Sci-fi for the soul
Image: axelle/bauer-griffin/FilmMagic

If this were 1998 and Janelle Monáe just released her music video, “Pynk,” she’d be sitting at the top of MTV’s Total Request Live every day for months.

Alas, it’s 2018 and we no longer have Carson Daly to guide our spiritual music journey. Which is why I’m here to ask you all to quietly bow down to Janelle Monáe next album, Dirty Computer, scheduled to drop April 27.

The album will apparently come with a 50-minute Afrofuturist film featuring black, brown, queer, and trans people under threat from an authoritarian government trying to scrape their memories.

According to a new profile in The New York Times Magazine, the film will feature Monáe as a “deviant” hiding from a totalitarian government and on the run to find her love interest (which just so happens to be Tessa Thompson, Monáe’s rumored partner). The government is on a mission to delete Monáe’s memories, as well as the memories of her fellow deviants (made up of people of color, queer folks, etc). Each video in the film is intended to reflect one of those missing moments

A new Monáe’s album would be relevant always, but it’s especially salient at this political moment in history. The Trump administration has come under fire for multiple acts of erasure: LGTBQ people will be removed from the next census, for example, putting services to the community under jeopardy. Both the DOJ and the DOE have dramatically weakened their department’s civil rights enforcement divisions.

It’s devastating, so pardon if we drown our sorrows in this image of Monáe a synchronized pussy pants militia.

It’s the last remaining happy place.

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Update: Apple has acknowledged the issue and is working on it. Statement and workaround below.

Wow, this is a bad one. On Macs running the latest version of High Sierra — 10.13.1 (17B48) — it appears that anyone can log in just by putting “root” in the user name field. This is a huge, huge problem. Apple will fix it probably within hours, but holy moly. Do not leave your Mac unattended until this is resolved.

The bug is most easily accessed by going to Preferences and then entering one of the panels that has a lock in the lower left-hand corner. Normally you’d click that to enter your user name and password, which are required to change important settings like those in Security & Privacy.

No need to do that any more! Just enter “root” instead of your user name and hit enter. After a few tries, it should log right in. There’s no need to do this yourself to verify it. Doing so creates a “root” account that others may be able to take advantage of if you don’t disable it.

The bug appears to have been first noticed by Lemi Orhan Ergin, founder of Software Craftsman Turkey, who noted it publicly on Twitter.

Needless to say, this is incredibly, incredibly bad. Once you log in, you’ve essentially authenticated yourself as the owner of the computer. You can add administrators, change critical settings, lock out the current owner, and so on. Do not leave your Mac unattended until this is resolved.

So far this has worked on every preference panel we’ve tried, and when I used “root” at the login screen it immediately created and pulled up a new user with system administrator privileges. It didn’t work on a 10.13 (17A365) machine, but that one is also loaded up with AOL bloatware — sorry, Oath bloatware — which may affect things.

Apple offered the following statement:

We are working on a software update to address this issue. In the meantime, setting a root password prevents unauthorized access to your Mac. To enable the Root User and set a password, please follow the instructions here: If a Root User is already enabled, to ensure a blank password is not set, please follow the instructions from the ‘Change the root password’ section.

You can find Directory Utility via the instructions in that link, but you can also hit command-space now to open Spotlight and just type it in. Once it opens, click the lock and enter your password and then under the Edit menu you’ll have the option to change the root password. It looks like this:

Anything’s better than nothing, which is the password the root user has now, but make it strong just in case.

We hope Apple has a fix soon because even though this workaround exists, we can’t be sure of the extent of this particular flaw until Apple takes a look. No one should leave their Mac unattended until this is resolved.

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Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. kicked off its annual Singles’ Day shopping bonanza, logging $8.6 billion in sales within the first hour.

Shoppers from at least 192 countries and regions swarmed the e-commerce giant to scoop up discounted lobster, iPhones and refrigerators, at a rate of as many as 256,000 transactions per second. The Chinese company hosted a star-studded gala enlisting tennis star Maria Sharapova and American rapper Pharrell Williams to pump sales. As the event got underway, 93 percent of transactions were done via mobile.

