Monthly Archives: October 2016

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Here China Aims to Wash VPNs Out of Its Hair

China this week announced new measures to further restrict its citizens’ access to the Internet.

The 14-month campaign appears designed to crack down on the use of Web platforms and services unapproved by the government, and on virtual private networks, which can used to access those platforms and services covertly.

While China’s Internet network access services market is facing many development opportunities, there are signs of “disorderly development” that show the urgent need for regulation, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology explained in a notice posted to a government website.

The coming “clean-up” of China’s network access services will standardize the market, strengthen network information security management, and promote the healthy and orderly development of the country’s Internet industry, the ministry noted.

In order to operate legally, Internet service providers, VPN providers, data centers and content delivery networks will have to obtain a license from the government and adhere to strict limitations.

Great Firewall

The clean-up also places severe new restrictions on cross-border business activities. It requires that government approval be obtained to create or lease lines, including VPN channels, to perform cross-border business activities.

Those restrictions essentially will block any Chinese citizen from using a VPN — basically, hiding their IP address and rerouting their connections to servers outside their country — in order to access websites the government doesn’t want them to see.

China is famous for controlling the information its citizens can see on the Internet with its “Great Firewall,” which screens Internet traffic between China and the outside world. Any requests to see information Beijing deems inappropriate are sent to an Internet graveyard.

Among the 171 of the world’s top 1,000 websites the Great Firewall blocks are Google, Facebook and Twitter, according to Greatfire.org, a censorship monitoring service. VPNs offer a way to get through the firewall, which is why the government wants to block them.

China also has taken a more proactive approach to dealing with websites that it doesn’t like. It crafted a Great Cannon, which it uses to launch DDoS attacks on domains critical of Beijing.

Shaping the Narrative

China’s government has attempted to restrict VPN access in the past, particularly at sensitive times, such as when the national Communist party convenes. Such a meeting is scheduled for the end of this year.

The great clean-up may be a departure from the past, however.

“This new directive may be a sign that the restrictions might become more systematic,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In the past, enforcement of VPN restrictions seemed spotty. Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t.

“Part of the problem with censorship in China is it’s often opaque,” Wong told TechNewsWorld.

“Users are often left wondering why their VPN isn’t working. Is it because of technical problems or is it because of the government?” she wondered. “This needs to be viewed as part of a broader crackdown on any kind of independent media by the Chinese government. In recent years, the government has doubled down on efforts to restrict any information that diverges from its official narrative.”

VPNs are used for many purposes in China, though — among them to keep companies’ discussions about their intellectual property and market strategies secure.

“I would hope industry pushes back on this, because it will be much more difficult to run innovative businesses in China without full access to information,” Wong said. “It’s in their interest for this to be a concern for them, and they should be concerned about corporate espionage as well.”

Not Good for VPN Sales

Once the great clean-up gets under way, it’s going to be difficult to sell VPNs in China.

“What they’re saying is they want to listen in on VPN connections,” explained Glenn Chagnot, vice president of marketing for Uplevel Systems. “In order to meet that requirement, we’d have to re-architect our product.”

That’s because with Uplevel’s product, the encryption keys reside with the user, so the VPN provider has no way of decrypting the user’s traffic.

Uplevel has limited its sales to the United States because selling VPNs internationally can be challenging, Chagnot noted.

“The technical requirements vary from country to country,” he told TechNewsWorld. “What works for the U.S. doesn’t necessarily work for Europe and doesn’t necessarily work for China.”

Asked if more and more countries are seeking the power to snoop on VPNs, Chagnot replied, “Absolutely.”

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Tools You Need To Customizing a Computer

There are plenty of reasons to build a custom computer. While custom computers may initially be more expensive than prepackaged desktops or laptops, they can provide you with nearly endless possibilities, whether you’re looking for a top-notch gaming machine, a system for mixing music, or the ideal choice for developing Web applications.

A custom computer is the way to go if you want both performance and flexibility. Upgrading individual parts often is less expensive than buying a new computer, which could save you money in the long run.

Following are the essential parts you’ll need.

