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Encrypted Email Provider Lavabit Shuts Down, Blames US Gov't

nweaver Re:The death-knell of US cloud providers... (771 comments)

Lavabit is supposed to be a zero knowledge mail provider.

If you believe that, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. It is perfectly possible to make a email system where the provider knows very little, but you need to change the basic email protocols to do that. Even PGP isn't sufficient, since it doesn't protect key portions of the mail (To:, From:, Subject:, message length, etc) from observation.

If you receive normal email through SMTP, the provider must be able to read the email as it arrives. Similarly, if you offer a web interface to access, the provider must be able to read your email when you access it through the web interface, because the provider can always provide JavaScript that leaks any keys involved back to the server.

about a year and a half ago

Encrypted Email Provider Lavabit Shuts Down, Blames US Gov't

nweaver The death-knell of US cloud providers... (771 comments)

Clearly the operator of Lavabit received a national security letter or warrant which he objected to.

Now since Lavabit is based on normal mail protocols, the operator has the ability to see all the data when it comes in, and obviously with a warrant or NSL, the provider can be compelled to provide the information to the feds. But I suspect that the request was not just something mild ("This sleazebag's mail account") but something broader, given the reaction was to close down the service completely.

In any case, this is also a great reminder of why the cloud, especially US cloud providers, can't be trusted. Companies who care about security are going to have to abandon the cloud and go back to insourcing their infrastructure.

about a year and a half ago

Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks: Get a Visit From the Feds

nweaver One OTHER possibility... (923 comments)

Which is being pointed out by others on twitter: Some random neighbor called in "these people are suspicious".

No comment yet reported from the local PD which sent the investigators.

about a year and a half ago

Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks: Get a Visit From the Feds

nweaver BAD article, better source, and other notes... (923 comments)

The Atlantic article is BAD. Not only is it a summary with no additional information (and information removed), but uses a bad and unrelated photograph!

Read the original article on Medium, and I strongly suggest that a Slashdot editor change the article link.

Although circumstantial, this implies one of two possibilities. Either Google is voluntarily looking for "suspicious" searches and reporting them to law enforcement, or law enforcement (using a warrant, a wiretap, a NSL, or similar) is either forcing Google to look for such suspicious searches or simply wiretapping Google.

about a year and a half ago

Several Western Govts. Ban Lenovo Equipment From Sensitive Networks

nweaver Welcome to Cisco and MS's future... (410 comments)

The problem is the credible fear of a lifecycle attack is sufficient to require that such hardware be avoided. There is a reasonable fear that the chinese might try something using Lenovo kit, therefore the classified networks need to avoid it. Its the same reason why Huawei networking hardware is avoided in some circles.

Of course, with the NSA now clearly off the leash, US IT equipment is now in the same position. Microsoft clearly backdoored Skype to enable easy wiretapping, the NSA is reportedly hacking foreign networks to introduce monitoring (who knows, perhaps it was the NSA responsible for the Athens Affair?), and with any US Cloud service provider subject to PRISM-style requirements, US IT infrastructure is now in the same boat that the Chinese have been struggling with for years now.

about a year and a half ago

The New Yorker Launches 'Strongbox' For Secure Anonymous Leaks

nweaver But does it work well in practice? (94 comments)

Strongbox technically is very strong, without a doubt. But, being TOR based, it will be hard to use. Worse, a potential leaker not only must use their own computer (ideally a throwaway computer), but they can never have VISITED the Strongbox information page from work, because otherwise any leak to the New Yorker will be suspicious.

And Strongbox's information page drives Ghostery crazy! Not a good sign for a privacy tool.

Probably more important is general Operational Security, including burner phones and/or burner computers.

