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VIRUS-SHIELD
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App-arently we’ve been duped!

Over the past week a new app has been making some serious waves in the Android apps marketplace. “Virus Shield”, a new security app, claimed to prevent “harmful apps from being installed on your device,” and to scan apps in real time for malware in order to protect user information. Furthermore, and what must have seemed a blessing to owners of power-hungry smartphones, it claimed to use very little battery life, a key feature picked up on by numerous satisfied reviewers who also praised the lack of advertisements and the cool, incredibly user-friendly interface.

At the touch of a slickly designed button Virus Shield offered complete reassurance that your device was perfectly secure. All this for $3.99? Understandably thousands snapped it up and the app quickly rose to the top of the paid charts. Perhaps most incredibly of all, Virus Shield comprised only 219 lines of code and was a puny 859kb download. If Albert Einstein was correct in saying: “genius is taking the complex and making it simple,” then 17 year old developer Jesse Carter is surely the Da Vinci of the age.

That would be of course, if Virus Shield wasn’t a total sham. Yes, Google recently removed the wonder-app from their play store after it was revealed that the entire functionality of the program was a user-activated image toggle which caused the shield button to display a tick instead of a cross. However, the app’s design appears to have caused a Pavlovian frenzy as thousands (over 30000 to be exact) flocked to download it, conditioned surely by the trend in minimalist icons such as the bitten grey apple or Twitter’s blue bird, symbols which we have learned promise so much in their infinite simplicity. Almost painfully ironically the basis of many of the 5 star reviews, specifically the app’s very low power requirements and complete lack of advertisements, held up under scrutiny, with the exception that Virus Shield did not of course shield devices from viruses in any discernible way.

Unfortunately the placebo effect does not have cross platform capability and as yet is not compatible with the Android operating system and therefore Virus Shield, it can be stated, did absolutely nothing to protect these devices. Fortunately the scam was uncovered, and the app’s popularity was its own undoing when reviewers from the “Android Police” website got involved and unpacked its components. Moreover Google, as previously stated, has now removed the app and will be refunding customers.

The creator, Carter, claims that he won’t be receiving any profits since Google suspended his account, and the app was indeed pulled before the 15th of the month, the date when Google reportedly processes developer payments. Investigations into the developer reveal a shady past, suggesting that Carter’s account on Scythe.org, a website specialising in virtual goods (items in multiplayer games, Steam accounts, etc.) was deleted due to his attempts to scam other users. Moreover, a cursory glance into the publishing history of “Deviant Solutions,” the official creators of Virus Shield, should raise an eyebrow or two- would you trust your phone with the developers of “Yolo Bilbo Swaggins”?

The issue has raised some important questions about the security and reliability of the Android marketplace. Google reputedly has a far less draconian vetting system than its competitor Apple. Many prefer the Android system, and Apple’s reputation has suffered several minor blows as a consequence of their app-checking process. For example, many commented on their recent hypocrisy in refusing to publish programs such as Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Fiore’s satirical cartoon app on the grounds that it contained “objectionable” material whilst continuing to offer downloadable music containing homophobic, violent and often misogynistic lyrics. In comparison to Apple, Google appears to be a much less restricted marketplace, which obviously has its pros and cons. For every Mark Fiore out there, there could be a Jesse Carter.

This is not to say that Google doesn’t have a strict policy for app developers to follow. On their webstore developer FAQ the company claims: “All apps go through an automated review process and in most cases, an app will be published without further manual review.” However, whilst malware can be automatically scanned for, it is far harder to detect when an app may be misleading customers or providing a sub-standard service. Consequently users should still be wary when downloading apps from the Play store. Remember to check details such as the history of the developer, including previous apps published. Also rely only so far on reviews, and then check for longer, more in-depth assessments rather than glib, five-star statements. Furthermore be vigilant in reporting fraudulent or misleading products as, unless Google adopts its competitor’s publishing policies (not necessarily a positive), the community must help itself and look out for the interests of other, perhaps less tech-savvy users who may be dolloping out their hard earned cash for an empty shell of a program.

