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Tech Talk Show Notes

February 27, 2021

This Basic Math Shows How Wind Energy Failures Contributed To Texas’s Deadly Power Loss

Why did Texas lose power? Math — apolitical, non-ideological, and sometimes cruel math.

During such an extreme cold for which Texas is mostly unprepared, the demands on the electric grid exceeded its output capacity. The majority of Texans heat their home with electricity, and, under typical circumstances, it makes sense. Why spend money to bring natural gas heat into the home when it’s very likely you can go an entire winter without turning it on? As temperatures plummeted, Texans turned on and turned up the heat.

The Department of Energy tracks electricity generation hourly. On Sunday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m., this was Texas’s electricity makeup in megawatt-hours:

  • Natural Gas: 43,798
  • Coal: 10,828
  • Wind: 8,087
  • Nuclear: 5,140

The next day, during the height of the storm at 8 p.m., this was the makeup:

  • Natural Gas: 30,917
  • Coal: 8,023
  • Wind: 649
  • Nuclear: 3,785

Why the delta? Natural gas, for starters, experienced a shortage. Those Texans who do have natural gas heating their homes turned it up, and what would have been available for electricity generation, went to homes. Similarly, nuclear and coal were adversely impacted by the cold. These are failures, plain and simple, and they can be explained away as anomalies in an unlikely, black swan scenario.


An Insider Explains Why Texans Lost Their Power

How would your family, and a hundred thousand other families, like to be stuck in your cars for days at minus 16 degrees?  

The death toll would be huge.  It almost happened in New England in 1989. 

And in Texas this week.

I was part of the 1989 Freeze and have some hopefully interesting insights.

In 1989, the weather just before Christmas was terrible.  Cold temperature records were set from Texas to New England.

That year, I was responsible for a midcontinent gas gathering system that normally produced about 500 million cubic feet (MMCFD) of natural gas a day.  That could supply up to 2 million New England homes.  During the 1989 Freeze, we produced 30 MMCFD, roughly a 95% decline.  Similar results were happening throughout the Oil Patch.  Supply cratered.

Meanwhile, demand for natural gas was exploding, almost literally (more on that below).  While the midcontinent temperatures were low enough to freeze gas wells, New England had dangerous arctic temperatures of minus 16 degrees.  This created huge natural gas demand for home heating in a major New England town. 

The city ultimately weathered that crisis through luck.


New malware found on 30,000 Macs has security pros stumped

A previously undetected piece of malware found on almost 30,000 Macs worldwide is generating intrigue in security circles, and security researchers are still trying to understand precisely what it does and what purpose its self-destruct capability serves.

Once an hour, infected Macs check a control server to see if there are any new commands the malware should run or binaries to execute. So far, however, researchers have yet to observe delivery of any payload on any of the infected 30,000 machines, leaving the malware’s ultimate goal unknown. The lack of a final payload suggests that the malware may spring into action once an unknown condition is met.

Also curious, the malware comes with a mechanism to completely remove itself, a capability that’s typically reserved for high-stealth operations. So far, though, there are no signs the self-destruct feature has been used, raising the question of why the mechanism exists.


Report: Nissan shot down Apple deal to avoid becoming Foxconn of cars

A potential partnership between Apple and Nissan foundered due to disagreements over branding, the Financial Times reported on Sunday. Apple wanted Nissan to build Apple-branded cars, while Nissan preferred to keep its own brand on the vehicles.

In recent months, Apple has reportedly been looking for a partner to build an Apple-branded electric car. Last week, Bloomberg reported that negotiations with Kia (and its parent company, Hyundai) had ended without a deal. The Financial Times says that Apple has also “sounded out” BMW as a potential partner.

Apple reportedly held preliminary talks with Nissan, though the talks didn’t reach the most senior levels at either company:

Talks faltered after the US company asked that Nissan make Apple-branded cars, a demand that would effectively downgrade the automaker to a hardware supplier. Many carmakers have expressed a fear of becoming “the Foxconn of the auto industry,” a reference to the Taiwanese manufacturing group that assembles iPhones.

Nissan Chief Operating Officer Ashwani Gupta told the FT that “we have to check who has got the best competency to catch what the customer is thinking. For this, we can do the partnership, but that is to adapt their services to our product, not vice versa.”


