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No, someone hasn’t cracked the code of the mysterious Voynich manuscript 2019-05-15 23:03:06

Composed circa 1420, the 240-page Voynich Manuscript is considered by scholars to be most interesting and mysterious document ever found.

Enlarge / Composed circa 1420, the 240-page Voynich Manuscript is considered by scholars to be most interesting and mysterious document ever found. (credit: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

The Voynich manuscript is a famous medieval text written in a mysterious language that so far has proven to be undecipherable. Now, Gerard Cheshire, a University of Bristol academic, has announced his own solution to the conundrum in a new paper in the journal Romance Studies. Cheshire identifies the mysterious writing as a "calligraphic proto-Romance" language, and he thinks the manuscript was put together by a Dominican nun, as a reference source on behalf of Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon. Apparently it took him all of two weeks to accomplish a feat that has eluded our most brilliant scholars for at least a century.

So case closed, right? After all, headlines are already trumpeting that the "Voynich manuscript is solved," decoded by a "UK genius." Not so fast. There's a long, checkered history of people making similar claims. None of them have proved convincing to date, and medievalists are justly skeptical of Cheshire's conclusions as well.

What is this mysterious manuscript that has everyone so excited? It's a 15th century medieval handwritten text dated between 1404 and 1438, purchased in 1912 by a Polish book dealer and antiquarian named Wilfrid M. Voynich (hence its moniker). Along with the strange handwriting in an unknown language or code, the book is heavily illustrated with bizarre pictures of alien plants, naked women, strange objects, and zodiac symbols. It's currently kept at Yale University's Beinecke Library of rare books and manuscripts. Possible authors include Roger Bacon, Elizabethan astrologer/alchemist John Dee, or even Voynich himself, possibly as a hoax.

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Researchers make their own E. coli genome, compress its genetic code 2019-05-15 21:25:49

Like any other E. coli, but different.

Enlarge / Like any other E. coli, but different. (credit: CDC)

The genetic code is the basis for all life, allowing the information present in DNA to be translated into the proteins that perform most of a cell's functions. And yet it's... kind of a mess. Life typically uses a suite of about 20 amino acids, while the genetic code has 64 possible combinations. That mismatch means that redundancy is rampant, and a lot of species have evolved variations on what would otherwise be a universal genetic code.

So is the code itself significant, or is it something of a historic accident, locked in place by events in the distant evolutionary past? Answering that question hasn't been an option until recently, since individual codes appear in hundreds of thousands of places in the genomes of even the simplest organisms. But as our ability to make DNA has scaled up, it has become possible to synthesize entire genomes from scratch, allowing a wholesale rewrite of the genetic code.

Now, researchers are announcing that they have redone the genome of the bacteria E. coli to get rid of some of the genetic code's redundancy. The resulting bacteria grow somewhat more slowly than a normal strain but were otherwise difficult to distinguish from their non-synthetic peers.

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Google warns Bluetooth Titan security keys can be hijacked by nearby hackers 2019-05-15 20:29:53

Google warns Bluetooth Titan security keys can be hijacked by nearby hackers

Enlarge (credit: Google)

Google is warning that the Bluetooth Low Energy version of the Titan security key it sells for two-factor authentication can be hijacked by nearby attackers, and the company is advising users to get a free replacement device that fixes the vulnerability.

A misconfiguration in the key’s Bluetooth pairing protocols makes it possible for attackers within 30 feet to either communicate with the key or with the device it’s paired with, Google Cloud Product Manager Christiaan Brand wrote in a post published on Wednesday.

The Bluetooth-enabled devices are one variety of low-cost security keys that, as Ars reported in 2016, represent the single most effective way to prevent account takeovers for sites that support the protection. In addition to the account password entered by the user, the key provides secondary “cryptographic assertions” that are just about impossible for attackers to guess or phish. Security keys that use USB or Near Field Communication are unaffected.

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White House refuses to sign international statement on online extremism 2019-05-15 20:05:32

White House refuses to sign international statement on online extremism

(credit: Matt Wade)

The Trump administration will not sign an international pledge by governments and online services to combat extremist content online. The Christchurch Call is named after the New Zealand city where a terrorist livestreamed the shooting deaths of 50 Muslims in March.

