Fossil Footprints Capture Prehistoric Sloth Hunt

A prehistoric sloth hunt is frozen in time in footprints preserved in the New Mexico desert, according to new research.

It’s an extremely rare find that authors say could revolutionize our understanding of how ancient humans interacted with large animals.

It also may shed light on whether our ancestors drove the giant ground sloth to extinction.

Footprints in footprints

In the gypsum sediments of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, scientists found more than 100 prints dating back approximately 10,000 to 15,000 years.

The footprints seem to show humans stalking giant ground sloths, animals that could reach the size of an elephant. The creatures went extinct around the end of the last Ice Age, at roughly the same time as humans arrived on the scene.

Reconstruction based on fossil footprint evidence shows how human hunters stalked giant ground sloth to distract them before trying to land a killing blow. (Photo credit: Alex McClelland, Bournemouth University)

Reconstruction based on fossil footprint evidence shows how human hunters stalked giant ground sloth to distract them before trying to land a killing blow. (Photo credit: Alex McClelland, Bournemouth University)

In some of the prints, the humans walked in the sloth tracks, even though the stride of a giant sloth was longer than that of a human. One human appears to draw near a sloth on tip-toe.

Where the human tracks approach the sloth tracks, the animal suddenly changes direction. The researchers found what they call “flailing circles,” rounded heel prints and knuckle and claw prints where it looks like the animal reared up on its hind legs to defend itself with its front limbs.

Risky hunting

Hunting an animal the size of a giant sloth, with long arms and sharp claws, “would have come with huge amounts of risk,” said Bournemouth University geology professor Matthew Bennett, senior author of the research, published in the journal Science Advances.

“If you were chasing a small rabbit or something, [there’s] little risk associated,” he added. “But going head to head with a sloth, the chances are that you might come off badly.”

With the newly discovered footprints, “we can begin to understand how they did it,” Bennett said. “That gives us a better understanding whether we are guilty or not” of hunting the animals to extinction.

“It is very rare, if not unique, to see unequivocal evidence of human interactions with large vertebrates based on tracks,” said retired University of Colorado Denver paleontology professor Martin Lockley, who was not involved with the new research.

“There are only a handful of ancient human footprint sites in North America, making this one of the best,” he added.

The authors say there are likely more tracks to be found at the White Sands site.


Researchers Create Hack to Unlock Millions of Hotel Room Doors

A flaw in electronic hotel door locks from Assa Abloy could allow hackers to access guest rooms and other secure locations at millions of properties around the world, F-Secure researchers have discovered.

Software updates were issued to fix the flaw in the smart locks, called “the Vision by VingCard,” after F-Secure notified and worked with Assa Abloy over the past year.

The researchers had found a way to make a master key using information from a key card for any room — including closets and garages, and even long-expired or discarded keys. The method would have allowed hackers to carry out an attack without being noticed.

Persistence Pays Off

The researchers started looking into the issue after a 2003 incident in which a colleague’s laptop was stolen during a security conference. The hotel staff reportedly had not taken the reported theft seriously, saying there were no signs of forced entry or unauthorized room access.

Over the years, the researchers spent thousands of hours, on and off, investigating the incident. They eventually homed in on a lock known for having strong security and high quality.

“Only after we thoroughly understood how the system was designed were we able to identify seemingly innocuous shortcomings,” said Timo Hirvonen, senior security consultant for F-Secure. “We creatively combined these shortcomings to come up with a method of creating master keys.”

No actual hotel rooms were compromised during the research, according to the firm.

The vulnerability applies only to the Vision by VingCard product, Hirvonen told the E-Commerce Times, adding that F-Secure agreed with Assa Abloy to withhold the mechanism of the vulnerability.

Multiple factors impact the effectiveness of electronic door locks, he pointed out, noting that encryption is used to protect the confidentiality of the data on the key card.

“Encryption raises the bar to start analyzing the system,” Hirvonen said. “However, encryption is not a silver bullet — the encryption key has to be securely generated and stored.”