Julia Angwin has an excellent additional point: Physical mail (dropped in a random post-box with a bogus return address) is perhaps the best way for anonymous one-way communication. The USPS will record address information when asked by law enforcement, but (currently) doesn't record this on all mail. Thus there is no history and, even if there was, this can only be traced to the processing post office. Perhaps the best use of the mail is simply to send the reporter a burner phone preprogrammed so that the reporter can call your burner.

about a year and a half ago

One Bitcoin By the Numbers: Is There Still Profit To Be Made?

nweaver 1FuckBTCqwBQexxs9jiuWTiZeoKfSo9Vyi (239 comments)

Yes, send your unwanted bitcoins here: 1FuckBTCqwBQexxs9jiuWTiZeoKfSo9Vyi

Overall, a general problem with BitCoin mining is that it is a classic "Red Queen's Race". The fixed rate of bitcoin addition means you can only get ahead at the cost of someone else. Which means, IF bitcoin succeeded, mining is effectively non-profit as the rather low barrier to entry (even ASIC rigs are only $2K) and no monopoly power means that the profit from mining gets, well, stripped out.

about a year ago

Ricin Tainted Letter Sent to Senator and Possibly the President

nweaver Profile of attacker already available.. (461 comments)

Its someone stupid enough to think a Senator opens his own mail. (Shamelessly stolen from Twitter)

about 2 years ago

Want to Keep Messages From the Feds? Use iMessage

nweaver Re:Sadly, no... (153 comments)

Oh, and thanks to @SteveBellovin for the suggestion on how Apple could (but does not seem) to do things in a secure manner.

about 2 years ago

Want to Keep Messages From the Feds? Use iMessage

nweaver Sadly, no... (153 comments)

iMessage keeps messages secret from the carrier, but it can't keep the messages secret from the feds.

Apple has to be able to know the user's private key to allow them to log in new devices, at least when the user logs into Apple using their Apple password. And therefore, with a warrant, so can the police.

Now Apple could use a technique where your password is hashed one way to create your iMessage key, and hashed a different way to be sent to Apple for logging in. But this doen't seem likely, as a login to iCloud (using a user's apple Password) on the web interface sends the password to Apple where its hashed on their end for login validation. So unless the iPhone/Mac iCloud login uses a different technique, Apple must (at a minimum) be able to access the user's iMessage key when the user logs into Apple.

And its far more likely that Apple (and therefore the police with a search warrant) can get the user's iMessage key whenever they want.

about 2 years ago

Facebook Launches "Home" For Android

nweaver Geez, two snitches at once... (138 comments)

Rather than having a phone that's designed to spill everything I do to Google, I get a phone designed to spill everything I do to both Google AND Facebook. Geez, loverly.

about 2 years ago

'Energy Beet' Power Is Coming To America

nweaver All Biofuels are a crock.. (238 comments)

It's all a simple matter of area: With an electric vehicle my entire transportation energy usage can pretty much be covered with a small rooftop solar system. To do it with biofuels would require acres of space.

The problem is simple: Photosynthesis is just vastly less efficient than photo voltaic solar

about 2 years ago

Digging Into the Legal Status of 3-D Printed Guns

nweaver Various bits of FUD correction. (404 comments)

a: An FFL7 (which is what Defense Distributed got), once they complete some additional tax paperwork, allows them to make and sell semiautomatic rifles like any other manufacturer. And there are lots of small manufacturers these days. Heck, there is one in Napa, CA, if you want a fine, vintage 2013 AR-15 with "Made in Napa, CA" printed on the side.

b: Plastic AR lower receivers are old news. There is a lot of panic buying of AR rifle components thanks to Dianne Feinstein's salesmanship, but the plastic lowers are readily available.

You can even get a 5-pack for $400!.

Distributed Defense's sales, if any, are going to be those wanting to support their R&D, as there is no way they can compete with the existing aluminum lowers, let alone existing plastic ones, on price or quality for a given price.

c: There are a lot of businesses which legally help you make your own gun. EG, you buy an 80% lower (a not completed lower receiver) which the ATF does not consider to be a gun and then you finish it yourself by renting some milling machine time and doing it yourself. Until its finished by the purchaser, its a paperweight, not a gun.

d: Some guy has even managed to do a home-made polymer lower using molding techniques.

about 2 years ago

Ask Slashdot: How To Donate Older Computers to Charity?

nweaver But what are they really worth? (260 comments)

A circa 2006 computer is in the only ~5x-10x faster than a Raspberry Pi, and has a power cost on the order of 100-200W/hr. So a 2006-era computer, even free, costs ~$90/yr just in power if its left on.

