How you react when your systems fail may define your business

Just around 9:45 a.m. Pacific Time on February 28, 2017, websites like Slack, Business Insider, Quora and other well-known destinations became inaccessible. For millions of people, the internet itself seemed broken.

It turned out that Amazon Web Services was having a massive outage involving S3 storage in its Northern Virginia datacenter, a problem that created a cascading impact and culminated in an outage that lasted four agonizing hours.

Amazon eventually figured it out, but you can only imagine how stressful it might have been for the technical teams who spent hours tracking down the cause of the outage so they could restore service. A few days later, the company issued a public post-mortem explaining what went wrong and which steps they had taken to make sure that particular problem didn’t happen again. Most companies try to anticipate these types of situations and take steps to keep them from ever happening. In fact, Netflix came up with the notion of chaos engineering, where systems are tested for weaknesses before they turn into outages.

Unfortunately, no tool can anticipate every outcome.

It’s highly likely that your company will encounter a problem of immense proportions like the one that Amazon faced in 2017. It’s what every startup founder and Fortune 500 CEO worries about — or at least they should. What will define you as an organization, and how your customers will perceive you moving forward, will be how you handle it and what you learn.

We spoke to a group of highly-trained disaster experts to learn more about preventing these types of moments from having a profoundly negative impact on your business.

It’s always about your customers

Reliability and uptime are so essential to today’s digital businesses that enterprise companies developed a new role, the Site Reliability Engineer (SRE), to keep their IT assets up and running.

Tammy Butow, principal SRE at Gremlin, a startup that makes chaos engineering tools, says the primary role of the SRE is keeping customers happy. If the site is up and running, that’s generally the key to happiness. “SRE is generally more focused on the customer impact, especially in terms of availability, uptime and data loss,” she says.

Companies measure uptime according to the so-called “five nines,” or 99.999 percent availability, but software engineer Nora Jones, who most recently led Chaos Engineering and Human Factors at Slack, says there is often too much of an emphasis on this number. According to Jones, the focus should be on the customer and the impact that availability has on their perception of you as a company and your business’s bottom line.

Someone needs to be calm and just keep asking the right questions.

“It’s money at the end of the day, but also over time, user sentiment can change [if your site is having issues],” she says. “How are they thinking about you, the way they talk about your product when they’re talking to their friends, when they’re talking to their family members. The nines don’t capture any of that.”

Robert Ross, founder and CEO at FireHydrant, an SRE as a Service platform, says it may be time to rethink the idea of the nines. “Maybe we need to change that term. Maybe we can popularize something like ‘happiness level objectives’ or ‘happiness level agreements.’ That way, the focus is on our products.”

When things go wrong

Companies go to great lengths to prevent disasters to avoid disappointing their customers and usually have contingencies for their contingencies, but sometimes, no matter how well they plan, crises can spin out of control. When that happens, SREs need to execute, which takes planning, too; knowing what to do when the going gets tough.

This tactile display lets visually impaired users feel on-screen 3D shapes

Using a computer and modern software can be a chore to begin with for the visually impaired, but fundamentally visual tasks like 3D design are even harder. This Stanford team is working on a way to display 3D information, like in a CAD or modeling program, using a “2.5D” display made up of pins that can be raised or lowered as sort of tactile pixels. Taxels!

The research project, a collaboration between graduate student Alexa Siu, Joshua Miele and lab head Sean Follmer, is intended to explore avenues by which blind and visually impaired people can accomplish visual tasks without the aid of a sighted helper. It was presented this week at SIGACCESS.

tactile display2The device is essentially a 12×24 array of thin columns with rounded tops that can be individually told to rise anywhere from a fraction of an inch to several inches above the plane, taking the shape of 3D objects quickly enough to amount to real time.

“It opens up the possibility of blind people being, not just consumers of the benefits of fabrication technology, but agents in it, creating our own tools from 3D modeling environments that we would want or need – and having some hope of doing it in a timely manner,” explained Miele, who is himself blind, in a Stanford news release.

Siu calls the device “2.5D,” since of course it can’t show the entire object floating in midair. But it’s an easy way for someone who can’t see the screen to understand the shape it’s displaying. The resolution is limited, sure, but that’s a shortcoming shared by all tactile displays — which it should be noted are extremely rare to begin with and often very expensive.

The field is moving forward, but too slowly for some, like this crew and the parents behind the BecDot, an inexpensive Braille display for kids. And other tactile displays are being pursued as possibilities for interactions in virtual environments.

