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Hacking a Ferrari

A souped- up version of Doom II, the classic 1994 first person shooter from id Software, is out today for download on the Xbox Live Arcade.  In addition to 5.1 surround sound and high-definition graphics, it's sporting online deathmatching and cooperative play (and how cool is that?).

When I was interviewing id co-founder and tech whiz John Carmack for my book Masters of Doom, he told me that he had a passionate side project during the Doom II development: souping up his fleet of Ferraris. As any car geek knows, Ferrari doesn't look too highly on gearheads hacking their rides - but this is Carmack we're talking about. And he put as much of his engineering chops to work on his cars as he did his games. In honor of the Doom II re-release, I thought I'd share a Q/A I did with Carmack about his early Ferrari hacking days - how it worked, and how much it cost.

David Kushner: When did you first start modifying your Ferraris?

John Carmack: After Doom shipped, I had just been looking at getting the bigger Testarossa. My Ferrari 328 at the time probably had 400 something horsepower. It was a fast car, faster than any normal thing that you’d be able to buy on the showroom. But there probably was a bit of that “well, what’s the next step?” We could continue doing some things to my 328. We could have put on intercoolers and changed the pistons and done all that, but it was at a pretty nice drivable state for everything after we worked out all the tuning issues. Eventually I pretty much looked it over and said okay I want to get a Testarossa, that was always my intention from the beginning there. I’m going to get a Testarossa and have Bob [my mechanic] do the twin turbo inter-cooled engine work on it and get that all the way put up. Eventually we found a car. I had shopped some at the local Ferrari dealer, where I had bought my 328, and I was looking at a Testarossa from them but Bob found me one that he got shipped in for a cheaper price.

I drove it for a little while but it was the intention that as soon as I’m ready it’s just going to get parked and get all the engine work done on it. I did twin turbo intercoolers. At that time we left the engine block alone. It was a completely new intake and exhaust system which put it up to 800 horsepower, and we kept it like that for a while. I think we put the nitrous on there. Eventually we had an engine meltdown at high speed, so at that point were like okay, now we’ll take it apart and do all the really good stuff with the engine. We changed the piston, the valves, everything. When that got all straightened out and cleaned up and everything, we had went through tons of experimental work. It was a science project stretched over years, with often 6 months at a time of it being laid up in the shop.

DK: How much did you put into the cars?

JC: The 328 I bought for, like, $70,000. The original work for getting the turbo on it was like $15,000, but I had to have that engine rebuilt once which was like $30,000. All the trips into shop adds up to at least probably another $20,000. The Testarossa, when it originally went in and had engine work done, was like $30,000, but each engine rebuild was at least $30,000, and it’s been rebuilt three times. The Testarossa, which I originally bought for $90,000, I probably put $150,000 into it. We could have stopped at lesser points, but a lot of it was just like okay, we’ve got this new brand of turbos coming out, so we want to change this…and those weren’t like forced moves, it was more like okay, let’s see what the next step is. Go ahead and try it.

The other cars, the F40s that I had, I bought for $250,000, and I didn’t make any modifications to them. Then eventually when I got the F50, that was $670,000. The original turbo charging work wasn’t that much, maybe $30,000 or $40,000 dollars but it’s still getting some teething problems worked out. We’ve been taking that one conservatively because I really don’t want to have that engine rebuilt. I suspect that rebuilding that engine is going to be more like $60,000 just because there are not that many of them and ordering the different things would just be troublesome.

Creating Fact-Based Energy Policy

Confusion is a major obstruction to developing clean energy policy. “Fact” and technical opinion come from a wide range of biased sources with no independent validation. As a result, our political leaders are forced to make decisions in an environment of enthusiasm, bias and hype.

As noted in my April 22 blog, one way to minimize confusion is through strategic scenarios; create the future target then a plan to get there. Today’s blog shows how disciplined systems engineering provides trustworthy facts. We cannot eliminate ideological differences. To create sound policy, value differences still need to be resolved in the political arena. But classical systems engineering provides the factual basis and management processes to push back against bias, enthusiasm, and hype, enabling policy-makers to make informed value choices.

