Fed2 Star - the newsletter for the space trading game Federation 2

The weekly newsletter for Fed2
by ibgames

EARTHDATE: August 12, 2018

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An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net, technology and science news
by Alan Lenton

Another Sunday, another Winding Down. This week for your edification we have material on the US tax laws and charities, the slimy nature of smart electricity meters, generating random numbers, a car for the terminally paranoid, some nice astronomy pictures, a couple of things to see if you happen to be in London at the right time, and a quote about scientists. In the scanner section there are URLs pointing to material on ransomware, common colds, who pays for web takedown orders, a mysterious low frequency radio signal from space [probably the toaster – AL], privacy and security collisions, printers’ doc-tracking dots, and finally, why paper cuts hurt so much.

Not a bad little selection, even if I say so myself!


The law of unintended consequences strikes again... As I’m sure my US readers will have noticed, their tax law recently changed to allow taxpayers to make a larger deduction for donations to charities without having to prove it by providing paper work. Needless to say, the taxpayers are happy, and one would have thought the charities would be happy at having to spend less on admin. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

It seems that now they don’t have to prove it, a lot of people are just claiming the deduction, but not bothering to make the (relatively) small donations they made to charities previously. This has caused serious problems. For instance the medical non-profit group ‘March of Dimes’ has just cancelled US$3 million in research grants, and it’s not expected that they will be the only charity affected.

I don’t think that was what was intended when the law was drafted...

Here in the UK, electricity and gas supplies have long been touting ‘smart’ meters, as helping householders to keep their bills down. We Brits are a suspicious lot, and there has been a lot of push back, especially after it was discovered that if you had a smart meter installed, you would never be able to go back to a standard meter. As the Eagles so aptly put it in their song ‘Hotel California’:

“Relax,” said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check-out any time you like
But you can never leave!”

Now, the real reason why the supply companies are so enthusiastic about them has slipped out. Smart meters allow the suppliers to change the cost of the energy every 30 minutes. In other words when there is a lot of demand they can jack up the cost! So, this is a warning to my non-Brit readers, because sooner or later the big energy supply companies will try and pull the same trick on you – remember it’s not a cool gadget, it’s an expensive gadget that will keep you paying and paying.


The internet relies on cryptography to ensure, among other things, that messages transmitted can only be read by the intended recipient. That’s good – especially when the message is one to your bank, for instance! However, that’s not the end of the story. To ensure that the cryptography is working properly, it needs random numbers. Truly random numbers, not even ‘nearly’ random numbers will do.

And that can be a real problem, because it’s very difficult to generate true random numbers, and over the years there have been various attempts to use the computer to generate random numbers. For instance, way back in the 1980s my Commodore 64 used a slightly defective ‘noisy’ diode to help generate random numbers. More recently, mouse movements have been used as a basis, but, of course that assumes the person using the computer is using a mouse – and moving it!

Now the web security company Cloudflare have come up with a very cool way of generating random numbers that really does produce random numbers. They’re using a set of 100 lava lamps to help generate the numbers! They film the lamps continuously and use the arrangement of pixels generated to help generate a random number.

The lamps are in their office in San Francisco, and for good measure, in case the bad guys sneak in a camera, they also mix in the movements of a pendulum in London and readings from a Geiger counter in Singapore.

A whole wall of lava lamps! That’s seriously cool!

Geek Stuff:

Right! Here’s a little something for my more paranoid readers to use when they go shopping – remember, just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they are not out to get you... It’s the Tank XUV, Military Edition from Rezvani. It’s definitely an SUV that is toys for the boys to lust for: assault rifle proof armour, bullet proof glass, run-flat tires, Kevlar fuel tank protection, built in gas masks and first-aid kit, electrified door handles, strobe lights and sirens, night vision, and even a smoke screen generator! Just the thing for running down to the supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread...


This week some pictures from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day collection.

The first is a nice picture of the Andromeda galaxy, bisected by a streak from a meteor, which passed in front of the camera while the photo was being taken. Very unusual.

Next is set of successive shots of the July 27 lunar eclipse taken at the marvellously named Gulf of Poets in Italy.

The final picture is a nifty little animation of the solar system demonstrating the Perseid meteor stream as it comes in from the outer solar system and circles the sun before returning to the outer limits.


Well, well, well. Crime does pay: ransomware creeps let off with community service

Here’s what you should actually take for a cold, according to science [Hint: Your grandmother probably got it right! -AL]

Trademark holders must pay for UK web blocking orders – UK Supreme Court

Astronomers have detected an intense and mysteriously low frequency radio signal coming from space

Seven places where privacy and security collide

German researchers defeat printers’ doc-tracking dots

Science explains why tiny paper cuts hurt so damn much

Quote for the week:

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.”
— Claude Lévi-Strauss


Those of you who are planning to visit London in the next few months might like to take a look at an exhibition of some of the oldest photos of London going back as far as 1840.

Alternatively, if your tastes are a little more, how shall I put it, unusual, and you are here in October, you might like the idea of a candlelit theremin concert in London’s Brompton Cemetery! Not for the faint of heart, I suspect. I might even go myself... Incidentally, did you know that Moog of synthesiser fame started off by building theremins?


Thanks to readers Andrew, Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material for Winding Down.

Please send suggestions for stories to alan@ibgames.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Thunderbird spam filter...

Alan Lenton
12 August 2018

Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/index.html.

Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.

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