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China set vs unofficial Lego fan design • The Register

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NASA’s Perseverance is currently trundling around Mars. In the absence of an official Lego version, your hardworking vultures had a crack at a pair of recent designs for the nuclear-powered rover.

We have a bit of a chequered history when it comes to the plastic bricks. Sure, we had fun building the International Space Station and Apollo Lunar Module, but those were genuine kits containing genuine Lego bricks.

Our other excursions were less successful. The crawler transporter for the Saturn V launch tower was a bit of a beast and the less said about the launch tower itself the better. (Glue. Glue.)

But Perseverance’s successful landing has given us the construction itch once again. We missed the boat when Curiosity was all the rage (although remain tempted by the Descent Stage and Sky Crane in the Lego Ideas model) so opted to try the model retailing at $43.99 from Vonado.

To be clear, this is not an official set by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it made of official Lego parts. Like our crawler and tower, the 661-brick beast comes direct from a vendor in China.

As a comparison, we also picked up a design from SkylabBricks, which cost us £4.52. (Although one must supply one’s own bricks. More on that later.)

We started with the Vonado model, the design and modelling of which is credited to YCBricks (you can pick up just the PDF instructions for $6.99 at Rebrickable.)

Compared to the pain of the Saturn tower, the build was relatively straightforward, although we’d have to caution that skipping ahead in the PDF instruction file is highly advisable since some steps aren’t particularly clear.

Vonado Perseverance set

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The bags of parts come numbered, although as with the crawler, those numbers have no bearing on what is needed when. More than one leap of faith was needed, to the point where one couldn’t help but wonder if anybody had actually tried to follow the steps before flinging the kit up for sale.

That said, the resulting rover was satisfyingly large even if its proportions seemed subjectively a little at odds with its inspiration. It does, however, feel a little fragile and not something that one would want to handle too much, which is a shame. One benefit of models like the Saturn V and Apollo lander is the ease with which one can use them to explain how spacecraft work. Not so much with this.

The SkylabBricks version was an entirely different beast. The cost of a London pint of beer gave one a link to PDFs detailing how to make the rover and Martian landscape. Parts files are provided to submit to the Bricklink site for ordering up components and spending, as Joe Chambers of SkylabBricks succinctly put it, “lots of money.”

SkylabBricks set

Click to enlarge

This is most definitely not the cheap option. The plans are helpfully split into rover and surface, but doing both with new Lego parts will come in at about £90 depending on the vagaries of the Bricklink marketplace (and what you already have in stock).

Cost of parts aside, the PDF instructions from SkylabBricks are streets ahead of those for the Vonado rover. As well as the expected step-by-step assembly instructions, a good few pages are dedicated to documenting the rover itself, its mission, payload, and the Ingenuity helicopter.

The instructions also give a nod to Lego’s original (and discontinued) Curiosity set, although this is considerably more detailed. It also comes in at 323 pieces for the rover and 370 for the display stand.

As for those pieces, we used the Bricklink site and the .xml parts files supplied by SkylabBricks. We allowed Bricklink to select the stores to supply the bricks (from a variety of geographical locations, including the UK, Europe, the US, and Malaysia). Over the course of a couple of weeks, little parcels of Lego joy arrived.

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As with the Vonado rover, the packaging of the parts had no bearing on the order of assembly. However, since careful auditing was needed to ensure what was delivered was what had been ordered, putting together the SkylabBricks rover was a good deal easier (although we can understand why one might want to have one’s bricks arrive in one, big package).

The difference between the rovers is surprising. While smaller, the SkylabBricks version is considerably more “play-with-able” and feels a good deal more solid. Bits did not fall off when a small child decided to take it for a spin over an imagined Martian surface consisting of dirt, gravel, and a lichen-encrusted paving slab. Parts dropped from the Vonado version just moving it from shelf to shelf (and resulted in more than one glance at the dread bottle of glue).

The Lego recreation of the surface of Mars was also a hoot to assemble, and made for a handy display stand.

The Register spoke to SkylabBricks’ Joe Chambers about the designs and the effort involved. Each design takes between three to four months, depending on the size of the project. “My instructions,” he said, “are somewhat unique in that I do a technical writeup of the subject and put it into the PDF.

“That is more for me, to be honest, but sometimes that takes a couple of weeks alone. I overdid it on my Delta IV, I must admit, writing something about all seven versions, but I love the stories and the technology of these things.