Analysts are expecting another record day on Alibaba’s platforms, with Citigroup Inc. predicting a 31 percent rise in transactions to 158 billion yuan ($23.8 billion). While that’s only half of last year’s growth rate, it still dwarfs other events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Billionaire founder Jack Ma is using this year’s event as a testing ground for his plans to revamp China’s $4 trillion traditional retail sector with technology, an experiment that could help the behemoth gain an edge in China’s saturated retail market.

“The work that’s been done in the integration of offline and online, not just in terms of the technology integration, but the data and efficiencies for brands and the consumer through personalization has been enormous,” Alibaba President Mike Evans said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “We see the impact of it in our day-to-day business.”

Nov. 11 emerged as a counter-cultural antidote to the sentimentality surrounding Valentine’s Day. It takes its name from the way the date is written numerically as 11/11, which resembles “bare branches,” a local expression for the unattached.

Shopping Bonanza

Now, it’s become an excuse for people to shop and binge on entertainment shows.  Hangzhou-based Alibaba is using the occasion to test the limits of its cloud computing, delivery and payments units — businesses that could benefit from roping in traditional retailers as customers.
To that end, Alibaba teams fanned out across the nation ahead of Nov. 11 to help outlets — some 600,000 mom-and-pop convenient stores and some 1,000 brands — upgrade their computer systems. Those retailers, many in prime city locations, will become delivery and storage centers.

To connect a 10th of China’s 6 million convenient stores to the internet, Alibaba uses an app called Ling Shou Tong, meaning “connect retail.” Convenience stores are provided suggestions on what to procure and how to display merchandise. The goods are shipped from dedicated Alibaba warehouses, obviating the middlemen they would otherwise have dealt with. In theory, that improves their profit.

The company is also converting 100,000 retail outlets into so-called smart stores. Brands including Levis and L’Oreal are taking part. If one shop runs short on certain inventory, customers can track availability at other locations. They can also get goods delivered to their home.

Rivalry With Amazon

It’s early days in Alibaba’s grand retail experiment, but if it works, it could deepen a lead over Jeff Inc. in the fragmented world of physical retail. Ma’s company spent billions buying into grocers, shopping malls and even department stores years before Amazon announced its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Market Inc.

Alibaba is already starting to see the initiative trickle into the top line. Revenue from new retail — mainly its Hema supermarkets and Intime department store — more than quintupled in the September quarter. As with convenience stores, Alibaba is trying to franchise the Hema model that combines a supermarket, restaurant and fulfillment center in a single location on its technology platform.

The company recently bought control of the unprofitable delivery business Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. It oversees a coterie of more than a dozen shipping partners, orchestrating deliveries carried out by millions of people across more than 600 cities. Alibaba has said Cainiao expects 3 million people to handle packages during the 24-hour-period, also known as 11-11.

“On the back of 11-11, we will probably have to distribute north of 700 million packages,” Evans said. “That is a massive, massive number of packages that requires a robust logistics network both in China and outside of China, and we will continue to invest in that business, and by moving to a controlling position, we will be able to ensure the right degree of quality.”

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    Hillary Clinton demanded that the FBI immediately explain its decision to reopen an investigation into her use of private e-mails as secretary of state as a new poll shows the race was a virtual toss-up even before the bureaus bombshell.

    The American people deserve to get full and complete facts, Clinton told reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, late Friday, hours after her presidential campaign was rocked by a letter from FBI Director James Comey telling lawmakers of the revived inquiry. If theyre going to be sending this kind of letter that is only going originally to Republican members of the House, they need to share whatever facts they have with the American people.

    Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa on Oc. 28.
    Photographer: Jewek Samad/AFP via Getty Images

    The politically explosive development came less than two weeks before the election on Nov 8, providing a boost to Republican nominee Donald Trump as most national polls showed him lagging behind. Comey said he cant say how long the review would take — raising the possibility that Clinton could go into Election Day with the new probe unresolved and still hanging over her campaign.

    An ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll released on Saturday Clintons lead over Trump has shrunk to two points from as many as 12 points less than a week ago, as more Republicans say theyll turn out for Trump. The poll was conducted Oct 24-27, before the new e-mail cache was announced.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation acted after investigators unearthed new e-mails through a separate probe of Clinton aide Huma Abedins estranged husband, former Representative Anthony Weiner. The bureau is probing illicit messages that Weiner allegedly sent to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.

