In the News Archive

‘They think they are above the law’: the firms that own America’s voting system

The fact is that democracy in the United States is now largely a secretive and privately-run affair conducted out of the public eye with little oversight. The corporations that run every aspect of American elections, from voter registration to casting and counting votes by machine, are subject to limited state and federal regulation. The companies are privately-owned and closely held, making information about ownership and financial stability difficult to obtain. The software source code and hardware design of their systems are kept as trade secrets and therefore difficult to study or investigate. It’s for this very reason that my own country – for now – of The Netherlands went back to pencil and paper voting with public manual counting by actual humans.

The first picture of a black hole made Katie Bouman an overnight celebrity. Then internet trolls descended.

Katie Bouman, a researcher who helped create the first image of a black hole, quickly gained internet fame Thursday for her role in the project after a photo of her went viral. But internet trolls soon followed, questioning Bouman’s work and floating false claims that she did not have much of a role in the project. Colleagues rallied to her defense, but the situation highlighted the vitriol that women continue to face on the internet, and the continued vulnerability of major internet platforms to trolling campaigns. Isn’t it funny how it’s always men?

Hammerhead: an operating system for bikes

The idea that a bicycle might need an OS might seem silly, but 30 years ago may gearheads wouldn’t have anticipated that cars would become rolling supercomputers. Hammerhead crowdfunded its first product, the H1, and subsequently built Karoo, a “cycling computer” that supports navigation and training. But Morgan told me his ambitions are bigger than that.After all, he sees a future where electric bikes need smart range projections, where bike-share fleets need to be managed, where social training programs like Strava can pull data from the bike itself and where any bicycle should come with theft and crash alerts. Calling it an OS is probably a stretch. It seems to be an Android OS with cycling-specific constellation of apps, originally designed specifically for their own hardware but eventually intended to be licensed to other vendors.

America’s cities are running on software from the ’80s

The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it’s the 1980s is the city assessor’s office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses. To put it mildly, the setup “doesn’t reflect business needs now,” says the city’s assessor, Carmen Chu. San Francisco rarely conjures images of creaky, decades-old technology, but that’s what’s running a key swath of its government, as well as those of cities across the U.S. Politicians can often score relatively easy wins with constituents by borrowing money to pay for new roads and bridges, but the digital equivalents of such infrastructure projects generally don’t draw the same enthusiasm. “Modernizing technology is not a top issue that typically comes to mind when you talk to taxpayers and constituents on the street,” Chu says. It took her office almost four years to secure $36 million for updated assessors’ hardware and software that can, among other things, give priority to cases in which delays may prove costly. The design requirements are due to be finalized this summer. This is a problem all over the world, and it’s more difficult than one might think to replace such outdated systems. Existing data has to be transferred, a new system has to be designed, staff has to be retrained – and, of course, since it’s not a sexy subject politicians can flaunt, it has to be done with impossible budgets that inevitably balloon, often leading to doomed projects. It’s easy to laugh at these outdated systems still in use today, but often, replacing them simply isn’t an option.

USB 3.2 is going to make the current USB branding even worse

USB 3.2, which doubles the maximum speed of a USB connection to 20Gb/s, is likely to materialize in systems later this year. In preparation for this, the USB-IF—the industry group that together develops the various USB specifications—has announced the branding and naming that the new revision is going to use, and… It’s awful. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s really, really bad.

Linus on why x86 won for servers

Responding to a forum post on upcoming ARM server offerings, Linus Torvalds makes a compelling case for why Linux and x86 completely overwhelmed commercial Unix and RISC: Guys, do you really not understand why x86 took over the server market? It wasn’t just all price. It was literally this “develop at home” issue. Thousands of small companies ended up having random small internal workloads where it was easy to just get a random whitebox PC and run some silly small thing on it yourself. Then as the workload expanded, it became a “real server”. And then once that thing expanded, suddenly it made a whole lot of sense to let somebody else manage the hardware and hosting, and the cloud took over.

Announcing a new site sponsorship program

When we re-launched the site at the beginning of the year, I mentioned that I’d considered shuttering OSNews as a response to needing such a major overhaul, since conventional advertising was no longer sufficient for covering expenses. A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with offering a sponsorship, wherein a patron pays a fee to be the exclusive sponsor of the site for a week. It was all just a pipe dream until someone agreed last week to be our first sponsor. So we’re cautiously optimistic that this may be a viable way to keep the site running and maybe even expand. It won’t work, though, unless we can fill our pipeline with sponsors. I doubt we’ll be able to do that just by putting up a shingle and hoping people contact us. So I wanted to reach out to you, beloved readers, to see if you could help. If you know someone, maybe your employer, who offers a product or service that might be interesting to OSNews readers, see if they’ll be willing to sponsor the site. We’re open to ideas on how to structure the sponsorship program. If you were to sponsor the site, what would you want to get in exchange for your money? We’d love feedback on the terms of the sponsorship. Do you know of any ways that we might be able to publicize the availability of sponsorships? Would you be interested in acting as a salesperson and reaching out to firms to solicit sponsorships? Let me know. And finally, sponsorships will be desirable if OSNews itself is popular and vibrant. You can do your part by reading the site, commenting, submitting news, and contacting us if you’re interested in writing a feature.

