In the News Archive

How clever mechanics keep 50-year-old BART trains running: Windows 98, eBay, and scraps

When BART first carried passengers, the country was sending astronauts to the moon. The Apollo-era trains were symbols of a generation barreling toward a space-age future complete with carpeted floors and a seat promised to every passenger. That was 1972, when BART was state of the art. But half a century later, as the agency celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, many of those same silver-and-blue trains are still chugging through the Bay Area. And keeping them running — even in the country’s technology capital — requires a special breed of ingenuity. BART mechanics rely on Frankensteined laptops operating with Windows 98, train yard scraps and vintage microchips to keep Bay Area commuters on the rails. These stories are a dime a dozen, and serve to illustrate there’s a lot more outdated tech out there in our daily lives than we think. On the flipside, that’s some decent job security for the engineers and maintenance crew involved.

Physical buttons outperform touchscreens in new cars, test finds

Physical buttons are increasingly rare in modern cars. Most manufacturers are switching to touchscreens – which perform far worse in a test carried out by Vi Bilägare. The driver in the worst-performing car needs four times longer to perform simple tasks than in the best-performing car. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone with more than only a modicum of experience in human-machine interaction will tell you touchscreens are a terrible idea in cars. It’s high time safety regulators start, well, regulating the use of touchscreens in cars.

AMD passes Intel in market cap

AMD surpassed rival Intel’s market cap on Friday. AMD stock rose over 3% for the day, giving the chipmaker a market capitalization of $153 billion. Intel fell nearly 9%, a day after disastrous earnings that missed expectations for profit and showed declining revenue. Intel’s market cap was $148 billion at the end of trading on Friday. The shift is mostly symbolic, but it signifies a much more competitive market for PC and server chips, where the two companies compete directly. I don’t report on financials anymore (unless it’s something truly unique), but this one I wanted to highlight simply because it highlights just how well AMD is doing. Only a few short years ago, this would’ve been unimaginable. Meaningless, sure, but a sign of the times nonetheless.

Google Play will allow alternate billing systems in Europe with reduced service fee

Following regulation in South Korea last year and a somewhat more voluntary “User Choice Billing” in March, Google announced today that it would soon allow nongaming Android apps to offer users in Europe (European Economic Area) an alternative to Google Play’s billing system. This is in response to the Digital Markets Act, with Google saying it’s “committed to meeting these new requirements while ensuring that we can continue to keep people safe on our platforms and invest in Android and Play for the benefit of the entire ecosystem.” It’s almost like regulation works. We’ll have to wait and see if these changes are enough.

What’s the deal with all those weird wrong-number texts?

Even thought it was clear this message was the lead-in to a swindle of some kind, I had to pause and admire the craft that went into its composition. Like everyone else, I get scam text come-ons pretty frequently, and they’re always poorly pitched and low-energy. In contrast, this text opened up a rich world, animated by detail and alive with mystery. I didn’t care about packages missing their intended destinations, or Bitcoin investing advice, or whatever scammers usually texted me about, but I was interested in Tony: How many charity galas did he go to, anyway? And why hadn’t he seen his/my unknown interlocutor in such a long time? Before I reported the number to WhatsApp, I took a screenshot of the message to better remember it. There’s something to be written about here, Mark texted. What is the deal with these texts? Why do they sound like that? Who is sending them? I rarely get spam messages, and I’ve never seen messages like these before. There is some real craft going on here, even if the goal is malicious. I have to admire the thought that goes into these.

Broadcom, VMware agree to $61b merger

The Register reports: Broadcom has confirmed it intends to acquire VMware in a deal that looks set to be worth $61 billion, if it goes ahead: the agreement provides for a “go-shop” provision under which the virtualization giant may solicit alternative offers. That “go-shop” provision: However, the merger agreement has a “go-shop” provision under which VMware may seek alternative offers from other interested parties and potentially enter negotiations with them during the next 40 days. VMware has a backup, maybe? Broadcom is a weird one to buy VMware, but it makes some sort of sense. Broadcom make chips which are widely used, specifically networking equipment, and baking VMware support into their chips is probably the value proposition, or vice versa. Let’s see what happens. I would think another company (Microsoft, IBM, or Cisco?) would be interested in VMware enough to top the $61 billion Broadcom has on the table.

SoftBank dumps sale of Arm over regulatory hurdles, to IPO instead

SoftBank Group Corp has shelved its blockbuster sale of Arm Ltd to U.S. chipmaker Nvidia Corp valued at up to $80 billion citing regulatory hurdles and will instead seek to list the company. Britain’s Arm, which named a new CEO on Tuesday, said it would go public before March 2023 and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son indicated that would be in the United States, most likely the Nasdaq. As everyone already expected.

Hackers are spamming businesses’ receipt printers with ‘antiwork’ manifestos

Someone or multiple people are blasting “antiwork” manifestos to receipt printers at businesses around the world, according to people who claim to have seen the printed manifesto, dozens of posts on Reddit, and a cybersecurity company that is analyzing network traffic to insecure printers. An intersection between technology and social issues – and an inventive and effectively harmless one, too. Especially the United States, but a lot of other countries too, desperately needs a lot more strong unions, and if this plays even a small role in getting there, it’s worth it.