Similarly, for a non-profit trying to be uber-cheap, why not just go with ChromeBooks? If you are in a position where you can have a network (e.g. like an office environment), they are cheap, and the office and so-on that are needed for productivity.

about 2 years ago

How the First Bitcoin Hedge Fund Approaches Security

nweaver This makes no sense... (124 comments)

Such procedures only work for cold storage of Bitcoin: wallets where you have no access to them. Basically, the equivalent of a bank vault for gold: its there, its sitting, but you can't actually do anything with it. Worse, unlike a bank vault, you can't transfer the bitcoins while they are in this vault.

Therefore, the hedge fund's only strategy for these wallets is to buy BitCoins and sit on them. And do nothing. Which, if you believe in BitCoin, makes sense (the design is hyper-deflationary, so the only rational thing to do with BitCoins is to hold BitCoins), but thats hardly what you'd call a hedge-fund strategy.

So how can you call it a hedge fund when all it can do is buy & hold?

about 2 years ago

Dennis Tito's 2018 Mars Mission To Be Manned

nweaver Very VERY stupid idea... (233 comments)

Whats the point? You're shoving many extra tons (between person and life support), and you have to put it on an orbit that brings it back home, and for a payload that can do little more than look out the window and go "ohh, pretty" while being irradiated for years outside of the protection of the Earth's magnetic field.

Even if the mission goes 100% to plan, the cancer risk alone is probably a death sentence for the two passengers.

about 2 years ago

Researchers Opt To Limit Uses of Open-access Publications

nweaver CC has NOTHING to do with open access... (172 comments)

Open access is ensuring that everyone can read your papers. All the other CC ones are about derivative work rights, which is orthogonal to open access.

In fact, its rather silly to even think of: Quoting papers is fair use, but modifying scientific papers? You don't want third parties modifying the papers: they can easily screw things up as the paper is only part of the process, there is also the data and analysis behind it.

So of the choices given, CC-BY-NC-ND is the only one that should be in that list.

about 2 years ago

150 Copyright Notices For Mega

nweaver The real question: incentives to pirate... (199 comments)

The big reason that MegaUpload got into huge trouble is they structured things to create an incentive for piracy: those who uploaded "popular" files would earn $$$, and the "takedown" implemented by MegaUpload was deliberately defective: only taking down single URLs when, behind the scene, they kept the files available with different URLs. Thus the old MegaUpload deliberately created a structure to encourage and benefit from piracy.

If the new Mega drops this incentive structure, and their encryption eliminates the deduplication, they should be in much more solid shape.

about 2 years ago

10 Years After SQL Slammer

nweaver Our article on the subject: (58 comments)

We (David Moore, Vern Paxson, Stefan Savage, Colleen Shannon, Stuart Staniford, and myself) did the analysis of how it spread, including showing how it infected all the vulnerable systems in 10 minutes, and detailing flaws in the random number generator.

Our article eventually appeared in IEEE Security & Privacy.

about 2 years ago



Netalyzr on Android

nweaver nweaver writes  |  about a year ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Many Slashdot readers are no doubt familiar with Netalyzr, our free, comprehensive network measurement and diagnostic tool that runs in the browser using Java. For those that aren't, its checks a ton of network properties and provides a handy report. At the same time, Slashdot readers also know that Java should probably be removed from the browser. We've been hard at work on a solution: a Android port of Netalyzr, which is both free and advertisement free. We implemented the full Netalyzr test suite, test run in the background (so you don't need to wait), and if your debugging someone else's network, you can have them run Netalyzr and share their results with you. Help us understand what works on the Internet, and what doesn't."
Link to Original Source

Google + Feds: Watching your searches..

nweaver nweaver writes  |  about a year and a half ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Michele Catalano has a scary story about how innocent web searches for Pressure Cookers and backpacks (and perhaps quinoa) apparently resulted in a visit from Anti-terrorism Law Enforcement. If true, this implies one of two possibilities. Either Google is, on their own initiative, checking people's activity for "suspicious" behavior and reporting it to the government, or the government has mandated that Google report such "suspicious" behavior."