The purpose of an engineering development plan is to achieve a goal based on what we know today. Generally there are four sequential phases: technology development, engineering development, full scale development, and production.

Design reviews and decision milestones separate development phases. Design reviews serve as critical evaluations of fact that provide the client with the information necessary to make sound choices. In a classic design review, program engineers present their technical results to the client and their expert consultants. The consultants critique the presentation in front of the client. Program engineers defend the numbers. By observing the give and take between protagonists and antagonists, the client is able to grasp the nuances and make sound judgments about esoteric problems he does not really understand.

For clean energy systems the client role is multi faceted (American people, Congress, president, program administrators) and needs to be represented by surrogate teams. We need to experiment with open design reviews that can be accessed by the general public. While major design reviews occur between development phases, minor design reviews should occur after demonstration projects to understand lessons learned. Clarifying a factual basis simplifies decision-making by minimizing bias and hype.

Today, there is no plan, no set of phases, and no discipline. We are transitioning wind from demonstration to production with no design reviews. No one has a clue about system level costs or by how much carbon dioxide emissions will actually be reduced. There are no published after-action reports from failed demonstration projects. No one has shown how wind would make any contribution at all to a low carbon grid (see Wind Energy Contribution to a Low Carbon Grid). Grid operators seem to be afraid to say something negative and thereby spook their political masters.

As an engineer, I find this to be embarrassing and irresponsible. We can do better. Managers of society’s great engineering success stories had a firm grasp on both planning and budgets. Today, people who have never built a system before are advising the president that “we don’t need a systems integrator; the markets will do it.” At the very least, President Obama needs to designate a systems integrator with the authority to enforce good engineering processes. It is imperative that we find a way to conduct effective open design reviews.

Alex Pavlak is a PhD Professional Engineer with experience in systems architecture and the economics of wind power systems. He has had various management responsibilities in the development of major military systems. He has spent 15 years in alternate energy and holds several patents pending on wind turbines and static solar concentrators.

Collection of Private Wi-Fi Data Just Google's Latest German Gaffe

Germany hasn’t been an easy market for Google. In fact, maybe only China has proven to be a bigger challenge for the owner of the world’s largest search engine.

Google’s latest snag in Germany: collecting private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

As in other markets, the company uses a fleet of vehicles to take pictures for its Street View photo archive. The vehicles take snapshots of street views, which are later integrated into Google Maps.

The data protection supervisor for the city-state of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, accused Google of sniffing some network data, like the Service Set Identifier (SSID) and the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, to help the company keep a better fix on locations for its Web products.

Google first denied that it was sniffing private data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Then, oops, the company realized it was – ouch.

In a blog, the company said, bluntly, that it had made a mistake: “In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental Wi-Fi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic Wi-Fi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”

OK, big companies make mistakes. But Germany isn’t a market where Google can afford to make many, especially in the area of data privacy. Modern Germany is tough on data privacy – and technology that can undermine it – ever since World War II when, among other things, punch-card data processing systems allowed Nazis to categorize and track concentration camp victims.

Many Germans were upset about Google’s plans to introduce Street Views in the first place. Last year, German officials demanded that the company delete tons of retained snapshots, citing that people’s privacy was being violated under German law.

The issue went all the way up to Chancellor Angela Merkel who announced in February that Germany wouldn’t hamper the release of Street View in Germany. In a podcast later that month, she anyone in the country who considers the service “to be an invasion of their private sphere can make use of the right to object."

The Consumer Affairs Ministry has drawn up a template letter - available for download from its website - for this purpose. The internet giant has agreed to blur license plates and faces of individuals who do not want to have their photos appear online.

Street View, which offers panoramas of thousands of streets on the Internet, already covers large areas of the U.S. and the U.K. It seamlessly stitches together photos taken by camera cars, which capture 360-degree images. Google has been gathering images of streets and public spaces in Germany since 2008.

Sort of related but not entirely, a German court surprised – and excited – numerous data protection advocates in the country with a decision on wireless connections. A few days before the Street View sniffing incident gained public attention, the court ruled that private users are obligated to ensure that their wireless connections are adequately secured against the danger of unauthorized third-parties abusing it.

