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Robinhood ordered to pay $70m penalty to US regulator — 06/30/2021

Robinhood ordered to pay $70m penalty to US regulator

Robinhood ordered to pay $70m penalty to US regulator

A Wall Street regulator has ordered the retail trading platform Robinhood to pay more than $70m in penalties for causing what it described as “widespread and significant” harm to its customers.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra) announced on Wednesday that it was fining Robinhood $57m and ordering it to pay $12.6m plus interest in restitution to its customers—the largest penalty ever ordered by the regulator.

Among a litany of failures alleged by Finra, widespread technical problems on the platform during periods of high volatility cost some traders tens of thousands of dollars, it said.

Robinhood also allowed thousands of customers to trade risky derivative products when it was “not appropriate” for them, according to the regulator, and gave customers false or misleading information about how much cash was in their accounts, their ability to trade on margin, and the risk of losses on derivatives trades.

Finra cited the death by suicide of a young Robinhood customer last year, who mistakenly believed he had incurred $730,165 in losses on a margin trade. In fact, his account had a balance of $16,000. In a note found after his death, he indicated he did not believe that he had “turned on” margin trading on his account.

For more than five years, Robinhood had “failed to establish and maintain” a system for complying with securities regulations, Finra said.

“Compliance with these rules is not optional and cannot be sacrificed for the sake of innovation or a willingness to ‘break things’ and fix them later,” said Jessica Hopper, head of Finra’s enforcement department.

In response to Finra’s action, the company said: “Robinhood has invested heavily in improving platform stability, enhancing educational resources, and building out our customer support and legal and compliance teams. We are glad to put this matter behind us and look forward to continuing to focus on our customers and democratising finance for all.” (Later in the day, the company also published a blog post outlining how it is trying to better “meet our responsibility to our customers.”)

The penalties come as Robinhood plans a stock market listing to capitalize on a period of explosive growth. The broker dealer has become synonymous with the rise of retail day trading since the start of the pandemic and the boom in “meme stock” trades. It has more than doubled the number of users on its platform in the past year, from 13 million at the end of March 2020 to 31 million currently, according to Finra.

The opening of dubious accounts was another issue flagged by Finra. In the period up to the end of 2018, Robinhood automatically opened many accounts despite warnings of potential identity fraud, including more than 100 accounts where there was a “high probability that the customer’s social security number belonged to a deceased person”. Robinhood also failed to notify Finra of tens of thousands of customer complaints that it was required to report, the regulator said.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

Starlink’s “next-generation” user terminal will cost a lot less, Musk says —

Starlink’s “next-generation” user terminal will cost a lot less, Musk says

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appears on a giant video screen while he discusses Starlink.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said his company’s Starlink division is trying to cut the price of its user terminal from $500 to as low as $250. Starlink has been charging $99 a month for Internet service during its beta phase, plus $500 up front for the user terminal/satellite dish, and it’s losing money on the sale of each dish.

“We are losing money on that terminal right now. That terminal costs us more than $1,000,” Musk said yesterday during a Mobile World Congress Q&A session (see a YouTube video posted by CNET). “We obviously are subsidizing the cost of the terminal. We are working on next-generation terminals that provide the same level of capability, roughly the same level of capability, but cost a lot less.”

Musk noted that “selling terminals for half price is not super compelling” given that SpaceX is planning for millions of Starlink customers. “Over time, we’d like to reduce the terminal cost from $500 to, I don’t know, $300 or $250, or something like that.”

Musk did not provide any specific timeline for lowering the terminal price. Hopefully, the next terminal will be more tolerant of heat. As we recently reported, the current Starlink dishes go into “thermal shutdown” once they hit 122° Fahrenheit, a limit that caused one Arizona customer to lose Internet service for seven hours and has caused shorter outages for other people.

Starlink hits “strategically notable” number of users

Musk rehashed some Starlink plans that were already made public, such as the company’s expectation that it will push latency below 20 ms. He also gave an update on the current number of users and the number of users expected within the next year. “We recently passed the strategically notable number of 69,420 active users,” Musk said. “We are on our way to having a few hundred thousand users, possibly over 500,000 users, within 12 months.”

Starlink could eventually have a few million home-Internet customers in the US. It has a pending application asking the Federal Communications Commission to let it deploy up to 5 million user terminals in the US, up from its current authorization of 1 million terminals.

Starlink is “operational now in about 12 countries, and more [are] being added every month,” Musk said. So far, Starlink has over 1,500 low-Earth-orbit satellites providing data service capable of a combined 30Tbps, he said. “Starting in August, we should have global connectivity everywhere except the poles,” Musk said.

Starlink no replacement for fiber

Musk has repeatedly said he does not view Starlink as a replacement for fast wireline Internet service. “You can think of Starlink as filling in the gaps between 5G and fiber, and really getting to the hardest, most difficult-to-reach 3 percent, possibly 5 percent [of Internet users,” he said yesterday. “It quite nicely complements fiber and 5G.”

SpaceX tells users to expect “brief periods of no connectivity at all” during the beta period. Those outages will presumably become less frequent as more satellites are launched and the service enters non-beta commercial availability, though the need for a line-of-sight connection to satellites will continue to make Starlink less reliable than fiber cables.

Musk touted Starlink’s phase-array technology, saying, “To the best of our knowledge, it is the most advanced phase-array system in the world, so that’s pretty cool.” Because of the phase-array antenna technology on the satellites and ground-based terminals, “you can switch from one satellite that’s moving rapidly overhead to another one and do so at the microsecond level,” Musk said. “You can’t tell as the system is switching over from one satellite to another. There’s no change in latency or jitter from one satellite to another, and a single satellite can illuminate many different user cell spots on the ground.”

Still, Starlink can’t provide enough capacity to serve a huge number of customers in high-density areas. Musk has stated that several times, and he said again yesterday, “We’re well-suited to low- and medium-density areas but not high-density areas. In high-density areas, we’ll be able to serve a limited number of customers.”

Musk also recently said that, while Starlink should be able to provide service to all 500,000 people who ordered it, getting to several million users will be “more of a challenge.” Musk didn’t say yesterday when Starlink will exit beta, though SpaceX has said it will deliver on preorders starting in the second half of 2021.

Cell carriers to use Starlink for backhaul

Starlink will both provide broadband access to users directly and sell network capacity to cellular carriers. Musk said that Starlink has “two quite significant partnerships with major-country telcos that I’d like to be able to announce now, but we defer to our partners to make any announcement” and is “in discussion with a number of other telcos.” Starlink is attractive to carriers in rural areas where they “might have 5G towers but have trouble with backhaul,” he said, adding that Starlink “can be a very cost-effective way of doing data backhaul.”

Similar to fiber and cable ISPs, Starlink plans to have direct connections to “major server centers,” Musk said. “If someone is using YouTube or Netflix, Google search or Xbox, whatever the case may be, the data flows in the shortest possible [path], thus minimizing latency and jitter,” he said. “Even if big chunks of the Internet go down, then you still have connectivity.”

Musk said he expects SpaceX to invest $5 billion to $10 billion in Starlink before it reaches a “fully positive cash flow.” Over a longer time frame, the SpaceX investment could be $20 billion or $30 billion, he said.

“We’ll have to keep investing a great deal after [reaching a profitable state] in order to not be made irrelevant by continued improvements in cellular” and other satellite systems, he said. Starlink has by far the most low-Earth-orbit broadband satellites deployed, but it will face competition from OneWeb and Amazon.

The Code That Built the Web Is Now a $5 Million NFT —

The Code That Built the Web Is Now a $5 Million NFT

Sir Tim Berners-Lee famously gave the source code to the World Wide Web away for free. But now he has raised over $5.4 million by auctioning off an autographed copy as a non-fungible token, or NFT, in a sale through Sotheby’s.

Berners-Lee’s NFT joins eclectic company, including Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, a New York Times column, a Pringles flavor called “CryptoCrisp,” a lifetime coupon code to an online kratom retailer, a lease for a coliving space in San Francisco’s Mission District, a sexually explicit direct message allegedly from the disgraced actor Armie Hammer, and a 52-minute audio file of farts. But this most recent addition to the endless list of collectible NFTs is an artifact with an air of gravitas, a souvenir from a vaunted internet pioneer. Berners-Lee wrote the code while working at CERN in Switzerland in the early ’90s, creating what he called the “WorldWideWeb” from a NeXT computer. In addition to the copy of the code itself, the auction haul included a 30-minute animation depicting the code being written, a scalable graphics vector representing the full code, and a letter Berners-Lee wrote this year reflecting on what it was like to write the code. (Berners-Lee will donate the proceeds, but has not specified where he plans to direct the funds.)

It’s a peculiar moment for internet history buffs. The sale offers an opportunity to feel ownership over a significant bit of history. But it also mashes up two disparate strains of techno-optimism. The code Berners-Lee wrote has not been copyrighted or otherwise protected by intellectual property law since 1993, just a few years after it was created. “He pushed CERN to release it as fully public domain,” says Marc Weber, the curatorial director at the Computer History Museum. “Some people think that was really critical in making the web succeed.” It was a foundational moment for the free software movement, an example of how innovators could push history forward by choosing collaboration over profit. Now, decades later, this iconically free code is finally getting monetized.

