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Peter Bright

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This week, as revelations about the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying continued to unfold, Ryan Gallagher brought us an article about the types of hardware that agencies outside of the NSA use to gather information from mobile devices. These agencies, which include local law enforcement as well as federal groups like the FBI and the DEA, use highly specialized equipment to gain information about a target. Still, the details about that hardware is largely kept secret from the public. Gallagher summed up what the public knows (and brought to light a few lesser-known facts) in his article, Meet the machines that steal your phone’s data.

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Peter Bright

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In a bid to make JavaScript run ever faster, Mozilla has developed asm.js. It's a limited, stripped down subset of JavaScript that the company claims will offer performance that's within a factor of two of native—good enough to use the browser for almost any application. Can JavaScript really start to rival native code performance? We've been taking a closer look.

The quest for faster JavaScript

JavaScript performance became a big deal in 2008. Prior to this, the JavaScript engines found in common Web browsers tended to be pretty slow. These were good enough for the basic scripting that the Web used at the time, but it was largely inadequate for those wanting to use the Web as a rich application platform.

In 2008, however, Google released Chrome with its V8 JavaScript engine. Around the same time, Apple brought out Safari 4 with its Nitro (née Squirrelfish Extreme) engine. These engines brought something new to the world of JavaScript: high performance achieved through just-in-time (JIT) compilation. V8 and Nitro would convert JavaScript into pieces of executable code that the CPU could run directly, improving performance by a factor of three or more.

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Peter Bright

AMD

AMD wants to talk about HSA, Heterogeneous Systems Architecture (HSA), its vision for the future of system architectures. To that end, it held a press conference last week to discuss what it's calling "heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access" (hUMA). The company outlined what it was doing, and why, both confirming and reaffirming the things it has been saying for the last couple of years.

The central HSA concept is that systems will have multiple different kinds of processors, connected together and operating as peers. The two main kinds of processors are conventional: versatile CPUs and the more specialized GPUs.

Modern GPUs have enormous parallel arithmetic power, especially floating point arithmetic, but are poorly-suited to single-threaded code with lots of branches. Modern CPUs are well-suited to single-threaded code with lots of branches, but less well-suited to massively parallel number crunching. Splitting workloads between a CPU and a GPU, using each for the workloads it's good at, has driven the development of general purpose GPU (GPGPU) software and development.

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Peter Bright

Microsoft Accounts—the credentials used for Hotmail, Outlook.com, the Windows Store, and other Microsoft services—will soon offer two-factor authentication to ensure that accounts can't be compromised through disclosure of the password alone.

Revealed by LiveSide, the two factor authentication will use a phone app—which is already available for Windows Phone, even though the two-factor authentication isn't switched on yet—to generate a random code. This code must be entered alongside the password.

For systems that are used regularly, it's possible to disable the code requirement and allow logging in with the password alone. For systems that only accept passwords, such as e-mail clients, it appears that Microsoft will allow the creation of one-off application-specific passwords.

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Peter Bright

Aurich Lawson (with apologies to Bill Watterson)

Google announced today that it is forking the WebKit rendering engine on which its Chrome browser is based. The company is naming its new engine "Blink."

The WebKit project was started by Apple in 2001, itself a fork of a rendering engine called KHTML. The project includes a core rendering engine for handling HTML and CSS (WebCore), a JavaScript engine (JavaScriptCore), and a high-level API for embedding it into browsers (WebKit).

Though known widely as "WebKit," Google Chrome has used only WebCore since its launch in late 2008. Apple's Safari originally used the WebKit wrapper and now uses its successor, WebKit2. Many other browsers use varying amounts of the WebKit project, including the Symbian S60 browser, the BlackBerry browser, the webOS browser, and the Android browser.

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Mozilla today announced a collaboration with Samsung to produce a new browser engine designed to take full advantage of processors with multiple cores.

For the last couple of years, Mozilla Research has been developing a new programming language, Rust, that's designed to provide the same performance and power as C++, but without the same risk of bugs and security flaws, and with built-in mechanisms for exploiting multicore processors.

Using Rust, the company has been working on a prototype browser engine, named Servo.

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Peter Bright


Sven Olaf Kamphuis waving the Pirate Party flag in front of CyberBunker's nuclear bunker.

Sven Olaf Kamphuis

Over the last ten days, a series of massive denial-of-service attacks has been aimed at Spamhaus, a not-for-profit organization that describes its purpose as "track[ing] the Internet's spam operations and sources, to provide dependable realtime anti-spam protection for Internet networks." These attacks have grown so large—up to 300Gb/s—that the volume of traffic is threatening to bring down core Internet infrastructure.

The New York Times reported recently that the attacks came from a Dutch hosting company called CyberBunker (also known as cb3rob), which owns and operates a real military bunker and which has been targeted in the past by Spamhaus. The spokesman who the NYT interviewed, Sven Olaf Kamphuis, has since posted on his Facebook page that CyberBunker is not orchestrating the attacks. Kamphuis also claimed that NYT was plumping for sensationalism over accuracy.

Sven Olaf Kamphuis is, however, affiliated with the newly organized group "STOPhaus." STOPhaus claims that Spamhaus is "an offshore criminal network of tax circumventing self declared internet terrorists pretending to be 'spam' fighters" that is "attempt[ing] to control the internet through underhanded extortion tactics."

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Mozilla wants the Web to be a platform that's fit for any purpose. That's why the company is investing in Firefox OS—to fight back against the proliferation of platform-specific smartphone apps—and it's why the company has been working on WebGL, in order to bring 3D graphics to the browser, Emscripten, a tool for compiling C++ applications into JavaScript, and asm.js, a high performance subset of JavaScript.

The organization doesn't just want simple games and apps in the browser, however. It wants the browser to be capable of delivering high-end gaming experiences. At GDC today, the company announced that it has been working with Epic Games to port the Unreal 3 engine to the Web.

The Unreal 3 engine inside a browser.

With this, Mozilla believes that the Web can rival native performance, making it a viable platform not just for casual games, but AAA titles.

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Gretchen from Mean Girls.

SNL Studios

The 2004 film Mean Girls is a modern-day masterpiece, and I have been thinking about it constantly at Mobile World Congress (MWC) this week, because everywhere I turn, I feel that technology companies are channeling the spirit of Gretchen Wieners.

As part of the Plastics clique, Gretchen tried desperately to make fetch the Next Big Thing. "That's so fetch," was the ultimate in praise, to be used only to describe the coolest of the cool. Just as Queen Bee Regina George had to put Gretchen in her place and bitchily tell her, "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen. It's not going to happen," I think that the technology companies need to be told the same.

Stop trying to make "NFC" happen. It's not going to happen.

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