Why Can’t We Fix Puerto Rico’s Power Grid?

And then the lights went out. Again.

The loss of electrical power in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria churned across the islands in September 2017 was already the second-biggest blackout in the history of power on Earth—3.4 billion lost customer-hours. But in recent weeks, various agencies were touting their success in restoring Puerto Rico’s flattened grid. The numbers were encouraging; the US Department of Energy, working from data from the Puerto Rican power authority Prepa, said 95.8 percent of customers had power and all 78 municipalities had at least some electricity. (That still left 62,000 people in the dark.)

On Wednesday, pop went the bubble. According to the New York Times, a contractor working to repair the grid took a bulldozer too close to a 230-kV connection from a generation facility in Aguirre. And that was it. Prepa read more

Facebook Is Steering Users Away From Privacy Protections

Facebook Wednesday announced changes to how it asks users for permission to collect their personal information, in order to comply with strict new European privacy rules. But critics say Facebook’s new offerings seem designed to encourage users to make few changes and share as much information as possible.

The European rules, called the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, go into effect May 25th and will apply to any companies that collect or process data on individuals in the EU. They require that consumers give informed consent to how their data is being collected and used. Critics, however, say the consent process Facebook outlined relies on design tricks that encourage users to share their personal information widely.

Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Belgian mathematician and cofounder of PersonalData.IO, whose requests to see his Facebook data under EU law forced the company to include more information about ad tracking, says Facebook’s “confusing choices [are] read more

Let’s Use Star Wars to Explain the Concept of Angular Size

The Resistance is trying to make a quick getaway before the First Order arrives. Then—boom! It’s too late. They’re already here—two Star Destroyers just arrived near the planet in space.

This is the scene that opens Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which just came out on DVD. Having the whole movie means I get to do lots more fun physics analysis, including answering this question: Could you actually see those destroyers from the surface of the planet?

The first question to consider: How far can a human see? Well, that’s a simple question with an easy answer. I can see the moon—that’s more than 200,000 miles away. Better yet, I can see a galaxy (if it’s really dark) and that is over 2 million light years away. So, humans can see really far. Distance isn’t the problem.

Really, the key idea here isn’t “how far” but rather “angular size.” The angular size of an object depends both on the actual size and the distance read more

How to Set Up and Use a YubiKey for Online Security

As we become more dependent upon online platforms for social and professional purposes, it grows increasingly important that we embrace stronger online security measures. One of the most important steps you can take to secure your online services is setting up two-factor authentication. This protocol—commonly abbreviated as 2FA—requires you to type in a password and also provide one other piece of proof that you are who you say you are before you can log into a service. One of the more common 2FA methods in use today employs six-digit passcodes that are sent to your phone via text message. When a unique scramble of numbers shows up on your phone, you type them into the browser along with your password at the login screen. Combined with a strong passphrase like those generated by password managers such as 1Password or LastPass, a 2FA login is quite effective at verifying your identity.

But no matter how strong a password is, or what level of code-based authentication a website is using, read more

A Robot Does the Impossible: Assembling an Ikea Chair Without Having a Meltdown

And just like that, humanity draws one step closer to the singularity, the moment when the machines grow so advanced that humans become obsolete: A robot has learned to autonomously assemble an Ikea chair without throwing anything or cursing the family dog.

Researchers report today in Science Robotics that they’ve used entirely off-the-shelf parts—two industrial robot arms with force sensors and a 3-D camera—to piece together one of those Stefan Ikea chairs we all had in college before it collapsed after two months of use. From planning to execution, it only took 20 minutes, compared to the human average of a lifetime of misery. It may all seem trivial, but this is in fact a big deal for robots, which struggle mightily to manipulate objects in a world built for human hands.

To start, the researchers give the pair of robot arms some basic instructions—like those cartoony illustrations, but in code. This piece goes first into this other piece, then this other, read more

‘Trustjacking’ Could Expose iPhones to Attack

Have you used a friend’s laptop to charge your iPhone and gotten a prompt that says, “Trust This Computer?” Say yes, and the computer will be able to access your phone settings and data while they’re connected. And while it doesn’t feel like your answer really matters—your phone will charge either way—researchers from Symantec warn that this seemingly minor decision has much higher stakes than you’d think.