A dive into the world of MS-DOS viruses

But sometimes life using DOS was not so great, sometimes you would be using DOS and all of a sudden things like this would happen. This sample also plays a small tune on the PC speaker while it’s printing, so this could be really embarrassing in a office environment. Those bootsector viruses were incredibly resilient – your computer would be just fine, until you put in an older floppy that apparently still had a virus on it. Good times.

What happened here?

Regular readers will have noticed that we’ve been offline for several days. As you can see, during that time, we’ve made some major changes to the site, and though the design has changed substantially, we’ve made even more dramatic changes in the back-end. We are now running our 6th major iteration of OSNews. It all was precipitated by messages from readers we’ve received over the past few weeks alerting us that they’ve been getting spam, phishing attempts, and some weak-sauce cyber-extortion emails at addresses that were unique to their OSNews accounts. Read on for more.

How Amazon, Apple, and Google played the tax-break game

It took about 30 minutes for Williamson County commissioners to unanimously approve a roughly $16 million incentive package for Apple Tuesday morning, bringing the total amount the tech giant is likely to receive in exchange for choosing Austin as the site for its newest campus to a cool $41 million. The new addition is set to be Apple's second campus in the Austin, Texas, area - located less than a mile from the company's existing facility, established five years ago. It comes with the promise of a $1 billion dollar investment from Apple in the area and the addition of up to 15,000 new jobs.

But the details of the incentive package Williamson County whipped up to woo Apple tell a slightly different story. In the contract approved by county officials, Apple committed to spending at least $400 million on the new campus and creating 4,000 jobs over 12 years. The contract says the jobs don’t necessarily have to be on the new campus in order for Apple to receive the promised incentives, but rather can be anywhere within Williamson County.

Shady and shoddy deals like these are only the tip of the iceberg - and don't think this is merely an American thing. This entire past year in The Netherlands has been dominated by our newly elected government wanting to shove through an incredibly unpopular tax cut specifically designed to appease major (partly) Dutch multinationals like Shell and Unilever - a 2 billion euro tax cut while various important social services like police, education, and healthcare desperately need better pay and working conditions.

In the end, under immense public and political pressure, the tax cut was cancelled, but it goes to show that these things happen everywhere - in large, powerful nations like the US, but also in small, insignificant welfare states like The Netherlands.

How Doug Engelbart pulled off the Mother of all Demos

Doug Engelbart was the first to actually build a computer that might seem familiar to us, today. He came to Silicon Valley after a stint in the Navy as a radar technician during World War II. Engelbart was, in his own estimation, a "naive drifter", but something about the Valley inspired him to think big. Engelbart's idea was that computers of the future should be optimized for human needs - communication and collaboration. Computers, he reasoned, should have keyboards and screens instead of punch cards and printouts. They should augment rather than replace the human intellect. And so he pulled a team together and built a working prototype: the oN‑Line System. Unlike earlier efforts, the NLS wasn't a military supercalculator. It was a general‑purpose tool designed to help knowledge workers perform better and faster, and that was a controversial idea. Letting non-engineers interact directly with a computer was seen as harebrained, utopian - subversive, even. And then people saw the demo.

Engelbart is one of the greatest visionaries of this industry.

International System of Units overhauled in historic vote

Today, in a landmark decision, representatives from 60 countries voted to redefine the International System of Units (SI), changing the world's definition of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole, for ever.

The decision, made at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, which is organised by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), means that all SI units will now be defined in terms of constants that describe the natural world. This will assure the future stability of the SI and open the opportunity for the use of new technologies, including quantum technologies, to implement the definitions.

The metric system - or, as it is known today, the International System of Units (SI) - is an amazing achievement of mankind. Save for a few archaic holdouts who still measure things by sheep intestines and cow brains, the entire world has standardized on this system, so that regardless of where you are, things innately make sense.

The lost art of steam heating

While this is not a story about computing, it is a story about technology, and a very fascinating technology at that. Sure, steam heating systems may not sound particularly exciting, but trust me - you'd be wrong.

Back in 2016, The New Yorker ran a short story about a presentation by Dan Holohan.

Dan Holohan, a tall, bespectacled man, took the floor. Through such books as "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" and "We Got Steam Heat! A Homeowner's Guide to Peaceful Coexistence", as well as the Web site HeatingHelp.com, Holohan has built a community among those who work on and live with the nineteenth-century heating technology that is still common, if not commonly understood, in New York and in other older cities across the country.

It turns out a version of this presentation, held at the Central Park Arsenal for The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York (what a magnificent name!), is available on YouTube, and let me tell you - like you right now, I didn't think this subject could be even remotely interesting. As it turns out, though, ancient steam heating systems are an absolutely fascinating subject and kind of a neat piece of engineering. Did you know, for instance, that the 102 floors of the Empire State Building are heated with only one and a half pounds of steam pressure?

