• Who is behind QAnon? The Reply All podcast investigates

    The latest issue of one of my favorite podcasts, Reply All, looks into the origins of QAnon:

    PJ Vogt looks into a theory circling the internet about who might be behind QAnon. The investigation takes him back to the beginning of the QAnon scam – including the message board trolls who started it and the shadowy father and son duo who have allegedly co-opted it.

    PJ interviews Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, where the QAnon conspiracy was allegedly born. Fredrick left 8chan and has since denounced it, but as the person who originally wrote the code for the site, Fredrick can see all sorts of clues pointing him to its identity. As the episode unfolds, Fredrick mounts a case suggesting that Jim and Ron Watkins, the father son duo who had helped him increase the sites bandwidth in its early days, are responsible for QAnon. While they declined to be interviewed, the evidence presented in the episode is enough to convince PJ they're likely responsible.

  • Why the Bodum Yo-Yo is my favorite tea strainer

    Ever since I accidentally bought a huge bag of dried nettle leaves on Amazon, I've been having nettle tea at least once a day for the last year. I have a lot of different tea steepers, but my favorite is this one from Bodum. The reason is simple – the mesh is made from nylon, and the leaves rinse right off. That's not true for stainless steel mesh strainers, and I no longer use them, because it is not easy to clean them. This one (which comes with a nice mug) is the one I always use unless someone else in the house is already using it, which is often because people drink a lot of tea around here.

  • Microsoft will exclusively license GPT-3 language model

    "Today, I'm very excited to announce that Microsoft is teaming up with OpenAI to exclusively license GPT-3," Kevin Scott, Microsoft's Executive Vice President and chief technology officer, wrote on the Microsoft blog. Pretty soon, Microsoft Word documents will write themselves, and AI bots will read them on our behalf, giving us more time to improve our Animal Crossing islands.

    The scope of commercial and creative potential that can be unlocked through the GPT-3 model is profound, with genuinely novel capabilities – most of which we haven't even imagined yet. Directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition, describing and summarizing large blocks of long-form data (including code), converting natural language to another language – the possibilities are limited only by the ideas and scenarios that we bring to the table.

    While we'll be hard at work utilizing the capabilities of GPT-3 in our own products, services and experiences to benefit our customers, we'll also continue to work with OpenAI to keep looking forward: leveraging and democratizing the power of their cutting-edge AI research as they continue on their mission to build safe artificial general intelligence. That future will be what we make of it – and I believe that we're on the right track.

  • What's it really like to negotiate with ransomware gangs?

    The latest issue of The Red Tape Chronicles has a great discussion about ransomware gangs. Half of U.S. corporations have reported being attacked by ransomware gangs last year, and while it's technically illegal for U.S. firms to pay ransomware, a lot of them do anyway.

    Ransomware attackers may portray the entire ransomware payment process as more akin to an ordinary business transaction than an international extortion scheme. In fact, some recent ransomware attackers purportedly even offer a victim company a discount if the victim company transmits the infection to other companies, just like referral programs of Uber or Lyft.

    However, while a ransomware payment process may seem straightforward and rudimentary, the reality is far more complicated and rife with challenges. No ransomware payment process can guarantee that the ransomware attacker will provide a decryption key. The ransomware scheme may be nothing more than a social engineering ruse, more like an old fashioned Nigerian Internet scam than a malware infection – and the payment could end up being all for naught.

    Indeed, ransomware attackers may no longer have the encryption key or may just opt to take a ransom payment, infect a company's system, and flee the crime scene entirely. Not only is the system of paying in untraceable Bitcoin risky, but the transaction in its entirety is so risky, it hardly seems palatable. Nonetheless, the number of victim companies that pay ransomware demands continues to grow at an alarming rate.

    For now, it seems that paying ransomware, while obviously risky and empowering/encouraging ransomware attackers, can perhaps be comported so as not to break any laws (like anti-terrorism laws, FCPA, conspiracy, and others) – and even if payment is arguably unlawful, seems unlikely to be prosecuted. Thus, the decision whether to pay or ignore a ransomware demand seems less of a legal, and more of a practical, determination — almost like a cost-benefit analysis.

    The arguments for rendering a ransomware payment include:

    • Payment is the least costly option;
    • Payment is in the best interest of stakeholders (e.g. a hospital patient in desperate need of an immediate operation whose records are locked up);
    • Payment can avoid being fined for losing important data;
    • Payment means not losing highly confidential information; and
    • Payment may mean not going public with the data breach.

