Topple Track Attacks EFF and Others With Outrageous DMCA Notices [Published articles]

Update August 10, 2018: Google has confirmed that it has removed Topple Track from its Trusted Copyright Removal Program membership due to a pattern of problematic notices.

Symphonic Distribution (which runs Topple Track) contacted EFF to apologize for the improper takedown notices. It said that “bugs within the system that resulted in many whitelisted domains receiving these notices unintentionally.” Symphonic Distribution said that it had issued retraction notices and that it was working to resolve the issue. While we appreciate the apology, we are skeptical that its system is fixable, at least via whitelisting domains. Given the sheer volume of errors, the problem appears to be with Topple Track’s search algorithm and lack of quality control, not just with which domains they search.

At EFF, we often write about abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown process. We even have a Hall of Shame collecting some of the worst offenders. EFF is not usually the target of bad takedown notices, however. A company called Topple Track has been sending a slew of abusive takedown notices, including false claims of infringement levelled at news organizations, law professors, musicians, and yes, EFF.

Topple Track is a “content protection” service owned by Symphonic Distribution. The company boasts that it is “one of the leading Google Trusted Copyright Program members.” It claims:

Once we identify pirated content we send out automated DMCA takedown requests to Google to remove the URLs from their search results and/or the website operators. Links and files are processed and removed as soon as possible because of Topple Track’s relationship with Google and file sharing websites that are most commonly involved in the piracy process.

In practice, Topple Track is a poster child for the failure of automated takedown processes.

Topple Track’s recent DMCA takedown notices target so much speech it is difficult to do justice to the scope of expression it has sought to delist. A sample of recent improper notices can be found here, here, here, and here. Each notice asks Google to delist a collection of URLs. Among others, these notices improperly target:

Other targets include an article about the DMCA in the NYU Law Review, an NBC News article about anti-virus scams, a Variety article about the Drake-Pusha T feud, and the lyrics to ‘Happier’ at Ed Sheeran’s official website. It goes on and on. If you search for Topple Track’s DMCA notices at Lumen, you’ll find many more examples.

The DMCA requires that the sender of a takedown notice affirm, under the penalty of perjury, that the sender has a good faith belief that the targeted sites are using the copyrighted material unlawfully. Topple Tracks notices are sent on behalf of a variety of musicians, mostly hip-hop artists and DJs. We can identify no link—let alone a plausible claim of infringement—between the pages mentioned above and the copyrighted works referenced in Topple Track’s takedown notices.

The notice directed at an EFF page alleges infringement of “My New Boy” by an artist going by the name “Luc Sky.” We couldn’t find any information about this work online. Assuming this work exists, it certainly isn’t infringed by an out-of-date case page that has been languishing on our website for more than eight years. Nor is it infringed by Eric Goldman’s blog post (which has more recent news about the EMI v MP3Tunes litigation). 

EMI v. MP3Tunes was a case about a now-defunct online storage service called MP3Tunes. The record label EMI sued the platform for copyright infringement based on the alleged actions of some of its users. But none of this has any bearing on Luc Sky. MP3Tunes has been out of business for years.

It is important to remember than even the most ridiculous takedown notices can have real consequences. Many site owners will never even learn that their URL was targeted. For those that do get notice, very few file counternotices. These users may get copyright strikes and thereby risk broader disruptions to their service. Even if counternotices are filed and processed fairly quickly, material is taken down or delisted in the interim. In Professor Goldman’s case, Google also disabled AdSense on the blog post until his counternotice became effective.

We cannot comprehend how Topple Track came to target EFF or Eric Goldman on behalf of Luc Sky. But given the other notices we reviewed, it does not appear to be an isolated error. Topple Track’s customers should also be asking questions. Presumably they are paying for this defective service.

While Topple Track is a particularly bad example, we have seen many other cases of copyright robots run amok. We reached out to Google to ask if Topple Track remains part of its trusted copyright program but did not hear back. At a minimum, it should be removed from any trusted programs until it can prove that it has fixed its problems.

Watch this brilliant response from a guy who takes Photoshop requests [Published articles]

Photoshopper James Fridman completes badly-phrased Photoshop requests to the letter, like Come take it away, which is obviously not what the requester expected. (more…)

The Empathetic Murderbot: Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells [Published articles]

“…I went from being told what to do and having every action monitored to being able to do whatever I wanted, and somewhere along the way my impulse control went to hell.”

Rogue Protocol is the third Murderbot novella by acclaimed author Martha Wells, following directly on from Artificial Condition. The rogue Security Unit (SecUnit) that calls itself Murderbot and answers to no human authority has answered some questions about its past. Now it has decided to answer some questions about GrayCris, the corporation that nearly killed most of its clients in All Systems Red.

Some spoilers follow.

Murderbot claims not to like humans at all, and to want to spend all its time watching entertainment media—its favourite is The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon—but it worries about Dr. Mensah and her team. Information about GrayCris’s nefarious activities might speed up the legal proceedings that are preventing Mensah and company from returning to their homes in PreservationAux, so Murderbot decides to go get that information. Purely so that it can stop worrying, you understand.

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(Murderbot is a very anxious sort of construct. People looking at it is distressing for it. And for all its ability with violence, and its claims that it’s very different to humans, really, no seriously—it’s a very human character. Intensely relatable.)

“I needed to have an emotion in private.”

Murderbot arrives at a distant, barely-inhabited station (after spending several days in transit with humans who—since Murderbot was masquerading as a security consultant—kept looking to Murderbot to solve all their problems), near a terraforming project that GrayCris has abandoned for probably nefarious reasons. A salvage company has acquired the rights to that project, and a small team is about to set out for the terraforming platform. The team includes a bot called Miki, who has never been hurt or lied to by a human, and who refers to the humans on the team as its friends. Murderbot finds its cheerfulness annoying and frustrating—and has other more complicated feelings about Miki’s relationship with its humans—but enlists its help in order to get to the terraforming platform.

It turns out that the terraforming platform is a dangerous place. Although Murderbot is really only there to gather information, when the human salvage team runs into danger in the form of deadly combat bots—apparently roaming the abandoned terraforming platform intent on killing anything that comes in range—Murderbot feels compelled to go to their rescue. (Empathy, it appears, is really inconvenient.) Worse is to come: the salvage team’s human security consultants turn out to be there to kill them, not protect them. It’s up to Murderbot—who’d rather not be responsible for it—to save the day.

Wells’ characterisation is pitch-perfect. Murderbot’s voice is darkly—and frequently not-so-darkly—funny, and Murderbot itself is a deeply appealing character. Other characters, as is appropriate for a writer of Wells’ talents, feel like fully formed individuals with lives and goals of their own, despite how little time the reader spends in their company. The pacing is excellent, tension mounting to an explosive conclusion, and like all of Wells’ work, it has atmosphere in spades.

And thematically, it’s about what it means to be human, and the nature of responsibility.

I really enjoyed this instalment of the adventures of Murderbot. I’m looking forward to Exit Strategy, the next novella, and to the recently-announced forthcoming Murderbot novel. The world needs more Murderbot, because Murderbot is delightful.

Rogue Protocol and the other Murderbot Diaries novellasAll Systems Red, Artificial Condition, and the forthcoming Exit Strategy—are available from Publishing.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This hack turns your old Kindle into a clock [Published articles]

If you have an old Kindle e-reader lying about then you’d best dig it up. This cool hack can turn your dead e-reader into a living clock that scours hundreds of books for exact times and displays the current time in a quote. It updates once a minute.

The project, available on Instrucables, requires a jailbroken Kindle and little else. The app uses quotes collected by the Guardian for an art project and includes writing from Charles Bukowski to Shakespeare.

Creator Jaap Meijers writes:

My girlfriend is a *very* avid reader. As a teacher and scholar of English literature, she reads eighty books per year on average.

On her wishlist was a clock for our living room. I could have bought a wall clock from the store, but where is the fun in that? Instead, I made her a clock that tells the time by quoting time indications from literary works, using an e-reader as display, because it’s so incredibly appropriate :-)

Given that our family is apparently on our fifteenth Kindle in the household it only makes sense to repurpose one of these beasts into something useful. Don’t have a Kindle? You can visit a web-based version here.

Telecom Lobbyists Have Stalled 70 State-Level Bills [Published articles]

FCC admits it was never actually hacked [Published articles]

The FCC has come clean on the fact that a purported hack of its comment system last year never actually took place, after a report from its inspector general found a lack of evidence supporting the idea. Chairman Ajit Pai blamed the former chief information officer and the Obama administration for providing “inaccurate information about this incident to me, my office, Congress, and the American people.”

The semi-apology and finger-pointing are a disappointing conclusion to the year-long web of obfuscation that the FCC has woven. Since the first moment it was reported that there was a hack of the system, there have been questions about the nature, scale and response to it that the FCC has studiously avoided even under direct Congressional questioning.

It was so galling to everyone looking for answers that the GAO was officially asked to look into it. The letter requesting the office’s help at the time complained that the FCC had “not released any records or documentation that would allow for confirmation that an attack occurred, that it was effectively dealt with, and that the FCC has begun to institute measures to thwart future attacks and ensure the security of its systems.” That investigation is still going on, but one conducted by the FCC’s own OIG resulted in the report Pai cites.

