Sensitive stuff that goes boom, even if touched by a mosquito

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When a feather drops on it, or a mosquito lands on top of nitrogen triiodide – Booom! – an instantaneous dark purple or violet explosion occurs. It’s because nitrogen triiodide is so unstable that it detonates even when it’s barely disturbed.

Three iodine atoms cluster around one side of a nitrogen atom. Being crowded around one end causes something known as bond strain as the atoms repel each other in a small space. Hence that the molecule is susceptible to falling apart, lets say, quite explosively.

NO3 in 3d
NO3 visualized in 3D – Source: Wikipedia

You should definitely take a look at the awesome slow-mo video of triiodide blasting off, created by the blokes over at the Royal Institution.



 Enjoy, and don’t forget to like and share :)

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Student faces 10 years for Android Malware

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Morgan C. Culbertson, a student from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday admitted in federal court to designing and attempting to promote malware that allowed users to take control of other people’s Android smartphones/tablets.

“I’m sorry to the people to whom my software may have compromised their privacy,” Mr. Culbertson stated in pleading guilty to conspiracy to damage protected computer systems.

He informed U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill Jr. that he was pleading guilty because “I committed the crime” and promised that in the future he would use his expertise to protect computer users.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kitchen mentioned that in 2013 Mr. Culbertson, who called  himself “Android” online, conspired with another man, “Mike” from the Netherlands, to design a product known as Dendroid and sell it on Darkode, an underground web-based market for criminals and hackers.

Mr. Culbertson, 20, of Churchill, faces up to 10 years in jail when Judge Cohill sentences him in December, though he’s unlikely to get anywhere close to the maximum. He had no comment following the hearing, nor did his lawyer, Emily McNally, or his family.

Dendroid infected victims’ android systems, permitting a customer who had purchased the malware to spy on texts, pilfer files, take images, view browser history & record conversations, all with out the owners’ consent or knowledge.

Mr. Culbertson later bought out Mike’s share of the partnership and began working with another man identified as “Elzig,” Mr. Kitchen stated, in an attempt to market Dendroid on Darkode.

Mr. Culbertson advertised the malware on Darkode for $300, saying he had spent “1.3 years” designing it, and in addition tried to auction the source code that might allow consumers to create their very own version of Dendroid.

Ms. McNally said he didn’t get any offers on his auction attempt.

Following the plea, Judge Cohill allowed Mr. Culbertson to stay free on a $10,000 bond. An engineering student who has completed his sophomore year in the College of Engineering, he told the judge he has taken a leave of absence from the CMU.

CMU spokesman Ken Walters stated that the university had no comment on the matter. Asked if the university had a policy against permitting a pupil to remain enrolled after being convicted of a felony, Mr. Walters said he didn’t know and he has forwarded the query to the administrators.

The Carnegie Mellon Code of Conduct, which is available on the university’s web site, states that college students “are expected to satisfy the highest standards of personal, ethical and moral conduct possible. … Students who can’t meet them should voluntarily withdraw from the university.”

A graduate of Winchester Thurston, a private school in Shadyside, Mr. Culbertson was described by those that know him as an clever, respectful and level-headed student who worked hard and excelled on the tennis team. He was said to have many friends and his parents had been very involved in his life, never missing one of his tennis matches.

darkode fbi notice
FBI has taken down the Darkode forum

Mr. Culbertson was among some 70 individuals targeted in an international investigation based in Pittsburgh that targeted Darkode, which has since been shut down by the FBI. Of those, seven are being prosecuted in Pittsburgh, including Mr. Culbertson.

Three others involved with Darkode have entered guilty pleas in a spam scheme unrelated to Mr. Culbertson’s crime.

Dewayne Watts, 28, and Naveed Ahmed, 27, both of Florida, and Phillip Fleitz, 31, of Indianapolis, admitted to their roles in maintaining a spam botnet that used servers in China to infect routers in other nations and send millions of e-mail messages designed to defeat spam filters of cellphone providers.

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Peer-to-Peer Predictions: The Greatest Gambling Platform in History?

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An online gambling platform could do to the neighborhood bookie what electric refrigerators did to the ice delivery man.

Coming this fall, Augur will allow participants to wager money on any future event of their choosing. Software will set the odds, collect the bets, and disperse the winnings. The price alone should give Nevada sports book operators pause; an estimated one percent of every pot will go to keep the system running. The average vig today is about 10 times that.