 

If you would be interested in writing for the OxStu science team contact us on scitech.oxstu@gmail.com. We provide lots of interesting interviews and topics each week and are open to suggestions for article ideas.

robobee
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Are robobees the bees’ knees?

Disclaimer: we do not hold any responsibility for humour failure due to unfunny bee puns.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Obviously not – you should be able to tell that by the title. Ask the question we want to answer – is it actually a bee?

If you are a regular watcher of either the news or Doctor Who, you will be aware that the bee population has been in dramatic decline. The cause is still unknown but the effects of the disappearing insects is quite clear; not only will honey and toast become a rare delicacy, but many other foodstuffs will not be produced due to a lack of pollination the flowers by the bees, and we are at risk of famines across the world.

In 2009, engineers at Harvard university came up with an unlikely solution: the Robobee. If they could design a synthetic bee, they could be programmed to do the job of pollination of crops around the world and the food shortage crisis due to the dying of real bees would be avoided.

The robotic insect is an idea that has been flying around the scientific community for thirty or so years, but we have never been able to amass the right technology. Now, huge breakthroughs are being made with the flight, intelligence, and interaction of the models.

So, how does one build a bee? When taking into account not only their ability of flight, but also their sensory capacity and communication abilities with an entire colony, they are highly complex animals.

Firstly, the body. They must beelieve they can fly. Nature has already spent billions of years figuring out the perfect way for small bodies to fly around, so why not simply copy? Using an origami-like method of folding sheets of material, scientists created a lightweight, versatile model based on the design of a bee. The wings are one of the most similar aspects, as the shape proved ideal for flight of the robot. In total, they weigh less than one tenth of a gram, and have a wingspan of about three centimeters. Ideal for all of their bee-substituting functions. One of the main problems still to be tackled is a seemingly simple one: power. So far, modern technology simply does not have a small enough system that can store enough power needed for bee flight. Currently, bees are having to be sustained in flight by small wires. However, with the rapid advances in electrics, it is hoped that a solution to this will be found in the near future.
Secondly, they must beehold what is around them at all times. Like real bees, the robots have sensory antennae which aid in detection and interaction with their environment. This ability to gather data means that it is hoped the bees will one day be used not only for military surveillance, but also for analysing the scenes of natural disasters and for exploring hostile environments where it is considered too dangerous to send people.

Finally, do they beehave like bees? The one of the main characteristics of bees – aside from buzzing, which, as far as I am aware, the Robobees do not do – is communication with their colony. When one says bee, we think beehive. One of the current hottest areas in Robobee research is to establish a mechanisms of liaison with fellow robots. This involves highly complex programming of the bees’ internal control systems, but could eventually lead large groups of them to be able to function just like a natural bee colony. Another issue preventing the perfect bee robot coming to life is the capacity to store information. Researchers are currently attempting to install the most recent small-scale hardware and software so that the bees can be properly programmed, and achieve the level of intelligence required to be able to function independently.
Robot bees may once have seemed an idea out of Scifi films, too farfetched to even consider in the real world. This is proof that thanks to modern science, many of our futuristic ideas are not only entirely feasible, but may soon become an integral part of our everyday lives. We must simply wait, and bee prepared.

PHOTO/Caroline Madigan

Jabujicaba – The Heart of Brazil

Jabujicaba

In a new e-book, ‘Jabujicaba’, Rosa da Silva delivers a thought-provoking environmental message about the state of the Brazilian rainforest through a powerful, yet subtle story of corrupt politics, covered up disasters, and exploration of the intricacies in the rainforest’s ecology.

The book follows Carmen Macedo, a journalist living in London, who upon returning to her home town in Brazil, is sent on an investigation deep into the Amazon rainforest to uncover the facts behind a fifteen year old tragedy. The journey in fact leads her to a wider mission – to stop the auction of Brazil’s forest land before it is too late.