In fact, the Symantec team has found that hacks exploiting that misplaced “Trust” comprise a whole class of iOS attacks they call “trustjacking.” Once a user authorizes a device, they open themselves to serious and persistent attacks while their phone is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as a hacker, or even remote attacks when the devices are separated.

Adi Sharabani, Symantec’s senior vice president of modern operating system security, and Roy Iarchy, the modern operating system research team leader, read more

Focal Listen Wireless Headphones Review: Bright, Airy, Colorful

That’s it—I’ve had it with boring black headphones. After sporting Focal’s Listen over-ear headphones for a few weeks, there’s no way I’m going back to a normal, dowdy pair of cans.

I used to lean toward subdued, conservative styling, but Focal’s all-in coloring is just so fun. It’s not just the band or earcups that are purple, blue, or green. Every component is smartly hued and color coordinated, right down to the fabric inside the leathery ear cushions.

Comfy Cozy

These Listen headphones aren’t just about the color; they feel robustly constructed, too. The design centers around the smooth horseshoe arc of the headband, which has a rubbery padding on its underside. I’ve twisted it to try and test its durability, but haven’t seen any signs of cracking or stress lines yet. The plastic bounces right back into place.


The earcups can adjust up and down for fit and you can jiggle them all four directions a little. They don’t have a full read more

FCC Delays Are Keeping Broadband From Rural School Kids

Woodman School is a tiny, whitewashed schoolhouse lodged in a remote clearing in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. It has a total of 35 students, and in January, all of them got the same assignment: Write a letter to local lawmakers explaining why you want internet access at school.

“If we had internet, we could do tests at our own school and not have to get bussed to Lolo and take tests on their computers,” scrawled one Woodman third grader on a sheet of looseleaf.

“We as a school are behind in our education,” wrote a seventh grade student. “It takes half an hour to load a document.”

Their teachers completed the assignment, too, describing their classroom shelves filled with unused Chromebooks and hours spent at the library checking out books for student research projects. Only about three Woodman students can access Google at a time, thanks to the overloaded and dilapidated DSL line that currently serves the school and all of its neighbors within 10 miles. read more

Trouble Detected in Infamous Dark Matter Signal

For 20 years, an experiment in Italy known as DAMA has detected an oscillating signal that could be coming from dark matter—the fog of invisible particles that ostensibly fill the cosmos, sculpting everything else with their gravity.

Quanta Magazine

author photo
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

One of the oldest and biggest experiments hunting for dark matter particles, DAMA is alone in claiming to see them. It purports to pick up on rare interactions between the hypothesized particles and ordinary atoms. But if these dalliances between the visible and invisible worlds really do produce DAMA’s data, several other experiments would probably also have detected dark matter by now. They have not.

Late last month, Rita Bernabei of the University of Rome Tor Vergata, DAMA’s longtime leader, presented the results of an additional six years of measurements. She reported that DAMA’s signal looks as strong as ever. But researchers not involved with the experiment have since raised serious arguments against dark matter as the signal’s source.

DAMA read more

The Teens Who Hacked Microsoft’s Xbox Empire—And Went Too Far

I. The Bumper

The trip to Delaware was only supposed to last a day. David Pokora, a bespectacled University of Toronto senior with scraggly blond hair down to his shoulders, needed to travel south to fetch a bumper that he’d bought for his souped-up Volks­wagen Golf R.

The American seller had balked at shipping to Canada, so Pokora arranged to have the part sent to a buddy, Justin May, who lived in Wilmington. The young men, both ardent gamers, shared a fascination with the inner workings of the Xbox; though they’d been chatting and collaborating for years, they’d never met in person. Pokora planned to make the eight-hour drive on a Friday, grab a leisurely dinner with May, then haul the metallic-blue bumper back home to Mississauga, Ontario, that night or early the next morning. His father offered to tag along so they could take turns behind the wheel of the family’s Jetta.

An hour into their journey on March 28, 2014, the Pokoras crossed the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge and hit the border checkpoint on the eastern side of the Niagara Gorge. An American customs agent gently quizzed them about their itinerary as he scanned their passports in his booth. He seemed ready to wave the Jetta through when something on his monitor caught his eye.

“What’s read more