But long before Street View, another hot issue in Germany was Gmail. The burning point wasn’t the service itself – Germans are big fans – but rather its name. In more than 60 countries around the world, Google calls its email service Gmail: Germany isn’t one of them.

A German court ruled in 2007 and, after some tough fights, again in 2008 that entrepreneur Daniel Giersch holds the "Gmail" trademark in the country. The decision ended Google's long legal battle for the name. Google launched its Gmail service around 2004; Giersch has been using the Gmail name in Germany since 2000.

How long Giersch holds out to Google is anyone’s guess. This month, the Independent International Investment Research (IIR Group), owner of the Gmail name in the U.K., agreed to sell the name and settle a long-running trademark dispute. IIR Group initially sought $500,000 per year, in addition to a slice of the advertising pie, in exchange for standing aside. Both companies are mum on the terms of the settlement. Probably a good idea, considering that Giersch and whoever else in the world owns the Gmail trademark have to be interested in Google’s net worth.

Interphone Report on Cell Phone/Cancer Connection Doesn't Settle Anything

Ten years, 13 countries, 13 thousand participants, and $24 million, and we now have it. The Interphone study, the comprehensive effort to either put our cell phone fears to rest or label them a carcinogen, officially concludes that “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma (a specific brain cancer thought to be promoted or triggered by cell phone radiation) was observed with use of mobile phones.” It also says “There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure”  and those tumors are more likely to show up on the side of the head on which the user typically holds the phone.

In a press conference announcing the results, Elizabeth Cardis, one of the researchers involved, said, "We have not demonstrated that there is increased risk but neither have we demonstrated that there is an absence of risk. These findings of increased risk in the heaviest users suggest a possible association but we don't have enough scientific evidence."

So, essentially, the Interphone report says what you want it to say. If you don’t want to see a link between cell phones and cancer, you don’t. If you do, you can find one. Look at the headlines (courtesy of Microwave News).
—"Brain Tumour Link to Mobiles"
—"Mobiles Do Not Increase Risk of Brain Tumor"
—“Talking on the Mobile Just 30mins a Day Linked with Heightened Risk of Brain Cancer "
—"Mobile Phones Do Not Increase the Risk of Cancer"

Why the confusion? Well, some data was plain weird—among light cell phone users, the cancer risk appeared lower than among folks that didn’t use cell phones at all—calling into question the methodology used. And the “conclusions” were subject to negotiation—negotiation that took four years and led to compromises in how to report the results.

One such compromise moved some interesting data from the main report into an appendix. This appendix shows a clear and statistically significant correlation between years of cell phone use, total talk time, and total number of calls and brain tumor risk.

Perhaps a bigger problem in my book: the study is clearly dated—it defined “heavy” cell phone use as more than 30 minutes a day; these days, that’s practically nothing.

On the other hand, more and more people are using wireless headsets, which could lower the risk.

On the other other hand, children are using cell phones more often and at younger and younger ages—starting in elementary school instead of high school. And children, with smaller ears and thinner skulls, absorb more radiation from cell phones than adults, not to mention that, if there is a danger from that radiation, their developing organs would likely be more vulnerable.

On the other hand, kids don’t talk much these days, they text. Which takes the phone away from their vulnerable brains. (But the phone is in their pockets, constantly buzzing—should I be worried about what affect that’s having on my kids’ future health? Is anybody studying that?)

The one thing the participants in the Interphone study agreed upon—more research is needed. After all, other scientists have noted, no other of today’s known carcinogens could have been definitively tagged as such in their first ten years—even cigarettes. Of course, while we wait another ten years or so for more answers, we’ll keep using our cell phones.

There is something the industry could do while we’re waiting, however—make SAR numbers more visible to cell phone shoppers. The SAR, Specific Absorption Rate, is a measure of how RF energy is absorbed by the body. In the U.S., the FCC limits legal SARs to 1.6 watts per kilogram. But some phones come in way below this. You wouldn’t know it, however, when you’re in a store shopping for a phone—it’s typically not one of the specifications on display.The last time I bought a cell phone, I spent several minutes on the phone with customer service as the representative poured through spec sheets on the phones I was interested in, trying to find the numbers. (No one had ever asked him to do that before; he was surprised to learn how much they differed.) All things being equal, I figured I’d pick the phone with the lowest number—it couldn’t hurt.

