Start Up No.1529: chip shortage to last to 2023?, Google Earth shows climate change, NFT sales go crazy, new iMacs next week?, and more

Cannabis is legal in multiple American states. Could having some help you in your workout? Let’s see! CC-licensed photo by Ivan Radic on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Intel, Nvidia, TSMC execs agree: chip shortage could last into 2023 • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:


How many years will the ongoing chip shortage affect technology firms across the world? This week, multiple tech executives offered their own dismal estimates as part of their usual public financial disclosures, with the worst one coming in at “a couple of years.”

That nasty estimate comes from Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, who offered that vague timeframe to The Washington Post in an interview on Tuesday. He clarified that was an estimate for how long it would take the company to “build capacity” to potentially address supply shortages. The conversation came as Intel offered to step up for two supply chains particularly pinched by the silicon drought: medical supplies and in-car computer systems.

…TSMC chief executive C.C. Wei offered a similarly dire estimate to investors on Thursday, saying that the Taiwan-based company hoped to “offer more capacity” for meeting retail and manufacturing demand “in 2023.” TSMC, coincidentally, is moving forward with a manufacturing plant of its own in Arizona, which Bloomberg claims could cost “up to $12bn,” despite the company clarifying that it intends to prioritize research, development, and production in its home nation.

Graphics card and SoC producer Nvidia joined the grim estimate club this week, though Nvidia has a more optimistic belief that it will emerge with “sufficient supply to support sequential growth beyond [fiscal] Q1 [2022],” according to CFO Colette Kress. Until then, “we expect demand to continue to exceed supply for much of this year,” she added.


The trouble with the stop-start process is that it’s so hard to avoid overshoot, either in supply or demand – the time delay in the feedback loop from sales to production means any disturbance creates shockwaves that echo on.
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A 23-year-old coder kept QAnon and the far right online when no one else would • Bloomberg

William Turton and Joshua Brustein:


Although small, the operation serves clients including the Daily Stormer, one of America’s most notorious online destinations for overt neo-Nazis, and 8kun, the message board at the center of the QAnon movement, whose adherents were heavily involved in the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

[23-year-old Nick] Lim exists in a singularly odd corner of the business world. He says he’s not an extremist, just an entrepreneur with a maximalist view of free speech. “There needs to be a me, right?” he says, while eating pho at a Vietnamese restaurant near his headquarters. “Once you get to the point where you look at whether content is safe or unsafe, as soon as you do that, you’ve opened a can of worms.” At best, his apolitical framing comes across as naive; at worst, as preposterous gaslighting. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek early in 2020, Lim said he didn’t really know what QAnon was and had no opinion about Donald Trump.

…Voices from across the U.S. political spectrum have registered concerns about companies setting up litmus tests to ban groups from the internet. That said, the voices Lim supports tend to come from the same general neighborhood. He sought out Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, to offer the neo-Nazi free tech support. He says his largest customer is 8kun, and he has a personal relationship with Ron Watkins, the site’s former administrator and one of its key leaders since its inception.

Lim argues that the real political crisis facing the U.S. is not extremist violence but erosion of the First Amendment. He says that restrictions on online speech have already brought the U.S. to the verge of communist tyranny, that “we are one foot away from 1984.” After a moment, though, he offers a sizable qualifier: “I never actually read the book, so I don’t know all the themes of the book. But I have heard the concepts, and I’ve seen some things, and I thought, ‘Whoa! That’s sketchy as f—.’ ”

VanwaTech’s headquarters is a squat, one-story house in a sidewalkless subdivision that’s just over the state line from Portland, Ore. Lim inherited the place from his grandparents, according to state records. While he regularly talks about VanwaTech as a growing enterprise with a dedicated staff, he seems to be the only one around who’s working at the company. He rents rooms on the cheap to friends from high school who help keep the party going. The crew has nicknamed the house Vansterdam.


He’s clearly just a single nutcase with no clear rationale, but these days that’s all you need to keep a lot of hate onlne.
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Facebook has beefed up its ‘oversight board’, but any new powers are illusory • The Guardian

Emily Bell:


“I’ve been told directly by leadership that I should ignore these cases because if they are impactful, we’ll eventually receive PR flak over it and motivate a change,” noted [former Facebook data scientist Sophie] Zhang at the time. “The assumption is that if a case does not receive media attention, it poses no societal risk … What is our responsibility when societal risk diverges from PR risk?”

Within these sentences lies an explanation of how Facebook is slowly and somewhat painfully re-engineering itself, and in doing so forging a template for new media gatekeeping which is not a million miles away from old media gatekeeping. Facebook has found itself repeatedly responding to a press cycle it dominates far more than it would like.

At least some of this shift can be credited to Britain’s former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who is now Facebook’s head of global communications. This involves a mitigation strategy that looks very familiar to anyone with a background in British journalism: one seemingly focused on the creation of a circle of trusted journalists (and non-journalists) who are drip-fed access, with favoured sources given off-the-record briefings; meanwhile, pressure is applied and access restricted to editors and journalists who disappoint.

And if you cannot beat the media, you can now at least be the media. In March, Clegg wrote an enormously long piece advancing Facebook’s PR talking points: namely that it is human behaviour, not platform design, that causes political division. To prove it, he cites numerous studies without mentioning that a number come from academics and institutions that have received either Facebook funding or privileged access to Facebook data in the past.

The post was not published on the Facebook news blog, or in a Facebook post, but on a separate platform entirely, Medium. But despite such efforts, Clegg’s separation from the platform, like the Oversight Board’s independence, is illusory. However, it demonstrates a new truth for Facebook: the company is tackling the impact problem first, because its design problem is unsolvable.


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Missing California hiker found after mystery photo reveals location • SFGate

Katie Dowd:


A mystery photo and a geography enthusiast helped locate a missing California hiker who is now safely back home.

Rene Compean of Palmdale was on a hike Monday near Mount Waterman, a popular ski destination in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. While the 45-year-old was on his outdoor adventure, he snapped a picture. It showed him from the knees down, dangling his bare legs from a precipice with a canyon below and slopes in the distance. Compean texted the shot to a friend. And then, he went off the map.

He was reported missing at 6 p.m. by a friend, who received one last text from Compean saying he was worried he was lost and his cell phone battery was running low. The photo was turned over to investigators at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who posted it to social media, asking if anyone recognized the spot in the photograph.

Benjamin Kuo saw the message and thought he might be able to help. As a satellite image aficionado, he was already familiar with tracking California wildfires in remote areas.


The photo doesn’t offer much to go on, which makes Kuo’s success all the more impressive. Though, as a suggestion, if you think you’re lost and you’re going to send a photo, perhaps screenshot your location on your map app and send that?
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I got high to see if weed would help me work out • Vice

Casey Johnston:


Now, weed after working out is an unequivocal recommend: It makes you hungry, thirsty, and relaxed; eating, drinking water, and sleeping are incredible for recovery. But the first (reasonable) question, that the letter-writer didn’t ask but we should nonetheless address, might be “Isn’t getting high to work out at best just a waste of perfectly good weed?” How is weed, a peaceful and chill substance, not fundamentally opposed to working out, a task that requires energy and initiative?

Well, first, people who like weed find that it can make working out a better experience. A 2019 Nature survey found that about 70% of 600 cannabis users said cannabis made working out more enjoyable. Eight out of 10 cannabis users use weed before or after working out, and that it “helps them enjoy exercise more” (people who used weed worked out more for more time overall than people who didn’t) and improves their recovery.

…One big reason I wanted to try weed before working out was that I get really in my head about what an overwhelming and lengthy task working out is and all the various ways I might not do it as well as I want to. I wondered if weed might help me get over that hump of trying to bargain my way out of each individual workout, and even, as some of the people above are saying, make the more chore-like parts of it more fun. A list from The Cut suggests that weed is actually a nice pairing with lots of mundane activities: going to the grocery store, personal finance, extracting ingrown pubic hairs, as well as doing hot yoga and gymnastics (!).


A funny yet educational read. Her running experiment is quite something.
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A grey single-pixel ‘work’ sells for $1.3m at Sotheby’s maiden NFT sale • The Art Newspaper

Kabir Jhala:


Yesterday, Sotheby’s achieved $16.8m for the sale of a collection of JPGs that were created within the last fortnight. That this figure seems comparatively paltry says a lot about the current, topsy-turvy state of the art market.

Within a week of Christie’s $69.3m Beeple NFT sale, Sotheby’s announced it had enlisted the digital artist and “omniscient designer/developer/wizard” Pak to collaborate on a collection of works known as The Fungible Collection, details of which were then teased out over the next week.

The sale, which ran from 12 to 14 April and was hosted on NFT platform Niftygateway, was broadly divided into two parts. The first consisted of more traditional NFT drops (something of a contradiction in terms) in which two standalone works, both one-off editions, were offered up to online bidders. The first The Switch brought in 10 bids upon its release on 12 April, but after climbing to $1.4m, received no further offers after the first day and was sold to @damien.

The second, The Pixel—which is literally a single grey pixel—made $1.3m, following a last-minute bidding war that extended its sale by an hour. It went to the digital art collector Eric Young who tweeted that The Pixel had “occupied a great deal of [his] mind over the past few days”.

The sale’s second part was less straightforward. Alongside the standalone works, Pak also dropped a series of “open edition” cube works. They were initially released at a price of one cube costing $500 and ranged up to a 1,000-cube work for $500,000. Corresponding NFTs would then be issued depending on how many cubes the bidder had purchased.


And they have The Pixel right there on the page. Absolutely indistinguishable from any other copy of The Pixel. Who knows which is “the one”? Nobody. This whole thing is nonsense for people with too much money, but I remember when art didn’t also consume enough energy to light a city.
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Google Earth’s historical 3D time lapses show the ravages of climate change • The Verge

Jay Peters:


Google Earth is getting a new 3D time-lapse feature that lets you observe how Earth has changed from 1984 to 2020, allowing you to see just how much the devastating effects of climate change have already shaped the geography of the planet.

“It’s best for a landscape view of our world,” Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, Google Earth Engine, and Google Earth Outreach, said in a call with reporters this week. “It’s not about zooming in. It’s about zooming out. It’s about taking the big step back. We need to see how our only home is doing.”

The feature (which Google calls “Timelapse,” one word) will be available in Google Earth starting Thursday. To access it, launch Google Earth and then click or tap on the Voyager tab (which has an icon that looks like a ship’s wheel). You can search for a place of interest or check out one of Google’s five “guided tours” about forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, mining and renewable energy sources, and “the Earth’s fragile beauty.”

To get an idea of what the feature lets you see, check out this time lapse GIF of the changing shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from Google:


You can launch it directly here. For best effect, do a direct comparison back and forth between 1984 and 2020.
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This Apple ‘Spring Loaded’ invite theory is kinda blowing our minds • Macworld

Michael Simon:


It wouldn’t be an Apple event without a little friendly sleuthing, and the Spring Loaded invite is no exception. But unlike the usual shot-in-the dark wild guesses, there’s one that caught our attention this time.

We’re not sure it actually means anything, but people more conspiratorially minded than us have noticed that if you rotate and resize the squiggly drawing of the rainbow Apple logo on the invitation, it looks a lot like the cursive “hello” that appeared in the original Mac advertisement. We didn’t really believe it until we overlaid the two images on top of each other, and as you can see below, they match up quite well. Even the leaf fits on the top half of the “H”. 

Considering there are rumors of new iMacs arriving soon, consider our curiosity piqued.


Somewhere an Apple graphic designer who thought that it would look quite fun to use the “llo” from the original Mac “Hello” campaign to look like a spring, because it’s a spring event, is laughing uproariously.
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US Treasury provides missing link: Manafort’s partner gave campaign polling data to Kremlin in 2016 • Just Security

Justin Hendrix:


The U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday that Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate and ex-employee of Paul Manafort, “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy,” during the 2016 election, an apparently definitive statement that neither Special Counsel Robert Mueller nor the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation made in their final reports. 

“This is new public information that connects the provision of internal Trump campaign data to Russian intelligence,” Andrew Weissmann, who led the prosecution of Manafort for the Special Counsel, told Just Security on Thursday. 

The eye-catching statement was included in an announcement of new sanctions related to Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Biden administration took a number of steps Thursday to punish Russia, not only for election interference, but also the SolarWinds cyberattack, its ongoing occupation of Crimea, and human rights abuses. 

Kilimnik was one of 16 individuals the Treasury Department announced it was sanctioning for attempting to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the Kremlin. The Treasury Department is also imposing new sanctions on 16 entities, including several Russian disinformation outlets. 


This is the collusion that was denied and denied and denied by the Trump campaign. The Mueller report never made the final connection – passing the data to the Kremlin.
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Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile kill RCS plans • Light Reading

Mike Dano:


The biggest wireless network operators in the US announced in 2019 that they would jointly launch a Rich Communications Services (RCS) messaging app sometime in 2020.

Under the auspices of their new Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative (CCMI), the companies said in late 2019 they would use vendor Synchronoss Technologies to handle the technological logistics of the effort. And in May 2020, Synchronoss said “we continue to believe the RCS-based advanced messaging service will be launched by the CCMI joint venture in 2020.”

But it was not to be.

“While we’re not at liberty to speak on behalf of CCMI and no launch date for the service has been formally announced, Synchronoss is continuing to move forward with preparations and look forward to helping bring RCS-based messaging to US subscribers,” the company said in response to questions from Light Reading.

Verizon was a bit more blunt: “The owners of the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative decided to end the joint venture effort. However, the owners remain committed to enhancing the messaging experience for customers including growing the availability of RCS,” the operator said in a statement to Light Reading.

The development really comes as no surprise.

“The [RCS] market has been impossibly slow for a decade now,” analyst Lynnette Luna of GlobalData told Light Reading. Luna wrote a report on RCS in the US in June 2020 and has not seen a reason to update it yet.


RCS, if you’d forgotten, is the SMS 2.0 (or WhatsApp-Lite) which would at least be better than SMS. The trouble for the carriers (and Google, which has been pushing RCS hard to Android) is that there’s no particular revenue in it for them, and Apple – which has 40% or more of the smartphone market in the US – doesn’t support it.