Processor and Motherboard

The component to start with is the processor, which will dictate your selection of other necessary parts, like the motherboard. UserBenchmark’sexhaustive list of user-rated processors is a good resource to help you decide. AMD and Intel are the top manufacturers, but I prefer Intel.

Intel is the industry standard when it comes to processors, so you can’t go wrong if that’s your choice. Its Core series comes in three families: i3, i5 and i7. The i3 series is good for average computing needs, while the i5 offers a little more horsepower. The i7 series offers you the best performance. For the price, a Core i7-6700k really can’t be beat.

After you choose your processor, select a motherboard to go with it. Make sure it is USB 3.1/3.0-capable for optimal speed. One factor to consider is whether you plan on overclocking, which involves running your PC at a speed higher than manufacturer recommendations.

While you can benefit from short-term performance boosts, overclocking may lead to a shorter lifespan for your computer, so you’ll need to consider a compatible motherboard if you plan to do it.

Storage and Memory

Next, choose the storage you want to use. HDD drives are the traditional hard drives that most computers have, and they are extremely affordable.

However, SSDs are the choice for sheer performance, and their prices are dropping.

I prefer a hybrid option that includes both. A computer built with its system files on a smaller SSD will boot faster, while a larger and cheaper HDD in the 2-TB range gives plenty of storage.

Decide how much RAM you need. If you plan on running a 32-bit OS, then you only need 3 GB of memory since the OS won’t support any more. Most likely, though, you will be using a 64-bit architecture where 4 GB is the minimum.

RAM is a relatively cheap upgrade for the performance you get in return. Choose 8, 12, or 16 GB for a better user experience.

You can also put in a DVD/CD drive, though it is not necessary, thanks to portable storage and cloud-based software.

Video and Audio Cards

If you intend to play video games, create digital graphics or edit video, you should invest in something more advanced than a basic video card.

For enhanced graphics, AMD, ATI or Nvidia cards will do the trick. The AMD Radeon RX 460 is a reasonably affordable option that can also handle the needs of most casual gamers.

The same goes for your audio card: If you are editing audio files, you should always opt for a higher-quality card that’s compatible with the peripheral equipment you want to connect.

Case, Power and Cooling

You have to buy a case to hold all of that amazing hardware! There are many types of cases on the market with different features. Many cases have a rudimentary power supply and cooling fans. However, if you are building a high-performance system, they are probably inadequate.

All that performance generates heat. Too much heat will cause your computer to crash and may even damage hardware, so be sure to invest in some quality computer cooling fans.

At a minimum, you will want one attached to your CPU heatsink, one larger fan to exhaust heat from the case — and if not built in, one to disperse heat from your graphics card.

The more powerful your components, the more power you’ll need to run your system properly. You don’t want to burn through a cheap power supply and have everything shut down on you.

Plan on at least a 500w power supply, but if you’ve opted for a bigger processor, graphics card, and the requisite fans, you’ll need something with more juice. Your components may come with recommended power allowances. If not, I suggest at least a 750w power supply.

Final Thought: Don’t be afraid to invest more money up front, as your custom machine can provide years of use before you’ll need to upgrade it again. Good luck with your project — and most of all, have fun!

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Apple Now Formally Joins High-Powered AI Partnership

The Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society on Friday announced that Apple, well known for its culture of secrecy, has joined the organization as a founding member.

The other founding members are Amazon, Facebook, Google/Deep Mind, IBM and Microsoft.

The group also announced the final composition of its inaugural board of trustees, naming six new independent members: Dario Amodel of Open AI, Subbarao Kambhampati of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Deirdre Mulligan of UC Berkeley, Carol Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union, Eric Sears of the MacArthur Foundation, and Jason Furman of the Peterson Institute of International Economics.

They will join Greg Corrado of Google/DeepMind, Tom Gruber of Apple, Ralf Herbrich of Amazon, Eric Horvitz of Microsoft, Yann Lecun of Facebook, and Francesca Rossi of IBM.

Gradual Buildout

The group plans to announce additional details sometime after the board’s Feb. 3 meeting in San Francisco, including how other organizations and individuals can join. It also will address initial research programs and activities.

The board will oversee general activities of the Partnership on AI, and an executive steering committee will commission and evaluate activities within the overall objectives and scope set up by the board of trustees. The board will appoint an executive director, who will oversee day-to-day operations.