Help Serve Charles Carreon

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 2 years ago

nweaver writes "We all remember Charles Carreon and his ill-fated lawsuit against the Oatmeal. But the story is not over. The author of the Satirical Charles page was also threatened by Carreon. Instead of taking these threats lying down, Satirical Charles sued first. But now it turns out that Charles Carreon is also a coward and ducking service. Since process servers are expensive, Public Citizen is soliciting donations to pay for the process server and the other costs involved in protecting bloggers' rights to free speech."
Link to Original Source

Crystal Cox is Not A Journalist

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 2 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Slashdot has previously reported about a court in Oregon ruling that a blogger is not a journalist. But it turns out this was a far more subtle ruling, recently upheld. Rather it was a ruling that only a single "blogger", Crystal Cox, is not a journalist. Marc J. Randazza, L33t Defender of the 1st Amendment explains the story firsthand: Crystal Cox's behavior is not that of a blogger, but an extortionist, who has targeted many people, including him, his wife, and his three year old daughter."
Link to Original Source

Stealing Cars with Just a Phone Call

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 3 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Dan Wallach (CS Professor, Car Buff) has written a article on the state of automotive security. Yes, cars can be p0wned, including controlling the brakes, gas, stealing cars, and a host of other attacks. And they can be p0wned remotely, by malicious CDs placed in the stereo, by short-range bluetooth, or even through the cellphone network. This is as summary of a research paper Comprehensive Experimental Analyses of Automotive Attack Surfaces."
Link to Original Source

A Patent Application on being a Patent Troll...

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 4 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Bad news for patent trolls: Someone is trying to patent being a patent troll. Yes, Clive Menendez, on behalf of Halliburton, is trying to patent "Patent Acquisition and Assertion by a (Non-Inventor) First Party Against a Second Party". Lets hope it gets approved, pity there is probably too much prior art out there already."
Link to Original Source

The ICSI Netalyzr, now improved

nweaver nweaver writes  |  about 5 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "Some Slashdot readers may already be familiar with our Netalyzr service, from
this June story. For those who aren't, Netalyzr is a free network measurement and debugging applet designed to check for a wide
range of network problems and neutrality violations, including unadvertised port filtering, DNS wildcarding, and hidden proxy servers. We are pleased to announce that Netalyzr is now out of beta. We've made many enhancements, user interface cleanups, and added a bevy of new tests such as enhanced DNS probing and checking for problems with fragmented traffic. Since the Internet is changing constantly, we would love it if
Slashdot readers would (re-)run Netalyzr so we can see how things have evolved since June. More generally, the Netalyzr project aims to
compile a comprehensive survey of the health of the Internet's edge. Your help in making the study a success is greatly appreciated — thanks!"

Link to Original Source

Introducing the ICSI Netalyzr

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 5 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "How healthy is your Internet connection? Do you know if some outbound services are blocked? Are there hidden proxies or HTTP caches? Are there problems with your DNS server? We have developed a free service to help answer these questions: the ICSI Netalyzr, now publically available. This Java applet, developed by researchers at the International Computer Science Institute, allows you to probe your own network to discover various properties and problems. The numerous tests include discovering hidden HTTP proxies and caches, checks for port filtering, IPv6 connectivity, latency, bandwidth, and buffer properties, and DNS server health."
Link to Original Source