Apple sues NSO Group for abuse of state-sponsored spyware, yet continues to aid China in the abuse of state-sponsored spyware

Apple today filed a lawsuit against NSO Group and its parent company to hold it accountable for the surveillance and targeting of Apple users. The complaint provides new information on how NSO Group infected victims’ devices with its Pegasus spyware. To prevent further abuse and harm to its users, Apple is also seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple software, services, or devices. I wonder if this means Apple will sue itself next, because what the NSO Group does is not that different from what Apple itself does in, for instance, China. Apple has given the Chinese government full access to the iCloud data of all Chinese Apple users, so much so that even Apple itself cannot enter the date centres where Chinese iCloud data is stored. If Apple is suing the NSO Group for the “surveillance and targeting of Apple users”, why isn’t Apple saying anything about how it is aiding China to do the exact same thing? Don’t get me wrong – the NSO Group is terrible and if they get sued out of existence that’s a major win, but the blatant hypocrisy here is so obvious I almost feel like Apple is doing this just to see how far its supporters are willing to go to defend them. It’s easy to stick to your morals in countries with fair and open judicial systems. It’s how you act in those that don’t that show who you really are.

Apple’s M1 Pro, M1 Max SoCs investigated: new performance and efficiency heights

On the CPU side, doubling up on the performance cores is an evident way to increase performance – the competition also does so with some of their designs. How Apple does it differently, is that it not only scaled the CPU cores, but everything surrounding them. It’s not just 4 additional performance cores, it’s a whole new performance cluster with its own L2. On the memory side, Apple has scaled its memory subsystem to never before seen dimensions, and this allows the M1 Pro & Max to achieve performance figures that simply weren’t even considered possible in a laptop chip. The chips here aren’t only able to outclass any competitor laptop design, but also competes against the best desktop systems out there, you’d have to bring out server-class hardware to get ahead of the M1 Max – it’s just generally absurd. On the GPU side of things, Apple’s gains are also straightforward. The M1 Pro is essentially 2x the M1, and the M1 Max is 4x the M1 in terms of performance. Games are still in a very weird place for macOS and the ecosystem, maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, maybe gaming is still something of a niche that will take a long time to see make use of the performance the new chips are able to provide in terms of GPU. What’s clearer, is that the new GPU does allow immense leaps in performance for content creation and productivity workloads which rely on GPU acceleration. These are excellent processors and GPUs, especially when taking their power consumption into account. Sure, a lot of it is optimised only for Apple’s approved frameworks and applications, but if you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem, these are simply no-brainer machines for any creator.

Vienna museums open adult-only OnlyFans account to display nudes

More than a century after the artists of the Vienna Secession declared “to every age its art; to art its freedom”, the Austrian capital has found a new site for artistic expression free from censorship: the adults-only platform OnlyFans. Vienna’s tourism board has started an account on OnlyFans – the only social network that permits depictions of nudity – in protest against platforms’ ongoing censorship of its art museums and galleries. Censoring nude paintings from some of the greatest painters in human history is peak pearl-clutching.

Home computing pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair dies aged 81

Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor and entrepreneur who was instrumental in bringing home computers to the masses, has died at the age of 81. His daughter, Belinda, said he died at home in London on Thursday morning after a long illness. Sinclair invented the pocket calculator but was best known for popularising the home computer, bringing it to British high-street stores at relatively affordable prices. One of the greatest.

Google messed up all those Chromebooks yesterday because of a single typo

Google can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to Chrome OS 91. First we saw many users reporting their devices using an egregious amount of CPU after upgrading to 91.0.4472.147. While Google pulled the update shortly thereafter and rolled everyone back to 91.0.4472.114, that managed to lock out Linux apps. Now we’re seeing the arrival of 91.0.4772.165, and this update introduces an awful bug that’s breaking Chromebooks left and right. So what happened? Thanks to the work of an eagle-eyed user on Reddit, we now know that a single typo appears responsible for locking so many users out of their Chromebooks. By looking at the diff in this file, we can see that Google forgot to add a second “&” to the conditional statement, preventing Chrome OS from decrypting your login information (required to log you in). This kind of sloppiness is what you get in an industry where there really aren’t any consequences to speak of for screwing things up. It’s not like software development is a real industry with strict product safety laws or anything.

Don’t piss off Bradley, the parts seller keeping Atari machines alive

Every old video game console dies eventually. Moving parts seize-up, circuit boards fail, cables wear out. If a user needs a replacement connector, chip, ribbon, gear, shell—or any of the thousands of other parts that, in time, can break, melt, discolor, delaminate, or explode—they’re usually out of luck, unless they have a spare system to scavenge. But there is an exception to this depressing law of nature. In San Jose, on a side street next to a highway off-ramp, inside an unmarked warehouse building, is part of the world’s largest remaining collection of factory-original replacement Atari parts — a veritable fountain of youth for aging equipment from the dawn of the home computing and video gaming era. This is the home of Best Electronics, a mail-order business that has been selling Atari goods continuously for almost four decades. But if you’d like to share in Best’s bounty, as many die-hard Atari fans desperately do, there’s a very important piece of advice you need to keep in mind: whatever you do, don’t piss off Bradley. I love this story. There’s a lot you can say about having one person dictate nebulous terms like this, but we’re not talking a primary, secondary, or even tertiary life need here. It’s his way, or the high way, and I like that, in a romantic, old-timey kind of way. His website is glorious, the outdated catalog that is entirely outdated unless you combine it with decades of online updates – it’s almost mythical, a modern fairy tale.