Or, sort of. Berners-Lee isn’t selling the actual code, but the equivalent of an autographed copy. The rise of NFTs gave Berners-Lee an opportunity to fundraise off his legacy without attempting to claw back intellectual property rights, which at this point would have been impossible anyway. Thanks to NFTs, Berners-Lee can keep his code in the public domain and simultaneously entice someone to buy a certificate of ownership. Is this commodification directly opposed to the ethos of the open source movement? Well, yeah. But also: If the code itself is still public domain, does it matter, especially when there’s so much money sloshing around?

Berners-Lee doesn’t think so. He told The Guardian last week that the sale doesn’t change anything about the openness of the web, or the code itself. “I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python program that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me,” he said.

But the sale has implications beyond the WWW. As archivist Rick Prelinger wrote in a recent column for WIRED, “Nothing could be a greater cultural and ethical shock to archives than NFTs.” Prelinger argues that monetizing historically significant holdings could make important documents less accessible to genealogists and other scholars without deep pockets. Weber shares those concerns, as the Computing History Museum doesn’t have the deep pockets of independent crypto-millionaire collectors; if minting code as an NFT becomes a standard, collecting historically significant copies of code for the museum’s software library could become more difficult. In some NFT sales, the original digital artifact is subsequently removed from the web—for example, when the makers of the popular meme video “Charlie Bit My Finger” sold the clip as an NFT, they subsequently removed the original from YouTube.

In the case of Berners-Lee’s NFT set, the tokenization doesn’t create any real scarcity because of public domain, and the copy he sold came from a TAR file in his personal possession. But that raises another question: Why bother buying an NFT of work already readily available? That one is simpler to answer. Cassandra Hatton, who ran the auction, compares Berners-Lee’s project to the sales of rare manuscripts, like Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Although countless editions exist, she says, they in no way diminish the desire to own the original.

And even though code isn’t always thought of as something to collect and cherish like a rare manuscript, the excitement around Berners-Lee’s sale underlines that it can be presented as art, something worth preserving for its symbolism as well as its utility. Even seen as a pure art object, though, code turned into NFTs will still stir up conversations about authenticity. Artist Ben Gentilli, who works under the name Robert Alice, has also sold an artistic rendering of historically significant code. His project “Portrait of a Mind” is an elaborate conceptual art piece comprising 40 hand-painted circular canvases embossed with fragments of Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin code; each physical canvas is paired with a corresponding NFT. Alice is supportive of Berners-Lee’s auction, though he too is curious about what the sale means for archiving the digital world, particularly artifacts from the early internet. He suspects some criticism may arise from people who don’t like the idea of retroactively authenticating preexisting code. “The blockchain is supposed to be the moment of genesis,” he says. “The fact that there are these two mismatched time stamps—when Berners-Lee did it and when it was minted—wouldn’t sit well for a blockchain purist.”

Then there’s the pressing issue of the environmental impact of the Ethereum blockchain. Some artists and thinkers who are otherwise deeply invested in viewing code’s artistic potential are resistant to this new wave of commodifying it on energy-inefficient proof-of-work blockchains. “I’m all for finding new ways to support the digital artists, but we live on a finite planet,” says Code as Creative Medium co-author and environmental engineer Tega Brain. Like so many other NFT skeptics, Brain sees the choice to utilize Ethereum as undeniably wasteful. Sotheby’s, as one might expect, disagrees: “The carbon footprint of this particular NFT is negligible,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. If Ethereum-based NFT sales become a standard for selling historical web artifacts, expect continued pushback from not just digital archivists but anyone concerned with how that blockchain impacts the environment as well.

Berners-Lee’s auction takes place as the mania for NFTs subsides. It may be some time before we see a sale as splashy and outrageous as artist Beeple’s $69 million auction in March. The success of Berners-Lee’s sale, though, provides a new case study for how tokenizing history can be wildly profitable, too. While this won’t change the way anyone uses the web, it is likely to have ripple effects in how archivists and collectors approach the storage of digital objects—and how the next generation of computing geniuses decide what to do with their achievements.


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El Salvador’s Race to Be the Bitcoin Capital of the World —

El Salvador’s Race to Be the Bitcoin Capital of the World

Eric Grill is sitting on the patio of a house with multicolored walls, screeches of nearby tropical birds covering his voice as he expounds on the future of Bitcoin in El Salvador. Grill, an American man with blue eyes and short dark hair, is only mildly miffed. “It’s like a jungle here,” he says. “There’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but I have this place for a month. I’m here for the long haul.”

A few weeks ago, Grill listened to El Salvador president Nayib Bukele’s announcement, at a Bitcoin conference in Miami, that the country would adopt Bitcoin as a legal tender—and shrugged it off as the usual politico bluster. When the country actually passed a law implementing Bukele’s promise on June 9, Grill packed his bags and descended to the Central American country. Despite the house’s slow internet and lack of hot water, he’s optimistic.

As the CEO of Chainbyte—a company that manufactures Bitcoin ATM machines converting dollars into the cryptocurrency and vice versa—Grill decided to relocate his company’s production here from China. “We were having a lot of shipping problems with China,” he says. “We’re gonna export them from here to the United States. But we’re going to keep a lot of them here.” He expects that, as the Bitcoin law starts being applied on September 7, El Salvador’s demand for his machines will grow; he is already receiving inquiries from several local banks.

The passing of Bukele’s Bitcoin law has been met with skepticism and worry by essentially every financial institution on the planet, starting with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Bitcoin’s volatility, exemplified by its plunge to about $30,000 this week, after grazing $65,000 in April, has been lambasted as a recipe for financial disaster. Citizens will be allowed to pay taxes in a currency that might depreciate in hours, suddenly draining the government’s coffers. Trust in Salvadoran government bonds is expected to be shattered. Anti-corruption experts worry that local and foreign gangs may take advantage of an announced governmental trust fund to swap bitcoin of dubious provenance with US dollars—El Salvador’s other currency, with which convertibility will be ensured. But one crowd has welcomed Bukele’s initiative with enthusiasm, and that is the bitcoin crowd.

Young, bearded, brash, and fluent in memes, 39-year-old Bukele always had the physique du role to cater to the laser-eye brigade. Since his Miami announcement, he has become a regular on Bitcoin podcasts and English-language crypto-confabs on Clubhouse. Building on his hobnobbing with the crypto-initiated, he has deftly landed more PR coups, announcing that anyone ready to invest 3 bitcoin (today, about $100,000) in El Salvador will be immediately granted permanent residency, and that capital gains on bitcoin will not be taxed. Bukele has also talked up the country’s volcanoes as ideal locations for Bitcoin miners hungry for cheap geothermal energy amid China’s crackdown on cryptocurrency. The volcano touting, in all its Bond villainesque glory, was bound to stick, and now a bunch of Bitcoin entrepreneurs sport volcano emojis—alongside El Salvador’s flag—in their Twitter bios.

The high point of El Salvador’s publicity offensive was the invitation of some 30 Bitcoin entrepreneurs to visit the country and meet with government officials, two weeks ago. Leading the delegation was Brock Pierce, a flamboyant former child actor and current cryptocurrency investor and advocate who last year ran for US president on a pro-technology platform. (Ahead of his visit, Pierce was mocked for tweeting the front page of a Spanish-language Long Island newspaper apparently reporting on his trip, which was nowhere to be found in the newspaper’s online archive. The front page eventually appeared in the archive two days later as a “special edition.”)

Pierce says he is impressed by the government’s drive. “This government is incredibly entrepreneurial,” he says. “They are like just getting things done at lightning speed.” He says that he is working to organize a “big conference” in the country. 

Lauren Bissell, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who later converted to blockchain and Bitcoin entrepreneurship, and was part of Pierce’s delegation, says she was “beyond impressed” by the government figures she met during the trip. 

Yet Bissel admits that the road map to Bitcoin adoption looks very ambitious. “There’s going to be a lot of hours of no sleep. There’s a lot of work to do,” she says. “But I think that the launch will go successfully.”

With the countdown to Bitcoin Day down to just 69 days, the nuts and bolts needed to make the cryptocurrency work as legal tender are still a mirage. Athena, a company that had been initially tipped to install 1,000 ATM machines in the country (and challenged by Bukele on Twitter to deploy 1,500) will start with just 14. Going from volcano emoji to reality will also take time. “What you have in El Salvador is, seemingly, an abundance of geothermal energy and, at least for the time being, a friendly jurisdiction,” says Alex Brammer, vice president of business development at Luxor, a cryptocurrency mining company. “Providing the infrastructure there is going to take years.” Even the Bitcoin law looks like unfinished business: Its redrafting of an entirely new monetary system is hastily sketched in two pages and 16 articles, which is why a more detailed regulation is expected to be issued soon.