The former CIO, David Bray, was the origin of the theory, but emails obtained by American Oversight in June show that evidence for it and a similar claim from 2014 were worryingly thin. Nevertheless, the FCC has continuously upheld the idea that it was under attack and has never publicly walked it back.

Pai’s statement was issued before the OIG publicized its report, as one does when a report is imminent that essentially says your agency has been clueless at best or deliberately untruthful at worst, and for more than a year. To be clear, the report is still unpublished, though its broader conclusions are clear from Pai’s statement. In it he slathers Bray with the partisan brush and asserts that the report exonerates his office:

I am deeply disappointed that the FCC’s former [CIO], who was hired by the prior Administration and is no longer with the Commission, provided inaccurate information about this incident to me, my office, Congress, and the American people. This is completely unacceptable. I’m also disappointed that some working under the former CIO apparently either disagreed with the information that he was presenting or had questions about it, yet didn’t feel comfortable communicating their concerns to me or my office.

On the other hand, I’m pleased that this report debunks the conspiracy theory that my office or I had any knowledge that the information provided by the former CIO was inaccurate and was allowing that inaccurate information to be disseminated for political purposes.

Although an evaluation of Pai’s “conspiracy theory” idea must wait until the report is public, it’s hard to square this pleasure of the chairman’s with the record. At any time in the last year, especially after Bray had departed, it would have been, if not simple, then at least simpler than maintaining its complex act of knowledgelessness, to say that the CIO had made an error and there was no attack. Nothing like that has come out of the agency.

One must assume the agency had reviewed the data. Bray left a long time ago; why did these subordinates of his fail to speak out afterwards? If the FCC had its doubts, why did it not say so instead of risking withering criticism by avoiding the question for months on end? When and why did Pai or his office develop the idea that the report was inaccurate, if not when it was being disseminated? These aren’t trivial questions.

Representatives rip FCC Chairman Pai’s ‘lack of candor’ and double down on net neutrality questions

Some of the FCC’s reticence to speak out may have even been explained as part of the request by the inspector general not to discuss the investigation. That’s an easy out, at least for some of the time! But we haven’t heard that, that I know of at least, and it doesn’t explain the rest of the agency’s silence or misleading statements.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urged everyone to move on with a quickness:

The Inspector General Report tells us what we knew all along: the FCC’s claim that it was the victim of a DDoS attack during the net neutrality proceeding is bogus. What happened instead is obvious—millions of Americans overwhelmed our online system because they wanted to tell us how important internet openness is to them and how distressed they were to see the FCC roll back their rights. It’s unfortunate that this agency’s energy and resources needed to be spent debunking this implausible claim.

Although it’s true that pushing forward is a good idea, some accountability and an explanation for the last year of mystery would also be welcome.

Because it wasn’t a hack, it seems that the comment-filing system, though recently revamped, needs yet another fresh coat of paint to handle the kind of volume it saw during the net neutrality repeal. Plans for that are underway, Pai wrote. The GAO investigation regarding fraud in the comment system will no doubt affect those plans.

I’ve contacted the FCC and its Office of the Inspector General for more information, including the report itself, which is published at the office’s discretion. I will update this post when I hear back.

Gen Con interview: Mercedes Lackey [Published articles]


One of the featured guests at Gen Con this year was Mercedes Lackey, returning for the second Gen Con in a row after she and her husband Larry Dixon were with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment last year. Unfortunately, Larry Dixon was not able to make it this year after all, due to recovering from a shoulder injury. Mercedes Lackey attended her panels on Thursday; however, Friday morning she had to be hospitalized due to an allergic reaction to paint fumes in her recently renovated hotel room. She had to stay overnight at the hospital, but recovered enough to come back to the convention on Sunday, where I caught up with her for a very brief interview.

Me: This is Chris Meadows here with Mercedes Lackey, who I am very happy to see is all right after she gave us all a scare this weekend.

Mercedes Lackey: It’s alive!

Me: This is the second year in a row you’ve been here with Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. That’s kind of unusual.

M.L.: That’s because my husband Larry Dixon is doing screenwriting for them.

Me: So it’s is continuing for the foreseeable future?

M.L.: Oh yes, he’s definitely on The Gamers screenwriting room. Gamers has been rebooted with the old characters coming back; you can get episode zero called “The Gamers: The Shadow Menace.” You can find it on the Zombie Orpheus website and you can find it on Amazon [Prime Streaming Video].

Me: When I spoke to you last year, you said that your Hunter trilogy was not going to go anywhere because Disney wasn’t interested in continuing it further?

M.L.: This is true. Disney only wanted the trilogy. So, unfortunately, unless I can get them to agree to let me publish independently, that’s probably going be it. Unless suddenly it decides to take flight and become an enomous hit again.

Me: You never know.

M.L.: You never know.

Me: But what else do you have planned for these days.

M.L.: Well, the last book of The Secret World Chronicle is out, Avalanche, and it wraps up all of the plot loose ends and a huge number of reveals. So, that’s out in August. And then in October is The Bartered Brides, which is the next Elemental Masters book. That’s another one with Sherlock Holmes and Nan and Sarah, except Sherlock doesn’t appear in this book because it takes place shortly after the infamous at the Reichenbach Falls. And I’m currently working on another book for Disney, which is called Godmother’s Apprentice—at least it’s called that right now—which is more of a standard fantasy. It’s kind of a Disney Princess for young adults rather than little girls, and I’m outlining the next of the Mags [Valdemar] books. This one is [about] his daughter Abby, who is an artificer.

Me: You already did one thing with godmothers back in your Five Hundred Kingdoms books.

M.L.: Right, this is a little different, this is more classic fairy godmothers.

Me: So, apart from the thing with the hotel, how has the con been for you this year?

M.L.: It’s been lots of fun. I’ve had a great time.

Me: It’s kind of like saying, “Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln…”

M.L.: Exactly!

Me: But do you think you will be back for the next year?

M.L.: I don’t know. We haven’t planned that far ahead.

Me: We’d certainly like to see you.

M.L.: I do know the next convention we’re doing is in the middle of September, it’s Salt Lake Comic Convention. We haven’t been anywhere near there, ever, so it will be a whole new group of fans.

Me: Well, that’s gonna be pretty neat. Have you any further plans for any self published items?

M.L.: No, at this point I have so many contracts to write out that I literally don’t have any time to write anything to self-publish.

Me: I guess it’s better to have too much work than not enough.

M.L.: Oh yeah, we constantly need need to do the mortgage payments still.

Me: Is there anything else you’d like to say before I close it down?

M.L.: Yes, I really really appreciate all the incredible outpouring of concern when I went down. You really know how wonderful the fan community is when there are seven hundred messages on Larry’s Twitter all asking about it.

Me: Well, I think I can speak for all of us fans when I say that I’m really glad that you’re doing well. And I hope we will see you back again here next year.

M.L.: I hope so, too

If you found this post worth reading and want to kick in a buck or two to the author, click here.

These The Last Jedi Fans Put on a Mock Court Martial for Poe Dameron [Published articles]

One of the hottest debates about the plot of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the question of hotshot, insubordinate pilot Poe Dameron. Did Poe do anything wrong? Is the beautiful hotshot pilot guilty of doing material harm to the cause of the Resistance, or did he do what any reasonable hero would have done in his…


What was your most 'can't-put-down' book that you've ever read? [Published articles]

Google Glass helps kids with autism read facial expressions and develop better social skills, a Stanford pilot study has demonstrated. [Published articles]

Wells Fargo: we stole houses and we're being investigated for dirty low-income housing credits [Published articles]

In its latest round of shareholder disclosures, Wells Fargo admitted that it "unnecessarily foreclosed" on 400-odd householders (that is, stole their houses) and failed to grant loan modifications to 625 qualified borrowers (this is just the latest revelation about Wells Fargo stealing houses); it's also being investigated for its practice of purchasing low-income housing credits. (via Naked Capitalism)

Opinion: How fake news is being co-opted by governments around the world to suppress dissent [Published articles]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Not a day goes by without someone throwing the term 'fake news' at some media organization. While misinformation and factually inaccurate reporting is undeniably a major global problem, fake news is quickly morphing into something else entirely, and governments around the world are starting to use the phrase as a way to quash dissenting opinions.

.. Continue Reading Opinion: How fake news is being co-opted by governments around the world to suppress dissent

Category: Telecommunications


3M knew your non-stick pan was poisoning you in the ’70s [Published articles]

Indigenous community built a DIY drone to fight off illegal loggers (2016) [Published articles]

The French Language and Why We Learn It [Published articles]

LPT How to finish.. [Published articles]

Astronomers discover a bizarre rogue planet wandering the Milky Way. The free-range planet, which is nearly 13 times the mass of Jupiter and does not orbit a star, also displays stunningly bright auroras that are generated by a magnetic field 4 million times stronger than Earth's. [Published articles]

High Speed Internet Is Causing Widespread Sleep Deprivation, Study Finds [Published articles]

A study, published Friday in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization and funded by the European Research Council, suggests that high speed internet access is causing people to lose up to 25 minutes of sleep per night compared to those without high speed internet. From a report: It's the first study to causally link broadband access to sleep deprivation. The so-called "digitalization of the bedroom," defined by our inability to part with our phones/laptops/televisions before bed, has already been linked to various sleep disorders. [...] As the researchers found, high speed internet access "promotes excessive electronic media use," which has already been shown to have detrimental effects on sleep duration and quality. The effects of high speed internet access were particularly noticeable in younger age demographics.

