Hack Your Car Legally [VIDEO]

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) is having an impressive string of victories in its fight to reform the government’s interpretation of the “anti-circumvention” Section 1201of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Arguing fair use, the EFF has had success in removing restrictions for access to DVD & Blue Ray “ripping,” cellphone “jailbraking,” as well as videogames and abandoned multiplayer servers.

One of the most interesting EFF’s victories is the right for an owner to hack their own car’s computers.  For a brief summary about this decision, see video below:

Originally, integrated automotive computers rose to prominence in response to demands for tighter emissions standards and fuel economy.  Now, computers manage air conditioning, radios, air bags, alarm systems, anti-lock braking systems, traction control, ride control, cruise control, and automatic transmissions. A typical 1970 car had only $25 worth of electronics. Currently, a new car’s computers may be worth $6,000 or more.

The ever-growing computerization of automobiles had its dark side. For a person with a lot of sweat, but few resources, car repair was a traditional way to gain a respectable livelihood. The kid who fixed his neighbor’s cars in his family’s garage could dream of eventually owning his own repair shop.

Computerization, with its proprietary systems and software, was an obvious attempt by the automobile manufacturers to dominate the repair market.When automotive computers were introduced, they were exotic, expensive, and required extensive specialized training. In the mind of car manufacturers, the friendly neighborhood car repairman would fade into obsolescence, replaced by dealer service employees in white jackets.

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And the guys who worked weekends detailing and souping up their own cars? Well, they could tell stories to their grandkids about how once upon a time, people could actually work on their own cars.

But then a funny thing happened. Computers became a lot less exotic, and much easier to use. Even uneducated people started walking around with them in their pockets. Tinkering with software became as familiar as cleaning a carburetor.

More highly trained than before, and needing more expensive diagnostic tools, the small-time mechanic has endured. Despite the designs of large automobile companies, he is not a quaint anachronism. Furthermore, guys still work on their own cars, viewing the computers as simply more parts to modify, upgrade and play with.

Proprietary laws still protect the rights of manufacturers, but the recent wins by the EFF have breathed new life into the great American car obsession.  The EFF state the recent decisions “…. represent a victory for the public that will help independent security researchers evaluate automotive software, will promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket, and will support vehicle owners who wish to learn about or improve on their own cars.”

(Note:  EFF’s efforts target integrated automotive computers. I am not sure, but I do not think the recent decisions apply to Mobile Display Terminals (MDT). Often used by Law Officers and other First Responders, AMREL has supplied laptops and tablets for this application for decades. We will keep a close eye on how future decisions impact MDTs)

EFF’s request to the Librarian of Congress (who interprets the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its subsequent enforcement), specifically requested the freedom to “tinker.” The “freedom to tinker” is an issue that goes beyond cars and has caused technological giants, such as Google, to worry about America losing its scientific edge (see War on Inventors).

In the 1930s, when people jumped into their car’s guts, and rearranged things, the hot rod was born. I wonder what will get created now.

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Facts & Figures for Global Defense Spending [TABLE]

Strategy Page has a comprehensive article about global Defense spending, full of facts and figures. Whenever I deal with with a report with lots of numbers, I arrange the most salient figures in a table, so I can comprehend them more easily. Below is a table with data pulled from the Strategy Page.

Defense table

Some key take-aways include:

  1. America continues its dominance in the global arms market, despite impressive gains by Russia and China.
  2. Global defense spending as a whole is growing.
  3. If you are an American arms salesman, whose territory includes the Middle East, you are a happy person.
  4. There are people out there in the world who actually want F-35s, and are willing to pay for them.

AMREL makes rugged mobile computer solutions that have been used by warfighters for 30 years.  While we mostly service American Defense needs, we have noticed an increase in international interest for certain products, especially the Flexpedient® AT80 Rugged Tablet.

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Why Can’t We Beat ISIS?

“What’s the point of having this superb military that

you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State


Recent attacks by terrorists have highlighted the issues of ISIS and the eternal mess that is the Middle East. Why does it seem that we have no good options for fighting ISIS? Why can’t we use our enormous resources to exert our will?