And just that’s about all I can do, for now, besides text instead of calling the next time I need to reach my kids, and finally finish setting up that Bluetooth headset that’s been sitting on my desk for months. And wonder if, a decade from now, I’ll regret signing up for that family plan.

In the meantime, though, I need to go in the pantry and think about what canned foods I can do without—did you catch the latest about BPA?  

Bitter Pills

CNBC is airing a series called "American Greed," which chronicles epic scams online and off.  They recently ran an expose of Berkeley Nutraceuticals, the company behind Enzyte, a “natural male enhancement."  

Since releasing Enzyte in 2001, the company created both a cultural and economic juggernaut.  It started with their ubiquitous pitchman:  Smiling Bob.  With his thumbs up sign and strained grin, Bob was a viral phenomenon online and off.  Campy ads showed Bob bowling and gardening, rife with cheeky double-entendres about the “big lift” he got from Enzyte.   With $240 million in annual revenues, Berkeley was the great American success story in the $18 billion herbal supplement industry.  The empire fell apart when the company was embroiled in a host of scams, and the story raises questions over the engineering of such pills.

It underscores the wild west that still exists in the "science" of this enormous industry - which gets a huge amount of its sales online.  Yes, there are some regulations - but nothing prohibiting outlaw rule.   Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act in 1994 to help protect consumers.  This includes having the Federal Trade Commission regulate the ads we see and hear for supplements.

The protection, however, pales in comparison to real pharmaceuticals.    The regulation occurs after the products hit the shelves.  All the Supplements using existing ingredients can be sold without approval by Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA can only intervene if and when a product is proved to be harmful.  Supplement makers had even more leeway with ads.   While supplement makers couldn’t claim their products cured diseases, there remained plenty of wiggle room:  letting the bill pills as wonder cures from baldness to erectile dysfunction. 

Rich Cleland, assistant director division of advertising practices for FTC, which is now processing a civil case against Berkeley Pharmaceuticals, says the potential for hustlers is rife.  “There’s always someone hawking a product to them that will promise to do with them miracles and lot of people have made lot of money doing that,” he tells me, “These are smart people, they know what people are susceptible to. They know that consumers want a quick fix, they want an easy solution, they want the pill - and scam artists prey on that.”  So what’s a nutritional pill popper to do?   “We tell people it’s in your hands,” Cleland says.

Michael Herndon, a spokesperson for the FDA, paints an even gloomier picture.  “Except for rules described above that govern ‘new dietary ingredients,’ there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products. Likewise, there is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. It is up to each firm to set its own policy on disclosure of such information.”


Players Vs. Haters

Are violent videogames bad for kids?  It's an old question with a new twist.  Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would consider whether a California law banning the sale of violent games to minors is unconstitutional.

As the New York Times and others weigh in, it's worth stepping back and asking a question:  What defines a generation?  The music.  The films.  The politics.  Yeah, all that.  But, these days, you can’t really know a generation without also understanding – and playing - their videogames.  As Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.” 

Of course, videogames have been deeply meaningful to generations before.  They're how the brightest young minds of the future – from Microsoft to Facebook – cut their teeth, and play with new technology:  the young engineers who played text-only games in computer labs in the 1960s, the suburban kids weaned on the Atari 2600 in the 70s, the arcade gamers of the golden age of the 1980s.  As personal computers began infiltrating our homes over the next decade or so, diligent braniacs began coding and distributing their own games in legion.  

Little did we know the seismic shift at play.   Videogames had largely been the province of corporations like Nintendo and elusive programming “priests,” as some called the lucky few.  But with the proliferation of Apple IIs and Commodore 64s and other personal computers, you didn’t have be like Jeff Bridges and materialize inside Tron to get inside a game.  All you had to do was learn the code.   By the mid-1990s game programmers were pioneering the business, culture, and lifestyle that defined the coming revolution online. 

As videogame programmer John Carmack told me while I was researching my book, Masters of Doom, “in the information age, the barriers just aren’t there.  The barriers are self-imposed.  If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization.  You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.”