Hotel Review

Marriott International confirmed that Assa Abloy notified the hotel chain about the vulnerability in a version of the company’s locking system.

“We are currently working with the vendor to understand the impact to our hotels,” said spokesperson Hunter Hardinge.

The company had been issued a software patch by Assa Abloy and was working to deploy the patch as fast as possible, she added.

The hack is based on cryptographic weaknesses of older-generation door locks, said Andrew Howard, chief technology officer at Kudelski Security, based on reports he has read.

The vulnerability allows the hackers tools to cycle through potential door access codes until the right one is found, he told the E-Commerce Times.

This report is a reminder of the vulnerability of remote locks, particularly at a time when companies increasingly are selling smart lock devices controlled through mobile apps, said Brian Martin, vice president of vulnerability intelligence at Risk Based Security.

“All of this is a serious warning that these systems need to have strenuous testing before they are pushed to market,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

F-Secure Infographic: Hotel Locks Create Master Key

Just last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reached a settlement with Safetech Products over allegations that its Bluetooth padlocks and wireless door locks were not secure.

Researchers had found that the company transmitted password information from the locks to mobile phones without the encryption necessary to hide the data from hackers. The default passwords on the locks were figured out easily using brute force attacks.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Michigan, working with Microsoft, found a vulnerability in Samsung SmartThings IoT systems. It allowed them to access PINs on electronic door locks and to exploit a SmartApp in order to create a spare door key. The team notified Samsung and worked with the company to address the flaws.

David Jones has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2015. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, e-commerce, open source, gaming, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. He has written for numerous media outlets, including Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times. Email David.


The Problem With Believing Coding Is No Longer Important

Artificial intelligence is topping headlines. Whether it’s self-driving cars or Alexa storing your grocery preferences, it seems that AI is finding its way in to just about everything these days, and the implications for daily life and work over the next decade are likely to be significant.

Many jobs are at risk for disruption, and cities across the country are thinking about how to prepare their economies for a world in which AI is everywhere. Nothing is safe from speculation, so it should come as no surprise that even coding has come under scrutiny as a skill that may become obsolete in this brave new artificially intelligent world. As one Quartz article put it, coding may soon become “as useful as learning ancient Greek.”

In recent years, the “learn to code” movement has exploded. It seems everyone — from politicians to tech industry leaders — has become a champion of the importance of learning to code. Programs like strive to make exposure to coding more ubiquitous for kids across the country and advocate for more robust computer science curriculum for all students. Coding bootcamps have popped up all across the country to target this very phenomenon.

This calls into question: Is the coding movement overhyped? Is there value to learning to code, or is it just one more skill that will be automated by artificial intelligence?

The logic of the cynics is relatively simple: AI systems are starting to learn how to develop code, which could make programming more intuitive, less specialized, and more capable of automating. It is already true that programming languages are constantly evolving — while you probably would have run into a programmer with extensive knowledge of Perl in the 1990s, today, you’re more likely to meet someone with Python or JavaScript skills. As the building blocks of technology, it’s only natural that as the tech industry evolves, coding languages will as well.

The above-mentioned Quartz article rightly points out that the ultimate objective of programming is to communicate what you want a system to do. It’s true that before long, AI will make that communication feedback loop much easier for people who have no idea how to write code. What implications does that have for businesses? For employees in tech? For students and younger generations? We’ve been told for around a decade that coding is the No. 1 skill for workers to have, but does that assertion still hold true?

This kind of thinking is counterintuitive. The question is not which specific tasks will be automated, but rather what types of skills will be perpetually important. In practical terms, we’re nowhere near the level of automated coding capability that would put developers out of a job. Businesses and employees who make decisions based on the assumption that coding is close to obsolete will be sorely disappointed.

More importantly, however, the capacity to solve problems as well as the ability to understand how technical systems work and improve upon them will only grow in importance as technical systems come to govern more of our daily processes.

