Apple CEO Tim Cook doesn’t have a high opinion of platform-owning social media and advertising companies, most of which are now embroiled in an ongoing controversy about Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Cook, in an interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News this evening, said the big issue isn’t the advertisements targeting groups and individuals, but the overall nature of social media as a tool for misinformation and manipulation.
“I don’t believe the big issue are ads from foreign governments. I believe that’s like .1 percent of the issue,” Cook says. “The bigger issue is that some of these tools are used to divide people, to manipulate people, to get fake news to people in broad numbers so as to influence their thinking. This to me is the No. 1 through 10 issue.”
Following a second day of Capitol Hill testimony from members of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Congress has taken an increasingly aggressive and adversarial stance on Silicon Valley’s ability to reign in the abuse of its products and keep them free of bad actors and foreign governments. In the past couple of months, it’s been revealed that Russia-linked advertising was prevalent in Google search and YouTube ads, as well on both Facebook and Twitter’s ad platforms. And in the past week, following the disclosure of new reports from all three tech companies, we know these ads reached many more users than previously thought, in some cases having more than 10 times the initial reported impact.
Cook addressed the congressional hearings, saying that the social media companies have “learned along the way a lot,” and that “we’ll probably learn more in those hearings as to the particulars.” He went on to say that just as all New York companies aren’t all the same — and all media companies aren’t the same — well, all technology companies aren’t the same, either. They have different values, different principles, different business models.”
Those business models include compiling volumes of user data, something that Cook reasserted isn’t something that Apple is interested in. “We take a very pro-privacy view,” Cook says. “Apple doesn’t know what the content of your messages are. We encrypt FaceTime end to end. We don’t know what you’re saying.” Holt brought up that the company’s upcoming iPhone X raises come privacy concerns with its FaceID system. Cook explained that the facial recognition data is stored on the phone and encrypted, and that “Apple doesn’t have that: your device has that.”
A couple of years after releasing the first cache of books and articles found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011, the US government has followed up with a massive collection of computer files — including viral YouTube videos, anime, and the September 11th conspiracy documentary Loose Change.
The CIA-hosted archive includes hundreds of gigabytes’ worth of files, but its title indexes — for audio, documents, video, and images — are a lot more manageable. Agency director Mike Pompeo, who authorized their release, says the collection “provides the opportunity for the American people to gain further insights into the plans and workings” of al-Qaeda.
In addition to a mass of basic operating system elements and clearly terrorism-related material, they reveal some odd details about compound residents’ media diets. There are a few big-name films like Antz, Cars, and Resident Evil, which the CIA has withheld (alongside less prominent copyrighted videos) in case someone was planning to download a 174GB file to fish around for pirated media.
But beyond that, you can also find listings for a downloaded copy of the super-popular YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger;” as well as a video file called “Loosechange2” — likely a copy of the second edition of Loose Change, which argues that the September 11th attacks were masterminded by the American government, not bin Laden. You can even find a wealth of videos on crocheting baskets, baby socks, and beanie caps, among other things.
There are also several PDF files about Illuminati conspiracy theories, but some of those titles — like the book Bloodlines of the Illuminati — could already be found in the 2015 documents. Judging by the names on some audio files, someone had installed the video gamesZuma Deluxe and Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army 2. Gizmodo writes that there was a major anime fan there as well — and, more bizarrely, a fan of ancient bootleg erotic video games.
Given the sheer volume of the files and the fact that they were only released today, their full political and academic importance probably won’t be evident for some time. Also, in case it wasn’t already clear, these aren’t files that were personally downloaded or accessed by bin Laden — just a series of strange artifacts gathered in one of the decade’s most high-profile US military missions.
Since it’s an early leak, there may be more deals from Costco to come. The highlights include bundles for the PS4 and Xbox One, as well as $150 off the HP Omen gaming monitor. Most of the prices are listed below, but for some, Costco has only listed the discounts. Costco also will have a variety of other TV deals, but isn’t announcing the discounts on those until the specific sales begin on the 17th — we’ll continue to update this post as we get more information.
It’s November, which means that winter is well on its way. It’s a good time to curl up on the couch or a comfy chair and dig into some of the books that you’ve been meaning to read.