    That inquiry gave it access to a computer believed to have been used by both Weiner and Abedin, according a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing a pending investigation. Now the FBI is looking into whether Abedins e-mails are work-related and whether they contain classified information.

    The more than 1,000 e-mails included exchanges between Abedin and Clinton, the Washington Post reported, citing a law enforcement official it didnt identify.

    Unrelated Case

    Comey offered no such specifics in a letter to eight committee chairmen.

    In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation, Comey wrote. I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information.

    Comey said in an internal FBI memo that he wouldnt normally tell congress about a continuing investigation, according to Fox News. He wrote that he felt obligated because he had testified that the probe was complete, and also it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. Comey added that the bureau doesnt know “the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails.”

    Trump celebrated the FBIs decision during an appearance with supporters in New Hampshire. This is bigger than Watergate, Trump told the crowd Friday afternoon, which began chanting lock her up after he told them about the probe.

    Clinton dismissed the potential political impact of the FBI move. People a long time ago made up their minds about the e-mails, she said. I think thats factored into what people think and now theyre choosing a president.

    Clintons campaign manager, John Podesta, slammed the timing of Comeys decision.

    “It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election, Podesta said in a statement. The Director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining. We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July, he said, referring to a federal probe of Clintons e-mail practices that concluded without charges.

    James Comey
    Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

    U.S. stocks erased gains as markets again showed themselves sensitive to perceptions about Clintons prospects, with the S&P 500 Index falling 0.3 percent in New York. The Mexican peso dropped, a reflection of Trumps plan to renegotiate trade pacts with the country and reduce immigration.

    Clinton had appeared to be cruising toward a dominant win in the election. She held an average four-point lead over Republican Trump in polls that include independent candidates as of Friday, according to Real Clear Politics.

    Some recent polls have been far worse for Trump; the Associated Press said on Oct. 26 that its poll showed Clinton with a 14-point lead. The election projection site assessed her odds of a win at 82 percent on Friday. Yet the ABC poll showed Republicans and Republican-leaning independents starting to fall in line as Election Day nears.

    Trumps Reaction

    Trump, who previously had denounced the FBI and Justice Department for failing to pursue charges against Clinton, praised the agencies on Friday. I have great respect that the FBI and Department of Justice have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made, Trump said. This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood.

    House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement that This decision, long overdue, is the result of her reckless use of a private email server, and her refusal to be forthcoming with federal investigators.

    For a QuickTake Q&A on Hillary Clintons E-mails, click here.

    When the original investigation was closed in July, Comey faulted Clinton and her aides for extremely careless handling of classified information, but said the evidence wasnt sufficient to warrant prosecution. Attorney General Loretta Lynch subsequently announced that no charges would be brought against any individuals within the scope of the investigation.

    Comey on Friday gave lawmakers no indication in his letter about the importance of the new information. FBI press officials declined to comment.

    Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your committees about our efforts, Comey wrote.

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    This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    If you’re like me, you’ve probably been ignoring the bitcoin phenomenon for years — because it seemed too complex, far-fetched, or maybe even too libertarian. But if you have any interest in a future where the world moves beyond fossil fuels, you and I should both start paying attention now.

    Last week, the value of a single bitcoin broke the $10,000 barrier for the first time. Over the weekend, the price nearly hit $12,000. At the beginning of this year, it was less than $1,000.

    If you had bought $100 in bitcoin back in 2011, your investment would be worth nearly $4 million today. All over the internet there are stories of people who treated their friends to lunch a few years ago and, as a novelty, paid with bitcoin. Those same people are now realizing that if they’d just paid in cash and held onto their digital currency, they’d now have enough money to buy a house.

    That sort of precipitous rise is stunning, of course, but bitcoin wasn’t intended to be an investment instrument. Its creators envisioned it as a replacement for money itself—a decentralized, secure, anonymous method for transferring value between people.

    But what they might not have accounted for is how much of an energy suck the computer network behind bitcoin could one day become. Simply put, bitcoin is slowing the effort to achieve a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. What’s more, this is just the beginning. Given its rapidly growing climate footprint, bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse.

    Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin provide a unique service: Financial transactions that don’t require governments to issue currency or banks to process payments. Writing in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson calls bitcoin an “ingenious and potentially transformative technology” that the entire economy could be built on — the currency equivalent of the internet. Some are even speculating that bitcoin could someday make the US dollar obsolete.

