Hey Reg readers, Happy Spreadsheet day! Because there ain’t no party like an Excel party

Break out the bunting and crack out the Excel-based party puns. Tomorrow is Spreadsheet day, and it’s time to party like it’s 00/01/1900.

Celebrating the arrival of VisiCalc for the Apple II all those years ago, Spreadsheet day commemorates the columns and rows beloved by number crunchers everywhere, whatever their tool of choice (be it the likes of Lotus 1-2-3, Google Sheets or the tediously ubiquitous Excel.)

Spreadsheet day itself has its origins in 2010, by which time the tool was already firmly entrenched in the public psyche, with Excel almost a byword for the things. From their humble accountancy beginnings, the grids have been expanded into reporting and analysis engines and beyond.

While Microsoft infamously dropped the “Hall of Tortured Souls” Easter Egg into Excel 95, others have actually had a crack at implementing a 3D game engine in the thing (caution: needs macros) or undertaken musical shenanigans. It’s all quite beyond anything the spreadsheet’s creators could have dreamed all those decades ago.

The impressive extensibility via macros (and the dread Visual BASIC for Applications) has nearly been Excel’s undoing over time.

test and trace

Excel Hell: It’s not just blame for pandemic pandemonium being spread between the sheets


Miscreants have engineered the convenient code snippets for nefarious purposes while over-enthusiastic enterprises and managers used the things as a way of gluing systems together or dodging the requirement for a purpose-built GUI and database.

Indeed, the timing of Spreadsheet day is unfortunate, coming as it does mere weeks after an out of date Excel format left thousands of COVID-19 cases unreported due to “computer issues“. Microsoft’s spreadsheet was an easy scapegoat but, as in so many spreadsheet related cock-ups, it is usually the tool on the stool rather than the tool on the screen that is to blame.

That said, Excel has more than enough funnies of its own without humans needing to get involved. Indeed, it’s obsession with “helpful” autocorrection has caused headaches for geneticists seeing the “DEC1” gene quietly changed to “1-Dec” while its sometimes confusing precision can catch out the unwary.

Certainly, spreadsheets (for Excel is not the only offender) have their place, and it is up to the IT professional to slot them into the most appropriate location. Before being ignored by an over-enthusiastic customer who has read one Excel blog too many.

Happy Spreadsheet Day! ®

Oracle aims high-end cloudy database release at existing customers in ‘defensive’ move

Oracle has brought out a new Exadata Cloud Service based on the Exadata X8M platform, bringing its high-end persistent memory feature to the cloud. Well, Oracle’s cloud at least.

The transactional and analytics database system Exadata X8M was first released last year in a launch Oracle claimed would reduce IO latency by up to 10 times with its use of persistent memory and remote direct memory access (RDMA) over Ethernet.

Bringing the system to the Exadata Cloud Service makes it available on a consumption basis in the Oracle cloud, including 26 global cloud regions and its on-prem service, [email protected] The omnipresent enterprise computing biz claimed it could help run applications needing multiple workloads and data types in a single converged Oracle Database, avoiding integration of multiple different database services.

Oracle claimed this meant 2.5 times higher transaction processing IOs, and 10 times better IO latency than its previous Exadata Cloud Service release.

The Exadata Database Machine started life in 2008 as an in-memory database appliance that supports OLTP (transactional) and OLAP (analytical) database systems. It was the result of a collaborative project between Big Red and HP (as it was then known), but was later ported to Sun hardware. A version has been available on Oracle Cloud since 2015.

David Floyer, CTO at Wikibon, said that with IO latency of around 20 microseconds and a 25 PB data warehouse available, Wikibon assessed it as the “highest-performance cloud database service available.”

Regardless of its performance, part of the positioning is to boost Oracle in the cloud market, as it was with the Zoom deal earlier this year, said Philip Carnelley, associate vice president of software research at IDC.

It would suit Oracle’s existing customers who want options in the cloud, he added.

“If you’ve already got loads of Oracle everywhere, then it’s becoming more viable to move what you want into the cloud: that’s their big thrust. There is such a huge install base of Oracle, it’s offering them everything in the cloud, on prem, or wherever they want it. From Oracle’s point of view, it could be seen as defensive. This will appeal to very large organisations with a very large investment in Oracle,” he said.

Carnelley said businesses were looking to move to the cloud as soon as possible, while at the same time IT departments would be reluctant to abandon their existing investments. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: you don’t want to change too many things and fewer things you have to change, the better,” he said.

But outside Oracle’s install base, the appeal becomes less certain. In transaction systems Oracle would go up against IBM’s Db2 and SAP’s in-memory HANA database, both of which are available on the public cloud from the usual suspects.

On the analytical systems, Oracle must compete with cloud-native data warehouses such as Snowflake, AWS’s Redshift, Google’s BigQuery and Microsoft’s Synapse. ®

Work life balance? We’ve heard of it. Pandemic means 9-5 shifts are a thing of the past for many

How’s your work life balance? For some people the lines between the daily grind and their personal time has blurred, and they are putting more hours into the job than before the pandemic forced offices to close.

According to a quick temperature reading, 5,556 employees recorded an opinion on Blind, an anonymous app-based forum, and 57 per cent said the blend of work and play has been skewed since lockdown measures were introduced.

Among the verified employees – they needed to provide a work email addy to be able to access the survey – were folk from Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Intel, SAP, Oracle, Cisco, Adobe, IBM, Nvidia and more.

“There used to be some delineation between work and home life, now it’s gone,” said an anonymous person at Google, “Not working from home, just living at work.”

According to 65 per of 652 workers at Amazon who voiced an opinion, working from home meant their work life balance had deteriorated. The same was true for 63 per cent of 363 staff at Microsoft and 65 per cent of 330 individuals at the Chocolate Factory.

Matthew Ball, chief analyst at Canalys, highlighted Parkinson’s Law at the recent virtual Forum 2020, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – if someone has a 9-5 shift then they make sure they try to finish things in that timeframe.

“When a task is completed, they just move on to another. However, when working from home, for the hard workers, work still fills all time available from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed.

“But for the more work-shy work shrinks. So they need to do the same as before, but in less time. They basically just do less,” he added.

There was a word of warning for those spending longer at their desk: It’s not sustainable. Ball joked that we may see the “work-shy being forced to return to the office” whereas the “hard workers” may “want to come back to the office just for a break.”

According to Forrester, at least one-third of staff will primarily work from home in 2021 compared to just 4 per cent in 2019 – though this is predicated on finding a vaccine for the virus and distributing it.

This rate is far lower than some discussed by the likes of Dell, Dropbox, Fujitsu or the UK’s Institute of Directors.

Microsoft recently told its 150,000 + employees that they can work from anywhere, anytime, most of the time.

Ball at Canalys said that on the one side, workers have shown they can be productive at home, and so offices aren’t needed, but on the flip side, “businesses want to maintain their culture and onboard new employees with new skills, all of which is best done with people in the office.”

“Work is no longer a set place or a set time. And as offices reopen, we will see the rise of hybrid workers, which will be essential in a more resilient business environment.

“These hybrid workers are location-independent, spending part of the time in the office and the other working remotely. They can switch to fully remote instantly. Many of us now fit into this category and will remain so, so the balance between office and home will fluctuate over time. These workers will need almost the identical IT set-up in both locations. Taking all your equipment from one to the other is awkward.”