Pizza, Coke, and PCs became the fuel of the Gamer Generation, as they took over the new world of the Internet just after the turn of the millennium.  How fitting that the first decade of this explosive new time could be rendered in binary – the 00s.  After 40 odd years as outsiders, gamers finally became the Players in the realist sense.  The heroes of the Zeroes were them, the solitary whiz kids and dynamic duos – the Google guys, the YouTube guys, the Twitter guys – who disrupted so much of what we took for granted:   information, knowledge, communication, entertainment.  

The coders took their giant pixilated cleaver to the ground, and split the generation gap wider than ever before with a sizzle and zap.  On one side were the geeks, gamers, hackers, Instant Messengers, texters –  the digital natives, as sociologists and marketers termed the strange new species.   On the other side of the chasm stood most everyone else – the parents and pundits and politicians, the Player Haters.

Both legions eyed each other dubiously, if not fearfully.  The Players saw a generation who denied, ignored, and misconstrued them and new power they held so dear:  the incredible instantaneous ability to get almost anything you wanted online the instant you wanted it.   The Haters saw trouble, and plenty of it – pirates, predators, plagiarists, a ruthless and anonymous ­mob.  The Supreme Court's decision won't end the meta-game between the Players and the Haters, but it sure will make it a lot more interesting.

Taking online privacy personally

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for online privacy. Over on Facebook, the “Instant Personalization Program” meant that I was suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of websites, not just Facebook but on participant websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs. And that was intentional; an unintentional glitch in the Facebook system meant that for several hours users were even broadcasting private chats and then some, and I was glad I don't use Facebook chat.

I went over to nix “Instant Personalization." You can do that. Sort of. But if any of my Facebook friends visit the participant websites without opting out, the sites will get my Facebook information anyway. To stop that I have to go to each individual partner site and block it at that point.

I didn't take the time to do that, because while I was figuring out how to get out of instant personalization, I noticed that my personal email that I had intentionally not published to my Facebook profile was now out in the open. Not only that, it couldn’t be tucked back out of sight; Facebook’s new policy is that email, profile pictures, networks, and pages are permanently public. After solving that problem by creating a new Gmail account that from now on will be my official email on Facebook, I realized that my activities and interests fields, which previously had been set to be only seen by friends, had been reset to be visible to everyone. I reset those back to "friends only", wondering how long that change will stick before Facebook “upgrades” it again.

So far, I haven’t been easily disturbed by the curtains pulled back by the Internet on my virtual home in cyberspace. Heck, I don’t have any curtains on my real home; I like to walk down the street at night and notice my neighbors sitting around the table, or in front of the TV, or, most likely, since I do live in Silicon Valley, in front of the computer; I don’t mind if my neighbors see me doing the same; I'll even wave if I see them looking.

But the folks looking at me on Facebook aren’t my neighbors. They are, as Facebook dials down my ability to control my privacy, more likely to be complete strangers. And I’m getting mad.

I’m not the only one worried about the new Facebook privacy policy. From the looks of the comments in my Facebook news feed, a lot of my friends are upset as well. In fact, in the wonderland-world of the Internet, the way I typically find out about the latest nasties Facebook is implementing is through rants appearing on my news feed on Facebook.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center and 14 other organizations filed a joint complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Senators Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing their concerns over recent privacy changes and indicated that they are looking “forward to the FTC examining this issue.”

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely, and providing clear instructions as to how to adjust your personal settings when that is possible.  Will all this have any effect on Facebook’s privacy policies? I doubt it.

And just as I was trying to figure out just how much loss of privacy I am willing to tolerate to find out what my cousin is making for dinner tonight and to make sure I don’t miss my friends’ culling of the best articles, TV clips, or YouTube videos of the past 24 hours, the alarm bells started ringing over Spokeo and I had to go over to that site to see what all the fuss was about.