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I Went to Die Hard's Nakatomi Plaza and Not a Single Hostage Was Taken [Published articles]

Of all the filming locations scattered around Los Angeles, one towers above them all. Literally. It’s Fox Plaza in Century City, better known by its fictional name “Nakatomi Plaza,” the setting of John McTiernan’s 1988 classic Die Hard. The building can be viewed from all across Los Angeles and has changed…


Scare off burglars with this ridiculous Alexa skill [Published articles]

Some people leave lights, music or the TV on when they’re away from home in an attempt to ward off burglars, but a new Alexa skill called “Away Mode” has a different idea. Instead of lights and noises, you can keep your home safe from unwanted visitors by playing lengthy audio tracks that sound like real – and completely ridiculous – conversations.

When you launch Away Mode, Alexa will play one of seven audio tracks penned by comedy writers from SNL, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and UCB. The company doesn’t have permission to share all the writers’ names at this time, but says there were half a dozen involved, including Kristin Belka Maier of “Always Sunny…”

These include gems like “Couple Has Breakup While Also Trying to Watch TV,” “Two Average Guys Brainstorm What’s Unique About Themselves So They Can Start a Podcast About It,” “Emergency PTA Meeting To Discuss Memes, Fidget Spinners, and Other Teen Fads,” and more.

There are conversations from a book club where no one discusses the book, a mom walking her daughter through IKEA assembly over the phone, a stay-at-home mom losing her s***, and argument over a board game.

For example, the mom can be heard yelling things like: “For the love of god! Cadence! No. No! Okay, it looks like someone should put their listening ears on! Momma’s gonna count to three!” 

A would-be podcaster pitches his friend: “Okay. You know how much I love ketchup, right?”

The board game players argue: “Hand me the rulebook! The other rulebook! That’s the rules reference…. No, it’s in the learn-to-play guide. That’s the quick reference!”

The mom gives IKEA instructions: “You put the cylinders into the holes. No, wait. Yeah. You put the cylinders into the holes. You see ’em? Good. Well, wait, hold on a sec. I think I missed a step. Now it’s saying you put that piece on what looks like a fully built dresser. When did that happen?” 

After enabling the skill on your Alexa device, you can cycle through the various conversations by saying “Next.”

The idea for this wacky skill comes from the folks at homeowners’ insurance startup Hippo Insurance, who are using it as a means to get a little free advertising. (Score!)

Explains the company, you can turn the volume up and leave your apartment, knowing that any potential burglar will be scared off by “thinking that someone is still at home who is absolutely insufferable.”

“Hippo was looking for a way to engage a broad audience in a conversation about home security and home insurance,” a spokesperson said. “We figured it was easier to drive awareness and education through humor, so we brought on some of the funniest people we know to pull it off.”

The tracks themselves are around an hour or so long, so Away Mode makes more sense for those times you’re out running errands, but can’t take the place of things like timers that turn off and on lights while away on vacation, for example.

We tried the skill ourselves, and it worked as advertised – though we didn’t listen to the full tracks. (We should also note that one Amazon Skill Store review talks about the skill not responding to voice prompts, but the skill doesn’t ask you to choose a number, as the reviewer says – they must have found it while still in testing.)

There are other “burglar deterrent” skills for Alexa if you’re interested in the general concept, like this one that plays more realistic audio. Or those that play fake house alarms or sound like guard dogs. But Away Mode is just a little more fun.

You can try it yourself here.

Updated, 8/3/18 12:50 pm et, with a few more details. 

Reddit Breach Highlights Limits of SMS-Based Authentication [Published articles] today disclosed that a data breach exposed some internal data, as well as email addresses and passwords for some Reddit users. As Web site breaches go, this one doesn’t seem too severe. What’s interesting about the incident is that it showcases once again why relying on mobile text messages (SMS) for two-factor authentication (2FA) can lull companies and end users into a false sense of security.

In a post to Reddit, the social news aggregation platform said it learned on June 19 that between June 14 and 18 an attacker compromised a several employee accounts at its cloud and source code hosting providers.

Reddit said the exposed data included internal source code as well as email addresses and obfuscated passwords for all Reddit users who registered accounts on the site prior to May 2007. The incident also exposed the email addresses of some users who had signed up to receive daily email digests of specific discussion threads.

Of particular note is that although the Reddit employee accounts tied to the breach were protected by SMS-based two-factor authentication, the intruder(s) managed to intercept that second factor.

“Already having our primary access points for code and infrastructure behind strong authentication requiring two factor authentication (2FA), we learned that SMS-based authentication is not nearly as secure as we would hope, and the main attack was via SMS intercept,” Reddit disclosed. “We point this out to encourage everyone here to move to token-based 2FA.”

Reddit didn’t specify how the SMS code was stolen, although it did say the intruders did not hack Reddit employees’ phones directly. Nevertheless, there are a variety of well established ways that attackers can intercept one-time codes sent via text message.

In one common scenario, known as a SIM-swap, the attacker masquerading as the target tricks the target’s mobile provider into tying the customer’s service to a new SIM card that the bad guys control. A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

Another typical scheme involves mobile number port-out scams, wherein the attacker impersonates a customer and requests that the customer’s mobile number be transferred to another mobile network provider. In both port-out and SIM swap schemes, the victim’s phone service gets shut off and any one-time codes delivered by SMS (or automated phone call) get sent to a device that the attackers control.


A more secure alternative to SMS involves the use of a mobile app — such as Google Authenticator or Authy — to generate the one-time code that needs to be entered in addition to a password. This method is also sometimes referred to as a “time-based one-time password,” or TOTP. It’s more secure than SMS simply because the attacker in that case would need to steal your mobile device or somehow infect it with malware in order to gain access to that one-time code. More importantly, app-based two-factor removes your mobile provider from the login process entirely.

Fundamentally, two-factor authentication involves combining something you know (the password) with either something you have (a device) or something you are (a biometric component, for example). The core idea behind 2FA is that even if thieves manage to phish or steal your password, they still cannot log in to your account unless they also hack or possess that second factor.

Technically, 2FA via mobile apps and other TOTP-based methods are more accurately described as “two-step authentication” because the second factor is supplied via the same method as the first factor. For example, even though the second factor may be generated by a mobile-based app, that one-time code needs to be entered into the same login page on a Web site along with user’s password — meaning both the password and the one-time code can still be subverted by phishing, man-in-the-middle and credential replay attacks.


Probably the most secure form of 2FA available involves the use of hardware-based security keys. These inexpensive USB-based devices allow users to complete the login process simply by inserting the device and pressing a button. After a key is enrolled for 2FA at a particular site that supports keys, the user no longer needs to enter their password (unless they try to log in from a new device). The key works without the need for any special software drivers, and the user never has access to the code — so they can’t give it or otherwise leak it to an attacker.

The one limiting factor with security keys is that relatively few Web sites currently allow users to use them. Some of the most popular sites that do accept security keys include Dropbox, Facebook and Github, as well as Google’s various services.

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity reported that Google now requires all of its 85,000+ employees to use security keys for 2FA, and that it has had no confirmed reports of employee account takeovers since the company began requiring them at the beginning of 2017.

The most popular maker of security keys — Yubico — sells the basic model for $20, with more expensive versions that are made to work with mobile devices. The keys are available directly from Yubico, or via Yubico also includes a running list of sites that currently support keys for authentication.

If you’re interested in migrating to security keys for authentication, it’s a good idea to purchase at least two of these devices. Virtually all sites that I have seen which allow authentication via security keys allow users to enroll multiple keys for authentication, in case one of the keys is lost or misplaced.

I would encourage all readers to pay a visit to, and to take full advantage of the most secure 2FA option available for any site you frequent. Unfortunately many sites do not support any kind of 2-factor authentication — let alone methods that go beyond SMS or a one-time code that gets read to you via an automated phone call. In addition, some sites that do support more robust, app- or key-based two-factor authentication still allow customers to receive SMS-based codes as a fallback method.

If the only 2FA options offered by a site you frequent are SMS and/or phone calls, this is still better than simply relying on a password. But it’s high time that popular Web sites of all stripes start giving their users more robust authentication options like TOTP and security keys. Many companies can be nudged in that direction if enough users start demanding it, so consider using any presence and influence you may have on social media platforms to make your voice heard on this important issue.

The worse your town was hit by austerity, the more likely you were to vote for Brexit [Published articles]

After the Brexit vote, a lot of people pointed out that the areas that voted most heavily in favour of separating from the EU were also the areas that relied most heavily on EU subsidies, and wondered why British voters would decide to slit their own throats. (more…)

Nvidia, Western Digital Turn to Open Source RISC-V Processors [Published articles]

An anonymous reader quotes IEEE Spectrum: [W]hat's so compelling about RISC-V isn't the technology -- it's the economics. The instruction set is open source. Anyone can download it and design a chip based on the architecture without paying a fee. If you wanted to do that with ARM, you'd have to pay its developer, Arm Holding, a few million dollars for a license. If you wanted to use x86, you're out of luck because Intel licenses its instruction set only to Advanced Micro Devices. For manufacturers, the open-source approach could lower the risks associated with building custom chips. Already, Nvidia and Western Digital Corp. have decided to use RISC-V in their own internally developed silicon. Western Digital's chief technology officer has said that in 2019 or 2020, the company will unveil a new RISC-V processor for the more than 1 billion cores the storage firm ships each year. Likewise, Nvidia is using RISC-V for a governing microcontroller that it places on the board to manage its massively multicore graphics processors.

