Start Up No.1699: inside Apple’s design labs, the ransomware front company, Paul Dacre spills Ofcom fix, Arm’s likely future, and more


A peculiar idea popular among some Gen Zers is that birds aren’t real. But is it a conspiracy theory, or something quite different? CC-licensed photo by Phil Fiddyment on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. It’s not a work meeting, it’s a party. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Inside Apple Park: first look at the design team shaping the future of tech • Wallpaper*

Jonathan Bell (and photos by Jason Schmidt):

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For Apple Watch, the team had to design, build, and implement a physical notification system. How strong? How long? What felt natural? ‘We knew that the Watch was going to be the most intimate, the most personal product that we’ve ever made,’ says Hankey. ‘We also knew it needed to get your attention at some point.’ It was Duncan Kerr, a long-standing member of the Design Team, who suggested the idea of the ‘tap’. ‘It’s such a lovely simple thing, but we had no idea how to bring that to life,’ Hankey says. Through a series of clunky prototypes and the work of haptics expert Camille Moussette, the ‘tap’ was refined and perfected.

Industrial design is by its nature multidisciplinary, although individual expertise is obviously hugely valuable. There are team members who are as adept at coding as they are at three-dimensional design, but in general, the most useful quality – beyond skill and aptitude – is a sense of curiosity. ‘We have this tradition of making things for one another at Christmas,’ says Hankey. ‘It’s about that joy of making and joy of giving. It’s something that’s come from the culture of the team.’

An awareness of craft and construction is essential, for there is an acute responsibility that comes with shaping objects that will be made in the hundreds of millions. The economies of scale and the power of the brand give Apple a powerful platform from which to implement change.

Yet even something as superficially simple but environmentally beneficial as removing the plastic shrink-wrap from an iPhone box induces a paroxysm of self-examination within the team. How can the unboxing experience be maintained? Can it be made more accessible? The problem was mulled over, pulled apart and ultimately solved with an elegant paper tab mechanism. The change will save around 600 metric tonnes of plastic over the life of the product.

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This is not an article where Evans Hankey and Alan Dye are taken to task over butterfly keyboards (neither word appears). Everything is wonderful and brilliant and keyboard designs that infuriated people and led some to delay purchases for years (🙋‍♂️) are just gentle bumps in the delightful road. And yet, there’s a lot of insight into what goes on. Plus the photos are amazing.
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Face computers are coming. Now what? • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

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Apple has a reputation for making up-and-coming technology go mass market. We’ll see, but it’s clear that there will be a lot of activity and attention on face computers and immersive technologies in all forms. (Counterpoint: Some tech experts have predicted the rise of face computers for most of the past decade.)

What I want all of us to do — whether we don’t get the fuss over virtual reality, or love it — is to begin deliberating over where we want to focus the promise of this technology and limit the risks.

I’m mindful of what has gone wrong when we allowed technology to wash over us and tried to figure out the details later.

Partly through an unwillingness or inability to imagine what could go wrong with technology, we have websites and apps that track us everywhere we go, and that sell the information to the highest bidders. We have carmakers that sometimes protect us with clever tech that helps offset human frailties, and other times seem to exacerbate them. We have the best aspects of human interactions online, and the worst.

We should think about this stuff now, before we might all be wearing supercomputers on our faces.

What do we want from this technology? Can we imagine schools, offices or comedy clubs in virtual reality? What do we want from the next generation of immersive internet for our kids? Do we want to drive while our headgear flings tweets into our fields of vision? Do we even want to erase the gap between digital life and real life?

It might be misguided to establish norms and laws around technologies that might take many years to become big. But tech companies and technologists aren’t waiting. They’re molding their imagined future of the internet now. If we don’t engage, that puts the companies in the driver’s seat. And we’ve seen the downside of that.

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A privacy law would be a good idea, as she has suggested elsewhere. When you consider Life360 essentially selling location data to any bidder at all, you have to think that the US has a big problem with privacy.
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Birds Aren’t Real, or are they? Inside a Gen Z conspiracy theory • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

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It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren’t Real and the movement’s followers are in on a joke: they know that birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is made up.

What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.

“It’s a way to combat troubles in the world that you don’t really have other ways of combating,” said Claire Chronis, 22, a Birds Aren’t Real organizer in Pittsburgh. “My favorite way to describe the organization is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”

At the center of the movement is Peter McIndoe, 23, a floppy-haired college dropout in Memphis who created Birds Aren’t Real on a whim in 2017. For years, he stayed in character as the conspiracy theory’s chief believer, commanding acolytes to rage against those who challenged his dogma. But now, Mr. McIndoe said in an interview, he is ready to reveal the parody lest people think birds really are drones.

“Dealing in the world of misinformation for the past few years, we’ve been really conscious of the line we walk,” he said. “The idea is meant to be so preposterous, but we make sure nothing we’re saying is too realistic. That’s a consideration with coming out of character.”

Most Birds Aren’t Real members, many of whom are part of an on-the-ground activism network called the Bird Brigade, grew up in a world overrun with misinformation. Some have relatives who have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. So for members of Gen Z, the movement has become a way to collectively grapple with those experiences. By cosplaying conspiracy theorists, they have found community and kinship, Mr. McIndoe said.

