Random: Full-Colour Opal Onslaught, Station Upgrades, Drive-By-Download, etc.

In this week’s edition of “random”, there isn’t as much random as I would have liked, so instead part of the regular program will be replaced with my opinions. For the most part, this week is mostly about the Opal roll-out, Sydney Trains and Sydney Buses, with some important tech news.

Full-Colour Opal Onslaught

It seems like this week was the beginning of an even more intensive marketing campaign. First, it started with the advertisements for colour Opal phone cases, which intensified to a more appealing coloured ad (this one at Circular Quay):

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But it doesn’t stop there. Instead of the more traditional black text on white background that has been the hallmark of Opal announcements to date, now we have a variety of coloured stick-on label advertisements across station walls as well as on ticket barriers.

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This is how it starts off at Granville, which has now been completely upgraded to look like this (image taken at Central station):

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Purple barrier wings. Nice. If you haven’t noticed Opal by now, you’re probably colourblind, or blind. It’s interesting that the angle for this campaign is not convenience, but money saving. This is definitely not true for some specific commuters who use many modes for short trips within the “current” zone 1 area and end up paying for their mode changes as separate journeys. I suppose those who are near the city did have it too good under the old TravelPass/myZone system.

The push doesn’t stop there, with people manning the stations, handing out brochures and trying to grab the attention of commuters who probably haven’t fully woken up yet.

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Of course, there’s the convenience aspect of it as well, which is captured by this rather “imaginative” adhesive mat placed in front of the ticket vending machines …

opal-mat

The cranky senile old man inside me yells “but not if you’re a student, or a senior”. Student Opal cards and senior Opal cards are still not available and will not be until the system has completed its “trial” and rollout phases. The attendants are often none-the-wiser about this, and the advertisements don’t make this clear.

By now, my eyes are bleeding with colour, and yet, I still can’t get my Opal card! Thanks for nothing!

Opal gets bus-ey

Opal’s bus rollout seems to be going well, with many random bus-encounters resulting in an encounter with an Opal Enabled Bus. You can tell this by a small sticker near the front passenger door window – all of these are different buses:

opalbus-board1 opalbus-board2 opalbus-board3 opalbus-metrobus

Bravo! Well done! That’s quite a few Opal buses. One’s even a metrobus in red! Of course, if you’re going to Opal-enable a route, you’ve got to make sure all the scheduled buses are Opal ones, so chances are, they’re outfitting more than strictly necessary to give them some schedule wiggle room.

Some of them even have a bumper sticker on the door side of the bus which lets you know as it’s pulling up. The benefit of the Opal system cannot be fully realized by commuters who catch multiple modes until all the modes become Opal enabled, and this is an important step in making it happen.

Of note is that technically, the Opal trial is only for certain routes. This can be seen on some bus stops which proclaim that some particular route number is now Opal ready. The readers themselves appear to be workable for other routes, but I don’t think you should use them yet – it may or may not charge correctly.

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An improvement to the original roll-out is the new rear-door signage which reminds Opal users to tap-off to get the correct fare.

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And that’s the same from a different bus, at night, leaving the uni.

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For the curious, here’s how the reader is mounted to the mount, it looks like there’s a round computer-keylock-style-key to release the reader from the mount.

Sydney Trains Station Upgrades

The upgrades continue to roll along slowly. At Granville, on 22nd May, this is what the site looked like:

22may-granvillestn

By the 30th May, this is what it looked like – a slow job to remove the old concrete it seems, with very loud concrete saws. Sorry about the different projection – Photoshop just didn’t want to stitch the set the same way for some reason.

30may-granvillestn

However, that being said, there is a big difference at Town Hall – I don’t visit the station too often, but the retiling has been going full-steam ahead, with the floors tiled a much more “modern” charcoal colour, with the walls stripped back ready for new tiles.

town-hall-retiling

That doesn’t solve the overcrowding though … but hey, at least it looks better!