    But the rise of bitcoin is also happening at a specific moment in history: Humanity is decades behind schedule on counteracting climate change, and every action in this era should be evaluated on its net impact on the climate. Increasingly, bitcoin is failing the test.

    Digital financial transactions come with a real-world price: The tremendous growth of cryptocurrencies has created an exponential demand for computing power. As bitcoin grows, the math problems computers must solve to make more bitcoin (a process called “mining”) get more and more difficult—a wrinkle designed to control the currency’s supply.

    Today, each bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy used to power nine homes in the US for one day. And miners are constantly installing more and faster computers. Already, the aggregate computing power of the bitcoin network is nearly 100,000 times larger than the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers combined.

    The total energy use of this web of hardware is huge—an estimated 31 terawatt-hours per year. More than 150 individual countries in the world consume less energy annually. And that power-hungry network is currently increasing its energy use every day by about 450 gigawatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity the entire country of Haiti uses in a year.

    That sort of electricity use is pulling energy from grids all over the world, where it could be charging electric vehicles and powering homes, to bitcoin-mining farms. In Venezuela, where rampant hyperinflation and subsidized electricity has led to a boom in bitcoin mining, rogue operations are now occasionally causing blackouts across the country. The world’s largest bitcoin mines are in China, where they siphon energy from huge hydroelectric dams, some of the cheapest sources of carbon-free energy in the world. One enterprising Tesla owner even attempted to rig up a mining operation in his car, to make use of free electricity at a public charging station.

    In just a few months from now, at bitcoin’s current growth rate, the electricity demanded by the cryptocurrency network will start to outstrip what’s available, requiring new energy-generating plants. And with the climate conscious racing to replace fossil fuel-base plants with renewable energy sources, new stress on the grid means more facilities using dirty technologies. By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.

    This is an unsustainable trajectory. It simply can’t continue.

    There are already several efforts underway to reform how the bitcoin network processes transactions, with the hope that it’ll one day require less electricity to make new coins. But as with other technological advances like irrigation in agriculture and outdoor LED lighting, more efficient systems for mining bitcoin could have the effect of attracting thousands of new miners.

    It’s certain that the increasing energy burden of bitcoin transactions will divert progress from electrifying the world and reducing global carbon emissions. In fact, I’d guess it probably already has. The only question at this point is: by how much?

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    Former Uber site reliability engineer Susan Fowler accused the company of rampant sexual harassment and human resources negligence in a blog post published today.

    Its the latest in a series of eventsthat point to serious questions about Uberscompany culture.

    Fowler claims that on her first day out of training, she was solicited for sex by a superior onan internal company chat thread. She then immediately captured screenshots of the messages and sent them to Ubers human resources department. In a healthy organization, such a problem would have been resolved quickly. ButFowler alleges that the harassment only continued, preventing her from moving up within the company.

    Upper management told me that he was a high performer and they wouldnt feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part, explained Fowler in her post.

    Atthis point,Fowler says in her post that she was given a choice of remaining on the team and accepting, a poor performance review, or moving to a different team.

    I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that, further explained Fowler.

    Though shedidnt want to leave the role she felt she was best prepared to fill, she switched teams. Work continued, and whileFowler had settled into the new role she regularlyhad conversations with female employees who shared similar stories about HR negligence, even citing unacceptable experiences with the same superior who solicited her. Along with a number of her colleagues, Fowler met once again with HR to make the point that the experiences of harassment were epidemic. Fowler then says thatUber insistedthat the manager had only been accused of a single offense.

    Amidchaotic internal politics,Fowler attemptedto transferto a different department, but the company blocked her request. Citing strong performance, she couldnt understand why her request had been denied.

    I was told that performance problems arent always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life,’ addedFowler in her post.

    She ultimately decided to stay in the same roleuntil her next performance review. But the frustration continued with a second reassignment rejection and a further explanation that her review had been changed after the fact, and that she didnt show signs of an upward career trajectory. As a result, she was shut out of a company-sponsored Stanford computer science graduate program for high-achievers.

    Aside from these claims,Fowler also describes in her post a culture of pervasive sexism telling the story of an employee who refused to order jackets in womens sizing because they cost more. No matter how many complaints she brought forth, HR insinuatedthat shewas the common denominator in all of her complaints. Fowler says she wasthreatened andintimidated in an effort to stop her fromreporting transgressions to HR.