Contrary to what you have heard, we are not “doing nothing” about ISIS. The US and its allies have launched 6,700 airstrikes in the last year. Well-known intelligence analyst Jane’s estimated  that ISIS has lost 9.4% of its territory (US estimates are higher).  Indeed, some think that the attacks in Paris were done to bolster ISIS’s image in the face of battlefield losses.

Yet, victory against ISIS still seems far away.  Considering our enormous military budget, shouldn’t we be getting more bang for the buck? What’s wrong with us?  Why can’t our military fix this?

And the problem is not just ISIS. Copious amounts of blood and treasure devoted to Iraq have not yielded positive results. Is our Defense budget a waste of money? Do we need a bigger budget? Why can’t we win?

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I asked for the opinion of Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development Programs (DOD), who has had a long career in both Pentagon procurement and the Army.  Culver replied:

“The problem is: I think we have lost our doctrine.  By our doctrine, I mean military doctrine. We’ve replaced military doctrine with political doctrine or convenience.  Rumsfeld’s decision to use smaller quantity of forces at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom was not based on Military Doctrine. It was based on political optics.”

In the lead up to the Iraqi invasion, Army Chief of Staff Shinseki advocated the deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Critics charged that Shinseki was forced into early retirement because his views clashed with the Bush administration who wanted minimal levels of troops. This perfectly illustrates Culver’s point about the dominance of political doctrine over military.

Culver holds critical views about certain members of the military leadership, political class, and commercial interests. He feels that there is pattern of suborning national interests to personal political goals and interests. Furthermore, the absence of commitment and realism by the public has abetted the lack of integrity in leadership.


Boots on the ground

I asked Culver to assume a perfect world in which our political and military leadership were fully competent and the public had realistic ideas about our capabilities. What would our actions against ISIS look like? Culver drew heavily from the ideas of Leonard Benton, a retired Army NCO, and answered:

“Amphibious Landing.  Establish Beachhead.  Seize port facilities. Move forward. Clear and establish and expand foothold. Invite any of the Syrians that want to be safe to come inside the containment area, employ them to help expand the safe zone/containment area. Continue to expand and also repatriate Syrian refugees from Europe. Eventually the safe zone will occupy most of Syria.  Which means we’ve displaced Daesh and safeguarded Syrian lives at the same time.  And yes, we would be the ‘occupying forces’ for a while, despite the worldwide criticism that would ensue.  The US would bring in civilians (you know, like W.E. Deming) and help train the Syrian people to build their economy. Our military would continue to police and provide security whilst civilian police experts are brought in to establish police academies etc. Eventually we would hand over control of small portions of Syria to the Syrians until all we have are the port facilities. Eventually we would withdraw completely or maybe the Syrians would invite us to stay.”

Students of counter-insurgency will recognize this as a variation of classic oil-spot strategy. It also mirrors fairly closely what retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs (now a military analyst for the media) has said:

“…we’d need several hundred thousand troops on the ground. It would take another commitment of ten years…. you’re not going to be able to do it by dropping conventional bombs on people. Militarily, the only purpose for bombs is to pave the way for people on the ground to seize and hold terrain long enough to create an environment in which there can be a real government to take out the trash. We’re not doing it and it takes a quarter of a million people to do it just in Syria.”


The American people

I am sure most of you have spotted the flaw with this strategy. The American public is exhausted of war. We have no appetite for another long, expensive invasion that places our soldiers in harm’s way. This suggests that this really is a problem of politics and leadership, as Culver has said.

Or maybe not. Maybe the American people are right, and ISIS doesn’t pose enough of a threat to warrant sacrifice on national scale. Whatever the wisdom this lack of martial initiative may or may not posses, very few politicians, despite their bellicose talk, are willing to advocate this type of commitment.

If the American people lack the will for overseas operations, is our military worthless?  What’s the point of our military, if as Albright says, we don’t use it?