What is really Bukele’s game? One oft-repeated case for his move is that Bitcoin would be “banking the unbanked.” That fusty mantra is usually balderdash, but it might have some merit here, as 70 percent of El Salvador’s population does not have a bank account or access to easy payment solutions. By this line of thinking, a government-backed Bitcoin wallet, as a smartphone app, could arguably reach more people than existing banking service providers do, and might offer a convenient, low-commission medium for the Salvadoran diaspora to send back remittances. A small-scale Bitcoin project in El Zonte—a seaside town in northern El Salvador—was moderately successful in making the local economy function more efficiently and is credited for inspiring Bukele. In this reading, Bukele is the edgy maverick wielding liberating technology to lift his people from the state of deprivation to which financial institutions have consigned it.

There are problems, however, with that narrative. Some have pointed out that only 45 percent of the country’s population has internet access—and that an internet connection will be required to use the app. Ricardo Barrientos, chief economist at ICEFI, a Guatemala-based research institute focused on fiscal studies, predicts that Bitcoin will be treated as a “weak currency,” with employers keeping their savings in dollars and using the more volatile Bitcoin to pay salaries to their workers. “This class divide could trigger social tensions—that’s a recipe for disaster,” Barrientos says. The report Barrientos cowrote for ICEFI on this subject subtly suggests that by making Bitcoin legal tender without installing any anti-money-laundering checks, the government plans to encourage a “certain kind of acquisitions or investments” by creating a parallel market where “opaque operations” can take place.

Barrientos expects Bukele to backtrack before September 7 under pressure from international financial institutions and of some of his own advisers. Were that not to happen, Barrientos hopes that Bitcoin won’t catch on among the population. “The best-case scenario for it is that no one uses it and everyone keeps using dollars, apart from some narcos,” Barrientos says. “Hopefully there will be a natural debitcoinization.”

Like other critics, Barrientos dismisses the whole enterprise under the rubric of Bukele’s dangerous antics. The president is widely criticized for his links to corrupt individuals and browbeating of the judiciary, all the while enjoying an incredible level of popular approval. For Barrientos, Bukele’s embrace of Bitcoin is just a “political show,” a bit of muscle-flexing aimed at demonstrating that “he can pass almost any law.”

A third way of looking at this falls somewhere in between the “Bukele-as-a-genius” and the “Bukele-as-Nero” arguments—and it is, simply, that Bukele loves the buzz. The cryptocurrency world is reeling from China’s repression of Bitcoin mining (over 60 percent of which was taking place in China as of April 2021). In the US, Bitcoin is in for a regulatory battering as nearly everyone from Elon Musk to Elizabeth Warren is chastising the technology for its energy consumption and potential involvement in criminal deeds. Bitcoin needs a safe redoubt, and along came El Salvador, ready to be just that. Regardless of whether El Salvador’s unbanked are eventually banked, if Bukele manages to get the crypto industry to come basking in El Salvador’s sun for a while, he may color himself satisfied. Until recently El Salvador was mostly known for having the world’s highest murder rate—now, it has graduated to farsighted Bitcoin proving ground. Interestingly, neither Bissell nor Pierce or Grill appear worried by El Salvador’s crime or gang violence.

This image may contain Game, and Gambling

The WIRED Guide to Bitcoin

The cryptocurrency represents amazing technological advances. Bitcoin has a way to go before it’s a a true replacement for, or even adjunct to, the global financial system.

“Crime is a problem everywhere: violent crime, specifically. In my presidential run, you can see some of what I had to say about criminal justice reform,” Pierce says. “The best way to address these issues is typically by creating opportunity and economic prosperity.”

It is worth wondering whether the advent of cartloads of English-speaking, techno-literate bitcoiners on their shores will necessarily elicit Salvadorans’ joy. Pierce’s own initiative, launched in 2018, to establish a crypto hub in hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico was met with hostility by some locals. But El Salvador might be just the first of a string of small, relatively poor countries gunning for a piece of the spurned crypto-elite. Last week, rumors about Paraguay also making Bitcoin legal tender made the rounds, before legislators clarified that that was not the case, even if a “digital assets” bill is in the works. Panama is working on its own bill which, according to Aldo Antinori, cofounder of the Panama Digital Blockchain Chamber of Commerce, is likely not to focus only on Bitcoin and will be “broader” and “more inclusive” of other cryptocurrencies.

Pierce, who claims he has become the first port of call for many national leaders looking into Bitcoin’s opportunities, is bracing for a deluge of phone calls. “Panama, Brazil, Nicaragua—half of Latin America, almost half—is now looking into it. I mean, I was on the phone with another prime minister this morning,” he says. “It looks like El Salvador has just kicked off a chain reaction.”

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK. 


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Crucial Tech Like Email Is Still Failing Trans Employees —

Crucial Tech Like Email Is Still Failing Trans Employees

When I came out as trans at 49, I knew there were many battles ahead of me. I didn’t expect email would be what made it clear I did not belong.

Shortly after transitioning, I took an engineering role at a tech company where I’d worked previously. I was excited to return. On orientation day, I waited in line watching other new hires receive a laptop, find a seat, and set up their accounts. When it was my turn, the employee checking me in gave me a puzzled look: My email account somehow already existed, but with someone else’s name. “Well,” I said, “I transitioned while I was gone. I used to have a different name.” The employee, caught off guard, apologized and then went to talk to her manager. When she returned, she told me it was not possible to update the name on my account. I would have to use my previous email address with my deadname. The system was not designed for someone like me.

I explained that using my deadname wasn’t acceptable. It would confuse my new coworkers and ensure that my first conversation with them would be about my gender identity and not my new job.

For the rest of the morning, while I waited for a solution, I watched my fellow new employees receive welcome emails from colleagues and managers and continue with onboarding. The problem was straightened out thanks to my persistent manager, but I already felt behind and like I wasn’t a priority. No one should feel excluded on their first day of work, and I doubt any organization wants their new hires to feel that way.

Transitioning came with so much at stake, from how it would impact my family and my loved ones to what it meant for my career. Email is the last thing that I, or any trans person, should have to worry about.

Many trans people face similar difficulties updating workplace systems where their names and genders appear. Often, these systems can’t be edited, are tied to legal documents, or offer narrow options. These limitations make it difficult—often painfully so—for trans and nonbinary employees to fully focus on their jobs and contribute to their organizations.

Tech companies are known for being cutting-edge, for driving impact and change. I’ve spent my life working toward these goals at some of the most exciting companies in the world. Yet even at the most ambitious, forward-looking among them, fundamental platforms like email and HR are failing trans and nonbinary employees. Tech companies, which pride themselves on using technology to solve problems and offering the best possible work cultures, should be pioneering the solution.

Many of these companies are vocally supportive of LGBTQ+ employees and update their logos with rainbow colors each June. Many even provide supportive benefits and crucial employee resource groups. But despite even good intentions, their HR systems say something different entirely: that a subset of people is at best an afterthought.

Organizations cannot wait until they encounter their “first” nonbinary or transitioning employees to ensure their HR systems are inclusive and supportive. Can you imagine a benefits package that allows for only one child, because no current employee has more than one child? Or HR software that can’t accommodate an employee birth date earlier than 1990, because no one older has ever worked there?

Workplace systems and software must allow employees to define themselves, instead of being defined by presumptions about gender, pronouns, and legal names. Building inclusivity as a default should also apply to authentication systems, communications tools, and productivity software. It should be easy to not only change personal information and profile photos but also to remove past references to information like pronouns or names.

This problem is not unique to workplace tech. Updating names and pronouns is a painstakingly difficult process across legal documentation, publications, and online accounts. For example, in the coding world, an engineer cannot change the name associated with their git commits (which save progress on a coding project and allow others to contribute) without rewriting the history of everything they’ve built. User IDs should be changeable without an employee losing access to their profiles. If the technology does not yet exist to make this possible, it’s time we start building it.

Organizations, led by their HR and executive teams, have a responsibility to ensure the tools they use work for all employees, current and future. The tech companies that build these platforms have a responsibility to design their software to be inclusive by default. When companies build these features into products from the beginning, it creates a multiplier effect that helps customers and partners to be inclusive as well. Doing the right thing becomes the easier thing because the system is set up that way.

When inclusivity works well, it works in a virtuous cycle. In order for any company to build products that work for the widest possible set of customers, they need a diverse team. For example, I’ve seen LGBTQ+ engineers flag product features that could unintentionally “out” a user. I’ve seen women engineers speak up and correct ways in which app settings could be used to stalk or harass a user. These are crucial viewpoints when developing a product. But building a diverse team is only possible when the systems and technology used daily are inclusive.

Supporting trans employees, and LGBTQ+ employees more broadly, is a human issue that requires human solutions. Workplace technology is an important enabler that cannot be overlooked. Every decision a company makes, from the vendors it works with to the software it uses, should reflect its values and its commitment to employees—even and especially if those employees aren’t in the majority.


WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.


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Perk Up With the Best Latte and Cappuccino Makers —

Perk Up With the Best Latte and Cappuccino Makers

A good latte or cappuccino is like a rich, milky mug of heaven. Just writing about these delicious, warming drinks makes me want one. Sadly, creating the perfect cap or caffe latte at home can be a hassle. Making a barista-worthy espresso is tough enough, but adding the right amount of milk and foam, perfectly heated and combined, is surprisingly daunting.

In mid-2018, I dove headfirst into the world of advanced coffee devices to find out what makes them tick … er … hiss. I’ve tried more than a dozen machines with latte and cappuccino functionality. Some made pure espresso using coffee-shop-style portafilters and came with milk canisters for frothing. Others relied on single-use pods with separate foamers. A few even came with legit steam wands and advanced options. Here are the best latte and cappuccino machines I’ve found.

Be sure to read our guide to portable espresso makers, the best cold-brew coffee makers, as well as our many other buying guides.

Updated May 2021: We’ve added the Subminimal Nanofoamer milk frother, information about the Breville Bambino, updated our help section, and updated links throughout. 

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Best Overall

Photograph: Mr. Coffee

This Mr. Coffee machine sits at a comfortable intersection where ease of use, automation, and affordability meet. It can extract a flavorful espresso from almost any beans and grind, and its milk reservoir will automatically mix a cappuccino or latte for you.

This is basically a sturdier, better-designed version of the Mr. Coffee Café Barista, our affordable pick, with a nicer portafilter basket that takes ESE espresso pods and a larger milk reservoir that snaps in more firmly. Like the cheaper version, you have to load coffee into the portafilter basket and twist it on (use a fine grind and tamp it down with some pressure for the best taste), but the machine can mix a cappuccino or latte macchiato for you at the press of a button. It has two sizes of each and a manual mode that will just keep foaming or extracting espresso until you tell it to stop.

On the downside, you’ll need to clean the milk canister at least once a week. (You can keep it in the fridge.) It also won’t extract quite as much rich espresso flavor as the Breville machines below, but it is a lot easier to use. One day, for fun, I put standard Maxwell House coffee into it. The result was definitely Maxwell House-like espresso, but it was still an acceptable Maxwell House espresso—good to the last drop™. It pulls as nice an espresso as it can from almost anything.

Buy Mr. Coffee One-Touch Coffeehouse for $260 from Amazon


Better Taste, High Learning Curve

Photograph: Breville

The Breville Barista Pro is a coffeehouse in a box. The built-in pressure-activated conical burr grinder gives you fresh grounds however you like them, and the pressure gauge and options let you adjust the water temperature and shot amount. You have to froth your own milk, and the steam wand makes it easier than the competition, with a handle and the ability to tilt in any direction. It cleans itself, and you can get hot water from the machine to brew tea or make an Americano.

Previously we recommended the Express model because it’s a bit cheaper, but it was also more difficult to use. The Pro has revamped the controls, and operating it is much simpler and more intuitive. All the accessories you need are included here: a stainless steel milk jug, magnetic tamp, trimming tool, and more.

The Barista Pro isn’t cheap, and it’s probably overkill if you already own a burr grinder, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a sturdier, more authentic latte and cappuccino machine that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars. If you don’t mind wading through the manual, the Barista Express ($600) is another good option.

(Tip: Use the double-walled filters—they deliver better crema—and when heating your milk, try to position your steam wand just below the surface. If you have it right, the milk will spin as it’s heating. Slowly lower the jug to add foam.)

Buy the Barista Pro for $700 from Amazon


Best Latte for Your Dollar

Photograph: Mr. Coffee

The Café Barista is perfect if you want pure espresso and a machine that mixes the milk for you without much fuss. It’s plastic and lightweight, which means you have to steady the machine with your hand as you twist the portafilter into place, but other than that it makes fairly rich single or double-size espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes with the push of a button.

Like the Mr. Coffee One-Touch Coffeehouse, this machine’s integrated milk container has its pros and cons. You will have to remember to remove and refrigerate it each morning and clean it every few days or it could clog up—cleanup is easy, thankfully. Milk tends to come out a little foamier than I prefer for a latte, and it took me some time to understand what size glass I needed for each drink. (A double latte, for instance, is 15 ounces, but a double cappuccino is only 10 ounces.) The slide-out booster is nice for smaller glasses.

Buy the Café Barista for $180 from Amazon


Best for Compact Kitchens

Photograph: Breville

If you want to play at being a barista but have a small kitchen, take a look at Breville’s new Bambino Plus. This machine has a remarkable number of features squeezed into a compact countertop footprint of 7.5 by 12.5 inches. It doesn’t have a burr grinder like the Barista Pro—and has a similarly high price—but it comes with the same high-quality accessories, such as a tamp and measuring tool.

I found the learning curve on the Bambino Plus to be very steep. You fill up the water tank, fill the portafilter basket and the milk jug to the indicated fill lines, slide them into their respective spots, and push a button. In my testing, the two-shot setting outputs a little less than the advertised 2 ounces of espresso.

However, as with the Barista Express, this isn’t a latte machine for someone who wants a quick, convenient cuppa. The Bambino Plus requires attentive maintenance, whether you’re washing out the drip tray or purging and wiping down the steam wand. Still, I found it fun to painstakingly replicate a process that I’ve seen so many times from the other side of the counter.

Breville also makes a slightly pared-down version of the Bambino Plus, called the Bambino. It’s nearly as capable as its more expensive sibling but lacks a manual brew button, and it’s a bit lighter. That means you’re essentially stuck with Breville’s one- and two-shot settings. You can time your own espresso shots, but it’s a bit fiddly and requires holding one of the brew buttons. If you’re not careful, that new shot timing can overwrite the original one- or two-shot setting. If you’re only ever going to use the one-or two-shot options and don’t really mind not being able to easily pull your espresso by hand, the Bambino is a great pick and saves you a bit of cash. 

Buy the Bambino Plus for $600 from Williams-Sonoma

Buy the Bambino for $300 from Williams-Sonoma


Most Convenient, Easiest Cleanup

Photograph: Keurig

I love this machine. It’s the best Keurig I’ve used (8/10, WIRED Recommends) and has the best frother of any machine I tested for this guide. Despite the fact that the K-Café doesn’t technically make espresso shots (the K-cup system doesn’t put its grounds under any pressure), it still makes a delicious “espresso style” 2-ounce shot that can taste almost as strong, though without the crema that you might desire.

The real magic is the frother. It has three settings—cold, latte, and cappuccino—and froths milk to perfection with the tap of a button. When it’s done, simply pour your milk with the spout on the side. The jug is made of stainless steel, and the plastic spinner comes right off, making cleanup as easy as a quick run under the faucet. It was so simple to use and clean that I sometimes frothed milk with it even when I used other machines to make my espresso. I liked it so much, I didn’t even mind that the spout on the frother was designed for right-handed folks. This lefty was happy to adapt.

Another bonus? While Keurig’s single-use coffee-pods used to be hard on recycling systems, they are now 100 percent recyclable. Keurig also makes reusable coffee filters; we suggest sticking to the branded ones, as we’ve found the cheaper dupes to be unreliable. 

Buy the K-Café for $170 from Amazon


Best Hand-Pump Espresso

Photograph: JEFFREY MICHAEL WALCOTT/Flair

If you want to add the feel of a 1950s Italian café to your kitchen, the Flair Pro 2 not only looks the part but brews a great espresso too. It’s entirely human-powered. There’s no cord, no need for anything other than a little pressure from your arm. As a bonus, it comes with a little carrying case if you want to take it work, camping, or wherever else the need for a shot of espresso strikes you.

The Flair is simple to use. You can see the process in the company’s very helpful video guide to brewing. It’s also built like a tank, and cleanup is just a matter of dumping the espresso and rinsing out the portafilter. If you want a latte or cappuccino, you’ll need a separate milk frother like this one from Secura ($38).

Buy the Flair Pro 2 for $309


Cheap, Simple Espresso

Photograph: Amazon

If all you want is a dead-simple espresso maker and frothing wand, this De’Longhi works well considering its $100 price tag. Espresso comes out tasting as rich as you’d expect, with a healthy head of crema thanks to the 15 bars of pump pressure.

The water tank can be removed for easier cleaning, and the drip tray slides out so you can rinse off any spills.

Buy the De’Longhi Espresso and Cappuccino Maker for $129 from Amazon


Best Handheld Milk Frother

Photograph: Subminimal

Sometimes making a whole latte or cappuccino using an automated machine can be a time suck. Not to mention, sometimes all you really want is frothy milk. That’s where milk frothers come in. These machines beat air into milk, or milk substitutes, to get that nice creamy froth. 

Most frothers make a stiff frothy foam that sits on top of the milk, which isn’t great for lattes or cappuccinos. Properly textured milk is creamy, light, airy, and never stiff or separated. That’s why our current favorite is the Nanofoamer from Subminimal. 