How To Steal the Internet

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 6 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "At Defcon, probably the greatest hack was Alex Pilosov and Tony Kapela's demonstration on Stealing the Internet, or "All your Routes are belong to Them". This hack is simplicity itself. It has long been known how to hijack someone else's route on the Internet to block their traffic: just advertise a smaller block. It happened to YouTube when Pakistan decided YouTube was bad. But Pilosov and Kapela's attack is far more powerful, allowing the attacker to receive all traffic and forward it on to the victim , as a man in the middle. Yet it is so simple: The attacker just haves a second path to the Internet that he uses to return the traffic to his victim. So when the attacker advertises his hijacked route, he includes the return path to his victim. Now all packets except those on the return path go to the attacker, who can record, modify, and do what he pleases (such as reduce the TTL to evade traceroute detection) before returning them through the return path and onto the victim. Voila: all return traffic to Defcon's network was passing through New York! Yeup, A Man in the Middle on the Internet."

If IP is Property, where is the property tax?

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 6 years ago

nweaver writes "In a response to the LA Times editorial on copyright covered by Slashdot, a response was published in the LA Times arguing Copyright This!. Namely, a key observation: "If Intellectual Property is actually property, why isn't it covered by a property tax?" If copyright maintinence involved paying a fee and registration, this would keep Mickey Mouse safely protected by copyright, while ensuring that works that are no longer economically relevant to the copyright holder pass into the public domain, where the redisdual social value can serve the real purpose of copyright: to enhance the progress of science and useful arts.

Disclaimer: the author is my father."

Link to Original Source

Two Reviews: the OLPC and the Classmate

nweaver nweaver writes  |  about 7 years ago

nweaver (113078) writes "I purchased a XO laptop through the "Buy one, get one" program, as a platform for experimentation, a toy to play with, and because of the 1 year T-mobile service. In many ways, the system is a disappointment. Although the hardware is brilliant and (almost) flawless, the software is so crippled that it is useless. Also, a friend who works at Intel Research, when he discovered I was writing a review of the XO, loaned me a classmate to play with. First, the XO.

The XO Hardware:

The XO's hardware is remarkable in its simplicity, ruggedness, and reliability. The convenient handle makes it easy to toss around (so much that I've dropped it a couple of times, as it just invites casual swinging).

The hardware has just enough horsepower to be reasonable, with a 433 MHz x86 processor, 256 MB SDRAM, and 1 GB of flash memory. Battery life appears good for a many hours if the software supports the power management features, and the LiFeP battery can fully charge in about 2 hours with the computer active.

Considerable effort went into making the hardware rugged. By placing the guts of the computer behind the screen, rather than in the base, only the power, keyboard, and trackpad connections need to pass through the hinge. This is in sharp contrast to a normal notebook, which requires a wire intensive and failure-prone connection through the hinge between the monitor and the motherboard. The hinge itself also appears very strong and designed for years of abuse, while allowing the screen to go into a tablet mode for closed-system reading.

The rest of the packaging is also designed for longevity. The membrane keyboard is splash-resistant and the plastic tough and durable. Since there is no fan or hard drive, the components are naturally shock and dust resistant. The stated 5 year lifespan goal seems more than achievable, given the basic design.

The power requirements are thrifty. All it take is 16W at roughly 12 volts (with very wide tolerance) to run the circuitry and charge the laptop. Even with a 15 Watt-Hour battery and power management software almost completely broken it is still good for about 3 hours of use!

There are only two "flaws" in the industrial design, one real and one a matter of philosophy. The first is a lack of mouse control in eBook mode. Without an additional 4-way switch and two mouse buttons, one needs to reopen the laptop, rechange screen orientation, and use the internal controls to navigate beyond the currently displayed document. If there was mouse hardware on the display, the eBook mode would be much more usable.

The second is the small keyboard. The keyboard has an awful feel, but thats the price of sealed membrane switches and worth it for the longevity. But the keys are unusable small. The XO is designed to be used exclusively by children, rather than primarily by children. The designers consider the unusually small keyboard a feature, not a bug, as a way of deliberately discouraging adults from coopting a child's system..