It might happen on Android, but it’s not going to be cross-platform. So the carriers don’t care.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1528: EU proposes AI regulation, the trouble with Twitter Trends, Covid’s “hygiene theatre”, suicides down (not up), and more

A crowded beach might contain a lot of people, but data shows it doesn’t pose a Covid risk.CC-licensed photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

EU set to ban surveillance, start fines under new AI rules • Bloomberg

Natalia Drozdiak:


The European Union is poised to ban artificial intelligence systems used for mass surveillance or for ranking social behavior, while companies developing AI could face fines as high as 4% of global revenue if they fail to comply with new rules governing the software applications.

The rules are part of legislation set to be proposed by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, according to a draft of the proposal obtained by Bloomberg. The details could change before the commission unveils the measure, which is expected to be as soon as next week.

The EU proposal is expected to include the following rules:

• AI systems used to manipulate human behavior, exploit information about individuals or groups of individuals, used to carry out social scoring or for indiscriminate surveillance would all be banned in the EU. Some public security exceptions would apply.
• Remote biometric identification systems used in public places, like facial recognition, would need special authorization from authorities.
• AI applications considered to be ‘high-risk’ would have to undergo inspections before deployment to ensure systems are trained on unbiased data sets, in a traceable way and with human oversight.
• High-risk AI would pertain to systems that could endanger people’s safety, lives or fundamental rights, as well as the EU’s democratic processes – such as self-driving cars and remote surgery, among others.
• Some companies will be allowed to undertake assessments themselves, whereas others will be subject to checks by third-parties. Compliance certificates issued by assessment bodies will be valid for up to five years.
• Rules would apply equally to companies based in the EU or abroad.


Let’s not forget it was the EU that gave us the delight of cookie approval on every site you visit. So I’m a little wary of their efforts to make everything wonderful in the world of AI. What counts as “AI systems used to manipulate human behaviour”? Surely that’s Facebook’s and Twitter’s and Instagram’s newsfeed algorithms. And, arguably, YouTube’s algorithm (using AI) which tries to make you watch more videos.
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“It’s not cancel culture — it’s a platform failure.” • Galaxy Brain

Charlie Warzel (with the first of his Substack-sponsored newsletters, lured away from the NY Times):


Even if you don’t know the story, you probably have a sense of what happened next. Her lopsided Twitter poll answers [to the question: is Alien a horror film?] quickly indicated she’d expressed A Bad Opinion. The quote retweets started rolling in. The first few seemed like faux outrage at a particularly spicy genre opinion that kept with the spirit of her post — but that eventually shifted, too. People were mad. Hunt logged off and went to bed.

She woke up to angry emails from strangers. Overnight, friends in the U.K. sent concerned messages asking if she was doing alright. She opened Twitter and found her poll had 120,000 votes. Over 6000 people, including filmmakers like Kevin Smith, had angrily quote tweeted her, many demanding that she apologize — to Film Twitter, to prominent directors, to the medium of space itself. The reason? Once the tweet picked up steam, it was elevated into Twitter’s Trending Topics widget in the U.S and U.K.

The whole affair is a perfect example of context collapse, which generally occurs when a surfeit of different audiences occupy the same space, and a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith (You can read about the origins here from scholar danah boyd).

In this case, the collapse was substantially amplified by Twitter’s Trending widget, which took an anodyne opinion by a verified Twitter user and displayed it to millions of random people as if it was some kind of significant pop cultural event. “My imagined audience when I tweeted this was, ‘oh, we’re all at the bar and having this low stakes debate,” she told me recently. “In retrospect, that was totally naive to think anyone would have taken it that way.”

The point of Twitter’s Trending Topics is ostensibly to surface significant news and Twitter commentary and invite others to ‘join the conversation.’ Left unsaid, of course, is that ‘the conversation’ at scale is complete garbage — an incomprehensible number of voices lecturing past each other.


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Twitter will study ‘unintentional harms’ caused by its algorithms • Engadget

Karissa Bell:


Twitter has announced a new plan to study the fairness of its algorithms. As part of the effort, which the company has dubbed the “Responsible Machine learning Initiative,” data scientists and engineers from across the company will study potential “unintentional harms” caused by its algorithms and make the findings public.

“We’re conducting in-depth analysis and studies to assess the existence of potential harms in the algorithms we use,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the initiative.

To start, the company will study Twitter’s image cropping algorithm, which has been criticized as being biased toward people with lighter skin. Twitter will also study its content recommendations, including a “a fairness assessment of our Home timeline recommendations across racial subgroups,” and “an analysis of content recommendations for different political ideologies across seven countries.”

It’s not clear how much of an impact this initiative will have. Twitter notes that in some cases it may change aspects of its platform based on its findings, and other studies may simply result in “important discussions around the way we build and apply ML [machine learning].” But the issue is a timely one for Twitter and other social media platforms.


Twitter, the company, is strange. There’s all this talk about “fairness” of the algorithms, yet they also drive all the wild engagement that causes absurd pile-ons. That’s exactly the intention of the algorithm(s). It’s as though they think they’re painting everything green, but are colour-blind and mix up red and green paints. (Yes, because it’s a male sort of thing.)
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How the beach ‘super-spreader’ myth can inform UK’s future Covid response • The Guardian

Archie Bland:


According to Prof Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at Edinburgh University who sits on the government’s SPI-M committee, the chance of a super-spreader event among the crowds that turned up from Bournemouth to Southend was minimal in theory – and nonexistent in practice.

“Over the summer we were treated to all this on the television news, pictures of crowded beaches, and there was an outcry about this,” he told MPs. “There were no outbreaks linked to public beaches. There’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach, ever, anywhere in the world, to the best of my knowledge.”

If that version of events seems at odds with stern warnings from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that outdoor exercise could be banned, and an accusation that sunbathers were putting lives at risk, it is wholly consistent with the scientific evidence, other experts agree.

“We have known for some time that only about 10% of transmission events are linked to outdoor activities,” said Dr Müge Çevik, a lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St Andrews.

“Even those events generally involve either prolonged close contact or a mixture of indoor and outdoor time. We had a lot of existing knowledge even when the pandemic began about respiratory viruses and how they transmit in general, and everything directs us to the conditions in people’s homes and workplaces.”


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Hygiene theatre: deep cleaning isn’t a victimless crime • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson, after the US Center for Disease Control revised its view of the threat of catching Covid from surfaces down to “less than 1 in 10,000”:


I’ve been writing about our misplaced obsession with surface hygiene since the summer. Like many, I spent the early months of the pandemic dunking my apples and carrots in soap. That was before I read a persuasive essay in the medical journal The Lancet by Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School: “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” (In medical jargon, fomites are objects and surfaces that can transmit an infectious pathogen.)

This opinion ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of the broader scientific community, and Goldman told me that several journals rejected his essay. But he was not alone in his quest. Writers such as my colleague Zeynep Tufekci and researchers such as Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, were also outspoken in their insistence that we needed to focus on ventilation rather than surfaces, windows rather than Windex. They were rebuffed, not only by loudmouths on Twitter and on TV, but by other scientists who clung stubbornly to an outdated view of viral spread.

Over the weekend, I caught up with Goldman to ask how it felt to be vindicated by the world’s most famous public-health organization. “On a personal level, I feel great,” he said. “But I’m kind of wondering what took them so long. There is so much inertia in the scientific establishment.”

These days, Goldman is extending his crusade against fomite fear from COVID-19 to other diseases. The old story is that if you make contact with a surface that a sick person touched, and then you touch your eyes or lips, you’ll infect yourself. While Goldman acknowledges that many diseases, especially bacterial diseases, spread easily from surfaces, he now suspects that most respiratory viruses spread primarily through the air, like SARS-CoV-2 does.

“For most respiratory viruses, the evidence for fomite transmission looks pretty weak,” Goldman said. “With the exception of RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], there are few other respiratory viruses where fomite transmission has been conclusively shown.”


Strangely, though the CDC revised guidance (which is very wishy-washy, and doesn’t say “well, treat the risk as zero” – even though 1 in 10,000 is about the risk of dying by self-inflicted accidental injury in the next year) quotes 36 papers, none of them is Goldman or Jimenez. That inertia is substantial. (Via John Naughton.)
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China should fully lift the family planning policy to ease ageing trend: central bank paper • Global Times


In a rare move, the People’s Bank of China (PBC), the country’s central bank, published on Wednesday a working paper indicating that the country should not only fully lift the family planning policy, but also encourage couples to have more children in an effort to tackle the ageing population trend.

The main contradiction facing China at the moment has changed, from population expansion to the imminent loss of demographic dividend and the growing crisis of population ageing and fewer births. The report, “Understanding and Countermeasures on China’s Population Transition,” published by the PBC highlights that it is necessary to lift the fertility rate and allow people to have more children in a timely manner. Additionally, the pension system should also be improved, the paper noted.

Any delay would miss the valuable window of opportunity to respond to the demographic transition with fertility policies, repeating the fate of developed countries, said the paper.

The demographic transition is a new phenomenon for human beings, and so far, only developed countries have experienced this transition, with an ageing population and fewer children. 


Hugely significant. The formal abandonment of the One Child policy in 2015 was the first part, having got through a pinch point in food supply v demographics; now it’s looking to expand again.
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Why has climate economics failed us? • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:


One big problem with climate economics is that there just isn’t enough of it. Climate change is going to affect every facet of our economy. Quantitatively, it’s vastly more important than any optimal tax calculation or detail of occupational licensing; it’s arguably even more important than the business cycle itself. But the number of papers at top journals dedicated to climate economics is miniscule. In a scathing 2019 article entitled “Why are economists letting the world down on climate change?”, economists Andrew Oswald and Nicholas Stern write:


We are sorry to say that we think academic economists are letting down the world.  Economics has contributed disturbingly little to discussions about climate change.  As one example, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which is currently the most-cited journal in the field of economics, has never published an article on climate change…

We suspect that modern economics is stuck in a kind of Nash equilibrium.  Academic economists are obsessed with publishing per se and with pleasing potential referees.  The reason there are few economists who write climate change articles, we think, is because other economists do not write climate change articles.


…If there is one climate economist who is respected above all others, it’s William Nordhaus of Yale, who won the Econ Nobel in 2018 “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.” The prize specifically cited Nordhaus’ creation of an “integrated assessment model” for analyzing the costs of climate change. The most famous of these is the DICE Model, used by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the DICE Model, or at least the version we’ve been using for years, is obviously bananas. As climate writer David Roberts noted in 2018, according to the standard version of Nordhaus’ model, the economic cost of a 6°C increase in global temperatures would only be 10% of GDP. As Roberts notes, climate scientists believe that that level of temperature increase would make the Earth basically unlivable. An unlivable Earth is going to cost a lot more than 10% of GDP.


His point being that Biden’s administration is largely ignoring the bad advice, and going for more aggressive moves on climate economy.
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China’s Xinjiang solar factories haunted by labour abuse claims • Bloomberg

Dan Murtaugh, Colum Murphy, James Mayger and Brian Eckhouse:


Three owners of Xinjiang’s polysilicon refineries have been linked to a state-run employment program that, according to some foreign governments and academics, may at times amount to forced labor. China denies such accusations and recently insisted that journalists and diplomats are free to go see for themselves.

That’s why two Bloomberg reporters went to Xinjiang in March, after weeks of unsuccessful requests for factory tours. Such visits aren’t unusual elsewhere in China. But this time a security apparatus sprang into action. Upon our landing in Urumqi, two police officers boarded the plane, one with an automatic weapon slung across his chest and a photo identifying one of the reporters in hand. After questioning on the tarmac, we left the airport. For the next three days agents followed us everywhere, obstructing all attempts to speak to locals and deleting our photos.

The veil over Xinjiang has made the search for answers about the links between China’s labor program and its solar industry a job for outside researchers—who, it turns out, have found potentially telling details just by combing through public records.

The owner of one polysilicon factory, GCL-Poly Energy Holdings Ltd., said in a 2019 report that it had accepted 121 poor minority workers from the Uyghur heartland in southern Xinjiang. Photos posted by the local government in June 2017 show workers, lined up in blue uniforms, about to be sent by the labor program to companies including East Hope Group Co., an aluminum smelter that in recent years also started producing polysilicon in Xinjiang. The previously unreported document was found by Adrian Zenz, a German researcher based in Minnesota who’s become a chief source of data about the labor program in Xinjiang—and thus a focus of China’s wrath.


Kudos to the Bloomberg pair in China (Murphy and Mayger) for trying. From experience, a confrontation with those types is immediately, viscerally concerning.
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Next year’s iPhones will have 48-megapixel cameras and no mini option: Kuo • The Verge

Sam Byford:


The 2022 iPhone lineup will feature substantial changes to the camera system, according to analyst Ming-chi Kuo in an investor note reported on by MacRumors and AppleInsider. Kuo says the high-end iPhones — presumably the Pro range — will use a larger 48-megapixel sensor for the primary camera. Separately, the analyst suggests that 2023 iPhones may start to use Face ID sensors under the screen as a way to get rid of the notch.

48-megapixel sensors have been common in Android phones for years, but this component will reportedly be larger than most. It’ll be a 1/1.3-inch sensor with a pixel size of 1.25µm, according to Kuo. That’s smaller than the 1.7µm pixels in the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but Kuo says that the equivalent pixel size will be more like 2.5µm when the sensor is used for 12-megapixel images. Kuo also expects the higher-resolution sensor to enable 8K video capture.

The 2022 iPhone lineup is going to see a reduction in screen size options, Kuo says; there won’t be a 5.4in mini any more, and Apple will stick to the 6.1in and 6.7in displays on other models. The mini has reportedly not sold to Apple’s expectations, with the company said to have overestimated demand and cut production orders. The 2021 lineup, however, is expected to keep the same screen sizes.


It always puzzles me what possible use stories like this can be. Might you be holding out to not buy this year’s iPhone because of what there might be in next year’s? And it seems like, for any failings, the iPhone mini will be there this year – which is more than the 5C managed.
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Suicide trends in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: an interrupted time-series analysis of preliminary data from 21 countries • The Lancet Psychiatry

(A huge number of authors):


We sourced data from 21 countries (16 high-income and five upper-middle-income countries), including whole-country data in ten countries and data for various areas in 11 countries). Rate ratios (RRs) and 95% CIs based on the observed versus expected numbers of suicides showed no evidence of a significant increase in risk of suicide since the pandemic began in any country or area. There was statistical evidence of a decrease in suicide compared with the expected number in 12 countries or areas: New South Wales, Australia (RR 0·81 [95% CI 0·72–0·91]); Alberta, Canada (0·80 [0·68–0·93]); British Columbia, Canada (0·76 [0·66–0·87]); Chile (0·85 [0·78–0·94]); Leipzig, Germany (0·49 [0·32–0·74]); Japan (0·94 [0·91–0·96]); New Zealand (0·79 [0·68–0·91]); South Korea (0·94 [0·92–0·97]); California, USA (0·90 [0·85–0·95]); Illinois (Cook County), USA (0·79 [0·67–0·93]); Texas (four counties), USA (0·82 [0·68–0·98]); and Ecuador (0·74 [0·67–0·82]).