“The main focus of my designs, if you haven’t noticed, is space exploration and rocketry. I design things that I like or that I want to display.

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“For lack of a better description, I make models of things through the design constraint of Lego. I may be weird in that I want to make something look as accurate to the real thing that Lego will allow. I even try to hide studs behind tiles as much as possible. I am not building with mini-figs in mind or that it will be a playset. With all respect to people who enjoy that, my mindset is 100 per cent on the side of form over function, and, sometimes, over structural integrity.”

We can, however, confirm that the Perseverance model is excellent for playing with as well as being impressively detailed. The cost of assembling all the parts when compared to the alternative might however be a bit much for some.

As the name implies, a Skylab design can also be picked up from the SkylabBricks site. After this week’s announcement of a new official Lego Space Shuttle set, Chambers mused: “It suddenly hit me that it is about the same scale as my big Skylab. Ever hear of the Skylab Rescue mission? I think that might be a quick one to do…”

If only NASA had been able to do the same. ®

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Google becomes latest tech firm to delay reopening as Delta variant spreads | Google

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Google has backtracked on plans to welcome most workers back to its sprawling campus in September, becoming the latest Silicon Valley company to delay reopening amid a surge in Covid cases.

The company announced Wednesday it is postponing a return to the office until mid-October and rolling out a policy that will eventually require everyone who returns in person to be vaccinated.

The decision sees Google join Apple and Netflix in postponing calling employees back to the office due to concerns about the highly transmissible Delta variant, which now accounts for more than 80% of new cases in the US. Twitter also halted reopening plans and closed offices last week due to the Delta variant.

In an email to Google’s more than 130,000 employees worldwide, chief executive officer Sundar Pichai said the company is now aiming to have most of its workforce back to its offices beginning 18 October instead of its previous target date of 1 September.

Google’s delay also affects tens of thousands of contractors who Google intends to continue to pay while access to its campuses remains limited.

“This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Pichai wrote. This marks the third time Google has pushed back the date for fully reopening its offices.

Pichai said that once offices are fully reopened, everyone working there will have to be vaccinated. The requirement will be first imposed at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and other US offices, before being extended to the more than 40 other countries where Google operates.

Facebook announced a similar policy on Wednesday, saying it will make vaccines mandatory for US employees who work in offices. Apple is reportedly also considering requiring vaccines.

“This is the stuff that needs to be done, because otherwise we are endangering workers and their families,” said Dr Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “It is not fair to parents to be expected to come back to work and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with unvaccinated people who could be carrying a potentially deadly virus.”

Because children under the age of 12 aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated, parents can bring the virus home to them from the office if they are around unvaccinated colleagues, Wen said.

The delays from these companies could influence other major employers to take similar precautions, given that the technology industry has been at the forefront of the shift to remote work triggered by the spread of Covid-19.

Even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Google, Apple and many other prominent tech firms had been telling their employees to work from home. Many others in the tech industry have decided to let employees do their jobs from remote locations permanently.

Google’s decision to require employees working in the office to be vaccinated comes on the heels of similar moves affecting hundreds of thousands government workers in California and New York as part of stepped-up measures to fight the delta variant. Joe Biden is expected to announce a mandate that all federal government workers be vaccinated.

The rapid rise in cases during the past month has prompted more public health officials to urge stricter measures to help overcome vaccine skepticism and misinformation.

While other major technology companies may follow suit now that Google and Facebook have taken stands on vaccines, employers in other industries still may be reluctant, predicted Brian Kropp, chief of research for the research firm Gartner. Less than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by Gartner.

“Google is seen as being such a different kind of company that I think it’s going to take one or two more big employers to do something similar in terms of becoming a game changer,” Kropp said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Privacy proves elusive in Google’s Privacy Sandbox • The Register

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Google’s effort to build a “Privacy Sandbox” – a set of technologies for delivering personalized ads online without the tracking problems presented by cookie-based advertising – continues to struggle with its promise of privacy.

The Privacy Sandbox consists of a set of web technology proposals with bird-themed names intended to aim interest-based ads at groups rather than individuals.

Much of this ad-related data processing is intended to occur within the browsers of internet users, to keep personal information from being spirited away to remote servers where it might be misused.

So, simply put, the aim is to ensure decisions made on which ads you’ll see, based on your interests, take place in your browser rather than in some backend systems processing your data.