Unlike many eco-campaigns, Jabujicaba is not in-your-face about the underlying message: the idea that we must all work together to save the rainforest for the good of the earth is delivered through an increased understanding of the implications of its destruction from the point of view of natives, scientists, politicians and ultimately, the rest of the world. By the end of the book the directive is clear – the price of the rainforest is in fact the price we must pay for a better tomorrow.

The plot is captivating from the off with mysterious spies lurking in Carmen’s garden, pirates haunting her mind’s eye, her closely woven familial connections to the Brazilian president and the Forestry Police. When she is sent as an investigative journalist to the Pedra do Altar, she meets the mysterious Braga – a kindred free-spirit from the Great Green City, and close friend of the Professor (a past lover of Carmen’s deceased mother, a genius scientist and rainforest nature enthusiast). They both represent two different ways to appreciate the rainforest, with it being Braga’s home and great love, and an endless academic joy to the Professor.

The whole book is hypnotizing; half the book can fly by in a blend of other worldly description of the rainforest; bright and vivid colours, animals and sounds, heat, humidity and the smells. Before you know it you find yourself at the dramatic climax with the rainforest on the brink of being sold off to people with little love for it. The plot line cleverly steers the audience to truly believe the rainforest is worth saving with unexpected twists and turns right up until the very end!

Da Silva has found a truly novel way to excite readers with real-life issues and allows them to discover the secrets of the rainforest, and hence gain an appreciation for it, alongside the main characters.

More details can be found at http://www.jabujicaba.net/ – with all royalties from the sale of the e-book going to the World Land Trust for forest conservation projects in Brazil.

How much for your life online?

Username

Does the name Syrian Electronic Army mean anything to you? It certainly does to Microsoft, Ebay, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter, Obama’s website “Organizing for Action”, and dozens of others targeted by the organisation in the past few years. Their most financially damaging assault was the infiltration of the Associated Press’ Twitter account in April 2013. The false tweet:

“Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”

Caused major panic and briefly wiped out $136bn of the S&P index’s value.

The group support the government of Syria’s president, and appear to target organisations or individuals they perceive to be undermining their cause. In January 2014 Microsoft were hit by a successful phishing attack, and later released a statement on their technet blog stating:

“We have learned that there was unauthorized access to certain employee email accounts, and information contained in those accounts could be disclosed.  It appears that documents associated with law enforcement inquiries were stolen.”

Documents fitting this description have been released online by the hackers, and purport to show interactions between Microsoft’s Global Criminal Compliance team and the FBI’s Digital Intercept Technology Unit (DITU), appearing to suggest Microsoft have been charging the FBI hundreds of thousands of dollars for user information, for around $200 per individual (as from August 2013). If this were the case, and assuming these documents are not in fact forgeries, Microsoft would be acting legally according to US law which states that, when required to release such information to the FBI and similar agencies, the provider may be compensated for expenses. Whether this practice is legal or not however, it raises some major questions about online security.

The Daily Dot- a website hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army- disclosed details of their ordeal, explaining that a sophisticated phishing attempt was made by the organisation. Emails manipulated to look like they were sent by a colleague were directed to members of the site management team, encouraging them to click on an enclosed link. When they did so they were required to give out their username and password, which were then used by the activists to infiltrate the organisation. In their article describing the incident, the Dot labels the method a “weakest link” approach- all it takes is one person to slip up and the entire system is compromised.

It’s no secret that companies are working all the time to improve online security. Only a few days ago, on the 20th March, Google announced they had made changes to their email services and are now encrypting 100% of messages sent internally, claiming:

“Today’s change means that no one can listen in on your messages as they go back and forth between you and Gmail’s servers—no matter if you’re using public WiFi or logging in from your computer, phone or tablet.”

