1:1 scale model of Manhattan in Minecraft


Christopher Mitchell, a PhD candidate in NYU's Computer Science program, is building a 1:1 scale model of Manhattan in Minecraft, with faithful, handmade reproductions of each of the island's skyscrapers. He's relying on data from diverse sources, including Google Earth, and the model to date is 277m^2, with 71Bm^3 of volumetric detail, running on a 200 core cluster with 200GB of RAM. It's part of a larger project (!), called Sparseworld, through which Mitchell is combining data from diverse geographical and architectural systems to faithfully model the physical world.

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Data-compression with playing cards


Tim sends us, "A way of encoding binary numbers into playing cards that I thought up. It usually allows many more bits than there are cards. The method can also store binary encoded letters of the English alphabet at less than 2 cards per letter on average, and has a theoretical ability to do less than 1 card per letter."

Tim isn't sure if his method of data-compression is novel or not, and neither am I. If you know of related work, please add it in the comments.

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Trustycon: how to redesign NSA surveillance to catch more criminals and spy on a lot fewer people

The Trustycon folks have uploaded over seven hours' worth of talks from their event, an alternative to the RSA security conference founded by speakers who quit over RSA's collusion with the NSA. I've just watched Ed Felten's talk on "Redesigning NSA Programs to Protect Privacy" (starts at 6:32:33), an absolutely brilliant talk that blends a lucid discussion of statistics with practical computer science with crimefighting, all within a framework of respect for privacy, liberty and the US Bill of Rights.

Felten's talk lays out how the NSA's mass-collection program works, what its theoretical basis is for finding terrorists in all that data, and then explains how this is an incredibly inefficient and risky and expensive way of actually fighting crime. Then he goes on to propose an elegant alternative that gets better intelligence while massively reducing the degree of surveillance and the risk of disclosure.

I'm using Vid to MP3 to convert the whole seven hours' worth of talks to audio and plan on listening to them over the next couple of days.

Update: Here's that MP3 -- it's about 1GB. Thanks to the Internet Archive for hosting it!

TrustyCon - Live from San Francisco

Army won't answer Freedom of Information Request on its SGT STAR AI chatbot

Dave from the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, "Seven years ago, the U.S. Army launched the SGT STAR program, which uses a virtual recruiter (an AI chatbot) to talk to potential soldiers. We put in a FOIA request for a bunch of documents related to the program, including current and historical input/output scripts. So far, the Army Research and Marketing Group--which is supposed to help with transparency--hasn't responded."

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Detailed timeline of the Bletchley Park mess

Gareth Halfacree, who has a long history with both the Bletchley Park trust and the National Museum of Computing Trust, has published a detailed timeline of the two institutions, showing how they got into the current (and disgraceful) situation. Halfacree's article includes some very sensible recommendations to both trusts. Cory 1

Bletchley Park's new management chucks out long-term volunteers

Here's more bad news from historic computing site Bletchley Park, where a new, slick museum is being put together with enormous corporate and state funding. Last month, it was the fact that McAfee had apparently banned any mention of Edward Snowden in a cybersecurity exhibit.

Now there's this heartrending BBC report on how volunteers who've given decades of service to Bletchley have been summarily dismissed because they don't fit in with the new plan. The museum of Churchill memoribilia that shared the Bletchley site has been evicted.

For people like me who've donated over the years, fundraised for it, and joined the Friends of Bletchley, this is really distressing news. I've always dreamt of Bletchley getting enough funding to do the site and its collection justice, but if it comes at the expense of decency and integrity, they may as well have left it as Churchill did -- abandoned and forgotten.

Update: Bletchley Trust has clarified to me that while this volunteer was dismissed from guiding tours because he refused to conduct the tour to the new spec, he still volunteers with the Trust in its educational department.

BBC News Bletchley Park s bitter dispute over its future (via /.)

Face-substitution in-browser with Javascript

Auduno's Face substitution webtoy uses Javascript libraries to map your face using your computer's webcam and overlay it with the faces of celebrities from Bill Murray to Justin Bieber to Rihanna to the Mona Lisa. It's an impressive example of cross-platform, in-browser application development, and suggests some pretty cool stuff on the horizon for Web-native apps. The sourcecode is on Github for your forking pleasure.