Spokeo touts itself as an online phone book. It works quite well for looking up numbers; it’s fast and accurate. But along with the phone number, Spokeo instantly pops up a little additional information—street name (but not house number), age, ethnicity, marital status, length of residence in the home, home value, occupation, interests (which it seems to collect from magazine subscription info). That’s for free. Before an initial outcry earlier this month, that free information also included a home photo and credit rating. For a monthly subscription fee (as low as $3), it’ll give you the complete address, email address, information on religion and politics, photos, videos, blog posts, and, it says (and I don’t doubt it), much more.

Now, it’s not that I didn’t know this information was living somewhere out there on the Internet. It didn’t bother me in bits and pieces. Remember AnyBirthday? This short-lived web site was one of the first to provide instant birth date information from just a name and a city. I loved it; there were people in my life that I should have been calling with birthday greetings but forgot their birthday information years ago but was too embarrassed to ask. There were people I know who I thought were fudging their ages and now I could tell for sure (not sure why I cared, but it was interesting). And I didn’t mind that people in return could find out how old I was.

How about when Google Street View first came out? There was privacy panic, and indeed a few folks recorded for posterity coming out of strip clubs in the middle of the working day were justifiably upset.  But I liked the way my house looked, and made a game out of trying to figure out just what day and time the images were recorded, based on the state of the front yard, what cars were around the neighborhood, and the like. (Though the number of blogs that posted a copy of the Street View photo of Steve Jobs’ car in his home driveway was beyond ridiculous.)

And Zillow—never mind that the real estate data on that site is often vastly off target, it’s fun looking up the house I once owned, the one I currently owned, and others in the neighborhood to see what they’re worth, at least in the Zillow world.

But pulling lots of this information together used to take a lot of effort or a hefty fee, it wasn’t available to the idly curious. It’s a lot creepier when it’s free and easy.

Theoretically, you can opt out of Spokeo. I haven’t decided to do that yet, some of the information is weirdly inaccurate, like my astrological sign (how hard can that be?), and I’m wondering if maybe it’s better to know what’s out there about me on the Internet than to try to hide from it. But I did try to go to the page that supposedly allows the opt-out, and, at least that day, the page was unavailable. And reported that none of their attempts to block a name on Spokeo were successful.

Snopes also pointed out that, with all the information floating around the Internet, blocking one aggregator like Spokeo won’t insure your privacy. “Removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never–ending game of Whack-a-Mole.”

Snopes nailed it. We all are playing Whack-a-Mole. On Facebook. On Spokeo. And on whatever pops up tomorrow. However, while Whack-a-Mole used to be one of my favorite arcade games, I’m not enjoying this online version. But I don’t see any way of opting out.

Photo: Subcircle

Freeing Gary McKinnon

This week,TechCrunch is asking readers if they should prosecute a hacker caught for allegedly defacing their site. "If enough readers vote yes, there could be another Gary McKinnon type battle as the hacker could be extradited to the US for his trial," TechCrunch posted.

The Gary McKinnon case is one I've been following closely, and it  sheds interesting light on the battles over computer crimes. Here's what happened. A few months after the World Trade Center attacks, a strange message appeared on a U.S. Army computer: "Your security system is crap,” it read. “I am Solo.I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.” Solo scanned 65,000 government machines, and discovered glaring security flaws on many of them. Between February 2001 and March 2002, Solo broke into almost a hundred PCs within the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, and the Department of Defense. He surfed around for months, copying secret files and passwords. At one point, he brought down the US Army’s entire Washington network, over 2000 computers, for 24 hours. It remains, as one U.S. attorney put it, “the biggest military hack of all time.”

But despite his expertise, Solo didn’t cover his tracks well enough. He was soon traced to a small apartment in London.  On March 27th of 2002, the UK National Hi-Tech Crime Unit arrested Gary McKinnon, a quiet 36-year-old Scot with elfin features and Spock-like upswept eyebrows. He’d been a systems administrator, but he didn’t have a job at the moment—he spent his days writing brooding electronic music, and indulging his obsession with UFOs. In fact, he claims that aliens are the reason he was accessing classified computers. “I knew that governments suppressed antigravity, UFO-related technologies, free energy or what they call zero-point energy,” he explained. “This should not be kept hidden from the public when pensioners can't pay their fuel bills.” 

