FOXTROT/ALFA: German Coronavirus Tracing App, Even More 737 MAX Software Problems, Emojis Delayed

Welcome to FOXTROT/ALFA, issue 97, for Thursday, 9 April 2020! Let’s see what’s been happening in coronavirus tech news…

Germany Sets Ambitious Coronavirus App Roadmap

Germany is confident its coronavirus tracking app, championed by the Robert-Koch-Institut and implementing the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) infrastructure, will be ready in ten days . Meanwhile, I’m trying desperately to reach anyone at one of the dozens of involved organisations, who can tell me any technical details about how this thing is supposed to work. What crypto are they using? How are they generating those supposedly anonymous IDs? That kind of stuff.

Not to mention that I have no idea how they want to get enough installs of this for their concept to even approach something that will work.

More Software Issues on the Boeing 737 MAX

Well, if there’s someone who is a bit glad that the coronavirus lockdown and the ensuing shutdown of a large part of all air traffic has happened, it’s probably Boeing. Gives them more time to fix the clusterfuck that is the software of the 737 MAX. And they do need it.

Boeing is working on software patches for two bugs in its infamous 737 Max’s flight controller – one that causes the autopilot to drop out during final approach, the other a loss of control and subsequent nosedive mid-flight. According to Reuters, Boeing is working on the updates as part of its efforts to get the 737 Max certified as safe to fly again by American authorities.

To be clear, it is said by Boeing that these two bugs, involving the autopilot and stabilization, are new and not related to the faulty MCAS system, which is also being updated during the re-certification process. The newswire reported this week that one of the bugs “involves hypothetical faults in the flight control computer microprocessor, which could potentially lead to a loss of control known as a runaway stabilizer.” That’s a fancy way of saying the nose is pointed down at the ground, which is not good news. The aircraft manufacturer has previously run into microprocessor lock-ups in its 737 Max software.

The second software fix Boeing is reportedly working on is a fix for a flaw that could “potentially lead to disengagement of the autopilot feature during final approach.” While this sounds alarming, “final approach” in aviation terms means the final couple of minutes of flight when the airplane is lined up with the runway and steadily descending. All the pilot has to do is take over from a known steady state, something they already do anyway on final approach in clear weather during daylight; a premature autopilot disengagement merely means the pilot takes over at, say, 3,000ft instead of 1,000ft. It does, however, have implications for automatic landings in bad weather and at night. So-called Category III auto landings rely on the autopilot flying the entire final approach until the aircraft is immediately above or even on the runway; an autopilot failure could cause a stressful, costly, and time-wasting aborted landing.

Interestingly, Boeing told the newswire it doesn’t expect the current in-progress fixes to affect its projected mid-year return-to-service date for the Max. This appears not to take into account the coronavirus-inspired shutdown of the world’s economy, which has halted more or less everything across the West except the supply of food, medication, and hospital treatment, or thereabouts. Sales for the whole of Boeing dropped to historic lows in January as a direct result of the Max fiasco, showing that software development really does make all the difference.

Tails 4.5 Supports Secure Boot

The newest version of the privacy-focused live OS Tails now finally supports booting on computers that have Secure Boot enabled.

According to the Tails website, work began on adding Secure Boot to Tails six years ago, and starting with Tails 4.5, released yesterday, users can now safely enable Secure Boot and run it alongside Tails, out of the box, without having to do anything or run complicated workarounds.

Mitchell Baker Becomes Mozilla’s CEO Again

It looks like Mozilla couldn’t find a suitable new CEO and is going back to Mitchell Baker.

Mozilla Corporation has decided on a known quantity for its next CEO, reappointing chair Mitchell Baker to the position. Baker has been operating in the role on an interim basis since December, following the announcement of the departure of Chris Beard from the CEO role in August. In a blog post, three members of the board, Julie Hanna, Karim Lakhani, and Bob Lisbonne, said after looking at external candidates for eight months, Baker was the pick to be CEO “at this time”. Baker was previously CEO of Mozilla Corporation until the start of 2008, and currently serves as the chair of the Mozilla Foundation.