A darling on Kickstarter, the Nanofoamer is now a real product. It looks like a very tiny immersion blender, which is more or less what it is. It has two distinct screens that fit over the blade: one for fine-textured milk and another for ultrafine-textured milk. The difference is subtle, but the fine filter creates milk that’s a bit bubblier than the ultrafine filter. The filters allow the Nanofoamer to do what baristas do with a steam wand: It textures your milk for that perfect, creamy top. 

Buy the Subminimal Nanofoamer for $40 


Machines That Didn’t Make the Cut

Keurig K-Latte ($90): The K-Latte is an admirable, affordable little Keurig with a traditional electric frother on it. It can put out a concentrated shot like the K-Café we recommend, but the frother isn’t any better than one you can buy separate, and its nonstick coating sometimes requires a gentle scrub.

De’Longhi Lattissima One ($380): My house has had a Nespresso in it for years. Nespresso isn’t as flavorful as a freshly brewed shot from a coffee shop, but it’s fast and does the trick. There are other Nespresso makers with frothers, but De’Longhi’s Lattissima One is an elegant little machine with a solid 19 bars of pressure. This used to be one of our picks, but it ended up springing a leak and getting water everywhere. It’s not a bad machine, but in our experience, and in other reviews around the web, it does not hold up long term.


Questions and Answers

Photograph: Jeffrey Van Camp
How did you test each machine?

To find the best latte and cappuccino makers, I first researched what was widely available, and I stuck to models under $800. I test around a dozen machines for one to three months each (depending on the model), using different types of coffees, pods, and milks. I tried to live with each machine, to a degree, and use them casually, but I also tested the same milk and grounds in each (where possible) to compare milk/froth ratios and taste.

Setup and cleanup were especially important, as was durability. The entire point of a device like these is to save time and energy and/or produce a drink of higher quality than can be made without it, so we didn’t recommend any products that didn’t produce tasty espresso and save time.

How do you make a latte, cappuccino, or macchiato?

Here’s a quick way to remember the difference between a latte and a cappuccino: Traditionally a latte is more milk than coffee, with no foam on top, and a cappuccino is equal parts coffee, milk, and foam. There are a lot of differing opinions on the exact ratios, but generally a cappuccino is a 2-ounce double shot of espresso (or a 1-ounce single shot), 2 ounces of steamed milk, and 2 ounces of foamed milk. For a latte you’re usually looking at a single or double shot of espresso, 6(ish) ounces of steamed milk, and a bit of foam that mixes with the espresso crema as you pour in the milk. 

That’s why latte art is mostly brown (espresso crema) with little dashes of white (the microfoam from the milk). I sometimes use a spoon to hold back the foam until the end, it’s a great way to make sure you don’t over-foam your latte. But honestly, sometimes I just spoon the foam on afterward because foam is delicious.  (I have yet to try to make latte art.)

To make a macchiato, you do a lot of the same things but in a different order. Instead of adding your steamed and frothy milk to your espresso like you do for a latte or cappuccino, with a macchiato the milk comes first. Then you add the espresso into the milk. This essentially eliminates the espresso crema and delivers a smoother drinking experience. An easy way to remember: Macchiato means “stained” in Italian, and when you pour the espresso into the milk the milk froth on top has a little coffee stain on it. 

Which beans should you buy? 

Even if you’re not making espresso, the first and best thing you can do to dramatically improve your morning coffee is to buy locally roasted beans, full stop. Plug your city or region and “locally roasted coffee beans” into Google and you will be glad you did. The reason that your locally roasted coffee will taste worlds better than anything you’d buy from a major coffee roaster (like Starbucks, Illy, or Gevalia) is simple: Coffee grows in only a few regions of the world, and it starts to lose flavor the moment it’s roasted. 

When your local roaster buys coffee they’re buying raw coffee beans. (Technically they’re pits from a particular kind of cherry.) These have a pretty long shelf life in this state. They’re stable, and their flavors are locked away and safe. But once you roast a coffee bean you start a countdown. The flavors we all know and love are the result of oils and volatile organic compounds in coffee being heated and released in the roasting process. Similarly to cooked veggies, those flavor compounds start to break down and start losing flavor the moment they are roasted. 

Start thinking of coffee beans as a cooked food item. They’re not raw potatoes, they’re baked potatoes. And would you eat a baked potato that was cooked months ago and spent even more weeks or months in a shipping container? That’s why you should buy locally roasted beans, and why you should never buy expensive coffee imported from outside your own region. 

That goes double for luxury coffee brands that advertise their European origins. Coffee does not grow in Italy or France or any other part of Europe, so you will always be buying beans roasted thousands of miles away that spent an unknown amount of time in transit before they reached you. Even if you ordered a bag of killer coffee beans from (and roasted in) a coffee-producing region of the world, it’s not going to arrive before those flavors start to turn. Trust me, buy from a local roaster. You won’t regret it.

What else do you need? 

Ground Coffee: If you haven’t made espresso before, and you don’t have access to a coffee grinder, I still recommend you buy locally roasted beans. Just ask your barista for a fine (espresso) grind. We tried a lot of preground espresso blends from popular companies like Lavazza, Gevalia, and Café Bustelo. They were all very dark and very bitter, partially because they are all either imported or roasted in big batches and shipped all over the world. Grinding coffee is another thing that makes it start to degrade. Use your freshly ground, locally roasted beans within two weeks or you’ll be drinking dark, bitter, acidic, and kind of funky coffee.

Distributor & Tamp: A lot of machines come with a plastic tamp, but out of the units I tested, only the Barista Express had a proper distributor and tamp. I immediately began using it for other machines. You’ll need to check the size of your portafilter (it’ll say in your machine’s instruction manual), but this combined distributor and tamp is a good pick for most machines. 

Stainless Steel Frothing Pitcher: If your latte maker comes with just a steam wand (like the Hamilton Beach machine on this list), you’ll want to invest in a frothing jug. This $13 Star Coffee Frothing Pitcher is nice because it has measurement scales on the inside, which is helpful if you want to get the right coffee-to-milk ratio.


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This OnePlus Phone Is a Good Deal—Except for the Cameras —

This OnePlus Phone Is a Good Deal—Except for the Cameras

It’s Father’s Day. My mom brings out a cake from the kitchen and sets it in front of my dad. “Take a picture,” she says. My family waits for me to pull my phone out. I test a new phone practically every other week, so they assume I’m using some amazing $1,000 device with 16 cameras and 108-megapixel sensors. But today, they assumed wrong. I keep my phone in my pocket and instead ask my brother if I can use his.

I’ve been using the OnePlus Nord N200 5G for several weeks, a cheap Android handset from the company known for making affordable (and increasingly not so affordable) high-end phones. OnePlus’ current strategy is to try to corner the low-end smartphone market with cheaper models that retain some of the glossy, sleek mojo of its pricier options. I really like the $300 Nord N10 5G it debuted earlier this year. The new N200 5G shaves off another $60, coming in at just $240. 

It’s amazing to see premium features like a 90-Hz screen refresh rate, 5G connectivity, a massive battery, and a slick design in such an affordable phone. Unfortunately, over the weeks I’ve been using it, I’ve found myself taking fewer and fewer photos. The camera system just isn’t very good, which you might expect for such a cheap phone. But you shouldn’t have to settle for less from a company whose slogan is “Never Settle.”

Cheap Thrills

If you rarely open the camera app, then there’s a lot to like here. Despite the plasticky build, the N200 5G doesn’t feel like a cheap phone. Its narrow frame fits nicely in my palm, though parts of the 6.49-inch screen can be hard to reach with my thumb. The screen itself has slim bezels and a hole-punch selfie camera, so it looks quite modern.

The blue gradient sheen on the matte plastic back gives it an air of elegance, but you may want to still slap on a case—the coating gathered some odd smudges over a few weeks, and I can’t seem to remove them. As for water resistance, the Nord N200 hits the bare minimum with an IPX2 rating; it can withstand some water splashes (think light rain) but not much more. 

There’s a USB Type-C charging port, a MicroSD card slot to expand the 64 gigabytes of built-in storage, a headphone jack, an NFC chip for contactless payments, and a reliable fingerprint sensor on the side of the phone that doubles as the power button. All standard-fare features in cheap phones. The real standout here is the screen.

It’s still an LCD, so you don’t get the inky blacks or always-on display afforded by OLED panels, but the screen does have a 90-Hz screen refresh rate. Typically, phones in this price range use 60-Hz panels, meaning the images refresh 60 times per second. By increasing that refresh rate to 90, you’re now seeing 90 images per second; everything from scrolling Instagram to playing games feels a bit smoother. The highest-end phones offer 120-Hz screens, but the N200 is among the cheapest phones in the US with specs that come close enough. Even 90 Hz is a great improvement.