    In response to Fowlers post,Uber CEOTravisKalanick promisedto investigate the claims. In a statement to Axios,Kalanickmade a point to draw a dichotomy between the accused behavior and what the CEO believes is core to the companys culture:

    I have just read Susan Fowlers blog. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in. Its the first time this has come to my attention so I have instructed Liane Hornsey our new Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations. We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.

    Uber board member and media mogul Arianna Huffington said in a tweet that she would conduct an independent investigation into the matter. Huffington even released her email address in an effort to make it easier for those with information to come forward.

    Sexual harassment is rampant in Silicon Valley, and the worst part is that most of it goes undocumented. If true, Ubers actions to thwartFowlers efforts to report the repeated harassment paint a horrifying picture of the companys internal culture.

    Uber is no stranger to being in the negative spotlight when it comes to company culture not just with interpersonal relationships, but in its bigger business model and how it interfaces in the competitive environment for transportation services. In 2014, one of its senior executives (who is still at the company)tolda room full of journalists that Uber runsopposition research on its critics. One of the critics singled out had been very outspoken (along with many others) about how Uber does not take passenger safety seriously enough.

    Uberhas, in fact, been the subject of specific incidents involving passenger safety, and, on a wider competitive level, its been accused and occasionally banned for its practices in specific markets. Other accusations involve privacy violations over the access of customer data (some of which have since been settled, some of which still crop up today).

    We still dont know the number of female engineers at Uber because the company hasnt been transparent about its hiring Jesse Jackson has made it his priority to change this. But even ifKalanick werentcomplicit,Fowlers experience could speak to how Uber values employee performance with respect to ethics and decency.

    We have reached out to Uber and CEO TravisKalanick and will update this post when we hear back.

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    Google is releasing a new TensorFlow object detection API to make it easier for developers and researchers to identify objects within images. Google is trying to offer the best of simplicity and performance the models being released today have performed well in benchmarking and have become regularly used in research.

    The handful of models included in the detection API include heavy duty inception-based convolutional neural networks and streamlined models designed to operate on less sophisticated machines a MobileNets single shot detector comes optimized to run in real-time on a smartphone.

    Earlier this week Google announced its MobileNets family of lightweight computer vision models. These models can handle tasks like object detection, facial recognition and landmark recognition.

    Todays smartphones dont possess the computational resources of larger scale desktop and server-based setups, leaving developers with two options. Machine learning models can run in the cloud, but that adds latency and requires an internet connection non-starters for a lot of common use cases. The alternative approach is simplifying the models themselves, making a trade-off in the interest of more ubiquitous deployment.

    Google, Facebook and Apple have been pouring resources into these mobile models. Last fall, Facebook announced its Caffe2Go framework for building models to run on smartphones the first big implementation of this was Facebooks Style Transfer. This spring at I/O, Google released TensorFlow lite, its version of a streamlined machine learning framework. And most recently at WWDC, Apple pushed out CoreML, its attempt to reduce the difficulty of running machine learning models on iOS devices.

    Of course Googles public cloud offerings give it differentiated positioning with respect to both Facebook and Apple, and its not new to delivering computer vision services at scale vis–vis its Cloud Vision API.

    Todays TensorFlow object detection API can be found here. Google wants to make it extra easy to play with and implement so the entire kit comes prepackaged with weights and a Jupyter notebook.

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    Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 concept is nearly 6 meters long.
    Image: Mercedes-Benz

    People seem to have forgotten that Mercedes resurrected the Maybach brand as an all-new suffix to Mercedes’ most luxurious models, like the Mercedes-Maybach S600. To remedy that, it’s created a new luxury car of monumental proportions: the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 concept.

    You might not be able to tell from the renderings, but it is truly monumental. To emphasize that point, let me give you a few of its specs straight away. First off, it’s 18-feet-eight-inches long (that’s almost 6 meters long, hence the 6 in its moniker).

    Despite its gargantuan size, its all-electric, all-wheel drive powertrain will push it from 0 to 62 mph in less than four seconds on the way to its electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. Now, it can accelerate that quickly thanks to its 80-kilowatt-hour battery pack that puts out 738 horsepower.

