Fed2 Star - the newsletter for the space trading game Federation 2

The weekly newsletter for Fed2
by ibgames

EARTHDATE: January 14, 2018

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An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net, technology and science news
by Alan Lenton

Another year, another issue of Winding Down. This week we have an ‘unhackable’ computer project, the world’s steepest railway, Dyson Spheres, Feynman learning technique, meltdown and spectre URLs, XKCD’s take on the bugs, a Bitbucket outage, pictures of the Andromeda galaxy and Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket, and a quote from a consummate politician. URLs in the Scanner section will take you to Annie Leibovitz, graphene based armour, eye drops and superglue, procrastination, a lost submarine, Windows 10 as a ‘service’, and hyperdense arcologies.

I had intended, as I indicated last week, to write a piece explaining the Meltdown and spectre bugs. However, in the interim everybody and their dog (or cat) wrote articles on that subject. If you haven’t already found them, just google ‘meltdown & spectre explanation’, and you will get more than you could possibly want!


DARPA (the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), I note, is trying to build an unhackable computer.

Stop sniggering at the back. It’s a worthy aim. The computer’s called Morpheus, and DARPA have awarded the team trying to build it a grant of US$3.6million. Obviously, given the recent revelations about Meltdown and Spectre, such a machine would be very desirable, especially if it could be mass produced cheaply, and be usable. There’s little point in having a secure computer if you can’t do all the things you usually do on your computer.

I foresee two problems.

The first is that securing the hardware won’t stop programmers screwing up on the software side and leaving vulnerabilities. In forty or so years of programming, I’ve only ever written two programs that went into commercial use that never manifested any bugs after I handed them over. From all accounts that’s a pretty good record. Most programmers I’ve met have never written a single completely bug free program (apart from the traditional ‘Hello World’ when you get a new compiler!).

What does this mean? Look at it the other way round, it means that, with two exceptions, every serious program I’ve ever written has had at least one bug in it which wasn’t found until it went into production. Not good.

And, even leaving aside pure program bugs, you wouldn’t believe what the ordinary users can do to your programs, let alone hackers. Apart from anything else, computers haven’t been around for very long, so there are no evolutionary instincts to warn you off doing something dangerous. Ordinary people have only had access to computers for 30 to 40 years, and they are entirely artificial constructs. The possibilities for screwing up are endless.

So, tell me, what happens when an unhackable computer meets an unstoppable hack?

This looks really cool – The world’s steepest funicular rail line. It’s just opened and it’s in Switzerland. No surprise that it’s in Switzerland, they take their railways very seriously over there. Judging from the pictures, it must be a bit like travelling in a collection of transparent beer barrels! What is really amazing though is that at its steepest the train is travelling at 47 degrees to the horizontal. I’d love to try out something like this, but unfortunately, I just don’t have a head for heights.


There’s an interesting piece on Dyson Spheres in Medium. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, it derives from the idea that most of the sun’s energy output goes off into interstellar space, and therefore if we build a spherical shell around the sun, we could collect all that energy to power our civilization. Of course at the moment we have no need for that much energy, but who knows where we might go in the future...

Of course, there are engineering problems, but what real engineer could resist such a challenge!

In the meantime, the concept remains a staple of Science Fiction – I’d recommend Larry Niven’s book ‘Ringworld’ as a good place to start.
https://www.amazon.com/Ringworld-S-F-Masterworks-Larry-Niven/dp/0575077026 [US]
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ringworld-S-F-MASTERWORKS-Larry-Niven/dp/0575077026 [UK]

Physicist Richard Feynman was always my hero when I went to university to study physics. Even when I moved on to sociology he remained my favourite scientist. He was pretty amazing and with an ability to explain anything , and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics. What I didn’t realize was that he also developed a method of mastering something new.

Step one: Use a notebook to write up what you learned as though explaining it to a child

Step two: Review the gaps in your knowledge revealed by step one. Study them and then repeat step one

Step three: Organize your knowledge and read it out loud. If you have any problems at any stage go back to step one.

Step four (optional): Now explain it to a real child. If they don’t understand, or you have problems explaining it, go back to step one.

Simple, isn’t it?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_chromodynamics [Just a little something for you to try it out on :) – AL]

I haven’t covered the hardware bugs in processors this week, because you are probably heartily sick of reading about them. But, if you really want more, here is a selection of URLs that I’ve accumulated during the week.

If you want an explanation of the bugs, just google ‘meltdown & spectre explanation’. My favourite was the tongue in cheek one from xkcd. When you finish reading all the panels put your cursor over one of them and read the tooltip...

Geek Stuff:

Online version control system Bitbucket was down this week. I moved from GitHub to Bitbucket about five years ago, and this is the first time there have been any problems. Interestingly enough, their site did provide up to date information about the problem and how fixing it was going. The problem appears to have been a storage layer failure. Everything is back up but it’s still a bit slower than usual, probably because the storage layer has been repairing itself.

Obviously as a user I would prefer it if there weren’t any problems. However, I have to say that Bitbuckit came out of this much better than certain other companies I could mention...


There don’t seem to be all that many decent pictures around at the moment, unfortunately, but I managed to find a couple in the ever trusty APOD archive.

There’s a nice picture of the Andromeda galaxy and another one which is a time lapse composite of a launch and first stage landing of one of Space X’s Falcon 9 rockets.


“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” Attributed to the Duc de Richelieu.


Annie Leibovitz teaches photography in her first online course

Graphene-based armour could stop bullets by becoming harder than diamonds

Doctors warn that people are mixing up superglue and eye drops and oh god why

What is procrastination & how can we solve it? [I’ll get round to looking at this tomorrow -AL]

Underwater drone finds Australia’s first submarine lost for over a century

Windows 10 ‘as a service’ is incoming

Self-Contained Cities: Hyperdense arcologies of urban fantasy & utopian fiction


Thanks to readers Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material for Winding Down.

Please send suggestions for stories to alan@ibgames.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Thunderbird spam filter...

Alan Lenton
14 January 2018

Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/index.html.

Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.

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