Whilst some (the Mail Online, for example) have charmingly interpreted the move as an attempt to stop snooping from the US National Security Agency in the interests of user security, the fact remains that these agencies can and do request information from Google, Microsoft and the like on a regular basis. With regard to the interaction between these companies and government agencies therefore, the only effect of this increased security may be that Google could force the NSA to pay for the privilege of viewing user information. Whilst the knowledge of this increased security may seem comforting therefore, if recent events involving Microsoft and the Syrian Electronic Army have shown anything, it is that we still cannot put our complete trust in online security. Even if the hackers can’t access our personal information, there seems to be little stopping our governments- for a price, of course.

Sea-slug-150x150
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Byte-Sized Science – 21 February 2013

Sea slugDisposable penis

A species of sea slug, Chromodoris reticulata, found in the Pacific Ocean, is the only known animal that has a disposable penis. Japanese researchers have recently observed the creatures mating then detaching their penis. The sea slugs are then able to regrow a new fully functioning penis in 24 hours which they can then use to copulate again. The sea slugs sex life is already a complicated matter, as they are simultaneous hermaphrodite – this means they have both male and female sexual organs and can use them both at the same time. It is not uncommon for some species, particularly hermaphrodites to lose their penis at some point in their lifetime, but this is the first case of an animal being able to regrow one and reuse it.

 

OUSAS set their sights on the starsobservatory

Sunday 17th February saw the unveiling of the newly refurbished OUSAS (Oxford University Space and Astronomical Society) observatory by Professor Roger Davies. The observatory, which has been out of action for 15 years, is located behind St. Catherine’s College. A generous donation, made by Oxford Royale enabled the ambitious project to be undertaken. Sara Lukic, a student at St. Catz and John Ealand, a physical chemistry professor took the decision to restore the building as the felt it was time OUSAS has its own working observatory. This will be the only observatory in Oxford open to members of the public.

 

UK police get high-tech with paintballspaintball

Forget truncheons, the latest weapon in a policeman’s arsenal is so high-tech it’s orange. The snappily named High Velocity DNA Tagging System does exactly what it says on the tin. The pistol fires paintball-like pellets containing a unique DNA code which penetrates clothing to leave an indelible mark on the skin. Visible under UV light, this trace mark can irrefutably place criminals at the scene of a crime days and weeks even after the event. Designed for use in riots, the more trigger-happy law enforcer will be pleased to know that the gun also comes in shotgun form capable of firing off 20 rounds at once.

 

PHOTO/pacificKlaus; foxtail_1; a5400410

Google
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Is loss leadership a threat to innovation?

GoogleEvery January since 1978 thousands of technology enthusiasts have descended upon Las Vegas. Some say their motives are to gamble away their millions made from another bumper Christmas, with tablet and smartphone sales soaring even further than before in Q4 2012, but to most following consumer technology ‘January’ and ‘Las Vegas’ can be replaced with a simple, three letter acronym: C.E.S., the Consumer Electronics Show.

I have only ever visited one trade show, the slightly less well known Optrafair, where all of the British optical community gather to gawp at the latest innovations in … optics. Attending Optrafair with my parents (who are both optometrists) was hardly the most riveting experience of my two decades, but I came away with two very distinct memories which seem to serve as a very good generalisation for trade shows: salespeople are almost exclusively very attractive (and normally female) and every single product being shown is the best thing since soft contact lenses (or the industry equivalent to sliced bread).

I am reliably informed that CES is hyperbolic of even the traditional trade-show narrative … ‘booth babes’ (no longer just above average looking salespeople, but scantily clad models half trained to sell, half trained to shamelessly flirt) and product announcements which can only be described as the opposite of subtle are both found in abundance.

I am by no means the only one giving CES a bad rep. Many bloggers and journalists are claiming that they won’t make the annual pilgrimage to the city that never sleeps this time next year, even if it is an all expenses paid trip with hundreds of freebies and product demos (and models) which most would think would attract most geeks without quibble. Things must really be bad if people would rather be lounging at home suffering from post-Christmas lethargy than heading to the event of the year in their respective industry, in Las Vegas of all places.