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If you want peace, prepare for war

I always hated the above truism. Arms build-ups frequently precede war. What one side sees as defensive measures, its neighbor sees as offensive threats, which then justify their own war preparations. By and large, history makes a mockery of “arming for peace.”

However, when considering the current state of military affairs, I must admit there may be some truth to this notion. To explain, let me tell you a story about World War II.

Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician was asked by the Allies to determine which areas on a bomber needed additional armor. Observers had examined returning bombers, and had assumed that the planes needed armor where the bullet holes were located. Wald startled his colleagues by advocating the opposite. The bombers needed armor where the bullet holes weren’t.  They were only examining bombers which has survived their missions and returned.  Therefore, the bullet holes were located in non-critical areas.  The planes that had been hit in critical areas didn’t survived. Therefore, the additional armor was needed in areas where the surviving planes had no bullet holes.

I think we may be facing a similar situation on a global scale. ISIS and terrorists in general, are fighting a kind of war we can’t respond to, because our strength has eliminated all the other kinds of military actions. In other words, they have learned to shoot where the bullet holes are not.

US dominance has shaped and defined the world’s battle space. National wars are relatively rare and tend not to last long.  There have been comparatively few all-out traditional nation-state wars since World War II, because the US military superiority, as well as its extensive network of alliances, has made them pointless.

While it is easy to focus on the few national wars that have occurred, the modern world is remarkable for the ones that are not happening. For a thousand years, the French, Germans, and British fought wars one generation after another. In today’s world, a major war between Western European nations seems farfetched. The Chinese and Russians build warplanes, but no one expects them to invade US airspace. The Koreans and Japanese have centuries of long simmering ethnic hatred, but they are not likely to attack each other.

Even the feud between India and Pakistan has been curtailed by Pax Americana. Their last war in 1999 was ended by direct US diplomatic pressure. Their previous war was almost 45 years ago, lasted only a few weeks, and resulted in 9,000 deaths. That’s a lot of people, but considering a single day of battle in World War I or the American Civil War often had higher casualty rates, one starts to appreciate just how few people these two large populous nations have lost in their decades-long hostility.

What this means is that while ISIS can kill Frenchmen, they can’t kill France. The United States may lose the World Trade Center, but New York itself is free of the specter of bomber fleets that tormented cities in the World War II. Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are a mess, but the very fact that there is so much attention focused on them demonstrates just how rare large-scale war has become.

I feel really bad that we have no effective solution to ISIS and terrorism. However, this doesn’t mean that the US military is not doing its job.  The very existence of terrorism means that it is.

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Starship Robot Delivers Groceries [VIDEO]

A while back Microsoft bought out Skype for an astounding $8.5 Billion. Ever wonder what the founders of Skype are doing with all that money? They figuring out to use Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) to deliver groceries. Seriously.

Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis have built a small delivery UGV, and slapped it with the glorious label “Starship.” It goes about 4 MPH, carries two grocery bags (20lbs), and needs to be recharged every 30 minutes. It has a full compliment of cameras, GPS, gyroscopes, and on-board mapping data. While it has autonomous capabilities, it can also be remotely operated by a human.

We here at AMREL are always interested in new applications for UGVs, since we make Operator Control Units (OCU) for them. As much as we wish this enterprise to succeed, it’s hard to see how. For one thing grocery delivery services have a nasty habit of going belly up. Forbes even ran an article titled 10 Reasons Why Online Grocery Shopping Is Failing.

The Starship UGV travels by sidewalks. Is that even legal in most cities? What about the neighborhoods that do not have sidewalks (a fairly common occurrence in rural areas and the Western US)?

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We here at AMREL are always interested in new applications for UGVs, since make Operator Control Units for them. Mostly, the economics make no sense of all. The Starship UGV, with its advanced sensor package and autonomous capabilities, must be a relatively expensive machine. With supermarkets being notorious for low-profit margins, what kind of return on investment can be expected? Factor in the fact that the Starship can only make one delivery at a time, and that it’s slow speed and short battery life gives it a very limited operating range,  this little UGV is looking less practical all the time.