I recently interviewed horror author Joe Hill, and he discussed some modern day horrors on social media and technology as it related to his new book, Strange Weather. Even though Halloween is now behind us, fall is a great time to pick up the book. It includes four short novels — Snapshot, Loaded, Aloft, and Rain — each of which delivers a solid, terrifying premise. They’re also all engrossing reads, with vivid characters sucked into terrifying circumstances. I read nearly the entire book on a single train ride, and it made the miles fly by.
There are other good reads coming up this month, too. Here are 16 books hitting bookstore shelves that you should check out.
Author and former US Navy serviceman Richard Baker is kicking off a new military science fiction series with his latest novel, Valiant Dust. In the far future, gunnery officer Sikander Singh North joins the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector, the only Kashmiri crewmember. When the Hector is dispatched to quell a planetary revolution, he’s forced to prove himself to his crewmates, as they deal with troublesome planetary leaders and try to figure out who is arming the rebels behind the insurrection, all while coming under fire.
A space station called Ciudad de Cielo — The City in the Sky — floats above the Earth as a symbol of humanity’s progress and bold steps into space. Life on board is a different story, however: there’s a dark criminal underworld that’s ignored by officials until a murder takes place. Station police officer Nikki “Fix” Freeman is in charge of the investigation, with by-the-books officer Alice Blake assigned to help. As more bodies pile up, both realize that there’s more than gang violence behind the crime spree.
For the last couple of months, Tor Books has been experimenting with storytelling through a new imprint called Tor Labs. Its first production is a podcast story called Steal the Stars, in which a security officer named Dakota “Dak” Prentiss guards an alien spaceship in a top secret facility and hatches a plan to steal it. Tor is now releasing a novelization of the series, written by one of the cast members, Nat Cassidy. This book isn’t a script that’s been polished up as a cash-grab to get reluctant audio listeners to buy the story; it’s a full-on novelization that stands on its own.
In 2950, humanity has spread throughout the Solar System, with colonies on Venus and Mars. Felicia Sevigny makes her living in this new world by reading tarot cards. Blacklisted from having a child, she goes to some shady figures to try and get around the restrictions, only to get the attention of a crime boss, Alexei Petriv. He wants her to predict his future, and when she does, she finds that there’s trouble ahead that will pit them both against the overbearing TriSystem government. Kirkus Reviews says that the book has a “well-crafted world with a promising heroine.”
In Fonda Lee’s first installment of a new fantasy trilogy, a group of clans vie for control over their island nation and its supply of jade — the source of power that enhances their magical abilities. For decades, there’s been a delicate peace on the island, but with a new generation of leaders, that peace is beginning to break down, and all-out Godfather-style gang warfare is looming. The Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog says says that the book has “a world that will be hard to forget.”
Leena Likitalo published The Five Daughters of the Moonback in July,marking the first installment of a duology inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution. Its followup, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, hits bookstores this month. With the death of the Crescent Empress, the Crescent Empire has been torn apart by civil war, and the five sisters — Alina, Merile, Sabilia, Elise, and Celestia — have been captured by Gagargi Prataslav and his Great Thinking Machine. As they contend with their exile and make plans to escape their confinement, they stumble upon ghosts and mysteries in their prison. Publisher’s Weekly says that “Likitalo’s emotional and lyrical dark fairy tale will give readers plenty to think about.”
Joe Zieja made his debut last year with the comedic military science fiction novel Mechanical Failure, where an ex-sergeant named R. Wilson Rogers was recalled back to the interstellar navy as it prepared for war. In Communications Failure, Rogers has unwillingly climbed the ladder to become the acting admiral of the 331st Meridan fleet. Now in charge, he has to face off against an enemy fleet that’s moving under suspect intelligence and miscommunications, leading both sides to accidentally start a war. These books have been compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Publisher’s Weekly says that the book’s highlights include a “droid undergoing an existential crisis, a pilot obsessed with flashy maneuvers, a zookeeper determined to become a spy, and Rogers himself, an engineer who never wanted to be in charge of anyone.”
Mike Brooks published his debut novel Dark Run last year, following Ichabod Drift’s crew of smugglers and mercenaries of the starship Keiko, where they were hired to bring a mysterious cargo to Earth — no questions asked. Its followup, Dark Sky, brings the crew along on a new mission to the Rassvet System, only to get caught up in a revolution. As Dark Deeds picks up, the crew has failed that last mission, and their client isn’t happy. When Drift’s second-in-command is taken hostage, they’re forced to raise the funds to get her back. Publisher’s Weekly recently gave the book a star rating, saying that the action is fantastic, and that Brooks has assembled a great group of characters.
