Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Little Realism

Watching TV shows often requires the suspension of disbelief — that is, a willingness to press pause on one’s critical faculties in order to believe the unbelievable. Realism often must be secondary to story, in other words. This very often is necessary when computers are used to advance plot lines, when programmers and hackers alike can bang away on their keyboards and produce tremendous results in seconds.

One need look no further than such shows as The Blacklist or Scorpion, which feature keyboard cowboys who can hack into systems at the drop of a hat, hook into GPS systems, or employ some other technobabble gimmick to track the badguy and save the day. This use of computers has been commonplace as long as computers have been around.

“The patterns are not just with recent tech –20 years ago, MacGyver was doing very unlikely tech things, as did the A-Team and so many others — just with different tech,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

“A brief suspension of disbelief has helped storytellers since well before Shakespeare,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Impossible TV

What can be done with a computer on some TV shows requires more than a basic suspension of disbelief. In some cases, what fictional computer whizzes can accomplish borders on the miraculous.

With many TV shows, it’s likely that accuracy isn’t the writers’ primary concern, said Jay Rouman, a computer network engineer who has worked with computers since the late 1970s.

“I stopped watching Scorpion after they had a convertible chase a commercial jet down the runway with an Ethernet cable dropped out of the jet,” Rouman told TechNewsWorld.

Beyond the fact that the takeoff speed of the jet could be well over 200 mph, the fact that the cable was even so readily available could be something that occurs only in the imagination of a TV show writer.

“It just happened to be on board and plugged into the master computer,” recalled Rouman. “I’ve been in data centers where couldn’t find an Ethernet cable that would give you Internet connectivity!”

Brave New World

A new wave of TV shows have been creating more realistic situations, ditching the meaningless technobabble for more accurate computer jargon. Instead of murky plot devices, actual programming is displayed.

TV shows such as AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s Silicon Valley focus on the exploits of computer programmers — with the former highlighting the first tech boom of the 1980s and the latter taking place in the modern day.

The shows are very different in tone. Halt and Catch Fireis a workplace drama with soapy elements, while Silicon Valley, which was created by Beavis and Butt-Headcreator Mike Judge, follows the more traditional comedy formula.

Yet computer programming is key in both shows. Each is full of realistic jargon, and close observers will see actual code on the screens, which certainly has made the shows appealing to those in the world of tech.

“The culture around technology is also magnificently depicted in Silicon Valley,” added Purtilo.

“Sure it is stylized, just as any cartoonist must emphasize a subject’s few key features in order to tell a story — but they get it right,” he explained.

“Maybe we don’t know specifics of Pied Piper’s fabulous compression algorithm, but I’ve watched a room full of geeks self-segregate around ‘tabs versus eight spaces’ or ‘vim versus emacs’ questions,” Purtilo observed. “It’s hilarious because that is what we do, and accurate details just help us project ourselves into those situations more readily.”

Magnificent Mics For Compact Computers

Welcome to Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that’s emerging from the shadows of this mind-crushingly terrible election season to pore over the latest gadget announcements.

On our ballot this time around are a microphone that can plug into an iPhone or iPad, a smartphone case with an E-ink display, and a flexible keyboard that houses an entire computer.

As ever, the ratings reflect only how much I’d like to try out each item with my hands, ideally before the world descends into post-election chaos. These are not reviews.

Portable Podcasting

I’ve tried dipping my toes into the world of podcasting with a friend this year. It’s been challenging to find times that work for both of us to get together and record, but for the two (pretty successful, I confess) trial runs we’ve had, I bought a Blue Snowball mic. I’m very pleased with the sound quality, so I’m fairly certain I’d be happy to have Blue’s latest microphone, Raspberry (pictured above).

It’s a gorgeous, portable little thing, which you can connect to a PC or Mac using a USB cable. However, it is also bundled with a Mini USB to Lightning cable to make it easy for you to capture quality audio using an iPhone or iPad.

There’s an included stand with shock-absorber feet, so that should help cut down on unwanted vibrations and rumblings. When taking the mic elsewhere, the stand folds over it for better portability. If you prefer, you can attach Raspberry to a standard tripod or mic stand instead.