As more industries incorporate artificial intelligence into their operations, most of the U.S. workforce will require a basic knowledge of coding. AI will create more technologically advanced careers as it displaces some of the more labor-intensive jobs. As a result, human labor will become more specialized and technical, requiring at least a basic understanding of how these systems operate.

Automated Coding Has a Long Way to Go

Automated code generation won’t be perfected in the near future, and even as it gains popularity, there will be limits to what it can do. GitHub is giving automated coding a shot on its platform, but it’s in an early stage.

Right now, GitHub’s automated coding is simply evaluating code to discover whether it’s relying on packages with known vulnerabilities. When it finds one, it might suggest a fix. None of it requires the creative thinking that actual coding needs. That’s hardly taking over any jobs or making coding an obsolete language.

There are other systems testing automated coding, too. For instance, for AI to reliably create code, it’s essential for it to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Microsoft and Cambridge have taken a step in making this possible with their DeepCoder algorithm, but, again, it’s a relatively small step.

Researchers showed DeepCoder how basic code is used to solve simple math problems. When given a new problem, the algorithm solves it by predicting what would have been used to solve similar problems. It learns how to create its own solutions. It’s extremely impressive, but the algorithm can only work with a few lines of code. Entire programming languages are far too complex for the tool to sort out.

For the foreseeable future, technologically skilled humans will be needed to understand how programming code is being utilized, realize its potential to increase productivity, and make relevant decisions based on that knowledge.

Skills That Can’t Be Automated

Learning basic coding skills provides the building blocks to make a system function; furthermore, these skills empower humans to fully understand the role of technology in society and the ways it can be controlled to solve problems. To Apple CEO Tim Cook, coding is the most important second language for kids to learn. “It’s the language that everyone needs,” he says, “and not just for computer scientists…you can [use it to] express yourself to 7 billion people in the world.”

It is impossible to know exactly where innovations in automation will lead. That being said, it will likely lead to a world where even more of life and jobs involve interacting with technology. In that case, having a greater level of literacy in how to build, manage, and iterate technical systems will be a boon. Thus, learning to code — at least enough to gain insight into these systems — will remain valuable.

Much of automation will focus on taking over a large share of the more mundane tasks. In fact, according to futurist Martin Ford, jobs that will most likely be automated are those that are repetitious and predictable. The creativity to solve problems in ways that benefit everyone, to shift a company’s focus from one goal to the next, and to respond fluidly to trends and outside influences will continue to be important no matter what systems are being used. These are the very skills that learning to code cultivates.

As many industries become more dependent on automation, more computing jobs will be needed in those industries, not fewer. Again, coding requires a certain level of creativity to solve problems, and automated artificial intelligence hasn’t mastered this skill — it’s still rule-based.

The ability to build and cultivate relationships with people is vital in many different industries; it’s yet another area where, for the foreseeable future, humans have the upper hand to machines. From medical professionals and their patients to businesses and their clients, relationships are the backbone of many companies’ strategies. While jobs that require such skills won’t disappear, the required skills for these jobs will become more advanced as they incorporate AI into other processes.

Even as AI gets smarter and potentially develops greater ability to generate code, it won’t replace the need for human coders. It will, however, create a need for coders to be more creative and beef up their data science and AI skills, as well as learn new technologies like how to code for IoT products and platforms. As more people learn to code, they’ll be able to more effectively harness new technology to identify issues, create solutions, and change how the world works.

As technology and languages are always changing, learning to code encourages lifelong learning, a habit that will only become more vital in the future. This is why disregarding the importance of coding is dangerous. Those who assume that learning code will soon be useless will be discouraged from acquiring those new skills — and that’s when their jobs will truly be at risk.

We’re still in the early stages of AI, and coding skills will be essential to moving it forward. As technology and artificial intelligence take more of a hold on our economy, the ability to code will only become more integral to each company, industry, and the economy as a whole.