S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel is the first of her Daevabad trilogy, set in Cairo in the 18th century. A young woman named Nahri makes her living with palm readings and other tricks, but is forced to question her beliefs when she accidentally summons a djinn warrior named Dara. He tells her that magic is real and powerful, and that she’s been threatened by an evil djinn. She must make the long and treacherous journey to a mysterious and legendary city known as Daevabad, where she meets fantastic creatures and learns unexpected secrets about her heritage. Kirkus Reviews gave the book a star rating, calling it a “highly impressive and exceptionally promising” novel.
Molly Tanzer’s latest novel is set in a Victorian-era world, inspired in part by The Picture of Dorian Gray. Evadne Gray and her younger sister Dorina travel to London to stay with their uncle, Basil Hallward, who grieves for his deceased lover. Evadne would rather focus on fencing than watch her headstrong sister, but the pair are soon drawn into a secret underworld populated by demons and diabolists. Only Evadne’s skills as a fencer can save them. Publisher’s Weekly says that Tanzer’s “gorgeously portrayed three-dimensional characters and sensual prose propel this smoothly entertaining story to an emotionally affecting end.”
K.B Wager’s Indranan War series comes to an end with Beyond the Empire. Following the assassination of her parentsand sisters, former gunrunner and smuggler Hail Bristolhas returned home to become the Empress of the Indranan Empire, fending off attempts to remove her from the throne. Now, the empire is under attack from all sides, and she’s prepared to defend it with all-out war. Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a star review, saying that it’s a “satisfyingly thunderous end to Hail’s quest for vengeance.”
Andy Weir scored an incredible hit with his debut novel The Martian, which was then turned into a major blockbuster movie. That’s a tall order to top with his second novel, Artemis, a crime thriller set on the moon. The story follows Jazz Bashara, a smuggler on the moon’s only city, Artemis. When she’s hired by a billionaire to commit some sabotage, she finds herself drawn into a bigger plot for the future of the city.
In Rachel Neumeier’s new epic fantasy novel, Princess Kehara Raehema is the heir to the throne in the peaceful land of Harivir. To save her people, she reluctantly marries a brutal ruler from a neighboring land, to ensure that her land is safe. Hundreds of miles away, Innisth Eanete, the Wolf Duke of Pohorir, dreams of freeing his own people, and when Kehara arrives, there’s an unexpected opportunity for both to save their worlds. Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a star review, saying that it’s a tense story that “focus[es] on its characters and the implications of its worldbuilding.”
In August, Spencer Ellsworth published Starfire: A Red Peace, a military science fiction novella about a half-breed human star navigator named Jaqi who accidentally acquires an artifact that gets her targeted by the leader of a revolution. In the next installment of the series, Jaqi and her companions Araskar and Z are on the run from everyone. With a bounty on their heads, they have one card to play to earn their freedom: they know where to find a supply of desperately-needed pure oxygen cells. Getting help from some unlikely allies, they get ready to break into a facility on the edge of the Dark Zone.
Earlier this year, Titan Books announced that it was bringing on an exciting new group of authors to pen tie-in novels for the Mass Effect franchise, including Hugo–winner N.K. Jemisin. Mass Effect: Initiation follows Lieutenant Cora Harper, part of the Asari commando unit Talein’s Daughters. She finds herself out of place on Earth and ends up joining the Andromeda Initiative — a massive colonization project that will bring humanity to the Andromeda Galaxy — as Alec Ryder’s second-in-command. When a piece of essential and dangerous technology goes missing, it’s up to her to recover it. Jemisin is the author of the brilliant Broken Earth trilogy, and I’m excited to see what she does with this world.
This week, representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter are appearing before House and Senate subcommittees to answer for their role in Russian manipulation during the 2016 election, and so far, the questioning has been brutal. Facebook has taken the bulk of the heat, being publicly called out by members of Congress for missing a wave of Russian activity until months after the election.
But one of the most interesting parts of yesterday’s proceedings actually came after the big companies had left the room, and a national security researcher named Clint Watts took the floor. Watts is one of the most respected figures in the nascent field of social media manipulation — and when it came time to diagnose root of Russia’s platform meddling, he put much of the blame on the decision to allow anonymous accounts. As long as Russian operatives can get on Twitter and Facebook without identifying themselves, Watts diagnosed, foreign actors will be able to quietly influence our politics:
“With features like account anonymity, unlimited audience access, low cost technology tools, plausible deniability – social media provides Russia an unprecedented opportunity to execute their dark arts of manipulation and subversion…Today, anonymous sites rife with conspiracy theories, such as 4Chan and Reddit, offer unlimited options for placement of digital forgeries that drive Kremlin narratives. Graphics, memes & documents litter these discussion boards providing ammunition for Kremlin narratives and kompromat. Anonymous posts of the Kremlin’s design or those generated by the target audiences power smear campaigns and falsehoods that tarnish confidence in America and trust in democratic institutions.”