In January, Mozilla cut 70 jobs, which amounted to 6% of its workforce.


This story is great!

An elderly and reluctant Frenchman was ejected from a French Air Force fighter during a retirement day jolly – and narrowly missed taking the pilot with him, an investigation report littered with unintentional howlers has revealed. The unnamed 64-year-old was éjecté from the two-seat Rafale-B from a height of 2,500ft in March last year after grabbing his ejection seat handle to steady himself, France’s BEA-E aviation investigator concluded.

As he was an employee of a defence contractor, the pensioner’s bosses had no difficulties asking the French Air Force to let him into the back seat of one of its Dassault Rafale fighter jets as a surprise retirement gift. Nonetheless, the unfortunate Frenchman had “never expressed a desire to carry out this type of flight and in particular on Rafale”, which didn’t stop his colleagues luring him to Saint-Dizier air base anyway.

The flight itself was a routine military training sortie for three Rafales, carried out in perfect weather. Our pensioner, heart pounding at “between 136 and 142 beats per minute” (as recorded by his smartwatch), underwent a quick medical exam from a doctor four hours before being shown by the pilot how to put on his safety gear. Unfortunately, no one properly checked him as he clambered into the cockpit – meaning “his [helmet] visor was up, his anti-g pants were not worn properly, his helmet and oxygen mask were both unattached, and his seat straps were not tight enough.” Nonetheless, a mechanic gave them both a cursory check, strapped a Go-Pro to an approved bulkhead mounting point so the hapless passenger’s gurning would be preserved for all time, and nodded to the pilot to close the transparent cockpit canopies.

Things got worse when the pilot took off from northeastern France’s Saint-Dizier Robinson airbase. Rather than the gentle ascent at 10°-15° that airline passengers experience, the Frenchman at the Rafale’s controls carried out a typical fighter jet departure and “climbed at 47°, generating a load factor of around +4G. Then, as he levelled off, he subjected his passenger to a negative load factor of about -0.6G”. Our pensioner, loose in his straps, not really wanting to be there and totally unused to being flung around like a rag doll, reached out to grab something and hang on for dear life. He picked the worst possible handhold: the trigger handle for the ejection seat. After the customary loud bang and whoosh he ceased to be part of the jet’s payload, with the force of the ejection tearing his unsecured helmet and mask from his face.

The Rafale-B’s command ejection system is meant to fire both seats if one of the crew pulls the handle. A very confused pilot, however, was still sitting in his newly canopy-free Rafale wondering what the hell had just happened. He returned to land, conscious all the time that the seat could fire at any moment without warning. Luckily, it didn’t go off. Both the pilot, his reluctant (and probably now aviation-phobic) passenger and the aircraft all landed safely.

“The passenger said he had a complete lack of knowledge of the aeronautical environment and its forces, having never flown on a military aircraft. The surprise effect associated with a lack of military aeronautical experience therefore resulted in creating and maintaining significant stress for the passenger throughout the morning,” concluded a sympathetic BEA-E, which found that “the margins of decision left to the passenger to possibly refuse the flight are perceived as almost nonexistent”.

Holy Shit the Emojis are Delayed

This COVID-19 thing is bad. Very bad. It’s now starting to affect the emojis.

Due to COVID-19, the Unicode Consortium has decided to postpone the release of version 14.0 of the Unicode Standard by 6 months, from March to September of 2021. This delay will also impact related specifications and data, such as new emoji characters.

This announcement does not affect the new emoji included in Unicode Standard version 13.0 announced on March 10, 2020. Because of the lead time for developers to incorporate emoji into mobile phones, emoji that are finalized in January don’t appear on phones until the following September or so. For example, the emoji that were included in Release 13.0 in March 2020 won’t generally be on phones until the fall of 2020. With the delay of the release of Unicode 14.0, the deadline for submission of new emoji character proposals for Emoji 14.0 is also being postponed until September 2020.

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

Also Noteworthy

Some other stories I’ve been reading today:

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