    Image: Mercedes-Benz

    Although it’s big and powerful, it’s still relatively efficient, going by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efficiency standards, it’s rated at a 200-mile range on a single charge. What’s more, thanks to fast-charging tech, it can receive charge that lasts for 62 miles of driving in just five minutes. The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 includes both wireless inductive charging and wired charging.

    To access its “technoid” (Mercedes’ word, not mine) interior, occupants flip open the gullwing doors and drop into the coupe’s luxurious and techie cabin.

    There, they’ll find a blend of old-world luxury, like open-pore elm wood floors and soft, quilted leather. These classic features are juxtaposed by high-tech highlights like a windshield that doubles as both a window and transparent digital display. The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 projects driving data and navigation information onto the windshield. And it’s operated with gesture controls.

    The tech isn’t just functional, designers added some fashion, too. The transparent center tunnel in between the driver and passenger projects a visual representation of the flow of electricity from the powertrain to the wheels. The harder the driver pushes the accelerator pedal, the more energy is shown flowing. Granted, it’s just a digital approximation. But it’s still a cool idea.

    Of course, such a high-tech car is also autonomous. With a push of a button, the driver can designate driving duties to the car. After all, there’s nothing more luxurious than having a computer do the driving for you.

    Image: Mercedes-Benz

    Intriguingly, the new Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 has the same wheelbase as the Vision Tokyo concept and wheels inspired by the brand’s Concept IAA. This is no coincidence. These three vehicles likely show a realistic vision of Mercedes’ future vehicle plans, from a self-driving lounge to an efficient, morphing luxury sedan to an extremely luxurious sports EV coupe.

    With the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 concept, Mercedes proves that although the future of mobility will be governed by automated driving and extremely efficient designs, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

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    On Saturday morning, the white stone buildings on UC Berkeleys campus radiated with unfiltered sunshine. The sky was blue, the campanile was chiming. But instead of enjoying the beautiful day, 200 adults had willingly sardined themselves into a fluorescent-lit room in the bowels of Doe Library to rescue federal climate data.

    Like similar groups across the country—in more than 20 cities—they believe that the Trump administration might want to disappear this data down a memory hole. So these hackers, scientists, and students are collecting it to save outside government servers.

    But now theyre going even further. Groups like DataRefuge and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which organized the Berkeley hackathon to collect data from NASAs earth sciences programs and the Department of Energy, are doing more than archiving. Diehard coders are building robust systems to monitor ongoing changes to government websites. And theyre keeping track of whats been removedto learn exactly when the pruning began.

    Tag It, Bag It

    The data collection is methodical, mostly. About half the group immediately sets web crawlers on easily-copied government pages, sending their text to the Internet Archive, a digital library made up of hundreds of billions of snapshots of webpages. They tag more data-intensive projectspages with lots of links, databases, and interactive graphicsfor the other group. Called baggers, these coders write custom scripts to scrape complicated data sets from the sprawling, patched-together federal websites.

    Its not easy. All these systems were written piecemeal over the course of 30 years. Theres no coherent philosophy to providing data on these websites, says Daniel Roesler, chief technology officer at UtilityAPI and one of the volunteer guides for the Berkeley bagger group.

    One coder who goes by Tek ran into a wall trying to download multi-satellite precipitation data from NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center. Starting in August, access to Goddard Earth Science Data required a login. But with a bit of totally legal digging around the site (DataRefuge prohibits outright hacking), Tek found a buried link to the old FTP server. He clicked and started downloading. By the end of the day he had data for all of 2016 and some of 2015. It would take at least another 24 hours to finish.

    The non-coders hit dead-ends too. Throughout the morning they racked up 404 Page not found errors across NASAs Earth Observing System website. And they more than once ran across empty databases, like the Global Change Data Centers reports archive and one of NASAs atmospheric CO2 datasets.

    And this is where the real problem lies. They don’t know when or why this data disappeared from the web (or if anyone backed it up first). Scientists who understand it better will have to go back and take a look. But meantime, DataRefuge and EDGI understand that they need to be monitoring those changes and deletions. Thats more work than a human could do.

    So theyre building software that can do it automatically.