Augur isn’t a full-fledged casino. You can’t play roulette or poker, and running lotto on the platform would be tricky. But it’ll be great for sports betting.

Here’s what’s truly novel about Augur: It won’t be controlled by any person or entity, nor will it operate off of any one computer network. All the money in the system will be in Bitcoin, or other types of peer-to-peer crypto-currency, so no credit card companies or banks need to be involved. If the system runs afoul of regulators—and if it’s successful, it most certainly will—they’ll find that there’s no company to sue, no computer hardware to pull out of the wall, and no CEO to lockup in a cage.

This is new legal territory. If Augur catches on as a tool for betting on everything from basketball games to stock prices, is there anything the government can do to stop it?

Augur is a decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace, a new kind of entity made possible by recent breakthroughs in computer science. The purpose of these platforms is to facilitate the exchange of goods and services among perfect strangers on a platform that nobody administers or controls. Augur’s software will run on what’s known as a “blockchain”—a concept introduced in 2008 with the invention of Bitcoin—that’s essentially a shared database for executing trades that’s powered and maintained by its users.

Bitcoin’s blockchain was designed as a banking ledger of sorts—kind of like a distributed Microsoft Excel file—but Augur will utilize a groundbreaking new project called Ethereum that expands on this concept. Ethereum allows Augur’s entire system to live on the blockchain. That means the software and processing power that makes Augur function will be distributed among hundreds or thousands of computers. Destroying Augur would involve unplugging the computers of everyone in the world participating in the Ethereum blockchain.

If Augur is destined to become the cypherpunks answer to gambling prohibition—the betting man’s version of the online drug market Silk Road if you will—you’d never know it from talking with its developers. They work for a San Francisco-based nonprofit, attend conferences, have legal representation, and talk openly about what they’re up to with reporters. Augur even commissioned one of those cheesy motion graphics promotional videos favored by new tech startups.

About half of the roughly $600,000 raised by Augur’s development team comes from Joe Costello, the successful tech entrepreneur who was once Steve Jobs’ top pick to become the CEO of Apple.

Joey Krug, a twenty-year-old Pomona college dropout and Augur’s lead developer, never uses the world “gambling” to describe his venture. He and his team of five employees call Augur a “prediction market,” a term that emphasizes the information generated when a bunch of people have a financial incentive to feed their expertise into a sophisticated algorithm.

With Augur, as bettors move money in and out of the pot, the odds adjust. This yields publicly available statistics that should carry weight because they’re derived from the opinions of a crowd of people with a stake in the results. InTrade, for example, the best-known prediction market until federal regulators forced it to stop serving U.S. customers in 2012, beat the pollsters and pundits by foreseeing the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections in 48 out of 50 states.

augurYouTube Augur’s developers hope that their platform will make it possible to do a Google search to look up the likelihood of some future event. This could usher in a better world, with more informed policy decisions and less mal-investment.

But Augur also serves the less high-minded—though no less noble—purpose of providing cost savings and convenience to gamblers. Restrictions on gambling serve to protect government revenue at the betting man’s expense. State-sanctioned casino operators pay high taxes, and state-run lotteries fleece their customers. But there’s no logical or moral case for government restrictions on gambling, since no third party is harmed when consenting adults wager money on the future. Augur actually has the potential to make the world safer by taking away market share in the gambling industry from criminals.

And yet sports betting is illegal in most states, and prediction markets are tightly regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CTFC). The agency sued Ireland-based InTrade in 2012 to prevent it from accepting bets from U.S. customers. (The company folded shortly after.) In 2013, the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) jointly sued the prediction market Banc de Binary for allowing U.S. customers to make bets on commodity prices.

The CFTC has approved other prediction markets, such as the New Zealand-based PredictIt, but only after it agreed to abide by the agency’s restrictions.

Krug says the Augur team is planning to meet with CFTC staff go over how their system works before it’s launched, but says he’s not overly concerned. “Our friends in Washington, D.C. say the CFTC will probably just dismiss Augur and say it’s not a big deal,” Krug told me in a phone interview.

That doesn’t sound like much of a legal strategy, but how do you have a legal strategy when you’re building something unlike anything that’s ever existed? Federal anti-gambling laws, such as the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, target the companies that facilitate online betting— website operators, credit card companies, banks—not individual gamblers.

