Start Up No.1443: our over-complex world, the metal asteroid, TSMC aims for 3nm, a killer iOS Wi-Fi exploit, Parler gets porny, and more

Hyperbolic paraboloids! And the canister is pretty good for Wi-Fi extenders too. CC-licensed photo by Chris on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Disconnected. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The modern world has finally become too complex for any of us to understand • OneZero

Tim Maughan:


I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.

In other words: no one’s driving. And if we hope to retake the wheel, we’re going to have to understand, intimately, all of the ways we’ve lost control. This is the first entry in a series — called, yes, No One’s Driving — that aims to do exactly that. Each month, we’ll examine a technological system that has grown too complex to be understood by, well, just about any one person, and break down how it has spiraled out of control, why that is dangerous, and what we might do about it.

Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about the huge, complex systems that keep our technologically dependent society running. And with very good reason. It takes a certain amount of faith and belief — in ourselves, in capitalism, in the digital platforms that mediate our interactions with it, and in the infrastructures that support all of the above — in order to wake up and get through every day. But eating breakfast, pulling on our business-casual Zoom-appropriate shirts — all those mundane acts are made possible by an almost unfathomably complex, algorithmically calibrated, partly automated, and partly sweatshop-labor-dependent global supply chain.

There are currently over 17 million shipping containers in circulation globally, and at any given time, about 5 or 6 million shipping containers cross the sea. The US alone imports over 20 million shipping containers’ worth of products a year. While it’s common to talk about iPhones and high-end sneakers when we talk about imports from China and Asia, the truth is the vast majority of those containers are stuffed which much more mundane goods: socks, umbrellas, pencils, paper, packing materials, bedsheets, fruit, car parts, frozen food, pharmaceuticals — the endless inventory of physical items that make our modern lives possible.


Maughan is a science fiction writer (based in Bristol) whose novel Infinite Detail posits a world where all this breaks down. It’s entertaining, if worrying.
unique link to this extract

The geometry of Pringles, the crunchy hyperbolic paraboloid • Interesting Engineering

Kathleen Villaluz:


Perfectly executed geometries are always pleasant to look at as their natural proportions are simply eye-catching. Just like how a perfectly symmetrical human face, that is naturally proportioned with the golden ratio, is always deemed beautiful or pretty. In the case of a Pringle chip, its intersecting curves form a sturdy structure as well as an attractive geometry.

This special geometry is referred to as the hyperbolic paraboloid in the world of mathematics.

What is interesting about a hyperbolic paraboloid is the point where the maximum and the minimum of the two principal curvatures meet each other at a zero point. This is known as the saddle point or the minimax point.

So, what makes it particularly interesting?

The hyperbolic paraboloid’s intersecting double curvature prevents a line of stress from forming, which doesn’t encourage a crack to naturally propagate. That’s why Pringles have that extra crunch in them when you either bite a piece off or when you put a whole Pringle in your mouth.

If you frequently eat Pringles you would know that they never break off symmetrically but instead, they crack in different directions and produce flakes with varying shapes. It’s all due to the hyperbolic paraboloid geometry of each chip.


From 2017, but they’re still just as moreish, and the bottom one in a pack doesn’t get crushed just the same as ever.
unique link to this extract

NASA: this rare metal asteroid is worth more than the global economy • Robb Report

Rachel Cormack:


Humans just got one more reason to journey to outer space. There’s a rare asteroid the size of Massachusetts orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, and it’s worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion.

The rarity, known as 16 Psyche, was actually discovered back in 1852, but NASA’s Hubble Telescope has finally given earth-dwellers a closer look. The new study, which was published this week in The Planetary Science Journal, indicates that asteroid’s composition is key to its astronomical value.

To put this touted figure into perspective, when written out in full it boasts a line of zeros that could nearly stretch to the asteroid itself. That’s $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. This makes Psyche 70,000 times more valuable than the global economy, worth about $142 trillion in 2019, or enough to buy and sell Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is just shy of $200 billion, about 50 million times. That’s all thanks to some heavy metal.