How do you plan to work after the pandemic? Let us know in the comments below. ®

Need a new computer for homeschooling? You can do worse than a sub-£30 2007 MacBook off eBay

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned laptops — particularly those deemed “cheap and cheerful” — into a desperately sought-after commodity as education and work moves to the home.

Institutions and parents alike are waiting longer and paying more for machines – even the so-called cheap laptops. Of course, there’s another way. There’s always another way.

Readers of this publication may know I’ve got something of a penchant for collecting old tech. Indeed, my office houses a small museum of elderly computers, some of which receive routine usage. I’m writing this article on my favourite computer of all time — an Apple PowerBook G3 Lombard.

Now, I’m not suggesting you buy your offspring a 22-year-old computer that’s not even capable of proper multitasking, let alone running a modern web browser. But for anyone struggling to obtain a machine for home learning and Zoom calls, you could do worse than get an early-model polycarbonate MacBook.

These machines were some of Apple’s first Intel-powered machines. They fall within a particular vintage sweet-spot. They’re old enough to be obsolete, yet also common as muck. If you spend more than £30 on one on eBay, you’ve been ripped off. The cheapest one I ever got for was £15, including postage.

Matt's mostly Mac retro museum

Matt’s mostly Mac collection of classic computers. It’s remarkable to think that upon their release, these machines would collectively have cost around £20,000.

Buy, install, and tweak

As for where to buy it, for eBay, you can substitute any auction system, because you tend to pay the market rates. eBay (other online auctioneers are available) also benefits from specialist sellers auctioning decommissioned workplace kit, making it easy to get a bargain. Failing that, you can usually find preloved MacBooks on Shpock and Gumtree and via pawnshops (Cash Converters, etc), but they’re usually way overpriced, because people think: “Well, I spent £1,000 on this over a decade ago, so it MUST be worth at least half that?”

A huge factor in why they’re so cheap is because they can’t run any version of MacOS beyond version 10.7 Lion*, which was long abandoned by browser makers. The latest versions of Google Chrome and Firefox require newer versions of Apple’s operating system, which simply refuse to play nice with early-generation MacBooks.

But they can run Windows 10 with a gentle bit of coaxing. Not officially, mind you, but it’s possible – with one user calling the combo “shockingly usable“. And Linux, obviously.

Most Linux distros should play nicely with an old MacBook when it comes to things like drivers — although you might have to make some tweaks when it comes to the keyboard and mouse. I’m inclined to steer people towards Elementary OS, which also apes the MacOS aesthetic nicely. Like all Linux systems, if you get stuck, help isn’t far away. There’s also Ubuntu, or perhaps Linux Mint. And you can add your own suggestions below.

Pile of electronic waste

Apple seeks damages from recycling firm that didn’t damage its devices: 100,000 iThings ‘resold’ rather than broken up as expected


When you cross those thresholds, you ultimately end up with a machine that’s capable enough for most day-to-day tasks, particularly those done within the context of homeschooling. By ditching the last supported MacOS version, you get access to the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, and even Edge. We don’t judge. And the Core2Duo processors used in these machines are powerful enough to render web pages and play online video without any punishing sluggishness.

And they’re repairable…

Another reason why I’m somewhat evangelical about these old machines is that it’s still easy enough to obtain aftermarket upgrades and parts. Unlike newer Apple laptops, Cupertino designed early polycarbonate MacBooks to be simple to self-service. To install fresh RAM and an SSD, you just need to loosen three screws and slot the new components in. It couldn’t be more straightforward.

These machines use standard DDR2 SDRAM. A pair of 2GB sticks will set you back less than £16. While you’re at it, you’ll want to replace the old mechanical hard drive with a faster, more power-efficient SSD. A 120Gb SATA III drive shouldn’t cost more than £20, and you get your pick of manufacturers to choose from: Kingston, Western Digital, and err, FattyDove.

Admittedly, a battery replacement isn’t out of the question. We are, after all, talking about 13-year-old computers that have seen some usage. There are no shortage of manufacturers flogging these, and some are half-decent. I spent £25 on one, and it works great.

If you’re more mechanically minded, you might also want to consider opening up the case to remove any accumulated dust and replace the laptop’s thermal paste. This isn’t obligatory, and it does require the removal of an intimidating amount of screws, but it’ll make your machine run cooler and improve its battery life drastically.

So, worst-case scenario, you’re looking at spending £100 on a computer with a proper SSD (none of that eMMC muck), a 13-inch screen, a fresh battery, and a decent-enough processor. That’s not a bad deal. And that’s without mentioning the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from saving a perfectly good laptop from the great e-waste pile in the sky.

Apple might not thank you but the planet will. ®

*There’s a technical explanation. Recent versions of MacOS require a 64-bit UEFI; these have a 32-bit one.

To stop web giants abusing privacy, they must be prevented from respawning. Ever

Column Thriving amidst the pervasive chaos of 2020, the world’s largest technology companies – the FAANGs*, as we’ve come to know them – have managed to grow larger, richer and more powerful.

That’s wonderful for shareholders, but quite a problem when it comes to the relations between these new superpowers and the nations they operate within.

Multinational entities always exploit their capacity to play nations off against one another in search of tax breaks or favourable regulatory environments. This zero-sum strategy means each FAANG win equals a loss for a national government – and governments tend to hold grudges. Tally up enough black marks, and even a trillion-dollar business might find itself in a fight for its life.

It certainly seems as though the knives are out for two of the FAANGs – Facebook and Google. In the US, the Department of Justice and several States Attorneys General will soon file an antitrust lawsuit; the EU wants to rein in the data gathering and coercive business practices of both; even plucky Australia has thrown its hat into the ring, empowering its competition regulator to claw back some of hundreds of billions of dollars a year in revenues hoovered by the pair. The FAANGs may be colossi, arrogantly striding the Earth, but the actions of scores of Lilliputian governments may yet bring Gulliver low.

But breaking up is hard to do. IBM and Microsoft survived breakup attempts, while AT&T actually grew far larger, post-breakup, than it ever could while operating as a government-sanctioned monopoly. So regulators face a dilemma: let these organisations run rampant, or turn them into modern-day Hydras – spawning a new head with every antitrust amputation.

For any containment to be successful, regulators will first need to deprive these organisations of their respawn superpowers, generated by an unholy combination of “user profiling” and “engagement”.

Both firms know their users better than those users know themselves; observing trillions of interactions with digital intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, applying these observations to build a predictive model used to direct and shape “engagement”. Continuous surveillance reveals our weaknesses, and those weaknesses are fed back to us to exploit our credulity, our prejudices, and our expectations.

Youtube Video

Despite repeated warnings, the public seems to have been happy to maintain its digital addictions – although some got a better view backstage last month, when Netflix released The Social Dilemma. Over the course of a few days, tens of millions got a look inside the belly of the beast, and understood – some for the first time – that they aren’t the user, they’re the product.

From fifty-plus years of anti-smoking efforts, we know that getting people to stop using something that they know is bad for them won’t be easy. But we could at least level the playing field with a different kind of amputation: regulations blocking the utilisation of profiling data to increase engagement.