Developer Insights Series: Responding to Reviews

Customers can provide ratings and reviews on the App Store to give feedback on their user experience and help others decide which apps to try. Tinybop, Zynga, Hopscotch, Tone It Up, 1 Second Everyday, and Pocket share how having a direct dialogue with customers on the App Store helps them improve their apps’ discoverability, encourage downloads, and build rapport with users.

Watch the film


How transshipment may undercut Trump’s tariffs

President Donald Trump is vowing to crack down on deceptive transshipment. That is the practice of moving cargo from one country to another by way of a third nation to evade trade restrictions.

As an international economist, I have researched the impact of imported textiles and apparel on those industries in North Carolina over the last 20 years. Based on this recent history, I believe it will be hard for Trump to succeed.

Indirect routes

Not all transshipments are intentionally misleading. For example, a car shipped from Stockholm, Sweden, to Montreal, Canada, may first travel to New York City’s port, before being transferred to another boat, a train or a tractor-trailer for the NYC-Montreal leg of the trip.

These indirect routes can reduce costs when they let shipping companies move more freight on their busiest routes.

But the Trump administration claims something else is going on with Chinese steel. Washington is accusing Chinese steelmakers of routing their U.S.-bound product through Vietnam and other Asian countries to avoid existing tariffs on Chinese steel. That could become even more of a problem if the administration goes ahead with plans to impose new 25 percent tariffs on Chinese steel.

Federal rules of origin allow importers to say goods hail from a given country as long as they were “substantially transformed” there. Slapping a “made in” label onto a steel slab doesn’t satisfy this criterion, while rolling that steel into finished pipes in that country definitely does. In practice, determining what qualifies as enough transformation requires exercising discretion that is hard to make objective or translate into clear and fair rules.

Asian officials insist that the Chinese steel now irking the Trump administration is being processed before being designated as a different product and purchased by U.S. manufacturers as “made in Vietnam” or another country.

A precedent

The Trump White House isn’t the first to suspect China of transshipping to dodge trade barriers. In the early 1990s, the U.S. subjected textiles and apparel imported from China and other emerging economies to annual quotas under the Multi-Fiber Agreement.

At the same time, according to a Chinese-U.S. research team, these Chinese products were often transshipped to the U.S. via Hong Kong. While the U.S. Customs Service tried to detect and crack down on this practice, that proved a daunting task.

Deceptive transshipments violate international law, but are costly and hard to stamp out. I believe efforts to do so will also discourage imports that are valuable to U.S. consumers.


WHO Joins Urgent Call to Stop Malaria's Resurgence

The World Health Organization is joining a worldwide call to stop a resurgence of malaria that threatens much of the progress made over the past decade. To mark World Malaria Day, WHO is pushing for urgent action – and money – to get the global fight against this ancient scourge back on track.

For many years, World Malaria Day has been a cause for celebration, but not this year. World Health Organization data show that starting in 2016 progress has been at a standstill and hopes of ending the global epidemic by 2030 are slipping away.

Watch: Fears Grow Over Malaria Resurgence, London Summit Urges Global Action

Director of WHO’s Global Malaria Program, Pedro Alonso, says some of the gains made in reducing the number of cases and deaths in countries across all regions of the world are being reversed.

“As a consequence, we now have about 260 million cases of malaria every year, in excess of 440,000 deaths every year…13:52…History has told us very clearly that when we stop making progress, it is not that we just stand still, but we go backwards and then malaria comes back, and comes back with a vengeance,” Alonso said.

About 90 percent of all malaria cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Children under the age of five, pregnant women and patients with HIV-AIDS are most at risk.

Alonso says global political commitment must be renewed and donors and affected countries must increase the financial resources needed to successfully tackle malaria.

“And, we need new and improved tools to prevent, diagnose and treat malaria,” Alonso said. “Our sense is that with the resources available today and with the tools we have today, we have seen the limit of what can be achieved.”