Advertising in Trains

As I mentioned in the last random posting, there seems to be a bit of a trial of advertising in trains. While I couldn’t grab any good photos last time, I tried again with mixed success. Two separate days, I caught Tangara trains and they were decked out in these Lycamobile ads … how timely.

lmau-ad-train1 lmau-ad-train2

Opinion: Bulletin Board Dynamics

billboard-dynamics

Just the other day, I walked past one of the few university bill-boards. These “unregulated” spaces provide a place for those with messages, services to offer and various notices to post them without being taken down as “vandalism”. It was a lunch time, walking by as someone was putting up a few notices, I captured this snapshot of the board.

In that moment, I did some thinking and staring at the billboard, and in many ways, there’s more to billboard dynamics than would be initially be obvious. For most users, they will come here to peruse the services, garage sales, events and other things on offer. It’s like a “physical” classifieds or ad space. Find what they want, or not, and move on.

But it’s a lot more than that – it’s a reflection of the capitalism and consumerism that’s endemic to our society as well as a silent struggle. Just looking at the board, it’s clear how many of these are professionally colour printed posters advertising events. It’s not like they’re small, or hard to notice, but then they are put up several times in succession, kamakazee style. It’s not like having many posters is going to make a difference to the person that’s walking by and sees eight of them – we don’t take the posters with us.

Then it became obvious to me – it’s an all out attempt to colonize the area of the board – the more you can afford to put up and cover, the more likely your message is going to get out there, as it’s unlikely someone else will cover you up before your audience has taken notice. This is especially noticeable for the posters which have been re-posted, after having being mostly covered up under several layers of posters.

The other thing is that it’s not enough to spread your message, you must also repress any other messages whether they be direct competition or indirect noise that muddies your message. You want the audience’s focus. Sometimes, the whole board area has been covered by one particular advertisement!

This is very wasteful and inefficient, but it’s a reflection of the problem with greed and “rules”. The rules can only stop certain things from happening, and where the rules don’t stop you from doing something (and there is no enforcement), people will find a way to operate within or on the edge of the rules to maximise their benefit, because their livelihoods depend on it.

It’s interesting, because chances are, the promoters of these events are paying students and other entities to plaster up a “certain number” of posters. As long as they plaster them up, they get their payout. This encourages this type of behaviour.

Of course, minimising this behaviour by enforcing fixed size postings, enforcing single-post-only limits, etc would reduce waste, improve the benefit of the billboard by offering a greater variety but nobody will pay the overhead and administrative hassle to do that.

Unfortunately, as a result, the hopes and dreams of the “small fish” that posts a single A4 sheet of paper on the board are nearly zero. They’ll be plastered over within a few hours. At least, that was my experience.

Additionally, it became apparent to me that there is also ad blindness in reality. When there are so many postings and “noise” in fragments of old ads, many passers by just don’t notice anything in particular. For the ads to survive, they need to “jump out” at you – hence the constant bombardment of large area ads with colours.

Alas, it seems it’s the human condition to be greedy, to compete, to shout above the noise and to try and make money operating within or at the edge of the rules. This is exactly analogous to comment spam (amongst other types of spam) which I’ve received a fair amount of.

kk-ad-campaignIn some sense, we are seeing exactly the same thing happen to our social networks. The social directors like to post messages promoting events, “tag” or invite everyone and encourage others to “spread the word”. Competitions are held with lucrative giveaways, in exchange for “advertising” to your friends or even a like on their page (i.e. subjecting yourself to advertising).

At the same time, the smaller “average” Joe’s messages, those who aren’t sponsored, aren’t trending, get lost amongst the noise … with little chance of being noticed.

The ad I spotted in a 7/11 sums this up nicely – it’s an ad for Krispy Kreme donuts, that seems to suggest that getting 11 likes for a post is a valid reason to buy a fatty donut. Humans seek acknowledgement and recognition as well. It’s fame-whoring, but it’s real. Am I immune from it? Certainly not – I’m human after all.