Augur’s biggest legal vulnerability is the community of human “reporters” who are needed to settle bets on the platform, says Cardozo Law School’s Aaron Wright, who is writing a book about the legal implications of blockchain technology. Let’s say a group of people wager money on Augur over the outcome of a boxing match. Once the bout is over, human participants (who receive a portion of the trading fees as compensation) must report the outcome to the system before Augur’s software will disperse the money to the winners. “There’s at least an argument that the people doing that reporting are aiding or abetting unlicensed options and could be prosecuted,” says Wright.

But Augur doesn’t collect personal information on any of its users, so identifying these people could be difficult. And Augur is a borderless technology, so U.S. gamblers could simply rely on foreigners to report on the outcomes of their bets.

One attorney I spoke with suggested that the team that’s building Augur could be brought up on charges for aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy. Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks that’s far-fetched but says he can’t rule it out. Cardozo emphasizes that writing open source software doesn’t necessarily protect the team from prosecution.

“We’ve taken the steps that we need to take in order to bracket the individual’s risk and the organization’s risk,” says Augur’s attorney, Marco Santori, who declined to comment further on exactly what those steps might entail.

Even if Krug and his colleagues were to face criminal prosecution, the technology would live on. After Augur is born into the world, the development team could release a software update that would cripple the system. But in that case, Augur’s users could band together to block any changes to the underlying code, or another developer could copy the open source code and simply re-launch the platform.

The big question with Augur—and with blockchain platforms more generally—is whether they can outrun our regulatory state long enough to grow so large and popular that they’re truly unstoppable. My money’s on Augur in that race.

This post first appeared at Reason’s brilliant and award-winning Hit & Run blog

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Subatomic Particles that Appear to defy Standard Model Particle Physics

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Subatomic particles have been discovered that seem to defy the Standard Model of particle physics. The team working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider have discovered proof of leptons decaying at completely different rates, which could possibly point to some undiscovered forces.

Publishing their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters, the group from the University of Maryland had been searching for conditions and behaviors that don’t fit with the Standard Model. The model explains most known behaviors and interactions of fundamental subatomic particles, however it’s incomplete – for instance it doesn’t adequately explain gravity, dark matter and neutrino masses.

Researchers say the discovery of the non-conforming leptons might provide an enormous lead in the quest for non-standard phenomenon. The Standard Model concept of lepton universality assumes leptons are treated equally by fundamental forces.

The team looked at B meson decays including two kinds of leptons – the tau lepton and the muon, both of which are extremely unstable and decay within just a fraction of a second. The tau lepton and muon should decay at the same rate after mass differences are corrected. However the researchers discovered small but important variations in the predicted rates of decay.

This suggests there are undiscovered forces or particles interfering in the process. Study co-author Hassan Jawahery stated: “The Standard Model says the world interacts with all leptons in the same method. There is a democracy there. But there is no guarantee that this will hold true if we discover new particles or new forces. Lepton universality is truly enshrined in the Standard Model. If this universality is broken, we can say that we have found evidence for non-standard physics.”

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – Proton-proton collisions at the interaction point (far left) result in a shower of leptons and other charged particles. The yellow and green lines are computer-generated reconstructions of the particles’ trajectories through the layers of the LHCb detector.(CERN/LHCb Collaboration)

He said they’re now planning a range of different measurements in the hope of confirming their findings: “If this phenomenon is corroborated, we will have many years of work ahead. It could point theoretical physicists towards new ways to take a look at standard and non-standard physics.”

Researchers also noted their research add to previous findings about lepton decay – BaBar experiment – with both experiments (carried out in very different environments) showing the identical physical model: This replication provides an important independent check on the observations,” co-author Brian Hamilton mentioned. “The added weight of two experiments is the key here. This suggests that it isn’t just an instrumental effect–it’s pointing to real physics.”

Gregory Ciezarek, another co-author, added: “While these two results taken together are very promising, the observed phenomena will not be considered a true violation of the Standard Model with out further experiments to verify our observations.”

Jawahery stated that future work in this area will turn out to be ever more exciting, with specialists improving our understanding of how the universe evolved: “For example, we know that dark matter and dark energy exist, but we do not yet know what they’re or how to explain them. Our result could be a part of that puzzle. If we can demonstrate that there are missing particles and interactions beyond the Standard Model, it could help complete the picture.”