Engage brain

Created to boost the “stickiness” of content, these machine-learning-driven systems create powerful feedback loops between users and these content providers. They’re the engine room that keeps billions scrolling, liking and posting. Cutting that loop breaks the spell that holds users in thrall. Those firms will not like it – reduced to slow, expensive, organic engagements – but users will gain a newfound agency; an ability to look away from the blinking lights of today’s shiniest outrage.

Early in the 20th century, a series of food and drug laws in the United States regulated both the purity of and access to a range of substances that had proven to be addicting, toxic, or both. Now that we’ve learned how to replicate those sorts of psychic effects with digital equivalents, we need to look to regulate these digital systems – and not just the companies that peddle them to the public.

They’re potent, potentially dangerous, and always come at a cost. Their use needs to be carefully regulated – just as we regulate addictive drugs. And just as we wouldn’t prescribe addictive drugs to billions of people, we have to ensure that these technologies are never deployed at scale again.

The crisis we face today most closely resembles that of China during the Opium Wars. Furiously trying to defend itself and its people from colonial powers using addictive drugs they illegally imported to gain a commercial foothold within the nation, the Chinese struck out – and lost. Today’s national governments, weakened by the very powers they seek to contain, face a similar threat. To contain these modern monsters, we’ll need to learn from history – and act quickly. ®

* Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google

RPA firms: We have our own process mining tools. Process miner Celonis: We’re all about automation now

The co-CEO at German process mining biz Celonis has talked up its leap into the world of automation by rolling out its own platform, as well as splashing the cash – reportedly a hair over $100m – on automation and integration outfit Integromat.

Process mining, for the uninitiated, is the idea that organisations which rely on humans cutting and pasting data from one application to another for integration can have stab at understanding what’s really going on.

Pulling together data from user interactions with enterprise applications, and a bit of analysis, is supposed to reveal the “true” nature of business processes, as opposed to how they were designed or how management thinks they are used – so its proponents say.

Celonis, which counts Bosch and Siemens among its customers, launched an Execution Management System to sit on top of its process mining tools, in the hope that organisations can use it to fix processes, not just find out where they are broken.

It includes tools to help identify so called “execution gaps” (the lag between performance and an ideal scenario) specifically aimed at orgs’ finance departments. The tools suggest immediate ways to improve accounts payable and receivable, informed by real time performance data.

“Execution Management System is able to identify … [not just] what is the capacity and loss in these complex systems, but actually give capacity back to the business,” Alexander Rinke, co-founder and co-CEO told The Register. “It helps you figure out what actions you can take and where you can automate processes.”

At the same time, Celonis hopes customers will move to automate with its newly acquired tools from Integromat, which are designed to insert automation processes directly into applications via API, rather than by the screen scrapping, UI-driven approach of RPA.

“We’re definitely moving into the automation space. But the idea is you will not need an RPA tool, or won’t need it as often,” Rinke said.

The Celonis chief said he believed RPA tools often failed to scale, or can come with changes to application interfaces, and as such, while being easy to set up, could be quite unreliable. Of course he would say that.

Newly acquired Integromat’s approach, which is to be integrated with that of Celonis, is to use its point-and-click tools to create integration and automation between applications via OAuth 2 authorization and a JSON-parsing app. It has pre-built connectors for more than 500 applications, Rinke said.

In November 2019, Celonis raised $290m in VC funding, valuing the firm at $2.5bn. Since then, it has been on a recruitment round which included securing former Salesforce staffers Miguel Milano and Arsenio Otero as chief revenue officer and chief operating officer respectively.

Neil Ward-Dutton, IDC veep for AI and automation practices, said the new product launch, together with the Integromat acquisition was “really interesting and powerful for a lot of customers,” but said the approach was ‘not without its risks.”

“This is already quite a populated space. You have everything from RPA, workflow and application integration, including vendors such as Boomi, SnapLogic, Informatica and Tibco. Meanwhile, RPA firm UiPath has its own process mining tools,” he said.

“They are all working really hard to act as conductors of the new automation world. Celonis has jumped into this big battle over who can be seen as the conductor of automation,” he said.

Celonis might have its work cut out convincing its customers, many of which are large corporations, to take its automations tools seriously. “Big companies typically have no shortage of integration and automation tools already,” Ward-Dutton said. ®

UK’s National Audit Office warns full-fibre rollout strategy is leaving rural Britain behind. Again

The UK government’s strategy for deploying full-fibre broadband shows signs of repeating the errors of previous broadband infrastructure programmes, which failed to extend comprehensive access to rural areas, a report from the National Audit Office has claimed [PDF].

In “Improving Broadband”, the NAO – a Parliamentary body that scrutinises public sector spending in Britain – today warned that industry will struggle to hit the government’s target of offering nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025, particularly when it comes to the hardest-to-reach 20 per cent of the country — which largely refers to rural settlements and shires.

The full-fibre broadband programme initially prioritised premises unable to access 30Mbps connections, in a strategy dubbed “outside-in.” The NAO expressed concern that as the 2025 deadline looms, infrastructure providers may be tempted to shift their focus to so-called “low-hanging fruit,” namely high population density areas like towns and cities.

The NAO said that if providers opt to take this route, the gap in broadband provision could widen. “By the end of 2025, some premises may still lack superfast speeds, let alone gigabit connectivity,” it said.

This prediction affirms previous expressions of concern from infrastructure providers, as well as from the Deaprtment of Culture, Media and Sport, which said reaching the final 1 per cent of the country will be “prohibitively expensive”, and would likely require the use of alternative technologies.

To date, 14 per cent of the UK has access to full-fibre broadband. Gigabit coverage extends to 27 per cent when you count other similarly-capable technologies, like 5G. Overall, this penetration ranks among the lowest in Europe.

To prevent the further deepening of the rural/city broadband divide, the NAO recommended the DCMS explicitly lay out its deployment priorities. This would accompany a detailed plan that would define how it would meet the 2025 deadline, as well as transparent progress updates.

Similar woes befell the Superfast Broadband Programme of the 2010s. This program aimed to modernise the UK’s ageing copper-based broadband network with an ambitious FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) deployment strategy. This programme aimed to provide superfast broadband (defined as either 24Mbps or 30Mbps, depending on whether you talk to Building Digital UK or Ofcom) to 95 per cent of the country by 2017.

Unfortunately, the Superfast programme had unequal outcomes. While coverage in towns and cities was good, only 80 per cent of UK rural premises saw a speed upgrade. Coverage in Northern Ireland was particularly bad, with only 66 per cent of rural premises able to access speeds of 30Mbps, according to the report.

The watchdog nonetheless highlighted some areas for optimism, citing the overall resilience of the UK’s broadband network in the face of increased demand at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with only marginal decreases in speed and availability. ®

British Airways fined £20m for Magecart hack that exposed 400k folks’ credit card details to crooks

British Airways is to pay a £20m data protection fine after its 2018 Magecart hack – even though the Information Commissioner’s Office discovered the airline had been saving credit card details in plain text since 2015.

The fine, announced this morning by the UK’s data watchdog, is almost exactly at the reduced £19.8m level that BA parent company the International Airlines Group had expected back in August.

“The failures are especially serious in circumstances where it is unclear whether or when BA itself would ever have detected the breach,” thundered the ICO today. It also condemned BA’s claims during fine negotiations that credit card data breaches are “an entirely commonplace phenomenon” and “an unavoidable fact of life”.

