[Popular STEM] Curating the Internet: Science and technology digest for September 26, 2020

in Popular STEM4 months ago

IEEE Spectrum's weekly selection of awesome robot videos; Archaeologists report that chromium was used as a steel hardening agent as early as 1,000 years ago; An analysis of the security for two-factor authentication; Using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect dyslexia; and Open Source "God-Father", Eric S. Raymond anticipates a possible end to the Linux/Windows "desktop wars"


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  1. Video Friday: Researchers 3D Print Liquid Crystal Elastomer for Soft Robots - IEEE Spectrum's weekly selection of awesome robot videos includes: Japan's Giant Gundam robot; A 3D printing method from UCSD that makes it "easier to manufacture and control the shape of soft robots, artificial muscles and wearable devices."; a biped robot named Bolt from the Open Dynamic Robot Initiative; Curly, an AI-based robot, is the first to demonstrate curling skills in a real-world competitive and icy environment. The robot was produced by University of Berlin.

    Here is the Gundam robot:

  2. 1,000-Year-Old Precursor to Stainless Steel Found in Iran, Surprising Archaeologists - Chromium steel aka stainless steel is commonly thought to be a 20th century innovation, but a discovery by archaeologists in Iran is challenging that notion. A new paper from Rahil Alipour, Thilo Rehren, and Marcos Martinón-Torres provides evidence that Persian steel production included the regular and intentional introduction of chromium as a hardening agent a full millenium ago, in the 11th century. The researchers were led to the discovery by reading old manuscripts containing a recipe for steel production. The recipe contained a myserious ingredient, called "rusakhtaj " (the burnt). The researchers surmised that this could be chromium and identified a dig site from the old documents. When they uncovered pieces of Persian "crucible steel", they were able to confirm that the pieces did, indeed, contain Chromium. Here is an excerpt from the paper's Abstract:
    We analysed archaeological finds from the 11th c. CE site of Chahak in Iran showing the intentional and regular addition of chromium mineral to the crucible charge, resulting in steel containing around 1 wt% chromium. A contemporaneous crucible steel flint striker held in the Tanavoli Collection is reported to also contain chromium, suggesting its origin from Chahak. We argue that the mysterious compound ‘rusakhtaj’ from Biruni's (10th – 11th c. CE) recipe for crucible steel making refers to the mineral chromite. Additional historical sources up to the mid-2nd millennium CE refer to crucible steel from Chahak as being particularly brittle, consistent with its increased phosphorus content.
    -h/t archaeology.org

  3. Security Analysis of SMS as a Second Factor of Authentication - This article tracks the emergence of credential-based security from the 4-digit ATM pin number in the 1970s through the loose password requirements of the 1990s and on into today's more intense security requirements. It points out that an e-mail account now serves as a single point of failure for most personal computer security strategies, since many financial sites rely on sending an e-mail in order to reset passwords, all leading to a modern challenge of making passwords unguessable, but still easy to remember. Another "feature" of passwords is the common requirement to change them on a regular schedule, but modern research is also starting to challenge the necessity of a scheme like this. Complexity and difficulties around the password has led to the emergence of a new standard, two factor authentication (2FA), which typically relies upon something the user knows (a password) and something the user has (a smartphone), and it goes on to analyze the security challenges associated with 2FA. In particular, it compares 2FA implementation through the use of text messaging (SMS) vs. one-time-pins from an app like Google Authenticator. In summary, the article provides this useful table:

    Pros and Cons of Different Types of Token

    Authentication TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
    ApplicationConvenient; No network connectivity required; The same application can be used to generate tokens for multiple accounts.Critical to generate and keep backup codes; Phone loss or theft; Cryptographic keys not always included in the backup of the phone.
    SMSNot tied to cryptographic keys on the device; Easier to recover from device loss or theft.Requires network connectivity; Generally insecure.

    This cautionary note is included in the conclusion:

    Despite their popularity and ease of use, SMS-based authentication tokens are arguably one of the least secure forms of two-factor authentication. This does not imply, however, that it is an invalid method for securing an online account.

    True, there are a number of services that should not be used with tokens delivered via SMS—for example, banking and financial services, cryptocurrency services, and anything containing sensitive financial information, credit card numbers, etc. Personal email addresses also fall into this category. An email account takeover can have devastating consequences if that account is the cornerstone to the user's online digital identity.

    So the reader would be wise to pay careful attention to the form of 2FA that's used by their e-mail and financial providers.

  4. Can AI Detect Dyslexia? - It is estimated that dyslexia affects 5-15% of the population, and that diagnosis typically doesn't occur until fourth grade. Although there are compensation strategies that can help most students who receive treatment, it generally takes about two years after diagnoses for the learner to catch up with their peers. If a student falls too far behind, this can lead to frustration, low self-esteem, and withdrawal from learning. A goal, then, is to start diagnosing students earlier, but this is difficult because mistakes are common among all early-learners, so it's hard to distinguish between typical and atypical mistakes. In order to accomplish earlier diagnosis, many researchers are exploring artificial intelligence (AI) methods, including methods that don't necessarily depend on measuring reading and writing skills. One such example is a game by Ricardo Baeza-Yates that uses visuals and sounds to screen for early signs of the disorder. Other, more expensive techniques that depend on fMRI or eye-tracking already exists, but Baeza-Yates says that this would be the first product to be financially accessible for typical consumers. Early tests with German-speaking research subjects were able to detect the disease in as high as 74%, which compares to 85% for traditional methods that rely on reading and writing. The team hopes that with more data, they will be able to improve the test's accuracy even further.

  5. Last phase of the desktop wars? - Eric S. Raymond, a well-known open source programmer and advocate and author of The Cathedral and The Bazaar takes note of two intriguing developments in the Microsoft desktop platform. Specifically, he comments on the addition of the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) and the port of Microsoft's Edge browser to ubuntu Linux. Ten years after the launch of Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, Raymond also notes that the company's Windows monopoly now accounts for a small portion of the firm's revenue, and that their Azure platform is rumored to run more Linux than Windows. Finally, he comments on Proton, an emulation layer that lets Windows games run on Linux. Combining these different ideas, he anticipates a possible future where Windows, itself, is just an emulation layer that runs on top of Linux. His idea is summarized in this excerpt:

    So, the end state this all points at is: New Windows is mostly a Linux kernel, there’s an old-Windows emulation over it, but Edge and the rest of the Windows user-land utilities don’t use the emulation. The emulation layer is there for games and other legacy third-party software...

    ...…and Linux finally wins the desktop wars, not by displacing Windows but by co-opting it. Perhaps this is always how it had to be.

  6. And just for fun
    , here is what I'm listening to at the moment ; -):

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