This is the first study to examine suicides occurring in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple countries. In high-income and upper-middle-income countries, suicide numbers have remained largely unchanged or declined in the early months of the pandemic compared with the expected levels based on the pre-pandemic period.


Thus completely contradicting the claims made by anti-lockdown idiots… errr, police chiefs.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1527: UK variant isn’t more deadly (phew), lessons from building Teslas, Clubhouse’s 1.3m user database scraped, and more

A poll suggests that a lot of business-class seats might go begging on flights as travellers cut back or have video meetings. CC-licensed photo by Simply Aviation on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Very infectious. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK variant isn’t linked to more severe disease or death, study finds • NBC News

Denise Chow:


People infected with the more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom did not experience more severe symptoms and were not at higher risk of death, according to a new study published Monday.

Scientists are struggling to pin down the nature of the UK variant, which has become the dominant strain across Europe and, as of last week, in the United States. Chief among the questions: Is the variant more deadly?

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, looked at data from last fall [autumn, dammit – Ed.] in the UK, shortly after the variant was first detected. It soon spread rapidly, eventually becoming the dominant strain circulating in the country.

The new findings add to scientists’ ever-evolving understanding of the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, at a crucial time in the pandemic, as it and other variants are circulating widely in other countries.

Researchers looked at Covid-19 patients who were admitted to University College London Hospital and North Middlesex University Hospital from Nov. 9 to Dec. 20. The scientists sequenced virus samples from 341 patients, finding that 58% were positive for the UK variant and that 42% had been infected with a different strain.


March 10: UK variant has worse death rate – study in the BMJ. Confusing, really. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Google is poisoning its reputation with AI researchers • The Verge

James Vincent:


The company’s decision to fire Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell — two of its top AI ethics researchers, who happened to be examining the downsides of technology integral to Google’s search products — has triggered waves of protest. Academics have registered their discontent in various ways. Two backed out of a Google research workshop, a third turned down a $60,000 grant from the company, and a fourth pledged not to accept its funding in the future. Two engineers quit the company in protest of Gebru’s treatment and just last week, one of Google’s top AI employees, a research manager named Samy Bengio who oversaw hundreds of workers, resigned. (Bengio did not mention the firings in an email announcing his resignation but earlier said he was “stunned” by what happened to Gebru.)

“Not only does it make me deeply question the commitment to ethics and diversity inside the company,” Scott Niekum, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who works on robotics and machine learning, told The Verge. “But it worries me that they’ve shown a willingness to suppress science that doesn’t align with their business interests.

…It’s likely there will be more protest and more resignations, too. After Bengio left the company, Mitchell tweeted, “Resignations coming now bc people started interviewing soon after we were fired,” and that “job offers are just starting now; more resignations are likely.” When asked for comment on these and other issues highlighted in this piece, Google offered only boilerplate responses.


Smart reporting. Internal and external problems for Google?
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Israel may have destroyed Iranian centrifuges simply by cutting power • The Intercept

Kim Zetter:


The explosion and blackout at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran over the weekend raised the specter of past sabotage — including the Stuxnet cyberattack that took out some of Natanz’s centrifuges between 2007 and 2010 as well as an explosion and fire that occurred there last July — destroying about three-fourths of a newly opened plant for the assembly of centrifuges.

Government officials and news reports gave conflicting accounts of what caused the latest blasts, the extent of damage, and Iran’s capacity to quickly recover. Initial reports said there was no harm to the Natanz facility, but Iranian officials later acknowledged damage to its centrifuges.

And while media accounts have suggested saboteurs focused on taking out the facility’s electric supply, David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., believes the aim was to destroy centrifuges. Power is easy to restore even when electrical equipment is damaged, allowing enrichment work to quickly resume. But an abrupt blackout that also takes out backup power would have destroyed some centrifuges, Albright says, since they need to be powered down slowly. Failure to do so leads to vibrations that can cause centrifuge rotors and bellows to become damaged and in some cases disintegrate, which is what Albright suspects occurred.


Rather than a cyberattack, a la Stuxnet, seems to have been a simple (but targeted) explosion. The reading of this action (by Israel) is that it’s trying to tell the US and allies that it doesn’t want the return of the JCPOA (the US-Iran agreement which limited Iran’s nuclear powers, but which others thought was used to exceed those limits).

Yet weirdly, Israel’s action probably stymied Iran and could push it back towards the JCPOA.
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Siri reveals Apple Event planned for Tuesday, April 20 • MacRumors

Sami Fathi:


Siri has apparently prematurely revealed that Apple plans to hold an event on Tuesday, April 20, where the company is expected to reveal brand new iPad Pro models and possibly its long-awaited AirTags trackers.

Upon being asked “When is the next Apple Event,” Siri is currently responding with, “The special event is on Tuesday, April 20, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA. You can get all the details on” The event will likely be a pre-recorded affair without media in attendance and should be live-streamed on Apple’s website and YouTube channel.

Siri is not providing the information in all instances and will in some cases simply refer you to Apple’s website for information on events, but multiple MacRumors editors and readers have seen the premature information across Apple devices including iPhone, iPad, Mac, and HomePod.


Once the event had been announced, Siri stopped doing that. Would love to know how the suggestion of “ask Siri when the next Apple event is” got going, because it’s not the sort of thing you get up in the morning and ask. Perhaps a little birdie in Apple PR said a word in someone’s ear…

As to speculation – it’s the time of year for iPads and, perhaps, AirTags (as the rival products won’t launch until June or so). Not expected: Macs.
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Is content moderation a dead end? • Benedict Evans


I wonder how far the answers to our problems with social media are not more moderators, just as the answer to PC security was not virus scanners, but to change the model – to remove whole layers of mechanics that enable abuse. So, for example, Instagram doesn’t have links, and Clubhouse doesn’t have replies, quotes or screenshots. Email newsletters don’t seem to have virality.

Some people argue that the problem is ads, or algorithmic feeds (both of which ideas I disagree with pretty strongly – I wrote about newsfeeds here), but this gets at the same underlying point: instead of looking for bad stuff, perhaps we should change the paths that bad stuff can abuse. The wave of anonymous messaging apps that appeared a few years ago exemplify this – it turned out that bullying was such an inherent effect of the basic concept that they all had to shut down. Hogarth contrasted dystopian Gin Lane with utopian Beer Street – alcohol is good, so long as it’s the right kind. 

Of course, if the underlying problem is human nature, then you can still only channel it. No-one robs payroll trucks anymore, but I get lots of messages asking me to send my life savings to Nigeria. Moving enterprise applications to the cloud created phishing, and a sandboxed OS creates a bigger market for zero-day exploits. But, we did manage to fix cities, mostly. So I wonder how differently newsfeeds and sharing will work in five years, and how many more new social companies will shift assumptions about mechanics and abuse.


It’s an important topic. I have my own suggestion for how to minimise the problem, which I put forward in my forthcoming book. Available for preorder, publication in June.
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Who Has Your Face? • Electronic Frontier Foundation


A majority of Americans are in face recognition databases in use by the government. Photos you provide for identification are often shared, without your consent, with law enforcement, the FBI, ICE, and others. Those agencies use flawed facial recognition technology to compare your face with those in mugshots, social media images, and other photos of people suspected of committing crimes, potentially putting you at risk of being misidentified and invading your privacy. Learn who has YOUR face:


Even if (like me) you don’t live in the US, but have visited there, you’ll be on multiple databases. Worth trying.
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Clubhouse data leak – 1.3m SQL database leaked online • CyberNews


Days after scraped data from more than a billion Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, collectively speaking, was put for sale online, it looks like now it’s Clubhouse’s turn. The upstart platform seems to have experienced the same fate, with an SQL database containing 1.3 million scraped Clubhouse user records leaked for free on a popular hacker forum.

The leaked database contains a variety of user-related information from Clubhouse profiles, including:

• User ID
• Name
• Photo URL
• Username
• Twitter handle
• Instagram handle
• Number of followers
• Number of people followed by the user
• Account creation date
• Invited by user profile name

Clubhouse has issued a statement about the incident on social media, saying they have not experienced a breach of their systems. The company said that the data is already publicly available and that it can be accessed by “anyone” via their API.

…According to CyberNews senior information security researcher Mantas Sasnauskas, the posting of scraped Clubhouse user data reveals a potential privacy issue within the social media platform itself: “The way the Clubhouse app is built lets anyone with a token, or via an API, to query the entire body of public Clubhouse user profile information, and it seems that token does not expire.”

Sasnauskas argues that even though the Clubhouse privacy policy does not allow unauthorized data mining and data scraping, the platform should go beyond simply stating it in the rules.


Well, yes. It’s irresponsible. If people can scrape data, they will. Also: useful to know precisely how big Clubhouse is.
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OnePlus Watch review: the worst smartwatch i’ve ever used • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:


It’s rare for a flagship gadget to fail on every single front, and yet the OnePlus Watch has managed to pull it off.

Every little thing went wrong when I tested this watch. It tracked every activity inaccurately. It said I was sleeping when I was awake. My step counts were off by more than 10,000 steps. I changed my measurements to the imperial system, but sometimes it showed me data using the metric system anyway, just for fun. I went to test a marquee feature that the company touted during its announcement, only to find out that actually it wouldn’t be available at launch.

When I sat down to write this review, I wondered if it was too harsh to call this the worst smartwatch ever made. After all, it could at the very least deliver notifications. My wrist then buzzed with the fury of a thousand angry bees as I simultaneously got 40 notifications for emails that were sent four hours earlier. It’s impossible to overstate how bad this smartwatch is at its job.

…I’d say it’s inoffensive on the wrist, except for the fact that it also looks like I’m wearing a dinner plate.


She does go into detail, but it’s mostly like someone putting a a piece of paper through a shredder again and again. She really did not like it. As a reminder, OnePlus chose not to go with Google’s Wear OS, but to write its own.
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MachinePix Weekly #36: Milo Werner, former head of new product introduction, Tesla • MachinePix Weekly


Kane Hsieh: What are some things that people may not realize or appreciate about shipping EVs [electric vehicles], especially compared to ICE [internal combustion engines]?

[Ms] Milo Werner: One, EVs have very few moving parts. The cost of maintenance on EVs is dramatically less, which is why the cost of ownership is so different for electric cars.

They’re also much more modular than a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. When you import a car into Europe, you can avoid the import tariff by assembling half of the value of the vehicle in the EU. For an ICE vehicle, think about assembling the engine and transmission: getting to that dollar value is really difficult. In an EV, the dollar value of the motor and battery is about 40–50% the price of the car. So the way Tesla imported vehicles into Europe in 2015 was to install the battery and motor in the receiving country. It’s a few dozen bolts to install the battery and drive unit.

KH: I recently switched to an EV Zero and I don’t miss the gas engine or shifting at all.

MW: For a long time, I drove a biodiesel VW Golf. Moving from a Golf to a Model S was like night and day; I’ll never go back.

KH: As you look to the future, what opportunities will EVs unlock for us?

MW: One of the biggest opportunities that I see on the horizon is the integration of vehicles to grid and home. A lot of people are installing batteries in their homes—but in the US, the energy consumption of a home is so much greater than what a home battery can provide. The home battery is not a viable backup solution. Even if batteries were free, the solar power installed on a standard US residential roof cannot charge a battery that would support your home for 24 hours. Eight-plus hours maybe, but it’s just not possible for 24 hours.

If you’re driving around a 100kWh battery, that’s going to support your home for up to three days.


Read it all for the wildest reason why a Tesla production line was stopped: you’d never guess it.
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Business travellers planning to cut future flights, poll finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


Most business travellers in the UK will take fewer flights than they used to, according to a poll, thanks to increased use of video conferencing. Only a third expected to return to the same level of flying as before the coronavirus pandemic, once travel restrictions are lifted.

The huge reduction in air travel caused by Covid-19 had no impact on the work life or productivity of the majority of the business flyers, the poll found, with one in five saying the shutdown had had a positive impact.

Carbon emissions from aviation were growing at 5.7% a year before the pandemic, despite many countries committing to cut all emissions to net zero by 2050 to tackle the climate crisis. Green campaigners argue that the aviation shutdown provides an opportunity to put the sector on a sustainable trajectory.

Business-class seats provide most of airlines’ revenues but result in more emissions than those in the economy cabin because of the greater space occupied by each passenger.

Business fliers also fly far more frequently than most holidaygoers, with 10% of those in the poll taking more than 10 flights in the year up to the first lockdown in March 2020. Bill Gates recently estimated that more than 50% of business travel would end as companies adopted online meetings and cut costs.


So… lots of cut-price business-class seats? Airlines are going to be struggling for a while, seems like.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1526: how Facebook slow-walked whistleblower complaints, the mistaken peat bog murderer, Microsoft buys Nuance, and more

an update to the English NHS Covid tracing app was blocked by Apple and Google for seeking users’ location data. CC-licensed photo by G Witteveen on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Authentically behaved. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower’s account • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong with a long read about the actions of Sophie Zhang, a whistleblower inside Facebook who was eventually fired (before she could leave in disgust):


Facebook initially resisted calling the Honduran activity CIB [coordinated inauthentic behaviour; essentially a bot network] – in part because the network’s use of Pages to create false personas and fake engagement fell into a serious loophole in the company’s rules. Facebook’s policies to ensure authenticity focus on accounts: users can only have one account and it must employ their “real” name. But Facebook has no such rule for Pages, which can perform many of the same engagements that accounts can, including liking, sharing and commenting.

Zhang assumed that once she alerted the right people to her discovery, the Honduras network would be investigated and the fake Pages loophole would be closed. But it quickly became clear that no one was interested in taking responsibility for policing the abuses of the president of a poor nation with just 4.5m Facebook users. The message she received from all corners – including from threat intelligence, the small and elite team of investigators responsible for uncovering CIB campaigns – was that the abuses were bad, but resources were tight, and, absent any external pressure, Honduras was simply not a priority.