The airline’s spokesman told The Register: “We alerted customers as soon as we became aware of the criminal attack on our systems in 2018 and are sorry we fell short of our customers’ expectations. We are pleased the ICO recognises that we have made considerable improvements to the security of our systems since the attack and that we fully co-operated with its investigation.”

British Airways’ internal payments systems were accessed by malicious people in June 2018, as we reported at the time. Some 380,000 people’s credit and debit card details were stolen as a result.

Alarmingly, the ICO’s redacted fine notice published today (PDF) revealed not only that the airline was compromised through a Citrix vulnerability but that it had been saving card details without any encryption at all – a huge no-no.

No MFA and plain text domain admin creds

The attackers began by compromising a BA network account issued to an employee of cargo-handling firm Swissport. That employee, based in Trinidad and Tobago, did not use multi-factor authentication (MFA) and the airline didn’t require it. Although the ICO report was heavily redacted at this point, the attacker then entered a Citrix environment and was able to escape from it onto the wider BA network, having “successfully copied a number of tools into the Citrix environment from outside the network.”

While carrying out network reconnaissance, the attackers hit the jackpot: the username and password for a Windows domain administrator account, “stored in plain text, in a folder on the server”.

The miscreants also found a database admin username and password later in their spree.

Although their next steps were redacted out of the report, the attackers eventually gained access to server logs that contained plaintext details of payment cards.

The ICO said: “The logging and storing of these card details (including, in most cases, CVV numbers) was not an intended design feature of BA’s systems… it was a testing feature that was only intended to operate when the systems were not live, but which was left activated when the systems went live.” Those logs were stored for three months.

From there, the attackers discovered source code for the BA website and planted a card skimmer on the payments page used by the general public. Infosec firm RiskIQ reckoned, back in 2018, that the hack was the work of the Magecart payments theft gang.

Part of BA’s mitigation included deploying Crowdstrike’s Falcon tool across its systems.

Fine is 11 per cent of original penalty

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham floated a £183m fine in July last year, saying at the time: “People’s personal data is just that – personal. When an organisation fails to protect it from loss, damage or theft it is more than an inconvenience. That’s why the law is clear – when you are entrusted with personal data you must look after it. Those that don’t will face scrutiny from my office to check they have taken appropriate steps to protect fundamental privacy rights.”

As BA and IAG’s lawyers made representations to get the fine reduced, the COVID-19 pandemic struck – and as the ICO stopped enforcing data protection laws in the early part of 2020, it started issuing deadline extensions to BA.

The data watchdog said the fine had been reduced by £4m to take BA’s coronavirus financial situation into account, justifying this by pointing to IAG revenues in excess of £12bn in FY2017 – long before the pandemic tore the heart and lungs out of the air travel industry. COVID-19 and resulting government prohibitions have forced the premature retirement of BA’s iconic Boeing 747 fleet.

The fine reflects IAG’s H1 CY2020 loss (PDF) of 1.9 billion euros, and the fact that the airline group has had to mortgage “old and new aircraft” to raise another 2.2bn euros in cash with which to ride out government travel bans linked to COVID-19.

BA’s sprawling IT estate, interfacing with multiple third parties all over the world, has a reputation for falling over at inconvenient moments. Such problems aren’t helped when incompetent contractors play “let’s pull all the levers” with data centre power supplies. ®

When you gaze long enough into the bork, the bork will gaze back into you

Bork!Bork!Bork! News reaches The Register that even those paragons of efficiency and rule-following, the Germans, are not immune to the curse of Bork.

Spotted by reader and one-time Lester Haines collaborator Neil Barnes during a well earned break from autobahn-based travelling: something has befallen a restroom screen.

bork germany

Click to enlarge

The helpful pointers on washing one’s hands (although by this stage of the pandemic, anyone who has not learned the rights and wrongs of appendage cleansing is unlikely to be swayed by a German screen) look a little tipsy to us, speaking of unhappy video hardware or a crashed transition.

The German text is augmented by English words, but sadly the borkage has obscured step 2. We suspect there might be soap involved. Step 3 features a clock, likely indicating the length of time one must rub the soap – rather than warning that handwashing is only permitted at 10 minutes past 10.

The glare of blue speaks of BSODs of old, but this is clearly by design. After all, white on blue is relatively readable, even if the glitch behind the scenes is no respecter of such things.

toilet bork

Behold the Bloo Screen of Death: Bathroom borkage stops spray play


We were also quite taken with idea of gazing into a mirror and having a bork gaze back at you.

As for what Nietzschen nightmare is running behind the scenes, we’re not entirely sure. Barnes noted the urinals also all featured screens (although modesty forbade him from snapping them.) All said: “Android is waiting to start.”

We saw similar horrors last month, although in that case it was Windows that had tumbled down the drain. It is good to know that even a sideways shift to Android is not enough to ward off the curse of the bathroom bork. ®

UK tech supply chain in dark over Brexit preparations months ahead of final heave-ho

Canalys Forum 2020 – updated The IT supply chain remains in the dark over how to plan for Brexit with mere months to go before the UK potentially exits the European Union without a trade agreement, according to one of Britain’s biggest IT distributors.

Negotiations between the EU and UK remain deadlocked, and just yesterday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s self imposed deadline to get the thing done came and went. He admitted earlier this week that “intensive talks” were needed to “bridge significant gaps” that exist between the factions.

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and the transition period runs for another 77 days until the end of this year when rules, regulations and contributions from Britain to the EU come to an end.

Joe Hemani, chairman at Reading-based distributor Westcoast, one of the largest wholesalers in Europe, said any business which claims it is ready for Brexit might not be telling the whole truth.

“Until such time as we know what the arrangement with our European partners is, there is no way we can prepare anything. We talk to our logistics supplier, we talk to pan European suppliers, we talk to hauliers, we talk to route masters – and everybody’s in the same boat.

“So we all think we should be OK, but we don’t know how, we don’t know when and we don’t know why. So I think anybody that says they’re ready for Brexit, I’m not sure how they can see that, because we do not know what the outcome is going to be,” he added.

The logistics industry will not have taken comfort in the systems designed to ensure the smooth crossing of trucks from the south coast of England. The new system is based on software that is currently still being tested.

Logistics UK told us in early September:

“We are concerned that mass user testing of the software will not be possible until October – or maybe even November: this is far too late for the thousands of companies and tens of thousands of people who build our complex supply chains to redesign their own processes and contractual relations before the Transition Period ends.”

Westcoast built inventories in its warehouse in the autumn of 2019 to prepare for the December 2019 exit date that sailed by. Keeping hold of that stock “cost us money but nothing came of it,” said Hemani.

“If you go on the government website, Get Ready for Brexit, there’s nothing there, no information which you can actually use which helps build your business planning to work with our European partners,” Hemani added.

He agreed the COVID-19 crisis had taken centre stage, moving the spotlight away from Brexit, adding: “I think that suits the current government.”

This time around, with shortages of ICs, CPUs and panels affecting the availability of PCs – particularly Chromebooks and cheaper notebooks – filling those warehouses with computers might not be an option. Both HP and Lenovo have warned in recent months of protracted shortages and Dell said it hasn’t been playing in the entry level tier.