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If you put chalk under a powerful microscope [Published articles]

During the early 60s, Cape Canaveral was open to self guided driving tours of the launch pads on Sundays [Published articles]

Ain't that the truth? [Published articles]

One Year After Data Breach, Equifax Goes Unpunished [Published articles]

"It's been a year since Equifax doxed the nation of America through carelessness, deception and greed, lying about it and stalling while the problem got worse and worse," writes Cory Doctorow. Equifax's new CSO says they've spent over $200 million on security upgrades, in work being overseen by auditor from eight different states. An anonymous reader quotes Doctorow's response: This all sounds very good and all, but it's still monumentally unfair. The penalty for Equifax's recklessness should have been the corporate death penalty: charter revoked, company shut down, assets sold to competitors... The fact that Equifax's investors and execs kept all the money they made by risking all America with shoddy security, and that no one went to jail for a monumental act of corporate recklessness, is a moral hazard, virtually guaranteeing that Equifax's competitors will not take the care they owe to the people on whom they have amassed nonconsensual, potentially life-destroying dossiers. Equifax's CEO and several top officials did leave the company, notes Government Technology -- but that's about it. Thus far, no financial punishment has been imposed on Equifax itself. Despite contentious hearings, no Congressional action has been taken. A few months later, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau tabled action against the company. And while the Federal Trade Commission said it opened an investigation into the Equifax breach in September, the agency has since named as chief of its consumer protection division a lawyer who has represented Equifax. This past week, Equifax asked a federal judge to reject the claims from 46 banks and credit unions for payment of damages because of the massive data breach. The companies claimed that Equifax owes them for all the costs they incurred protecting data after the breach was revealed, costs that could easily run into many millions of dollars.... Equifax had revenue of $876.9 million during the second quarter of 2018, up 2 percent from the same quarter of last year, officials said.

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Common Git Problems and How to Fix Them [Published articles]

Keep a Changelog [Published articles]

What OpenStreetMap Can Be [Published articles]

An anonymous reader shares a blog post on OpenSourceMap: Most OSM commentary focuses on unimportant minutiae (layers, for goodness' sake, as if it's still 2004) without seeking to examine what makes OSM unique -- and whether that's still relevant in a rapidly changing market. Could OSM become a dead-end curio while Google, Apple, and an increasingly self-sufficient Mapbox hare off in another, common direction? OSM's continuing differentiation from Google/Apple boils down to two points. First, a non-commercial imperative. Google and Apple (and Mapbox, TomTom, HERE) are beholden to their shareholders and investors. They do what makes them money, which means car navigation. (Once human-controlled, now, increasingly, self-guided. When people ask "How far ahead of Apple is Google Maps?", what they usually mean is "Who will get to self-driving cars first?") OSM, however, isn't ruled by shareholder value, but by the preoccupations of its contributor base. (We'll come onto that demographic later.) Whether that's a good thing depends on what you want from a map. But it's clearly a point of differentation. Second, ground truthed local knowledge. Surveying by locals is the gold standard of OSM, building a rich, intricate compilation of contributors' preoccupations. The painstaking human curation of areas and topics remains unique to OSM. Neither of these are under threat from Google/Apple. Outsourced quick-fire digitisation of Street View-type imagery in cheap labour countries doesn't give you this. Nor does image recognition. OSM's points of differentation remain clear. In OSM's early days, commentators used the phrase "democratising mapmaking," and it remains true. You choose what to map; and you choose how to use the map. You participate. Other maps are a one-way street: sure, you can contribute (actively through map corrections, or passively through using a mobile app that phones home), but the provider chooses what you get back.

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That Time Bandits TV Show Is Apparently Finally Happening [Published articles]

In the early 1980s, Terry Gilliam’s time-travel fantasy Time Bandits was considered so risky that at first, nobody wanted to fund it. Of course, it ended up being a critical and commercial hit that’s still beloved today—so much so that Apple wants to turn it into a TV series.


Slack is buying, and shutting down, HipChat and Stride [Published articles]

HipChat, the workplace chat app that held the throne before Slack was Slack, is being discontinued. Also being discontinued is Atlassian’s own would-be HipChat replacement, Stride.

News of the discontinuation comes first not from Atlassian, but instead from a somewhat surprising source: Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. In a series of tweets, Butterfield says that Slack is purchasing the IP for both products to “better support those users who choose to migrate” to its platform.

Butterfield also notes that Atlassian will be making a “small but symbolically important investment” in Slack — likely a good move, given that rumors of a Slack IPO have been swirling (though Butterfield says it won’t happen this year). Getting a pre-IPO investment into Slack might end up paying off for Atlassian better than trying to continue competing.

The deal we’re announcing today with Atlassian is pretty amazing. Indeed, I tried to fit it all in one (280 character) tweet but I just couldn’t do it. So, I’ll lay it out in a few. But first, I wanted to thank Scott, Mike, Jay and the team: incredible to work with you.

— Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) July 26, 2018

Details: • Atlassian is discontinuing Hipchat/Stride • Slack is purchasing the IP to better support those users who choose to migrate • We’re both working closely together to make sure that’s as simple and painless a process as possible …

— Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) July 26, 2018

Atlassian VP of Product Management, Joff Redfern, confirmed the news in a blog post, calling it the “best way forward” for its existing customers. It’s about as real of an example of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” as you can get; even Atlassian’s own employees will be moved over to using Slack.

According to an FAQ about the change, Stride and HipChat’s last day will be February 15th, 2019 — or a bit shy of seven months from the date of the announcement. So if you’re a customer on either one of those platforms, you’ve got time to figure things out.

It doesn’t sound like any of Atlassian’s other products will be affected here; Bitbucket, Jira, etc. will carry on, with only the company’s real-time communications platforms being shuttered.

Hipchat was launched in beta form back in 2009, long before Slack’s debut in 2013. It mostly ruled its space in the time in between, leading Atlassian to acquire it in March of 2012. Slack quickly outgrew it in popularity though, for myriad reasons — be it a bigger suite of third-party integrations, a better reputation for uptime, or… well, better marketing. By September of 2017, Atlassian overhauled its chat platform and rebranded it as as “Stride”, but it was never able to quite catch up with Slack’s momentum.

Star Spotted Speeding Near Black Hole at Centre of Milky Way [Published articles]

Astronomers have observed a star speeding close to the massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way for the first time. From a report: The observations, made using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, tracked a star called S2 as it passed through the extreme gravitational field at the heart of our galaxy. As the star approached its nearest point to the black hole on 19 May, it was accelerated to mind-boggling speeds, causing it to be subject to effects predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Astronomers had been tracking the star and preparing to make the observations for the past 16 years -- the time taken for the star to complete a single elliptical orbit of the black hole. "We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects," said Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, who led the international team. The findings can be found here.

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Solar flares with an Earth scale [Published articles]

Alexa Cast will let users cast Amazon Music to Alexa devices [Published articles]

Amazon today announced Alexa Cast to allow for better music control on Alexa devices. Users will be able to more easily transition from listening to through the Amazon Music app to listening to Amazon Music on an Alexa device. This is a much-needed function for Amazon’s core services.

Before Alexa Cast, it can be messy switching between listening to Amazon Music on different devices. The service does not have the same sort of controls found on other services like Spotify. It sounds like Amazon is finally building out features that will turn Amazon Music into a legit music service and Alexa Cast is a good step forward.

The service is available starting today. Users need to update their iOS and Android app to access the feature. Just like with Spotify Connect or Apple AirPlay users will need to tap on the Alexa Cast icon and select the device they want to playback the streaming music.

It’s unclear from the initial announcement if Amazon will bring this functionality to other apps or let developers use it.

We made robots out of potatoes and battled for glory [Published articles]

Google's New Book: The Site Reliability Workbook [Published articles]


Google has released a new book: The Site Reliability Workbook — Practical Ways to Implement SRE.

It's the second book in their SRE series. How is it different than the previous Site Reliability Engineering book?

David Rensin, a SRE at Google, says:

It's a whole new book.  It's designed to sit next to the original on the bookshelf and for folks to bounce between them -- moving between principle and practice.

And from the preface:

The purpose of this second SRE book is (a) to add more implementation detail to the principles outlined in the first volume, and (b) to dispel the idea that SRE is implementable only at “Google scale” or in “Google culture.”

The Site Reliability Workbook weighs in at a hefty 508 pages and roughly follows the structure of the first book. It's organized into three different parts: Foundations, Practices, and Processes. There are three appendices: Example SLO Document, Example Error Budget Policy, and Results of Postmortem Analysis.

The table of content is quite detailed, but here are the chapter titles:

  1. How SRE Relates to DevOps.  
  2. Implementing SLOs.
  3. SLO Engineering Case Studies.
  4. Monitoring.
  5. Alerting on SLOs.
  6. Eliminating Toil.
  7. Simplicity.
  8. On-Call.
  9. Incident Response.
  10. Postmortem Culture: Learning from Failure.
  11. Managing Load.
  12. Introducing Non-Abstract Large System Design.
  13. Data Processing Pipelines.
  14. Configuration Design and Best Practices.
  15. Configuration Specifics.
  16. Canarying Releases.
  17. Identifying and Recovering from Overload.
  18. SRE Engagement Model.
  19. SRE: Reaching Beyond Your Walls.
  20. SRE Team Lifecycles.
  21. Organizational Change Management in SRE.

