The First Hack

Around the world today, hackers are working hard to find vulnerabilities in the information technology systems our lives rely on.  They hack these systems by intercepting supposedly secure communication, altering messages, and using that information for personal gain.  There are white hat hackers, hacking for good and working for places like Apple and the Pentagon to find weaknesses in their technology and fix it.  There are black hat hackers, hacking for bad and doing things like accessing email accounts or stealing credit card information.  Some hackers just do it because they can and have no real agenda.  But try to imagine for a second who the first hacker was, the first ever person to intercept a secure message and change it or alter it.  Are you a picturing a Soviet KGB agent figuring out a way to read communiqués from the Kennedy white house during the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Maybe you have in mind a teenager in their parents’ garage figuring out a way into the Department of Defense’s “secure” network in the mid-1980s?

What if I told you that the first hacker was a stage magician?

What if I told you this magician did it to call someone a “diddler of the public”?

Continue reading

Billion Dollar Meme

Do you remember this piece of shoddy math from when the Powerball made it to more than a billion dollars back in early 2016?

9632184_g

The creator suggested that instead of only giving the winnings of the lottery to the winners of the lottery, we should divide it evenly to everyone in the country.  If everyone in the U.S. received 4.33 million dollars, poverty in this country certainly would be solved! Continue reading

Pokemon GO-bal Positioning System

Earlier this July, my childhood dream finally came true.  Over the series’ 20 year history, I’ve played more than 30 Pokemon video games, and with each new release I’ve wanted to become a gym leader and to catch ‘em all – a feat I accomplished, once, back in the first game.   Now, as a 28-year old working on a Ph.D., I can finally achieve my dream with the help of Niantic’s latest augmented reality game, Pokemon GO.

 IMG_2016-07-10-13445138 I can find a Pidgey (the Pigeon Pokemon) on a city sidewalk thanks to GPS telling Pokemon GO where I am.  Finding a Goldeen (the Goldfish Pokemon) on the same city street would not make sense.

In Pokemon GO, as I wander around my city, my phone periodically vibrates indicating that I’ve found a Pokemon.  I quickly look at my phone and tap on the Pokemon to enter a battle with it.  The game knows where I am thanks to GPS, the Global Positioning System, and uses that information to show me location-appropriate Pokemon, such as Water-type Pokemon close to rivers and Fire-type Pokemon in deserts.

Continue reading

Not All Waste Should Be Wasted

The heat of an Alabama summer afternoon certainly wasn’t helping the aroma of several million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage.  This field trip to the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant was always the worst one I led for my Intro to Environmental Engineering class.  Fortunately, we were near the end of the process and far from the most fragrant part of the plant.  At this point the wastewater had been treated by the sludge, which is a “fancy” name for the bacteria that eat the organics in the wastewater. The sludge had been separated out of the treated water, the bacteria had eaten each other, and the remainder had just been pressed to remove excess moisture.

We were standing next to a twelve-foot-tall pile of biosolids, the dewatered bacteria, when the tour guide pulled his usual stunt.  He took an ungloved hand and stuck it into the pile, pulling out a handful of what appeared to be a dark, rich soil.  The class reacted the way classes on these trip always react:  with revulsion.  That’s how people respond to things recovered from wastewater, completely unaware of how valuable they can be.      

The Great Poop Train

Biosolids look like rich soil because they are rich in nitrogen and organics, which are beneficial for the growth of plants.  But that doesn’t make them any more desirable to keep around, and cities often go to great lengths to dispose of them.  By 1986, New York City completed its 14 wastewater treatment plants.  The resulting wastewater system handled 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced every day, creating several thousand tons of biosolids. So the city set out to find somewhere to get rid of it.  At first, it was dumped into the ocean.  But in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency told the city they had to stop dumping and find a good use for the biosolids to make amends for their previous polluting ways.  

Continue reading

Finding My Calling At The End Of The World

A worker checks on the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider following the Quench Incident.

Back in November 2009, the physicists, engineers and technicians at the  state of the art CERN facility worked diligently to uncover the secrets of our Universe.  Their work on a series of twenty-one million dollars in repairs to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) following an operating was coming to an end.  They were days away from restarting the particle accelerator when more than 100 terrorists took over the laboratory deep beneath the Alps on the border between France and Switzerland.  The terrorists held more than the facilities, scientists and technicians hostage – they threatened the entire world.  If their demands weren’t met, terrorists would turn on the LHC and create black holes that could destroy the Earth.  The United Nations Security Council quickly tabled its debate over child soldiers and pondered its response to this existential threat.  Fighting the insanity gripping the Council and the terror washing over the world stood an unlikely hero – the delegate to the Security Council from the Republic of Uganda. Continue reading