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Flash ads will stop working in Chrome from Sept 1st, 2015

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In case your advertisements are not on the search giant’s network (Adsense), they better be in HTML5 – or they’re lifeless to Chrome. If they are already on the Adsense, then worry not, it probably has been converted to HTML5.

Google is making good on its promise to strangle Adobe Flash’s capability to auto-play in Chrome.

The online giant has set September 1, 2015 as the date from which non-essential Flash files might be click-to-play in the browser by default – effectively freezing out “many” Flash adverts in the process.

Users will have to right-click over the security-challenged plugin and select “Run this” if they wish to unfreeze a flash animation. Otherwise, the Flash files will stay suspended in a gray box, unable to trigger any malicious code on auto run.

Recently, back in June, Google warned that, in cooperation with Adobe, it will change the way in which Flash material is shown on web sites.

Mainly, “essential” Flash content (such as embedded video players) are allowed to automatically run, whereas unimportant Flash content, most of which are ads, shall be automatically paused.

As we explained a couple of months ago, it is effectively taking Chrome’s “Detect and run important plugin content” feature, and making it the default: only the “main plugin content on web sites” will be run automatically. That should put a stop to the irritating ads flashing all over the pages.

Most pundits believed that it was due to security reasons, however, Google’s reasoning for this move is largely performance-based, apparently. The second largest American company worries that with too many pieces of Flash content running at once, Chrome’s efficiency is hamstrung, and, more critically, battery life is drained in notebooks and tablets running the Flash plugin.

flash dead
Apparently, Flash is slow, inefficient and about to die. Is that hTml5 walking over Flash?

In June, on a blog post, Google’s software engineer Tommy Li put the blame squarely on Adobe’s shoulders and wrote that “Adobe Flash allows web pages to display rich content – but sometimes that can put a squeeze on your laptop’s battery”

Specifically, the culprit is the Adobe Flash plugin that comes built into Chrome and which automatically shows any Flash content it finds on web sites.

Crucially, the move will also help kill the spread of malware via malicious Flash files, particularly dodgy adverts which have popped up on sites used by millions and millions of individuals (hint: like Yahoo!)

Google mentioned that advertisers who’re apprehensive about having their adverts switched off should contemplate converting their Flash art work to HTML5. According to the cyber-Goliath, “most Flash adverts uploaded to [Google] AdWords are automatically converted to HTML5.”

Basically, in other words, if you’re not on Google’s ad network, you are locked out of Chrome – unless you also switch to HTML5.

Interestingly, Google’s security engineers have been helping Adobe’s programmers to shore up Flash with anti-hacker defenses. Google’s Project Zero team revealed that the version of Flash – which was released to patch vulnerabilities exploited by spyware maker Hacking Team – employs three mitigations developed by Google and Adobe.

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Carbon nano fibres made from thin air

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Scientists in the US have discovered a method to take carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and make carbon nano fibres, a useful manufacturing material.

Their solar-powered system runs a small current via a tank full of a hot, molten salt; the fluid absorbs atmospheric CO2 and tiny carbon fibres slowly form at one of the electrodes.

It presently produces 10 grams per hour.

The team says it can be “scaled up” and will have an effect on CO2 emissions, however other researchers are uncertain.

Nonetheless, the method provides a much cheaper approach of creating carbon nano fibres than present strategies, according to Prof Stuart Licht of George Washington University.

“Till now, carbon nano fibres have been too expensive for many applications,” he informed journalists at the autumn meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

Carbon nano fibres are already utilized in high-end applications such as electronic parts and batteries, and if prices came down they could possibly be used more extensively – enhancing the strong, light-weight carbon composites used in aircraft and automotive parts, for example.

The question is whether or not the “one-pot” reaction demonstrated by Prof Licht and his group could help to drop that price.

carbon collected from air
At the moment 10 grams of nano fibres – like this sample Dr Licht brought to the convention – could be made per hour

The thought of turning CO2 from the air into useful products is a popular one, and the field is strewn with many more unfulfilled promises than success stories.

However Prof Licht is confident his design can succeed. “It scales up very easily, the entire process is quite low energy.”

Daring vision

He additionally suggested that the system could provide “a reasonable path to bring down CO2 levels within the environment”.