Couple this spec bump with surprisingly decent performance thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G chip, and you get a phone that can handle most tasks well. Even games like Alto’s Odyssey and Pako Forever ran just fine. That said, the paltry amount of RAM (just 4 gigabytes) shows its limitations. You will run into slowdowns frequently. Juggle multiple tasks and switch between apps quickly and you’ll see the processor gasping as the on-screen animations stutter and crawl. The Moto G Stylus 5G I recently tested has the same chip but with 6 gigabytes of RAM, and it operated much more smoothly (it also costs $160 more).

Outside of the 90-Hz screen, which is also sharp and gets decently bright outdoors, the second notable highlight is the 5,000-mAh battery cell. It easily got me through two full days of average use. It’s nice not needing to plug in a phone every night.

Then there’s 5G, which is not too common yet in sub-$300 phones. There are a few caveats though. First, 5G only works on T-Mobile’s network, so if you’re on AT&T or Verizon, this phone will only use 4G. On T-Mobile, it only supports sub-6 5G, which is speedier than 4G but nowhere near as fast as the millimeter wave (mmWave) version of 5G that gives you blazing fast internet. That’s par for the course at this price and doesn’t matter, as mmWave is barely available in the US.

More annoying is the fact that you’ll only get one Android update on this phone (the upcoming Android 12), though OnePlus does promise three years of security updates. That’s better than Motorola phones, but a phone like Samsung’s Galaxy A32 5G or the Google Pixel 4A will get much longer software support, which usually helps maintain a prolonged lifespan.  

Vision Quest

You’re getting a fair bit for your money with the N200 5G, so it’s a shame the main 13-megapixel camera has to ruin it. Photos shot during the day seem OK at first, but zoom in for a closer look and you’ll see that many photos resemble oil paintings, a result of aggressive noise reduction; every surface looks smooth with no fine textures. I’ve also got the $300 Moto G Stylus on hand, which has the same camera as the sub-$250 Moto G Power 2021, and the amount of detail in photos from the N200 5G is lacking in comparison.

Some daytime shots look quite nice and are OK for social media, but others not so much. Most of my indoor shots are slightly blurry. At night, even after using OnePlus’ dedicated Night mode, photos are very grainy, not too sharp, and often have a yellow hue. The Moto G Stylus’ results aren’t as bright, but they retain better colors, show far less grain, and the photo subjects appear sharper.

OnePlus also includes a 2-megapixel macro and a 2-megapixel monochrome camera, but I’d rather have seen these omitted, with the resources spent on improving the main camera. Less is more! The Nord N200 just made me want to stop taking photos altogether.

Phone Wars

If your budget is limited to $250 or less and the camera is important to you, then I suggest grabbing Motorola’s Moto G Power instead. It snaps nicer photos, has close to three days of battery life per charge, and offers solid performance. (Its price also frequently dips to $200 or less.) Another budget option is Samsung’s Galaxy A32 5G, which I’m currently testing. It matches the N200 in many respects, but it comes with a longer software support window. (Its price has also dropped to around $200.) If you’d prefer to stick with OnePlus, snag the Nord N10 5G. It’s a very similar phone, but it’s just better across the board.

Alternatively, I suggest saving up your dollars to spend an extra $110 on a Google Pixel 4A, which goes for $350. Better yet, wait for its successor, the Pixel 5A, which is due in a few months. You’ll get smoother performance, a clean Android software experience, an OLED screen that has nicer colors and contrast, and the best camera for under $400.

Not in it for the camera? Then you’ll be satisfied with the N200 5G. Just hope no one asks you to take a picture for them.

The Experimental African Houses That Outsmart Malaria —

The Experimental African Houses That Outsmart Malaria

When Steve Lindsay first traveled to Gambia in 1985, he met a man living in Tally Ya village whom he remembers as “the professor.” The professor knew how to keep the mosquitoes away.

That’s a big deal for people who live in this small West African country, which serves as the namesake for one of the most deadly bugs on the planet: Anopheles gambiae. “It’s probably the best vector of malaria in the world,” says Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Malaria kills 384,000 people a year in Africa, 93 percent of whom are under 5 years old. The mosquito exploits human behavior by feeding at night when people are sleeping, transmitting the Plasmodium parasite that causes flu-like symptoms, organ failure, and death. “It’s adapted for getting inside houses and biting people,” says Lindsay.

But many houses in Gambia aren’t very well adapted for keeping the mosquitoes out. Sleeping people are an unguarded buffet for the insects, which are attracted to carbon dioxide. A home full of stagnant, exhaled air, and the complex cocktails of body odor, lure them in like flesh-seeking missiles. Mosquitoes are able to get inside because many of the houses have thatched roofs made of mud and dry vegetation, which often leaves gaps under the eaves. These houses often don’t have windows, and when they do, they don’t always have screens. And while there is an existing solution for this problem—insecticide-treated bed nets—nets exacerbate the uncomfortable heat. That’s a big reason why people don’t always use them.

The professor had figured out that the way to avoid getting bitten wasn’t just nets; it was architecture. He had filled in the holes in his home’s eaves. “We asked him: ‘Why do you do that?’” recalls Lindsay.

“So I get fewer mosquitoes coming in,” he replied.

Outside of their homes, some people build “banta bas,” knee-high stick platforms where they rest on warm evenings. “But his was 2 meters high, under a tree. We said, ‘Why do you build your banta ba up there?’” Lindsay says. Again, the professor replied, the height was a ploy to evade mosquito bites.

So starting in 2017, Lindsay’s team began building small experimental huts to test which designs would keep mosquitoes out and let people remain cool and comfortable. Their tweaks, which ranged from adding small screened windows to raising the homes on stilts, made a huge difference. Some configurations dropped mosquito visits by up to 95 percent. Lindsay’s team published the results in two reports of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface in May.

The results are encouraging to experts who say that improved housing can save children from malaria. “Creating a mosquito-free house does not necessarily mean building an opaque house,” says Fredros Okumu, a biologist with the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania not involved in the work. This evidence shows that comfort and design are not at odds with preventing malaria sustainably, he adds. “It simply means putting together these beautiful design features so that, even if you’re a low-income person in a small house, you can still have a livable house that is also mosquito-proof.”

***

The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050—adding 1.05 billion people—according to a 2019 report from the United Nations. This growth has catalyzed a boom in new housing. Urbanization and luxury developments are increasingly common, but so are “informal” residences that often lack basic infrastructure. These rural homes remain susceptible to mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite. Warm, muggy places with pools of water are prime real estate for mosquitoes like An. gambiae, which lay their eggs in shallow sunlit puddles. Humans have a knack for leaving behind such surface waters, whether in the form of an irrigated field or a large flooded tire print in the mud.

So for that reason, the tests the team ran in 2017 took place near a rice field. The mud houses with metal roofs they built to test what design choices best thwart mosquitoes were intentionally designed to let some in: They all had badly fitting doors, since these gaps reflect a common mosquito entry point in rural homes. Volunteers from the neighboring Welingara village signed on to sleep two per house, and the researchers set up light traps—which lure female mosquitoes with light and suck them into a net with a fan. (Male mosquitoes don’t feed on people or transmit disease.)

Courtesy of Steve Lindsay

Over the next four months, the researchers kept making changes to the homes, then counting the mosquitoes to isolate the effect of each architectural decision. That way they could compare the benefit of, say, having one screened window, or three, or none. “As the area of screening on the windows goes up, the number of mosquitoes declines quite precipitously,” Lindsay says. They caught 95 percent fewer mosquitoes in homes with three large screened windows compared to homes with solid metal “windows.”

What Lindsay’s team found is that mosquito-proofing doesn’t have to mean creating an impenetrable fortress, but can rather be about letting exhaled breath out. Ventilation foils the hungry mosquitoes, because it prevents CO2 from building up overnight. Physicists with the team modeled the fluid dynamics of carbon dioxide in these homes, confirming how airflow breaks up the stagnant clouds that attract mosquitoes. Adding more screened space dropped CO2 levels by up to 36 percent.

“It almost becomes what would be a stealth house,” Lindsay says. “You’re hiding the house and the occupants from mosquitoes.”

The windows also played another role: They made the houses about 1 degree cooler. “This is a real win-win,” Lindsay says. “Because it’s not just about reducing malaria, it’s about getting a good night’s sleep.”

In 2019, the team built another set of homes—this time, ones that could be elevated, harking back to the professor’s extra-tall platform. Mosquitoes tend to hunt only a few feet off the ground, so a raised house, they hypothesized, would get humans out of their way. The wood and tin homes, which sat on stilts, could be raised up to 3 meters above ground with a pulley system, like the kind mechanics use to pull engines out of cars.

It worked. They found that homes raised 1 meter high attracted 40 percent fewer mosquitoes. At 2 meters, it was 68 percent fewer, and at 3 meters, 84 percent fewer.

“I was surprised by how large an impact they saw,” says Kelly Searle, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who did not take part in the study. Searle, who has explored how construction materials, such as brick, mud, and metal, affect malaria transmission herself, says this level of reduction is convincing. “We do see really strong evidence that the housing construction can be protective against malaria infection,” she says.