    Future Farming

    Later that afternoon, two dozen or so of the most advanced software builders gathered around whiteboards, sketching out tools theyll need. They worked out filters to separate mundane updates from major shake-ups, and explored blockchain-like systems to build auditable ledgers of alterations. Basically its an issue of what engineers call version control—how do you know if something has changed? How do you know if you have the latest? How do you keep track of the old stuff?

    There wasnt enough time for anyone to start actually writing code, but a handful of volunteers signed on to build out tools. Thats where DataRefuge and EDGI organizers really envision their movement goinga vast decentralized network from all 50 states and Canada. Some volunteers can code tracking software from home. And others can simply archive a little bit every day.

    By the end of the day, the group had collectively loaded 8,404 NASA and DOE webpages onto the Internet Archive, effectively covering the entirety of NASAs earth science efforts. Theyd also built backdoors in to download 25 gigabytes from 101 public datasets, and were expecting even more to come in as scripts on some of the larger datasets (like Teks) finished running. But even as they celebrated over pints of beer at a pub on Euclid Street, the mood was somber.

    There was still so much work to do. Climate change data is just the tip of the iceberg, says Eric Kansa, an anthropologist who manages archaeological data archiving for the non-profit group Open Context. There are a huge number of other datasets being threatened with cultural, historical, sociological information. A panicked friend at the National Parks Service had tipped him off to a huge data portal that contains everything from park visitation stats to GIS boundaries to inventories of species. While he sat at the bar, his computer ran scripts to pull out a list of everything in the portal. When its done, hell start working his way through each quirky dataset.

    UPDATE 5:00pm Eastern, 2/15/17: Phrasing in this story has been updated to clarify when changes were made to federal websites. Some data is missing, but it is still unclear when that data was removed.

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    It was December 2012, and Doug Burger was standing in front of Steve Ballmer, trying to predict the future.

    Ballmer, the big, bald, boisterous CEO of Microsoft, sat in the lecture room on the ground floor of Building 99, home base for the companys blue-sky R&D lab just outside Seattle. The tables curved around the outside of the room in a U-shape, and Ballmer was surrounded by his top lieutenants, his laptop open. Burger, a computer chip researcher who had joined the company four years earlier, was pitching a new idea to the execs. He called it Project Catapult.

    The prototype was a dedicated box with six FPGAs, shared by a rack full of servers. If the box went on the frizz, or if the machines needed more than six FPGAs—increasingly likely given the complexity of the machine learning models—all those machines were out of luck. Bings engineers hated it. They were right, Larus says.

    So Burgers team spent many more months building a second prototype. This one was a circuit board that plugged into each server and included only one FPGA. But it also connected to all the other FPGA boards on all the other servers, creating a giant pool of programmable chips that any Bing machine could tap into.

    That was the prototype that got Qi Lu on board. He gave Burger the money to build and test over 1,600 servers equipped with FPGAs. The team spent six months building the hardware with help from manufacturers in China and Taiwan, and they installed the first rack in an experimental data center on the Microsoft campus. Then, one night, the fire suppression system went off by accident. They spent three days getting the rack back in shape—but it still worked.

    Over several months in 2013 and 2014, the test showed that Bings “decision tree” machine-learning algorithms ran about 40 times faster with the new chips. By the summer of 2014, Microsoft was publicly saying it would soon move this hardware into its live Bing data centers. And then the company put the brakes on.

    Searching for More Than Bing

    Bing dominated Microsoft’s online ambitions in the early part of the decade, but by 2015 the company had two other massive online services: the business productivity suite Office 365 and the cloud computing service Microsoft Azure. And like all of their competitors, Microsoft executives realized that the only efficient way of running a growing online empire is to run all services on the same foundation. If Project Catapult was going to transform Microsoft, it couldnt be exclusive to Bing. It had to work inside Azure and Office 365, too.

    The problem was, Azure executives didn’t care about accelerating machine learning. They needed help with networking. The traffic bouncing around Azure’s data centers was growing so fast, the service’s CPUs couldn’t keep pace. Eventually, people like Mark Russinovich, the chief architect on Azure, saw that Catapult could help with this too—but not the way it was designed for Bing. His team needed programmable chips right where each server connected to the primary network, so they could process all that traffic before it even got to the server.