The statement is being formally released today as part of an international summit in Paris. It will bear the signatures of more than a dozen nations, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Leading technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, have also signed on. But not the US government.

"The United States stands with the international community in condemning terrorist and violent extremist content online in the strongest terms," the White House said in an emailed statement Wednesday. The US government says it will "continue to support the overall goals reflected in the Call," however, it is "not currently in a position to join the endorsement."

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Ajit Pai’s robocall plan lets carriers charge for new call-blocking tools 2019-05-15 18:28:36

Ajit Pai’s robocall plan lets carriers charge for new call-blocking tools

Enlarge (credit: ullstein bild | Getty Images)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is calling on carriers to block robocalls by default without waiting for consumers to opt in to call-blocking services. But he hasn't proposed making this a requirement and is leaving it up to carriers to decide whether to charge for such services.

To encourage carriers, Pai is proposing rule changes making it clear that carriers are allowed to block calls by default. Call blocking by default isn't explicitly outlawed by the FCC, but Pai's announcement today said that "many voice providers have held off developing and deploying call-blocking tools by default because of uncertainty about whether these tools are legal under the FCC's rules."

In a call with reporters this morning, Pai said the uncertainty stems from a 2015 FCC order in which "the FCC suggested that its rules and regulations would not prohibit call-blocking services to the extent that consumers opted into them. Many members of the industry perceived that interpretation to make illegal, potentially, the blocking of calls by default."

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Epic plans more exclusive Games Store announcements, storewide “Mega Sale” 2019-05-15 18:08:31

Epic plans more exclusive Games Store announcements, storewide “Mega Sale”

Enlarge (credit: Epic)

If you thought Epic was done adding to the growing pile of PC games exclusively available on its own Games Store, well... I'd like to know where you got that impression. In any case, you should think again, because Epic has announced it will "reveal brand-new material for several games, including some exclusives, coming to the Epic Games store" at next month's Electronic Entertainment Expo.

The announcement comes as part of Epic's participation as a "presenting sponsor" at the fifth annual PC Gaming Show during the expo. Epic takes over a role previously held by Intel and AMD at the event, suggesting this year's show may feature fewer awkward scenes of a chip-maker standing on stage talking about how great their new hardware is. It also ensures a relatively high-profile stage for Epic's coming exclusivity announcements, following on the company's own press conference at the Game Developers Conference.

Other confirmed participants at this year's PC Gaming Show include:

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Microsoft open sources algorithm that gives Bing some of its smarts 2019-05-15 17:51:36

The Eiffel Tower.

Enlarge / The Eiffel Tower. (credit: Pedro Szekely)

Search engines today are more than just the dumb keyword matchers they used to be. You can ask a question—say, "How tall is the tower in Paris?"—and they'll tell you that the Eiffel Tower is 324 meters (1,063 feet) tall, about the same as an 81-story building. They can do this even though the question never actually names the tower.

How do they do this? As with everything else these days, they use machine learning. Machine-learning algorithms are used to build vectors—essentially, long lists of numbers—that in some sense represent their input data, whether it be text on a webpage, images, sound, or videos. Bing captures billions of these vectors for all the different kinds of media that it indexes. To search the vectors, Microsoft uses an algorithm it calls SPTAG ("Space Partition Tree and Graph"). An input query is converted into a vector, and SPTAG is used to quickly find "approximate nearest neighbors" (ANN), which is to say, vectors that are similar to the input.

This (with some amount of hand-waving) is how the Eiffel Tower question can be answered: a search for "How tall is the tower in Paris?" will be "near" pages talking about towers, Paris, and how tall things are. Such pages are almost surely going to be about the Eiffel Tower.

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Mass grave in Poland embodies the violent beginning of the Bronze Age 2019-05-15 17:41:30

This is the Late Neolithic mass grave at Koszyce, Poland.

Enlarge / This is the Late Neolithic mass grave at Koszyce, Poland. (credit: Image courtesy of Piotr Wodarczak)

Sometime between 2880 and 2776 BCE, 15 family members were hastily buried together in a single pit, their shattered skulls telling a story of violent death. Yet someone interred the dead with the pottery, tools, and ornaments typical of a proper burial in their culture, a culture we know today by the name of its most common ceramic artifact: the Globular Amphora. And someone seems to have made the effort to put the closest family members alongside one another in the pit.