Face substitution (via Waxy)

Senior execs are the biggest risk to IT security

Stroz Friedberg, a risk-management consultancy, commissioned a survey [PDF] of information handling practices in businesses that concluded that senior managers are the greatest risk to information security within companies.

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High-end CNC machines can't be moved without manufacturers' permission


On Practical Machinst, there's a fascinating thread about the manufacturer's lockdown on a high-priced, high-end Mori Seiki NV5000 A/40 CNC mill. The person who started the thread owns the machine outright, but has discovered that if he moves it at all, a GPS and gyro sensor package in the machine automatically shuts it down and will not allow it to restart until they receive a manufacturer's unlock code.

Effectively, this means that machinists' shops can't rearrange their very expensive, very large tools to improve their workflow from job to job without getting permission from the manufacturer (which can take a month!), even if their own the gear.

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Art of Math (and vice versa)

Sculptinggeometry

125 Tetras

Carlo Séquin is a computer science professor and sculptor at UC Berkeley who explores the art of math, and the math of art. He lives in a world of impossible objects and mind-bending shapes. Séquin’s research has contributed to the pervasiveness of digital cameras and to a revolution in computer chip design. He has developed groundbreaking computer-aided design (CAD) tools for circuit designers, mechanical engineers, and architects. Meanwhile, his huge abstract sculptures have been exhibited around the world. Visiting the computer science professor emeritus’s office is like taking a trip down the rabbit hole. Paradoxical forms are found in every corner, piled on shelves, poised on pedestals, hanging from the ceiling—optical illusions embodied in paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal.

I wrote about Séquin for the new issue of California magazine and you can read it here: Sculpting Geometry

Capturing images of bystanders by zooming in on pictures of corneas


In Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections, British psychology researchers Rob Jenkins and Christie Kerr show that recognizable images of the faces of unpictured bystanders can be captured from modern, high-resolution photography by zooming in on subjects' eyes to see the reflections in their corneas. The researchers asked experimental subjects to identify faces captured from these zoomed-in images and found that they were able to do so with a high degree of reliability.

The researchers used 39 megapixel cameras, substantially higher-rez than most people's phone-cameras, but low-cost cameras are making enormous leaps in resolution every day. What's more, the researchers suggest that the determining factor for identifying a face isn't resolution; it's having a viewer who is already familiar with the subject. It's an interesting wrinkle on the problem of information-leakage, and implies that future privacy-filters will have to scrub photos of reflective surfaces (especially eyes) of identifying faces before they're posted.

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NSA drowning in overcollected data, can't do its job properly

NSA whistleblower William Binney warns that the agency collects so much useless information that it can't process it effectively. The Snowden leaks about the MUSCULAR surveillance program (tapping the fiber links connecting up the data-centers used by Internet giants like Google and Yahoo) corroborate Binney's view: in 2013, NSA analysts asked to be allowed to collect less data through MUSCULAR, because the "relatively small intelligence value it contains does not justify the sheer volume of collection."

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Stross on Unix religion

Unix history: a religious perspective. (I like the idea of Linux as a Protestant Reformation: "a new, freely copyable kernel that all the faithful could read with their own eyes") Cory 30

Deriving cryptographic keys by listening to CPUs' "coil whine"


In RSA Key Extraction via Low-Bandwidth Acoustic Cryptanalysis [PDF], a paper by Daniel Genkin and Eran Tromer of Tel Aviv University and Adi Shamir, the authors show that a sensitive microphone (such as the one in a compromised mobile phone) can be used to infer a secret cryptographic key being used by a nearby computer. The computer's processor emits different quiet sounds ("coil whine...caused by voltage regulation circuits") as it performs cryptographic operations, and these sounds, properly analyzed, can reveal the key.

It's a pretty stunning attack, the sort of thing that sounds like science fiction. But the researchers are unimpeachable (Shamir is the "S" in RSA), and their paper is very clear.

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King James Programming: Markov chain trained on the Bible and a comp sci textbook

Michael Walker trained a Markov chain with the King James Bible and Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, a classic computer science textbook. The result is King James Programming, a tumblr filled with comp-sci-inflected biblespeak. I could read it all day long.

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