The point is clear enough: if you’re fighting Russian interference on social media, anonymity is a big problem. In some ways, it’s the original sin, creating space for that first lie that lets trolls enter the conversation unnoticed. “Account anonymity in public provides some benefits to society, but social media companies must work immediately to confirm real humans operate accounts,” Watts told the committee. “The negative effects of social bots far outweigh any benefits.” It’s a common insight among bot-hunters, and one that’s become particularly popular amid this week’s hearings.
Thomas Rid expressed a similar idea this morning, making the case that Twitter had been more useful for Russian active measures than Facebook. “[Twitter’s] openness,” Rid writes, “particularly the openness for deletion, anonymity, and automation, has made the platform easy to exploit.” The Digital Forensics Research Lab, a longtime hub for bot-watchers, opened the hearing with four questions for social media companies, including a tricky one: What is the limit of anonymity on social media?
In each case, the writers stop short of asking for an outright ban on anonymous accounts. But measures like Facebook’s real name policy have been cast as useful tools in the fight against Russian influence — and often tools in need of stricter enforcement. The online pseudonym, once a guiding light of internet culture, is increasingly seen as a threat. And it seems more and more likely that the end result will mean tightening the reins on online anonymity, and driving webgoers to live more and more of their online life under legal names.
Taking on the issue in the earlier panel, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch cast the entire problem as one of identity. “It wasn’t so much the content,” Stretch told the committee. “The real problem with what we saw was its lack of authenticity.” It’s a useful line for Facebook, particularly as the criticism broadens from paid election ads (the target of the only recent bill to tackle the issue) to Russian posting in general. Reining in organic posts is much trickier than reining in ad spending, and it’s hard to imagine doing it without tighter identity controls.
Even though the idea has come to prominence on a wave of anger towards Facebook, Zuckerberg would probably suffer the least damage from a crackdown on anonymity. Facebook already has a real name policy, and they could easily tighten enforcement to include ID checks without altering their core product. There are plenty of services like NextDoor with stricter identity policies, and they don’t pose any significant technical problems. The problem is social. We’re used to anonymity on the internet, particularly on the services where it’s still available. It’s hard to know what an anonymity backlash would mean for services like Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan — all of which are named in Watts’ testimony as playing a role in Russian disinformation.
In the background, there’s an even harder question: is anonymity still worth saving? It’s foundational to many people’s idea of the internet, but amid widespread online harassment and Facebook itself, it’s come to mean less and less. Even without Russian influence campaigns, the web’s online spaces are largely associated with the ugliest parts of humanity. (4chan is a prime example.) With new pressure from Congress, bot analysts, and the public, online anonymity may not have any defenders left. In the face of that, Twitter, Reddit, and others might decide a real name policy is a small price to pay for forestalling federal regulation.
Maybe all that sounds like a straw man. I hope it is. The most likely path forward is still that Congress does nothing — or, failing that, sticks to the FEC regulations laid out in Warner-Klobuchar — and Russian disinformation continues to be a hazard of digital life. It’s a hard problem, and at this point, it’s reasonable to not trust Congress or Facebook management to solve it. Still, it’s worth considering what we want platforms to do about fake posts. Do we want stronger identity checks before a person is allowed to post online? Do we want an algorithm sniffing out activity that looks like an influence campaign, with all the inevitable false positives such a system would bring? Do we want intelligence services to actively collaborate with Facebook in sniffing out those campaigns? All those ideas make me nervous, but they don’t seem as implausible as they would have a year ago, or even a week ago.
Remember the Nook? Barnes & Noble apparently just did, with the company quietly releasing the Nook GlowLight 3, in an announcement that will make you go, “Wait, what? They’re still making Nooks?”
The GlowLight 3 is the first real new Nook released since 2015, back when Barnes & Noble released the actually pretty good sounding GlowLight Plus, which beat Amazon to a water resistant e-reader by a couple of years and added an aluminum case to boot at a $130 price point. Compare that to Amazon, which only offers water resistance on the recently released (and extremely expensive) Kindle Oasis.