“It’s really important,” she continues, because bed nets and insecticide spraying aren’t enough. “If we could have additional tools that we can use to prevent malaria, that’s fantastic.”

Adopting this design for new homes or retrofits in real communities will be a challenge, though. “The number of people who will be influenced by [the academic studies] to actually change their home will be quite small,” says Patrick Kelley, vice president of the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International. It’s a hurdle—but it’s not insurmountable.

One path to making widespread change for the growing population would be through building codes that could be enforced by local governments. But another would be changes in consumer behavior: people’s tastes in houses updating as they learn what designs make sense—counterintuitively large windows, for example, but with screens. “I’m more optimistic about the consumer behavior route, putting knowledge into people’s hands,” Kelley says. “There are ways to bring some of that messaging into the home improvement markets where people go to buy wood—to buy screening.”

Lindsay agrees. “The way that architects think about making change,” he says, “is to build something new then get people to look at it and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool!’ and copy it.” If local people see the appeal of these science-based designs, they’ll be more likely to build that way too.

Okumu believes that design is a more sustainable way to control malaria than by using commercial products like bed nets, insecticide, and drugs. The goal is simple: keep mosquitoes from finding humans. “I have learned over the years that we have to go back to the basic biology of the disease,” Okumu says. “And malaria is primarily a problem of poor housing and surface water.”

Lindsay has a large clinical trial ongoing in Tanzania called the Star Homes Project, designed by team member Jakob Knudsen, a Danish architect, testing the resilience of two-story homes with walls made of breathable shade-cloth, inspired by designs from Southeast Asia. The study will run for three years and will track malaria transmission among the kids living in 110 Star Homes across 60 villages, compared to rates for others living in 440 traditional homes.

“They’re really very beautiful,” says Lindsay.

Each home has beds upstairs from an airy screened living space. Wind flows in, exhaled breaths flow out, and mosquitoes, presumably, stay away. In the evening, lights glow faintly through the translucent walls—yet the house stays hidden in plain sight.


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Black Scientists Find Community—and Plan for the Road Ahead —

Black Scientists Find Community—and Plan for the Road Ahead

Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” kicks off the virtual mixer as people excitedly connect in the Zoom chat. “Love the vibe right now,” says Brionna Davis-Reyes in appreciation of both the DJ and the sign language interpreter, who is also doubling as a background dancer. Davis-Reyes introduces herself as a Yale neuroscientist studying addiction and impulsivity. She’s quickly followed by Tyrone Grandison, a technology executive and co-organizer of the event: “Is the DJ taking requests?”

Alissa Armstrong posts in the chat that she is a biologist who uses fruit flies to study how fat tissue communicates with other organs in the body. Hostess Dani K says yes, attendees can request songs, then gives Armstrong a punny shout-out. “It’s pretty fly what you’re doing, Dr. Alissa!”

It’s the end of the opening day for a conference hosted by Black in X, a network of over 80 organizations dedicated to celebrating the work of Black people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, and a few dozen of the attendees have gathered to network during the day’s final session. For the rest of this week, Black scientists will meet online to discuss their successes and strategize for the road ahead. The conference is the culmination of a year-long push to confront systemic racism in the sciences, catalyzed by the racial profiling of Christian Cooper and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Since then, the Black in X groups have built a community across virtual spaces and advocated for increased representation and recognition by amplifying the voices of Black scholars.

Speaking before the conference, co-organizer Carlotta Berry, an electrical engineer at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said she wanted to create a place where attendees could appreciate all that had been accomplished since last June. “I’m hoping that the conference is a time to really sit down and reflect on what we’ve done—how powerful it is, how important that work is,” she said. After “a year of social justice and trying to impact the world,” Berry emphasized the value of finding time to rest “so that we can stand up and do it again,” she said. “Or do more, or go further.”

The conference theme is “Lift As We Climb,” a summation of the way in which Black in X organization members support each other’s work and experiences. “There are people who have lifted me, and I know that it is my responsibility, in turn, to lift others,” said conference organizer Quincy Brown last week. (Brown cofounded Black in Robotics and Black in Computing.) Earlier versions of communities like these helped her learn to navigate the unwritten rules and expectations of being a Black person in computing.

On Monday, the conference opened with a welcome speech from Samantha Mensah, a chemistry PhD student at UCLA, and Paige Greenwood, a newly-minted neuroscience PhD from the University of Cincinnati. As co-organizers, they reminded attendees of the unity that had been fostered over the past year during a nationwide racial reckoning. The welcome session was followed by a panel moderated by Grandison on software projects developed to combat racial inequities in housing, voting, legislation, and policing.

The rest of the week will include a virtual #BlackInXPoster session in which conference attendees will share their research on Twitter, plus forums on navigating academic and industry careers in STEM, and a conversation on being Black and disabled. On Friday afternoon, the sessions wrap up with a keynote speech by Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist newly appointed to Harvard University who was a leading figure in the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. The conference ends Saturday with a daylong advocacy event for STEM education.

The incident that ultimately led to the creation of Black in X happened just over a year ago, when a white woman called the police on Black science and comic writer Christian Cooper as he was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. Cooper’s footage of the encounter soon went viral, inspiring avid birders and nature enthusiasts to launch the inaugural Black Birders Week, a series of virtual events to celebrate and normalize Black people enjoying the outdoors.

Other fields quickly followed suit: Soon there was Black in Astro Week, Black Botanists Week, Black In Neuro Week, and more—an explosion of Twitter movements celebrating the accomplishments of Black people in STEM. Around the same time, the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag, used by Black scholars to share ways they had experienced racism within academia, went viral, and campus researchers organized #ShutDownSTEM, a global strike to encourage academics to take action for Black lives.

“It felt like a revolution of sorts,” said Jordan Chapman, a PhD student at the University of Georgia who co-organized Black in Archaeology Week and was involved in Black in Geoscience, Black in Science Communication, and Black in Science Policy. “The mentality people had last year was, Why not me? Why not us? Why not now?” Chapman will be moderating the conference’s Co-Founders Corner, a space for Black in X leaders to share tips on hosting a celebration week, starting an organization, and achieving nonprofit status.

By last October, so many organizations had sprung up that Zemen Berhe, a chemistry PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, got the idea to organize something interdisciplinary. “Hey y’all!!” she tweeted. “Can we have a #BlackinXHomecoming?” In February, the Black in X conference website launched with a video campaign for Black History Month, in which community members introduced themselves with arms crossed in an X over their chest, a nod to both the Black in X logo and the Wakanda salute.

For many, the community has provided a sense of belonging in academic spaces where they feel isolated or unwelcome. “This network gave me a family—a professional family of people who care,” said Mani-Jade García, a psychology doctoral student at the City University of New York who will lead a session called #JoyfulHealingSpace at the conference. García said that when he was experiencing homelessness and unemployment, the Black in X community helped crowdsource funds for him to find housing and buy furniture, which played a role in reuniting him with his daughter.

Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a cancer biology and education researcher at the University of Miami, said that Black students deserve to feel like they belong in science. “It is our birthright to be here,” she said, because of the many scientific advancements that came from the exploitation of Black people, like the Tuskegee syphilis study and the “HeLa” cell line taken from Henrietta Lacks that has since been used in cancer, polio, and virus research. On Thursday, Ashad-Bishop will give a workshop on how Black scientists can push for health care equity and increase scientific trust within their home communities.

Others say the proliferation of Black in X movements has heightened the visibility of their work. Berry said she went from being asked to speak about her research only a couple of times per year to near-weekly requests, in part because of her bigger presence on social media. Similarly, García was invited to give his first keynote address at an upcoming conference. “Because I’m visible,” he said, describing the opportunity as an honor. “People see what I’m doing.”

At the institutional level, what has changed depends on who is asked. Mensah said that her department has been supportive of Black in Chem and even launched a grassroots campaign to support the organization. Chapman, on the other hand, said he wants to see more of a focus on retaining Black STEM scholars as well as preparing interested high school students for the rigor of college coursework.

“Originally, we were just asking to be seen, to be visible, to be recognized,” Mensah said before the conference. But now the goals for many Black in X organizations have expanded to include creating opportunities for financial support and pushing for better diversity and inclusion policies. Last February, the group Black in Cancer announced a funded three-year postdoctoral fellowship award to bolster Black representation in cancer research. Black in Robotics plans to require companies who wish to sponsor their organization to show proof of substantial change, such as hiring people of color in leadership positions, before any partnerships can be established.

Already, some of the organizers are discussing making the conference an annual event, as new groups continue to be added to the Black in X umbrella—even some focused on the arts and humanities. García, a cofounder of Black in Mental Health, hopes to see more of a reach beyond the academic sphere by supporting the work of community healers and spiritual coaches in their organization. Berhe wants extracurricular activities to also be included: She has announced Black in Swimming Week to run in late July, just before the Olympic swim competitions.

And while the Black in X network will grow, the organizers agreed it’s also here to stay. “The more we lift each other up,” says Greenwood, “the higher we will rise.”