He got caught just as he was downloading a photo from Johnson’s Space Center of what he believed to be a UFO. UK officials told McKinnon he'd probably get off with community service. But the Feds are mortified that this boy-man pulled off the hack of the century, and they’re making him pay. McKinnon faces extradition to the United States under a controversial treaty that could land him in prison for 70 years. Now rock stars, human rights activists, and members of parliament are racing to free Gary. The reason: he has Asperger Syndrome.

Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge (and cousin of Sacha), diagnosed McKinnon with Asperger’s, a mysterious form of autism that's now in the public eye. Baron-Cohen released a report in McKinnon defense, saying “Mr. McKinnon actually poses no harm to society as he was motivated by an altruistic pursuit of the truth,” he wrote. “His emotional age or social intelligence is at the level of a child, even if his intelligence is systemizing at an advanced level. If Gary McKinnon is sent to the U.S. I fear he will kill himself.” 

The so-called "Geek Defense" is spreading. In August, Viachelav Berkovich, a 34-year-old Russian immigrant in the United States diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, received a reduced sentence after being convicted of a hacking into a trucking company in California.  Also last year, a defense witness for Hans Reiser, a computer programmer convicted of brutally murdering his wife, testified that Reiser might have Asperger’s. Defense attorneys also used the Asperger’s defense for Lisa Brown, a 22-year-old convicted of murdering her mother. “Someone with Asperger’s syndrome could still plan an act but, because of deficiencies in their social imagination, might be unable to see what the consequences of those actions might be,” a psychiatrist said of Brown, who received a life sentence regardless. Lawyers for Albert Gonzalez, the hacker convicted in the massive TJX identity theft case, are also now wielding the Asperger's defense.

Forecasting Apple's Intrinsity Acquisition

Now that Apple has officially confirmed that it has purchased the Austin, Tex.-based smartphone CPU redesign firm Intrinsity for an estimated $121 million, tech blogs have been buzzing about what it all means. Despite all the rampant speculation, though, one of the only things known for sure is: The now-Apple-owned Intrinsity designed the iPad's CPU— basing it around Intrinsity's "Hummingbird," a modified ARM Cortex A8.

But will Intrinsity's secret CPU hot-rodding technique (which IEEE Spectrum described in detail in January) be a game changer for the next-generation iPads and iPhones?

Cue industry analysts who will say, essentially, "Maybe. Although... maybe not."

Here's one other thing we do know, though. Before Steve Jobs' borg descended on Intrinsity and put Apple's trademark cone of silence over it, IEEE Spectrum had a lengthy sit-down with the management and engineering team (Sept. 2009) for what was one of the company's final pressers as an entity that could speak on the record.

At the time, of course, the iPad was just one of numerous fanboy pipe dreams of an Apple netbook/tablet that could dominate the market the way the iPhone overtook many other smartphones. 

Intrinsity's CEO Bob Russo told Spectrum that the company was applying its same chip streamlining techniques to ARM's Cortex A9 -- the logical successor to Hummingbird and now speculative candidate for future iPads and iPhones. ("We are engaged in a multicore A9 development. ... I just can't tell you who it's for," Russo said at the time.)

Below are some further excerpts from that confab on a stormy Thursday morning in Austin. Watch out for interesting mentions of Apple’s earlier chips design purchase, PA Semi.

IEEE SPECTRUM: How do you take a pre-existing ARM chip and make it faster?

Bob Russo, Intrinsity CEO: There are two ways to enhance a chip. One, you can take the existing product and enhance that core -- and keep it totally software-compatible for the customer at the end....The other way is to go in and change the entire architecture. That's a bigger undertaking. Companies have done that. Qualcomm's done it, for example, [with their redesigned A8, "Snapdragon."]

SPECTRUM: So "Hummingbird" follows the first of those two models, right?

BR: Yes. That's the model that we like, that we're set up to produce. And we're trying to make it so that we produce 8 or 9 of these a year.

SPECTRUM: Eight or nine chip redesigns?

BR: That's the ultimate goal here. To enhance the cores. You can't do that if you fool around with the [CPU's] architecture. But if you have the right tools, technology, and know-how -- which we do -- you can take on multiple customers who require a higher frequency part than what's available in the standard marketplace.