The GlowLight 3 bizarrely takes a step in the opposite direction from the Plus, removing the aluminum back and the waterproofing features entirely. Instead, it adds a screen that can now adjust color temperature and some physical page turning buttons. They’re nice updates, don’t get me wrong, but the whole thing feels like a massive step backward that makes it tough to justify buying the GlowLight 3 over the much more popular Kindle Paperwhite, which has the same screen, the same price, and a dramatically better ecosystem of books.
The rest of the GlowLight 3’s specs are more or less what you’d expect from an e-reader — there’s a 300ppi display, a 50 day battery life, and chunky bezels that seem to dominate the face of the device.
The GlowLight 3 is available for preorder from Barnes & Noble for $119.99, and is expected to ship on November 8th.
Google is opening a new platform called Poly where people can find and distribute virtual and augmented reality objects. The tool is integrated with Tilt Brush and Blocks, respectively Google’s VR painting and sculpting apps, and is meant to provide an art library for people building with Google’s ARCore, Apple’s ARKit, or various VR development platforms.
While you could already browse objects made in Google Blocks, this is a more formal project that’s aimed at making it easier to whip together a VR or AR app. Google says that modelers are supposed to upload work for free, and other users can build on or remix their work, which will create a new listing that credits and links back to the original. While you can directly upload files, Google is touting the ability to pull objects directly into a VR workspace and edit them.
There are already many asset stores for virtual objects, most of which offer payment systems that let people support themselves through 3D development. Poly sounds more like a hobbyist system, which fits with Google’s goal of making its new AR platform simple for newcomers to use. Users can browse the store now, and Google says it will be building out the platform later with an API, which developers can sign up to preview down the road.
It’s a two-hour car ride from Heathrow Airport to the small village of Gaydon in Warwickshire, England, home to Aston Martin’s headquarters. The company plans, designs, and build its cars in this office park enclave, down the road from Jaguar Land Rover headquarters, and only a short 45-minute drive from Silverstone, where Formula 1 development thrives. It’s an ideal location: it’s connected to the M40 motorway, an artery that threads together London, Birmingham, and Oxford, the heart of the UK car industry.
Inside its small factory, under high ceilings supported by white metal beams, Aston Martin workers bustle. There’s an undercurrent of pulsing energy as the Aston Martin line runs at a steady, measured pace. At a mass-market car company, the takt time, or average amount of time between the start of each new car, is a matter of seconds. In contrast, a new Aston Martin is started every 26 minutes. It’s a meticulous production process, which explains why the factory floors stay a gleaming gray and white. Each car is scrutinized before it moves along the 200-hour build process in order to pass final inspection, sometimes conducted by the CEO himself. In a high-stakes business like this one, there’s no room for hasty mistakes.
The DB11, Vanquish, Rapide, and Vantage models are made at the Gaydon factory. A new factory site will be constructed where the first Aston Martin crossover, the DBX, will be built. Though the Gaydon facility opened in 2003, the way they do things in the British Midlands is a bit of a throwback to another era, when hand assembly was a skilled trade mastered by humans over machines. Many of the apprentices are second- and even third-generation skilled tradespeople. The company celebrated its centenary in 2010 with a grand display of its entire model lineup at a park in central London. It was a moment steeped in British motor history, a full embrace of its posh heritage, James Bond and all.
But the company couldn’t survive if it only focused on the old way of doing things. Computer screens flash a few feet from tailors hunched over sewing machines, as they stitch together seats from a computer-generated pattern. In the body shop, slabs of aluminum are heat-treated and bonded, which transforms the structure components.
The buzzy workshop-like atmosphere lends itself toward a performative element, as if the assembly process is theater. Everyone on the floor is on a stage as a steady stream of customers visit while I’m there, greeted in a chic lobby where super luxe Aston Martin merch is sold. Customers travel from around the world to get an up-close look at their Aston Martin being assembled. It’s a unique perk of investing in a six-figure car that is common among the super luxury brands.
I met with Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer (or, as he is known on Twitter, @AndyatAston) after visiting the headquarters, the imagery of the shiny factory etched in my mind. We spoke about how Aston Martin has doubled down on plans for its future: bringing the limited edition $3 million Valkyrie hypercar to life; a path toward electrification through the battery-powered 2019 RapidE; and the first SUV in the lineup due in 2019, which will be available as a hybrid. But first, we touched on where it is in the present: releasing its flagship vehicle, the DB11, with a more efficient V8 engine option, which is made by Daimler’s AMG group and modified by Aston engineers.