Steve Brazier, CEO at Canalys, said on the same webcast broadcast at the analyst’s annual (virtual) conference, that it is “absolutely ridiculous” that months out from the UK’s exit, there is no clarity on what to expect. He predicted a hard Brexit will be “chaos”.

Updated at 13.42BST on 16 October to add:

Johnson has said it is seems unlikely there will be a trade agreement with the EU. “What we’re saying to them is come here, come to us, if there’s some fundamental change of approach.”

Mike Cherry, national chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, said in response.

“Not only have small firms been hit by the most severe recession on record over the past six months, they’re now ten weeks out from the end of the transition period with no clear sense of what our future relationship with the EU will look like.

“And they don’t even know what they’re preparing for – the Government is essentially saying get ready for a no-deal outcome even though a deal could still happen.”

Good luck Britain, we’re going to need it. ®

Calling devs of all stripes: Here are some cool roles in software, electric vehicles, Reg wrangling, and more

Job Alert We’ve got a couple of interesting developer roles to get your teeth stuck into this week.

We’re trying to keep the global tech workforce gainfully employed in these testing times. So if you’re hiring techies, send your jobs to us here and we’ll promote them for free. No catch.

You can check out the earlier job adverts here, and you can sign up here to receive email alerts when we run more job ads.

To start off, we’re looking to Dublin for a developer.

Next up for this week is CodeSmith in Leeds, also with a developer role.

We’re heading to ConsultRed next, which is looking for architects and technical leads.

Last but not least, our owners, Situation Publishing, are hiring…

Lastly, there’s an opening for a security engineer at digital democracy folks Delib.

That’s it for this week. If you’re hiring, remember to keep the jobs coming here. ®

The vid-confs drinking game: Down a shot of brandy every time someone titters ‘Sorry, I was on mute’

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I am out of my head. It’s that Zoom fatigue that I keep reading about.

Zoom fatigue is a real thing. It leaves you feeling uncertain on your feet and with a propensity to giggle about nothing in particular. At least, these are my Zoom fatigue symptoms. What do you expect if I have to down a shot of brandy every time someone says “Sorry, I was on mute”?

My symptoms worsened more recently after I extended the rules of the game to cover additional, specific qualifying circumstances. For example, I will take another blast from the bottle if a participant says (and the wording must be exact): “It’s lovely to see all your faces.” This isn’t too serious as it will be said just the once per meeting, but then I have to knock back three drinks in rapid succession if I hear the follow-up: “It’s like Celebrity Squares!”

  • Another drink when a participant picks up their device and takes it into the kitchen; two drinks if it’s the bathroom.
  • Another drink when a participant says they can’t find the ‘raise a hand’ button.
  • Another drink when that same participant says they don’t know how to lower their hand again.

The concluding cognac of any virtual meeting is the toughest. This involves picking any onscreen communicant at random at the close of the meeting, and at the very moment they say their final “goodbye”, I begin to pour whatever’s left in the bottle into a tall tumbler. I only stop pouring when they have eventually found the “Quit meeting” button, some 10-15 seconds later.

Is it any wonder that I stumble about, feeling as if I’m in another dimension?

Of course, there could be another explanation for this feeling: I might actually be in another dimension. Last weekend, boffins at the Large Hadron Collider were threatening to flick that notorious switch for punching our way into parallel universes. Maybe they did and maybe it worked. After a day of Zoom, Skype and Google Meet yesterday, armed with nothing but sugar-roasted peanuts and a bottle of supermarket rum, I certainly experienced a sensation of falling into a black hole.

As with all such event horizon expanse stargate dark matter, it’s not what we allow from our reality to seep out into that other dimension that bothers me so much as what leaks into ours from beyond. Given how 2020 has gone so far, it won’t be cool robots or ancient Egyptians. It’ll be an overacting slime monster with multiple wriggly appendages, cackling wicked taunts such as “You humans are such easy prey”, “I’ll tear your soul apart” and “Unmute yourself! Go on, unmute yourself!”

Youtube Video

The alternative dimension that I have slipped into is not so dramatic. There are no fireworks, flashing lights or dry ice effects, and most importantly for the future of my recently restored weekly Friday columns at The Register, no flying Piranha eels. The difference is subtler than that. For example, in this wacko parallel world I find myself in, the Chinese are spying on American children through Xplora smartwatches.

The Xplora 4 has app-tracking functions for worrisome parents and accommodates a SIM card to allow youngsters to do like ET. But a Norwegian security firm called Mnemonic says it has found features in the smartphone’s firmware that would allow an incoming encrypted SMS message to trigger a memory dump snapshot, take photos and record audio.

You might argue the toss over how difficult such a backdoor would be to exploit in the wild. Xplora has issued a patch while those johnnies at Mnemonic insist that it wasn’t an unfortunate vulnerability that needed patching but a deliberately coded feature set “with function names that include ‘remote snapshot’, ‘send location’ and ‘wiretap’.”

Me, I’m just fascinated that a developer thought little wrists were perfect vehicles for covert surveillance. In this alternative dimension, Spy Kids isn’t just a movie.

I have also discovered that in this dimension, countryside villages have been forced to install signs to warn visitors they may suffer an audible experience akin to that of being in a countryside village. One can only imagine a townie’s terror when hearing the sounds of a church bell for the first time; a cockerel crowing; a cow farting; or the village idiot applying his mayoral stamp to a decree that signs should be put up warning visitors about the din.

In this dimension, even fish leather is a thing. Proponents say fish skin tanning is a sustainable industry. No doubt when demand rises, it’s also quite easy to scale up.

Disappointingly, nobody laughed at that in this dimension either.

Clearly I need to get myself beach fit for the challenges of my new weird slice of the multiverse. Here, you may not be surprised to learn, apocalypse survival training (AST) is available as an app.

AST is not an exercise programme, it’s “a full cast 3D binaural audio drama in which you are the main character, with the fate of millions depending upon your ability to stay alive. Your personal trainer and cheerleader Skyler acts as your eyes and ears as he guides you through an alien invasion you must not only survive, but also bring to an end.”

Foxing those darn aliens involves lots of running, yoga stretching and bodyweight circuits, apparently, and who am I to disagree? My own experience of alien invasions is limited to removing slugs from the kitchen that my cat keeps bringing in. At least now I know that while buildings around me explode into flame and a haunting “Aloo! Aloo!” echoes across the cityscape – curiously reminding me of a holiday weekend I once spent in a French countryside village – I can fend off the alien hordes with set of burpies and tree pose before running away like fuck.

Ah, my parallel universe has just closed all the bars and re-introduced a curfew. I’m not sure my AST training is going to help, and already I can feel my Zoom fatigue coming on.

Pass the scotch, would you?

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He does not condone alcohol abuse. Besides, shouting derogatory names at a bottle of wine gets you nowhere. Nor is he suffering from Zoom fatigue: he prefers remote conferencing to in-person meetings at the moment because he says it’s lovely to see all his colleague’s faces. In fact, he says it’s like Celebrity Squares. More of this at Autosave is for wimps and infrequently on Twitter at @alidabbs

Lift us up where we belong: UK’s Network Rail puts elevators online

Network Rail, the UK’s publicly owned rail infrastructure body, has promised to give passengers’ journeys a lift by connecting its sprawling estate of elevator and escalators to the world as an open data source.