    The arguments against rendering a ransomware payment include:

    • Payment does not guarantee that the right encryption keys with the proper decryption algorithms will be provided;
    • Payment further funds additional criminal pursuits of the attacker, enabling a cycle of ransomware crime;
    • Payment can do damage to a corporate brand;
    • Payment may not stop the ransomware attacker from returning;
    • If victims stopped making ransomware payments, the ransomware revenue stream would stop and ransomware attackers would have to move on to perpetrating another scheme; and
    • Using Bitcoin to pay a ransomware attacker can put organizations at risk. Most victims must buy Bitcoin on entirely unregulated and free-wheeling exchanges that can also be hacked, leaving buyers' bank account information stored on these exchanges vulnerable.

    When confronted with a ransomware attack, the options all seem bleak. Pay the hackers – and the victim may not only prompt future attacks, but there is also no guarantee that the hackers will restore a victim's dataset. Ignore the hackers – and the victim may incur significant financial damage or even find themselves out of business. The only guarantees during a ransomware attack are the fear, uncertainty, and dread inevitably experienced by the victim.

  • Pentagon used taxpayer money meant for masks and swabs to make jet engine parts and body armor

    Don't worry — defense contractors are faring well during the coronavirus. The Washington Post reports the Pentagon diverted $1 billion in taxpayer funds intended for pandemic-related medical equipped to defense contractors to "make things such as jet engine parts, body armor, and dress uniforms."

    Among the awards: $183 million to firms including Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal to maintain the shipbuilding industry; tens of millions of dollars for satellite, drone, and space surveillance technology; $80 million to a Kansas aircraft parts business suffering from the Boeing 737 Max grounding and the global slowdown in air travel; and $2 million for a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric.

    The "suffering" Kansas aircraft parts business is Spirit AeroSystems. The CEO Thomas C. Gentile III was profiled last year in Money, Inc.

    Mr. Gentile is handsomely rewarded for his hard work and dedication to Spirit Aerosystems. There is nothing that is easy about the rigors of being in charge of leading the company, and full responsibility for its success rests upon his shoulders. Spirit rewards his efforts with a salary that is $1,241,233, with a bonus for his excellent performance of an additional $1,546,576. He also receives stock and other types of compensation which for the 2018 fiscal year amounted to $9.9 million.

  • Jackie Ormes was the first black woman cartoonist to be published in a newspaper

    Shondaland looks at the life of Jackie Ormes, a recent inductee into the  Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame.

    When the 14-year-old African American boy Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one cartoonist responded in a single-panel comic. It showed one black girl telling another: "I don't want to seem touchy on the subject… but that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!"

    It may not seem radical today, but penning such a political cartoon was a bold and brave statement for its time — especially for the artist who was behind it. This cartoon was drawn by Jackie Ormes, the first syndicated African American woman cartoonist to be published in a newspaper. She was known for working between the 1930s and the 1950s for black newspapers like The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender (Barbara Brandon-Croft was the first African American woman cartoonist published in the mainstream American press). Ormes was ahead of her time, as she regularly responded to issues that concerned the black community through her art. Despite all her efforts, though, she has only recently garnered some noteworthy accolades.

    [via Adafruit]

  • Make a physical mute button for Zoom meetings

    Elliot made this nifty hardware button to mute and unmute yourself during Zoom calls. He has full instructions for making on on Instructables:

    Press the button to toggle your mute, or hold the button down to leave the meeting (or end it if you are the host).

    One great thing about this is that it works even if your Zoom window isn't active… if it's buried under a bunch of spreadsheets and browser windows – no problem – it brings the window to the front and flips your zoom off or on. Quickly un-muting is key to maintaining the impression that you've been paying attention the whole time!

    Even better, this all works while you are sharing your screen, so you don't have to do battle with those pesky on-screen controls.

    Check the last step for a two-button version that also will toggle your video on and off.

  • Check out IFixIt's teardown of the Apple Watch Series 6

    Our friends at IFixIt bought an Apple Watch 6 the second it became available and took it apart to see what makes it tick, or not tick, I guess.