He was insistent that process of hand-building cars isn’t at odds with Aston Martin’s investment in high-tech processes. “They’re not mutually exclusive. Handmade doesn’t necessarily mean lack of technology,” Palmer says.
But what handmade does mean is a limited number of cars, and that’s the way Aston Martin wants it. When asked about ramping up to include more robots in the factory, Palmer bristled. “We make 5,200 cars a year and every one of them is different. And you can’t program a robot if you try to work out the number of end items that is everything that goes into a car. It’s infinitesimal. Computers are incapable. AI eventually might get there. But the complexity of putting 10,000 parts together in a car factory where couple of hundred of those will be different to every car. Today only a human can do that.”
But even Aston Martin is using automation to take away some of the more taxing elements of manual labor. (Just don’t call them robots. Palmer prefers “assistors.”) “The principle is no robots, but now we use robots particularly for the structures in, for example, the application of the glue. It’s only the repetitive strain injury issue that we’re avoiding by putting them in there,” he says. And from what Palmer says about efforts to recruit capable apprentices, this process won’t change anytime soon.
Even as Aston Martin gears up to double sales when it launches its crossover, and lends its name to real estate developments, yachts, and Red Bull Formula 1 racing, the plan is to stay a small car company. No one needs to drive an Aston Martin; its entire model line delivers a pleasure principle and serves as an unapologetic status symbol. The leathers and woods are real, and making it a thing of beauty isn’t an adjective, but a prerequisite for design chief Marek Reichman.
Aston Martin is in the business of building cars that are a luxury. And because, more than ever, time is the most valuable luxury, Aston Martin is also in the business of managing time. It’s a tricky problem that’s befuddling the auto industry. Driving for joy isn’t what it used to be. In 2016, a Washington Post report found the average commute time was at its highest ever, and presumably most of this travel occurred on overcrowded roads. When asked about solving the problem, Palmer suggests that our transportation woes all come down to 30 minutes. That’s the maximum amount of time he says we’re wired to travel at a time for our daily routines. “If you can liberate that time in one way or another — whether it’s high-speed trains, hyperloop, drones, better highways, whatever it is — if you calibrate that, then you get people to have a better quality of life and live in less congested areas with better air quality,” Palmer says. “That’s what we’re asking for, isn’t it? That’s what humanity is looking for. Today, speed is seen as the demon, where potentially it’s a solution.”
Even as change occurs, Aston Martin cars are made for drivers, not machines. Palmer doesn’t see autonomy as the solution to society’s transportation woes. “The hypothesis of the moment is I can do my emails and I can use my time in a better way. I personally don’t subscribe to that hypothesis.” He argues that people want to get where they are going in a timely way. “I think the unintended consequence is one of speed,” Palmer says.
Palmer uses characteristic British self-deprecation to poke fun at his own ideas that belies his accomplishments. “Your time is the most important. We say that every five years,” he says. A throaty chuckle follows. Palmer speaks in rapid phrases, at times tripping over his words, in an effort to paint a large, sweeping picture and to emphasize his point. He has blond spiky hair and looks most comfortable in loose-fitting suits, collar open. His cheeks turn flushed after he gives a speech to a group. He has none of the airs of a high-brow executive. His manner makes him come across as straight shooter who speaks his mind freely, and unlike most CEOs, he doesn’t seek approval from his communication team for his talking points.
“I mean, I’m 38 years in this business. It’s probably the most exciting time because simply the pace of change and the level of uncertainty,” he says. He’s worked his way up from being an apprentice to a PhD and previously served as chief planning officer at Nissan Motor Co. and chairman of Infiniti, before the Aston Martin board tapped him to lead the company in 2014.
It’s a dicy time to make hard decisions about the future as change comes hard and fast to the auto industry. “You can’t work in a bubble. You can’t operate in isolation and say, ‘I’m not going to do a connected car,’ and completely rule out the idea of an autonomous car, because to some extent that’s defined by the technology that the massive premium brands are bringing to market. Some might say we want to be in front of or behind, but you can’t be in isolation,” he says.