In contrast, I believe that the device has so much potential that I wonder why it should be deliberately limited to children? Shouldn't adults be able to benefit from this powerful platform? Making a real keyboard wouldn't make the laptop that much easier to steal, its just that adults would no longer need to be either frustrated typists or have to acquire a $10 USB keyboard.

More on the industrial design can be viewed in Bunny Huang's blog.

The XO's Display:

The best part of the XO laptop has to be the display. Although currently unique to the XO, expect this display technology to become commonplace in eBook readers and many other low-power devices.

In passive mode (no backlight), the display is a high resolution reflective 200 dpi display. In this mode, it is very crisp and an excellent platform for reading text, even 2-column scientific papers.

Active mode (color with backlight) is still solid but not quite so remarkable. In this mode, there are distinct fine diagonal bands even when viewing black and white material due to how the pixels are arranged on the display. But colors are crisp and bright, and it is easily readable in variable light conditions. The tolerance for conditions ranging from bright glare to pitch black is far greater than any other notebook screen, although colors do wash out somewhat in full sunlight.

I would expect this display technology to become commonplace in many future devices. Between the low cost, very low power operation, and ability to work anywhere from bright sun to pitch black should make this basic design the de-facto standard for future devices.

The XO's Software:

While the hardware shines, the software groans. The first thing which is striking upon turning the system on is how slow it boots. It takes 1 minute and 45 seconds to boot, which is strange for an embedded computer: a fixed platform with very fixed functionality. Its not intollerably slow, but I expected faster.

While the hardware designers were creating a new and innovative design out of largely standard components or processes, the software designers decided to effectively "start from scratch".

You will hear that the XO is Linux. This is not true. Underneath the hood, Sugar's system is Linux and X11, but the GUI (and therefore all the high level GUI APIs) are new. The XO doesn't run Linux applications, they need to be ported to Sugar.

Thus instead of starting with a high quality web browser (Firefox), a solid email program (Thunderbird), and tolerable productivity applications (Open Office), like every other Linux distribution, the XO has a crippled web browser, a toy word processor, and no email support.

Not only does the new GUI throw out almost every existing application, it even throws out the file system. Gone is the notion of saving files. Instead, you "save" your work in the journal. Since the journal only has time and application, you can easily load an old copy of the file rather than the current version. Yes, its really that bad.

Furthermore, the fileless model actually makes it easier for a student to lose work, since not only is the model fileless, the application model is stateless. So close an application (with no acknowledgment) and the work simply goes bye-bye.

Thus if you want to use a bookmark in the web browser, you need to save the state of the browser into the journal (explicitly saving the current instance of application state), and instead of launching the web browser again the next time, you have to dig through the journal for the last saved copy.

And a further consequenced, since there is no notion of files exported to the user, editing multiple documents or viewing multiple pages creates separate application instances.

The GUI model also doesn't support any sort of detailed menu, just a strip across the top containing icons, and a strip underneath of text saying which set of icons can be selected. Which is fine for a toy application such as the video recorder or the music toys (which are amusing and effective), but really suffers for real tools like a word processor or a web browser.

On the plus side, the toys are cool. The flowchart-logo is interesting, reminding me of ChipWits from my own youth. The music games are cool, and the camera works well. They should work well in attracting a child's attention.

But it brings up the question of whether Sugar can be saved. Although one applauds the goal of simplifying the UI, simplification doesn't mean crippling. There are plenty of simple UI examples, such as the iPhone and Palm, or even the original Macintosh, which offer vastly more usability, succesful state management, yet don't grossly constrain users.

Between changing the menu structure, the file paradigm, how multiple apps are launched, how the system handles evolving screen size, and removing the numerous imperfections, is it better to soldier on with Sugar or instead modify Gnome or KDE (or Windows XP for that matter) and port the toys to a new environment?

