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Here’s another fine message you’ve gotten me into • The Register

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Who, Me? We return to the Cold War in today’s Who, Me? Start your week with suspected sabotage, computer sleuthery, and a satisfying slug of Grand Marnier deep in the heart of 1970s Москва.

It was 1978 and our reader was working for a firm that had just sold a computer to the company that manufactured the Moskvitch.

Sadly now defunct, the Moskvitch was the must-have car of the time for citizens of the Soviet Union (officially, at least). Despite being the butt of a thousand jokes, demand for the vehicle outstripped supply and people found themselves with a substantial wait before they could get their hands on the rear-wheel-drive engineering marvel.

Our reader, who was initially Regomised as “Boris”, but whom we’ve opted to call “Ivan Ivanovich” was sent to the site to investigate multiple mysterious system crashes.

A bit of background: a bespoke application known as “the ‘Quality Control’ system” ran on this computer. “It was actually a messaging system,” Ivan explained, “whereby inspectors at the end of the line could send messages to assembly stations, such as ‘rear door installed upside down.’ I know it seems laughable now, but at that time, this was big business.”

However, there were problems. The system crashed at least once per shift, causing delays in production. “An enterprising salesman took advantage of the problem to sell them more memory, and the fault reduced to once a day (they worked two shifts a day),” said Ivan.

A bit better, but still not right. The company’s top communications experts looked into the problem, but came up empty. And so it was that Ivan who, by his own admission, “knew nothing about comms” was sent to Moscow on a year’s contract as Project Manager and given a simple brief: “Just stop the bloody dumps!”

At the plant, Ivan shared an office with 13 other programmers and a VDU, which had been negotiated as part of the contract. His job title also scored him his own car and a diplomatic apartment. Not really knowing where to start, he fired up the newfangled screen and watched the internals of the computer doing its stuff.

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“I had imagined a dynamic environment,” he said, “with messages flying hither and yon as the treasured vehicles issued forth from the track…”

He did not see that. What he actually saw was a queue of messages sent to one assembly station. A queue that got bigger and bigger until the memory filled up and the computer crashed.

“A little delving,” he told us, “showed that the fancy Italian teletype terminals (3-case: upper, lower, Cyrillic) were put into ‘send’ mode when any key was pressed, and could only return to ‘receive’ mode when ‘send’ was pressed.

“Someone on the track had learned how to silence the poxy terminal – just press a key!”

The bespoke software had no way of knowing what had befallen the terminal and so just kept on sending messages until the computer fell over.

The fix was trivial. Ivan told us it was a mere 13-line patch that added a 255-second timeout on the input. What was not trivial was how to test his work.

“After much negotiation, a meeting was scheduled at the control centre of the production line for midnight-thirty, after the second shift had closed.

“The production manager, the computing manager, the translator, the chief programmer, the protocol (KGB) lady and I – we all assembled in the silent factory.

“I loaded the fixed comms software, started a program which sent regular messages to an adjacent teletype, looked at my watch… and pressed a key. We waited. My watch showed 250 seconds, 255… 256… 257… OMG! And then the tty burst forth, pouring out messages until there were no more.

“The system clock was a little slow.”

He headed back to his apartment through the dark and silent city, a large and suitably adult beverage on his mind.

As for the remainder of this contract – all 45 weeks of it – Ivan didn’t have much to do so amused himself by writing an interactive debugger. Doubtless handy for tracking down issues not related to someone on the production line getting creative with the keyboard. Although the sabotage that had caused the problem in the first place was never mentioned again.

On his last day he brought in six bottles of spirits and he and the programmers made many toasts to the quality of the Moskvitch. It was, he admitted, “a very enjoyable day’s work” and, lubricated by Cointreau and Grand Marnier, the team spoke more than they had for the whole of the preceding year: “They were human after all!”

“I never drove a Moskvitch, though – I had a Lada.”

Ever applied a patch under the suspicious eyes of the intelligence services? Or bought a car with a door fitted upside down? Let us know, with an email to Who, Me?. ®

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SSD belonging to Euro-cloud Scaleway was stolen from back of a truck, then turned up on YouTube • The Register

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In brief Deepmind and the European Bioinformatics Institute released a database of more than 350,000 3D protein structures predicted by the biz’s AI model AlphaFold.

That data covers the 20,000 or so proteins made in the human body, and is available for anyone to study. The proteomes of 20 other organisms, from Zebrafish to E.coli bacteria, are also in there, too, and hundreds of millions of more structures will be added over time, we’re told.

“In the hands of scientists around the world, this new protein almanac will enable and accelerate research that will advance our understanding of these building blocks of life,” said DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis. He hopes that it will be a valuable resource that will be used in the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of diseases.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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