    • Outward comparison of the Series 6 (right) with its one-year-old sibling (left) reveals only subtle differences, but that's what teardowns are for. These details we already know:
    • LTPO OLED Retina display optimized for always-on functionality—this time without Force Touch
    • 64-bit dual-core Apple S6 SiP (System in Package)
    • Updated sensor array measuring heart rate, ECG, and now blood oxygen levels
    • Compass and realtime altimeter
    • Water resistance to a depth of 50 meters
    • Today's teardown victim is a 44 mm GPS + LTE model, purchased at retail in Germany—but we've also got a 40 mm model that may make a guest appearance, should any interesting comparisons arise.
  • "The Jet-Propelled Couch" is the most interesting psychiatric case in history

    In the latest issue of my newsletter, The Magnet, I write about "The Jet-Propelled Couch," a true story of a psychiatric patient who believed he could teleport to a faraway planet. 

    His reveries were so rich in sensory detail that Allen came to the conclusion that his imagined escapades weren't fiction — they were actually taking place in the future and he was somehow tapping into them. The fantasies grew and continued for years. He eventually discovered that he could leave his earthly body and travel forward in time to live as the heroic Kirk Allen on a faraway planet. He also learned he could spend a year or more as the spacefaring Allen and return to Earth, where only a few minutes had passed.

    Here's how he described the experience to Lindner:

    One moment I was just a scientist on X Reservation bending over a drawing board in a clapboard B.Q. in the middle of an American desert—the next moment I was Kirk Allen, Lord of a planet in an interplanetary empire in a distant universe, garbed in the robes of his exalted office, rising from the carved desk he had been sitting at, walking toward a secret room in his palace, entering it, going over to a filing cabinet in a recess in the wall, extracting an envelope of photographs, leaving the room and retracing his steps, sitting again at his desk, and studying the pictures with intense concentration. It was over in a matter of minutes, and I was again at the drawing board—the self you see here. But I knew the experience was real; and to prove it I now had a vivid recollection of the photographs, could see them as clearly as if they were still in my hands, and had no trouble at all completing the map.

    Allen was at a loss to explain how he was able to live in the past and the present simultaneously. "Have I discovered the secret of teleportation?" he asked Lindner. "Do I have some special psychic equipment? Some unique organ or what Charles Fort called a 'wild talent?' Damned if I know!"

  • Costco hasn't raised the price on its hot-dog-and-soda combo since 1984

    Costco has charged the same price for a hot dog and a cup of soda for the last 36 years. A dollar fifty buys you a quarter-pound beef hot dog and a 20 oz cup of soda. How can it charge the same price it did in 1984? Mental Floss has the answer:

    When it comes to hot dogs, Costco doesn't price according to what the market will bear. They price according to their own cost and according to the value the hot dogs can afford them.

    According to Jelinek, people would pay $1.75, and maybe more, for the deal. But is that extra 25 cents going to be more valuable than the goodwill and foot traffic generated by a combo that's stuck to its price point for nearly 35 years? Probably not. Customers coming in to shop at Costco are amused, satisfied, and fueled by the hot dog meal. If they get it just before leaving the store, they're left with a lasting impression of being treated well. That's worth more than keeping up with inflation.

  • Video – the top of the Matterhorn is razor-thin

    My palms got sweaty watching climber Tim Howell walk along the Matterhorn's razor-thin ridge to reach its peak.

    This awesome 360 degree camera footage shows the moment a thrillseeking climber reached one of the highest points of the Matterhorn. Tim Howell, 31, filmed himself balancing precariously on a narrow ridge that connects the Italian summit and Swiss peak of the Matterhorn mountain range. He had a breathtaking view of Cervin, Italy, to the right and Zermatt, Switzerland, to the left from his lofty vantage point.

  • Japan has over 400 Kit Kat flavors

    Whenever we go to Japan, we stock up on Kit Kat bars with unusual flavors. It turns out there are over 400 different varieties. From Great Big Story:

    Kit Kat is big in Japan. From cheesecake to wasabi to purple sweet potato, the crispy wafer bar is available in more than 400 varieties, according to Yuji Takeuchi, marketing manager for Nestlé Japan. And it's up to Yasumasa Takagi to keep the fresh flavors coming. The classically-trained pastry chef has added over 50 to the Kit Kat canon so far. Takagi invites us into his kitchen in Tokyo to see how he creates yummy new flavor profiles for customers who are always hungry for more.