Detailed XO Bugs:

The current version of Sugar also has serious performance and power management issues. The hardware can support 10ms power management, shutting down the CPU when it is unused, even between keypresses. Yet the current environment doesn't even turn off the backlight when the lid is closed, instead waiting for the sleep mode to kick in after many minutes.

Even closed and asleep, the battery drains completely overnight, and the mesh networking alone (I presume) is the source of an unexpected drain where a fully off XO will drain the battery to nothing over the weekend. This isn't that suprising, as with only 15 Watt-Hours, a 250mw drain will empty the battery in that time.

Performance suffers due to the heavy use of python. The web browser often shows tearing when scrolling using the cursor keys. The rest of the system is sluggish. The GUI has functional glitches, including non-working cut and paste. And the system doesn't support WPA-protected WiFi networks.

Finally, I haven't started investigating the security model, but it seems to suffer from the iPhone/WinXP's "Everything running in the same user who's root equivalent" problem. Open up the terminal, su to root as no password, and do a /bin/rm -rf /*. Voila, a nuked XO. I'd forgive the Windows XP model if the project did not toute security as a primary objective of Sugar.

Fortunately, an Internet connection, a USB drive, and a working computer is all it takes to happily reimage the system. Like so much of the system, even the software is designed for easy "replacement" if the system is corrupted.

Concluding thoughts on the XO:

The XO's hardware is simply brilliant, as is the low-level firmware which allows trivial reimaging. But the software is a disaster, and no kinder words are possible. Now there is the "this is beta software" argument, but I think the problem is more fundamental (the lack of files, the need to port every app to a crippled GUI) and thus damages the overall system.

Hardware design is considered "hard", so it was handled by real experts, who had a real budget, and who did a superb job. The only new hardware technology was the screen, but even this was designed around existing manufacturing according to Mary Lou Jepsen, the CTO responsible for overseeing the design.

But software is "easy". Thus it did not receive the same development budget or care as the hardware. Simply comparing the maturity between the two makes it obvious: the hardware works as advertised, the software is "it will be better at Update.2", but with nothing addressing the fundimental limitations of the GUI.

This is probably worsened by the "not invented here" attitude among software developers, and he "ecology will provide" open-source model. The resulting Sugar software is a disaster.

The Classmate:

While the XO was a carefully constructed hardware project, the Intel Classmate was obviously thrown together as a basic ruggedized low-end laptop. The hardware, although theoretically more capable, is vastly inferior for the intended use in third world countries with several weaknesses, including cost, power, cooling, and robustness. The software (or lack thereof) is another problem.

The Classmate's Hardware:

Although physically similar, the Classmate is constructed very differently. There is a screwed down cover over the laptop, which holds the system closed with a magnetic clasp. It is almost 5mm thicker than the XO but otherwise the dimensions and weight are almost identical.

The magnetic clasp in the cover, although stylish, can be annoying as it flaps around free on your lap when open and will also stick to the trackpad. Additionally, the cover is screwed down, keeping a child from accessing the battery bay, which is probably a good idea.

The keyboard is significantly nicer, with real keys and a real keystroke. Although almost identical in dimensions, the keyboard is vastly easier for an adult to type on. However, I'd worry about longevity, as dirt could easily get stuck under the keys and jam them.

The ports are effectively the same, except the SD slot isn't sealed (its just hidden under the cover) and the Classmate adds a 100 Mb Ethernet while removing the camera and one of three USB slots.

Performance wise, the Classmate is substantially more advanced, with 2 GB of flash (instead of the XOs 1), a 256 or 512 MB DIMM, and a more agressive processor running at 900 MHz. But this has a price, namely $300 or more (depending on memory) instead of $200.

This additional computing affects the power budget. Rather than requiring 16W at a (world standard) 12V, the Classmate needs 65W at 20V. I suspect this is vastly over specificed (my Macbook uses a 60W supply, and I can't believe that the Classmate uses more power).

Instead, Intel probably went with an off-the-shelf power supply and the resulting PSU was 60W. But even if the power supply only required 30W, the use of 20V is problematic, because the Classmate can't run on car batteries or similar sources.