“It’s not for threat intel to investigate fake engagement,” an investigator from that team told Zhang. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s then public policy director for global elections, expressed interest in a “scaled way to look for this and action on other politician Pages” but noted that it was unlikely the case would get much attention outside Honduras, and that she didn’t “feel super strongly” about it. Other executives and managers Zhang briefed included Samidh Chakrabarti, the then head of civic integrity; David Agranovich, the global threat disruption lead; and Rosen, the vice-president of integrity.

“I don’t think Honduras is big on people’s minds here,” a manager from the civic integrity team told Zhang in a chat.

Frustrated and impatient after months of inaction, Zhang took her concerns semi-public – within the confines of the company’s internal communication platform.


Zhang’s complaint was previously reported by Buzzfeed News back in September. This, however, is more detailed.
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NHS Covid-19 app update blocked for breaking Apple and Google’s rules • BBC News

Leo Kelion:


An update to England and Wales’s contact tracing app has been blocked for breaking the terms of an agreement made with Apple and Google.

The plan had been to ask users to upload logs of venue check-ins – carried out via poster barcode scans – if they tested positive for the virus. This could be used to warn others.

The update had been timed to coincide with the relaxation of lockdown rules.

But the two firms had explicitly banned such a function from the start.

Under the terms that all health authorities signed up to in order to use Apple and Google’s privacy-centric contact-tracing tech, they had to agree not to collect any location data via the software. As a result, Apple and Google refused to make the update available for download from their app stores last week, and have instead kept the old version live.

When questioned, the Department of Health declined to discuss how this misstep had occurred.

Scotland has avoided this pitfall because it released a separate product – Check In Scotland – to share venue histories, rather than trying to build the functionality into its Protect Scotland contact-tracing app.


Just when you think that “Covid certificates” could be nice and harmless, they try to sneak in something like that. And with all the money spent on Track & Trace too.
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A man confessed to murdering his wife, but the body turned out to be 1,600 years old • IFLScience

James Felton:


In 1959, portrait artist and travel enthusiast Malika de Fernandez met the man who would become her murderer. Within two hours, Peter Reyn-Bardt, an airline employee, asked her to marry him – and she said yes. Within four days, they were married.

A few months later, the marriage broke down, and Fernandez began to travel the world again, now using her new husband’s airline travel discount. Reyn-Bardt remained at his cottage in Cheshire, England. 

Two years later, Fernandez disappeared completely, and Reyn-Bardt became suspect number one. Despite thorough searches of his property – including digging up his garden in search of her remains – the police weren’t able to find any evidence of Malika or any wrongdoing.

The case remained unsolved for two decades when events took an odd twist: part of a body was discovered within a peat bog near the home of Reyn-Bardt’s cottage.

At this point, Reyn-Bardt’s embarrassing lack of knowledge of peat bogs came back to bite him, and ended with his conviction for her murder. 


Not that I have any plans to commit murder, but I’d probably qualify as having an embarrassing lack of knowledge about what happens to bodies in them.
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The Wayback Machine’s Save Page Now is new and improved • Internet Archive Blogs

Mark Graham:


Every day hundreds of millions of web pages are archived to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Tens of millions of them submitted by users like you using our Save Page Now service. You can now do that in a way that is easier, faster and better than ever before.

Save Page Now (SPN) just got a major upgrade as a result of a total code rewrite, adding a slew of new and awesome features, with more on the way.  

Let’s explore what’s new with Save Page Now. You can now save all the “outlinks” of a web page with a single click. By selecting the “save outlinks” checkbox you can save the requested page (and all the embedded resources that make up that page) and also all linked pages (and all the embedded resources that make up those pages). Often, a request to archive a single web page, with outlinks, will cause us to archive hundreds of URLs.  Every one of which is shown via the SPN interface as it is archived.

The new and improved SPN is based on the modern, server-side Brozzler software, which is capable of running web page JavaScript when saving a URL. With this new approach, we can replay the original more faithfully than was possible before.  And, because this software is actively supported by several developers, bugs are quickly fixed, and new features added at a rapid pace. 

When users are logged in with their free account, SPN-generated archives can be saved to that user’s “My web archive” public gallery of archived pages.


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Why it’s easier to move country than switch social media • WIRED UK

Cory Doctorow:


When we talk about social media monopolies, we focus too much on network effects, and not enough on switching costs. Yes, it’s true that all your friends are already stuck in a Big Tech silo that doesn’t talk to any of the other Big Tech silos. It needn’t be that way: interoperable platforms have existed since the first two Arpanet nodes came online. You can phone anyone with a phone number and email anyone with an email address.

The reason you can’t talk to Facebook users without having a Facebook account isn’t that it’s technically impossible – it’s that Facebook forbids it. What’s more, Facebook (and its Big Tech rivals) have the law on their side: the once-common practice of making new products that just work with existing ones (like third-party printer ink, or a Mac program that can read Microsoft Office files, or an emulator that can play old games) has been driven to the brink of extinction by Big Tech. They were fine with this kind of “competitive compatibility” when it benefited them, but now that they dominate the digital world, it’s time for it to die.

To restore competitive compatibility, we would need reform to many laws: software copyright and patents, the anti-circumvention laws that protect digital rights management, and the cybersecurity laws that let companies criminalize violations of their terms of service.

New proposals from the UK Competition and Markets Authority, as well as the EU’s Digital Services and Digital Markets Act and the US ACCESS Act of 2020, all contemplate some form of interoperability mandate – forcing the dominant platforms to open up the APIs they already use to let various parts of their own business talk to one another.


That point about the APIs is a good one. Early in the days of social media, as I point out in my forthcoming book, there was a service called FriendFeed which aggregated the feeds from all the *other* social media. It was, very briefly, a huge risk to the nascent platforms (despite information overload).

Then Facebook bought it and almost everyone forgot about it.
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Three questions that will decide the Epic Games case against Apple • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


nOn May 3rd, Fortnite publisher Epic Games will finally have its day in court, forcing Apple to defend kicking Fortnite off the iOS App Store last year. Epic’s antitrust lawsuit is bigger than a single game; it’s a direct challenge to the App Store model, the most significant legal challenge Apple has faced since the Xerox days.

Last night, both sides filed a document called a “proposed findings of fact,” essentially laying out every factual claim they’ll rely on in their arguments. The documents run more than 650 pages in total, giving a detailed roadmap of how each side sees the case — from the early days of the iPhone to Epic’s specific preparations for picking this fight with Apple. But the filings also bring the case into focus, raising three questions that will be central to the trial over the coming months.


Brandom offers:
• Is the exclusive app store a necessary part of iOS?
How is the iPhone different from a PlayStation?
• How much control can Apple exert over its hardware?

Quite how these get answered is going to determine the court case. Though that will probably be argued back and forth through the appeal courts, and perhaps right up to the Supreme Court. It took 10 years for Oracle-Google to reach a resolution. There’s an outside chance this will take as long.

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Microsoft buys Nuance Communications in a $16bn deal • CNBC

Steve Kovach:


Microsoft announced Monday that it will buy speech recognition company Nuance Communications for $56 per share, about 23% above its closing price Friday. The deal is worth about $16bn and about $19bn including debt.

It’s the latest sign Microsoft is hunting for more growth through acquisitions. The company is also reportedly in talks to buy the chat app Discord for about $10bn. On top of that, Microsoft made an effort to buy TikTok’s US business last year for about $30bn before the deal was derailed.

The Nuance acquisition represents Microsoft’s largest acquisition since it bought LinkedIn for more than $26bn in 2016. Last month, Microsoft completed its $7.6bn acquisition of gaming company Zenimax.

Shares of Nuance ended the trading day up 15.95% Monday. Microsoft shares were up slightly.

Nuance would be aligned with the part of Microsoft’s business that serves businesses and governments. Nuance derives revenue by selling tools for recognizing and transcribing speech in doctor office visits, customer-service calls and voicemails. In its announcement, Microsoft said Nuance’s technology will be used to augment Microsoft’s cloud products for health care, which were launched last year.


Speech transcription is a very obvious fit for the makers of Microsoft Office. The surprise is that it has taken this long.
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Tui plane in ‘serious incident’ after every ‘Miss’ on board was assigned child’s weight • The Guardian


A software mistake caused a Tui flight to take off heavier than expected as female passengers using the title “Miss” were classified as children, an investigation has found.

The departure from Birmingham airport to Majorca with 187 passengers on board was described as a “serious incident” by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

An update to the airline’s reservation system while its planes were grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic led to 38 passengers on the flight being allocated a child’s “standard weight” of 35kg as opposed to the adult figure of 69kg.

This caused the load sheet – produced for the captain to calculate what inputs are needed for take-off – to state that the Boeing 737 was more than 1,200kg lighter than it actually was.

Investigators described the glitch as “a simple flaw” in an IT system. It was programmed in an unnamed foreign country where the title “Miss” is used for a child and “Ms” for an adult female.

Despite the issue, the thrust used for the departure from Birmingham on 21 July 2020 was only “marginally less” than it should have been, and the “safe operation of the aircraft was not compromised”, the AAIB said.

The same fault caused two other Tui flights to take off from the UK with inaccurate load sheets later that day.


There’s not much more detail in the full report. Any informed guesses for the country where the programming was done?
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There’s another Facebook phone number database online • Vice

Joseph Cox:


An online tool lets customers pay to unmask the phone numbers of Facebook users that liked a specific Page, and the underlying dataset appears to be separate from the 500 million account database that made headlines this week, signifying another data breach or large scale scraping of Facebook users’ data, Motherboard has found.

Motherboard verified the tool, which comes in the form of a bot on the social network and messaging platform Telegram, outputs accurate phone numbers of Facebook users that aren’t included in the dataset of 500 million users. The data also appears to be different to another Telegram bot outputting Facebook phone numbers that Motherboard first reported on in January.

“Hello, can you tell me how you got my number?” one person included in the dataset asked Motherboard when reached for comment. “Omg, this is insane,” they added. Another person returned Motherboard’s call and, after confirming their name, said “If you have my number then yes it seems the data is accurate.”

A description for the bot reads “The bot give [sic] out the phone numbers of users who have liked the Facebook page.”


Cox cross-compared it with the big leak that has been put onto Have I Been Pwned, and found that the numbers he did get weren’t there. So this is a parallel leak.
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Global PC market swells by 55% in Q1 2021 to 82.7 million • Canalys


The latest data from Canalys shows continued strength in the worldwide PC market in the first quarter of 2021, with shipments of desktops and notebooks, including workstations, up 55% year on year.

Though this growth rate was buoyed by a weak Q1 2020, total shipments of 82.7m units is still impressive, and the highest Q1 shipment number since 2012. Backlogs on orders from 2020, particularly for notebooks, were a key driver, though new demand is also a factor as smaller businesses begin their recoveries.

Shipments of notebooks and mobile workstations increased 79% year on year to reach 67.8m units. Desktops improved slightly at the start of 2021 after a string of poor quarters in 2020, with the level of shipment decline easing. Shipments of desktop and desktop workstations fell 5% year on year to 14.8m units.


That puts notebooks at 81% of the market. Canalys reckons Apple doubled its total sales which, if correct, would be astonishing; the closest I can find to that is a 48% rise in the July-September quarter of 2005 – which just happens to be when Apple last had a processor architecture transition, that time from RISC to Intel. This time, it’s gone in the other direction.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1525: Home Office plans encryption attack, India’s democratic decline, Facebook’s stony silence, the most 2021 thing ever, and more

There’s no shortage of most things, but the US is facing a shortage of ketchup. And, as it happens, routers. CC-licensed photo by Fred Inklaar on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Unencrypted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Home Office is preparing another attack on encryption • WIRED UK

Gian Volpicelli:


[UK Home Secretary Priti] Patel will headline an April 19 roundtable organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), according to a draft invitation seen by WIRED. The event is set to be deeply critical of the encryption standard, which makes it harder for investigators and technology companies to monitor communications between people and detect child grooming or illicit content, including terror or child abuse imagery.

…The Home Office’s move comes as Facebook plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across all its messaging platforms – including Messenger and Instagram – which has sparked a fierce debate in the UK and elsewhere over the supposed risks the technology poses to children.

During the event, the NSPCC will unveil a report on end-to-end encryption by PA Consulting, a UK firm that has advised the UK’s Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) on the forthcoming Online Safety regulation. An early draft of the report, seen by WIRED, says that increased usage of end-to-end encryption would protect adults’ privacy at the expense of children’s safety, and that any strategy adopted by technology companies to mitigate the effect of end-to-end encryption will “almost certainly be less effective than the current ability to scan for harmful content.”

…According to a person familiar with policy discussions, technology companies are now increasingly worried that the Home Office could issue a Technical Capability Notice (TCN) against Facebook – that is: an injunction forbidding the company from switching to end-to-end encryption.

A TCN would allow investigators with a warrant to keep obtaining decrypted conversations on Instagram and Facebook Messenger, the platforms of main concern because they potentially allow unsolicited messaging between adults and children. In December last year, Sky News reported, quoting Home Office policy advisors, that a TCN would have become an option if the Online Safety Bill did not demand that Facebook kept its ability to spot child abuse – a scenario that would arguably materialise if Facebook had its way with encryption.

Jim Killock, executive director at digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, says he is “worried that the Home Office will be considering using a secret order (TCN) to force Facebook to limit or circumvent their encryption.”


So this wouldn’t be a *reversal* of existing E2E encryption; it’s a block on introducing *new* E2E. The problem for the government if it introduces a TCN would be that people would say, when bad things happen, “but why haven’t you prevented Facebook using E2E, given the big speech you made?” At which point you’d be able to figure out, from the evasiveness of the government’s answer, if there was a TCN in place.

Though if that’s Patel, famous for her word salads, you might not be able to.
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I thought my job was to report on tech in India. Instead, i’ve watched democracy decline • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:


To friends in the country who write about crime and politics from the frontlines, I sent WhatsApp texts of admiration and solidarity. But I told myself that I didn’t need to get mixed up. I was a tech reporter, I reasoned, and the biggest news in my industry each September was new iPhones.

Separating what I cover from the horrors unfolding around me became my coping mechanism. But unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for a while. For years, I tried to live in the comforting fiction that what was happening in India and what was happening in the world of tech were separate things — but that isn’t true anymore.