More Great WIRED Stories
Hackers exploited 0-day, not 2018 bug, to mass-wipe My Book Live devices [Updated] —

Hackers exploited 0-day, not 2018 bug, to mass-wipe My Book Live devices [Updated]

Hackers exploited 0-day, not 2018 bug, to mass-wipe My Book Live devices [Updated]
Getty Images

Update 6/29/2021, 9:00 PM: Western Digital has published an update that says the company will provide data recovery services starting early next month. My Book Live customers will also be eligible for a trade-in program so they can upgrade to My Cloud devices. A spokeswoman said the data recovery service will be free of charge.

The company also provided new technical details about the zeroday, which is now being tracked as CVE-2021-35941. Company officials wrote:

We have heard concerns about the nature of this vulnerability and are sharing technical details to address these questions. We have determined that the unauthenticated factory reset vulnerability was introduced to the My Book Live in April of 2011 as part of a refactor of authentication logic in the device firmware. The refactor centralized the authentication logic into a single file, which is present on the device as includes/component_config.php and contains the authentication type required by each endpoint. In this refactor, the authentication logic in system_factory_restore.php was correctly disabled, but the appropriate authentication type of ADMIN_AUTH_LAN_ALL was not added to component_config.php, resulting in the vulnerability. The same refactor removed authentication logic from other files and correctly added the appropriate authentication type to the component_config.php file.

The post added:

We have reviewed log files which we have received from affected customers to understand and characterize the attack. The log files we reviewed show that the attackers directly connected to the affected My Book Live devices from a variety of IP addresses in different countries. Our investigation shows that in some cases, the same attacker exploited both vulnerabilities on the device, as evidenced by the source IP. The first vulnerability was exploited to install a malicious binary on the device, and the second vulnerability was later exploited to reset the device.

What follows is the article as it originally appeared:

Last week’s mass-wiping of Western Digital My Book Live storage devices involved the exploitation of not just one vulnerability but also a second critical security bug that allowed hackers to remotely perform a factory reset without a password, an investigation shows.

The vulnerability is remarkable because it made it trivial to wipe what is likely petabytes of user data. More notable still was that, according to the vulnerable code itself, a Western Digital developer actively removed code that required a valid user password before allowing factory resets to proceed.

Done and undone

The undocumented vulnerability resided in a file aptly named system_factory_restore. It contains a PHP script that performs resets, allowing users to restore all default configurations and wipe all data stored on the devices.

Normally, and for good reason, factory resets require the person making the request to provide a user password. This authentication ensures that devices exposed to the Internet can only be reset by the legitimate owner and not by a malicious hacker.

As the following script shows, however, a Western Digital developer created five lines of code to password-protect the reset command. For unknown reasons, the authentication check was cancelled, or in developer parlance, it was commented out, as indicated by the double / character at the beginning of each line.

function post($urlPath, $queryParams = null, $ouputFormat = 'xml') {
    // if(!authenticateAsOwner($queryParams))
    // {
    //      header("HTTP/1.0 401 Unauthorized");
    //      return;
    // }

“The vendor commenting out the authentication in the system restore endpoint really doesn’t make things look good for them,” HD Moore, a security expert and the CEO of network discovery platform Rumble, told Ars. “It’s like they intentionally enabled the bypass.”

To exploit the vulnerability, the attacker would have had to know the format of the XML request that triggers the reset. That’s “not quite as easy as hitting a random URL with a GET request, but [it’s] not that far off, either,” Moore said.

Dude, where’s my data?

The discovery of the second exploit comes five days after people all over the world reported that their My Book Live devices had been compromised and then factory-reset so that all stored data was wiped. My Book Live is a book-sized storage device that uses an Ethernet jack to connect to home and office networks so that connected computers have access to the data on it. Authorized users can also access their files and make configuration changes over the Internet. Western Digital stopped supporting the My Book Live in 2015.

Western Digital personnel posted an advisory following the mass wiping that said it resulted from attackers exploiting CVE-2018-18472. The remote command execution vulnerability was discovered in late 2018 by security researchers Paulos Yibelo and Daniel Eshetu. Because it came to light three years after Western Digital stopped supporting the My Book Live, the company never fixed it.

An analysis performed by Ars and Derek Abdine, CTO at security firm Censys, found that the devices hit by last week’s mass hack had also been subjected to attacks that exploited the unauthorized reset vulnerability. The additional exploit is documented in log files extracted from two hacked devices.

One of the logs was posted in the Western Digital support forum where the mass compromise first came to light. It shows someone from the IP address 94.102.49.104 successfully restoring a device:

rest_api.log.1:Jun 23 15:46:11 MyBookLiveDuo REST_API[9529]: 94.102.49.104 PARAMETER System_factory_restore POST : erase = none
rest_api.log.1:Jun 23 15:46:11 MyBookLiveDuo REST_API[9529]: 94.102.49.104 OUTPUT System_factory_restore POST SUCCESS

A second log file I obtained from a hacked My Book Live device showed a different IP address—23.154.177.131—exploiting the same vulnerability. Here are the telltale lines:

Jun 16 07:28:41 MyBookLive REST_API[28538]: 23.154.177.131 PARAMETER System_factory_restore POST : erase = format
Jun 16 07:28:42 MyBookLive REST_API[28538]: 23.154.177.131 OUTPUT System_factory_restore POST SUCCESS

After presenting these findings to Western Digital representatives, I received the following confirmation: “We can confirm that in at least some of the cases, the attackers exploited the command injection vulnerability (CVE-2018-18472), followed by the factory reset vulnerability. It’s not clear why the attackers exploited both vulnerabilities. We’ll request a CVE for the factory reset vulnerability and will update our bulletin to include this information.”

This vulnerability has been password-protected

The discovery raises a vexing question: if the hackers had already obtained full root access by exploiting CVE-2018-18472, what need did they have for this second security flaw? There’s no clear answer, but based on the evidence available, Abdine has come up with a plausible theory—that one hacker first exploited CVE-2018-18472 and a rival hacker later exploited the other vulnerability in an attempt to wrest control of those already compromised devices.

The attacker who exploited CVE-2018-18472 used the code execution capability it provided to modify a file in the My Book Live stack named language_configuration.php, which is where the vulnerability is located. According to a recovered file, the modification added the following lines:

function put($urlPath, $queryParams=null, $ouputFormat='xml'){

    parse_str(file_get_contents("php://input"), $changes);

    $langConfigObj = new LanguageConfiguration();
    if(!isset($changes["submit"]) || sha1($changes["submit"]) != "56f650e16801d38f47bb0eeac39e21a8142d7da1")
    {
    die();
    }

The change prevented anyone from exploiting the vulnerability without the password that corresponds to the cryptographic SHA1 hash 56f650e16801d38f47bb0eeac39e21a8142d7da1. It turns out that the password for this hash is p$EFx3tQWoUbFc%B%R$k@. The plaintext appears in the recovered log file here.

A separate modified language_configuration.php file recovered from a hacked device used a different password that corresponds to the hash 05951edd7f05318019c4cfafab8e567afe7936d4. The hackers used a third hash—b18c3795fd377b51b7925b2b68ff818cc9115a47—to password-protect a separate file named accessDenied.php. It was likely done as an insurance policy in the event that Western Digital released an update that patched language_configuration.

So far, attempts to crack these two other hashes haven’t succeeded.

According to Western Digital’s advisory linked above, some of the My Book Live devices hacked using CVE-2021-18472 were infected with malware called .nttpd,1-ppc-be-t1-z, which was written to run on the PowerPC hardware used by My Book Live devices. One user in the support forum reported a hacked My Book Live receiving this malware, which makes devices part of a botnet called Linux.Ngioweb.

A theory emerges

So why would someone who successfully wrangled so many My Book Live devices into a botnet turn around and wipe and reset them? And why would someone use an undocumented authentication bypass when they already have root access?

The most likely answer is that the mass wipe and reset was performed by a different attacker, very possibly a rival who either attempted to take control of the rival’s botnet or simply wanted to sabotage it.

“As for motive for POSTing to this [system_factory_restore] endpoint on a mass scale, it is unknown, but it could be an attempt at a rival botnet operator to take over these devices or render them useless, or someone who wanted to otherwise disrupt the botnet which has likely been around for some time, since these issues have existed since 2015,” Abdine wrote in a recent blog post.

The discovery of this second vulnerability means that My Book Live devices are even more insecure than most people thought. It adds authority to Western Digital’s recommendation to all users to disconnect their devices from the Internet. Anyone using one of these devices should heed the call immediately.

For many hacked users who lost years’ or decades’ worth of data, the thought of buying another Western Digital storage device is probably out of the question. Abdine, however, says that My Cloud Live devices, which replaced Western Digital’s My Book Live products, have a different codebase that doesn’t contain either of the vulnerabilities exploited in the recent mass wiping.

“I took a look at the My Cloud firmware, too,” he told me. “It’s rewritten and bears some, but mostly little, resemblance to My Book Live code. So it doesn’t share the same issues.”