A further concern is the effect on reliability. To dissipate this heat, the Classmate has an internal cooling fan and openings for air to flow in and out, over what appears to be a largely exposed motherboard as well as internal heatsinks. Even in the land of paved roads, windows, and Roombas, I've lost far too many computers to dust over the years. Fortunatly the fan generally stays off most of the time, which reduces the dust issue, but it would be a more robust system if it was passively cooled without venting.

It is also not clear how the Classmate can be repaired, while the XO has reparability built into the design (such as the replaceable backlight and color-coded screws). The Classmate certainly has more screws, just when examined. As this is a loaner system, I can't attempt a dissection.

The Classmate's Display:

The classmate's display is slightly nicer than the XO in color mode, because the standard LCD doesn't have the grainyness of the XO's transflective screen. However, for reading text, the XO is superior thanks to the greater number of pixels (1200x900 rather than 800x400) when the XO is in reflective grayscale mode.

The Classmate's display is also constructed like a normal laptop: a thin display with a complex cable running through the hinge, to a heavy motherboard in the base. This makes the laptop balance more nicely, but will probably limit robustness (laptop hinges are a common failure point, often with the monitor display wires breaking). The display is also conventional, so there is no eBook or Tablet mode.

The Classmate's Software:

What software? Instead, its a very vanilla if stripped down XP installation with office and a single groupware app which I can't seem to run (but as this system has been passed around, this may have been disabled by a previous user).

It lacks the cool toys of the XO: no making videos, no playing music. Thus it will have more difficulty grabbing a child's attetion. But the real applications (web browser, office application) are far superior, as they actually work. It also takes about 20 seconds longer than the XO to fully boot.

However, although XP runs well on the Classmate, there are a couple of glitches. In typical manner, the logged in user is the Administrator, so it is equally easy to nuke the system as the XO, and I'm unfamiliar with reimaging the system (so I did not attempt this).

Windows XP doesn't like the 800x400 display. Instead, it wants an 800x480 display, so software either squishes the display or you have the "scroll around the screen" effect, neither of which are appetizing.

I believe the XP interface is far too rich to start with for children, but a simplified shell would probably work wonders for the initial usability. Yet once a child is comfortable with the system, XP is far less limiting.

Concluding thoughts:

Hardware wise, the Classmate pales in comparison to the XO. It costs more, eats more power, and can never be as robust. The Classmate is a conventional laptop, while the XO really is the promised revolution in laptop design. The Classmate simply is not a viable competitor in its current form.

Software is another story. The XO has better toys, but is so crippled by the user interface that Sugar only seems suitable as a toy.

The Classmate has enough software to be a real tool, with real applications and a notion of files. But it lacks a "simplicity mode" for young children, and Windows XP is not happy with such a small screen.

I'm hoping that Microsoft's interest in the XO is real. For all its annoyances, XP is vastly more usable than Sugar. The XO running XP could be a real tool, either as a starting point for a child-friendly layer on top, or in a "Start with Sugar, graduate to XP" mode.

But as is, the Classmate doesn't have the robustness or the cost. But the XO currently doesn't have a working environment which does justice to the hardware. Hopefully both systems will evolve towards workable solutions."

Print-On Solar Panels: Innovation of the Year

nweaver nweaver writes  |  more than 7 years ago

nweaver writes "Popular Science Magazine has announced its Innovation of the year, which are Nano Solar's Print on Solar Cells. Unlike conventional solar cells, these are printed onto sheets of flexible aluminum, with the company claiming a cost of $.30/W for solar cells. Nano Solar's Factory for producing mile long rolls of solar cells is almost online. The potential is staggering. Even assuming that the completed cells, in a household system, cost $2000/kW to produce, this will easily undercut electricity as even at just $.10/kwh and producing for just 8 hours per day and 300 days in a year, a solar installation with such cells would have a 12%/year return on investment. We may be only a few years away from the Solar Age."
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