The hope is to let travellers know in advance before they travel or in sufficient time before they alight, whether they can haul their wheelchair or a baby’s buggy to a station without ending up fuming and sweating at the foot of an escalator that’s been out of service for years.

With almost 1,500 lifts and 300 escalators dwelling in 500 stations around the country, the body is promising to provide real-time updates which can be plugged into the creations of any enterprising app or web developer by means of an application programming interface.

The data comes from “monitoring devices” on lifts and escalators, which through Network Rail’s research and development programme will offer a constant condition information on lift and escalator assets. At the moment, about 80 per cent of lifts and 60 per cent of escalators are fitted with such devices. The remaining machines are due to get online within the next year and a half, the rail infrastructure body said.

Not as bonkers as it sounds, the idea is to get app developers to create software which might help differently abled people, parents with buggy-bound sprogs or just the average commuter get from A-B via an interchange or transport terminal without feeling the urge to eat their own heads in frustration. Being forewarned about broken lifts might go some way to help.

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s technical and engineering director, said: “With our greater use of technology and remote condition monitoring of thousands of our assets, we can leverage the brilliance of our UK based app developers to turn this data into something really useful for our passengers, especially those with accessibility needs.

“We are aiming to double the number of stations with lifts on the network over the next 10 years, helping more and more passengers to easily access Britain’s railway,” he added.

Network Rail said that previous open source data releases had resulted in developers using the information to create easy to use apps and web services that helped passengers plan their journeys.

It is hoping to invest £350m in R&D in the years to March 2024 including a strand of work on better use of data.

If any of this helps reduce the sometimes mind-mangling frustration of using the UK’s rail network, it is bound to go down well with travellers. ®

TikTok says Trump administration ban is based on fake news about the app and its back end

TikTok has claimed that the Trump administration’s reasons for wanting it banned are mostly based on incorrect assumptions about its technology.

The claims were made in a supplemental declaration [PDF] filed as part of the made-in-China social network’s legal action seeking to undo the USA’s ban on the app.

Featuring the testimony of TikTok chief security officer Roland Cloutier, the document picks apart some of the USA’s reasons for wanting the app kicked out of the USA unless Oracle takes it over.

Cloutier starts with an assertion by the US Department of Commerce (DoC) in a Memo that TikTok “partially shares” some code and infrastructure with Douyin, the Chinese version of the service.

Not so, Cloutier writes, characterising the software stack for TikTok and Douyin as “entirely separate” and “deployed separately.” Source code and data for TikTok are also managed separately from Douyin.

Shocking news

‘Robbery, economic plunder, victim of larcenous cronyism and a heist’


The CSO also corrects a DoC point that claims TikTok leases servers from China Unicom’s Americas operations. Not so, he said. TikTok only leases Rackspace and ByteDance owns and operates all of its own servers. China Unicom staff can’t access the cages in which TikTok runs without authorisation. He also reveals that TikTok uses Alibaba, Google, Microsoft and AWS. No wonder Oracle is so happy to be in the box seat to run the service!

An important note: The DoC memo redacts some sections and does not mention China Unicom. TikTok appears to have outed the company as a supplier in this filing.

Cloutier also said that TikTok runs a proprietary operating system and security controls explicitly designed to keep its hosting companies out of its apps and data.

Next up: data transfer to China, which Cloutier shoots down by saying TikTok has cleansed its app of reliance on active Chinese IP addresses. While four Chinese IP addresses remain, two refer to devices in Singapore.

He also explained that TikTok has stopped collecting users’ MAC addresses, only ever did so to detect fraud anyway and only encrypted them to protect users.


China watches 170,000 years’ worth of short videos every day


His last point addresses TikTok’s use of the clipboard on iOS devices and says it was only present because Google’s Ads SDK required it but has since been removed. He contends that another use of the clipboard was to validate spam reports that came from copied comments.

TikTok’s filing doesn’t rebut all of the DoC’s assertions about the service. It doesn’t directly address whether China’s government was able to access US users’ data before TikTok moved it onto US soil in February 2019. Nor is Chinese government influence over ByteDance rebutted or contested.

The DoC memo also includes several redactions that could make other allegations that could never come to light.

TikTok’s rebuttal of the memo may yet end up being irrelevant if the Oracle/Walmart acquisition of the app’s operations proceeds. But with president Trump yet to sign off that deal, the US presidential election now less than three weeks away, rhetoric escalating and and many analyses of the deal suggesting it will not get ByteDance entirely out of US citizens’ lives , almost anything could yet happen. ®

When you’re On Call, only you can hear the silence of the clicks

On Call It is Friday the somethingth of Marchtober. No, we’re not sure anymore either. Still, even in these troubled times there remains a crumb of comfort to be gleaned from the oopsies of others. Welcome to On Call.

Cast your mind back to The Before Times. The mid 2000s, to be precise, where our protagonist, “Bob”, was gainfully employed within the walls of a major financial institution (which must remain nameless for Reasons.)

Bob was at the human end of a lengthy incident response chain. Well-designed systems monitored the applications in this well-known institution and, if something happened that didn’t match expectations, an alert was generated.

This alert would normally fire off a SMS to whoever was unlucky enough to be carrying the on-call phone. SLAs dictated an acknowledgement within 15 minutes, and failure to do so would provoke robo-calls. Continued failure to respond would see those robo-calls redirected to the bosses, something which would likely prove somewhat “career-altering,” as Bob put it.

On the night in question, Bob had the dreaded phone.

A transaction being conducted in Japanese Yen managed to burst through the maximum allowable value in the system. This was not particularly uncommon “due to a combination of the exchange rate and the size of the transactions” with which the finance house was entrusted.

Alas, perhaps because Bob had imbibed a tad too many adult beverages that evening or perhaps because he was just a really sound sleeper, the chirping of the “help me” SMS did not wake him up. It took the robo-calls to rouse him and realise that he needed to do something or face the wrath of the bosses.

The borkage was easily identified, and Bob dutifully followed SOP: split the transaction into two separate trades with values that would not blow through the ranges. Blearily, he checked his work and then hit the “restart batch” button.

Nothing happened.

He blinked, admitting later that he might have been a “bit fuzzy” having been so rudely yanked from dreamland, and theorised that he’d simply missed the button. Again, he clicked “restart batch”

This time “batch restarting” appeared, signifying all was well and Bob went back to bed, a job well done and a pay packet due to be inflated by an overnight call-out.

Bob’s disturbance payment was but a trifle compared to the mayhem he had accidentally unleashed, which only became clear when the figures were totted up at the end of the month.

It transpired that the first attempt to restart the batch had actually worked. “A glitch in the UI meant that the confirmation message wasn’t displayed,” he claimed.

Uh huh. Right.

His second click of the button had also worked.

“The outbound payment batch process ran twice and the system happily paid out over $100 million to various financial institutions, high-wealth individuals, etc. – twice.”

After much gnashing of teeth, wailing, and general keyboard bothering from the bean counters, Bob was eventually invited to explain how he’d managed to overpay $100m.

“It’s not my fault,” he protested, pointing out that running such critical processes in parallel was a bad idea and the screen didn’t provide a response the first time round.

He failed to mention he also had a good few units of Stella Artois’s finest still coursing through his veins. Probably irrelevant, right?