Getting an intuitive understanding of a 3D object, whether one is designing or just viewing it, usually means rotating and shifting it — something that’s difficult to express in non-visual ways. But a real-time tactile display like this one can change the shape it’s showing quickly and smoothly, allowing more complex shapes, like moving cross-sections, to be expressed as well.

tac

Joshua Miele demonstrates the device

The device is far from becoming a commercial project, though as you can see in the images (and the video below), it’s very much a working prototype, and a fairly polished one at that. The team plans on reducing the size of the pins, which would of course increase the resolution of the display. Interestingly another grad student in the same lab is working on that very thing, albeit at rather an earlier stage.

The Shape Lab at Stanford is working on a number of projects along these lines — you can keep up with their work at the lab’s website.

8th Wall’s new Cloud Editor helps customers quickly build mobile AR experiences

The world of phone-based AR has involved a lot of promises, but the future that’s developed has so far been more iterative and less platform shift-y. For startups exclusively focused on mobile AR, there’s been some soul-searching to find ways to bring more lightweight experiences to life that don’t require as much friction or commitment from users.

8th Wall is a team focused on building developer tools for mobile AR experiences. The startup has raised more than $10 million to usher developers into the augmented world.

The company announced this week that they’ve built a one-stop shop authoring platform that will help its customers create and ship AR experiences that will be hosted by 8th Wall. It’s a step forward in what they’ve been trying to build and a further sign that marketing activations are probably the most buoyant money-makers in the rather flat phone-based AR space at the moment.

The editor supports popular immersive web frameworks like A-Frame, three.js and Babylon.js. It’s a development platform, but while game engine tools like Unity have features focused on heavy rendering, 8th Wall is more interested in “very fast, lightweight projects that can be built up to any scale,” the startup’s CEO Erik Murphy tells TechCrunch.

8th Wall’s initial sell was an augmented reality platform akin to ARKit and ARCore that allowed developers to build content that supported a wider breadth of smartphones. Today, 8th Wall’s team of 14 is focused on a technology called WebAR that allows mobile phones to call up web experiences inside the browser.

The main sell of WebAR is the same appeal of web apps; users don’t need to download anything and they can access the experience with just a link. This is great for branded marketing interactions, where expecting users to download an app is pretty laughable; moving this process to the web with a link or a QR code makes life much easier.

The startup’s cloud-based authoring and hosting platform is available now for its agency and
business users.

Take Multiple Pictures of Your Next Flat Tire So You Can Re-Use the Excuse in the Future

Photo: Shutterstock

Evil WeekEvil WeekWelcome to Evil Week, our annual chance to delve into all the slightly sketchy hacks we’d usually refrain from recommending. Want to weasel your way into free drinks, play elaborate mind games, or, er, launder some money? We’ve got all the info you need to successfully be unsavory.

I have a friend who used to love to use food poisoning as an excuse to take a day off work or otherwise avoid things she didn’t feel like doing. It’s a pretty good lie because food poisoning can make you feel really awful but only for a short amount of time. No one will be surprised at how totally okay you look the next day as you lament how very bad yesterday was. Except that this friend used it way too often and I assume everyone must have suspected it was a lie.

That’s why pretending you have a flat tire is better—you can send photographic “proof” and people will genuinely feel sorry for you. I can’t claim full credit for this idea. It actually came from Reddit user u/EROAaron, who says:

If you ever have a flat tire, take a photo of it so you can use it as an excuse to get out of things you don’t want to do.

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The real trick here, though, is to take many pictures from multiple angles. It’s ideal if you can’t even tell which tire it is. (Say later that they were able to patch it, lest anyone wonder why none of the tires on your car look brand new.)

If your car ever ends up on a tow truck, all the better, according to u/WhatDoesAFAIKMean:

I had a tow from before sunrise until the sun was out once. I milked that one. Had “night time” pics and day time pics in different angles and places. Especially great for when I was in college.

Other commenters suggest sending a screenshot of the original photo, rather than the original photo itself, lest some info in the EXIF data gives you away; or scrub the data entirely. However, if your boss or friend or whoever is already suspicious enough to go looking for EXIF data, the jig is probably up anyway.

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One other potential snag? Weather conditions. If your next flat tire happens on a rainy day, you’ll only be able to use it on future rainy days. Still, specific weather can also make it extra believable if you time it right.


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Every Tech Special Section We’ve Published So Far

We published a ton of stories at Lifehacker, no question there. And while I always appreciate those with a strong Google game, you shouldn’t have to bust out your geek skills on a search engine to find the most important articles about your favorite tech topics.

This is why I’ve been hard at work building out a bunch of new Lifehacker “special sections,” as we call them. These digital gathering grounds feature all of our most-important (and most eye-opening) articles around larger topics you care about: your smartphone’s platform, your online privacy, your enthusiastic desire to build your own computer, et cetera.

