skies for signs of life, or to simulate biological anomalies in the hope that it turns up evidence that can be used to fight causes such as Alzheimer's, AIDS and cancer.

As a user, you can choose the supercomputing group you want to lend your power to and can even pinpoint specific charities or causes you want to benefit from your donation. The idea is that if millions of people opt to take part, there will be a global grid of users contributing their spare, unused processing power to charity.

All you have to do is leave your phone charging overnight and as long as it's at 90% battery and is connected to Wi-Fi, the app will automatically take over the device's processing power while you sleep.

HTC has developed the technology in partnership with Berkeley University and as an act of goodwill, is not making the app exclusive to HTC devices.

(Mar ‘14)


85% of daily tasks will be games by 2020


According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), over 85% of daily tasks will include game elements by 2020. “Our mobile devices will be the hub for all the ‘games’ we’ll be playing throughout a normal day by tracking the data we submit and using it to connect everything.”

The organisation, whose motto is 'Advancing Technology for Humanity,' looked at the growth of games in fields such as healthcare, education and enterprise when preparing their report.

One member of the panel preparing the report summarised the findings by saying 'by 2020, however many points you have at work will help determine the kind of raise you get or which office you sit in.’


(Mar ‘14)


Irish funerals ‘go live’ on Internet


An Irish company is planning to broadcast funerals live on the internet as part of a new business venture.

The idea is to film memorial church services and burials for the benefit of mourners who are unable to attend the ceremony in person. Their target clients are Irish emigrants who are unable to travel home for family funerals and elderly people confined to hospitals or homes.

The service will provide absentee mourners with a private weblink to a live stream of a funeral service or a video recording of the entire service, including the burial, within two hours of its conclusion and viewers will be charged a fee. 

The fellow came up with the idea when he was asked to make a DVD of a memorial service for mourners who could not attend their loved one's funeral.


(Mar ‘14)


Body odour biometrics

Body odour.png

Forget fingerprints and iris scans. A new form of biometric identification uses body odour to identify the individual.

The method is being developed by a team from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in collaboration with the tech firm Ilía Sistemas. According to the report, every person’s individual B.O. is unique (with some more ‘unique’ than others), and can be used to identify an individual with an accuracy rate of more than 85%.

The team believes the odour-identification method may provide a more subtle alternative to the current biometric techniques like fingerprints and iris scans that are often associated with criminal records and could cause people to be reluctant to participate. Odour sensors could be used like an airport security scanner that the person simply walks through, providing a less invasive system that many people may not even be aware of.


(Feb ‘14)


Who makes the best hard drives?


Backblaze, a California based cloud backup company has released information on their drive failure rates. They currently have over 27,000 consumer grade drives spinning in Backblaze storage pods with over 12,000 drives each from Seagate and Hitachi, and nearly 3,000 from Western Digital.

According to the report, Backblaze buys drives the way the rest of us do – get the cheapest consumer-grade drives that will work.

The workload is almost 100% write and because they spread the incoming writes over several drives, their workload isn't overly performance intensive, either.

Their results: Hitachi has the lowest overall failure rate (3.1% over three years). Western Digital has a slightly higher rate (5.2%), but the drives that fail tend to do so very early. Seagate drives fail much more often — 26.5% are dead by the three-year mark.


(Feb ‘14)


China’s Internet traffic re-routed to Wyoming


On January 22nd, many of China's 500 million internet users were mysteriously re-routed to a bunch of web addresses registered to this unassuming house in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

According to the New York Times, China’s Internet censoring system was to blame.

It seems Chinese Internet censors attempted to block access to websites owned by Sophidea Incorporated which appears to be a re-routing service designed to evade national firewalls. But instead of blocking those sites, they mistakenly ended up blasting them with tons of traffic, and leaving the majority of Chinese internet users unable to access .com, .org, or .net addresses for up to eight hours. Sophidea, it turns out, has its global headquarters in the tiny house pictured above.

After investigation, it appears that tiny little suburban house is headquarters to about 2,000 companies some of which are rather dubious.

In 2011, Reuters found amongst its residents, a shell company controlled by an imprisoned former Ukraine prime minister, a company that helps online poker sites sneak around gambling bans and, a company banned from bidding on government contracts after it sold counterfeit truck equipment to the Pentagon.

Just typical suburban corruption, I suppose.


(Feb ‘14)

Back to top


How much storage does your smartphone give you?


In a smartphone, you’ll never get the full amount of memory marked on the case because of the operating systems. But, different phones leave you with different amounts of storage and the link below will tell you which are the most and least generous.

Among 16GB smartphones, the iPhone 5C ends up leaving the most space open for the user at 79%. Bottom of the barrel – Samsung's Galaxy S4, which is so loaded down with bloatware that only 54% of the 16GB promised is actually there.

However, one saving grace for the S4 is that it does allow you to add a (cheap) memory card which Apple and many of the others do not.