As a solution, Aston Martin settled on a partnership with Daimler to do all the connected things it can’t. Daimler owns a 5 percent stake in the company. In exchange, it produces all electronics and engines for some models. “Part of the reason I came to the company was because of Daimler. They’re one of the companies that spends the most on R&D, and they’re certainly at the cutting edge of autonomy,” Palmer explains. “The decision to take and embed the S Class electrical system, which is a fundamental decision to all of our new cars, means that we’re absolutely no longer a laggard when it comes to the electrical system.”
But the partnership doesn’t mean that Aston Martin will follow in the footsteps of Mercedes-Benz product lineup. “What we’re doing is we’re simply connecting black boxes to cables to make it do different things. We’re able to select those that we’re interested in,” he says.
Palmer errs on a conservative approach toward autonomy for a myriad of reasons. Where he is especially cautious is on matters of security. “If you’re going to put your car in the hands of software, then you better make sure that it’s protected,” he says. “Because what you don’t want to do is to have it in the hands of somebody else. I am a huge believer that comes from the defense side of things where I’ve studied: the more systems you use, the more redundancy that you need to build into the system. Think about an airplane.”
He’s firm that safety issues need to be addressed in autonomous tech, and worries about chances taken in the sprint to achieve full autonomous driving. “The whole house of cards comes down if someone comes up with a system that’s not safe. Don’t beta test your customers,” Palmer says. “This is not an industry that has ever allowed people to beta test their customers. That’s where I talk about the arms race. We have to make sure that when we introduce it, we have as many safety systems as possible.”
But Aston Martin is still proceeding toward making cars capable of self-driving, albeit with caution. “Even if you accept that the Aston Martin is your escape where you go and drive with a manual transmission, there are just some things you have to have,” he says. “Connected is an obvious one. Autonomy, or automated valet parking. Even if you didn’t want to go all the way to full autonomy, there are times where the customer will want that.”
The next hurdle for Aston is its bet on electrification, driven by its business in China. “We started out with the electric program working with a company called LeEco, and subsequently we decided to part with the company. They were the guys that were behind Faraday Future. It’s all rather gone tits up.” After this, he laughs and says his team will explain the English colloquialism. He says the partnership with LeEco was driven by a desire to align itself with China and the way it’s driving technology.
In order to stay competitive in the world’s most promising luxury car market, it’s a matter of constantly adjusting. At the moment, that means zeroing in on China, and bringing the RapidE to market. “What you’re seeing in China is basically a leap being taken by the domestic Chinese manufacturers. It’s going to influence the rest of the world,” he says. “If you’re a manufacturer that’s manufacturing in China, then you have to use a Chinese-sourced battery, so it’s a very protective market in a joint venture that has at least 50 percent owned by Chinese companies.”
It’s a constant shifting business proposition: making desirable classic British sports cars in the present and anticipating what those cars need to do to remain desirable in the future. Like anything well-made, the skill is in making the pursuit and performance of beauty appear effortless. The upcoming models, starting with the Vantage will test their progress. “There are people alive today that would in theory be able to remember the transition from the horse to the car and are now seeing a transition from the car to the pod,” Palmer marvels. “Isn’t that quite incredible?”
One of the things you come to anticipate after flying a drone for a while is how the people around you will react. If you take off or land near someone who’s unfamiliar with the technology, a few people will be curious; many others will get upset. A loud machine making an angry buzzing sound a few feet from your head is something many humans have an instinctively negative reaction to.
A phrase like “angry buzzing” sounds subjective, but it’s not just my opinion. A NASA study found that the sounds of drones were roughly twice as annoying to the average person as the same volume of noise produced by a car or truck. The noise of a drone is more annoying at the same volume because it’s a much higher frequency, one that happens to be particularly unpleasant to the ears of most humans.
DJI, the world’s most popular brand of consumer drones, is trying to do something about that. Its Mavic Pro Platinum, released back in August of this year, comes with a set of redesigned rotor blades that the company claims make the unit 60 percent quieter than the previous model. It tweaked the design of the blades by adding what’s known as a “raked wingtip.” The blades curve through the middle and angle back and up at the tip. To optimize for the new design, DJI also added electronic speed controllers that spin them at a different rate.
I stopped by DJI’s office last week to hear the difference for myself, and to my ears at least, the results were impressive. When you launch indoors and hover the drone a few feet from you, the sound is more like a loud desk fan. You wouldn’t miss it, but it no longer sounds like an angry, oversized bee. Some YouTube reviewers have pointed out that, in terms of decibels, there is no real change between the old rotors and the new. That’s true, but it misses the point. It’s not a significant difference in volume, but rather in pitch.