Also, I think a lot of hormonally challenged young men might decide that the UGV looks more like a soccer ball than a Starship, and act accordingly.

To be fair, this service is being tried out in England, which may make more business sense. People there shop more frequently than Americans and tend to live closer to small neighborhood stores. Also, they may be less prone to vandalize helpless, innocent UGVs (although I wouldn’t count on that).

I think that there is a future for UGVs in home delivery. I could easily imagine a delivery truck acting as a mothership for a a number of UGVs delivering dry goods in a particular neighborhood.

But groceries? With an aging population, there is a real need for such a service, but I think supermarkets would be better off hiring a teenager with a bicycle or a car.

To learn more, watch video below.

Six Best Robots at IROS 2015 [VIDEO]

Recently, the 2015 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) took place in Hamburg, Germany. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) posted a video of the most interesting unmanned systems at the show (see below).

In the video, most robots had recognizable human-like characteristics. This is not inevitable; some unmanned systems, such as Unmanned Ground Vehicles (for which AMREL builds Operator Control Units), do not remotely resemble humans. In fact there has been a controversy over how human-like unmanned systems should be (see Walk n’ Roll).

As evidence by the video, developer sentiment seems to be leaning towards human-like (or “humanoid”) robots. Usually, the proponents of humanoid robots offer 3 rationales:

  • Humanoid robots are better suited for performing human-like tasks
  • Humanoid robots are better suited for working in an environment built for humans.
  • Humanoid robots are better suited for Human Robot Interactions (HRI)

However, there is yet another reason why people are building robots. To explain why, let me tell you about a Psychology of Language class that I attended many eons ago. The central question of the class was “Could we teach a computer to read?” No one knew if this was even theoretically possible. At the time Optical Character Recognition was primitive at best. We weren’t even certain if a computer could transform vocal input into written text.

None of the people in the class were software engineers. We took up the challenge, not so much as to get a computer to read, but to better understand how people read. By teaching machines to read, we were forced to analyze and closely examine human strategies for reading. Most class time was devoted to breaking down the act of reading into mechanized processes, subtasks, operations, and flow charts.

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A more familiar example might be the oft-repeated observation that an unmanned system is incapable of distinguishing between a tomato and an apple. In order to teach a robot how to accomplish this discernment, we have to first figure out how people do it.

Some of the unmanned systems in the video seem destined for “social welfare” activities, i.e. helping the elderly, assisting the disabled, etc. Others are obviously designed not for specific tasks, but as means to better understand human behavior. What makes a baby “baby-like?”  If you build a baby-like robot, one is forced to figure this out.

Turns out, unmanned systems not only assist us with the “dirty, dangerous, and disgusting” tasks, but also help us understand ourselves.

Triumph of Human like robots

Robot smartphone [VIDEO]

This gives a whole new meaning to saying you have an Android  phone. Japanese have taken their love for human-like robots to a whole new level, and have built “RoBoHoN,” a smartphone that is also a robot.

It speaks, dances, displays your email, projects images, and will help you remember to buy toothpaste. It uses voice and face recognition to aid in its interactions with humans. And yes, it has an Android OS.

RoBoHoN is the latest in a string of victories for proponents of human-like robots. While having a face similar to a person my facilitate Human Robot Interaction (HRI), there is no practical reason for RoBoHoN’s legs and arms.

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Actually, from an ergonomic point of view, a human-shaped smartphone is a catastrophe for the traditional way a handheld communication device is used. Of course, the makers of RoBoHoN may be counting on people adjusting their smartphone behavior to accomidate the new form factor. Why wold anyone want to go to all that trouble? It’s just so darn cute! Cuteness über alles!

As expressed on the RoBoHoN website:

A phone in human shape

A phone that you feel like talking to

A phone that also wants to know you

To hear what you hear

To see what you see

To share the same dreams

That is little RoBoHoN’s big dream

Don’t you want to take RoBoHoN with you everywhere?

I’m not so sure. Do I really want a little doll to wake me up in the morning and follow me around all day?  It seems to me there is a fine line between cuteness and creepy.

Make up your own mind by watching the video below: