After the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, regulators moved to overhaul safety requirements for nuclear power plants. This led to the temporary closure of some older nuclear power plants governed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) when they couldn’t meet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) newly tightened standards.
Now, Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of economics and public policy Edson Severnini says those closures may have caused reduced birth weight in children in the area at the time, due to pollution exposure from the increased reliance on coal-burning power plants. The sudden removal of nuclear power, which doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases, led to a ramp-up in the amount of power being provided by nearby coal plants, Severnini wrote. That led to increases in particle pollution in areas adjacent to coal power plants, measured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in total suspended particulates (TSP).
At the same time, average birth weight for infants declined 134 grams.
Developers of the widely used LastPass password manager are scrambling to fix a serious vulnerability that makes it possible for malicious websites to steal user passcodes and in some cases execute malicious code on computers running the program.
The flaw, which affects the latest version of the LastPass browser extension, was briefly described on Saturday by Tavis Ormandy, a researcher with Google's Project Zero vulnerability reporting team. When people have the LastPass binary running, the vulnerability allows malicious websites to execute code of their choice. Even when the binary isn't present, the flaw can be exploited in a way that lets malicious sites steal passwords from the protected LastPass vault. Ormandy said he developed a proof-of-concept exploit and sent it to LastPass officials. Developers now have three months to patch the hole before Project Zero discloses technical details.
"It will take a long time to fix this properly," Ormandy said. "It's a major architectural problem. They have 90 days, no need to scramble!"
Samantha Lee/Business Insider; SpaceX/Flickr; Getty Images
- On March 30, SpaceX will try to re-launch and re-land a used Falcon 9 rocket booster for the first time.
- A telecommunications company called SES plans to use the rocket to launch a satellite.
- A spaceflight expert says the launch could be revolutionary in lowering the cost of access to space — if everything works.
It's make or break time for SpaceX.
On March 30, pending agreeable weather, Elon Musk's rocket company will try to make good on its promise to slash the immense cost of launching stuff into space.
The goal is to re-launch and recover a first-stage booster, or lower half, of a 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX first fired off on April 8, 2016. The booster in question helped deliver a satellite into orbit, screamed back to Earth, righted itself, and self-landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
This is highly unusual: Nearly all rocket parts today crash into the ocean following launch, sink to the bottom, and are never seen again. A booster, which is typically the most expensive part of multi-stage rockets, can cost tens of millions of dollars.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's CEO, has said that reusing a rocket booster could give its customers — who have so far launched only satellites and space station supplies — about a 30% discount on a Falcon 9 rocket launch, which costs about $62 million.
SpaceX's orbital rocket system is already the most affordable in the world, but such a discount would save companies more than $18 million per launch.
"This is potentially revolutionary," John Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider. "Reusability has been the Holy Grail in access to space for a long, long time."
Logsdon uses the word "potentially" because although SpaceX has been collecting used orbital rocket boosters, it has yet to re-launch and re-land any one of them. But that could change on Thursday.
How to buy a used rocket
SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)
Demonstration flights like SpaceX's upcoming launch-and-landing attempt are vital to prove that the rocket system works as intended. But they're also inherently risky, since they test new capabilities that might fail.
That's why many demonstration launches fly without any valuable payloads on board; there are simply fewer consequences if there's a failure, especially since the payloads they carry (most often orbiting satellites) can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, SES — a Luxembourg-based telecommunications company and longtime customer of SpaceX — actively pursued SpaceX so it could be the first to launch something on the used booster. In this case, the rocket will carry a satellite called SES-10, which will provide internet and television coverage for much of Central America and South America.
SpaceX's used booster will loft an upper-stage rocket dozens of miles above Earth, then separate from it. The upper-stage will then fire and take SES-10 into an orbit about 22,200 miles (35,700 kilometers) above the planet. Meanwhile, the booster will fall back toward the ocean and land on a ship.
SESMarcus Payer, the global communications director for SES, said the deal with SpaceX was solidified in August 2016, with a planned launch for later that year. But SpaceX's uncrewed rocket explosion on September 1 and the months-long accident investigation that followed delayed the flight.
"Wherever we can change the industry equation, we will do it. We were waving our hands to be the first," Payer told Business Insider. "We are not risk-averse, otherwise we would not be launching satellites."
In light of SpaceX's recent launchpad failure, Payer sounded optimistic.
"We are not new to this business. These things happen," Payer said. "[The explosion] has not, at all, rattled our confidence in what SpaceX is doing."
SES declined to tell Business Insider how much they paid SpaceX for the upcoming launch, citing contractual issues and competition within the industry. SpaceX did not reply to Business Insider's request for comment on the matter.
But John Logsdon said he wouldn't be surprised if SES received a discount of 30% — or even managed to pay SpaceX nothing at all, since this is a demonstration flight.
"I think they're getting a low-cost ride, though there's no reason to think why this should not work," said Logsdon, who recently toured the Cape Canaveral, Florida-based facility where SpaceX is refurbishing used Falcon 9 rockets.
SpaceX on Flickr
SpaceX designed its Falcon 9 rockets to be reusable from the beginning, and most of the multi-million-dollar construction cost is sunk into the first-stage booster.
Meanwhile, refueling the rocket with liquid RP-1 (a type of kerosene) and liquid oxygen (to burn the fuel) costs about $200,000, Elon Musk has said.
"The booster is not some kind of strap-on accessory. There are nine rocket engines on the first stage, while there's only one on the second stage. And rocket engines are the most expensive item," Logsdon said, adding that that Falcon 9 rocket was designed from the ground-up to be easily repaired and reused.
"So this begins to come close to the image of launching these things, recovering them, turning them around at low cost, and launching them again," he said. "That's the goal."
A future built on a ' very violent process'
Engineers have tried to build reusable launch systems for decades, the most notable example of which was the space shuttle developed by NASA and its contractors. But they haven't seen much success.
"The space shuttle was supposed to be fully reusable at its inception. The orbiter itself was supposed to be able to go into orbit, land, get turned around, and go out to the launchpad again," Logsdon said. "It turned out to be much more difficult than that."
However, progress over the past few years has rekindled the dream of reusable launch systems.
SpaceX has raised eyebrows with the self-landing capability of its Falcon 9 boosters on eight occasions. Musk's company is also working on a much-larger Falcon Heavy launch system, which should debut within a year. That rocket will use three self-landing boosters to further reduce the cost access to space.
SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also pursuing his own reusable rockets through his company Blue Origin.
Blue Origin has shown it can launch, land, and reuse its liquid-fueled rocket, called the New Shepard.
As Musk has pointed out, however, Blue Origin's New Shepard system is a smaller suborbital rocket meant to ferry tourists to the edge of space for a few minutes and is not designed to put heavy satellites into orbit. (That feat that requires nearly 1,000 more energy.)
While Blue Origin is developing the New Glenn — a heavy-lift orbital rocket system that recently attracted its first paying customer — SpaceX is ostensibly farther ahead in the reusable launch industry.
Whatever direction it goes, Logsdon said any company attempting to get in on the game is signing up for a long-term fight with physics: It's no simple task to launch rockets at speeds of many thousands of miles per hour, land that hardware, and prepare it for another flight.
"Launching is still a very violent process," Logsdon said, adding that "each recovered booster will present a different challenge" in terms of damage to the rocket's engines, fuel pumps, navigation electronics, cylindrical body, and more.
Logsdon is eager to see how quickly companies like SpaceX can turn around boosters under heavy demand — and whether or not enough customers will actually want to fly on used merchandise.
But between SpaceX's goal of launching a global network of 4,425 internet satellites and SES' plans to expand its satellite business, there may not be any shortage of demand for low-cost rocket rides.
"This is not a one-off. If it works, it will become a key element in all future satellite constellations," Payer said. "We'll be double-happy if this goes well, for both our sake and SpaceX's."
In their README, the hacker notes much of the iOS-related code is very similar to that used in the jailbreaking scenea community of iPhone hackers that typically breaks into iOS devices and release its code publicly for free.
Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensic scientist, agreed that some of the iOS files were nearly identical to tools created and used by the jailbreaking community, including patched versions of Apple's firmware designed to break security mechanisms on older iPhones. A number of the configuration files also reference "limera1n," the name of a piece of jailbreaking software created by infamous iPhone hacker Geohot. He said he wouldn't call the released files "exploits" however.
Zdziarski also said that other parts of the code were similar to a jailbreaking project called QuickPwn, but that the code had seemingly been adapted for forensic purposes. For example, some of the code in the dump was designed to brute force PIN numbers, which may be unusual for a normal jailbreaking piece of software.
"If, and it's a big if, they used this in UFED or other products, it would indicate they ripped off software verbatim from the jailbreak community and used forensically unsound and experimental software in their supposedly scientific and forensically validated products," Zdziarski continued.
If you remember, Cellebrite was the company that supposedly helped the FBI break into the San Bernadino terrorist iPhone. (I say "supposedly," because the evidence is unclear.) We do know that they provide this sort of forensic assistance to countries like Russia, Turkey, and the UAE -- as well as to many US jurisdictions.
As Cory Doctorow points out:
...suppressing disclosure of security vulnerabilities in commonly used tools does not prevent those vulnerabilities from being independently discovered and weaponized -- it just means that users, white-hat hackers and customers are kept in the dark about lurking vulnerabilities, even as they are exploited in the wild, which only end up coming to light when they are revealed by extraordinary incidents like this week's dump.
We are all safer when vulnerabilities are reported and fixed, not when they are hoarded and used in secret.
Since Inauguration Day, several terrestrial radio stations from around the country have been dealing with the same problem: an unstoppable audio loop of YG and Nipsey Hussle’s track “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump).” Stations in South Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky have all had their signals hacked over the past two weeks resulting in unexpected airtime for “FDT,” according to multiple sources.
On January 20th, reports began to surface of radio stations in Kentucky and Texas playing the song on repeat for hours. HeatStreet confirmed with Crescent Hill Radio in KY and 100.5 KCGF-LP in TX that the broadcasts were not intentional. Crescent Hill Radio reportedly had to go off the air entirely for several hours to fix the problem.
National outbreaks of fake news and partisan “disinformation” have convinced many Americans to doubt scientific consensus—such as the near-unanimous agreement among experts that human-caused climate change is real and a global threat and that vaccines are safe, effective, and live-saving.
While respectable media outlets are scrambling to fact-check and refute such “merchants of doubt,” a group of researchers, led by a psychologist at Cambridge, think they can stamp out the viral spread of fake news and lies just like we stamp out every other infectious disease—with vaccinations.
Their ‘mental inoculation’ works under the same principal as actual innoculations—that is, exposure to a weakened version or fragment of some nasty contagion can allow a person to recognize and develop immunity to future threats. In their study, the researchers found that they could effectively ‘vaccinate’ Americans from climate change misinformation by presenting them with information on the scientific consensus alongside a pre-emptive caution that some politically motivated groups are spreading lies about that consensus.
Microsoft is working on BitCoin format support in Excel. When this feature becomes available, users can use Excel to track, calculate and analyze Bitcoin data using native Bitcoin number formatting options. This new feature will be first rolled out to Excel 2016 for Windows, Excel Online, Excel Mobile for Windows and Excel Mobile for Android.
This feature is expected to be available in the first half of 2017.
Humanity is in a serious pinch for energy.
Fossil fuels could slake the world's thirst for energy, but burning more would exacerbate climate change and threaten millions. And it'd be temporary, since known reserves are expected to run out within a century or two.
"You've got to be able to generate energy reliably. You've got to be able to generate energy on demand. And that's what wind and solar can't do, and will never be able to do," Kirk Sorensen, the CTO of nuclear energy startup Flibe Energy, told Business Insider in an episode of our podcast Codebreaker, produced with Marketplace.
Nuclear reactors fit the bill: They're dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and — contrary to popular belief — are among the safest energy sources on Earth. They currently supply 20% of America's energy, but this share may decline by 50% through 2040 as companies take decades-old reactors offline, according to a July 2016 report released by Idaho National Laboratory.
Fortunately, a powerful yet relatively unknown solution may have started with a Cold War-era airplane: "The Crusader" NB-36H jet bomber, which flew over two US states with a nuclear reactor in its belly.
The effort was part of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program. Although it was ultimately canceled, ANP spawned the development of a radical new type of power plant, called the molten-salt reactor.
Today, engineers like Sorensen are trying to revive the molten-salt reactor, which the US abandoned in the early 1970s, and fuel it with a practically infinite source of carbon-free energy: thorium.
A push for nuclear-powered flight
The US government in 1946 launched ANP as an effort to develop a nuclear-powered jet bomber.
It was an extreme means to a practical (and deadly) end: Fly at least 15,000 miles without refueling to give the plane a fearsome range of attack, according to Scientific American.
Physicist Alvin Weinberg, who invented the most well-known type of nuclear reactor in 1945 — the light-water reactor (LWR) — rose to the occasion and began working up a solution as the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.
But Weinberg didn't want to put a LWR into an airplane.
LWRs, which now provide 100% of America's nuclear energy, rely on solid nuclear fuel, typically one that contains uranium-235. If this "fissile" isotope of uranium is struck by a flying neutron, it can split, release gobs of energy, and shoot out more neutrons. This process is called fission. If there's enough fuel in one place, there will be enough neutrons flying around to self-sustain a fission chain-reaction.
The problem is that solid fuel is terribly inefficient. In fact, LWRs fission or "burn up" just a few percent of their fuel before it needs to be replaced. This is because waste products slowly accumulate in the fuel, absorb more and more neutrons, and poison the process of fission.
So Weinberg instead chose to develop an idea he'd heard during the Manhattan Project, which had since become "kind of an obsession" for him: a reactor that fissioned its fuel in a fluid of molten salt.
Molten-salt reactors are unlike any commercial nuclear power plants that exist today. Instead of using solid pellets of nuclear fuel, they dissolve nuclear fuel in a stable, blazing-hot fluid.
The fluid can dramatically increase the efficiency of nuclear fission by making it easy to remove fission products. This helps it burn up almost all the nuclear fuel and boosts energy output. Such reactors are essentially meltdown-proof, too, since cooling down the salt solidifies and expands it, slowing fission to a crawl.
Weinberg and others knew such efficiency might allow engineers to shrink a reactor to fit inside an airplane. So he and his team at ORNL built a small molten-salt reactor as part of an offshoot program, called the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE).
The birth of the molten-salt reactor
By 1954, Weinberg and his team had built a working prototype: a 2.5-megawatt power plant that used a small amount of uranium-235 dissolved in molten salt made of fluorine, sodium, and zirconium.
It was the first working molten-salt reactor ever built.
Inside the ARE's molten-salt fuel, uranium powered a fission chain-reaction. The atomic heat warmed up an adjacent loop of coolant (made of molten sodium) from 1,200 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Incoming air cooled the sodium, and pumps returned it to the fluid-fueled reactor core for reheating.
The Air Force immediately began retrofitting a B-36 jet bomber ("The Crusader") to carry a nuclear reactor. It also funded ORNL's follow-up molten-salt reactor, called the Aircraft Reactor Test (ART).
USAFBut the Air Force canceled ART in 1957 to cut ballooning costs — and instead flew a different reactor it had funded in tandem.
The reactor, which was not a molten-salt reactor but a light-water reactor, was never connected to the plane's engines, since "The Crusader" was only intended to test radiation shielding. (The Air Force planned to later incorporate it into a purpose-built nuclear bomber called the WS-125.)
"The Crusader" flew 47 demonstration flights from 1955 through 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It weighed nearly 18 tons fully-loaded and logged 218 hours of flight, of which the reactor ran for nearly 90 hours. And the crew lived.
But strapped with high costs of about $7 billion and faced with other priorities, including the creation of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the space race, President John F. Kennedy canceled all Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion projects in 1961.
Still, by that time, Weinberg had squeezed in several years' worth of research and $1 billion on molten-salt reactors.
By 1960, with the government funding the development of commercial nuclear power plants, Weinberg poured all of that knowledge into the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE). The MSRE went critical in 1965, produced power for thousands of hours through 1969, and was hailed a success.
The next stage was to develop MSRE into something called a breeder reactor.
The death of Weinberg's dream
Breeder reactors can create more fuel than they burn through fission, thanks to a process called neutron capture: a "fertile" atom will absorb a neutron from fission, then decay into (and "breed") the fuel. The fuel can then be fissioned to breed more fuel, and so on.
As long as fertile material is around, this can go on indefinitely. But breeding only works with a few radioactive isotopes, since it requires so many neutrons to work.
One is uranium-238, a fertile isotope which makes up more than 99% of natural uranium ore. It can be bred into plutonium-239, a fissile weapons material. (This is how the US made most of its nuclear arsenal.)
Another is thorium, which can be bred into uranium-233 — another fissile fuel, yet one that is very difficult to handle or make into bomb material.
"Right now we extract thorium inadvertently as a function of rare-earth mining," Sorensen said. "We go looking for neodymium, and other rare-earths — ironically for magnets for things like wind turbines — and we bring up quite a bit of thorium in the process, which right now is treated like a waste."
USAFBut it's no waste.
According to "SuperFuel," a 2013 book on thorium energy's demise and promise by journalist and author Richard Martin:
"Thorium is around four times as abundant as uranium and about as common as lead. Pick up a handful of soil at your local park or ball-field; it contains about 12 parts per million of thorium. The United States has about 440,000 tons of thorium reserves, according to the Nuclear Energy Agency; Australia has the world's largest resources, at about 539,000 tons. Like uranium and plutonium, thorium makes a dense and highly efficient energy source: scoop up a few ounces of sand on certain beaches on the coast of India, it's said, and you'll have enough thorium to power Mumbai for a year."
Inside a molten-salt breeder reactor, which burns up almost all of its fuel and generates hundreds of times less waste than LWRs, Weinberg estimated that thorium could meet the world's energy needs for billions of years.
But the government canceled the MSRE in 1972, Weinberg retired soon after, and he never revived his research.
The US ultimately favored the LWR design for its nuclear reactors because more of them had been built, the military liked the design for nuclear submarines, and they could also make nuclear weapons material.
A push for next-generation nuclear power
In the 2000s, Sorensen and others (including China and India) began rediscovering the idea of thorium-fueled molten-salt reactors.
Sorensen is one of a few entrepreneurs who is trying to revive, modernize, and license his own version of the technology, called the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).
"The technology is viable, the science has been demonstrated," Hans Gougar, a nuclear physicist at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), told Business Insider.
But it's been rough. Developing nuclear power technology requires billions of dollars and is very slow, since it has to be proven safe at multiple stages before commercial-scale plants can be built — and the LFTR is unlike anything in service today.
"Maneuvering the licensing process is a huge challenge. The regulatory framework is not currently streamlined to support these novel innovative technologies," Rita Baranwal, a materials engineer at INL, told Business Insider.
The Department of Energy estimates it may take until 2040 or 2050 to license a full-scale and commercial molten-salt power plant. Meanwhile, America's aging yet vital nuclear power plants aren't getting any younger.
That's why, this summer, INL tapped Baranwal to direct its new Gateway for Accelerating Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program, which is a technology accelerator and support system created for small-time nuclear entrepreneurs.
However it gets built — or whoever builds it — Sorensen is convinced that thorium-fueled molten-salt reactors are the key to solving Earth's energy blues for good.
"This is something that's going to benefit their future tremendously, it's going to lead to a new age of human success," he said, speaking to the world at large. "And if they want that, they need to be talking to their elected officials and demanding it, in fact, and saying 'we want to see these things happen.' Because only a society that decides to embrace this kind of technology is going to ultimately realize its benefits."
For more on molten salt reactors and solving climate change, listen to the "world building" episode of the Codebreaker podcast from Business Insider and Marketplace. Subscribe to the whole series on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Statistics are generally pretty boring, but when pirates come into play it’s an entirely different story.
Yesterday, numerous self-respecting news publications ‘reported’ that Amazon’s Top Gear ‘inspired’ series “The Grand Tour” is now the most pirated TV-show ever, beating Game of Thrones, which held this title for nearly a decade.
While it sounds exciting, it’s not really true.
Admittingly, collecting piracy statistics is far from an exact science. However, even when we look at publicly available data it’s obvious The Grand Tour is no competition for Game of Thrones.
The confusion started with a report from the bastion of quality news reporting, The Daily Mail. “Clarkson’s TV comeback becomes the most illegally downloaded show in history,” it claimed.
The report cites data from piracy monitoring firm MUSO and suggests that the first episode was illegally downloaded 7.9 million times. More than any other show in history, the company’s chief commercial officer claimed.
“It is the most illegally downloaded programme ever. It is off the scale in terms of volume. It has overtaken every big show, including Game Of Thrones, for the totals across different platforms,” MUSO’s Chris Elkins said.
While we’re not going to dispute this number directly, the “most downloaded” claim is nonsense. First of all, it would be virtually impossible for any new show to be the most downloaded ever if it’s up against those that have been available for years.
But, let’s assume that we’re talking about downloads on a weekly basis. Even then, the signs are pretty bad. Looking at the most recent list of most pirated TV-shows on The Pirate Bay shows that several other shows currently outrank The Grand Tour by a wide margin, The Walking Dead in particular.
In addition, recent streaming data from several of the most popular streaming sites online places The Grand Tour behind The Walking Dead, which traditionally is far less popular than Game of Thrones.
TorrentFreak has kept a close eye on the most-shared torrents for The Grand Tour, which get roughly 20,000 people sharing simultaneously at their peak. Peanuts compared to Game of Thrones’ record, which sits at over a quarter million.
Also, the claimed “record” number of downloads is significantly less than our 14+ million estimate for Game of Thrones last year.
Even Muso itself indirectly disputes its own claim, as the quoted 7.9 million figure for the Grand Tour is lower than an estimate it previously gave for Game of Thrones.
We asked Muso itself for clarification and it appears that there has been some misunderstanding. The spokesperson for the company suggests that The Grand Tour is ‘just’ the most pirated UK TV show.
“Demand analysis across a three week monitoring period for episodes 1-3 of The Grand Tour placed it as having the highest volume of piracy views for a UK TV show in history, as well as the most piracy views in a debut season for a TV show.”
That sounds more like it. In addition, it’s probably also the most pirated TV show with the word “Grand” in the title, as well as the most illegally downloaded show about cars.
TorrentFreak asked the company for additional clarification on what data is covered in the 7.9 million estimate, as “piracy views” suggests that it’s about more than torrent downloads. It’s likely that MUSO also included a streaming estimate in its data, but at the time of publication we have yet to receive a response.
We don’t know whether MUSO was misquoted by The Daily Mail, but it’s safe to say that The Grand Tour still has a long way to go before it outpaces Game of Thrones, if it ever will.
Fake news anyone?
There’s fake news, fake science, and now, “fake tech”. Fake tech is a term that came to mind while reading about the augmented reality startup Magic Leap. The company has raised $1.4 billion based on videos created to demo its technology. But new information has surfaced that indicates these videos were created using special effects, simulated by a New Zealand company that specializes in such things. While it’s not clear how real the company’s technology is, you could describe these simulated presentations as fake.
Then there’s Theranos, the health technology company that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for its fingerstick and microfluidics technologies that promised to revolutionize blood testing. The company’s value was as high as $9 billion before it was discovered that much of its technology was more wishful thinking than real. Apparently, its charismatic leader was able to persuade a number of luminaries to serve on its board while others, including Walgreen’s, made huge investments based on fake evidence or no evidence at all.
Because technology is often complicated and overwhelming to those without science or engineering training, potential customers and investors are not equipped to make knowledgeable assessments and therefore follow the crowd of believers, not wanting to be left behind.
But as many of us working in Silicon Valley know, there’s a propensity for entrepreneurs to take on tasks that may seem insurmountable, or even impossible, that can lead to real innovation and breakthroughs. Along the way, with the need to attract investment, employees and customers, it’s easy for the promises to get ahead of the reality. People want to believe and can easily fall prey to those leaders who may be better at promoting than the actual science.
In the case of Theranos and Magic Leap, there were early warning signs, such as the companies’ refusal to provide real demos. In both cases, the truth came out when former employees came forward with their stories. In the case of Theranos, an intensive investigation by the WSJ did much to undermine the company’s credibility.
I’ve also experienced fake tech on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. There are products described with seemingly impossible claims that can’t be verified by the host sites. So, anyone with a clever idea and a simulated video can raise money proposing an idea that’s impossible to do. Some may know it’s impossible but many don’t know what they don’t know and believe it can be accomplished with enough money.
In addition to these, there are more nuanced examples of fake tech practiced by major companies that rely on exaggerated claims to garner publicity and boost their stock. While perhaps not completely fake, they are a lot less than what they seem to be.
Uber claimed they were beginning to use driverless cars in Pittsburgh when, in fact, they were starting to test the cars with a professional driver at the wheel. Amazon announced last year they were going to begin delivery of packages using drones, yet it will be years away.
In these cases, the press jumped on these stories, encouraged by the companies’ professional PR people, skilled at creating headlines out of bits of truth, and playing to the strengths and weakness of gullible reporters. While perhaps not factually inaccurate, the results were closer to almost-fake tech.
What fuels fake tech is what fuels fake news — the need to create headlines that result in clicks, eyeballs and hence, dollars. The need to get above the noise and stand out in some way. Too often, there are reporters not trained in science or technology that fall for these stories without a critical eye. They too want to believe and, as a result, promote a story without understanding the nuances behind it.
What’s the solution? Good reporting by trained journalists that understand basic science. Reporters that have a skeptical eye who understand they can’t accept all they are told. The need to assess claims using industry experts without financial ties to the company or its investors. Reliance on industry analysts who have seen and heard it all before and are not taken in by unsubstantiated claims.
The internet is filled with free educational lectures, and many of those lectures are spread across a variety of platforms, from free university sites to YouTube. FindLectures attempts to provide a single place to search through them.
There's new malware toolkit that uses steganography to hide in images:
For the past two months, a new exploit kit has been serving malicious code hidden in the pixels of banner ads via a malvertising campaign that has been active on several high profile websites.
Discovered by security researchers from ESET, this new exploit kit is named Stegano, from the word steganography, which is a technique of hiding content inside other files.
In this particular scenario, malvertising campaign operators hid malicious code inside PNG images used for banner ads.
The crooks took a PNG image and altered the transparency value of several pixels. They then packed the modified image as an ad, for which they bought ad displays on several high-profile websites.
Last year we wrote about the "USB Killer"—a DIY USB stick that fried almost everything (laptops, smartphones, consoles, cars) that it was plugged into. Now the USB Killer has been mass produced—you can buy it online for about £50/$50. Now everyone can destroy just about every computer that has a USB port. Hooray.
The commercialised USB Killer looks like a fairly humdrum memory stick. You can even purchase a "Test Shield" for £15/$15, which lets you try out the kill stick—watch the spark of electricity arc between the two wires!—without actually frying the target device, though I'm not sure why you would want to spend £65 to do that. The website proudly states that the USB Killer is CE approved, meaning it has passed a number of EU electrical safety directives.
Sometimes, it’s what’s inside that counts more than what we can see on the outside. That’s certainly the case with people, and increasingly, I think, it’s going to be the case with tech devices.
Many of the most impressive breakthroughs in our favorite gadgets are driven almost completely by critical new breakthroughs in component technologies: chips and other semiconductors, displays, sensors, and much more. Just this week, in fact, there were reports that Apple might offer a curved display on next year’s iPhone, and that HP Enterprise had debuted the first working prototype of a dramatically different type of computing device that they dub The Machine.
In both cases, it’s critical component technologies that are enabling these potentially breakthrough end products. In the iPhone’s case, it would be because of bendable OLED displays being produced by companies such as LG Display and Samsung Electronics’ display division. For The Machine, HP’s own new memory and optical interconnect chips are the key enablers for computing performance that’s touted to be as much as 8,000 times faster than today’s offerings.
Long-time tech industry observers know that the real trick to figuring out where product trends are going is to find out what the most important component technologies being developed are, then learn about them and their timeline for introduction. That isn’t always as easy as it sounds, however, because semiconductor and other component technologies can get very complicated, very quickly.
Still, there’s no better way to find out the future of tech products and industry trends than to dive into the component market headfirst. Fortunately, many major tech component vendors are starting to make this easier for non-engineers, because they’ve recognized the importance of telling their stories and explaining the unique value of their products and key technologies.
From companies like Sandisk describing the performance and lifetime benefits of solid state drives (SSDs) inside PCs, to chipmakers like nVidia describing the work in artificial intelligence (AI) that GPUs can achieve, we’re starting to see a lot more public efforts to educate even dedicated consumers, as well as investors and other interested observers, to the benefits of critical component technologies.
Given the increasing maturity and stabilization of many popular tech product categories, I believe we’re going to start seeing an increased emphasis on changes to the “insides” of popular devices. Sure, we’ll eventually see radical outward-facing form factor changes such as smartphones with screens you fold and unfold, but those will only happen once we know that the necessary bendable components can be mass produced.
Given the increasing maturity and stabilization of many popular tech product categories, I believe we’re going to start seeing an increased emphasis on changes to the “insides” of popular devices.”
Of course, the ideas behind what I’m describing aren’t new. Starting in the early 1990s and running for many years, chip maker Intel ran an advertising campaign built around the phrase “Intel Inside” to build brand recognition and value for its CPUs, or central processing units–the hidden “brains” inside many of our popular devices.
The idea was to create what is now commonly called an ingredient brand—a critical component, but not a complete, standalone product. The message Intel was able to deliver (and that still resonates today) is that critical components—even though you typically never see them—can have a big influence on the end device’s quality, just as ingredients in a dish can have a large influence on how it ultimately tastes.
Since then, many other semiconductor chip, component and technology licensing companies (think Dolby for audio or ARM for low-power processors, for example) have done their own variations on this theme to build improved perceptions both of their products and the products that use them. Chip companies like AMD, Qualcomm, and many others, are also working to build stronger and more widely recognized brands that are associated with important, but understandable technology benefits.
Most consumers will never buy products directly from these and other major component companies. However, as tech product cycles lengthen and industry maturity leads to slower changes in basic device shapes and sizes, consumers will start to base more of their final product purchase decisions on the ingredients from which those products are made.
Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wants to get his hands on this startup's $1399 Surface Pro-killer (MSFT)
Microsoft's Surface tablets essentially invented the market for laptop/tablet hybrid computers, setting a standard that even Apple ended up following with its iPad Pro.
Now Eve, a Helsinki-based startup with backing from Intel, thinks it can one-up Microsoft with the Eve V (pronounced "Eve Vee") — its own Windows 10-powered take on the Surface Pro, starting at $1399 for preorder via IndieGoGo, though it's backordered to April 2017.
Today, Eve says so many people lined up to buy the first run of Eve V devices, it actually briefly overwhelmed IndieGoGo's payment processing system. At the time of writing, the Eve V had raised $722,833, or 964% of its $75,000 goal.
Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has taken an interest in the Eve V project after reading about it, says Eve CEO Konstantinos Karatsevidis, and will be getting a unit to try out when it starts shipping in February. After all, from Microsoft's perspective, the whole reason it first created the Surface was to inspire PC manufacturers.
"[Microsoft] really wanted to see the device," Karatsevidis says.Eve
The machine is totally finished and functional, thanks to Intel's funding, Eve says; the IndieGoGo campaign is to cover manufacturing costs and handle preorders.
At this point, you may be wondering what makes the Eve V so special. If you ask Karatsevidis, the answer is simple: It's all about the community. See, every aspect of the Eve V, from the design to the processor to the keyboard cover material, was decided with full and complete input from Eve's community of fans.
"We immediately started to see huge advantages"
The Eve V is actually Eve's second bit of Windows hardware. The first, early 2015's Eve T1, was a budget Windows 8.1 tablet, designed to balance price with performance. At the time, Karatsevidis says, Eve was really just two guys looking to make the kind of gadget they themselves would want to use.
"We were pretty unhappy with the products in the market," Karatsevidis says.
The Eve T1 got pretty solid reviews, but Karatsevidis says that Eve was getting a ton of feedback, both via e-mail and in the comments sections of press articles about the tablet. A lot of people had a lot of ideas for how the T1 could have been done better.
Karatsevidis didn't just welcome the feedback — he rebuilt the company around it. In June 2015, Eve introduced Eve.Community, a site where anybody could register and help guide the company as it worked on its next project, what would become the Eve V.
"We immediately started to see huge advantages to this," Karatsevidis says.
"The community stepped in and stopped us"
Karatsevidis says that there's this tendency in the market, especially when talking about hybrids like the Surface Pro, to focus on sleekness above all else.
The problem, Karatsevidis says, is that this sleekness comes at the cost of things that users really care about, like battery life or additional USB and monitor ports. So while Eve's original designs called for something as thin and light as possible, the community came in and set them straight.
"The community kicked in and prevented us from doing so," Karatsevidis says. "As a result, we have a lot of battery life."
Now, Karatsevidis says, he realizes that battery life can make or break a product, "no joke." Similarly, the Eve V sports Thunderbolt 3, USB-C and 2 full-sized USB-A 3.0 ports, which beats the Surface Pro 4, which only has one USB port.
The payoff has been this tremendous rush of interest in the Eve V, as a device built by power users, for power users.
"We really want to challenge the big guys"
Intel found the project "quite accidentally," Karatsevidis says, but was really intrigued by the notion of product development via the wisdom of the crowd, which is a big bet for Eve in the future.
Going forward, Karatsevidis says, he's happy to see the Eve V go head-to-head with Microsoft, Asus, Lenovo, and every other PC manufacturer. But he doesn't see the company stopping there: There's no reason why Eve couldn't apply its approach to crowdsourcing designs for phones, tablets, or even electric vehicles, he says.
"We really want to challenge the big guys," Karatsevidis says. "We want to crowd-develop all kinds of tech with the community."
Still, don't expect to see the Eve V on the shelves at Best Buy or Target any time soon. From Karatsevidis' perspective, a big part of maintaining the relationship with the community is by selling the devices directly to fans.
For almost five months—possibly longer—the Spotify music streaming app has been assaulting users' storage devices with enough data to potentially take years off their expected lifespans. Reports of tens or in some cases hundreds of gigabytes being written in an hour aren't uncommon, and occasionally the recorded amounts are measured in terabytes. The overload happens even when Spotify is idle and isn't storing any songs locally.
The behavior poses an unnecessary burden on users' storage devices, particularly solid state drives, which come with a finite amount of write capacity. Continuously writing hundreds of gigabytes of needless data to a drive every day for months or years on end has the potential to cause an SSD to die years earlier than it otherwise would. And yet, Spotify apps for Windows, Mac, and Linux have engaged in this data assault since at least the middle of June, when multiple users reported the problem in the company's official support forum.
"This is a *major* bug that currently affects thousands of users," Spotify user Paul Miller told Ars. "If for example, Castrol Oil lowered your engine's life expectancy by five to 10 years, I imagine most users would want to know, and that fact *should* be reported on."
Many of us have been talking our way around this issue for the past week without directly confronting it, so I feel like now’s as good a time to address it as any: Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops are not designed for professional use.
This should come as no surprise to those who’ve long perceived the Mac platform as inward-looking, limited in compatibility, and generally worse value for money than comparable Windows alternatives. Pros are smart with their tools and their money, after all. But the change with Apple’s 2016 generation of MacBook Pros is that those downsides have been amped up — more expensive and less compatible than ever before — to an extreme that exposes the fallacy of the continued use of the Pro moniker. These are...
Obama: Traditionally, when we think about security and protecting ourselves, we think in terms of armor or walls. Increasingly, I find myself looking to medicine and thinking about viruses, antibodies. Part of the reason why cybersecurity continues to be so hard is because the threat is not a bunch of tanks rolling at you but a whole bunch of systems that may be vulnerable to a worm getting in there. It means that we've got to think differently about our security, make different investments that may not be as sexy but may actually end up being as important as anything.
What I spend a lot of time worrying about are things like pandemics. You can't build walls in order to prevent the next airborne lethal flu from landing on our shores. Instead, what we need to be able to do is set up systems to create public health systems in all parts of the world, click triggers that tell us when we see something emerging, and make sure we've got quick protocols and systems that allow us to make vaccines a lot smarter. So if you take a public health model, and you think about how we can deal with, you know, the problems of cybersecurity, a lot may end up being really helpful in thinking about the AI threats.
The most important thing we have learned this year is that, when the Republican Party was hijacked by a dangerous fascist who threatens to destroy the institutions that make America great and free, most Republicans up and down the organizational chart stood behind him and insisted he ought to be president.
Some did this because they are fools who do not understand why Trump is dangerous.
Some did it because they were naïve enough to believe he could be controlled and manipulated into implementing a normal Republican agenda.
Of course, there were the minority of Republicans who did what was right and withheld their support from Trump: people like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Hewlett-Packard CEO and megadonor Meg Whitman, the latter of whom called Trump "a threat to the survival of the republic."
I want to focus on a fourth group: Republican politicians who understand exactly how dangerous Donald Trump is, but who have chosen to support him anyway for reasons of strategy, careerism, or cowardice.
Cowards and scoundrels
I am talking, for example, about Sen. Marco Rubio, who in the primary called Trump an "erratic individual" who must not be trusted with nuclear weapons — and then endorsed him for president.
I am talking about Sen. Ted Cruz, who called Trump a "pathological liar" and "utterly amoral" — and then endorsed him for president, even though Trump never apologized for threatening to "spill the beans" on Cruz's wife and suggesting Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Most of all, I'm talking about House Speaker Paul Ryan, a man whose pained, blue eyes suggest he desperately wants to cry for help. He's a man who runs around the country pathetically trying to pretend that Trump does not exist and that the key issue is his congressional caucus' "Better Way" agenda. And he's a man who, of his own free will, seeks to help Donald Trump become president.
These men are not fools like Ben Carson.
To borrow a phrase from Rubio, they know exactly what they are doing: They are taking an action that risks the destruction of the American republic to advance their personal interests.
They know what Meg Whitman knows about the risks Trump poses to America. Rubio himself warned specifically of the risk of Trump starting a nuclear war! But they do not care.
I can only conclude from the available evidence that they love their careers more than they love America. And they are why I quit the Republican Party this week.
Why I was a Republican
I'm not a conservative. I know a lot of you already thought my Republican affiliation was a trolling exercise, and honestly, my registration change was probably overdue.
I became a Republican as a teenager because of my upbringing in Massachusetts, a state where the GOP has produced five good governors in my lifetime, from Bill Weld (now the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nominee) to Charlie Baker. I worked for Mitt Romney when he ran for governor, and while I did not like his presidential campaigns, I think he has a record in Massachusetts he can be proud of.
All four living current and former Republican governors of Massachusetts oppose Trump.
I stayed a Republican because of my background working in state and local government finance, a policy area where a well-functioning Republican Party can bring important restraint. I have voted Republican, for example, in each of the last three New York City mayoral races.
I don't think it was ridiculous to be in a party that I disagreed with on a lot of national issues. Change is made through party coalitions, and I thought the Republican Party was where I was more likely to be able to improve ideas at the margin in the long run. Being a member of a party does not obligate you to vote for its bad candidates in the meantime.
But what this election has made clear is that policy is not the most important problem with the Republican Party.
The GOP was vulnerable to hacking
The Republican Party had a fundamental vulnerability: Because of the fact-free environment so many of its voters live in, and because of the anti-Democrat hysteria that had been willfully whipped up by so many of its politicians, it was possible for the party to be taken over by a fascist promising revenge.
And because there are only two major parties in the United States, and either of the parties' nominees can become president, such a vulnerability in the Republican Party constitutes a vulnerability in our democracy.
I can't be a part of an organization that creates that kind of risk.
What parties are for
My editor asked why I became a Democrat instead of an independent. I did that because I believe political parties are key vehicles for policy-making, and choosing not to join one is choosing to give up influence.
I agree with Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, that parties exist in service of policy ends, and that loyalty to the party should be contingent on whether loyalty serves those ends. Because of this, it is worth joining a party even if you do not intend to be a partisan, and even if you will often oppose what the party does.
Sasse was one of the earliest and loudest voices of resistance to Trump in the Republican Party, and after the intra-GOP civil war that is sure to ensue from Trump's loss, I wonder whether he will decide remaining in the GOP does a service to the ends he cares about.
Sasse is a lot more conservative than I am, so I don't expect him to become a Democrat. It makes sense for people like him and Kasich to try, after the election, to wrest control of the party away from the conspiracy nuts and proto-fascists.
But I believe they will fail. And I'm not going to stick around to watch.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Ted Cruz had called Donald Trump a "con artist." It was Marco Rubio who called him that. It's become difficult to keep track of which Trump endorsers said which things about Trump's manifest unfitness to be president.
Dutch Radioisotope Producer has Implemented Strong Management System and Safety Culture, IAEA Review Finds
The Nuclear Research Group of the Netherlands implements a strong safety culture, a mature management system when operating and maintaining the High Flux Research Reactor, concluded experts of the IAEA Integrated Nuclear Safety Assessment of Research Reactors (INSARR) mission yesterday.
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Spotify Free users have complained that the streaming service is sending them malware-infested ads, according to a community post on the company's forum picked up by The Next Web.
As of Wednesday, the issue had received over 100 votes and more than 200 comments from people experiencing the problem, and Spotify has responded that it is currently investigating the affair. The possibility that Spotify’s ad inventory has been compromised reflects a fundamental danger in online advertising.
Users are reporting that ads on Spotify's desktop version are launching malicious websites in their web browsers. These websites feature malicious ads or phishing scams, and open randomly in users' browsers without the initial ad ever having been clicked on. Spotify's pop-up display ads seem to be causing this activity. These pop-ups may have been injected with a script that automatically opens the harmful sites in web browsers.
The incident is a reminder of the threat posed by malicious ads in the digital space, and the difficulty companies have in ensuring the integrity of their ad inventory supply chain:
- This isn’t the first time Spotify has had to deal malicious ads. In 2011, the companyissued an apology after an ad containing a virus was delivered to some of its users on Windows desktop. The ad didn’t need to be clicked on to infect a user’s machine.
- Spotify isn’t the only company to be affected by this problem. In fact, incidents like this are relatively common. In March, BBC.com, NYTimes.com, AOL.com, MSN.com, and a handful of other large publishers were found to be displaying malicious ads that infected vulnerable computers with Trojans and ransomware.
- Companies have taken measures to combat malicious ads. The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) is one example of an initiative to combat ad fraud and malware. Membership to the TAG registry signals that a company is committed to a certain level of quality assurance for the ads they serve. One hundred companies had joinedTAG’s registry as of July.
This emphasizes the need for consumers to be vigilant and take protective measures. Users should have antivirus software installed on their computers at a minimum. And these safeguards have implications for digital companies:
- Malware is a top issue driving ad-blocker adoption — hampering revenue. Over 40% of respondents in an Optimal.com survey last year said they use ad blockers out of concern for malware or viruses. This has the unintended consequence of starving digital companies of revenue.
- Alternatively, it can compel users to go premium — boosting revenue. The threat of malicious ads could also convince users to sign up premium subscriptions, to enjoy an ad-free and relatively less dangerous user experience. These subscriptions make for more stable and substantial revenue streams than advertising.
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Adam Berry/Getty Images
Is there anything more annoying than having to pay for Wi-Fi, that basic of human rights?
Anil Polat, a travel blogger and computer security engineer, is doing the world a solid by creating an interactive map — which he regularly updates — that reveals the Wi-Fi passwords of dozens of airports around the world.
Click on an airport on the map to see both the password and the Wi-Fi's location.
Polat, who hopes to visit every country in the world, has a blog called foXoMad, which aims to help people "travel smarter." His WiFox map is updated regularly, based on verified information submitted by travelers.
Rafi Letzter/Tech Insider
I live in New York City, but this week I'm working from Boston. And I gotta tell you: Moving through this less-crowded, more-walkable, less garbage-scented city feels like taking a deep breath after holding my head underwater for too long. This city feels like it exists on a human scale.
While here, I visited MIT's Media Lab and spoke with Kent Larson, who studies how cities develop and how urban policy makers can make them better homes for their people.
Larson, an architect by training who now works on futuristic plans to adapt urban centers for the 21st century, said that the overriding mistake of last century was building cities around cars.
"Cars kill innovation," he said. "They lower density, they lead to traffic congestion and parking problems, and waste land for storing cars 24 hours a day."
Up until about 1880, he said, cities functioned more like networked villages. A person likely worked, relaxed, and shopped all within about 20 minutes of their home. Cities of that era of course had plenty of their own challenges, but they functioned as cohesive units. Residents were more likely to interact and function together.
But the modern era, and the introduction of the car, changed that.
"The early modernists saw the future as defined by separate functions: housing, commercial, industry," he said. "So people had these quiet, high quality residential areas, in large part in reaction to tenement slums and the awful living conditions that were quite often found in cities."
Many wealthy, white people moved out to suburbs, and commuted to work in city centers on major highways. Those highways divided up the neighborhoods of those who remained in cities, and isolating and ghettoizing many poor and minority populations.
"By the 1950s we were redesigning cities to privilege the needs of machines over the needs of humans," Larson said.
The result was urban spaces that were more and more crowded but less dense. If you're in a city right now, the space around you is likely a mix of buildings and areas for people to walk and relax, all chopped up by wide streets and parking spaces. All that room given over to cars takes away from and interrupts the spaces human beings use to live and move around. It reduces the number of people who can fit in a square mile, while making that same square mile feel more crowded and uncomfortable. (Cut that space for cars down drastically, and you're left with a much more human city.)
Rafi Letzter/Tech Insider
This history won't shock anyone who's paid attention to the history of cities over the course of the last 100-plus years. But it's a key element of the theory that informs trends in urban planning that people like Larson hope will define the 21st century.
A return to the neighborhood-as-village model would see more people packed, hopefully thoughtfully, into cities themselves, but streets and parking areas given over to communal spaces and modes of transport that don't involve hauling tons of steel around on four wheels.
The most vital cities, he said, will offer more personalized, shared transportation options and walkable spaces, and privilege the needs of urbanites over suburbanites. You can already see it happening: Bike shares, roads like Broadway in New York turned over to communal spaces, European cities banning private cars from downtown areas. But cities still have a long way to go.
So, you think Apple is a tech company? No, you're wrong.
In July of 1997, right before his return to Apple, Steve Jobs told BusinessWeek:
"The products suck! There's no sex in them anymore! Start over."
Ten years later, building on the dripping sex and rock and roll of the iPod (touched with a Bono no less!), Jobs revealed the iPhone and changed computing forever.
Last week, Apple did it again, but for some reason, nearly everyone in Silicon Valley is confused about what just happened. I mean, I understand the confusion, but do people really think that the most significant announcement was the removal of the 3.5mm analog headphone jack? I mean, it was, but not for the reasons everyone's panties seems to be bunched up about.
Apple doesn't give a s--- about neckbeard hipsters who spent thousands of dollars on expensive audiophile gear that rely on 100-year-old technology to transmit audio signals. They'll readily drop them faster than Trump drops facts to make an argument in a televised debate.
Apple is securing its future, and to do that, it must continue to shrink the physical distance between its products and its customers' conceptions of self. The Apple Watch came first, busting our sidekick supercomputer out of our pockets and onto our skin. Apple's next move will put its products literally within earshot of our minds.
This is no accident.
How quickly we forget the past
In 2007, not only did Apple launch the iPhone, but they also changed their name from Apple Computer, Inc., to Apple Inc.
This change was perhaps as big a deal as the iPhone itself, but it's taken another decade for its implications to become clear.
Oops, did you blink and miss it? No problem. Apple made you a movie:
Maybe it's still not clear to you. That's OK, I'll spell it out.
Repeat after me: Apple is not a technology company
The problem with Silicon Valley is Benedict Evans. I mean, not Benedict specifically, because he's actually incredibly smart and holds sophisticated perspectives on the tech industry and adoption cycles, and also, he gives good tweets, but he's not a product designer.
And yet, we look to him and other folks of his ilk to understand Apple's moves. But there are no users like Benedict Evans in the world, except in Silicon Valley, and as much as we like to think of Silicon Valley as the center of the universe, it's not. (Aside to my SV friends: I know, I know, deep breaths.)
Looking forward to the arguments in 2030 when Apple announce they're only supporting contact lenses now and your AR glasses are obsolete
While we live and breathe tech products, and love to play armchair product quarterbacks (side note: Product Hunt is the NFL of product design), we don't represent the masses of normals. He and I like to indulge the fantasy that Apple makes things exclusively for us, but they obviously care way less about two Twitter-loving technophiles in Silicon Valley than they do about the rest of the world.
Apple photos doesn't sync face recognition between iPhone and iPad. Because…
Thus when I consider who influences my thoughts on Apple's moves, I need to be mindful of the Kool-aid I'm drinking, who's making it, and what their lived context is. Do they represent the broader whole of humanity, or a narrow sliver of land on the West Coast of the United States of America?
So, then, why should you listen to me?
Who died and crowned me an expert? No one. I just kind of became an expert by virtue of the sheer number of hours I've spent on this stuff. Kind of like Benedict, but it's also his job. But, I'm also kind of a fraud, like the rest of you. I grew up never fitting in with any crowd and never being popular, but I learned to observe people, and then chameleon myself into their cliques so I could feign belonging.
It makes me a good faker and it makes me pretty good at listening to the words people use, but better at paying attention to what their behavior actually says. I've learned to differentiate how experts think about things from the way laypersons do, and how to discount each respective perspective accordingly (including my own, definitely including my own).
Most Silicon Valley pundits that we enjoy listening to or reading only reinforce our own over-developed, over-informed (and thus, unrepresentative) viewpoints. They say things that validate our shallow egos and make us feel less alone, like when they decry the death of the 3.5 mm analog jack as anathema.
We tweet our adolescent angst in solidarity because it feels good to belong and to rage in unison, and because we recoil from physical affection from each other, we seek likes and retweets to soothe our wounded inner children because that kind of validation is the closest human connection to getting a hug that we're willing to tolerate. And f--- yeah, Techmeme, thank you for showing me that I'm not alone!
But, I digress. What was I talking about?
Apple is a fashion brand that makes jewelry that connects to the internet
The thing that makes me crazy about Apple (and not in the fanboi sense) is that they both give a s--- and don't give a s--- about what anybody else thinks, and what everyone else is doing.
Like, under Tim Cook, they're a lot more "out there" and verbally responsive to customer complaints, but in a totally controlled and measured way. Not like Jobs didn't write emails to customers, but Cook is a little faster and looser. A little. And from an industry perspective, Apple doesn't seem to want to keep up with the Jones's (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, et al), except when they do.
For example, Samsung showcased a waterproof S7 back in February and then Apple followed suit in the iPhone 7. In other areas, however, Apple is out on their own. That's where it's worth paying attention, and that's what brings us back to nixing the headphone jack with the one-two punch of a Lightning port coupled with Bluetooth audio.
Yes, others, from Slate to Chris Saad, have pointed out that this change is not about music, but about how Apple's new AirPods will usher in the wonderful (and yet unproven) world of voice computing. And, I agree, but that perspective is insufficient to understand why Apple doing this is significant. It's not like they're the first. This image, though, helps:
"You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology." — Steve Jobs
The thing is, we've had wireless headsets for a while, but they've always made people (mostly men) look like d--------. They're confusing to pair, and frustrating to use. And so if you're willing to put up with them, you're letting technology ruin your life. And so, you're a d------.
Don't take my word for it, look at this unlicensed "confident businessman with wireless headset" stock photo.
Heck, even if you kind of look like Chris Hemsworth, you can't really make a once state of the art wireless headset look like something you'd choose to adorn your pretty little head with.
The reality is, the "Bionic Man" look isn't really in, no matter how much utility these devices provide (I say this even as Bluetooth headphones sales eclipse the wired sort) or people attempt to get the design right. Yves Behar couldn't make it happen when he partnered with Jawbone. I mean, would you choose to wear something like this on a hot date?
Probably not if you wanted a second date, amirite?
But the EarPods, and now AirPods, for some reason* (*no, it's a very specific reason), defeat this crisis of user acceptance.
What Apple has done is produce something that isn't a technology product, but is, rather, a fashion object — a piece of jewelry, an entertainment product, a status symbol, a genie in a bottle — that drips with sex appeal.
I mean, that iPhone 7 launch video probably was directed by The Weeknd, because I want to watch it, often, followed by a cold shower.
So, don't confuse AirPods with just another Bluetooth headset; that's not what they're replacing. AirPods offer a new relationship because they're alluring, sensuous, and sultry: AirPods are sex sticks that f--- your ears.
(Hmm. Or maybe your ears spoon them? I can't decide.)
Regardless, the f------ or the cuddling goes both ways, and if I'm saying anything, it's that AirPods aren't a technology device, but instead a way to get Her's Scarlett Johansson character into your bed… errr… I mean, head because whatever is going on in this image, it's the equivalent of what we all know actually takes place on Snapchat (or used to), except it's happening between you and a bot named Siri:
And this is what Apple can do that no one else can: make the behavior of talking to a disembodied entity on your face so socially acceptable that the voice computer revolution can finally get underway.
Nor are they starting from square one. They've already taught us to behave this way, even if we don't realize it. How many times have you walked down the street talking to a colleague or family member on your EarPods? It's normal. It's not weird. Who cares if you're talking instead to your robot overlord?
What sets AirPods apart is that they build on existing habits, require only slightly modified expectations on behalf of the user, and benefit from the wisdom of the phalanx of fashion luminaries that Apple has brought in-house over the past decade.
In contrast, here's a weird product with no sex appeal which had no prior user adoption to build on and that was doomed to fail from the outset, no matter how many models showed up for the fashion walks:
You can buy fashionable friends, and you can pay them to wear your stuff to make some photos, but you can't get them to choose to wear what you're offering in their real lives unless there's a bridge to the familiar, essential, and down-to-earth.
AirPods build on the success of the iPod, which is related to the story of Napster and taking on the record industry, saying "F--- you!" to Metallica (especially to Lars), putting 1,000 songs in your pocket, the clickwheel, trading 128kbps MP3s in internet forums, suffering through dial-up download speeds, Firewire, USB, and basically punk rock.
AirPods are legit like Richard Branson because they've been around forever and yet they're still new and cool as f---.
Patience is a virtue lost on Silicon Valley
Here in Silicon Valley, we're a bunch of inchoate Peter Pans, which affects how we approach relationships, how we design, build, and grow apps, and it affects our ability to relate to the people that use the things we make (because everything we make is soooo important, magical, revolutionary, changing the world, solving world hunger, making life less demanding by making everything available on-demand).
Somehow (maybe it was the acid trip Jobs went on), Apple learned to take their time with products, and to pace their product evolution. They seem slow at times, but maybe it's just because they resist the short-sighted approach that most tech companies feel forced to take to try to get ahead.
That means most tech companies struggle to fully understand the problems they're solving, and don't stop to saddle up alongside their users to develop empathy — to really understand what their users are willing to put up with and what they never will.
Apple began the journey of promoting user acceptance of technology apparatuses as fashion accessories with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, fifteen years ago.
You can hear it when Jobs explains why he decided to pursue music in the first place: he knew it was universal and represented a huge addressable market in which there was no market leader. He also knew that everyone loved music, and that their personal, emotional relationships with music would give him the opening he needed to send in the Trojan Horse to permeate their lives for a generation.
And now, by exploiting that same relationship, Apple is doing it again: offering a sexy fashion statement, an expensive luxury item, an entertainment accessory, which will usher in the era of voice-controlled intimate computing. Apple won't sell the AirPods by enumerating their tech specs but by evoking an emotional, aspirational response —which is an approach vividly different from nearly anything else that comes out Silicon Valley's burgeoning nerdtopia.
When we decry the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley (and yes, Apple absolutely should examine its own house), we should remember that true diversity is complex with many dimensions. The broad, eventual appeal of AirPods come from the diversity of talent working behind the scenes to bring this product to life — beyond the engineering and industrial design — which includes disciplines from marketing to retailing to storytelling to fashion, as well as the disciplinary will to resist shipping s--- products. A diversity of perspectives had to be brought together to make this product happen in this moment, with this narrative, with the relatively reserved emphasis on Siri.
No, people aren't quite ready for the conversational software world of the future — but that's OK, because, guys, Apple's on it, and they've got plenty of time to get it right. And I hope you understand what Apple's up to a little bit better now.