Google launched the initiative in 2019 after competing browser makers began blocking third-party cookies – the traditional way to deliver targeted ads and track internet users – and government regulators around the globe began tightening privacy rules.

The ad biz initially hoped that it would be able to develop a replacement for cookie-based ad targeting by the end of 2021.

But after last month concluding the trial of its flawed FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts – to send the spec back for further refinement and pushing back its timeline for replacing third-party cookies with Privacy Sandbox specs, Google now acknowledges that its purportedly privacy-protective remarketing proposal FLEDGE – First Locally-Executed Decision over Groups Experiment – also needs a tweak to prevent the technology from being used to track people online.

On Wednesday, John Mooring, senior software engineer at Microsoft, opened an issue in the GitHub repository for Turtledove (now known as FLEDGE) to describe a conceptual attack that would allow someone to craft code on webpages to use FLEDGE to track people across different websites.

That runs contrary to its very purpose. FLEDGE is supposed to enable remarketing – for example, a web store using a visitor’s interest in a book to present an ad for that book on a third-party website – without tracking the visitor through a personal identifier.

Michael Kleber, the Google mathematician overseeing the construction of Privacy Sandbox specs, acknowledged that the sample code could be abused to create an identifier in situations where there’s no ad competition.

“This is indeed the natural fingerprinting concern associated with the one-bit leak, which FLEDGE will need to protect against in some way,” he said, suggesting technical interventions and abuse detection as possible paths to resolve the privacy leak. “We certainly need some approach to this problem before the removal of third-party cookies in Chrome.”

In an email to The Register, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and consultant, emphasized the need to ensure that the Privacy Sandbox does not leak from the outset.

It will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own

“Among the goals of Privacy Sandbox is to make advertising more civilized, specifically privacy-proofed,” said Olejnik. “To achieve this overarching goal, plenty of changes must be introduced. But it will all be futile if the candidates for replacements are not having an adequate privacy level on their own. This is why the APIs would need to be really well designed, and specifications crystal-clear, considering broad privacy threat models.”

The problem as Olejnik sees it is that the privacy characteristics of the technology being proposed are not yet well understood. And given the timeline for this technology and revenue that depends on it – the global digital ad spend this year is expected to reach $455bn – he argues data privacy leaks need to be identified in advance so they can be adequately dealt with.

“This particular risk – the so-called one-bit leak issue – has been known since 2020,” Olejnik said. “I expect that a solution to this problem will be found in the fusion of API design (i.e. Turtledove and Fenced Frames), implementation level, and the auditing manner – active search for potential misuses.

“But this particular issue indeed looks serious – a new and claimed privacy-friendly solution should not be introduced while being aware of such a design issue. In this sense, it’s a show-stopper, but one that is hopefully possible to duly address in time.” ®

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Government plans €10m in funding for green and digital business projects

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The Government and Enterprise Ireland are providing two funds to regional Irish businesses in a bid to help them transition to a greener, digital economy.

The Government has today (29 July ) announced it will provide €10m in funding through Enterprise Ireland to projects supporting digitalisation and the transition to a green economy.

The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme, worth €9.5m, will provide grant funding to regional and community-based projects focused on helping enterprises to adapt to the changing economic landscape due to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland said: “The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme is aimed at supporting regional development and the regional business eco-system, helping to create and sustain jobs in the regions impacted by Covid-19.”

Grants of up to €1.8m or 80pc of project cost are available to businesses. The projects should aim to address the impact of Covid-19 and improve the capability and competitiveness of regional enterprises.

The call for the Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme will close on 8 September 2021. The successful projects will be announced in October and all funding will be provided to the successful applicants before the end of the year.

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A separate funding scheme, the €500,000 Feasibility Study fund, will provide financial support to early-stage regional enterprise development projects.

Launching the funding schemes, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD said the funds would “help stimulate transformational regional projects to support enterprises embrace the opportunities of digitalisation, the green economy as well as navigate the changed landscape arising from Covid-19.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD commented at the launch that the funds would help “build Covid-19 and Brexit resilience and enable applicants to support enterprises and SMEs to respond to recent economic and market challenges which also includes the transition to a low carbon economy, digital transformation and smart specialisation.”

The Feasibility Fund is open to new projects, with grants available of up to €50,000 or 50pc of project cost and will allow promoters to test their project concept and deliver virtual or site-based solutions to their target audience.

Applications for the Feasibility Fund close on 1st October 2021.

For more information and details on how to apply for the funds, see here and here.

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