iPhone 12 dropped in canal, retrieved with magnet

I don’t know why I found this account so delightful. I guess it’s just the can-do spirit. I’ve had an iPhone 12 Pro for a while, and I’m a fan of the new MagSafe feature. I find it convenient for daily charging, and it eliminates the danger of failing to line up the phone just right on a Qi charger. I also have a handy 3rd party car mount that’s great for cars without CarPlay. The magnet on the iPhone is pretty strong, and now I know that if I ever drop my phone into a canal, I may be able to retrieve it by “magnet fishing.” When an unlucky Berliner dropped his phone into a mucky canal, his friend suggested using the MagSafe magnet to fish it out. After several hours of experimentation, they succeeded!

Swift System is now open source

In June, Apple introduced Swift System, a new library for Apple platforms that provides idiomatic interfaces to system calls and low-level currency types. Today, I’m excited to announce that we’re open-sourcing System and adding Linux support! Our vision is for System to eventually act as the single home for low-level system interfaces for all supported Swift platforms. Never a bad thing to see potentially useful code enter the open source world.

US will ban WeChat and TikTok downloads on Sunday

The Commerce Department plans to restrict access to TikTok and WeChat on Sunday as the Trump administration’s executive orders against the two apps are set to take effect. The Department said Friday that as of Sunday, any moves to distribute or maintain WeChat or TikTok on an app store will be prohibited. Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. While users who have already downloaded the apps may be able to continue using the software, the restrictions mean updated versions of the apps cannot be downloaded. This will hit American companies doing business in China hard, since virtually all consumer purchases there take place via WeChat.

“I have blood on my hands”: a whistleblower says Facebook ignored global political manipulation

Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News. The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them. Facebook needs to be investigated, broken up, and its executives prosecuted. I don’t care who does it – the United States, the European Union – but it’s clear this company is one of the very worst excesses of the tech industry’s arrogance and dominance, and it needs to be held accountable.

Solaris 10 zones on Tribblix

One of the interesting capabilities of Solaris zones was the ability to run older versions of Solaris than that in the global zone. Marketing managed to mangle this into Containers, and it was supported for Solaris 8 and Solaris 9. I used this extensively on one project, to lift a whole datacenter of ancient (yes, really ancient) Sun servers into zones on a couple of T5240s. Worked great. Ah yes, Solaris. One of Larry Ellison’s many, many casualties. Tribblix is a Solaris distribution that should feel familiar to longtime Solaris users, but with a set of modern packages on top.

US to ban transactions with TikTok and WeChat in 45 days

U.S. President Donald Trump has issued executive orders to ban any U.S. transactions with WeChat, the messaging app owned by Tencent Holdings, and ByteDance, owner of TikTok, within 45 days, describing the Chinese-owned companies as threats to national security. “The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China . . . continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” said Trump in the two executive orders signed on Thursday. I definitely think the world should impose severe sanctions on China and western companies working with them for the ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Uyghurs and other minority groups, as well as the forced labour used to make Apple computers and Nike shoes. There’s also something intuitively wrong with China blocking and censoring western applications, platforms, and media – something many western companies comply with all too eagerly – all the while expecting Chinese state-owned or state-controlled companies to have complete freedom to collect and possibly spy everywhere else. That being said, the Trump regime is not exactly known for coherent, consistent, and well thought-out policies, and these executive orders probably have more to do with diverting attention away from the complete and utter failure of the regime’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the upcoming election than anything else. These orders will probably be watered down over the coming weeks, so their value in putting pressure on China will be minimal. Two things always happen when you point out atrocities committed by China. First, people point to problems in the US in a massive case of whataboutism, as if the problems in the US excuse a genocide in China. On top of that, if you think the admittedly big problems in the US means the US is a genocidal totalitarian fascist dictatorship, your false equivalency is so false it can shatter glass for kilometres around. Second, apologists will say something along the lines of “okay, so you have nothing made in China?” This is a silly point to make. As individual consumers, it is literally impossible to avoid products made in China or other murderous regimes – just think of where your oil comes from. No, it’s governments and large corporations that have the power to put pressure on China, and so far, they have failed hard. They’ve been letting a genocide happen under their very noses, and once again, they choose to look away, because they value money more than human lives. It’s always a struggle to go into politics on a tech website and it almost certainly makes me impopular, but since virtually all our technology is almost entirely or partly made in China, it’s impossible to ignore it and look away. Awareness is the first step, and covering your ears and eyes won’t make the problems go away. By letting our governments and the corporations we buy from get away with choosing money over human lives – money that we ordinary people do not benefit from anyway, since most of it ends up in the pockets of the ultra-wealthy anyway – none of this will ever change.