Once you get the drone in the air, the difference is even more striking. At a height of about 30 feet, you can still hear the whine of the original Mavic Pro loud and clear. At that same distance, the sound of the reengineered Mavic Pro Platinum almost completely fades away. If you’re actively listening for it, it’s still detectable, but the average bystander walking below wouldn’t pick up on the fact that something is close overhead. You can see a little visualization of the difference below. The gray spike around 8,000Hz is what really bothers most human ears with the old Mavic drone. The yellow line is a comparison of the sound produced by the new one.
As someone who flies drones often, this is a welcome improvement. I enjoy flying outdoors, but hate to ruin the experience for other nature lovers who may feel threatened or annoyed by the drone. Cutting back on the sound is a big piece of making the experience pleasant for everyone.
I’m of two minds about what this means for public perception and governmental regulation of drones in the future, however. In the past, drone advocates have dismissed fears about how this technology could be used for spying or surveillance by pointing out, correctly, that it wasn’t very subtle. If you wanted to peep into a fifth-story window and not get caught, you would have a much easier time with a telephoto lens than a consumer drone. The quieter drones get, the harder it is to make the case that they aren’t powerful tools for invading other people’s privacy.
On the other hand, quieter drones will be far easier to integrate into everyday life. The NASA study was commissioned as part of the agency’s larger effort to imagine what the next generation of aviation will look like, and how large numbers of autonomous airborne vehicles can be safely introduced into the skies above cities and towns. Making drones way less annoying is going to be key to the success or failure of initiatives like Amazon Prime Air.
It was announced last week that the Department of Transportation is preparing to review applications from municipalities around the US that want to test advanced drone operations. The aim is to have at least five projects running over the next three years that will test out missions like autonomous delivery over populated areas, flights beyond the operator’s line of sight, and flights at night. This technology is moving from fantasy to reality at a steady pace.
Last but not least, this demo made me wonder, what took so long? The design changes to the rotors aren’t being billed as some innovative breakthrough, just a common sense application of knowledge that has existed in the aerospace world for decades. DJI says they aren’t any more expensive to produce. (In fact you get better battery life with the new system than with older models.) But they do require careful design and testing. DJI can afford to pump some engineering resources into things like this, while most competitors can’t.
Hearing the Mavic Platinum in action is a reminder that DJI is light-years ahead of the pack when it comes to innovation in the consumer drone space. From high-level computer vision techniques down to the little details of how to shape the plastic rotors that actually get your gadget off the ground, no one else comes close at the moment.
Senators raised the stakes against some of America’s biggest tech companies on Wednesday, telling them they must take more comprehensive action against foreign actors misusing their platforms. “You created these platforms … and now they’re being misused,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the top lawyers at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. “And you have to be the ones who do something about it — or we will.”
Feinstein’s remarks came during a blistering hearing of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian meddling interference in the 2016 election. It is the second of three hearings at which representatives for Facebook, Google, and Twitter will speak, following yesterday’s appearance before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) began the meeting by warning fellow senators that the precise influence that Russian interference had in the 2016 election will likely never be known. “What we cannot do, however, is calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election,” Burr said. “Nor can we assume that it must be the explanation for an election outcome that many people did not anticipate.”
But senators dug in against tech companies with questions that, for the most part, were more detailed and sophisticated than those asked by their judiciary committee counterparts asked Tuesday. Feinstein, who attended yesterday’s hearing and asked questions at that hearing as well, expressed disappointment at the tech companies for answers that she said were vague and unsatisfying.
“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” Feinstein said. “You’re general counsels, you defend your company. What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.
“We are not going to go away, gentlemen,” Feinstein continued. “And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do. You have a huge problem on your hands. And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow I’m sure. Because you bear this responsibility.”
In an attempt to stave off federal regulation, the tech companies have announced plans to regulate themselves. Last month Mark Zuckerberg announced a nine-point plan for limiting foreign actors’ ability to influence elections, including new requirements that political ads be labeled and available for public inspection. Twitter announced it would build a “transparency center” where political ads bought on its platform can be publicly viewed.
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill, known as the Honest Ads Act, that would require new disclosures for online political advertising modeled on requirements for print and broadcast media. On Tuesday, one of the authors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked tech executives to commit to supporting her bill. None would. The bill still has just one public Republican supporter in the Senate.