That’s why “Facebook-depression” exists. It’s also the same reason why “backlink generation”, black-hat SEO, purchased Facebook/Twitter followers exist. Part of it is for recognition, but mainly to improve the profile of the post to the point where it rises above the noise and gets noticed and takes momentum of its own. It’s interesting to think of this as a show of “herd mentality” happening in social networking.

But despite this, and the noise, it seems that regardless of “likes”, the level of engagement that people have with content is falling. People have been predicting an “ad bubble”, with high levels of ad blindness being partly to blame. Others have noted the lack of empathy – likes are merely given in exchange for a return like, or because it just so happens to be obligated.

In the end, it seems it’s a struggle to be noticed – that’s what information overload has done. Despite the increased access to social networking, and technological means for disseminating content, it seems that we’re still somewhat subject to the commercial, media and political interests. As long as the rules are “loosely defined” or “poorly enforced”, people will continue to take advantage of it. But amongst all of this gained, it seems that we’re numb to it after all!

More Drive-by-Downloading

It has been a nearly constant frustration of mine to see ad networks being used to push malware. This week, I encountered something which was exactly that. Ad networks should take responsibility to make sure these things don’t happen, but it seems that nobody is at the helm trying to audit what the code supplied by advertisers is doing. In offering the advertisers maximum flexibility, some “less reputable” ad networks are serving up malicious code.

I was merely browsing an image board, when after a while, I got this pop-up. Note the lack of a cancel button – one of the first in my experience, and definitely reminiscient of the IE days.

Screenshot_2014-05-30-08-35-49

The less savvy user would have just clicked OK, but instead, I clicked the back button on my Android device, but that still didn’t release me! For some reason, the script had “run” and redirected me to a fake download progress bar.

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And then it linked the real download – an APK (program) named MoboGenie. Names can be deceiving, and at this point, it’s obviously malware – they probably want software installs to drop more ads, more spam or just purely to bolster their app profile so they float up in terms of the store. Some may earn revenue on a per-install basis. Android does offer one more line of defence – the normally unticked “Untrusted sources” box. Unfortunately, less knowledgeable people who have rooted and side-loaded applications on their phones will lack this one last line of defence.

Screenshot_2014-05-30-08-36-39

A quick search seems to reveal the domain itself also is responsible for drive-by-downloads of fake Java installations. But in short, ad networks should not be letting this through. These guys have made it difficult to identify, since some use randomizers to decide when to launch pop-ups, and others use “time delay” techniques to make it hard to spot. But the poor user who wakes their phone to this dialog with one button, and a fake notice of a virus, might not be any the wiser and could stand to lose a lot (especially if the application takes root permissions, makes premium SMS and phone calls, and sends away personal information).

For the record, I know my phone is clean (to the best of my knowledge) with no side-loaded applications, but you should always be cautious when surfing online, because even reputable sites with the wrong ads could cause these issues. As far as I know, Google AdSense hasn’t had these issues, but I have blocked certain high risk categories from advertising here.

Big News in Tech & Stuff to Amuse Yourself With

Is TrueCrypt dead? or does somebody want to kill it?

This week, we saw some very dramatic news of TrueCrypt’s likely demise. A free and open-source encryption suite that had been very publicly endorsed by “freedom fighters”, it was commonly recommended to end users on the premise that it was free of back-doors, capable of being audited by many eyes (the “open source” argument) and came with special “plausible deniability” features.

Unfortunately, there was a snap announcement on their webpage of the project’s discontinuance, tying it in with the discontinuation of Windows XP support, which seems rather out of character given the language and recommendation to use BitLocker. Many suggested this is a defacement, or a red herring altogether, however, the old versions of TrueCrypt were removed and a new binary, version 7.2 released, which contains the same warning message and disables any further encryption. It still decrypts volumes for data migration purposes.