Today, the grave near the village of Koszyce in southern Poland is the only record of one particular act of brutal violence during a turbulent time in European prehistory.

Out of the blue

It seems that no one in the seasonal camp of pastoralists was prepared for the raiders. Nearly all of the dead are women and children. Though women in the past (and today) could be formidable fighters, no weapons are buried with them to suggest that was the case here. Almost none of their bones show signs of broken limbs raised in defense (known as parry fractures), so it doesn’t look like they went down fighting. Instead, most appear to have died from crushing blows to the back of their skulls, as if they’d been captured and executed.

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The dark side of technology is back in first Black Mirror S5 trailer 2019-05-15 16:40:19

An impressive ensemble cast will appear in three new episodes for Netflix series Black Mirror season 5.

The first trailer for the highly anticipated fifth season of the Netflix sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror is finally here, and it looks to be as edgy, darkly satiric, and thought-provoking as ever.

(Mildest of spoilers for prior seasons and Bandersnatch below.)

For the uninitiated, Black Mirror is the creation of Charlie Brooker, co-showrunner with Annabel Jones. The series explores, shall we say, the darker side of technology and its impact on people's lives in the near future, and it's in the spirit of classic anthology series like The Twilight Zone. Brooker developed Black Mirror to highlight topics related to humanity's relationship to technology, creating stories that feature "the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy." The series debuted on the British Channel 4 in December 2011, followed by a second season. Noting its popularity, Netflix took over the series in 2015, releasing longer seasons 3 and 4 in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

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SpaceX plans to A/B test its Starship rocketship builds 2019-05-15 15:12:41

Artist's conception of 21st-century rocket ship.

Enlarge / The Starship test vehicle, currently under assembly in South Texas, may look similar to this illustration when finished. (credit: Elon Musk/Twitter)

On Tuesday, photos began to emerge online of a new, Starship-like vehicle being built in an industrial park, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Later, SpaceX founder Elon Musk confirmed that the company will develop a Starship prototype in Florida to parallel work being done in South Texas.

"Both sites will make many Starships," Musk shared on Twitter. "This is a competition to see which location is most effective. Answer might be both." This will not be a strict A/B test, a randomized experiment. Rather, Musk added, any insights gained by one team must be shared with the other, but the other team is not required to use them.

This is a rather new way to develop an orbital spaceship, especially one as large and as complex as Starship, which is designed to land and take off from other worlds such as the Moon and Mars. However, it is far from unprecedented in the tech world. For example, Google has long had a strategy of making two of everything, with multiple, competing products that go after the same user base.

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The radio-navigation planes use to land safely is insecure and can be hacked 2019-05-15 12:00:36

A plane in the researchers' demonstration attack as spoofed ILS signals induce a pilot to land to the right of the runway.

Enlarge / A plane in the researchers' demonstration attack as spoofed ILS signals induce a pilot to land to the right of the runway. (credit: Sathaye et al.)

Just about every aircraft that has flown over the past 50 years—whether a single-engine Cessna or a 600-seat jumbo jet—relies on radios to safely land at airports. These instrument landing systems are considered precision approach systems, because, unlike GPS and other navigation systems, they provide crucial real-time guidance about both the plane’s horizontal alignment with a runway and its vertical rate of descent. In many settings—particularly during foggy or rainy nighttime landings—this radio-based navigation is the primary means for ensuring planes touch down at the start of a runway and on its centerline.

Like many technologies built in earlier decades, the ILS was never designed to be secure from hacking. Radio signals, for instance, aren’t encrypted or authenticated. Instead, pilots simply assume that the tones their radio-based navigation systems receive on a runway’s publicly assigned frequency are legitimate signals broadcast by the airport operator. This lack of security hasn’t been much of a concern over the years, largely because the cost and difficulty of spoofing malicious radio signals made attacks infeasible.

Now, researchers have devised a low-cost hack that raises questions about the security of ILS, which is used at virtually every civilian airport throughout the industrialized world. Using a $600 software defined radio, the researchers can spoof airport signals in a way that causes a pilot’s navigation instruments to falsely indicate a plane is off course. Normal training will call for the pilot to adjust the plane’s descent rate or alignment accordingly and create a potential accident as a result.

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