For more than a year, India’s government first cut off and then throttled internet access to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir after unilaterally withdrawing the disputed region’s autonomy. Facebook executives reportedly shielded members of India’s ruling party from the platform’s hate speech rules to protect the company’s business interests. Right-wing trolls have used social media platforms to harass women who they say offended their religious sensibility.

Hindu nationalists have repeatedly taken offense to original shows that Netflix and Amazon have produced, claiming that the platforms were offending Hindu gods and promoting “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women. In 2020, rioters used Facebook Live to incite violence in Delhi. Last month, India’s government threatened to jail Twitter executives for not complying with an order to block hundreds of accounts, many of which were critical of the government, and Delhi police briefly threw a young climate activist in jail after charging her with sedition for editing a Google Doc.

I love tech. But watching it intersect with a Hindu nationalist government trying to crush dissent, choke a free press, and destroy a nation’s secular ethos doesn’t feel like something I bought a ticket to. Writing about technology from India now feels like having a front-row seat to the country’s rapid slide into authoritarianism. “It’s like watching a train wreck while you’re inside the train,” I Slacked my boss in November.


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Sixty-week delay on router orders shows scale of chip crisis • Bloomberg

Thomas Seal, Takashi Mochizuki and Debby Wu:


Broadband providers are seeing delays of more than a year when ordering internet routers, becoming yet another victim of chip shortages choking global supply chains and adding challenges for millions still working from home.

Carriers have been quoted order times as long as 60 weeks, more than doubling previous waits, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Running out of the right router would prevent a carrier from being able to add new subscribers to its network, risking lost sales in the ever-competitive broadband market. Their supply chains have become a headache because sharp coronavirus manufacturing shutdowns a year ago were exacerbated by a prolonged surge in demand for better home broadband equipment, said Karsten Gewecke, head of European regional business for Zyxel Communications Corp, a Taiwan-based router-maker.

Since January, it’s asked customers to order products a year in advance, he said, because the lead time for components like chips from Broadcom Inc. doubled to a year or more since then. Zyxel is a major supplier of routers, with customers including Norway’s Telenor ASA and Britain’s Zen Internet.


Alternative: ISPs hike prices because they know it will be tricky for customers to change provider. (Though that happens all the time anyway.)
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The new shortage: ketchup can’t catch up • WSJ

Heather Haddon and Annie Gasparro:


Supply chain problems are reaching into a far corner of the business universe: ketchup packets.

After enduring a year of closures, employee safety fears and start-stop openings, many American restaurants are now facing a nationwide ketchup shortage. Restaurants are trying to secure the tabletop staple after Covid-19 upended the condiment world order. Managers are using generic versions, pouring out bulk ketchup into individual cups and hitting the aisles of Costco for substitutes.

“We’ve been hunting high and low,” said Chris Fuselier, owner of Denver-based Blake Street Tavern, who has struggled to keep ketchup in stock for much of this year.

The pandemic turned many sit-down restaurants into takeout specialists, making individual ketchup packets the primary condiment currency for both national chains and mom-and-pop restaurants. Packet prices are up 13% since January 2020, and their market share has exploded at the expense of tabletop bottles, according to restaurant-business platform Plate IQ.

Even fast-food giants are pleading for packets. Long John Silver’s LLC, a nearly 700-unit chain, had to seek ketchup from secondary suppliers because of the rush in demand. The industry’s pandemic shift to packets has pushed up prices, costing the Louisville, Ky.-based company an extra half-million dollars, executives said, since single-serve is pricier than bulk.

“Everyone out there is grabbing for ketchup,” chief marketing officer Stephanie Mattingly said.

The ketchup conundrum strikes at a cornerstone of American diets. The tomato spread is the most-consumed table sauce at US restaurants, with around 300,000 tons sold to food-service last year, according to research firm Euromonitor. Even more is eaten at home, and the pandemic helped push retail ketchup sales in the US over $1bn in 2020, around 15% higher than 2019, Euromonitor data showed.


One of the greatest articles about a subject you never realised you could be interested in: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 piece about why there’s only one sort of ketchup, yet there are tons of different mustards.
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Facebook ran ads for a fake ‘Clubhouse for PC’ app planted with malware • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:


Cybercriminals have taken out a number of Facebook ads masquerading as a Clubhouse app for PC users in order to target unsuspecting victims with malware, TechCrunch has learned.

TechCrunch was alerted Wednesday to Facebook ads tied to several Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat app only available on iPhones. Clicking on the ad would open a fake Clubhouse website, including a mocked-up screenshot of what the non-existent PC app looks like, with a download link to the malicious app.

When opened, the malicious app tries to communicate with a command and control server to obtain instructions on what to do next. One sandbox analysis of the malware showed the malicious app tried to infect the isolated machine with ransomware.

But overnight, the fake Clubhouse websites — which were hosted in Russia — went offline. In doing so, the malware also stopped working.


Ben Thompson made the very good point on a recent episode of the Dithering podcast that people sometimes give Apple (and to a lesser extent Google) a pass when bad things get onto the App Store, because it’s such a big job to monitor. But Facebook’s challenge trying to stop stuff like this among all the other adverts that get put on it is orders of magnitude bigger.

Also: Clubhouse achieves the status of being “worth faking to entrap people”.
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Facebook hopes tiny labels on posts will stop users confusing satire with reality • The Verge

James Vincent:


Facebook is adding additional labels to posts from Pages that appear in users’ News Feeds in a bid to reduce confusion about their origin. These labels will include “public official,” “fan page,” and “satire page.” The company says it’s already started testing the deployment of these labels in the US, and will gradually add them to more posts.

Facebook hasn’t offered any explanation as to why it’s adding these labels, but identifying satire seems particularly important. Take a look at the social shares for any news articles written by well-known satirical sites like The Onion or The Babylon Bee and you’ll find plenty of people taking these stories at face value. In such a context these posts are essentially a type of misinformation, even if their creators did not intend this. Even high profile figures like former president Donald Trump have mistaken these stories for real reports.

This isn’t the first time the social network giant has tried to make the context of posts in the News Feed clearer. In June last year it began labeling media outlets which are “wholly or partially under the editorial control of their government.”


Because we know everyone takes lots of notice of little labels on Facebook Pages. (Though even fact-checking sites have been caught out by things like this. And Twitter is still a minefield, if you want to screw up.)
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Another huge data breach, another stony silence from Facebook • The Guardian

Carole Cadwalladr:


The news of the latest breach, of 533 million people’s data, dropped over a holiday weekend; Facebook responded only by saying it was “old data” and the problem had been “found and fixed in August 2019” – an absurd statement given that the data had only just been dumped on the internet, and clearly that hadn’t been fixed at all.

These are the actions of a company that knows it can get away with it. And repeatedly does. On Tuesday morning I submitted a set of questions to its press office: when was the issue first discovered? Did Facebook inform the regulators (as it is required to under US, UK and EU law)? If so, when? Had it informed users? But Facebook didn’t respond. It still hasn’t responded. It uses silence to throttle reporting, a strategy that works. It passes “exclusive” scoops to favourite reporters, and stonewalls the rest. Not just me. At an impromptu event on the data breach, journalists from Wired, Politico and Business Insider revealed that it refused to answer their questions too.

Instead it published a blogpost, The Facts on News Reports About Facebook Data, saying it wasn’t hacked, the data was “scraped”. It later confirmed that it had no intention of informing users because it wasn’t “confident” who they were, users “could not fix the issue”, and anyway, “the data was publicly available”. What do you do when a trillion-dollar company with 2.8 billion users treats the public with brazen contempt? When it won’t answer basic journalistic inquiries? When it ignores even the regulator? Ireland’s Data Protection Commission – its lead regulator in Europe – released a pointed statement saying that it received “no proactive communication” from Facebook.

It’s this culture of impunity that makes Facebook such a dangerous company. Even where there are laws, it operates above them.


It turns out that it’s only the journalists who are holding Facebook to account, because it really has nothing to bargain with, whereas the politicians tend to be worried about its power. There’s nothing Facebook can hold over journalists; all it can do is block them.
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Instagraft: Covid conspiracy theorists selling silver spray and $50 seawater • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Jasper Jackson and Alexandra Heal:


Despite claims from Instagram that it is taking more action on health misinformation, such as restricting the reach of videos like Baker’s, these channels are still growing. Over the first three months of this year the accounts gained almost a million followers between them, according to data from Facebook-owned service CrowdTangle.

Our investigation shows that Facebook, which owns Instagram, continues to be in breach of a commitment to the UK government last November to the principle that no one should profit from coronavirus vaccine misinformation online. The Bureau previously found hundreds of pages on Facebook itself using monetisation tools to profit from false claims about Covid-19 and vaccines. The Instagram accounts, many of which have received multiple flags from fact-checkers, are still posting two months after Facebook announced its latest tightening of rules.

Although neither Instagram nor Facebook profit directly from these money-making schemes, the company’s business model relies on keeping audiences engaged. Unfortunately, engaging with some of the content identified by the Bureau could potentially prove hazardous to people’s health.


SO much grifting going on. You’d have to hand-curate Instagram to wipe it out, though.
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That Fyre Fest tweet with the sad sandwich will be auctioned as an NFT for medical expenses • The Verge

As Jeff Atwood observed of this headline, it’s as 2021 as it’s possible to get. (The layers of irony in paying for America’s mad health system using an even more mad system that doesn’t actually get you anything tangible would do an onion proud.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1524: Epic court papers sting App Store, Pfizer zaps Brazil’s P1 variant in study, YouTube Kids is ‘vapid wasteland’, and more

The worldwide squeeze on chip supply is affecting Apple’s Macbook and iPad production, a report in the Nikkei paper says. CC-licensed photo by Aaron Yoo on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Mm, butter. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple engineer likened App Store security to ‘butter knife in gunfight’ • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:


A senior Apple engineer compared the defences of its App Store against malicious actors to “bringing a plastic butter knife to a gunfight”, according to legal documents released on Thursday.

The anecdote, which was cited by Fortnite maker Epic Games ahead of a high-stakes antitrust trial in California next month, was based on internal Apple documents quoting Eric Friedman, head of the company’s Fraud Engineering Algorithms and Risk (Fear) unit.

In the papers, Friedman also likened Apple’s process of reviewing new apps for the App Store to “more like the pretty lady who greets you . . . at the Hawaiian airport than the drug-sniffing dog”. He added that Apple was ill-equipped to “deflect sophisticated attackers”.

The revelation could be a significant blow to Apple’s defence, which rests on its insistence that the contentious 30% “tax” it levies on digital purchases within apps downloaded from the App Store is necessary to fund curation of the store and protect consumers from malware.

The two companies have for months been locked in a feud over the fee, with Epic suing Apple last August after Fortnite was thrown out of the App Store for launching its own in-app payment mechanism, a workaround that deprived Apple of its commission.

Apple rejects any third-party payment tools for in-app purchases, arguing they could undermine the security of the iPhone.

In hundreds of pages of newly released arguments, for which each company has been allowed access to the other’s internal documents, Epic launched a stinging attack on Apple’s promise of App Store security. It argued that the Silicon Valley giant has “no evidence” that its app review process “screens for security issues better than other methods of app distribution”.


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Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine neutralizes Brazil variant in lab study • Reuters

Michael Erman:


The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech was able to neutralize a new variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly in Brazil, according to a laboratory study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday.

Blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine neutralized an engineered version of the virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, the study conducted by scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch found.

The scientists said the neutralizing ability was roughly equivalent the vaccine’s effect on a previous less contagious version of the virus from last year.

The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.

In previously published studies, Pfizer had found that its vaccine neutralized other more contagious variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, although the South African variant may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the vaccine.

Pfizer has said it believes its current vaccine is highly likely to still protect against the South African variant.


The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is really turning out to be the gold medal winner: minimal side effects and beats the variants we’ve seen (so far). If only Brazil actually had an effective strategy for beating the P1 variant. But it doesn’t. Deaths are spiking there, and coming from a younger age group than before.
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YouTube Kids ‘a vapid wasteland’, say US lawmakers • BBC News


A US government committee has described YouTube Kids as a “wasteland of vapid, consumerist content”.

In a letter to YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, the US sub-committee on economic and consumer policy said the platform was full of “inappropriate… highly commercial content”.

Google launched YouTube Kids in 2015 as a safe place for children to view appropriate content. YouTube said it had worked hard to provide “enriching content for kids”.

In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson said: “Over the last few years, we’ve worked hard to provide kids and families with protections and controls that enable them to view age-appropriate content.
“We’ve made significant investments in the YouTube Kids app to make it safer, and to serve more educational and enriching content for kids, based on principles developed with experts and parents.”

…According to the letter, some videos appeared to be “smuggling in hidden marketing and advertising with product placements by children’s influencers”.

The letter claimed that one research team, which it did not name, found only about 4% of videos had a high educational value. Much of the rest was low quality content such as toy unboxing and videos of people playing video games.

It also said that one mother had reported a video that contained advice on how to commit suicide. After the video was reported, the letter alleges YouTube failed to remove it for eight months.


Hidden marketing and advertising with product placements? Sounds like they’re describing American network TV.
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Writing tools I learned from The Economist • Built By Words

Ahmed Soliman:


I learned writing from The Economist. Back home, it wasn’t easy to learn English. No one in my social circle was fluent in the language and I couldn’t afford a private tutor. The best I could do was to create my own syllabus. The kiosk near my house had, to my surprise, the newspaper[1]. I’d save my allowance to buy whatever issue was on the stand. I’d divide each issue into two units: New Vocabulary and Writing Tools. I’d then memorize the novel words and apply the newly-discovered sentence structures to my essays. I kept doing this for three years.

I like the writing style of The Economist for many reasons: the most important is that it’s easy to understand their point. Writing to be understood might be an obvious requirement of a readable article, but often I find myself occupied with deciphering form instead of digesting content. Not so with the British newspaper: its writers understand that form exists only to serve content. It’s okay to internally admire one’s word choices and sentence structures, but writers should be a little less selfish in their writing, especially nonfiction.

These are six writing tools I learned from The Economist. As you’ll see, they exist to serve, not confuse, the reader.