Aside from all of the moaning and metajournalism, there were actually some fairly exciting product announcements at CES this year: Sony finally appears to be making a comeback in the mobile space after parting ways with Ericsson with the launch of their ‘waterproof superphone’ the Xperia Z, and Vizio announced a tablet which they claim is lighter, thinner and more powerful than Apple’s king of the tablets.

Both devices appear to be competitively specced when compared to the current crop of high-end devices, since both are running the latest iteration of Google’s Android operating system and feature excellent displays, processors and the like. Crucially both devices also appear to be competitively priced when compared to Apple’s latest offerings: Sony’s Xperia Z is estimated to come in at around £530 without a contract which is the same as Apple’s basic model of the iPhone 5, and although Vizio have not revealed pricing information they have said it will be in line with the latest iPad, which comes in at £399 for the base model.

I was quite excited about these announcements because I am currently shopping around for a tablet or laptop and potentially a new phone if I have any change. Most of this will be financed from my Christmas holiday work, but also my parents have agreed to top up my fund as a Christmas present should I convince them that I have found the best tablet to suit my needs.

On the surface these two devices appear to be perfect for me: I am heavily invested in Google services and so I won’t consider jumping ship to Apple or Microsoft unless they offered something really enticing. But I’m afraid to say that I’ll be passing on Vizio and Sony too. If you asked me this time last year when one should look to upgrade personal electronics, I would have said some time after CES so that you can jump on the latest and greatest. I’m not turning Sony and Vizio down because they’re failing to offer really, really good products, but rather because they’re really, really expensive. No, obviously not expensive when compared to Apple, but definitely, completely, blatantly overpriced when compared to the offerings of Google, and to some extent Amazon.

I’m sorry for doing this in such a roundabout way, but I wanted to give some context for why the business model that Google and Amazon are pursuing is so outlandish. Google’s latest ‘Nexus’ phone (Nexus is a line of devices curated by Google, the manufacturers have little to no say in how the final product comes out, they just make it to Google’s specifications) is called the Nexus 4, and it compared very favourably to the iPhone 5 in most departments. It is probably a less enticing phone than the waterproof Xperia Z, which comes with a better screen and camera, but whilst the Sony and Apple are asking for around £530 to lay your fingers on their handsets, Google are asking for just £280 (and there’s a lower end model with half the storage for £240, less than half the price of the others).

It’s a similar, if less dramatic story with tablets. Google’s Nexus 10 costs £80 less than the base ‘iPad with retina display’, and we assume the same will be true of Vizio’s tablet. Apple enthusiasts might argue that the iPad 2 or the iPad mini are more similarly priced, but Google’s smaller offering (the imaginatively named Nexus 7) starts at over a hundred pounds less than the brand new iPad mini.

Amazon is tipped to enter the mobile phone market with a device similar to Google’s Nexus 4, but Amazon was actually the first company to substantially undercut Apple in the tablet market with their Kindle Fire, which is priced similarly to the Nexus line. Nexuses and Amazon’s offerings appear to make Apple’s products – and especially new efforts by companies like Vizio, Samsung and Sony – look incredibly expensive. I am not looking to start an argument about whether these products are overpriced or not, I wholeheartedly believe that if you are invested in a brand and you enjoy using it then you’ll need a very good reason to win you over to a new ecosystem, but the price differences are undeniably substantial. What I want to comment on is how this behaviour seems great for consumers on the surface, but could actually be very damaging in the long term.

Once the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 eventually come back in stock (they have been sold out since virtually their first day of release), I am 99% sure I will go ahead and buy them. I’ll even have some change leftover for an external monitor and a Bluetooth keyboard so that I can write essays on my Nexus 10.  However, when I pitched this master plan to my parents they could not understand how Google’s offerings are so much less expensive than the other options on offer. They insisted there must be a catch. I showed them that the build quality, software and performance were reported to be in the same league as the much more expensive alternatives. Eventually they were won over and assumed Google must have some voodoo powers which enabled them to create more affordable products.