The mic also has a headphone jack, headphone volume dial, and a level/gain control that doubles as a mute switch. That can come in especially useful if you need to cough — much better to cut out an unwanted sound during recording instead of in the editing process.

It’s a bit pricey at US$199, though I haven’t seen a better option for recording clear audio when on the go without having to lug around a laptop and bulkier microphone. Maybe I’ll finally be able to start podcasting with my friend again, once I find a time that works for both of us and a quiet spot away from home, unencumbered by noisy neighbors.

Dual-Screen Delights

I’ve written previously about YotaPhone, the Android smartphone with an e-ink screen in the rear. It’s a tremendous concept, as I tend to dislike reading at length on my phone’s regular screen.

The InkCase i7 from Oaxis is an attempt to bring such functionality to the iPhone 7 through a case. (The company previously released e-ink cases for earlier iPhone models.)

Features include a 4.3-inch screen, support for EPUB and TXT formats and notification display. It connects to your phone over Bluetooth. You can use it to display images, but you’ll need to make do with monochrome versions of your favorite photos, of course.

Endangers Windows Users

Google on Monday posted to the Internet a previously unpublicized flaw that could pose a security threat to users of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Google notified both Microsoft and Adobe of zero day vulnerabilities in their software on Oct. 21, wrote Neel Mehta and Billy Leonard, members of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, in an online post.

Google has a policy of making critical vulnerabilities public seven days after it informs a software maker about them. Adobe was able to fix its vulnerability within seven days; Microsoft was not.

“This [Windows] vulnerability is particularly serious because we know it is being actively exploited,” wrote Mehta and Leonard.

However, Google’s Chrome browser prevents exploitation of the vulnerability when running in Windows 10, they added.

Flaw Not Critical

Microsoft challenged Google’s analysis of the Windows flaw in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by spokesperson Charlotte Heesacker.

“We disagree with Google’s characterization of a local elevation of privilege as ‘critical’ and ‘particularly serious,’ since the attack scenario they describe is fully mitigated by the deployment of the Adobe Flash update released last week,” Microsoft said.

After cracking a system, hackers typically try to elevate their privileges in it to obtain access to increasingly sensitive data.

“Additionally, our analysis indicates that this specific attack was never effective against the Windows 10 Anniversary Update due to security enhancements previously implemented,” Microsoft noted.

The Windows vulnerability Google’s team discovered is a local privilege escalation in the Windows kernel that can be used as a security sandbox escape triggered by a win32k.sys call, according to Mehta and Leonard.

The sandbox in Google’s Chrome browser blocks win32k.sys calls using the Win32k lockdown mitigation on Windows 10, which prevents exploitation of the sandbox escape vulnerability, they explained in their post.

Short Deadline

Although Google contrasted Adobe’s quick action in patching its zero day vulnerability with Microsoft’s inaction, the comparison may be less than fair.

“The time to patch code in Adobe Reader or Flash versus something that integrates into an operating system is considerably different,” said Brian Martin, director of vulnerability intelligence at Risk Based Security.

What takes time is not so much changing the code as testing it after it’s changed, he explained.

“If Microsoft patches code in one version of Windows, it will likely affect several other versions,” Martin told TechNewsWorld.

“Then they have platform issues — 32-bit and 64-bit — and then the different versions — home, professional, server, whatever,” he pointed out.

“The amount of time it takes to patch it is one thing,” he said. “The amount of time to go through the full QA cycle is another. Seven days is generally considered unrealistic for an operating system.”

To Disclose or Not

The short deadline was necessary because it saw the vulnerability being exploited by hackers, Google’s team maintained. That logic, though can be a two-edged sword.

“To me, this doesn’t ultimately help achieve everyone’s goal, which should be keeping consumers and their data safe,” said Udi Yavo, CTO of enSilo.

“By disclosing a vulnerability early, without allowing time for a patch, Google opened up the small pool of people who found the vulnerability and knew how to exploit it, to all,” he told TechNewsWorld.

However, keeping the vulnerability under wraps at all is questionable, suggested Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Considering how closely the hacker community communicates, seven days may have been too much time,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Google was being a friendly corporate citizen by letting Microsoft know about the vulnerability, but in my mind it would have been more appropriate to make it public knowledge once you see it in the wild,” McGregor said.