Psyche, which spans 140 miles in diameter, appears to made entirely of iron and nickel. This metallic construction sets it apart from other asteroids that are usually comprised of rock or ice.


It’s 230 million miles away, of course, and you’d have to think that the price of iron and nickel might just possibly fall if a colossal amount were suddenly made available. Supply and demand, what even are they?
unique link to this extract

TSMC confirms 3nm tech for 2022, could enable epic 80 billion transistor GPUs • PC Gamer

Jeremy Laird:


Monster chip foundry TSMC has confirmed its 3nm production node is on track for full mass production in the second half of 2022, according to Chinese tech site ItHome (in Chinese). TSMC reckons its 3nm node will pack in somewhere north of 250 million transistors per square millimetre of silicon, making it at least two and half times more dense than Intel’s latest 10nm node. In theory, TSMC’s 3nm tech could enable a GPU three times more complex than AMD’s new Radeon RX 6000 Series chips.

TSMC, of course, makes all of AMD’s high performance Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs. Until recently, it also produced Nvidia’s top graphics chips, too. Advances like TSMC 3nm tech matter because they allow for more complex, faster computer chips. Like, you know, CPUs and GPUs.

Intel reckons its new 10nm process is good for around 100 million transistors per square millimetre, while TSMC’s most refined 7nm process is rated at 113 million transistors per square millimetre.

While TSMC is promising at least 250 million transistors per square millimetre for its 3nm node, the reality may turn out nearer 300 million. All of which means that in late 2022, TSMC will have the capability of producing chips somewhere between 2.5x and 3x as dense as the 7nm tech used for current AMD CPUs and graphics chips.


Apple’s M1 is on 5nm, of course, but going down to 3nm would still mean a dramatic increase in the number of transistors on a chip, and hence even more computing power. This would power, what, the M3?
unique link to this extract

EU criticises ‘hasty’ UK approval of COVID-19 vaccine • Reuters

Francesco Guarascio:


The European Union criticised Britain’s rapid approval of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, saying its own procedure was more thorough, after Britain became the first western country to endorse a COVID-19 shot.

The move to grant emergency authorisation to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been seen by many as a political coup for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has led his country out of the EU and faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

The decision was made under an ultra-fast, emergency approval process, which allowed the British drugs regulator to temporarily authorise the vaccine only 10 days after it began examining data from large-scale trials.

In an unusually blunt statement, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is in charge of approving COVID-19 vaccines for the EU, said its longer approval procedure was more appropriate as it was based on more evidence and required more checks than the emergency procedure chosen by Britain.

The agency said on Tuesday it would decide by Dec. 29 whether to provisionally authorise the vaccine from US drugmaker Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE.


A difference of about three weeks. Some Tory MPs have been crowing that this was made possible by Brexit; in fact that isn’t true. But the EU’s criticism will be valuable fuel for getting the pro-Brexit crowd (some of whom are insistent Covid is nonsense) to get vaccinated, if only to annoy the EU.
unique link to this extract

An iOS zero-click radio proximity exploit odyssey • Google Project Zero

Ian Beer:


In this demo I remotely trigger an unauthenticated kernel memory corruption vulnerability which causes all iOS devices in radio-proximity to reboot, with no user interaction. Over the next 30,000 words I’ll cover the entire process to go from this basic demo to successfully exploiting this vulnerability in order to run arbitrary code on any nearby iOS device and steal all the user data


There’s a short video which shows a laptop (screen not visible) doing something, and an array of iPhones just beside it winking off like lights going out in a power cut. If you really want to get into the weeds of how security researchers discover things (this took him six months of hard work, once he had the idea in 2018 after a mistake in an iOS beta by Apple) then you can.