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I wonder, though. You think everyone is in on the joke, but things like this can be taken over from the inside by slightly madder people.
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What will happen to Arm now? • Digits to Dollars

Jonathan Greenberg:

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Surprising almost no one, the US Federal Trade Commission has moved to block Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm. We have written a lot about this deal and Arm in general, and wanted to touch on the topic in light of this news.

We will save the background on this deal for that prior piece, but a few things stand out. Arm is seen by regulators as being too important to not be neutral. No other chip company can buy the company, as no one wants to compete with this key supplier of semiconductor intellectual property (IP), and almost every major chip company is now an Arm licensee, one way or another. So what will happen to the company now?

…we have to think that Softbank would still like to exit. They almost made a pile of cash and having it snatched away is the kind of factor that spurs the brain to think of alternatives. The most likely outcome is an IPO of at least a minority stake of Arm. Prior to the Nvidia deal, Softbank seems to have gone far down this path. However, Softbank faced the problem that the public markets would have likely valued Arm less than what Softbank hoped (or possibly even what they paid for it) and far less than what Nvidia offered. The capital markets are in a different place today, and Arm is likely to attract a much higher valuation because semis are hot now in a way they have not been for a long time. One wrinkle for this plan is that an IPO will take some time to arrange. We would guess at least six months, possibly longer. No idea what the markets will look like then, and it leaves Arm in limbo when they should be doing all that R&D investment.

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This small tech company SpiffyTech may actually be a ransomware front group • Daily Beast

Shannon Vavra:

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It seems innocent enough: a little-known Canadian company that offers an array of tech and consulting services. But a certificate from that company—a sort of signature that can be tacked onto malware—showed up in two pieces of ransomware last month and leading experts told The Daily Beast they believe the small company is actually a front for at least two Russian ransomware gangs.

The company—cheerily named “SpiffyTech”—has a number of red flags. For one, if you want to look at SpiffyTech’s leadership team, you’re out of luck. They don’t exist.

The site does list four top staffers next to their stylish headshots. But the SpiffyTech operators appear to have stolen each and every photo.

A reverse image search on Google shows the headshots come from a professional photographer’s website. The photographer, Kirill Tigai, confirmed the photos in question were part of a shoot for a different company and said he did not give SpiffyTech permission to use them.

“I think… this website SpiffyTech is a fraud,” Tigai told The Daily Beast. “They just use photos that I made for my clients under different names.”

Another reason experts believe “SpiffyTech” is a front is far more technical.

Hackers frequently steal certificates from actual businesses in order to help their attacks fly under the radar and trick computers into thinking their malware is legitimate. And while it’s possible the hackers did the same here—or tricked a real company into sharing a legitimate “cert”—the shadiness of the site, and its apparent connection to ransomware, leads cybersecurity analysts to believe SpiffyTech is a disguise for something more sinister.

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The real puzzle – which isn’t quite answered – is why a ransomware group would want to have a website, even a fake one, unless it’s for the certificate mentioned above. Which has now been revoked by the certification authority. The whack-a-mole goes on.
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The Pandora Papers: how journalists mined terabytes of offshore data to expose the world’s elites • Computer Weekly

Bill Goodwin:

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The data team [at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ICIJ] turned to open source software to build a dedicated free-text search engine using Blacklight, a tool widely used by libraries for searching documents, and Apache Solr, an open source enterprise search tool.

Over time, the data team switched to another technology, Elasticsearch, which allowed faster searches.

“Elasticsearch is much more powerful – it has a huge open source community and has a lot of features that are very useful to these investigations,” said [ICIJ chief technology officer Pierre] Romera.

That project resulted in the creation of Datashare, which Romera describes as the most important tool used by ICIJ journalists during collaborations. It allows journalists to search vast archives of documents quickly and securely.

One of the most useful features of Datashare is its ability to perform bulk searches of data. Journalists can upload files containing, for example, lists of politicians, members of royalty or celebrities to find stories within the vast archives of data.

Datashare is also scalable, allowing Romera to add more servers to provide computing power needed to analyse bigger leaks and support larger teams.

During the Pandora Papers project, the ICIJ had the capability to deploy 15-20 servers. This made it possible for over 600 journalists to conduct key-word searches on the data – a step up from the 370-plus journalists who worked on the Panama Papers. “Because we are trying to find the highest number of stories in the documents, we really need to use this search engine intensively,” said Romera.

Datashare is designed to be simple and fast to use and is, said Romera, essentially a lightweight interface built on top of Elasticsearch. But it can also take software plug-ins and extensions. One of the most useful is a plug-in that extracts the names of people, organisations and place names automatically from the documents.

“Datashare is at the very centre of everything we do at ICIJ,” said Romera. “It is the most important tool we have.