The Partnership on AI, announced last fall, aims to advance public understanding of artificial intelligence and formulate best practices. It plans to conduct publish research under an open license on areas such as ethics, privacy, fairness, inclusivity, transparency and privacy.

Closely Held

The announcement of Apple’s participation is particularly significant in light of the company’s well-earned reputation for organizational secrecy. There recently have been signs of blowback against that corporate culture, both inside and outside of the organization.

Apple last fall hired Carnegie Mellon’s Russ Salakhutdinov as its first director of AI research, and he soon announced a policy change that would allow the company’s AI researchers to begin publishing the results of their work, a practice that previously had been out of bounds for Apple employees.

As for why Apple decided to join the partnership now, “Apple does things if and when it wants to, on its own timeline,” observed Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

“The company may also have wanted to see how the group’s members were organizing themselves, whether they were serious, and how sustainable the effort appeared” before it took that step, he told TechNewsWorld.

Common Interests

Tom Gruber and others at Apple have been working behind the scenes, “communicating and collaborating” with members of the board since before it launched last fall, said company rep Jenny Murphy.

“Apple provided input into the organization’s [memorandum of understanding] and the organization’s tenets,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Apple wasn’t able to formalize its membership in time for the September announcement, but is thrilled now to be officially joining PAI as a founding member.”

It makes sense that Apple would join, as the partnership is about communicating AI to consumers and policymakers, noted Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Apple has been very secretive about their AI efforts until quite recently,” he told TechNewsWorld, “so this is another indication that Apple is trying to cooperate with the rest of the industry in presenting a common front regarding the promise of AI for non-technologists.”

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Now BlackBerry, Microsoft make the Ever-Smarter Connected Car

a couple of interesting briefings last week, BlackBerry announced that its turnaround was finished, and Microsoft finally provided some information on its new connected car deliverables.

One strange thing was that after CEO John Chen excitedly pointed out that BlackBerry had displaced Microsoft in Ford, he then announced a strategic initiative to work more closely with Microsoft’s Azure platform on BlackBerry’s own market-leading QNX car operating system. That showcased not only the massive changes in both companies, but also the really strange way this market is evolving.

I’ll close with my product of the week: a very low-cost wearable smartphone display that could get you through your next dentist appointment or boring sermon.

BlackBerry’s QNX

With all the focus on the coming autonomous car and on BlackBerry’s old phone business, most don’t know that QNX, the operating system that BlackBerry acquired, is dominant in the car market, largely for car operations. To give you an idea, it currently is in 60M — yes, that’s million — cars. It is ranked No. 1 in telematics and automotive software entertainment, and its main advantage is that it just works and continues to meet all of the car companies’ start of product deadlines.

Chances are that if you like the software running the different parts of your car, it is QNX. The car companies like it because it is very secure, their own software developers know it (it’s been dominant for a number of years), and it works on both 32- and 64-bit hardware platforms from folks like Intel, Qualcomm and Nvidia.

As you’d expect from any modern system, it is set up for over-the-air updates, similar to Tesla. In effect, QNX has become the equivalent of Android or Windows, but for the car — and it dominates the segment.

BlackBerry introduced the Karma folks at the briefing to talk about their most advanced offerings. Karma is what became of Fisker — the firm that tried, with some┬ásignificant drama, to compete with Tesla. (Karma also showcased why Tesla’s decision to use Panasonic batteries turned out to be brilliant.)

Karma’s current car is physically identical to the Fisker Karma, with the exception that all of the electronics have been revamped completely, so it now is reliable. (I was an old Jaguar mechanic, and given the issues the Fisker had with its electronics, I’ve always wondered if they were done by Lucas electrics, which were almost always at the heart of Jaguar reliability issues in the 1960s and 70s.)

However, I spoke to the Karma executives at the event, and their point was that it took them only 15 days to bring up the software on their redeveloped car. (By the way, the new Karma is about US$140K, and it is still a looker.)

BlackBerry currently is pivoting to support the next generation of technology, which includes autonomous vehicles.

