Ending Cassini, Banning Bigots, and—Oh FFS, Equifax! | Vol. 4 / No. 47

Photo: NASA

Today we’ve got the end of the incredible Cassini mission, the efficacy of using the banhammer on Reddit’s bigots, and the sheer unrelenting incompetence of Equifax—it’s the sci-tech roundup for Sunday, September 17, 2017!

Cassini Ends

On Friday, September 15 at 7:55am EDT, NASA’s decades-long mission to Saturn came to an end as the last signals sent from the Cassini probe were received back on Earth. After orbiting the second-largest planet in the solar system for nearly thirteen years (and that’s not counting the years it took to fly there, or the years before that it took to build), the stalwart little space robot had run out of fuel. Rather than leave it in an unstable orbit where it might impact any potential ecosystems by crashing into any of Saturn’s moons, the decision was made to steer the craft into Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere where it would burn up on entry. Few missions have increased our knowledge about one of our celestial neighbours as much as Cassini: in those thirteen years it captured two Saturnian seasons, or half its trip around the sun. That means in one hemisphere it watched as winter turned to summer, and in the other it saw summer turn into winter, capturing a full year’s worth of changes. It added to the catalogue of moons, gave us vital data about the ones we already knew about, and told us things we never expected about Saturn’s rings. Scientists are going to be analyzing the massive datasets produced by Cassini for decades to come, and so it’s with the greatest respect that we say goodbye to this incredible mission and goodnight to Cassini. A more successful mission could not have been had. You can read about the emotional end to the mission at NASA, and get a good run down of its accomplishments at Gizmodo.

BAN HAMMER | Image: Shannon Prickett, CC BY-SA 2.0

Banning Bigots Works

Back in 2015, Reddit took the step of shutting down two of its more intensely vile communities, named “CoonTown” and “fatpeoplehate,” as part of a campaign to limit the amount of hate speech on the site. Despite people (mostly alt-right bigots) complaining about “free speech” (which has literally nothing to do with what kinds of speech a privately-owned website allows) and saying that the bans wouldn’t work, a new study has found that, in fact, it has reduced hate speech on the site, by about 80%. The study, which comes out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that while “many subreddits saw an influx of r/fatpeoplehate and r/CoonTown “migrants,” those subreddits saw no significant changes in hate speech usage. In other words, other subreddits did not inherit the problem.” The conclusions were reached by studying the words used in roughly 100 million posts to the site from before and after the communities were shut down. The study goes on to note that many of the members from the Reddit communities relocated to other sites, for example voat.co where over 1500 “fatpeoplehate” members have replicated their Reddit usernames and formed a bigoted community there. There’s no word on whether voat.co will crack down on hate speech there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Still, it just goes to show: if you want to clean up your platform, you can. Here’s looking at you, Twitter. The study, “You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined Through Hate Speech,” can be found online for free.


Photo: Investment Zen, CC BY 2.0

Oh FFS Equifax!

Last week I told you about the news of the Equifax hack that means basically everyone in America should assume their credit history has been stolen. Yeah, that’s bad. But what really sucks is how badly they screwed up. This week they revealed that the exploit was something called Apache Struts CVE-2017-5638. Apache Struts is a bit of open-source software that a lot of sites use. That’s fine. I love open source software. And sometimes that means that there isn’t a professional team behind it and that exploits can be slow to be found—BUT NOT IN THIS CASE. In this case, a patch to fix the vulnerability was made available to all on March 6. Now, think for a moment about the date the hack took place. I’ll wait. Yes: it began IN MAY. So the largest theft of private data in the history of private data was made possible not by some intrepid hackers, but by the completely stunning incompetence of Equifax who didn’t bother to patch a well-known exploit for months. If that kind of incompetence isn’t illegal, well, it ought to be. If you’re not angry enough yet, you can read more over at Gizmodo.


Best of the Rest

As usual, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to cover all the stories I’ve seen, so here it is: your weekly linkspam.

And I’ll leave you today with the best thing I saw all week. SpaceX made a montage video of all the times it failed and things exploded, put it to music, and added witty comments. Fantastic.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.