(Feb ‘14)


New Internet domain names & .kiwi


Until now, Net addresses ended with 22 familiar terms – .com, .net, .org, .nz and .edu – called generic top-level domains (GTLDs) along with those of countries – .nz, .au, .uk. However, earlier this month the first of hundreds of new GTLDs began arriving – .ninja, .farm, .shoes, .photography, .bike, .pink, and even .wtf thanks to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN),  a non-profit organisation, which oversees the domain-name expansion and the core Internet technology called the Domain Name System that makes it all work. 

Why bother with the domain-name expansion? For a company trying to get a new start on the Net, according to ICANN, finding an unclaimed Web address can be tough. And for a company catering to customers in countries like China or Russia, names are held back with characters in the Roman alphabet. Companies might want to have their own domain like .google, .canon, .apple, .samsung, and .bmw. or businesses and individuals could create millions of memorable online addresses, such as thebible.book, picasso.art and rent the use rights. The application fee for a GTLD was $US185,000 ($NZ225,000).

In June 2012, ICANN announced it had received a total of 1,930 applications for 1,410 unique domains from about 1,000 different entities. Of the 1,930 applications, 751 names were contested by 231 applicants, which in the case of non-trademarked names were decided by auction.

Google applied for 101 GTLDs  through a subsidiary. Amazon bid for 76 of them. Donuts, a company set up with more than $US100 million specifically to make a business of GTLDs, went after 307 of the new domains.

If you are interested in a .kiwi domain, see the second link below. .kiwi goes live on 1st May, according to the third link.


(Feb ‘14)


Twitter combating illegal parking


Illegal parking has always been a major problem in Rome. More than half of Rome's 2.7 million residents use private vehicles, and the ancient city has a staggering ratio of 70 cars per 100 residents. So many residents park, uh, creatively.

So, in December, the cops asked residents to post photos of bad parking jobs to the departments Twitter account and it seems to have worked.

In the first 30 days, the police received more than 1,000 complaints tweeted to their account and were able to respond to around 740 to issue tickets.



(Feb ‘14)


Hitachi has created the ‘virtual boss’


Hitachi is manufacturing and selling a device intended to increase efficiency in the workplace called the Hitachi Business Microscope.

The device looks like an employee ID badge which workers are instructed to wear in the office. Embedded inside each badge, according to Hitachi, are "infrared sensors, an accelerometer, a microphone sensor and a wireless communication device." Hitachi says that the badges record and transmit to management "who talks to whom, how often, where and how energetically." It tracks everything. If you get up to walk around the office a lot, the badge sends information to management about how often you do it, and where you go. If you stop to talk with people throughout the day, the badge transmits who you're talking to (by reading your co-workers' badges), and for how long.

Were you late for a meeting and did you contribute or just sit there? The badge, and your bosses, will know.

They’ll also know how often you went to the loo. That’ll be good for morale.


(Feb ‘14)


Building lights interfering with cellular network

E&Y Plaza.png

When Ernst & Young’s downtown L.A. building lights go on, the lights go off for nearby cellphone users.

Apparently, the fluorescent lights in Ernst & Young Plaza, a 41-story tower near the heart of the city, emit frequencies that interfere with Verizon Wireless 700 MHz network and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is not happy and has filed a ‘citation’ against the building’s managers. The interference is coming from the lights’ ballast which regulates the current to the lamps and provides sufficient voltage to start the lamps.

Though they aren't used for communications, fluorescent lights are regulated as ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) equipment under the FCC's rules.

The filing suggests the building owner could be fined up to $US16,000 a day if it keeps using the interfering lights, up to a total of $US112,500. The alleged violation could also lead to 'criminal sanctions, including imprisonment,'


(Feb ‘14)


Lego brings bricks to the web


If you really, really want to waste some time, Google has just unveiled Build with Chrome, a virtual Lego playground that gives you access to all sorts of pieces for building online.

Go to the site and you can just start building or take some lessons in the Building Academy which starts out with the basics like rotating your baseplate and gets more complex as you increase your skills.

Virtual bricks certainly have some advantages over real ones - you don't have to dig through disorganised piles to find the right one, you have as many pieces as you’ll ever want, you can change the colour at will and most important of all, you won’t step on them.


(Feb ‘14)


The U.S. finally moving to PINs on credit cards


30 years after New Zealand introduced EFTPOS cards and PINs on credit cards, the U.S. is finally moving away from ‘swipe and sign’ on credit card transactions. It is the last country on the planet that requires credit card owners to sign their name to authorise a face-to-face transaction and MasterCard and Visa have announced the transition will take place in October 2015.

Why did it take so long, especially when you consider that about 25% of all credit card transactions take place in the U.S.?

In the past, other markets migrated to the new systems for two reasons. First, there were higher fraud rates in some other markets, and they wanted to make this move to combat fraud. Second, this system can operate in offline mode – the card and the terminal can authorise a transaction independent of a telecommunications link with the bank’s systems. In some other markets they struggled with robust telephony networks, so this offline capacity was attractive.

Neither of these reasons applied to the U.S. But, as other markets became more secure, criminals moved their operations to the US where credit cards are less secure. The low level of security is one of the main reasons that nearly half of the world’s credit card fraud now takes place in the US.

R.I.P. zip-zap machine.


(Feb ‘14)



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