What makes this book a tour de force are all the examples and case studies. You aren't just stuck with high level principles, you're given worked examples that make the principles concrete. That's hard to do and takes a lot of work.

In Chapter 2—Implementing SLOs—there's a detailed example involving the architecture for a mobile phone game. First, you must learn how to think "about how users interact with the system, and what sort of SLIs (Service Level Indicators) would measure the various aspects of a user’s experience." You're then taken through a number of SLIs and how to implement and measure them. Given the SLIs you learn how to calculate SLOs (Service Level Objectives). And once you have the SLO you're shown how to derive the error budget. That's not the end. You have to document the SLO and error budget policy. Then you need reports and dashboards that provide in-time snapshots of the SLO compliance of your services. Is that the end? No. You must continuously improve your SLO targets and learn how to make decisions using that information. And that's not the end either, but for the rest you'll need to read the book.

In Chapter 3—SLO Engineering Case Studies—Evernote and The Home Depot tell the story of their journey into SRE.

In Chapter 4—Monitoring—there are examples of moving information from logs to metrics, improving both logs and metrics, and keeping logs as the data source.

In Chapter 6—Eliminating Toil—there are detailed case studies on Reducing Toil in the Datacenter with Automation and Decommission Filer-Backed Home Directories.

And so it goes through nearly every chapter.

As you can see it's a very detailed and thorough book. The preface modestly contends it's a necessarily limited book, but I'd hate to see how many pages would be in the unlimited version.

Like the first book, the writing is clear, purposeful, and well organized. For a company well known for its influential publications, this is another winner.

Best of all? It's free until August 23rd!

Hear the sounds of the Sun [Published articles]

NASA scientists listen to the low-frequency pulsing hum of the Sun to gain insight into the star's atmosphere over time. The raw data comes from the ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) launched back in 1995. Researchers from Stanford Experimental Physics Lab then process and filter the data and speed it up "a factor 42,000 to bring it into the audible human-hearing range."

From NASA:

“Waves are traveling and bouncing around inside the Sun, and if your eyes were sensitive enough they could actually see this,” said Alex Young, associate director for science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland...

Data from SOHO, sonified by the Stanford Experimental Physics Lab, captures the Sun’s natural vibrations and provides scientists with a concrete representation of its dynamic movements.

“We don’t have straightforward ways to look inside the Sun. We don’t have a microscope to zoom inside the Sun,” Young said. “So using a star or the Sun’s vibrations allows us to see inside of it..."

These vibrations allow scientists to study a range of complex motions inside the Sun, from solar flares to coronal mass ejections.

“We can see huge rivers of solar material flowing around. We are finally starting to understand the layers of the Sun and the complexity,” Young said. “That simple sound is giving us a probe inside of a star. I think that’s a pretty cool thing.”

7 PM and 2 AM Are Peak Demand Times For Pizza, Study of Internet Traffic Finds [Published articles]

Seven o'clock in the evening is a global sweet spot for wanting to order take-away food, says an international study of internet traffic. From a report: Academics have examined patterns of looking for food online, such as pizza or Chinese meals, across the UK, US, Canada, Australia and India. They found that a similar "twin peaks" pattern appeared in all countries - at 7pm in the evening and then at 2am. The study suggests ancient "foraging" behaviour has now switched online. This big data research from biologists at the University of Aberdeen, to be published by the Royal Society, has tracked how the search for food takes place online. You can find the study here.

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Google Unveils Titan Security Key, a Yubico-Like Phishing Resistant 2FA Device [Published articles]

Scientists may have found liquid water on Mars [Published articles]

Today, scientists announced that they have detected what could be a large reservoir of liquid water under the surface of Mars. The "lake" measures 20-km across and is located about 1.5 km below Mars's southern polar ice cap. An article about th...

Science Fiction and Cultural Identity: Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Series [Published articles]

Binti trilogy hardcover edition Nnedi Okorafor cover reveal Publishing

One evening, Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib runs away from home. She is a teenager and Himba, a people from southwestern Africa. They believe in staying close to their native land and that women should cover their bodies and hair in otjize, a mixture primarily comprised of “sweet smelling red clay.” Otjize in hand, Binti climbs aboard a living spaceship called the Third Fish as it heads off to Oozma University. Most of the passengers are Khoush, the dominant people in Binti’s country, and they look down on the Himba. But Binti is the first of her kind to be accepted into the prestigious uni and won’t let anything stand in her way. That is, until the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species engaged in a centuries-old war with the Khoush, attack the ship. Binti’s people didn’t start this war, but she may be the one to end it.

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A year after the events of the first novella, Binti, the second, Binti: Home, checks back in on our heroine. She’s still dealing with the trauma of everything that happened aboard the Third Fish, but therapy and her friendship with one of the Meduse, Okwu, has smoothed out the roughest patches. The pair are thriving at Oozma, and Binti is getting used to her okuoko, the tentacles that replaced her hair when the Meduse dosed her with alien genetics. She wants to return home to reconnect with her people, and Okwu joins as an ambassador. The plan is to establish new diplomatic relations between the Meduse and the Khoush, but things fall spectacularly apart.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up right after the sequel’s cliffhanger ending. Now full of even more alien biotech, Binti is a force to be reckoned with. The future of her people, the Khoush, and the Meduse rests in her hands, but is she ready for the responsibility? All the angry men in charge certainly don’t think so. Her home destroyed, her family gone, her village turned against her, the Khoush and the Meduse too busy screaming at each other to hear reason, everything seems lost. Binti must risk everything to save her homeland.

I have a confession to make. I don’t actually like hard science fiction. Or, more accurately, I don’t like how hard SF is generally presented. Space wars, cyberpunk, and alien invasions don’t move me one way or the other, but when authors slather dense layers of technobabble over everything I lose interest. What really kills it for me, though, is how homogenous the genre tends to be. Future humans are either cut from the same bland Star Trek cloth or play-acting poorly drawn metaphors for racism but without any real understanding of systemic oppression or colonialism. Main characters are almost always white, cishet, and able-bodied, and very often male. On the unusual occasion where a marginalized person gets to be in charge they either live in a utopian society where the -isms don’t exist or where human culture is homogenized into an American/European-centric interpretation of “progress.” *yawn*

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I want SF that doesn’t just have queer, disabled, POC characters in the margins but as leads. Take every SF trope and run them through the perspectives and heritage of literally anyone else in the world but more straight white people. Give me stories of Haitian space opera, Diné cyberpunk, Iñupiat building robots, Quechua space exploration, Maasai virtual reality, Māori military SF, Laotian bioengineering. Feature a cast that’s queer, disabled, neurodiverse, fat, intersectional, everything. Give me versions of science fiction I’ve never seen before and let other voices, cultures, and beliefs take center stage. And for the love of Hera, let those stories be told by authors with those personal experiences.

This is a very roundabout way of saying how much I appreciate Nnedi Okorafor’s work. Binti the series and Binti the character both challenge the dominant narrative of who gets to be a hero in science fiction, what the future might become, and what victory looks like. In fiction and in her own world, Binti shatters stereotypes and tradition. She will not be what others have tried to make her, and neither will Okorafor’s series.

The only element of the series I didn’t love was how little of the world we saw. To be fair, Okorafor has plot-related reasons for most of the missing pieces. Binti’s hyperfocus on her people is thematically sound—her people never leave their homeland, much less the earth, and the same accusation of myopia could be thrown at most other SF. If the series was written by a white author, “Becky” would’ve been from some small Midwestern town and never even considered what’s going on in southwest Africa.

The Meduse-Khoush war didn’t get enough play either. For the ants getting trampled in the grass (i.e.: the Himba) as the elephants fight, why the Meduse and Khoush are at war matters a helluva lot less than how to get them to stop. But for me as a reader, I needed to know more about the war to feel something other than pity for the Himba. Because we see so little of the Meduse, Enyi Zinariya, Khoush, and the Himba (other than Binti, who is more defined by how she pushes against Himba tradition), it’s hard to get worked up about what’s happening to anyone not Binti. Even Okwu gets very little shading.

Buy it Now

Ultimately, Binti feels like novels crammed into novellas. Or maybe I just want to spend more time in Binti’s world. I honestly don’t know. But—and this is a very big “but”—you absolutely should not let that dissuade you from picking up the series. My quibbles are just that: quibbles, and personal ones at that. Although I felt like I was experiencing Binti’s world with blinders on, that didn’t diminish the enjoyment I got out of the glimpses Okorafor offered. Is it really such a bad thing to like spending time with an author’s creation so much that it’s disappointing to not have more? Lucky for me, each novella is longer than the last, so my whinging is diminishing.

Okorafor expertly wields science fiction as a means of exploring the myriad complexities of cultural identity. What does it mean to be oppressed? What does it mean to be an oppressor? What does it mean to be both, or to be neither but trapped between each side? Are we who we say we are because of our traditions or because of how we choose to identify?

Binti is full of heart and emotion. It’s not a perfect series, but it’s a strong one. Sometimes the drama can get too heated, the action too frenetic, and the conceptual ideas too vague—I still don’t understand “treeing”—but it’s got a killer hook. Okorafor knows her genre and isn’t afraid to show off. There’s a reason this series (and her other works) are practically drowning in accolades and awards. I guarantee if there’s a fourth novella, I’ll be at my local bookstore the day it’s released.

