21 February 2008

Volatile memory not so volatile after all

Nine researchers at Princeton have demonstrated that DRAM retains its contents fairly accurately even after seconds or minutes without power (even longer when the chips are cooled with canned air cold gunk, or liquid nitrogen).

This means you cannot assume that secrets are safe when stored in memory: the conventional wisdom was that the OS controlled access to memory, and that circumventing that would require you to cut the power, which would wipe the contents of memory. However, it turns out that the contents of memory stick around for a while, at least long enough to let you boot into a malicious OS from which you can read the information.

The researchers demonstrate that disk-encryption products can be attacked in this way: cut the power, boot into another OS, grab the cryptographic keys out of memory, and use those to decrypt the disk.

09 February 2008

The Future is Here Already, Part 2: Awesome HUDs for Driving

MVS LLC is developing a novel system for presenting directions to drivers. The system, called Virtual Cable, projects onto your windshield an image of what looks like an overhead cable over your route. Unlike the talking directions typical of modern satnav systems, this is silent, intuitive and unambiguous.

Their home page includes simulated pictures and videos.

The only trouble I can imagine is that drivers would focus on this kind of cue too deeply and start ignoring other things on the road.

The Future is Here Already: Personal Genome Sequencing

For $999, you can get your genome partially sequenced.

23andme will wend you a "spit kit" by mail. Within 6-8 weeks after you return it, they'll sequence your DNA at more than 500,000 loci of interest using an SNP array. Information at some of these loci can indicate susceptibility to certain diseases and conditions, like prostate cancer, sensitivity to alcohol, or lactose intolerance. Common differences in these loci can also help determine your ancestry.

You can later retrieve your profile results on the web, and read about how recent medical findings may affect you, learn how your genes relate to those of your relatives or others around the world.

I'd guess that that most users today are doing it for the novelty and trivia factors. This will probably change as these tests (and our knowledge of genetics) become even more sophisticated.

23andme's waiver asks you to acknowledge that "You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate." Indeed, one testimonial in a comment on their blog reads:

I handed out 23andme kits to my relatives at Christmas, and a few weeks later my wife found out that her "father" was not really her father. Needless to say, it turned out to be not such a great Christmas gift! But I love it anyway...

02 February 2008

The World's Hottest Chili Pepper

The bhut jolokia pepper was declared the world's hottest pepper by the Guinness Book of World Records:

A panel of tasters used to rank chilies. Now a process called high performance liquid chromatography does all the work, with results given in Scoville Heat Units. The peppers yielded a reading of 1,041,427 SHUs, twice that of the California red savina pepper, the previous record-holder. An SHU is the amount of dilution needed before the chili is undetectable.

(Wall Street Journal, "The World's Hottest Chili")

The peppers are native to India but are now shipped around the world.

Scientists have a theory for why spicy foods are so satisfying:

A publication of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York described it this way: "When capsaicin comes into contact with the nerve endings in the tongue and mouth, pain messengers, called neurotransmitters, are sent to the brain in a panic. The brain, mistakenly perceiving that the body is in big trouble, responds by turning on the waterworks to douse the flames. The mouth salivates, the nose runs and the upper body breaks into a sweat. The heart beats faster and the natural painkiller endorphin is secreted. In other words, you get a buzz."

It's similar to a runner's high, says Bruce Bryant, a researcher for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which specializes in analyzing taste.

Very small computers: the design of the Asus Eee PC

I bought an XO-1 and I adore the ideals of the One Laptop Per Child project, but I have to say that I am very impressed with the Asus Eee PC.

This is merely the latest review that I've read of the Eee PC.

Just one year ago, everyone thought it was either not feasible or not lucrative to make an inexpensive subnotebook computer. The most popular subnotebook manufacturers were Sony and Fujitsu, whose products cost around $2000. Most casual users who are looking for a subnotebook are going to be hard-pressed to justify buying one of those now when they can get an Eee PC for $300. Asus pretty much came out of nowhere and is now proceeding to mop up this niche.

The Eee PC uses flash storage instead of a hard drive, which is a minus for capacity but a plus for reliability. This is a fine compromise since few people use a subnotebook as their primary computer anyway. In size and weight the Eee PC is pretty much up there with the best of them. It weighs less than a kilogram. It's the size of a paperback book. It boots up in 15 seconds. And it's hard to argue with $300. You can barely get a desktop computer for $300!

The Eee PC ships with a GNU/Linux-based operating system preinstalled. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:

At $300 (and Asus is aiming to hit $200), buying a Windows license, even at OEM prices, would be a huge chunk of the cost of the machine. It seems obvious now that the cheapest machines are where free software would appear pre-installed initially in mass-market computers.

Asus created its own operating system for this machine. This makes sense because the Eee PC has its own strengths and limitations when compared to a full-size notebook. Users are not going to use them for all the same things; however, historically, subnotebook manufacturers tried to dress up subnotebooks in the same manner as all their other notebooks. Since Asus is in control of the entire operating system and what ships with the computer, it also can ensure that the software works well with the hardware, which is still a worry for some adopters of GNU/Linux today (mostly with respect to graphics and wireless chipsets, many of which do not have free drivers). I think we'll see the quality of this integration (from all manufacturers) improve dramatically in the next couple of years as the flexibility of free software becomes more obvious.