To professional journalists these will look pretty obvious, honed by years of work. But they’re excellent to learn from for all the people who don’t write for a living.
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How we found hints of new particles or forces of nature – and why it could change physics • The Conversation

Mark Lancaster:


The muon’s behaviour is influenced by “virtual particles” that pop in and out of existence from the vacuum. These exist fleetingly, but for long enough to affect how the muon interacts with the magnetic field and change the measured magnetic moment, albeit by a tiny amount.

The standard model predicts very precisely, to better than one part in a million, what this effect is. As long as we know what particles are bubbling in and out of the vacuum, experiment and theory should match. But, if experiment and theory don’t match, our understanding of the soup of virtual particles may be incomplete.

The possibility of new particles existing is not idle speculation. Such particles might help in explaining several of the big problems in physics. Why, for example, does the universe have so much dark matter – causing the galaxies to rotate faster than we’d expect – and why has nearly all the anti-matter created in the Big Bang disappeared?

The problem to date has been that nobody has seen any of these proposed new particles. It was hoped the LHC at Cern would produce them in collisions between high energy protons, but they’ve not yet been observed.

…The Brookhaven experiment measured a discrepancy with the standard model that had a one in 5,000 chance of being a statistical fluke. This is approximately the same probability as throwing a coin 12 times in a row, all heads up.

This was tantalising, but way below the threshold for discovery, which is generally required to be better than one in 1.7 million – or 21 coin throws in a row. To determine whether new physics was in play, scientists would have to increase the sensitivity of the experiment by a factor of four.

…The new results, from the first year of data at Fermilab, are in line with the measurement from the Brookhaven experiment. Combining results reinforces the case for a disagreement between experimental measurement and the standard model. The chances now lie at about one in 40,000 of the discrepancy being a fluke – still shy of the gold standard discovery threshold.


More experimentation! Though remember a while back that they thought they’d found faster-than-light neutrinos. Took nine months to correct. So there’s cautious optimism about this.
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App Tracking Transparency lets users opt out of all ad targeted tracking • AppleInsider

Mike Peterson:


Apple’s new privacy mechanisms in its App Tracking Transparency feature will allow users to opt out of other types of tracking beyond the company’s IDFA tag.

The App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature, slated to launch in iOS 14.5 in early spring, will require apps to obtain permission from users before tracking them across other websites and apps. If a user opts out of tracking, developers are required to comply.

However, the ATT feature doesn’t just apply to a user’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) tracking tag. If a user opts out of tracking, Apple will expect developers to stop using any identifiers for ad targeting, including hashed email addresses or phone numbers, the company said Wednesday.

Asking an app not to track using other forms of identifiers differs slightly from the IDFA implementation. Since Apple controls the IDFA, it can stop an app from seeing the identifier using technical means. For other forms of tracking, it’s a policy. Apple will require developers to comply.


More and more radical. Apple’s declaring war on the adtech business.
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MacBook and iPad production delayed as supply crunch hits Apple • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:


Production of some MacBooks and iPads has been postponed due to the global component shortage, Nikkei Asia has learned, in a sign that even Apple, with its massive procurement power, is not immune from the unprecedented supply crunch.

Chip shortages have caused delays in a key step in MacBook production — the mounting of components on printed circuit boards before final assembly — sources briefed on the matter told Nikkei Asia. Some iPad assembly, meanwhile, was postponed because of a shortage of displays and display components, sources said.

As a result of the delay, Apple has pushed back a portion of component orders for the two devices from the first half of this year to the second half, the people said. Industry sources and experts say the delays are a sign that the chip shortage is growing more serious and could impact smaller tech players even more heavily.

Apple is known for its expertise in managing one of the world’s most complicated supply chains, and for the speed with which it can mobilize suppliers. This has helped the company withstand a global component shortage that is already squeezing automakers and electronics makers alike.

Production plans for Apple’s iconic iPhones have so far not been affected by the supply shortage, although the supply of some components for the devices is “quite tight,” according to two sources. Overall, the component shortage remains a supply chain issue for Apple and has not yet had an impact on product availability for consumers, Nikkei has learned.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

Apple rival Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest smartphone maker, recently confirmed that the chip shortage could be problematic for the company in the April to June period, adding that it has teams of employees working around the clock to resolve the issue.


The hysteresis from the supply chain delay is going to screw up a lot of companies, just when they thought they could make hay as everyone comes out of lockdown.
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A deep dive into the leaked data of 533 million Facebook users • Surfshark



Overall, the leak produced 2837793637 data points – meaning that the hackers, on average, exposed 5 types of data per user. “It includes their phone numbers, Facebook IDs, full names, locations, birthdates, bios, and — in some cases — email addresses,” said Vytautas Kaziukonis, CEO of Surfshark when talking about the breach. 

While the big worry online is about email addresses, this is not the part that should cause the most concern as a comparatively small 4,76% of the profiles had their email addresses exposed. However, 89.01% of affected users had their phone numbers leaked. 

Disclaimer: The data set for Facebook’s data breach was extremely large and complex to analyze; therefore, the probability of false positives and possible discrepancies should be taken into account.

All in all, 11 types of data points were exposed, with specifics varying from user to user. Below [in the post] is a chart that breaks it all down by type. Keep in mind that we’re counting the percentage of people affected by the breach.


First and/or last name in more than 90% of leaks.

Facebook, meanwhile, doesn’t intend to tell people if their data has been leaked: a spokesman said that


“the social media company was not confident it had full visibility on which users would need to be notified. He said it also took into account that users could not fix the issue and that the data was publicly available in deciding not to notify users.”


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Google illegally tracking Android users, according to new complaint • Ars Technica

Javier Espinosa:


Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems has filed a complaint against Google in France alleging that the US tech giant is illegally tracking users on Android phones without their consent.

Android phones generate unique advertising codes, similar to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), that allow Google and third parties to track users’ browsing behavior in order to better target them with advertising.

In a complaint filed on Wednesday, Schrems’ campaign group Noyb argued that in creating and storing these codes without first obtaining explicit permission from users, Google was engaging in “illegal operations” that violate EU privacy laws.

Noyb urged France’s data privacy regulator to launch a probe into Google’s tracking practices and to force the company to comply with privacy rules. It argued that fines should be imposed on the tech giant if the watchdog finds evidence of wrongdoing.

“Through these hidden identifiers on your phone, Google and third parties can track users without their consent,” said Stefano Rossetti, privacy lawyer at Noyb. “It is like having powder on your hands and feet, leaving a trace of everything you do on your phone—from whether you swiped right or left to the song you downloaded.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint comes as Apple is set to bring in landmark changes to how it tracks users, asking them for the first time to opt in to the use of identifiers in its new iOS 14 operating system. The decision has stoked alarm among developers, who expect a majority of users to choose to block the use of IDFA.


Schrems has a pretty good record against big companies with the EU, so don’t write this off. Equally, it could take years to come through.
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Road building is supposed to cut congestion and boost the economy – my research suggests otherwise • The Conversation

David Metz:


Highways England, a Department for Transport-owned company responsible for the country’s motorways, published detailed traffic monitoring reports for the first three years after opening a smart motorway scheme between Junctions 23 and 27 of the M25 London orbital route. [Metz then analysed it.]

The road was enlarged from three to four lanes in each direction. While traffic flowed faster one year after opening, this advantage was lost by year two thanks to the increase in traffic volume, up 16% compared with 7% for other motorways in the region.

Road investment is supposed to benefit the economy by shaving precious minutes off travel time. Traffic models are used to estimate how big time savings are likely to be in order to justify each investment. The model used in the M25 case projected substantial travel time savings worth over £400 million to those travelling for business reasons – both cars and good vehicles.

There were also smaller time savings for local road users, both commuters and those taking short trips. But these were almost entirely offset by increased fuel costs. That’s because these local drivers rerouted to the motorway where there was less traffic to save a few minutes on their journey. Ultimately though, they ended up travelling a greater distance by departing from more direct routes.

The M25 traffic model used to justify the smart motorway investment substantially underestimated this increase in traffic volume, while overestimating the average increase in speed for most drivers, put at about 10 km per hour. The benefit-cost ratio was estimated to be 2.9, that is, £2.90 of economic benefit for every £1 invested. Since the travel time savings didn’t last beyond the first year after opening, the actual benefit-cost ratio was much lower.


I think it’s been known for a long time that building more roads leads to more traffic. Good to have it confirmed so clearly, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1523: how Facebook’s data leaked out, Spotify buys ‘Clubhouse for sports’, Apple helps others find your stuff, and more

Computers really can’t interpret emotions – so why do companies keep trying to insist they can? And should we regulate them? CC-licensed photo by hydra arts on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. There they are! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What really caused Facebook’s leak of 500 million users’ data? • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:


One source of the confusion was that Facebook has had any number of breaches and exposures from which this data could have originated. Was it the 540 million records—including Facebook IDs, comments, likes, and reaction data—exposed by a third party and disclosed by the security firm UpGuard in April 2019? Or was it the 419 million Facebook user records, including hundreds of millions of phone numbers, names, and Facebook IDs, scraped from the social network by bad actors before a 2018 Facebook policy change, that were exposed publicly and reported by TechCrunch in September 2019? Did it have something to do with the Cambridge Analytica third-party data sharing scandal of 2018? Or was this somehow related to the massive 2018 Facebook data breach that compromised access tokens and virtually all personal data from about 30 million users?

In fact, the answer appears to be: none of the above. As Facebook eventually explained in background comments to WIRED and in its Tuesday blogpost, the recently public trove of 533 million records is an entirely different data set that attackers created by abusing a flaw in a Facebook address book contacts import feature. Facebook says it patched the vulnerability in August 2019, but it’s unclear how many times the bug was exploited before then. The information from more than 500 million Facebook users in more than 106 countries contains Facebook IDs, phone numbers, and other information about early Facebook users like Mark Zuckerburg and US secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, as well as the European Union commissioner for data protection, Didier Reynders. Other victims include 61 people who list the “Federal Trade Commission” and 651 people who list “Attorney General” in their details on Facebook.


How surprising that Facebook should misdirect people about whether a data breach was novel.
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Spotify acquires sports-talk app Locker Room • WSJ

Anne Steele:


Spotify Technology is making its move into live audio by acquiring the sports-talk app Locker Room and its maker Betty Labs.

The deal values the company, initially backed by Lightspeed Venture Partners, and more recently by Google Ventures and Precursor Ventures, at around $50m, according to a person familiar with the transaction. If certain targets are met the value could climb closer to $80m, this person said.

Locker Room has quickly become the spot for fan chatter around games and sports news, with the likes of Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala and Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry to podcaster Ant Wright and ESPN’s Jeff Darlington dropping in for conversations as well. It filled a real-time, interactive void for sports fans left by the inability to gather in arenas, stadiums and bars during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The purchase follows an explosion in demand for live audio apps amid the pandemic. Voice-based social networks, such as Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Water Cooler and Locker Room, allow users to converse spontaneously. They are an alternative to podcasts, but they are also a curated amalgamation of podcasts, live streams, conferences and radio. Comedians, artists and business leaders have flocked to these apps’ virtual rooms to perform, chat, debate and network across topics and industries.

For Spotify, which has expanded into podcasting to position itself as the world’s largest audio company—not just a music-streaming giant—the deal is a bet that live audio will last well beyond the pandemic.


This is a smart acquisition: as Ben Thompson and John Gruber have discussed on their Dithering podcast. Unlike Clubhouse, which is “any old audio”, Locker Room knows (or tells you) that you’ve come to listen to/talk about sports, and can funnel towards your interest right when you sign up. Clubhouse, on the other hand, is wildly (over?) valued and trying to cover the entire waterfront. The focus will pay off for Spotify. For contrast: Bloomberg says “Twitter held discussions for $4bn takeover of Clubhouse.” Guess which of these two deals could actually create value.
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7% of Americans don’t use the internet. Who are they? • Pew Research Center

Andrew Perrin and Sara Atske:


Internet non-adoption is linked to a number of demographic variables, but is strongly connected to age – with older Americans continuing to be one of the least likely groups to use the internet. Today, 25% of adults ages 65 and older report never going online, compared with much smaller shares of adults under the age of 65.

Educational attainment and household income are also indicators of a person’s likelihood to be offline. Some 14% of adults with a high school education or less do not use the internet, but that share falls as the level of educational attainment increases. Adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are far more likely than those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more to report not using the internet (14% vs. 1%).

There are no statistically significant differences in non-internet use by gender, race and ethnicity, or community type. 


Have to assume that as the cohort ages and dies that this statistic will simply cease to be the case – or will become more and more marginal. For those aged 18-29, 1% aren’t online; aged 30-49 it’s 2%; aged 50-64, it’s 4%. It’s a matter of time – the opposite of people learning to type, which used to be a rare skill that no self-respecting CEO would be seen dead doing.
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Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities • The Conversation

Christian Brand:


Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

The emission savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years. Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions.

…In new research, colleagues and I reveal that people who walk or cycle have lower carbon footprints from daily travel, including in cities where lots of people are already doing this. Despite the fact that some walking and cycling happens on top of motorised journeys instead of replacing them, more people switching to active travel [cycling, e-biking and walking] would equate to lower carbon emissions from transport on a daily and trip-by-trip basis.


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The handset industry is a flat circle • Digits to Dollars

Jonathan Goldberg:


Today, there are six phone makers left at scale: Apple, Samsung, Huawei, BBK, Xiaomi and Transsion. Apple remains unassailable with the best customers and the majority of industry profits. Samsung survives through scale and integration with other parts of the Samsung chaebol. Xiaomi has built a loyal following through some very solid marketing. Huawei had pulled far ahead, but its future now is not bright. Transsion is mostly a feature phone business, with solid inroads in Africa and now India. And then there’s BBK Group.

As the LG news [that it’s shutting its mobile phone division] broke, we were struck by how many people think the handset market is still fragmented among a dozen vendors. Most people who say that do not realize that a third of the top brands on the market today are owned by a single company, namely BBK. They own Vivo, Oppo, RealMe and OnePlus as well as a few other brands. Depending on who’s counting BBK is now the second or third largest handset vendor on the market. There are a couple of other brands still out there – notably the legacy business of the one-time leaders – HMD (the brand owner of Nokia), Sony (Ericsson) and Lenovo (Motorola), but their collective share is small.

What really strikes us from this list is that we are almost back to the point where we started [over 20 years ago]. Take Huawei off the list because their status is so unclear, and take off Transsion because their smartphone share is tiny – and we are left with four companies.