New hardcover editions of Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade are available from Publishing.
This article was originally published in January 2018

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and QWoC all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on Tumblr.

Lovely drone footage of a massive Argentine salt flat [Published articles]

Like most salt flats, Salinas Grande in Argentina has a short but glorious window where the skies open and deluge the desert with a thin layer of water. El Tribuno de Jujuy captured this lovely drone footage of the phenomenon. (more…)

Bash QDB - 962113 [Published articles]

<@realitygaps> english - the php of spoken languages

Classic Sci-Fi Star Systems Keep Getting Ruined by Science [Published articles]

Having recently discussed some possible SF solutions to the vexing problems posed by red dwarf stars, it makes a certain amount of sense to consider the various star systems that have served as popular settings for some classic science fiction—even if science has more or less put the kibosh on any real hope of finding a habitable planet in the bunch.

In olden days, back before we had anything like the wealth of information about exoplanets we have now1, SF authors playing it safe often decided to exclude the systems of pesky low-mass stars (M class) and short lived high-mass stars (O, B, and A) as potential abodes of life. A list of promising nearby stars might have looked a bit like this2


Star System Distance from Sol
Class Notes
Sol 0 G2V
Alpha Centauri A & B 4.3 G2V & K1V We do not speak of C
Epsilon Eridani 10.5 K2V
Procyon A & B 11.4 F5V – IV & DA
61 Cygni A & B 11.4 K5V & K7V
Epsilon Indi 11.8 K5V
Tau Ceti 11.9 G8V

After Tau Ceti, there’s something of a dearth of K to F class stars until one reaches 40 Eridani at about 16 light-years, about which more later. And because it is a named star with which readers might be familiar, sometimes stories were set in the unpromising Sirius system; more about it later, as well.

There are a lot of SF novels, particularly ones of a certain vintage, that feature that particular set of stars. If one is of that vintage (as I am), Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Indi, Epsilon Eridani, Procyon, and Tau Ceti are old friends, familiar faces about whom one might comment favourably when it turns out, for example, that they are orbited by a pair of brown dwarfs or feature an unusually well-stocked Oort cloud. “What splendid asteroid belts Epsilon Eridani has,” one might observe loudly, in the confident tone of a person who never has any trouble finding a seat by themselves on the bus.

In fiction, Procyon is home to L. Sprague de Camp’s Osiris, Larry Niven’s We Made It, and Gordon R. Dickson’s Mara and Kultis, to name just a few planets. Regrettably, Procyon A should never ever have been tagged as “possesses potentially habitable worlds.” Two reasons: solar orbits and Procyon B’s DA classification.

Procyon is a binary star system. The larger star, Procyon A, is a main-sequence white star; its companion, Procyon B, is a faint white dwarf star. The two stars orbit around each other, at a distance that varies between 9 and 21 Astronomical Units (AU).

Procyon A is brighter than the Sun, and its habitable zone may lie at distance between 2 and 4 AU. That is two to four times as far from Procyon A as the Earth is from our Sun.

Procyon B is hilariously dim, but it has a very respectable mass, roughly 60% that of our Sun. If Procyon A were to have a planet, it would be strongly affected by B’s gravitational influence. Perhaps that would put a hypothetical terrestrial world into an eccentric (albeit plot-friendly) orbit…or perhaps it would send a planet careening outside the system entirely.

But of course a hypothetical planet would not be human- or plot-friendly. B is a white dwarf. It may seem like a harmless wee thing3, but its very existence suggests that the whole system has had a tumultuous history. White dwarfs start off as regular medium-mass stars, use up their accessible fusion fuel, expand into red giants, shed a surprisingly large fraction of their mass (B may be less massive than A now but the fact that B and not A is a white dwarf tells us that it used to be far more massive than it is now), and then settle down into a long senility as a slowly-cooling white dwarf.

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None of this would have been good for a terrestrial world. Pre-red giant B would have had an even stronger, less predictable effect on our hypothetical world’s orbit. Even if the world had by some chance survived in a Goldilocks orbit, B would have scorched it.

This makes me sad. Procyon is, as I said, an old friend.

[I’ve thought of a dodge to salvage the notion of a potentially habitable world in the Procyon System. Take a cue from Phobetor and imagine a planet orbiting the white dwarf, rather than orbiting the main(ish) sequence star. We now know that there are worlds orbiting post-stellar remnants. This imaginary world would have to be very close to Procyon B if it is to be warm enough for life, which would mean a fast orbit. It would have a year about 40 hours long. It would be very, very tide-locked and you’d have to terraform it. Not  promising. Still, on the plus side, the planet will be far too tightly
bound to B for A’s mass to perturb it much. Better than nothing—and much better than the clinkers that may orbit A.]

A more reasonable approach might be to abandon Procyon as a bad bet all round and look for a similar system whose history is not quite as apocalyptic.

It’s not Sirius. Everything that is true of Procyon A and B is true for Sirius A and B as well, in spades. Say goodbye to Niven’s Jinx: if Sirius B didn’t flick it into deep space like a bleb of snot, it would have cinderized and evaporated the entire planet.

But…40 Eridani is also comparatively nearby. It is a triple star system, with a K, an M and a DA star. Unlike Procyon, however, B (the white dwarf) and C (the red dwarf) orbit each other 400+ AU from the interesting K class star. Where the presence of nearby Procyon B spells complete annihilation for any world around Procyon A, 40 Eridani B might only have caused a nightmarish apocalypse of sorts. The red giant might have pushed any existing world around A from ice age into a Carnian Pluvial Event, but it would not have gone full Joan of Arc on the planet. The shedding of the red giant’s outer layers might have stripped some of the hypothetical world’s atmosphere…but perhaps not all of it? The planet might have been turned from a volatile rich world into a desert, but life might have survived—it’s the kind of planetary backstory Andre Norton might have used.


1: We had Peter Van de Kamp’s claims about planets orbiting Barnard’s Star, Lalande 21185, 61 Cygni, and others but those failed to pan out.

2: With slightly different values for distance and type, but I don’t have any of my outdated texts handy. Also, ha ha, none of the sources I had back then ever mentioned the ages of the various systems, which (as it turns out) matter. Earth, after all, was an uninhabitable armpit for most of its existence, its atmosphere unbreathable by us. The ink is barely dry on Epsilon Indi and Epsilon Eridani. Don’t think Cretaceous Earth: think early Hadean.

3: Unless you know what a Type 1a supernova is.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

How 5G makes use of millimeter waves [Published articles]

It took a while, but the first ever 5G spec was finally approved late last year. 5G NR, as it's called, will bring about super fast mobile internet by tapping into new spectrum. We're expecting to see the first 5G-ready phones in the first half...

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Has Been Revived-New Season Incoming! [Published articles]

Star Wars The Clone Wars, new season, new trailer

At a San Diego Comic Con, fans gathered for a 10th Anniversary panel dedicated to Star Wars: The Clone Wars… and got the greatest surprise possible.

Brace yourselves:


For those who don’t know, The Clone Wars was cancelled with its sixth season complete. That season went straight to Netflix, but the show was never allowed a proper ending per se. That is, the show was not allowed to end where Revenge of the Sith began, completing the arc of the Clone War itself.

That’s about to change.

Ahsoka Tano is back! She’s on Mandalore! She’s hanging out with the late-Duchess Satine’s sister! There’s a clear plot possibility here; the novel Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston followed Anakin Skywalker’s former apprentice to Mandalore, where she helped free the population following the death of Satine. According to the book, Anakin returns Ahsoka’s lightsaber to her—as she left the Jedi Order at the end of season five—and lends her a clone trooper battalion (with her old buddy Rex) to help the cause. But that’s only a small part of what happens in the book…

It seems like that we’ll be seeing the Siege of Mandalore, or at least what leads up to it. And, of course, there are plenty of other characters in play and stories to tell. (We could even see a young Thrawn, now that we know his whereabouts in this era thanks to Timothy Zahn’s books.)

Whatever, it doesn’t matter, we get more Clone Wars! And the love of the fans is absolutely what made this happen, so if you’re one of them, you played a part in it.

For more information, head over to and their interview with series creator and showrunner, Dave Filoni. New episodes of the show will be featured on the streaming service Disney has in the works.

SRE fundamentals: SLIs, SLAs and SLOs [Published articles]

By Jay Judkowitz, Senior Product Manager and Mark Carter, Group Product Manager

Next week at Google Cloud Next ‘18, you’ll be hearing about new ways to think about and ensure the availability of your applications. A big part of that is establishing and monitoring service-level metrics—something that our Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) team does day in and day out here at Google. Our SRE principles have as their end goal to improve services and in turn the user experience, and next week we’ll be discussing some new ways you can incorporate SRE principles into your operations.

In fact, a recent Forrester report on infrastructure transformation offers details on how you can apply these SRE principles at your company—more easily than you might think. They found that enterprises can apply most SRE principles either directly or with minor modification.

To learn more about applying SRE in your business, we invite you to join Ben Treynor, head of Google SRE, who will be sharing some exciting announcements and walking through real-life SRE scenarios at his Next ‘18 Spotlight session. Register now as seats are limited.

The concept of SRE starts with the idea that metrics should be closely tied to business objectives. We use several essential tools—SLO, SLA and SLI—in SRE planning and practice.