This would involve adopting the reactors on a colossal scale and the concept has raised some eyebrows.

Dr Katy Armstrong, a chemical engineer at the University of Sheffield, stated the method was “promising and very fascinating on a lab scale” however that Prof Licht’s bigger vision could be problematic.

“As they’re capturing CO2 from the air, the method will need to cope with large volumes of gas to collect the required quantity of carbon, which could increase process costs when scaled up”

process of creation
The carbon nanofibres gradually build up on one of the device’s electrodes

Dr Paul Fennell, a chemical engineer and clean energy researcher at Imperial College London, stated: “If they can make carbon nano fibres, that is a laudable aim and its a worthwhile product to have.

“But if your idea is to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and produce so many carbon nano fibres that you make a difference to climate change – I might be extremely surprised if you may do this.”

Prof Licht insists it’s worth attempting.

“There are no catches; there is a necessity to work collectively, to test this on a bigger scale, to use some societal resources to do that,” he said.

In the meantime, other chemists were impressed by fact that Prof Licht’s crew had produced nano fibres from atmospheric carbon.


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A small mistake helped scientists to quadruple battery lifespan

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Until somebody figures out a alternative for lithium-ion in rechargeable batteries, research will continue into find out how to cram extra power inside as well as extending their useful lifespan. Two scientists believe they’ve managed to increase the life of such batteries significantly, and all due to an accident within the lab.

In the present day, lithium-ion batteries usually rely on graphite anodes to offer a long lifespan. Rechargeable battery performance declines and ultimately falls off a cliff (becomes unusable) because of these anodes repeatedly expanding and contracting as lithium ions migrate during the cycle of charging and discharge. Lithium compounds build up on the electrodes throughout this process then break off during the expansion and contraction. This exposes the surface of the electrode and over time decomposes it to the point of failure.

A better alternative to utilizing graphite for the anodes would be aluminum, however aluminum expands and contracts too much during each cycle. If scientists could stop that happening, we’d have much better performing batteries.

Dr Li Ju of MIT, USA and Dr Wang Changan of Tsinghua University, China and have been working collectively to stop the oxide coating that forms on the surface of aluminum nanoparticles when it’s exposed to air. Their idea was to soak the nanoparticles in a sulfuric acid and titanium oxysuplphate mix, which would dissolve the aluminum oxide and replace it with titanium oxide.

Achieving the new outer coating required a set time of soaking. The accident occurred when Wang and Li forgot to remove one batch of the nanoparticles from the soaking process. That batch ended up soaking for several hours longer than intended with the end result being the sulfuric acid and titanium oxysulfate mix leaked into the 50nm nano particles and dissolved some of the aluminum inside. What this left was a nano particle with a 4nm outer shell of titanium hydroxide and an inner 30nm “yolk” of aluminum.

The yolk and shell
A new “yolk-and-shell” nano particle could boost the capacity and power of lithium-ion batteries. The grey sphere at center represents an aluminum nanoparticle, forming the “yolk.” The outer light-blue layer represents a solid shell of titanium dioxide, and the space in between the yolk and shell permits the yolk to expand and contract with out damaging the shell. In the background is an actual scanning electron microscope image of a collection of these yolk-shell nano particles.
Credits: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Rather than discarding this forgotten batch, they decided to test it by constructing batteries using these particles. It turns out they’ve potentially solved the problem of using aluminum for the anodes in the battery. The extra long soak meant the anodes didn’t expand and contract, in fact they created a battery that over 500 charge/discharge cycles retained as much as 4-times the capacity of the equivalent graphite anode batteries. These batteries last significantly longer in terms of usable lifespan and, according to MIT, can hold up to three-times the energy.

Clearly, sometimes being a forgetful scientist can lead to a breakthrough. The discovery is expected to be an easy one to scale up to mass manufacturing, which means the next-generation of rechargeable batteries may use aluminum anodes, bringing with it longer battery life per charge and batteries which have a much improved lifespan.

“These yolk-shell particles show very impressive performance in lab-scale testing,” says David Lou, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who was not involved in this work.

“To me, the most attractive point of this work is that the process appears simple and scalable.”

The research team included Sa Li, Yu Cheng Zhao, and Chang An Wang of Tsinghua University in Beijing and Junjie Niu, Kangpyo So, and Chao Wang of MIT. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation & the National Natural Science Foundation of China.


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