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Avoiding hacks on Cyber Monday, and using low tech for modern space exploration

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Remember, people: Alt-Tab. Or on a Mac: Command-Tab. That’s the fastest way to flip from the web page where you are sneaking in Internet shopping to the spreadsheet your boss thinks you are working on. You, of course, would never do that at work. You also would also never fall victim to online fraud that’s so pervasive this time of year. Computer security expert Chester Wisniewski says on Cyber Monday people are prone to what literature professors call a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

“Normally you’re spidey sense tingles and you go ‘oh this clearly can’t be real, it’s too cheap,'” says Wisniewski. “But this time of year, real vendors are offering spectacular things to the first five people in the door. So we’ve kind of become more open to the idea that these things might be real.” 

So be careful, whether you’re supposed to be working or have the day off. And the next time you are out physically shopping, watch out for the eyes — the eyes, I tell you. Bloomberg News reports an Italian company Almax has invented the Eye-See, a mannequin with cameras in the eyes to help track shopping behavior using the same technology that recognizes faces at airport security. But hey, don’t let that bother you in any way. Unless, like me, it makes you libel to stay home and risk the hackers instead of being part of a giant data grab. 

On Mondays, we like to talk big ideas, not just high tech, but also low tech. Not long ago we asked you for retro-tech that makes you happy in your lives. Among the responses: A book. Another listener is still using an RCA shortwave from 1941 and Georgia Bell Type 500 dial telephone. Turns out even NASA sometimes steers away from the cutting edge.

“When simpler means lower risk and lower cost, it’s probably a good idea,” says Mason Peck, who is NASA’s chief technologist. “These days astronauts take duct tape to the space station because it’s a proven solution. It’s low risk, it solves problems. It’s like the force — it binds the universe together.”

Another example: Mars Curiosity Rover’s camera–when it comes to some specs, it isn’t even as good as the cameras we’re carrying around in our own pockets. But there’s a few reasons Curiosity’s camera doesn’t measure up to the megapixels of our cell phones

“For hardware to survive space, it’s got to survive radiation, it’s got to survive extreme thermal environments,” says Peck. “You’ll take what you can get in terms of performance but at the same time you’ve also got to be sure it’s robust enough for the environment. The instruments we use on Curiosity as well as other spacecraft are the best we can make them, given the environment they need to survive.” 

So, how to measure a technology’s performance ability? 

“We have something we call technology readiness level — it’s a numerical score (that goes from 1-9) we give these things,” says Peck. “Nine is the most ready, the most mature.” 

Part of the reason that NASA has a new space technology program, is so that the agency can grow the portfolio of technologies that will shape future missions, says Peck. 

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