The unfortunate account managers were set the task of clawing back all the money, which they mostly managed to do. There was the small matter of $5m paid to a bank that had collapsed in the meantime, but for an outfit the size of this financial institution, such an amount was little more than a rounding error.

And Bob? He wasn’t fired, but found himself “firmly at the wrong end of the bell-curve when the performance reviews came around.” No pay-rise or bonus for Bob.

Nowadays Bob can be found toiling away in a huge infrastructure provider.

He doesn’t do on-call any more.

Ever indulged in a bit of bad behaviour while entrusted with the On Call phone and gotten away with it? Or got caught out? Share your million dollar mistakes with an email to On Call.

OpenStack’s 10th birthday is next week, but you get the present of a new release today!

On October 21st, 2010, something new hit the world of enterprise infrastructure software: it was free software called OpenStack “Austin” and comprised the Nova VM-wrangler and the Swift Object store.

Enthusiasm for OpenStack has waxed and waned since. In its early years the project’s openness saw the likes of Cisco, Rackspace and HPE tout it as a better alternative than proprietary clouds from AWS Microsoft.

We know how that turned out: AWS, Azure and Google dominate the cloud and while OpenStack runs plenty of colossal web companies, the project’s own user surveys suggest that the majority of deployments are at organisations with between 100 and 10,000 employees.

China turned out to be a big part of the OpenStack story: its web giants Baidu and Tencent are known users, while the nation’s big three telcos – China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom – also adopted the stack. They’ve adopted it because OpenStack now offers over 40 modules that are collectively capable of doing just about anything a cloudy or webscale stack requires.

The Register will properly assess OpenStack’s first decade soon, but for now we need to consider the project’s 22nd major release, dubbed “Victoria”, which landed earlier this week.

The new release includes over 20,000 code changes by 794 developers from 160 different organisations and over 45 countries.

The OpenStack Foundation rates improved Kubernetes support, including support for containerised network functions, as among its most important new additions. More FPGA support has been added, specifically for Intel and Inspur accelerators, just in time for the SmartNIC craze to crest. And because too much security is seldom enough, the Octavia module now supports HTTP/2 over TLS using Application Layer Protocol Negotiation (ALPN).

The Ironic module, dedicated to provisioning bare metal servers, has a new communications flow for agent tokens that should make it safer to communicate with devices on the edge. Ironic had a 66% increase in activity compared to the OpenStack Ussuri cycle, and added more security for edge deployments by combining the communication flow for agent token which was added in Ussuri with the automatic agent TLS feature. Now, malicious attackers are unable to possibly intercept the “token” and through standard communication exchanges with the Ironic services. The Foundation also highlighted the following enhancements for “complex networking issues”:

  • The SDN module Neutron now provides metadata service over IPv6 and has added support for flat networks for Distributed Virtual Routers (DVR), Floating IP port forwarding for the OVN backend, and router availability zones in OVN.
  • Load-balancing module Octavia now support version two of the PROXY protocol.
  • Container networking module Kuryr has added support for autodetection of VM bridging interface in nested setups.

OpenStack has published a full list of enhancements present in Victoria here. The next OpenStack release has been named “Wallaby” and should hop into view in April 2021. The release’s timeline and goals can be found here. ®

So many Unis run eSports teams that Lenovo’s built a business unit for ‘em

eSports – aka professional competitive computer gaming – is now so widely adopted by schools and universities that Lenovo has built a business unit to service their teams.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, eSports tournaments can now fill arenas with screaming fans who come to watch professional teams engage in live fragfests. Analysts suggest that half billion people watch eSports, with perhaps half that considered devotees. Plenty of action takes place online: Amazon’s Twitch, recently re-named Prime Gaming, streams eSports competitions live to audiences of many millions.

It looks 'OK', I guess

Can The Register run Crysis Remastered? Yes, but we don’t see why you would want to


So popular are eSports that many universities and schools now operate teams in the discipline alongside their traditional kinetic sporting teams. And of course there’s even a National Association of Collegiate Esports that already has over 170 member colleges in the USA alone and a mission of “developing the structure and tools needed to advance collegiate esports in the varsity space” and plans to “lay the groundwork in areas such as: Eligibility, Path to Graduation, and Competition & Scholarships.”

You read that right: university scholarships for talented competitive gamers are a thing now.

Enter Lenovo, which thinks that a serious eSports program needs “advisory and support services combined with equipment, software and hardware” to succeed.

Lenovo kit with education-grade warranties is included. And because educators tend to watch cash carefully, Lenovo will even offer leasing options for the workstations it recommends

There’s also a “The Lenovo Esports Solutions for Education” that offers a school gaming network and includes “matchups and leader boards to spur competition, as well as network and league management capabilities to maintain and optimize the experience for esports student athletes.”

Only the USA and Canada can access Lenovo’s services today, but the company promises to bring the programme to “select markets” around the world in 2021. ®

Alibaba-aligned e-commerce outfit Taobao quits Taiwan

Alibaba-aligned e-commerce operator Taobao will quit Taiwan.

Amazon’s Alexa internet analytics service rates Taobao as the world’s eight-busiest website – four spots above Amazon.com itself. Taobao’s Taiwanese site is less popular, but its mere existence demonstrated Alibaba’s intent to expand the brand’s footprint.

Taiwan had other plans. In September 2020, the nation imposed new rules that required businesses operating locally to register if they have received significant-but-not-controlling investments from mainland China. Such businesses can expect extra oversight in case they’re transferring tech to China.

Taobao Taiwan was told it needed to register as such but chose not to do so.

And now it appears to have decided to pick up its bat and ball and go home rather than register.

The company’s site yesterday added a notification that it had decided to stop trading and would go dark on December 31st.

Pretty rendering of an imaginary chip blueprint

TSMC to build new 5nm chip factory in Arizona with US government backing


Customers will be able to empty their e-wallets and secure refunds on purchases. But orders are no longer possible.

While Taobao Taiwan is owned by a UK firm called Claddagh Venture Investment, Taiwan held it was actually controlled by Alibaba.

Taiwan’s new policy has previously made life hard for other Chinese-controlled entities. In August video-streaming companies WeTV and iQIYI, controlled by Tencent and Baidu respectively, were prevented from working with Taiwanese companies.

Mainland China regards Taiwan as a rogue province that must be brought to heel and re-integrated. Taiwan considers itself a sovereign nation, rejects China’s policy towards it, and is making sure it is a staunch ally of the United States. That diplomatic effort helps Taiwan’s security and economy, as the USA likes the fact that Taiwan offers an alternative to China for high-tech manufacturing and that companies like TSMC are willing to open factories stateside. ®

AI cleans up sat radar images so scientists can better spot warning signs before volcanoes go all Mount Doom

A NASA-funded project has demonstrated how deep-learning algorithms can help experts determine from satellite scans whether a volcano is due to erupt or not.

Geoscience eggheads and computer scientists at Pennsylvania State University (PennState) in the US built a convolutional neural network (CNN) that automatically removes atmospheric distortions from satellite radar images depicting volcanoes and their environs, making it easier to spot the minute telltale movements that an eruption is coming. A paper describing this AI system was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research last month.

Christelle Wauthier, co-author of the paper and an associate professor of geosciences at PennState, explained this week that precise radar images are needed in particular, as these geological movements are “subtle and cannot be picked up by the naked eye”.