[Russo describes Samsung's desire to speed the 650 MHz A8 up to 1 GHz.]

There are only two ways to do it. One, you have your own internal team to develop it, like Qualcomm has. And you go for all the work to develop a high-speed part. Or you come to us.

Apple went and bought PA Semi for that very reason. Apple bought PA Semi because they wanted to control more of their have their own team to be able to come out with a part that is faster than is currently available in the marketplace.

Brent Chambers, Intrinsity director of engineering: We're taking Ferrari technology that typically takes Ferrari development time and Ferrari dollars to afford, and we're bringing that to the masses in a much lower cost and much more specific application. It gets you 90 percent of the speed for a fraction of the cost.

BR: We're an order of magnitude less expensive than everyone else who developed this [enhanced A8 core] on their own.

SPECTRUM: And that's because you streamline the CPU, but only in the choke-points, right?

BC: That's what gets us in the power envelope for the mobile space. But the cost is the automation.

SPECTRUM: So the way you automate your streamlining of a CPU is how you can cut your costs.

BR: It's all the patents we have, all the circuit technology we've developed. There's another component here, too. We're a premier shop of talent. We're the last-standing independent, high-end CPU design house in the world. There's no one else left but us. The last one was PA Semi, and they got bought by Apple.

SPECTRUM: So Hummingbird wasn't designed with a netbook in mind, was it? It's more for a smartphone, right?

BR: I would think that's the case. Where it ends up, I believe -- my opinion, I've never been told this -- it's going to end up in more places than just a smartphone. And one of the potential places could be a netbook. Potentially.

Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters


Between the iPad and the Kindle, there has been a lot of talk lately about the future of books and magazines online.  As a writer, I’m happy with anything that keeps people reading – especially if it makes reading fun for people who might not otherwise pick up a book.  The only downside?  The coming wave of piracy that will crash the publishing industry just as it hit music and movies before.  But hopefully publishers can learn from the others mistakes.

Just look at how the music labels screwed up.  Labels lost billions each year, with annual drops of more than 25% since 2000.  The blame often falls on piracy. Post Napster, the industry’s strategy was Scared Straight:  sue a 12-year-old for illegally downloading Metallica, and hope his friends get the message.  It didn’t work.  Sales continued to plummet.  Hackers grew more sophisticated.   Then, on the heels of a precedent-setting Supreme Court ruling, the industry switched targets:  the geeks who coded the pirate sites.  Turns out, the three biggest ones are harbored in New York City.  The labels went gunning.  The plan wasn’t just to destroy them.  It was to own them.  They’d sue for an ungodly amount of money, and pressure the sites to settle, in part, by converting to legal services – services which would compensate labels for the downloaded tunes.

First went eDonkey, a global operation ran by two hackers out of an apartment in Hoboken – settled for a whopping $30 million.  The scrappy cofounders, who blasted the industry in congressional testimony, would rather go down with the ship than sell its soul.  Across the river in Manhattan, a site called iMesh was more than eager to cash in.  The start-up, founded in Tel Aviv by a former chief information officier for the Israeli Defense Forces Command, not only converted to a legal site, it hired Sony Music president Robert Summer to be its executive chairman.  Then iMesh became busy striking up deals with labels, and gobbling up (then converting) other peer-to-peer file-sharing sites.  Only one more site remaind in the balance – LimeWire, a site run by Mark Gorton, who runs the file-sharing site out of his capital management firm in Tribeca.  The Recording Industry Association of America sued LimeWire for hundreds of millions, trying to force LimeWire convert to a legal service, like iMesh, or make it die like eDonkey.  Either way, the music industry seemed to win.

And, yet, did they?  In truth, they were pursuing a negative strategy - spending millions to hunt down the pirates, meanwhile Apple makes all the money by creating iTunes.  At the same time, kids around the world are churning out more and more file-sharing sites every day. Do a search for one of my books, and you’ll find free copies to download or print.  Yeah, it takes money out of my pocket.  But if people are going to work that hard to read my book, I’m flattered. And hopefully they’ll tell a friend who will buy the book the new old-fashioned way online. 


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