Also: Apple fixed the vulnerability, which is quite an Independence Day-style thing (like when they upload the virus into the attacking spacecraft). Wi-Fi continues to be a fabulous source of security drama, as it has been from the beginning. (Ars Technica has a shorter writeup too.)
unique link to this extract

Windows on M1 Macs: how to run ARM virtualization [Video] • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:


Last week we saw the first successful virtualization of ARM Windows 10 on an M1 Mac. The good news is that it even appeared to be “pretty snappy.” Now we’ve got a look at a helpful walkthrough and peek at real-world performance in a new video, including the M1 Mac mini blowing away Microsoft’s Surface Pro X.

Alexander Graf was the first to successfully run an ARM Windows virtualization on an M1 Mac. He used the QEMU open source machine emulator and an Insider Preview of Windows.

…YouTuber Martin Nobel shared a useful video of the process to run an ARM Windows virtualization on Apple Silicon as well as a real-world look at the overall impressive performance considering it’s an unofficial workaround.

Impressively, the Martin’s M1 Mac mini benchmarked much higher than Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, almost doubling the single-core score, and coming in almost 2,000 higher in the multi-core score. Sure it’s not a desktop like the Mac mini, but you can get about the same performance from the $999 M1 MacBook Air, a closer competitor to the $999 Surface Pro X.


It’s a very roundabout way to do something, but gets it done nonetheless. There must be a lot of meetings going on at Microsoft just now trying to figure out their strategy on this. Allow it? Continue ignoring it?
unique link to this extract

Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth? • Our World in Data

Max Roser:


If we want to transition to renewables, it is their price relative to fossil fuels that matters. This chart here is identical to the previous one, but now also includes the price of electricity from renewable sources.

All of these prices – renewables as well as fossil fuels – are without subsidies.

Look at the change in solar and wind energy in recent years. Just 10 years ago it wasn’t even close: it was much cheaper to build a new power plant that burns fossil fuels than to build a new solar photovoltaic (PV) or wind plant. Wind was 22%, and solar 223% more expensive than coal.

But in the last few years this has changed entirely.

Electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics cost $359 per MWh in 2009. Within just one decade the price declined by 89% and the relative price flipped: the electricity price that you need to charge to break even with the new average coal plant is now much higher than what you can offer your customers when you build a wind or solar plant.

It’s hard to overstate what a rare achievement these rapid price changes represent. Imagine if some other good had fallen in price as rapidly as renewable electricity: Imagine you’d found a great place to live back in 2009 and at the time you thought it’d be worth paying $3590 in rent for it. If housing had then seen the price decline that we’ve seen for solar it would have meant that by 2019 you’d pay just $400 for the same place.


Astonishing chart. Onshore (and offshore) wind really do hold out a lot of hope; next you need other consumption to shift to electricity from fossil fuels too.
unique link to this extract

Parler’s weak moderation attracts pornography • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman:


Anyone following the #sexytrumpgirl hashtag on Parler, a social media site increasingly popular with conservatives, got an eyeful one recent Thursday evening as images of topless women and links to hardcore pornography websites appeared at a rapid-fire rate, often more than one per minute.

The surge of #sexytrumpgirl posts highlighted a broader dilemma for Parler: The site’s lax moderation policies, in keeping with its claims to being a bastion of free speech, have helped it become a magnet for pornographers, escort services and online sex merchants using hashtags targeting conservatives, such as #keepamericasexy and #milfsfortrump2020.

The pornography threatens to intrude on users not seeking sexual material and has the potential to complicate hopes the site may have to expand advertising, which is now limited. Experts on the impact of pornography say major companies typically avoid having their sales pitches appear alongside controversial imagery.

…Officials at Parler, including chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick and chief policy officer Amy Peikoff, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its handling of pornography.

Peikoff defended the company’s approach to content moderation in response to questions for a previous Post story about Parler. “Broadly, our whole guiding principle is that we want to allow everything that the First Amendment protects as speech, and nothing that it doesn’t,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared pornographic images of adults to be constitutionally protected speech.


Pornography is one of those things (along with spam) that keeps tripping up those who oppose sites being able to remove content they don’t want. Parler, hoist with its own petard there. “One per minute” sounds like nothing, but it’s a tiny site as well.
unique link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.