IBM taking two paths toward making solar power cheaper than fossil fuels

IBM’s thin film device under test.

The price of photovoltaic hardware has dropped so dramatically in recent years that, according to some projections, a well-sited panel may become competitive with fossil fuels before the decade is out. To reach that point, which comes when panels cost below $2 per Watt, prices will have to continue their steep decline. During our visit to IBM’s Watson research center, we talked to two people who are working on ways to drive the cost down—but they are taking radically different approaches.

The panels that most people are familiar with use silicon as a semiconductor. That has a few advantages, like cheap raw materials and reasonably high efficiency. But manufacturing panels remains expensive, and there aren’t obvious ways of squeezing large gains in efficiency out of standard silicon. So, IBM is looking at materials that don’t involve silicon: thin films and concentrating photovoltaics.

Thin is in

We talked with David Mitzi, who manages the thin film project. These materials currently tend to be less efficient than silicon-based devices, but they have a large advantage: they can be much less expensive to manufacture. One key to this difference is that the boundaries between crystals in thin-film materials don’t pose a barrier to the charge carriers (electrons and holes) generated by incoming light. While high performance silicon cells require a manufacturing technique that produces a single large crystal, it’s possible to use polycrystalline forms of thin film materials.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Password hints easily extracted from Windows 7, 8

Output of a Metasploit Meterpreter session that extracts Windows 7 and Windows 8 password hints.

Our recent feature on the growing vulnerability of passwords chronicled the myriad ways crackers extract clues used to guess other people’s login credentials. Add to that list a password reminder feature built in to recent versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

It turns out the password clues for Windows 7 and 8 are stored in the OS registry in a scrambled format that can be easily converted into human-readable form. That information would undoubtedly be useful to hackers who intercept a cryptographic hash of a targeted computer, but are unable to crack it. Jonathan Claudius, the SpiderLabs vulnerability researcher who documented the new Windows behavior, has written a script that automates the attack and added it to Metasploit, an open-source toolkit popular among whitehat and blackhat hackers alike.

The clue is added to the OS registry when users configure a Windows account to provide a hint about the password needed to access it. When he first saw the long string of letters and numbers that stored the hint, he thought it had been encrypted. Upon further examination, he learned that an eight-line Ruby script quickly decoded the text chunks.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

$200 for a Fake Security System

This is pretty funny:

  • Moving red laser beams scare away potential intruders
  • Laser beams move along floor and wall 180 degrees
  • Easy to install, 110v comes on automatically w/timer

Watch the video. This is not an alarm, and it doesn’t do anything other than the laser light show. But, as the product advertisement says, “perception can be an excellent deterrent to crime.” Although this only works if the product isn’t very successful — or widely known.

Tea Rituals for Focus, Health & Slowness

Post written by Leo Babauta.

As I write these words, I sit with a bowl of matcha, the Japanese powdered green tea used in traditional ceremonies, and enjoy the quiet morning hours.

Tea is a form of meditation for me, a way of being present and practicing paying attention. It is a way of slowness, of savoring life.

And it is a way of focus for me. I find that if I’m having trouble concentrating on one thing, pausing to brew some tea is a great way to regain that focus. I’ve gotten some of my best writing done with the aid of a cup or bowl of tea.

I’m no tea expert, so this guide won’t be a guide to how to brew the perfect tea or how to choose great teas. In comparison to actual tea experts, I will have many novice errors. I am fine with that, as my purpose here is simply to share some rituals I use for focus, for slowness, and for health.

All three of these rituals help with focus, slowness and health. I’m giving them separate names only to help show how I use them, but really they can be used interchangeably.

The Focus Ritual

When I need to get my most important work done, I will often take a few minutes to brew some tea. This is a small ritual that signals that it is time to stop with all the distractions (and yes, I have many of those), and clear away everything but what I want to focus on.

I heat up some water in a kettle. I’ve used a metal kettle and an electric one. The electric one gets the job done just as well, though obviously is less traditional. Filtered water is best, but the water in my house tastes so pure I often won’t bother.

I scoop some matcha with a bamboo ladle into a tea bowl. I use two scoops of matcha, as much as the bamboo ladle can carry. I use a rustic looking bowl because I enjoy the rough texture in my hands as I drink.

I fill the bowl halfway with water, and use a bamboo whisk, inexpertly. I rapidly whisk the tea and water until there’s a light green foam at the top.

I rinse the ladle and the whisk, and put them away. I savor the smell of the tea, the lovely color and brothy look of it.

I clear away everything on my computer and desk but what I need to write, and my bowl of tea. So the browser gets closed, all apps but my writing app, all other devices shut down.

I take a sip of the green tea, and enjoy its thickness, its slight bitterness (people often offset this with delicious Japanese sweets or crackers), it sweetish aftertaste and fine grit left on my tongue.

I sit, I breathe, I write. Then sip, and repeat.

The Slowness Ritual

Modern life has a tendency of becoming rushed, of moving from one appointment to the next, one email to the next, until our days are a blur. I find tea to be perfect for helping me to slow down, to return to the natural rhythm of life.

So in the afternoon, when things become rushed, I pause. I put some loose, whole-leaf tea (a sencha or an oolong) into a small teapot as the water heats up. I take a moment to enjoy the sight of the consistency of the leaves, hand-picked by farmers from small farms in Japan or Taiwan, and breathe on the leaves to evoke their fragrance.

I pour just a teacupfull of water into the pot, and pay attention to my breath as the tea steeps for about 30 seconds (I like the tea lighter, not bitter). This breathwatching is a short meditation, like the rest of the ritual.

I pour the slightly steeped tea into a small cup, about half the size of my fist. I savor the color, texture, smell, and try to see what aromas I can detect (I’m not very good at this).

Then I sip. The first sip is a revelation, as the rushed world fades away and the delicate tea hits my tongue, washing it in its warmth and with flavors that began their journey in the earth, thousands of miles away in a country that has been doing this for a millenium or two.

The tea is not overpowering, but subtle. It is mostly water, with only a slight essence of the leaves infused into the liquid, so timid that I have to really pay attention to notice it at all.

The moment is entirely floating in this whisper of a broth, slowed by the hesitation of my attention as it stops its monkeying around and starts to enjoy the stillness.

The Health Ritual

My life is ruled by four liquids: water, coffee, wine and tea. All have their health benefits, but arguably tea rises slightly above the rest.

I drink water throughout the day and night, and it is the lifestuff that runs through me. Coffee is a shared experience with my wife Eva, and has always signaled the start of a good day (every day). Wine is our unwinding ritual, and means that the day has been good.

Tea is a signal for slowness and focus that I use in the middle of the day. It’s also a way for me to satisfy little hunger cravings that used to trigger unhealthy snacking. I use tea to make my mouth happy, so it doesn’t look for sweets, salty snacks, or grease.

So between lunch and dinner, I often have tea. It might be a bowl of matcha, or a pot of loose-leaf tea brewed repeatedly as I work or relax. It’s a healthy snack that makes my day better.