    The first prototype of the FPGA architecture was a single box shared by a rack of servers (Version 0). Then the team switched to giving individual servers their own FPGAs (Version 1). And then they put the chips between the servers and the overall network (Version 2).WIRED

    So the FPGA gang had to rebuild the hardware again. With this third prototype, the chips would sit at the edge of each server, plugging directly into the network, while still creating pool of FPGAs that was available for any machine to tap into. That started to look like something that would work for Office 365, too. Project Catapult was ready to go live at last.

    Larus describes the many redesigns as an extended nightmare—not because they had to build a new hardware, but because they had to reprogram the FPGAs every time. That is just horrible, much worse than programming software, he says. Much more difficult to write. Much more difficult to get correct. It’s finicky work, like trying to change tiny logic gates on the chip.

    Now that the final hardware is in place, Microsoft faces that same challenge every time it reprograms these chips. Its a very different way of seeing the world, of thinking about the world, Larus says. But the Catapult hardware costs less than 30 percent of everything else in the server, consumes less than 10 percent of the power, and processes data twice as fast as the company could without it.

    The rollout is massive. Microsoft Azure uses these programmable chips to route data. On Bing, which an estimated 20 percent of the worldwide search market on desktop machines and about 6 percent on mobile phones, the chips are facilitating the move to the new breed of AI: deep neural nets. And according to one Microsoft employee, Office 365 is moving toward using FPGAs for encryption and compression as well as machine learning—for all of its 23.1 million users. Eventually, Burger says, these chips will power all Microsoft services.

    Wait—This Actually Works?

    It still stuns me, says Peter Lee, that we got the company to do this. Lee oversees an organization inside Microsoft Research called NExT, short for New Experiences and Technologies. After taking over as CEO, Nadella personally pushed for the creation of this new organization, and it represents a significant shift from the 10-year reign of Ballmer. It aims to foster research that can see the light of day sooner rather than later—that can change the course of Microsoft now rather than years from now. Project Catapult is a prime example. And it is part of a much larger change across the industry. The leaps ahead, Burger says, are coming from non-CPU technologies.

    Peter Lee. Clayton Cotterell for WIRED

    All the Internet giants, including Microsoft, now supplement their CPUs with graphics processing units, chips designed to render images for games and other highly visual applications. When these companies train their neural networks to, for example, recognize faces in photos—feeding in millions and millions of pictures—GPUs handle much of the calculation. Some giants like Microsoft are also using alternative silicon to execute their neural networks after training. And even though it’s crazily expensive to custom-build chips, Google has gone so far as to design its own processor for executing neural nets, the tensor processing unit.

    With its TPUs, Google sacrifices long-term flexibility for speed. It wants to, say, eliminate any delay when recognizing commands spoken into smartphones. The trouble is that if its neural networking models change, Google must build a new chip. But with FPGAs, Microsoft is playing a longer game. Though an FPGA isn’t as fast as Google’s custom build, Microsoft can reprogram the silicon as needs change. The company can reprogram not only for new AI models, but for just about any task. And if one of those designs seems likely to be useful for years to come, Microsoft can always take the FPGA programming and build a dedicated chip.

    A newer version of the final hardware, V2, a card that slots into the end of each Microsoft server and connects directly to the network. Clayton Cotterell for WIRED

    Microsofts services are so large, and they use so many FPGAs, that theyre shifting the worldwide chip market. The FPGAs come from a company called Altera, and Intel executive vice president Diane Bryant tells me that Microsoft is why Intel acquired Altera last summer—a deal worth $16.7 billion, the largest acquisition in the history of the largest chipmaker on Earth. By 2020, she says, a third of all servers inside all the major cloud computing companies will include FPGAs.

    It’s a typical tangle of tech acronyms. CPUs. GPUs. TPUs. FPGAs. But it’s the subtext that matters. With cloud computing, companies like Microsoft and Google and Amazon are driving so much of the world’s technology that those alternative chips will drive the wider universe of apps and online services. Lee says that Project Catapult will allow Microsoft to continue expanding the powers of its global supercomputer until the year 2030. After that, he says, the company can move toward quantum computing.

    Later, when we talk on the phone, Nadella tells me much the same thing. Theyre reading from the same Microsoft script, touting a quantum-enabled future of ultrafast computers. Considering how hard it is to build a quantum machine, this seems like a pipe dream. But just a few years ago, so did Project Catapult.

    Correction: This story originally implied that the Hololens headset was part of Microsoft’s NExT organization. It was not.

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