Now you’d think that Microsoft and BlackBerry would be at each other’s throats. While BlackBerry has pivoted away from focusing exclusively on secure phones and email, Microsoft has pivoted away from its focus on tools and operating systems.

Microsoft: It’s About Azure

Microsoft has changed a lot over the last several years, since Satya Nadella has been running the firm. I really didn’t get that initially, so the company had to set up a special retraining meeting. I had covered Microsoft for so long that my brain apparently was hard coded to think of it in just one way — and it isn’t that company any more.

Microsoft’s big push with automotive is with Azure now, which is a good thing, because its in-car efforts over the last two decades weren’t that great.

I actually had an AutoPC for a number of years. It was very advanced for its time, but truly flawed — so much so that my wife still threatens to throw something at me — and in those early years it was the AutoPC — if I ever suggest something like that again.

To be fair, that product was crippled by an underperforming processor — but I have to say, there is no misery like having a GPS system that can’t navigate at anything exceeding 25 miles per hour. Of course, I put the AutoPC in her new car, not my own, which in hindsight likely wasn’t that wise. (Yes, I’m also often surprised I’m still married.)

Anyway, Microsoft’s current effort is to provide the cloud resource for cars, so that updates, maintenance, and even some cloud intelligence can be delivered — bad weather, reported accidents, or even neighborhoods in flux and potentially unsafe — in order to improve not only the car maker’s connection to the car, but also the driver’s connection to the car maker.

You see Tesla — particularly when it pulled an Apple and got hundreds of thousands of pre-orders for a car that wouldn’t arrive for years — woke up the traditional vendors with a holy crap moment. Now they realize that if they can’t provide some level of better-connected support in the next few years, they’ll likely be gone.

Those companies don’t trust Google at all, for the most part, (which is largely why Google had to spin out its own car effort), and they appear to be more comfortable with Microsoft than with Amazon.

Wrapping Up

Both BlackBerry and Microsoft have changed a lot, and while BlackBerry is focused like a laser on operating systems and related services, Microsoft largely has pivoted to the cloud as its premier platform, and that means they can partner much more easily going forward.

In effect, the firms have pivoted away from each other in terms of focus — and that means rather than having a cage match to the death, they now can cooperate to create something far more powerful.

It is possible that with their combined autonomous car efforts, these companies could do together what neither firm could do individually, and thus dominate the next generation of ever-smarter cars. Go figure.

The Vufine+, which started out as a Kickstarter project, is basically a small head-mounted display, priced at around $180, that’s useful for watching video or looking at your PC, tablet or smartphone screen while you are moving about.

I wouldn’t suggest using this while driving, running or bike riding, though, as it isn’t a ton less distracting then holding up your phone when watching a video. It is a rechargeable device, but battery life is about an hour and a half, suggesting that if you want to use it longer you should carry a long USB cable and a cellphone booster battery.

There are some downsides: It isn’t wireless, and it works well only on your right eye (cables stick up if you put it on your left). Unlike Google’s Glass, which used a projector, this is a screen — so lining it up can be a tad difficult the first time.

However, Glass cost something like $1,500 and this is $180, so it is a great little device to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Some people use their Vufine+ to see both their drone and what it sees, but my ideal use is in a dentist’s office where I can watch a movie while having my teeth cleaned and not be bored to tears.

At $180, if I accidentally lost it I wouldn’t be likely to have a coronary.

It works with phones and tablets that have HDMI out and the same with laptops. It comes with an HDMI to Micro-HDMI cable, so clearly it’s expected that you’ll start out with a laptop, even though you are more likely to use a Micro-HDMI to Micro-HDMI cable (about $10 on Amazon).

Oh, don’t forget headphones or earbuds — wireless if you don’t have a separate HDMI jack or headphone jack on your device — and be aware, your laptop may see an audio component in the device and switch your speakers to it so you can’t hear sound. Go into your control panel and switch that to whatever you actually want to use, or you’ll be listening to the sounds of silence.

The Vufine+ solved a problem for me: It gave me something that allowed me both to watch video and pay attention to the oral hygienist, transforming what always has been an incredibly boring experience (I get really tired of watching the ceiling fan spin) into a more interesting, far faster-moving one. As a result, the Vufine+ is my product of the week.