N.Y.’s Vaccine Websites Weren’t Working

Huge Ma, a 31-year-old software engineer for Airbnb, was stunned when he tried to make a coronavirus vaccine appointment for his mother in early January and saw that there were dozens of websites to check, each with its own sign-up protocol. The city and state appointment systems were completely distinct.

“There has to be a better way,” he said he remembered thinking.

So, he developed one. In less than two weeks, he launched TurboVax, a free website that compiles availability from the three main cities and state New York vaccine systems and sends the information in real-time to Twitter. It cost Mr. Ma less than $50 to build, yet it offers an easier way to spot appointments than the city and state’s official systems do.

“It’s sort of becoming a challenge to myself, to prove what one person with time and a little motivation can do,” he said last week. “This wasn’t a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier.”


Apple is already working on developing 6G wireless technology

Apple has posted multiple job listings indicating that it is hiring engineers to work on 6G technology internally so it does not have to rely on partners like Qualcomm as the next generation of wireless technology hits several years down the line.

The job listings, which were first spotted and reported by Bloomberg, include titles like “Wireless Research Systems Engineer – 5G/6G” and “RAN1/RAN4 Standards Engineer.”

The listings have statements like “You will be part of a team defining and doing research of next-generation standards like 6G,” “You will research and design next-generation (6G) wireless communication systems for radio access networks with emphasis on the PHY/MAC/L2/L3 layers,” “Participate in industry/academic forums passionate about 6G technology,” and “Contribute to future 3GPP RAN work items on 6G technology.”

The roles are in the company’s Cupertino headquarters, as well as in San Diego, where Apple opened offices specifically to focus on wireless and silicon technologies, with an apparent aim to snipe talent from Qualcomm’s San Diego HQ.


Owner of app that hijacked millions of devices with one update exposes buy-to-infect scam

The owners of a popular barcode scanner application that became a malicious nuisance on millions of devices with one update insist that a third-party buyer was to blame. 

Earlier this month, cybersecurity firm Malwarebytes explored how a trusted, useful barcode and QR code scanner app on Google Play that accounted for over 10 million installs became malware overnight. 

Having gained a following and acting as innocent software for years, in recent months, users began to complain that their mobile devices were suddenly full of unwanted adverts. 

Barcode Scanner was fingered as the culprit and the source of the nuisanceware, tracked as Android/Trojan.HiddenAds.AdQR. The researchers tracked malicious updates as the reason — with aggressive advert pushing implemented in the app’s code. 

The app’s analytics code was also modified and updates were heavily obfuscated. 


Mount Sinai study finds Apple Watch can predict COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before testing

A new study from Mount Sinai researchers published in the peer-reviewed “Journal of Medical Internet Research” found that wearable hardware, and specifically the Apple Watch, can effectively predict a positive COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before current PCR-based nasal swab tests.

The investigation dubbed the “Warrior Watch Study,” used a dedicated Apple Watch and iPhone app and included participants from Mount Sinai staff. It required participants to use the app for health data monitoring and collection, and also asked that they fill out a day survey to provide direct feedback about their potential COVID-19 symptoms and other factors, including stress.

During the course of the study, the research team enlisted “several hundred healthcare workers” to participate, and collected data over several months, between April and September. The primary biometric signal that the study’s authors were watching was heart rate variability (HRV), which is a key indicator of strain on a person’s nervous system.


Malware Exploits Security Teams’ Greatest Weakness: Poor Relationships With Employees

In early January, Colin McMillen, the lead developer at SemiColin Games, tweeted a warning about a popular Google Chrome extension, The Great Suspender. The utility came under fire after McMillen learned the developer sold it to a third party that silently released a version that could spy on a user’s browsing habits, inject ads into websites, or even download sensitive data.

After a community outcry, the new owner removed the offending code. Now aware of the change of ownership and breach of trust, many savvy users removed the extension.

Even so, The Great Suspender remained available in the Chrome Web Store until Feb. 3, when Google finally pulled the plug. Many of the extension’s 2 million users found out when they received a warning that simply stated, “This extension may be dangerous. The Great Suspender has been disabled because it contains malware.”