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Every article in these special sections is hand-picked (by me), and I’m planning to update these giant guides regularly. If you love a particular article, or have a suggestion for one you think we should include in any special section, please let me know in the comments! Otherwise, without any more babbling on my part, let’s get to the list of special sections.

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Data Privacy

It’s a scary world out there. Companies want to know everything you do so they can serve you up enticing advertising. Cybercriminals want to run up your credit card bill, assume your identity, and steal all your passwords. Here’s a look at the major steps you can take to make your data more private and secure—and what to do if a service you love has put your data at risk.

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Wifi

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Wireless networking is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. In this special series, we’ll show you everything you need to know to get a great connection at home—whether you’re looking to buy a new router, use old gear to extend your wifi bubble, or have absolutely no reason why you can never seem to get a great connection from your favorite location in your house.

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Android

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Don’t get overwhelmed by Android’s many (many!) settings and apps. Master your Android phone or tablet with our ample collection of guides, tips, and tricks for Google’s mighty operating system. All Android device owners are welcome.

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to iOS

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Apple’s iPhone is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Instead of spending hours sifting through settings yourself, check out our giant collection of how-to guides and hot takes for Apple’s mobile operating system. And if you’re feeling adventurous, join up with us and try a beta!

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Building a PC

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Building your own desktop PC is one of life’s geekiest pleasures. In this special series, we’ll show you how to do it—not the easiest of tasks for a first-timer—and everything you need to know to keep your system properly maintained. Yes, you need to clean your pretty desktop PC, too.

Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Raspberry Pi

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Everyone wants a tiny little computer that can do it all, but how do you get started? Use this guide to master your brand-new Raspberry Pi—and learn everything it can do for you.

The Best of Lifehacker’s Tech 911 Column

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Every week, Lifehacker’s Senior Technology Editor answers your trickiest technological questions. Here’s a roundup of your most-pressing geeky issues (and favorite responses).

The New iOS Update Is (Probably) Safe for Homepods This Time

The recent iOS 13.2 update introduced some new HomePod features to the iPhone, but many users report that installing the patch left their HomePod speakers bricked. Apple pulled the update in response and promised to release a new build without the HomePod-ruining bug.

The new version—iOS 13.2.1—rolls out today and should be safe to install on your HomePods—at least, we think that’s the case. The iOS 13.2.1 patch notes make no mention of the bug or whether it was fixed, and are identical to the original 13.2 patch notes. Both The Verge and Mac Rumors suggest this may indicate that version 13.2.1 won’t damage HomePod devices since Apple wouldn’t be pushing a new update that it wasn’t confident was safe.

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Then again, the company probably thought the same about the iOS 13.2 update, too, so who knows?

We’ll of course update if 13.2.1 turns out not to be safe, either. We don’t blame you if you decide to hold off a little longer, but for those who want to install the update, here’s how to update to iOS 13.2.1 right now:

  1. First, open your iPhone’s Settings menu then go to General > Software Update to install the new patch.
  2. Once your iPhone has been updated to iOS 13.2.1, open the Home app
  3. Tap “Home” in the upper-left of the screen
  4. Tap “Software Update” to check for any new updates, then tap “Install,” which will update all your connected HomePod devices to iOS 13.2.1.

Note that this only works on HomePods that still operate; it won’t restore functionality to bricked speakers. The only fix for that is to replace your busted HomePods—which Apple may do free of charge even if you’re out of warranty as per reporting by Mac Rumors, but you’ll need to submit the request through Apple Support immediately.

Small satellite startup Kepler opens sign-ups for its IoT developer kits

Kepler Communications, the Toronto-based startup that’s focused on developing and deploying shoebox-sized satellites to provide telecommunications services, is opening up registration for those interested in getting their first developer kits. These developer kits, designed to help potential commercial customers take advantage of its Internet of Things (IoT) narrowband connectivity deploying next year, will then be made available to purchase for elect partners next year.

This kind of early access is designed to give a head start on testing and integration to companies interested in using the kind of connectivity Kepler intends on providing. Kepler‘s service is designed to provide global coverage using a single network for IoT operators, at low costs relative to the market, for applications including tracking shipping containers, railway networks, livestock and crops and much more. Kepler says that its IoT network, which will be made up of nanosatellites designed specifically for this purpose it plans to launch throughout next year and beyond, is aimed at industries where you don’t need high bandwidth, as you would for say HD consumer video streaming, but where coverage across large, often remote areas on a consistent basis is key.

