The Technology Mysteries of 2013
This year seems to be tailor made for the "news of the weird" column in the local paper, and I expect more leaks, more strange PR moments, and likely more people electrocuted mysteriously by their phones. I'll probably stop watching Dr. Who, because the plots just don't seem that fanciful anymore. It's not that they're poorly written -- but real life is starting to seem much stranger.
This year is turning out to be rather interesting and not just in technology. There is actually a guy running for mayor in New York with the name "Weiner," famous for emailing pictures of his, well you know. This year in particular feels like we are living a Dilbert cartoon.
For instance, after the airline crash in San Francisco, one of our local stations broke the news that the pilots names -- names they verified with the FAA mind you -- were Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow. I'm not kidding, you can't make this stuff up. Honestly, no one sounded this out before they said it on the air -- and they said it on the air with a straight face. Three producers and an FAA intern were fired -- but seriously, how the hell did that get on the air?
In the technology market, we have a number of interesting mysteries at the moment. Apple apparently has launched a secret development group trying to create the next hit product, somehow someone in China was killed (electrocuted) by an iPhone, and someone made up a nasty story about Lenovo and the Chinese government and got folks to pick it up during the U.S. NSA scandal. I'll dig into some of these this week.
I'll end with my product of the week: a great computer case I was playing with last week, the Corsair Carbide Air 540.
Apple's Secret Magical Pirate Workshop
One of the most powerful and highly paid people in Apple quietly stepped down last month, and while folks initially thought he got shot, they now think he has been asked to lead a super-secret, stealth, pirate incubator set up to find the next iPod. A few years back, someone accidentally showed me Steve Jobs' secret Palo Alto lab, and I kind of wonder if his group has relocated there.
The idea of having an Area 51 type effort isn't new. In fact, some of the most successful products I've ever been involved with have come out of what are effectively corporate stealth groups that are given budget, little oversight, and no strings -- and asked to create something amazing. Generally called "skunk works" projects, they create a startup and secrecy atmosphere that actually works when you want to create something amazing.
It is kind of interesting how much folks can get done if you remove them from the day-to-day politics, email, and other distractions like executives and legal departments who tell them they can't do what they need to get done. This came from the Tech Tales site and my old friend Therese Poletti, who always has her ear to the ground.
Maybe there is something magical coming from Apple.
Death by iPhone
Also reported last month was a death in China attributed to an iPhone connected to a cheap charger. I don't care how cheap the charger -- this was not an old person or a child, and I can't for the life of me figure out how you could transfer enough current through an aluminum-bodied iPhone to kill a healthy young adult, even if the person were grounded, which seems unlikely.
Even if you could get the current to the phone, how the hell did the phone ring? The amount of current the phone is designed to take is in millivolts. Pushing more through the phone should have fried it long before it could ring -- and what happened when it was initially plugged in? Basically, it sat charging normally and then magically after a ring turned into some kind of electrical killing machine.
The transformer, wires to the phone, and phone circuitry simply weren't up to carrying lethal loads and should have fried long before anyone would be killed. If someone rigged this to work, it should be in some spy shop's hall of fame, because it should be impossible.
This is being blamed on faulty building standards, but you still have to get the current from the faulty socket to the person with enough power to kill, and a little cheap phone charger is lucky to be able to carry the loads it is designed for. There is no way it could carry lethal loads. Oh, and apparently it has happened two more times.
This is starting to sound like a Dr. Who plot.
Lenovo PCs as Secret Chinese Spying Tools
It isn't just Apple that is having fun this summer. Last week, there was a report out of Australia that indicated Lenovo PCs had secret spying software installed and were being banned in Australia and other places. It got a lot of play. Only thing is the agencies involved apparently don't use Lenovo computers and the Australian government disputes the report. So there is no ban, and since the organizations don't use Lenovo computers, there's no reason to investigate them -- at least not in 2013.
Did someone just make up the story because it was a slow news day? Did someone rig a bunch of Lenovo computers eight or so years ago so they would fail a security test, knocking the company out of bidding for this business (corporate espionage)? Did a competitor concerned that Lenovo was unstoppable (it is now No. 1 in PCs) decide to FUD them to death? Or did a politician tired of the focus on the U.S. and NSA decide to create a story that would put China back in the news in a bad light? We are in a Snowden/Manning event still.
The screwy thing is that Lenovo has split leadership in the U.S. and China, making this kind of thing less likely with it than with other PC companies. The Chinese leadership would massively resist NSA interference, and the U.S. leadership would massively resist Chinese interference -- not just on merit either, because they would likely be tried criminally in their own country when found out. Given the amount of security on PCs in secure organizations, they'd certainly be found out.
So who started this story and for what purpose? Was it to hurt Lenovo and China, or take attention from Snowden and Manning? In the end, I expect Lenovo and the security organizations that have been put in the media spotlight again will be looking to find that person and bestow their special thank you with extreme prejudice. Leaks, even fake ones, aren't exactly healthy right now.
Wrapping Up: A Strange Year
This whole year seems to be made up to fill the "news of the weird" column in the local paper -- unfortunately, one of my favorite columns. I sincerely doubt we are through with this, as I expect more leaks, more strange PR moments, and likely more people electrocuted mysteriously by their phones. I'll probably stop watching Dr. Who, because the plots just don't seem that fanciful anymore -- not because they are poorly written, but because real life is starting to seem much stranger.
One thing I'd suggest is that if you have said anything about the NSA and get an iPhone in the mail, I would avoid talking on it while it is plugged in. Just saying.
Product of the Week: Corsair Carbide Series Air 540 Computer Case
I have spare time during the summer, and when I'm not working on my project car I'm typically building a new computer. Well it's that time again, and I typically start by looking for the coolest case under US$200. If you do this a lot, using cases that cost more gets pretty expensive, and I don't like to use the same case twice if I can avoid it.
So this time I ran into the Corsair Carbide Series Air 540, which prices out around $134, well under my $200 budget, and fell in love. It is a cube case, which means it is big, and big means easy to assemble and typically better internal airflow.
In this case, Corsair did something really interesting and actually put all the components that don't need active cooling in their own separate section. The case looks cool, which is a requirement, and reviews have been glowing.
What is also cool is both the huge side window and the front lines that make it look a bit like a big contemporary server box, kind of professional but still mean. Most everything, including the power supply installation, is tooless but the best part is no one will mistake the result with anything anyone else has, and I'm all about exclusivity these days. Might be fun to see one of these custom painted someday, but today the Corsair Carbide Series Air 540 is my product of the week.