It is highly recommended users do not install the new binary as it may not be safe, although the mystery deepens with the understanding that the new binary was signed with the same key used for the previous release. As a result, many have jumped to the conclusion that TrueCrypt has been the subject of a National Security Letter (similar to Lavabit) and is “burning the house down” for the protection of all. Anyone subject to an NSL is unable to disclose or discuss the situation, so the cryptic sudden change and red herring may be consistent with this theory.

Others have claimed that the software was not updated for a while and should have been shuttered as a basic safety precaution in case of existing bugs – before any lasting damage is incurred by the community. This view seems a bit suspect, given the success of a crowdfunded security audit into TrueCrypt’s security, and the large amount of scrutiny it has taken through time. Moving to other alternatives is not generally a good idea, as they may not have been tested to the same extent.

Also concerning is the suggestion to move to OS-based data encryption which isn’t available for all and may indeed be backdoored. May this be a deliberate attempt by a government to flush-out secured data into systems to which they have access to? Quite possibly. While people ask for evidence that BitLocker has been backdoored, I think the more critical thing to realize is that Windows itself has been shown to be backdoored. Whatever the OS has access to, is technically at risk.

Regardless, it feels like we may be descending into the dark times where US Export Regulations were limiting export of strong encryption algorithms as a military weapon. The problem at heart isn’t so much the technology – the technology may be perfectly safe and secure – but it’s probably too secure for some government’s liking and they’re seeking to take it down through “legal” means. It becomes a bit scary to think that developing software and technologies with legitimate uses could have you on the receiving end of an NSL or other “take-down” notice just because someone doesn’t like it.

Another faster Wi-Fi

An interesting announcement that caught my eye was the successful demonstration of 802.11ax by Huawei, based in the 5Ghz band with 10.58Gbit/s speed. That’s pretty fast, even if for optimal conditions, given that copper 10GbE isn’t even common in the house. It actually makes the recently popularized 802.11ac “gigabit” Wi-Fi look slow in comparison.

Of course, it’s not due to hit the shelves until 2018, and until then, there might be many problems, but a key enabler is likely SDR techniques which allow for the whole band to be utilized, MIMO technologies which create spatially separated streams to improve throughput amongst other scheduling improvements. As a result, it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but to an end consumer, they probably wouldn’t care if it used 160Mhz or 20Mhz of bandwidth to achieve the goal. An engineer, however, would like to know what the total bits/second/Hz figure is for each stream as a measure of spectral efficiency (arguably important in crowded situations as it will determine the theoretical maximum throughput for a given bandwidth).

Rather concerning is the fast pace at which developments are being made in this area. Specifically, there is a disconnect between different technologies – while some are “escaping” the shackles of legacy compatibility (which slows down newer technologies to interoperate with older wireless equipment) by changing to other bands e.g. 802.11ad (which comes with its own regulatory issues), others seem to be expanding what is capable on existing bands. Ultimately, if the pace of the standards continues to roll on, there’s a potential for the large user-base of already deployed “legacy” gear to interfere with and prevent these technologies from reaching their full potential. Coexistence will be a burden well into the future.

It’s a bit of a two way street – if you shutter out the old devices from the network, then you may be able to get what you want in terms of speed, however at the cost of not being able to use older devices or getting complaints from owners of devices which cannot be upgraded. This is especially relevant for organizations or public providers. If you enable coexistence, chances are, there will be a moderate to sizable performance hit, and the performance will fall short of the “marketing” value by a large margin.

We had the same issues when 802.11g was introduced, where 802.11b clients on the same network would cause the throughput to degrade significantly to accommodate the older client – mainly so to send RTS/CTS frames at the legacy basic rate which the older clients can understand and “protect” the newer transmissions from interference.

The same occurs for 802.11n when talking to older 802.11g or 802.11b devices, which prevent the usage of short guard interval enhancements, or for 802.11n in 5Ghz when dealing with older 802.11a devices.