IoT connectivity provided by constellations of orbital satellites is an increasing area of focus and investment, as large industries look to modernize their monitoring and tracking operations. Startup Swarm recently got permission from the FCC to launch its 150-small satellite constellation, for instance, to establish a service to address similar needs.

Kepler, founded in 2015, has raised more than $20 million in funding, and has launched two small satellites thus far, including one in January and one in November of 2018. The company announced a contract with ISK and GK Launch Services to deploy two more sometime in the middle of next year aboard a Soyuz rocket.

Twitter’s New Rules Against Political Ads Could Silence Health Clinics, Too

Twitter will ban all political topics from its paid ads, Jack Dorsey announced this week. But that means “issue” ads too, which that anything can be banned if the folks in charge (or, more likely, an algorithm that they train) considers the topic too political.

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Everything is political, or rather, anything can become political if a politician or followers of a certain politician start talking about it. For example, immigration is simply the word for people moving from one country to another; but if political factions start arguing over things like who should be allowed to immigrate, suddenly immigration is political.

Health care has been similarly co-opted, and rules against political ads are likely to interfere with clinics’ and public health campaigns’ ability to get legitimate messages out. Birth control is an area of medicine that is both important to people being able to run their own lives, and an ordinary everyday thing for many of us. But some political groups have decided that it’s controversial. Abortion, likewise, is health care and yet clinics that want to advertise their location or promote factual posts about abortion are likely to become caught up in the new policy.

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Twitter’s policies state that “Abortion advocacy is prohibited globally except in the United States,” but time will tell whether this and other health care topics run into trouble. The slogan “the personal is political” has never been more true than with health care—not just reproductive health care, but health in general. Insurance, access to care, and more have become part of political discussions.

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Unjust blocking of health related ads is not just speculation. At Facebook, which has different ad policies, health campaigns have had their ads removed for supposed violations. The Daily Beast reports that The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Minnesota Hospital Association both had ads blocked that encouraged people to get their vaccines or that aimed to combat vaccine misinformation. The ads were likely flagged under rules that were intended to crack down on anti-vaxxers, but the Daily Beast found that at least some anti-vax propaganda was getting through just fine.

Facebook also rejected ads from a community health center aiming to raise awareness about PrEP, a type of medication that can prevent HIV infections. Getting the word out is one way of reducing the number of people who contract HIV, but Facebook flagged the ads as being about “social issues, elections or politics” and said that a health center was not authorized to run issue ads.

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Viruses don’t care whether some Facebook or Twitter policy maker thinks they are political. Whether a subject is “political” or an “issue” is a declaration made from outside of the biological and public health reality of what care people need and what choices they make about their lives. But since issue ads are coming under greater scrutiny on both platforms, legitimate health organizations may have a harder time getting their word out, and that’s unfair to people who could benefit from those messages—which is, in some way, all of us.

AT&T Is Selling 4K Apple TVs For Half Price, Just In Time For Apple TV+

Best Tech DealsBest Tech DealsThe best tech deals from around the web, updated daily.

To celebrate the launch of Apple TV+, AT&T is currently offering the Apple TV 4K streaming box for $90, the best cash discount we’ve ever seen on the thing.

Even though AT&T is offering the deal, you don’t need to be an AT&T customer, or sign up for any AT&T services, or really ever have to deal with AT&T in your life ever again as a consequence of buying it.

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The Apple TV 4K is probably too expensive at its usual $180, but it makes a ton of sense at $90 if you own other Apple devices, since it supports AirPlay. It also features Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR support, access to the vast iTunes content library, and now even works with Apple Arcade. You can even pair a DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller to it, and boom, you’ve got a little game console.


Get $10K to Move to Tulsa, Oklahoma

Image: Shutterstock

If you’ve been considering relocating, you might want to consider Tulsa.

Applications are now open for Tulsa Remote, a program that is offering $10,000 to anyone who is willing to relocate to Tulsa for at least a year. The program officially launched this year and is growing for 2020 from just 100 participants to 250. So if you applied last year and didn’t get in, try again—you now have a better chance of scoring a spot.

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If you’re selected, you’ll get $10k in the form of a small grant that is distributed over the course of the year. Additionally, participants are also given a free spot at a local co-working space and access to specially curated housing options (a 2 bedroom averages $658/mo).

In order to apply you need to be at least 18 years old, work for a business based outside of Oklahoma, and be able to move to Oklahoma while maintaining that same employment.

The application process involves roughly a dozen questions, some short multiple-choice questions as well as a few that require short essay-style answers. If you’re planning on applying, I would give yourself at least an hour to go through everything.

If you’re selected, you’ll need to be ready to move to Tulsa within the next year and be willing to stay there for a year once you arrive.

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