“The shape of volcanoes is constantly changing and much of that change is due to underground magma movements in the magma plumbing system made of magma reservoirs and conduits,” she added. These tiny deformations can be used to determine whether an eruption is imminent, and are the sorts of signals that could be used to develop an early-warning system.

The shape of volcanoes is constantly changing and much of that change is due to underground magma movements in the magma plumbing system made of magma reservoirs and conduits

We could use instruments on the ground to pick up these changes; this equipment is more accurate than radar images from space, but the gadgets have a very limited range, must be able to function with little or no maintenance in highly remote areas, and may be destroyed by geological activity in the run up to a larger eruption or otherwise wrecked by nature. And so, radar images may be the better choice for a warning system, though the coverage suffers when land is covered with thick clouds and other weather disturbances that block or hinder the radar’s radio waves.

Enter machine learning to clean up the radar readings: it can automatically remove the noise, allowing the tiny movements in the earth to be analyzed for signs of danger. The researchers trained the neural network on 16,000 synthetic radar images, and tested it on 4,000. The team used 20 Nvidia Tesla P100 GPUs to train their model.

Synthetic data is normally used when there isn’t enough real data or if the real data is too messy. The researchers are confident their algorithms can be applied to real-world scenarios, and tested them on radar satellite images of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua. The goal was to see if the AI could sufficiently remove noise from the radar images so that any movements present in the pictures married up with movements detected on earth by ground stations.

The neural network didn’t perform badly, though its output appeared to overestimate the movement of the volcano.

“These initial errors in the CNN may be caused by poor spatial sampling,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Analysis using synthetic benchmarks shows that the CNN is capable of revealing noise-free surface deformation signals,” they concluded. To improve the accuracy of their model, they recommend including more data in the training stage, including GPS readings.

“We wish to be able to identify earthquake and fault movements as well as magmatic sources and include several underground sources generating surface deformation,” PennState’s Wauthier added. “We will apply this new groundbreaking method to other active volcanoes thanks to support from NASA.” ®

After Trump, Congress, Supreme Court Justice hit out at tech giants’ legal immunity, now FCC boss wants to stick his oar in, too

On Thursday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai declared his intention to clarify a law he may not have the authority to interpret.

Citing concerns about Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which more or less protects online service providers from liability for content created by their users, the boss of America’s comms regulator said he plans “to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify” the meaning of the statute.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Pai opined. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

But Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has written extensively on Section 230, expressed doubt that there is a valid legal framework for what Pai wants to do.

“The fact that they’re making the pre-announcement with any support makes me skeptical about the legitimacy of the announcement,” he said in a phone interview with The Register.

“There should be some formal piece of paper that says what the FCC is doing. Instead, all we get is a cryptic announcement on Twitter. It sure seems like the announcement has campaign-related benefits and the timing would be consistent with that.”

Bias versus BS

Both Republicans and Democrats have raised concerns that Section 230 affords internet companies too much protection.

In May the Trump administration said the law should not provide immunity for social media companies that remove content to censor “certain viewpoints,” a statement based on the unsupported claim that social media platforms are biased against conservative content.


US Supreme Court Justice flames lower courts for giving ‘sweeping immunity’ to Facebook, YouTube, etc when it comes to harmful content


A 2018 survey by non-profit MediaMatters “found no evidence that conservative content is being censored on Facebook.” Meanwhile, a glance at the top 10 links interacted with daily on Facebook shows it is dominated by conservative content.

At the same time, Democratic lawmakers have expressed reservations about the law because it hasn’t sufficiently motivated online platforms to police misinformation, hate speech, and illegal content.

Efforts to rethink the law haven’t been well received. A draft proposal from the US Department of Justice to amend Section 230 was panned last month by Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), who points out that Congress gets to rewrite legislation, not the President.

“President Trump’s Section 230 legislation is a mess, but one thing is clear – the proposed changes would make it harder to stop the misinformation and disinformation spread by the President and foreign governments,” he said.

Hey, he asked!

But as Pai notes in his statement, the US Commerce Department asked Congress to clarify Section 230 and US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made clear that he was willing to review the liability protections afforded to internet platforms.

Pai’s remarks coincide with Twitter’s and Facebook’s removal of a dubiously sourced New York Post story about Hunter Biden, takedowns that produced predictable objections from President Trump about the need to undo Section 230.

Twitter said it removed links to the story because it violated its rules on distributing private information and hacked materials. Facebook said it was reducing the visibility of the story in accordance with its efforts to reduce misinformation.

A call to arms

May’s White House “Executive Order Preventing Online Censorship” directed the Attorney General and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to file a petition for rulemaking with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The telecom watchdog has been asked to propose regulations clarifying when content removal done under the auspices of Section 230 protection becomes unprotected editorial discretion. Back then US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called the directive “a blatant attempt to use the full power of the United States government to force private companies to lie for the President.”

Pai insists he can take action to clarify the meaning of the law, something already fairly well established through US court rulings. “The Commission’s General Counsel has informed me that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230,” he said in his statement.

Not everyone agrees. “The FCC does not have the authority to rewrite the law, and Ajit Pai can’t appoint himself commissioner of the speech police,” said US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in a statement posted to Twitter.

Wyden should know. He’s one of the co-authors of the 26 words that make up Section 230, along with former Representative Chris Cox (R-CA). In comments filed last month in accordance with the rulemaking process, Cox wrote, “Congress not only did not give the Commission authority to regulate the internet in Section 230, but it expressly intended this law to prevent that result.” ®

If you can see this headline, you’re certainly not reading it on Twitter: All tweets, notifications vanish

Updated Twitter is right now suffering a baffling outage in that the website is still up, you can still log in, the apps will run.

But there are, seemingly, no tweets nor notifications. At all. All gone. All that anger and snark, and information and misinformation, wiped off the face of the planet, just like that.

Visiting your timeline or profile shows simply the message, “Something went wrong.” It’s otherwise empty. And earlier, people’s notifications pages went blank, suggesting really, truly no one on Earth cares about your twitterings. “Nothing to see here,” it states.

Reassuringly, you’re not alone in your blank internet universe: Downdetector reports a surge of complaints that Twitter isn’t working properly, with the outage kicking off around 1430 PT (2130 UTC).

As your vulture types this, it appears some people can see their tweets, but cannot tweet. And some of us can’t see anything. The Twitter status page reports the team is “investigating irregularity” with the platform’s APIs.

Screenshot of a failed tweet

What one of our vultures saw as they tried to tweet or see other people’s tweets

This IT breakdown comes within hours of American financial regulators demanding Twitter be subject to harsher rules following the July hacks of prominent users’ accounts – and soon after CEO Jack Dorsey furiously backpedaled after his website censored a problematic article from a US newspaper.

A Supreme Court Justice this week also mused that the likes of Twitter have gained sweeping immunity from the legal consequences of their users’ content and actions, and that imbalance ought to be righted. ®

Updated to add at 2220 UTC

People’s tweets are showing up again in timelines and profiles, though no one can send any new tweets nor view those that were able to be sent, if any, during the past hour or so. Notifications are also still AWOL.

Updated to add at 2300 UTC

And Twitter now appears to be back to normal, or rather, Twitter’s idea of normal.