Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pinball wizard

My sister Trish lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

Salem is, of course, famous for witches. And for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. And for the Peabody-Essex Museum.

But the real gem of Salem may well be the Willows, a lovely ocean-side park – with plenty of shade trees, which doesn’t always happen in an ocean-side park; on the other hand, for an ocean-side park, it doesn’t have much beach. There is nothing fancy about the Willows. It’s just a nice place to stroll around on a nice summer evening, especially if you stop at Hobbs – home, I have learned of the first ice cream cone in New England (bless ‘em) – for an ice cream cone. (On the Willows web site, I also learned that “’Blind Pat’ Kenneally introduced Spanish ‘double-jointed’ peanuts to America from his cart” there.)

The Willows also has a couple of kiddie rides – nothing overwhelming or too pricey, and a merry-go-round where you risk breaking your neck getting on and off of one of the horses. There’s also a machine where you can buy a balloon, only the machine was made elsewhere, and has the words “Fanky Malloon” written on it, which we have translated as “Fancy Balloon”. Perhaps we are wrong, and there is something called a fanky malloon out there in a parallel universe.

While it’s hard to top the fanky malloon dispenser, the best thing about the Willlows is the arcade, which has plenty of skee ball, an automated gypsy fortune teller, a moth eaten mechanical monkey band, whack-a-mole, and plenty of old timey attractions. Sure, it has electronic games. But it also has pinball machines.

I never saw a pinball machine growing up. Not that I would have hung out any place that had one – Friendly’s certainly didn’t  – but did Worcester even have any pinball machines?

Nonetheless, when I’m on occasion at a beach arcade, I do tend to gravitate towards the pinball machines.

I just like the idea of them.

Thus, a headline on Bloomberg the other day caught my eye: Japan Pinball Maker Tied to IPhone Hack Set for Terror Fight.

Say what?

First off, I was surprised that there’s still a pinball manufacturer out there. Turns out, if there is one, it isn’t Sun Corp., which actually makes digital pachinko machines, pachinko being a Japanese form of pinball. But, to me, digital kind of disqualifies it from being a pinball maker. Pinball just has to be mechanical. Accept no substitutes.

My second question-to-self was ‘what’s pinball got to do with iPhone hacks, let alone terror?’

As it turns out, Sun Corp. has a forensics unit, Israel-based Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization, Ltd., which has been in the news because of the recent set-to between Apple and the US government over getting at the data on the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. Cellebrite was the company that was going to do the hacking.

The thought came to Sun’s CEO that the ability to pick the lock on an iPhone could end up being big business.

Chief Executive Officer Masanori Yamaguchi says his company wants to expand its work countering tech-savvy terrorists. Yamaguchi says he’s willing to spend as much as 20 billion yen ($185 million) to acquire or merge with companies to expand its sought-after data extraction business.

"Demand will never go away," Yamaguchi, 67, said from the company’s headquarters in Aichi prefecture southwest of Tokyo. "Extracting mobile phone data is the fastest way to solve crimes nowadays." (Source: Bloomberg)

Cellebrite has an impressive client list – FBI, CIA, Interpol – and, since Sun acquired it in 2007, its headcount has increased by more than an order of magnitude. The company anticipates that revenue growth will be as much as 20 percent annually.

"There are very few companies like us, and I think this is our strength," Yamaguchi said. "As for the next step, we’re open to the idea of teaming up with companies that possess unique technology in forensics. We will continue to search for an appropriate partner."

“Very few companies like us”? I’ll say.

Of course, Sun being in the electronic spy biz is not as farfetched as it might sound at first. Sun isn’t just a pachinko gamer, it’s been a PC and video game developers, and a maker of mahjong apps for the iPhone. How much of a leap is it to go from a mahjong app to security?

"We’ve been cutting weight of pachinko-related business while becoming increasingly reliant on Cellebrite," said Yamaguchi. "We want to keep improving our technology to provide better services and skills to make the world safe and peaceful."

Admittedly, pinball machines don’t make the world safer. And although they have, historically, kept young guys occupied who might have been up to no good, the pinball machine is probably not an instrument of much peace. But they have put smiles on many a face, including mine.

Next time I’m up in Salem, I may bop over to the Willows for a bit of pinball and a cone from Hobbs. ‘Blind Pat’ Kenneally, I suspect, is long gone, but I will also be on the lookout for double-jointed peanuts.

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