The majority of 802.11b devices in the home and consumer market have been retired, likely due to the low cost of changing to newer devices and the fact the throughput is now considered a limitation. Also aiding the transition was the complete compromise of WEP, which was the only encryption standard supported by many older 802.11b devices. Despite this, in some industrial settings, 802.11b lives on.

However, for basic usage, 802.11g, n (and its variants of bands and MCS values) will still suffice for many, and there is less of an impetus for one to upgrade their hardware. Ultimately, they will probably have to run the natural cycle of obsolescence.

Curved TV’s – a gimmick to fade

When large curved TVs were featured at CES and other exhibitions, predominantly by Samsung and LG, I thought to myself – “what’s the point?”

It seems like this is the case, as several commentators have now chimed in, it seems the whole thing is a gimmick and just doesn’t work for shared viewing.

It’s a bit of a problem in the tech arena, when companies try to do things not because it has any tangible benefits, but merely to differentiate them from the competition. This is further compounded when their competition, without so much as thinking, emulates the change to keep up with their competitors. Consumers are left with a product with no great benefit, at great cost, whereas the development effort would be better spent on cost reduction or on proper innovative products.

I think we saw something similar to this in the “glossy LCD” craze of 2007 or thereabouts, when companies came out with various names (e.g. Crystalbright) for LCDs with glossy cover plastic (rather than the more traditional matte). Their claims were that it suited movies better, produced better blacks, etc. What consumers found was a constant annoyance of finger marks showing up, reflections from room lighting, which was pretty much an ergonomic nightmare. As a result, most laptops returned to a matte LCD screen.

There’s a little revival of the glossy, but more an inadvertent revival, due to the proliferation of tablet devices with glass screens – but I think the ARM based tablets are on a “limited” trajectory (similar to what happened with netbooks) – to be replaced with more serious laptops/tablets and or larger “phablet’ phones.

Patents Threaten Innovation in Smartphones

The problem with patents has been more visible than ever with the recent spate of patent trolls and the high profile suit between Apple and Samsung over some smartphone-related patents. In many cases, having understood a little about patent law through a short introductory seminar, the devil really is in the details and how a patent is defended in court. Many patents seem to be filed for nearly trivial things, under misleading names, sometimes speculatively. If you were to build, market and sell anything, chances are there’s quite a few patents involved.

If one doesn’t license the patents, then they run the risk of being sued by the patent holder, which can be a very costly exercise. In fact, even if you do your due diligence and research, there is a good probability you may have overlooked a patent which is applicable to the product – and thus open up yourself to some damages claims. It is this argument which many have against the patent system and how it hampers innovation. There is also some debate about whether software should be patentable in the first place – but then you still have to deal with every other patent (or design patent).

This short piece on some research seems to point at the licensing costs for patents in flagship smartphones is starting to reach parity with the hardware costs themselves. This is astounding!

ISEE-3 Reboot Project Makes Contact with Probe

It is disappointing think of a “long lived” probe out in space that was still functioning, but we could not communicate with or use it for further experiments – but that’s exactly the case with ISEE-3. NASA initially had no plans to communicate with it, citing the loss of equipment and funding being an issue, however, it seems that the crowds have stepped up. This week, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project has announced that they have control of the ISEE-3 probe through some hastily built systems, work from various radio amateurs and help from NASA Ames and time on the Arecibo Radio Telescope. Truly a remarkable effort given the time sensitive nature of the project. Never has the wheels turned so quickly!

Sparkfun – How LEDs and Lithium Polymer Batteries are Made

In case you haven’t come across these articles, they’re well worth a look into, as it’s not common to have access to see exactly how LEDs and Lithium Polymer Batteries are made. Fascinating, and also, quite interesting to see some of the equipment the Chinese use to manufacture such products which are fundamental to most electronics devices today.

Conclusion

Another week, another random post. What’s new? Well, actually, everything.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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