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White House rejects COVID-19 vaccine passports • Poynter

Al Tompkins:


White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the Biden administration does not support asking Americans to carry COVID-19 vaccine passports to prove they have been vaccinated.

“Let me be very clear on this. I know there’s been lots of questions,” Psaki said. “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”

Some sort of passport might make it easier to travel internationally or enter sports venues or concert halls. But opponents have raised privacy concerns and questioned whether it would penalize people with underlying health issues who cannot take the vaccines. But, Psaki said, “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”


That doesn’t, however, mean that individual states can’t do this – and New York looks pretty enthusiastic about the idea. The discussion about “Covid certificates” (passports are for passing through borders, people) is fascinating: there’s almost a horseshoe effect, where the two ends of the political spectrum bend around and meet in agreement against them, for entirely different reasons, while the less extreme (more centrist) ones generally like the idea.
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Apple opens up its Find My network to third-party devices—no AirTag needed • MacWorld

Michael Simon:


While we’ve been waiting for the long-rumored AirTags to finally make an appearance, it appears that Apple might have pulled a head fake. Instead of a keychain that you can attach to things, Apple is partnering with third-party device manufacturers to use the Find My app to track down things they have lost.

Much like Apple’s own devices, third-party manufacturers who sign up for the Works with Apple Find My program will be able to tap into the Find My network to see where lost items are on a map, even if they can’t or don’t connect to the internet. The vast Find My network uses end-to-end encryption to crowdsource data from the hundreds of millions of Apple devices around the world to help locate missing items.

Additionally, Works with Apple Find My devices will be able to take advantage of ultra-wideband technology in the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and Apple Watch Series 6 to track products with greater precision. It’s not clear whether Apple will allow devices to be powered down or remotely wiped as you can with Apple devices.


People have been expecting Apple to release “AirTags” – something you’d stick to an item which would let you track it down – since summer 2019, and in the meantime the antitrust noise, including from Tile (which makes a Bluetooth tag), has ramped up. Letting third-party companies make the hardware is a great way not to have to bear the costs (and potential losses), while reaping the benefits of tying people and third-party companies into your ecosystem to detect the things.
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New AI technique transforms any image into the style of famous artists • The Next Web

Thomas Macaulay:


The system morphs an input image towards the suggestion of a text prompt, such as “Salvador Dalí Art.” Over repeated mutations and iterations of each frame, the AI gradually finds features and shapes that match the text description until it produces a final composition.

“The results were like nothing I’ve ever seen as a computer artist for over 30 years,” [computer artist Glenn] Marshall told TNW. “By using any image and any text, the combination of endless possibilities is mind-shattering. And no one else is doing anything like this.”

Each piece was generated with a modified version of the Aleph-Image notebook, which is itself powered by OpenAI’s DALL-E and CLIP models.

Marshall named the technique Chimera, after the mythical beast formed from various animal parts, which has become a byword for something that exists only in the imagination and isn’t possible in reality.

Marshall says the technique is closer to “style distortion” than style transfer. But would the artists he’s distorting appreciate his creations?


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AI cannot detect our emotions • OneZero

Evan Selinger talks to Prof Luke Stark, assistant professor in information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario:


Stark: Emotions are simultaneously made up of physiological, mental, psychological, cultural, and individually subjective phenomenological components. No single measurable element of an emotional response is ever going to tell you the whole story. Philosopher Jesse Prinz calls this “the problem of parts.”

To a large degree, then, our emotional responses are inherently interpersonal. By definition, no third party, whether it’s a social media platform or education-technology software, can know for certain how you feel when you’re expressing an emotion. Humans have developed all sorts of culturally specific social conventions to make interpersonal emotional expression more predictable. But several millennia of art and literature make it clear we can’t, as they say, know what’s in someone else’s heart. Some find that fact actively comforting. Others evidently find it frustrating.

Salinger: That’s a fascinating comparison. In everyday life, miscommunication can be vexing, exasperating, and sometimes have deadly consequences. But when given literary expression, the same situations, which we can observe from a somewhat comfortable distance, become dramatically compelling. Misunderstanding is the basis of fascinating plot shifts and nuanced character studies. On the lighter side, it also drives lots of comedy.

Stark: Right, and the resolution of misunderstandings, or reflection on why those resolutions didn’t or couldn’t take place, drives catharsis — releasing and thus getting relief from strong or repressed emotions. I did quite a bit of theater in college. In later chatting about it with a well-known physical computing practitioner, I asked them to observe that theater direction and interaction design are very similar processes. Material media modulate the social expression of emotion, much like dramatic conventions in the theater, which long predate digital technologies.


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Time to regulate AI that interprets human emotions • Nature

Kate Crawford:


The polygraph is a useful parallel. This ‘lie detector’ test was invented in the 1920s and used by the FBI and US military for decades, with inconsistent results that harmed thousands of people until its use was largely prohibited by federal law. It wasn’t until 1998 that the US Supreme Court concluded that “there was simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable”.

A formative figure behind the claim that there are universal facial expressions of emotion is the psychologist Paul Ekman. In the 1960s, he travelled the highlands of Papua New Guinea to test his controversial hypothesis that all humans exhibit a small number of ‘universal’ emotions that are innate, cross-cultural and consistent. Early on, anthropologist Margaret Mead disputed this idea, saying that it discounted context, culture and social factors.

But the six emotions Ekman described fit perfectly into the model of the emerging field of computer vision. As I write in my 2021 book Atlas of AI, his theory was adopted because it fit what the tools could do. Six consistent emotions could be standardized and automated at scale — as long as the more complex issues were ignored. Ekman sold his system to the US Transportation Security Administration after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, to assess which airline passengers were showing fear or stress, and so might be terrorists. It was strongly criticized for lacking credibility and for being racially biased. However, many of today’s tools, such as 4 Little Trees, are based on Ekman’s six-emotion categorization. (Ekman maintains that faces do convey universal emotions, but says he’s seen no evidence that automated technologies work.)


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Ebang: yet another crypto “China Hustle” absconding with US investor cash • Hindenburg Research


• Ebang is a China-based crypto company that has raised ~$374m from U.S. investors in four offerings since going public in June 2020.
• While the company represented that it would use the majority of its numerous capital proceeds to develop its business operations, our research discovered it instead directed much of the cash out of the company through a series of opaque deals with insiders and questionable counterparties.
• For example, the company directed $103 million, representing ~$11m more than its entire IPO proceeds, into bond purchases linked to its U.S. underwriter, AMTD, which has a track record including (a) fraud and self-dealing allegations levied against it by one of the largest private equity firms in China and (b) listings that have subsequently imploded.

• Ebang claims to be a “leading bitcoin mining machine producer”, yet our research indicates this extraordinary claim is backed by no evidence. Ebang released its final miner in May 2019 and has since seen its sales dwindle to near-zero, delivering only 6,000 total miners in 1H20.
• With its mining machine business failing, Ebang pivoted the story to a cryptocurrency exchange launch called “Ebonex”. Announcements about the exchange added as much as $922 million market capitalization to Ebang.
• We found that Ebang’s exchange appears to be purchased from a white-label crypto exchange provider called Blue Helix that offers out-of-the-box exchanges for as little as no money up-front.


Totally normal, nothing to see here.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1522: how India used to message with missed calls, Sweden v Covid: who won?, see if your Facebook data was hacked, and more

A new music project has created a new Jimi Hendrix track (and some by other artists) using Google’s AI. They’re good!CC-licensed photo by Dana on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Kiss the sky. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A booming industry based entirely on missed calls helped bring India online — and vanished overnight • Rest of World

Atul Bhattarai:


just as the missed call [used to send an agreed message without actually spending any time on the call] became ubiquitous — The Times of India wrote in 2009 of Indians’ marked fondness “for hanging up swiftly” — a company in Bangalore called ZipDial took the tool and transformed it. With a couple of rings to the appropriate ZipDial hotline, customers received automated texts and callbacks that delivered live cricket scores for a big match, a deal on an affordable shampoo, rudimentary on-demand radio for Bollywood songs, or celebrity tweets — content supplied by brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. In exchange, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products.

At a time when less than a tenth of India’s population was online — smartphones were prohibitively expensive, and buying a gigabyte of mobile data, which was glitchy and agonizingly slow outside of major cities, cost the average rural Indian two to three days’ wages — missed calls made information from an otherwise unreachable digital world available with a single dial. Users needed only a feature phone: the kind with a number pad, preloaded with a game of Snake. “For many people, ZipDial was the first connection to the internet,” says Sanjay Swamy, one of the company’s founders and board members.

With the frantic pace of technological change over the past five years, the internet paywall in India has largely come down. Budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data rates have ensured that half of Indians are online. And missed calls are just about obsolete, their function better served by WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and a welter of e-commerce apps.


In a similar vein: remember paid-for ringtones?
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Lost Tapes of the 27 Club • Over The Bridge


As long as there’s been popular music, musicians and crews have struggled with mental health at a rate far exceeding the general adult population. And this issue hasn’t just been ignored. It’s been romanticized, by things like the 27 Club—a group of musicians whose lives were all lost at just 27 years old.

To show the world what’s been lost to this mental health crisis, we’ve used artificial intelligence to create the album the 27 Club never had the chance to. Through this album, we’re encouraging more music industry insiders to get the mental health support they need, so they can continue making the music we all love for years to come.

Because even AI will never replace the real thing.


So they fed the music of, respectively, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Nirvana and Amy Winehouse into Google’s Magenta AI system, and it produced these songs. And they are really good. (I think the singing is by professional humans.) The set is also on Spotify.

The idea that AI can do this is utterly mindboggling.
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Sweden’s pandemic experiment • The New Yorker

Mallory Pickett:


[Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders] Tegnell’s prediction of a tapering epidemic curve and quickly-attained immunity never came to pass. Sweden’s per-capita case counts and death rates have been many times higher than any of its Nordic neighbors, all of which imposed lockdowns, travel bans, and limited gatherings early on.

Overall in Sweden, 13,000 people have died from Covid-19. In Norway, which has a population that is half the size of Sweden’s, and where stricter lockdowns were enforced, about 700 people have died. It’s likely that some simple policy changes—especially shutting down visitations to nursing homes sooner, and providing more P.P.E. and testing to nursing-home staff—would have saved lives. And the strategy doesn’t seem to have helped the economy much: the Swedish G.D.P. fell by around 3%, better than the European average, but similar to the drop in other Nordic countries.

Fredrik Elgh, a virologist at Umeå University and one of Tegnell’s former bosses, wishes that Sweden had implemented restrictions like those used by other countries in the region. “Why don’t they go the same route as our neighbors that have been so successful?” he said. “We could have done that, too, if we had followed their path.” The fatalities in the elder homes, which account for about 50% of the Covid-19 deaths in Sweden, seem especially needless; if visits to these facilities had been banned sooner, if their workers had been advised to wear masks and get tested frequently, it’s possible that thousands of lives could have been saved.


Sweden keeps being held up as the example of “doing it right”, but it clearly isn’t. Only in comparison to countries in Europe (and the UK) does it look like it did OK. The difference, though, may be down to how many people cross borders more than other approaches such as lockdowns.
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Google AI research manager quits after two ousted from group • Bloomberg

Nico Grant, Josh Eidelson and Dina Bass:


Google research manager Samy Bengio, who oversaw the company’s AI ethics group until a controversy led to the ouster of two female leaders, resigned on Tuesday to pursue other opportunities.

Bengio, who managed hundreds of researchers in the Google Brain team, announced his departure in an email to staff that was obtained by Bloomberg. His last day will be April 28. An expert in a type of AI known as machine learning, Bengio joined Google in 2007.

Ousted Ethical AI co-leads Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell had reported to Bengio and considered him an ally. In February, Google reorganized the research unit, placing the remaining Ethical AI group members under Marian Croak, cutting Bengio’s responsibilities.

“While I am looking forward to my next challenge, there’s no doubt that leaving this wonderful team is really difficult,” Bengio wrote in the email. He did not refer to Gebru, Mitchell or the disagreements that led to their departures. Google declined to comment.

In November, Bengio’s then-manager Megan Kacholia met with Gebru to demand she retract a paper co-written with Mitchell and other Google researchers that criticized an AI technology powering some of Google’s search results. In early December, Google dismissed Gebru in what she termed a firing and Google has called an acceptance of her resignation. In February, the company fired Mitchell.


Are there many more in Google who are frustrated like Bengio? Or is this just a small localised problem? Google’s so big now that it could have lots of small localised problems and they’d look like a conflagration.
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Five years after the Oculus Rift, where do VR and AR go next? • WIRED

Peter Rubin does a deep dive (with interviews) on Facebook’s efforts, so it’s really “where does Facebook think its AR and VR goes next?”:


Two weeks ago, Facebook Reality Labs held a media briefing to show off its North Star. You’ve likely read the stories by now, but if not, the magic word is “wristband.” Specifically, it’s an electromyography (EMG) neural interface wrist device, meaning it translates the electrical signals your muscles make as you move. The hope is that it unlocks the ability to manipulate the interfaces of your decade-hence AR world with tiny movements of your fingers—or none at all. The FRL briefing also included footage of an employee playing a simple video game without moving his hands; the EMG device read the nearly imperceptible signals his brain sent when he thought about pressing the spacebar. (Before you ask: Yes, Mark Zuckerberg has tried it. “I talk to the people on the Labs team every week,” he says. “They send me pelican cases of different gear—I’m sitting in my office right now, and I have two on the floor next to me, and one has the wrist device.”)

That may not be invasive technology in the traditional sense—again, let’s just leave that whole brain-implant thing alone—but it’s yet another reminder that AR and VR’s power depends on data. Lots and lots of data. Where you’re looking, how you’re looking at it, what your face and others’ faces are doing. In VR, that’s a fount of psychographic information that has in the past proven very attractive to companies like Cambridge Analytica. And when you can identify people by their movement patterns alone, anonymity dies.

In AR, the proposition gets even more fraught. When you leave a party or a store, you’re likely to forget many more details than you remember; your glasses are picking up everything you are, and quite possibly much more. The result, Katitza Rodriguez and Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote last year, can all too easily become a “global panopticon society of constant surveillance in public or semi-public spaces.” And when the company that’s building those systems is the same company that hasn’t exactly inspired trust in the past, and tech-ethics bugaboos like facial recognition are still on the table, that’s all the more reason to cast a skeptic’s eye at the future.