Holohan is clearly a man proud of his knowledge and trade, and his excitement about this arcane subject is palpable. I highly suggest taking 50 minutes out of your day to watch his presentation.

US 2018 midterm elections: all you need to know

Election Day is today, November 6th, in the United States, and the 2018 midterm elections are likely going to be some of the most contentious elections in recent history. While President Donald Trump isn't up for reelection yet, the House of Representatives and Senate are in play for both parties, along with gubernatorial races, attorney general elections, and marijuana legalization initiatives in four different states.

It's a lot to take in, but the internet is here to help. Here’s everything you need to get ready for the big day, complete with registration information, polling locations, ride-sharing deals, and more.

To our American readers - get out there and vote.

Wisconsin’s $4.1 billion Foxconn boondoggle

It was supposed to be a big win for the state of Wisconsin: Foxconn was going to build a massive LCD factory in the state, raking in a massive state subsidy. Fast-forward a few years, and little seems to have come of the deal.

But what seemed so simple on a napkin has turned out to be far more complicated and messy in real life. As the size of the subsidy has steadily increased to a jaw-dropping $4.1 billion, Foxconn has repeatedly changed what it plans to do, raising doubts about the number of jobs it will create. Instead of the promised Generation 10.5 plant, Foxconn now says it will build a much smaller Gen 6 plant, which would require one-third of the promised investment, although the company insists it will eventually hit the $10 billion investment target. And instead of a factory of workers building panels for 75-inch TVs, Foxconn executives now say the goal is to build "ecosystem" of buzzwords called "AI 8K+5G" with most of the manufacturing done by robots.

Polls now show most Wisconsin voters don't believe the subsidy will pay off for taxpayers, and Walker didn't even mention the deal in a November 2017 speech announcing his run for re-election. He now trails in that re-election bid against a less-than-electric Democratic candidate, the bland state superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers.

It all seemed so promising. So how did everything go so bad so quickly?

The jobs supposedly created through this deal would cost the state government over 300,000 dollar per job - which is an absolutely terrible investment. In order to get there, Foxconn received special exemptions from environmental rules and regulations, raising concerns about pollution.

Also, but unrelated, boondoggle is a great word.

Father of web says tech giants may have to be split up

Silicon Valley technology giants such as Facebook and Google have grown so dominant they may need to be broken up, unless challengers or changes in taste reduce their clout, the inventor of the World Wide Web told Reuters.

The digital revolution has spawned a handful of U.S.-based technology companies since the 1990s that now have a combined financial and cultural power greater than most sovereign states.

Tim Berners-Lee, a London-born computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, said he was disappointed with the current state of the internet, following scandals over the abuse of personal data and the use of social media to spread hate.

I couldn't agree with him more - but I'd like to expand this beyond just the online or technology sector. In all kinds of sectors there are companies that are far too large and rich, and thus powerful, to continue to exist unabated. We've broken up powerful companies before, but the odds of it ever happening again seem slim - companies have been very successful at fostering an anti-government atmosphere in which corporations are seen as idols to be worshipped rather than potentially harmful entities that need to be kept in check.

Jeff Hawkins is finally ready to explain his brain research

Ever since selling Handspring to Palm in the early 2000s, Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm Pilot and founder of Palm, has been working on his true passion: neuroscience and trying to understand how the brain works. Teaming up with several neuroscientists and some former Palm people, his company Numenta, entirely funded by Hawkins himself, is now ready to show its research to the world.

Mr. Hawkins says that before the world can build artificial intelligence, it must explain human intelligence so it can create machines that genuinely work like the brain. "You do not have to emulate the entire brain," he said. "But you do have to understand how the brain works and emulate the important parts."

Now, after more than a decade of quiet work at Numenta, he thinks he and a handful of researchers working with him are well on their way to cracking the problem. On Monday, at a conference in the Netherlands, he is expected to unveil their latest research, which he says explains the inner workings of cortical columns, a basic building block of brain function.

Numenta's research is apparently so complex that Alphabet's artificial intelligence research company, DeepMind, told him they simply didn't understand it. If this work, which I think is detailed in this scientific paper published over the weekend (but don't quote me on it - it might be another paper altogether), is indeed the breakthrough neuroscience has been waiting for, it could have enormous consequences, not just for neuroscience and biology, but also for artificial intelligence and its applications in the world of computing.

I'm very curious to see if this research holds up to scientific scrutiny and peer review, because even the smallest of steps towards understanding how the brain works would be a massive scientific breakthrough.

Lego wants to completely remake its toy bricks

At the heart of this town lies a building that is a veritable temple to the area’s most famous creation, the humble Lego brick. It is filled with complex creations, from a 50-foot tree to a collection of multicolored dinosaurs, all of them built with a product that has barely changed in more than 50 years.

A short walk away in its research lab, though, Lego is trying to refashion the product it is best known for: It wants to eliminate its dependence on petroleum-based plastics, and build its toys entirely from plant-based or recycled materials by 2030.

That's one heck of a materials science challenge.