The issue of malaria’s resurgence came up on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in London this month, where Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who has invested billions of dollars in fighting malaria pledged yet another one billion dollars to the effort.

WHO estimates $5.5 billion are needed each year to wage a successful global fight against malaria. However, only about half that amount has been pledged.

Vector control is the main way to prevent and reduce the spread of malaria. Alonso says better insecticides, better insecticide-treated mosquito nets as well as better drugs are essential in combating the disease.


New Firefox Extension Builds a Wall Around Facebook

Mozilla on Tuesday announced Facebook Container, a Firefox browser extension that is designed to segregate users’ activity on Facebook from their other Web activity, limiting Facebook’s ability to track them and gather personal data.

Mozilla recently has engaged in an aggressive strategy to counter Facebook data management policies that many see as intrusive.

The extension is the culmination of more than two years of research into developing a more private browsing experience, Mozilla said. However, the organization accelerated its development after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light.

“We recently created the Facebook Container as a result of what we saw as a growing need and user demand for tools to help users control their online data,” said Jeff Griffiths, product lead, at Firefox.

“We wanted to help our users better protect their browsing activity,” he told LinuxInsider.

Facebook Container will shield Facebook users’ non-Facebook activity from data tracking, thus making it harder for Facebook to send targeted ads and messages based on members’ off-site Web activity, Mozilla said.

However, the Firefox extension would not affect the type of data access and analytics activities associated with the Cambridge Analytica controversy, the organization said.

How Facebook Container Works

The Firefox browser extension works by isolating the user’s identity in a separate container, Mozilla explained.

Mozilla does not collect data from customers who use the Facebook Container — it only tracks how often the extension is installed and removed.

Installation of the extension results in removal of the user’s Facebook cookies and logout from Facebook. The next time the user opens Facebook, it will load in a blue-colored tab where the user can navigate the site as usual. If the user clicks on a non-Facebook link, that site will open outside the container.

Clicking on Facebook share buttons will cause browser tabs to load within the container. In those cases Facebook will get info about the sites whose content users shared.

Mozilla warned that The extension may prevent users from logging into other accounts with their Facebook credentials, Mozilla warned.

Also embedded Facebook comments or likes will not work outside the FB container tab, to make sure Facebook can’t use that information to track users’ off-site habits.

Aggressive Steps

The Facebook Container add-on is one of several steps Mozilla has taken to distance itself from Facebook following the disclosures that Cambridge Analytica gained access to 50 million users’ data without permission during the 2016 presidential campaign. Last week Mozilla halted advertising on Facebook.

“Mozilla’s new browser extension for Facebook offers an intriguing solution for a seemingly insoluble problem,’ said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

Facebook’s central business model relies on the selling of user data to advertisers and other interested parties, he told LinuxInsider.

The Mozilla browser extension is analogous to one of Mozilla’s original features in Firefox, King recalled. The browser omitted support for Active X, which was the technology Microsoft used to support early pop-up ads. That feature, along with Mozilla’s quick performance and customization, led to Firefox becoming an early favorite among browser users.

Vivaldi, a relatively recent entry in the browser scene, last week launched a new version in collaboration with DuckDuckGo, making it the default search engine in private windows mode.

Vivaldi’s approach is much different from Mozilla’s, but the objectives are similar, said Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner.

“It is important and noteworthy that browser companies are coming forward in their unique ways to provide privacy, and moreover educate users about the threats of privacy erosion through data tracking and collection,” he told LinuxInsider.

The Mozilla extension has some helpful elements that can make it easier for users to avoid some Facebook tracking, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which last week advised users to disable all platform apps by changing their privacy settings.

However, the Facebook Container’s usefulness is limited, spokesperson Karen Gullo told LinuxInsider. It doesn’t take the place of dedicated tracking blockers, which are the best defense against marketers’ tracking and targeting efforts.

David Jones has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2015. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, e-commerce, open source, gaming, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. He has written for numerous media outlets, including Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times. Email David.


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