Defining the terms of site reliability engineering

These tools aren’t just useful abstractions. Without them, you cannot know if your system is reliable, available or even useful. If they don’t tie explicitly back to your business objectives, then you don’t have data on whether the choices you make are helping or hurting your business.

As a refresher, here’s a look at SLOs, SLAs, and SLIS, as discussed by AJ Ross, Adrian Hilton and Dave Rensin of our Customer Reliability Engineering team, in the January 2017 blog post, SLOs, SLIs, SLAs, oh my - CRE life lessons.

1. Service-Level Objective (SLO)
SRE begins with the idea that a prerequisite to success is availability. A system that is unavailable cannot perform its function and will fail by default. Availability, in SRE terms, defines whether a system is able to fulfill its intended function at a point in time. In addition to being used as a reporting tool, the historical availability measurement can also describe the probability that your system will perform as expected in the future.

When we set out to define the terms of SRE, we wanted to set a precise numerical target for system availability. We term this target the availability Service-Level Objective (SLO) of our system. Any discussion we have in the future about whether the system is running sufficiently reliably and what design or architectural changes we should make to it must be framed in terms of our system continuing to meet this SLO. 
Keep in mind that the more reliable the service, the more it costs to operate. Define the lowest level of reliability that you can get away with for each service, and state that as your SLO. Every service should have an availability SLO—without it, your team and your stakeholders cannot make principled judgments about whether your service needs to be made more reliable (increasing cost and slowing development) or less reliable (allowing greater velocity of development). Excessive availability can become a problem because now it’s the expectation. Don’t make your system overly reliable if you don’t intend to commit to it to being that reliable. 
Within Google, we implement periodic downtime in some services to prevent a service from being overly available. You might also try experimenting with planned-downtime exercises with front-end servers occasionally, as we did with one of our internal systems. We found that these exercises can uncover services that are using those servers inappropriately. With that information, you can then move workloads to somewhere more suitable and keep servers at the right availability level.
2. Service-Level Agreement (SLA)
At Google, we distinguish between an SLO and a Service-Level Agreement (SLA). An SLA normally involves a promise to someone using your service that its availability SLO should meet a certain level over a certain period, and if it fails to do so then some kind of penalty will be paid. This might be a partial refund of the service subscription fee paid by customers for that period, or additional subscription time added for free. The concept is that going out of SLO is going to hurt the service team, so they will push hard to stay within SLO. If you’re charging your customers money, you will probably need an SLA.

Because of this, and because of the principle that availability shouldn’t be much better than the SLO, the availability SLO in the SLA is normally a looser objective than the internal availability SLO. This might be expressed in availability numbers: for instance, an availability SLO of 99.9% over one month, with an internal availability SLO of 99.95%. Alternatively, the SLA might only specify a subset of the metrics that make up the internal SLO. 
If you have an SLO in your SLA that is different from your internal SLO, as it almost always is, it’s important for your monitoring to measure SLO compliance explicitly. You want to be able to view your system’s availability over the SLA calendar period, and easily see if it appears to be in danger of going out of SLO. You will also need a precise measurement of compliance, usually from logs analysis. Since we have an extra set of obligations (described in the SLA) to paying customers, we need to measure queries received from them separately from other queries. That’s another benefit of establishing an SLA—it’s an unambiguous way to prioritize traffic.

When you define your SLA’s availability SLO, you need to be extra-careful about which queries you count as legitimate. For example, if a customer goes over quota because they released a buggy version of their mobile client, you may consider excluding all “out of quota” response codes from your SLA accounting. 
3. Service-Level Indicator (SLI)
We also have a direct measurement of a service’s behavior: the frequency of successful probes of our system. This is a Service-Level Indicator (SLI). When we evaluate whether our system has been running within SLO for the past week, we look at the SLI to get the service availability percentage. If it goes below the specified SLO, we have a problem and may need to make the system more available in some way, such as running a second instance of the service in a different city and load-balancing between the two. 
If you want to know how reliable your service is, you must be able to measure the rates of successful and unsuccessful queries as your SLIs.

Since the original post was published, we’ve made some updates to Stackdriver that let you incorporate SLIs even more easily into your Google Cloud Platform (GCP) workflows. You can now combine your in-house SLIs with the SLIs of the GCP services that you use, all in the same Stackdriver monitoring dashboard. At Next ‘18, the Spotlight session with Ben Treynor and Snapchat will illustrate how Snap uses its dashboard to get insight into what matters to its customers and map it directly to what information it gets from GCP, for an in-depth view of customer experience.
Automatic dashboards in Stackdriver for GCP services enable you to group several ways: per service, per method and per response code any of the 50th, 95th and 99th percentile charts. You can also see latency charts on log scale to quickly find outliers.  

If you’re building a system from scratch, make sure that SLIs and SLOs are part of your system requirements. If you already have a production system but don’t have them clearly defined, then that’s your highest priority work. If you’re coming to Next ‘18, we look forward to seeing you there.

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As the most massive planet in the Solar System by a wide margin, Jupiter has a lot of pull in this neighborhood. With dozens of moons whizzing around it, it makes sense that a few have slipped under the radar, but the latest discovery is still a surprisingly large haul. Astronomers have announced the detection of 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter, including one particularly reckless "oddball."

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Cities from the sky: The best urban drone photography of the year [Published articles]

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Amazon’s share of the US e-commerce market is now 49%, or 5% of all retail spend [Published articles]

Amazon has already been in the crosshairs of the White House when it comes to threats of antitrust investigations, and while some say this is simply Trumpian bluster that has a slim chance of going anywhere, some new numbers out from the researchers at eMarketer could prove to be a fan to the flames.

Amazon is set to clear $258.22 billion in US retail sales in 2018, according to eMarketer’s figures, which will work out to 49.1 percent of all online retail spend in the country, and 5 percent of all retail sales.

It started as an online bookstore, but today Amazon is a behemoth in all areas of e-commerce, fuelled by a strong Marketplace network of third-party sellers, an ever-expanding range of goods from groceries to fashion, and a very popular loyalty program in the form of Prime.

Now, it is fast approaching a tipping point where more people will be spending money online with Amazon, than with all other retailers — combined. Amazon’s next-closest competitor, eBay, a very, very distant second at 6.6 percent, and Apple in third at 3.9 percent. Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer when counting physical stores, has yet to really hit the right note in e-commerce and comes in behind Apple with 3.7 percent of online sales in the US.

The figures — which eMarketer says are estimates “based on an analysis of quantitative and qualitative data from research firms, government agencies, media firms and public companies, plus interviews with top executives at publishers, ad buyers and agencies” — are also remarkable not because of their size, but because of Amazon’s pace has not slowed down. Its sales are up 29.2 percent versus a year ago, when it commanded 43 percent of all e-commerce retail sales.

The rocket ship for Amazon’s growth at the moment is its Marketplace — the platform where Amazon allows third-party sellers to use its retail and (if they choose) logistics infrastructure to sell and deliver items to Amazon shoppers. It’s currently accounting for 68 percent of all retail sales, working out to nearly $176 billion, versus 32 percent for Amazon’s direct sales, and eMarketer projects that by the end of this year, Marketplace’s share will be more than double that of Amazon’s own sales (it’s already about double).

It’s no wonder that so many other online commerce businesses are chasing the marketplace model, which essentially creates transactions on two fronts for the platform operator, thereby improving margins that might be cut by not selling items directly.

“The continued growth of Amazon’s Marketplace makes sense on a number of levels,” eMarketer principal analyst Andrew Lipsman notes in the eMarketer report. “More buyers transacting more often on Amazon will naturally attract third-party sellers. But because third-party transactions are also more profitable, Amazon has every incentive to make the process as seamless as possible for those selling on the platform.”

In terms of popular categories, consumer electronics and tech continue to be the leading product category: eMarketer projects sales of $65.82 billion, around one-fourth of all turnover. Second will be apparel and accessories, which will pull in $39.88 billion of sales. Third in 2018 are health, personal care and beauty with $16 billion. Fourth is food and beverage at a distant $4.75 billion.

All of these are already up by 38 percent or more over a year ago (see the full table below), but what’s perhaps most notable is how Amazon has been investing in being a direct player in each of the categories as well.

In tech, it has its Kindles and Fire tablets, Fire TV, and of course its huge hit Alexa-powered Echo devices, among many other products. Apparel is being pushed heavily in the company’s private-label efforts. Amazon just the other week announced that it was acquiring online drug seller PillPack for $1 billion, which will be a major lever in its wider health products and services strategy. And lastly, there is Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and its much wider play around meal kits and its server-free physical shops. The physical aspect, eMarketer believes, will play a strong role in Amazon’s growth in this category.

“Amazon’s strategy for food and beverage is no different, in some respects, than it was for books—dominate the category,” eMarketer senior analyst Patricia Orsini notes in the report. “However, e-commerce in the grocery sector is a challenge. Share of online sales in this category is low because most people, for a host of reasons, prefer to buy food in brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon has an advantage because its shopper base is comfortable with shopping online. Along with insights gathered about Whole Foods shoppers, Amazon probably has the best chance of converting in-store grocery buyers to online grocery buyers.”

All of these will not just boost Amazon’s own direct sales but help create an environment for people to come to Amazon to buy either these at price-busting rates, or other-brand alternatives.