Despite winning my parents over, a seed of doubt had been planted in my mind. How on earth can Google, and Amazon, afford to charge such a little amount for devices which would appear to cost much more if they simply had a different name badge on them? Google have been quite shady about the whole thing, but with a little digging it became apparent that Amazon have been pursuing this tactic for quite some time in the plain light of day.

Amazon’s tablet range is intended to deliver devices that make enjoying Amazon’s many services seamless and fool proof. Most people know about Amazon’s Kindle store for buying ebooks. It turns out that Kindle books are incredibly easy to download and consume for all Kindle Fire owners. Amazon also offer easy access to MP3s, digital videos, cloud storage (like Dropbox) and apps via the Kindle Fire, as well as a superior product browsing experience for Amazon’s main storefront physical which so many people rely on for a vast array of products. Amazon’s strategy for the Kindle Fire is plain: recuperate reasonable costs from selling the device, but use the device to facilitate dependence on Amazon’s ecosystem, and Amazon’s ecosystem alone. If you use the Kindle Fire as intended, you basically only use Amazon’s services for most of your digital life, all of which it profits from.

This strategy isn’t new or unheard of. The normal just-plain-old-reading Kindles are sold at or close to cost, with the hope that you’ll buy enough books from the Kindle store to make it worth Amazon’s while, and they’ve been around since 2007. Sony appear to be the victims of this aggressive pricing strategy because their Xperia Z is so dramatically undercut by the Nexus 4, but Sony behaved in exactly the same way with their Playstation line of games consoles, often profiting off the game sales rather than the console itself.

The strategies can easily be observed outside of the world of technology too. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was sold at a loss by all major retailers. Supermarkets lead the charge, but WH Smith and Waterstones were forced to follow by charging less than cost in the hope that avid readers might also snap up some other books whilst they were in store.

This is clearly the sort of strategy that Amazon are pursuing, but by no means limiting their services to books. A lot more is at stake than just peripheral book sales in the all inclusive world of digital services.

Google have been a little shady about the whole thing. Google’s Android software is given away for free to manufacturers to do with as they please. Manufacturers generally choose to keep Google’s search, Gmail and application store in order to deliver the best experience, whilst profiting from the sale of the physical devices themselves. In this model, Google makes money from the app store and people’s reliance on other Google services which just happen to come with the handsets. Google then released the Nexus line of devices, which it claimed were to show manufacturers how Google envisioned Android to look on a phone. Google made it very clear that the aim was not to make lots of extra money or to compete with its hardware partners, but rather to set standards and spark new ideas. But in light of Google’s most recent releases I honestly can’t believe this is Google’s strategy any more. Releasing devices so competitively priced cannot be seen as working well with anyone other than the few manufacturers who are actually making the new Nexus lines. Everyone else is left in the dust whilst Google charges what they want knowing that as long as that person buys a few apps, books, MP3s, movies or magazines from Google’s ‘Play’ store they will have made enough money to justify the whole thing.

I’d love to conclude this article by righteously declaring that Google and Amazon are awful, uncompetitive companies who are trying to stifle competition through loss leadership, and that I will therefore abstain from buying any new devices until their pricing strategies change, but I can’t bring myself to say it. Perhaps I’m just trying to rationalise my selfishness by saying that at least Google are trying to stay open by allowing competitors present services on their app store, and that Amazon are such underdogs in the market right now that their pricing strategy might give them the leg up they need to actually challenge Apple.

A small part of me really is very worried that such aggressive pricing will eventually lead to smaller fish (like Vizio and Sony) being pushed out of the market, which could eventually stifle the innovation that choice brings to the table, but I’m afraid to say my bank balance is much smaller, and my thirst for the latest technology is much greater, than that part of me will be for the foreseeable future.

PHOTO/warrantedarrest

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