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There were working on 2.9 terabytes of unstructured data, a tiny bit in spreadsheets and most in PDFs. What a horrendous task – yet crucial to expose the corruption that goes on.
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Pixel prevented me from calling 911 • GooglePixel forums on Reddit

A Pixel user complained on Reddit:

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I had to call an ambulance for the grandmother on Friday as she appeared to be having a stroke. I got off a phone call with my mom, and proceeded to dial 911 just by typing and calling on my pixel. My phone got stuck immediately after one ring and I was unable to do anything other than click through apps with an emergency phone call running in the background. This is all while the phone informed me that it had sent my location to emergency services. Sadly I couldn’t tell the person on the other end what apartment I was in, or what the actual emergency was as I was unable to speak to a human.

As my phone had clearly just been working from a phone call perspective, my best guess is the extra step of trying to send my location caused it to freeze. It then prevented me from hanging up and trying to call any phone number again.

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Nine days later, Google came back with its answer:

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Based on our investigation we have been able to reproduce the issue under a limited set of circumstances. We believe the issue is only present on a small number of devices with the Microsoft Teams app installed when the user is not logged in, and we are currently only aware of one user report related to the occurrence of this bug. We determined that the issue was being caused by unintended interaction between the Microsoft Teams app and the underlying Android operating system.

Because this issue impacts emergency calling, both Google and Microsoft are heavily prioritizing the issue, and we expect a Microsoft Teams app update to be rolled out soon – as always we suggest users keep an eye out for app updates to ensure they are running the latest version. We will also be providing an Android platform update to the Android ecosystem on January 4.

Out of an abundance of caution, in the meantime, we suggest users with Microsoft Teams installed on any Android device running Android 10 and above take the following steps…

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(Basically, sign in to Teams. The problem occurs when signed out.)
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Nine months into trials at the UK Police, Tesla Model 3 bears great results: report • Tesla Oracle

Iqtidar Ali:

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The United Kingdom Police have been running a Tesla Model 3 as a patrol car on trials for the last nine months. Max Toozs-Hobson, account manager and Emergency Services lead at Tesla, has shared the latest development update of this trial program via his LinkedIn profile.

According to Max Toozs, Tesla Model 3 has brought some great results to the table in the 9-month long testing trials as a police cruiser.

Tesla Model 3 was able to perform over 200 miles of Blue Light advanced driving on a single charge. While the average blue light runs in the UK are 7 – 15 minutes long; the customized Model 3 police cruiser for this program delivered the longest run of four hours on a single charge.

Blue light driving in an emergency response vehicle has its own set of requirements. It’s not like driving in normal conditions. Responsible driving is required while overtaking other traffic, performing high-speed manoeuvres, and keeping other road users’ safety in mind at the same time.

…Testing the Tesla Model 3 electric police cruiser is part of the UK government’s Road to Zero 2030 policy. This is an aggressive plan by the UK government to electrify almost all of the country’s transportation by 2030 and emergency response vehicles are a large part of this transition. The government of London announced back in 2019 that by 2025, the city alone will have 50,000 electric vehicle charge points.

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The other point being that the acceleration (and top speed?) would outpace pretty much any other car on the road. However, plenty of gloomsayers in the comments on the LinkedIn update.
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If I were in charge of Ofcom… • The Spectator

Paul Dacre is the former editor of the Daily Mail, the furiously right-wing tabloid. Earlier this year there were strong rumours the Tory government was trying to rig the appointment of the new chair of the communications regulator Ofcom so Dacre would get the job. Ministers denied this in multiple interviews. Over to you, Mr Dacre:

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‘You can appoint your own chief executive,’ boomed the PM [prime minister] over a rather sad bottle of wine. He was asking if I would like to chair the media regulator Ofcom because, he declared, he was determined to do something to end the usual suspects’ control of our public bodies. It was soon apparent that I couldn’t appoint my own chief executive. Or take people with me. And as all the key positions at Ofcom are chosen by ‘independent’ panels, the chairman’s role is heavily circumscribed.

So why bother? The answer was I was fascinated by the societal implications of the Online Safety Bill that Ofcom will implement. If I could help prevent paedophiles, hate preachers and terrorists exploiting the internet, protect young vulnerable minds from emotional manipulation, eradicate the malicious trolling of individuals (often from minorities) that is poisoning private and public discourse, eliminate fake news and preserve freedom of speech, well, that sounded a pretty good swansong to a magical career in journalism.

After all, in 28 years as an editor, I’d spent much time with ministers, judges and regulators trying to define the thin line between protecting the innocent and damaging freedom of speech. I’d also chaired the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee which — by balancing the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know — writes the rules for best journalistic practice that are emulated around the world. And I’d made a significant contribution to launching the world’s biggest English-language popular newspaper website. The problem is that the Bill is a dog’s dinner. There aren’t enough lawyers in the cosmos to define ‘legal but harmful’ content. How do you stop Facebook’s algorithms deleting legitimate news stories? But the real problem is the insidious anonymity behind which the web’s malfeasants skulk — an issue that, despite the civil-rights implications, is going to have to be addressed.

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I think Dacre would have been clueless about regulating internet content, as this braindump shows. A narrow miss, but a dangerous slide toward Trumpist appointment of incompetents.
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Nothing about the blue site! But do buy Social Warming, my latest book, and find out how social networks affect society, politics and the media.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: didn’t see anything particularly interesting from the Mosseri testimony, but if you think different, drop me a link.

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