So far, people think that it is unlikely that Amazon would stand an antitrust investigation because e-commerce is still a small part of all commerce (as evidenced by the five percent of all retail sales figure), and Amazon would argue that in the world of “omnicommerce” it’s still just a bit player. However, Amazon’s dominance is clear when considering e-commerce alone.

Astronomers Detected a 'Ghost Particle' and Tracked It To Its Source [Published articles]

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Astronomers have traced a high-energy neutrino to its cosmic source for the first time ever, solving a century-old mystery in the process. Observations by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole and a host of other instruments allowed researchers to track one cosmic neutrino to a distant blazar, a huge elliptical galaxy with a fast-spinning supermassive black hole at its heart. And there's more. Cosmic neutrinos go hand in hand with cosmic rays, highly energetic charged particles that slam into our planet continuously. So, the new find pegs blazars as accelerators of at least some of the fastest-moving cosmic rays as well. Astronomers have wondered about this since cosmic rays were first discovered, way back in 1912. But they've been thwarted by the particles' charged nature, which dictates that cosmic rays get tugged this way and that by various objects as they zoom through space. Success finally came from using the straight-line journey of a fellow-traveler ghost particle. On Sept. 22, 2017, [...] IceCube picked up another cosmic neutrino. It was extremely energetic, packing about 300 teraelectron volts -- nearly 50 times greater than the energy of the protons cycling through Earth's most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. Within 1 minute of the detection, the facility sent out an automatic notification, alerting other astronomers to the find and relaying coordinates to the patch of sky that seemed to house the particle's source. The community responded: Nearly 20 telescopes on the ground and in space scoured that patch across the electromagnetic spectrum, from low-energy radio waves to high-energy gamma-rays. The combined observations traced the neutrino's origin to an already-known blazar called TXS 0506+056, which lies about 4 billion light-years from Earth. The IceCube team also went through its archival data and found more than a dozen other cosmic neutrinos that seemed to be coming from the same blazar. These additional particles were picked up by the detectors from late 2014 through early 2015. The findings are reported in two separate studies published in the journal Science.

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Python Language Founder Steps Down [Published articles]

After almost 30 years of overseeing the development of the world's most popular language, Python, its founder and "Benevolent Dictator For Life" (BDFL), Guido van Rossum, has decided to remove himself entirely from the decision process. From a report: Van Rossum isn't leaving Python entirely. He said, "I'll still be there for a while as an ordinary core dev, and I'll still be available to mentor people -- possibly more available." It's clear from van Rossum's note he's sick and tired of running the organization. He wrote, "I don't ever want to have to fight so hard for a PEP (Python Enhancement Proposals) [PEP 572 Assignment Expressions] and find that so many people despise my decisions." In addition, van Rossum hints he's not been well. "I'm not getting younger... (I'll spare you the list of medical issues.)" So, "I'm basically giving myself a permanent vacation from being BDFL, and you all will be on your own." From the email: I am not going to appoint a successor. So what are you all going to do? Create a democracy? Anarchy? A dictatorship? A federation? I'm not worried about the day to day decisions in the issue tracker or on GitHub. Very rarely I get asked for an opinion, and usually it's not actually important. So this can just be dealt with as it has always been. At Slashdot, we had the privilege of interviewing Guido van Rossum, a Computer History Museum honoree, in 2013.

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Thanos Has Snapped His Fingers and Killed Half of a Subreddit [Published articles]

Perfect balance has been achieved. The r/ThanosDidNothingWrong subreddit is now better equipped to allocate its precious resources after moderators randomly banned half of its members. Was I among those culled? Well, all I can say is: I don’t feel so good right now, Mr. Stark.


Kepler Telescope To Send NASA Its Last Images [Published articles]

We don't yet know if there's life on other worlds, however likely that is, but NASA's Kepler Mission satellite has helped pinpoint the abundance of planets orbiting other stars starting in May 2009. So far, it has provided data that scientists have used to confirm the existence of 2,650 exoplanets in a field of over 150,000 stars that it's examining. But that long service is about to end, as NASA said this week the craft is running out of fuel. From a report: The space agency has put the satellite into a form of hibernation until August 2, when there's time booked on the Deep Space Network -- a global array of receivers for space missions -- to download data from its 18th observational mission. Following that download, NASA will use the remaining fuel to start a 19th session. Fortunately, its successor is already in place and operational. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched in April 2018, and produced a test image in May. TESS is a massive upgrade, observing almost 400 times the region of space as Kepler, or about 85% of what's observable from its orbit relative to Earth. Kepler is already a survivor, continuing to operate after part of the gyroscope mechanism failed that let it target star fields. Four wheels rotate in the gyroscope to provide a reaction that allows the necessarily precision in tracking, and two of the four failed by May 2013. NASA mission scientists figured out a clever workaround, in which they used pressure from the Sun to provide additional positioning assistance. The mission resumed under the moniker K2 in May 2014.

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U.S. Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution Stuns World Health Officials [Published articles]

Do you hold our debt fulfilled? [Published articles]

This story was originally posted by "planefag" over at 4chan's /tg/ board on 16-09-2011.

This thread is mirrored on ArkMuse here.

About twelve years ago, a man died in high orbit over Tau Ceti V.

His name was Drake McDougal, and aside from a few snapshots and vague anecdotes from his drinking buddies, that’s probably all we’ll ever know about him. Another colony-born man with little records and little documentation, working whatever asteroid field the Dracs deigned to allow them. Every now and then a Drac gunship would strut on through the system, Pax Draconia and all that. But that was it.

One fine day, one of those gunships had a misjump. A bad one. It arrived only ninety clicks above atmo, with all of its impellers blown out by the gravatic feedback of Tau Ceti V’s gravity well. The Dracs scraped enough power together for a good system-wide broadbeam and were already beginning the Death Chant when they hit atmo.

People laughed at the recording of sixty Dracs going from mysterious chanting to “what-the-fuck’ing” for years after they forgot the name Drake McDougal. The deafening “CLANG” and split second of stunned silence afterwards never failed to entertain. Drake had performed a hasty re-entry seconds after the gunship and partially slagged his heatshield diving after it. Experts later calculated he suffered 11Gs when he leaned on the retro to match velocities with the Dracs long enough to engage the mag-grapples on his little mining tug.

Even the massively overpowered drive of a tug has its limits, and Drake’s little ship hit hers about one and a half minutes later. Pushed too far, the tug’s fusion plant lost containment just as he finished slingshotting the gunship into low orbit. (It was unharmed, of course; the Drac opinion of fusion power best translated as “quaint,” kind of how we view butter churns.)

It was on the local news within hours, on newsnets across human space within days. It was discussed, memorialized, marveled upon, chewed over by daytime talk-show hosts, and I think somebody even bought a plaque or some shit like that. Then there was a freighter accident, and a mass-shooting on Orbital 5, and of course, the first Vandal attacks in the periphery.

The galaxy moved on.

Twelve years is a long time, especially during war, so twelve years later, as the Vandal’s main fleet was jumping in near Jupiter and we were strapping into the crash couches of what we enthusiastically called “warships,” I guaran-fucking-tee you not one man in the entire Defense Force could remember who Drake McDougal was.

Well, the Dracs sure as hell did.

Dracs do not fuck around. Dozens of two-kilometer long Drac supercaps jumped in barely 90K klicks away, and then we just stood around staring at our displays like the slack-jawed apes we were as we watched what a real can of galactic whoop-ass looked like. You could actually see the atmosphere of Jupiter roil occasionally when a Vandal ship happened to cross between it and the Drac fleet. There’s still lightning storms on Jupiter now; something about residual heavy ions and massive static charges or something.

Fifty-eight hours later, with every Vandal ship reduced to slagged debris and nine wounded Drac ships spinning about as they vented atmosphere, they started with the broad-band chanting again. And then the communiqué that confused the hell out of us all.

“Do you hold our debt fulfilled?”

After the sixth or seventh comms officer told them “we don’t know what the hell you’re talking about” as politely as possible, the Drac fleet commander got on the horn and asked to speak to a human Admiral in roughly the same tone as a telemarketer telling a kid to give the phone to Daddy. When the Admiral didn’t know either, the Drac went silent for a minute, and when he came back on his translator was using much smaller words, and talking slower.

“Is our blood debt to Drake McDougal's clan now satisfied?"

The Admiral said “Who?”

What the Drac commander said next would’ve caused a major diplomatic incident had he remembered to revert to the more complex translation protocols. He thought the Admiral must be an idiot, a coward, or both. Eventually the diplomats were called out, and we were asked why the human race had largely forgotten the sacrifice of Drake McDougal.

Humans, we explained, sacrifice themselves all the time.

We trotted out every news clip from the space-wide Nets from the last twelve years. Some freighter cook that fell on a grenade during a pirate raid on Outreach. A ship engineer who locked himself into the reactor room and kept containment until the crew evacuated. Firefighter who died shielding a child from falling debris with his body, during an earthquake. Stuff like that.

The Dracs were utterly stunned. Their diplomats wandered out of the conference room in a daze. We’d just told them that the rarest, most selfless and honorable of acts – acts that incurred generations-long blood-debts and moved entire fleets – was so routine for our species that they were bumped off the news by latest celebrity scandal.

Everything changed for humanity after that. And it was all thanks to a single tug pilot who taught the galaxy what truly defines Man.

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[SERIOUS] What are some places on Earth that are still unexplored because locals fear them? And what are they afraid of? [Published articles]