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Clarence Thomas’ attack on social media companies’ First Amendment rights is a delusion • Slate

Mark Joseph Stern:


According to [right-wing Supreme Court justice Clarence] Thomas, there is “a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner.” Why? Thomas gives several reasons: These platforms “carry” information between users, they “hold themselves out as organizations that focus on distributing the speech of the broader public,” and, through the much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they receive immunity from lawsuits based on third-party content. He added that control of digital platforms is “highly concentrated,” giving them “enormous control over speech.” As an example, he wrote that “Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing.” This case in point may be an allusion to Amazon’s recent delisting of Ryan Anderson’s anti-trans book. (Anderson and Thomas are friends.)

Thomas also put forth a second theory to justify a ban on content moderation: Digital platforms have become “places of public accommodation,” like a hotel or restaurant. The government can bar these businesses from discriminating against customers. Perhaps, Thomas theorized, it can also call digital platforms “public accommodations” and bar them from discriminating against users’ speech.

Most of the justices’ opinion is meant to “give legislators strong arguments” for “regulating digital platforms” like common carriers or public accommodations. But in an especially zany aside, Thomas suggests that users may be able to combat content moderation right now through the courts. This section of the opinion verges on incoherence, but Thomas seems to think that users could sue the government for pressuring social media companies to remove certain speech.


He’s an absolute fruitcake. As I pointed out, his dissent on the Oracle-Google case was off the wall as well. I wonder if the other justices give each other side-eye when he expounds on stuff at their meetings.
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Tesla owners are having a meltdown about Full Self Driving (FSD) reality on Reddit • Jalopnik

Jason Torchinsky:


I wouldn’t call what’s happening a meltdown exactly, maybe more of a collective moment of clarity. Right now on Reddit’s r/teslamotors forum there’s an intense and very serious conversation about the now-$10,000 level 2 driver assist package that Tesla calls “Full Self-Driving” (FSD)—specifically, whether the features Tesla and Elon Musk started promising back in 2016 will ever actually exist, and what kind of legal exposure Tesla has if it fails to deliver. People have put down real money and haven’t yet gotten what they were expecting, which has led to these difficult conversations.

The original poster said they were motivated to start the thread because of Ford PR rep Mike Levine’s description of Tesla’s “FSD” system as “vaporware,” which had sparked a lot of debate about “FSD’s” status as vaporware or not within the Tesla community.


Tesla has put itself in quite a bind. Elon Musk says that FSD (which costs about $10,000 as a software upgrade, purchaseable any time before or after taking delivery of the car) would let you just get into the car and not touch anything and be taken to your destination. Ah, but government regulators haven’t approved it yet. Except the regulators don’t have to approve it.

Which means there’s a lot of people who have paid for FSD who don’t have it despite Tesla promising they can have it. As Torchinsky says: “There’s so much going on here, and so many questions raised. Is “FSD” a genuinely earnest project with real goals and deliverables, or an elaborate scam to get a lot of money while delivering nothing?”
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The Facebook phone numbers are now searchable in Have I Been Pwned • Troy Hunt

Troy runs the fabulous service that lets you find out whether your details have been exposed in a hack:


I’d never planned to make phone numbers searchable and indeed this idea sat there for over 5 and a half years without action. My position on this was that it didn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons:

• Phone numbers appear far less frequently than email addresses
• They’re much harder to parse out of most data sets (i.e. I can’t just regex them out like email addresses)
• They very often don’t adhere to a consistent format across breaches and countries of origin

Plus, when the whole modus operandi of HIBP is to literally answer that question – Have I Been Pwned? – so long as there are email addresses that can be searched, phone numbers don’t add a whole lot of additional value.

The Facebook data changed all that. There’s over 500m phone numbers but only a few million email addresses so >99% of people were getting a “miss” when they should have gotten a “hit”. The phone numbers were easy to parse out from (mostly) well-formatted files. They were also all normalised into a nice consistent format with a country code. In short, this data set completely turned all my reasons for not doing this on its head.

And finally, when I asked the masses, the responses were “for” rather than “against” by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.


Facebook, meanwhile, has been very “nothing to see here” about the appearance of details about 500 million of its users in a hacking forum, saying that the leak actually happened in 2019. Not sure that’s very reassuring, really. (Fantastic news, though – my phone number’s not there. Not that it really needs to be leaked.)
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How much the [human] eye tells the brain • US NIH

Kristin Koch et al:


In the classic “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain,” Lettvin and colleagues showed that different types of retinal ganglion cell send specific kinds of information. For example, one type responds best to a dark, convex form moving centripetally (a fly). Here we consider a complementary question: how much information does the retina send and how is it apportioned among different cell types?

Recording from guinea pig retina on a multi-electrode array and presenting various types of motion in natural scenes, we measured information rates for seven types of ganglion cell. Mean rates varied across cell types (6–13 bits/s) more than across stimuli. Sluggish cells transmitted information at lower rates than brisk cells, but because of trade-offs between noise and temporal correlation, all types had the same coding efficiency.

Calculating the proportions of each cell type from receptive field size and coverage factor, we conclude (assuming independence) that the approximately 105 ganglion cells transmit on the order of 875,000 bits/s.

Because sluggish cells are equally efficient but more numerous, they account for most of the information. With approximately 106 ganglion cells, the human retina would transmit data at roughly the rate of an Ethernet connection.


So does that make our brain… a router?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1521: SCOTUS backs Google, LG’s phone biz is dead, Tim Cook hedges on App Store, Yahoo will have no more Answers, and more

Cosmic rays (which create the orange glow on the horizon in space photos) are being blamed for thousands of network malfunctions on Earth CC-licensed photo by NASA Johnson on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Billions, you say. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google v Oracle: US Supreme Court declares Google’s code copying fair • BBC News


A decade-long battle over copied code in Google’s Android operating system has ended in the US Supreme Court.

Oracle, another tech titan, had sued Google in 2010 for copyright infringement over what it said was copied computer code.

Android is now used in an estimated 70% of global smartphones, and damages could have run into the billions.

But the Supreme Court let Google off the hook, overturning a lower court’s decision it had infringed copyright. The court ruled six to two in favour of Google
At issue was whether Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API – a widely-used “building block” for programmers – counted as “fair use” under US copyright law. If it was, the fact that Google was accused of copying more than 11,000 lines of code [0.4% of the total code – CA] would not matter.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in his written opinion, said that “to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public”. So many programmers used and had deep knowledge of Oracle’s building blocks that such a move would turn computer code into “a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs”.

“Oracle alone would hold the key,” he warned.

Oracle made clear that it firmly disagreed with the court’s judgement, saying that it had increased Google’s power further and damaged other companies’ ability to compete. “They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” said Dorian Daley, the company’s general counsel, in a statement.


It’s the 0.4% part that’s important. SCOTUS dodged the question of whether an API can be copyrighted (which remains a big and important question). The decision, linked above, is worth reading; you can get by with just the first four pages, which explain it in enough detail. (Notably, Alito and Thomas – the two most conservative judges – dissented, saying that “Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.” The hilarious part of Thomas’s dissent is the implication that it was Oracle’s efforts, rather than Sun originally making Java open source, that made Java successful. Their timeline is wonky: they talk about 2005-08 as a key period, but Oracle didn’t buy Sun until 2010.)
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LG’s phone business is dead: the gripping tale of bold misfires and unfulfilled promise • CNET

Roger Cheng put together this monster obit for LG’s phone business in a day – the equivalent of writing up a celebrity who unexpectedly falls off a cliff. Except LG’s fall had been a long time coming; it lost $4.5bn since 2015:


It was 2009, and smartphones were still a luxurious novelty despite the appearance of the iPhone and Google’s first Android phone, the G1 from HTC. LG still moved millions of feature phones at each of the US carriers and didn’t deem Apple a threat because it was tied to AT&T as an exclusive. Android was even more of a niche thing. LG’s feature phone business, meanwhile, had peaked at a tenth of the world’s market for phones, according to Statista. 

“Ironically, 2009 was the best year for revenue and profit for mobile,” Kim said.

Publicly, the company expressed confidence, but privately, executives knew they were behind. That year, its heavy hitter was the enV Touch, a large (for its time) candy bar phone with a 3-inch touchscreen that unfolded to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, dual speakers and a smaller inner screen. Verizon pumped it up as a potential rival to the iPhone with its basic games and rudimentary web browser. 

It was not. And LG knew it. 

“Some of us thought we were too happy with the success of the feature phone,” LG executive Hong-Joo Kim said. “We were so late preparing for smartphones.”


That’s all you need to know, really. Plus it wouldn’t spend on marketing like Samsung and Apple would.
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Apple’s CEO is making very different choices from Mark Zuckerberg • The New York Times

A transcript of a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Cook by Kara Swisher:


Kara Swisher: So when you look at this case [where Epic is suing Apple], one of the things is, it could be bad rules. This is what they’re trying to argue, I think, on Epic’s side, whether these rules where you take a certain cut and then, for example, Apple takes only 15% cut of Amazon’s App Store revenue for Prime Video, for example. Is there a reckoning for you all to think about changing these rules more significantly?

Tim Cook: Well, the App Store is not cast in concrete, you know? And so we’ve changed over time. And in fact, if you look at the commissions, Kara, and I would sort of reframe a bit from what you said, because the vast majority of people pay nothing. Because there’s not an interchange of a digital good, right? And so, like, 85% of people pay zero commission. And then with our recent move with small developers, developers earning less than a million dollars a year pay 15%. Well, it turns out that that’s the vast majority of developers. And then, we also have rules that say that if you have a subscription model in the second year and later years, you only pay 15% of those. And so we’ve only reduced the price over time. It’s only gone in one direction. It’s gone down. More apps were exempted. But those rules are applied equally to everyone. So you’ve mentioned Amazon getting 15%. That’s true for any kind of video streaming service that meets the guidelines of that program.

Kara Swisher: So it depends on what they’re doing — what they’re necessary —

Tim Cook: It depends on what they’re doing. Right.

Kara Swisher: Like Netflix and others, right. What’s wrong with Epic or any developer going their own way or allowing a direct payment system, instead of having to go through the App Store? Why should you have the control?

Tim Cook: Well, I think somebody has to. I think somebody has to curate, right?


It’s real Kremlinology to try to read any shift in stance in what Cook says. On the App Store, it feels like the ground might be shifting just a tiny bit. But in general I feel that Cook’s pronouncements are lagging indicators: it’s rare for him to be the one who first comes out with a clear change in policy, except at formal events.
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Cosmic rays causing 30,000 network malfunctions in Japan each year • The Mainichi


Cosmic rays are causing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 malfunctions in domestic network communication devices in Japan every year, a Japanese telecom giant found recently.

Most so-called “soft errors,” or temporary malfunctions, in the network hardware of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. are automatically corrected via safety devices, but experts said in some cases they may have led to disruptions.

It is the first time the actual scale of soft errors in domestic information infrastructures has become evident.

Soft errors occur when the data in an electronic device is corrupted after neutrons, produced when cosmic rays hit oxygen and nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere, collide with the semiconductors within the equipment.

Cases of soft errors have increased as electronic devices with small and high-performance semiconductors have become more common. Temporary malfunctions have sometimes led to computers and phones freezing, and have been regarded as the cause of some plane accidents abroad.

Masanori Hashimoto, professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology and an expert in soft errors, said the malfunctions have actually affected other network communication devices and electrical machineries at factories in and outside Japan.


That’s a lot, and Japan is hardly the only country with lots of electronics. How many might there be elsewhere?
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Covid-19 vaccine cheat days are adding up • The Atlantic

Katherine J. Wu:


across the [US], states are rushing to lift mask mandates, tolerance for physical distancing is flagging, and vaccinated people are amending the new guidelines as they see fit. Some, like our would-be dinner-party hosts, are planning mixed-vaccination events, and pushing the boundaries of what makes a gathering “small.” Others are holding birthday bashes, or starting to creep back to in-person work. People are also shaving time off the two-week period that the CDC advises waiting after the final shot, so that immunity can mature. “What difference is a few days going to make?” a friend asked me the other day.

Amid all the fudging, that sentiment is starting to become a constant refrain: really, what’s the harm?

The harm is, frankly, mathematical. Over time, our vaccine cheat days start to add up. It might truly be innocuous for a few people to cut a couple of corners on occasion. But eventually, a series of flubs will allow exposures, which will in turn beget disease. Our shortcuts also signal to others that it’s okay to chill out when it is very much not.

Now is not the time to relax—quite the opposite. “We’re so close to the end that we should be extra careful right now,” Julie Downs, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. The problem is, our lapses don’t just slow us down. They set us back, in the same way that repeatedly opening an oven door will prolong the time it takes to bake a cake (and, at worst, make your delicious dessert collapse). Having made so much progress, we risk a lot with our impatience. And right now, we’re in serious danger of botching our grand pandemic finale.


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Yahoo Answers will be shut down forever on May 4th • The Verge

Nick Statt:


Yahoo, which is now part of Verizon Media Group following the company’s sale to the telecom for nearly $5bn in 2017, announced the change at the top of the Yahoo Answers homepage. The message links to an FAQ, which details the timeline of the shutdown. Starting April 20th, the platform will no longer accept new submissions, the FAQ explains.

Users will also have until June 30th to request their data or it’ll be inaccessible after that. That includes “all user-generated content including your Questions list, Questions, Answers list, Answers, and any images,” Yahoo says, but “you won’t be able to download other users’ content, questions, or answers.”

A note sent to active Yahoo Answers members provides a little more detail as to why Yahoo is shutting down the platform, including that “it has become less popular over the years” and that the company “decided to shift our resources away” from the product to “focus on products that better serve our members.”

…Perhaps the shutdown is for the best, considering the site appears to be overrun with far-right conspiratorial garbage. The current Yahoo Answers homepage is highlighting such introspective gems in its discover section as, “Will America survive 4 years of Joe Biden?” and “Will this summer be record riots by BLM and antifa?,” as well as this instant classic, “Was Stalin right about everything?”


But if they’re not answering questions on Yahoo Answers, they might be doing it somewhere else. Keeping Answers open is a public service, of sorts. Like litter trays.
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What we’re expecting from Google’s custom “Whitechapel” SoC in the Pixel 6 • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


It’s easy to get overhyped about Google’s first in-house smartphone SoC—”Google is ready to take on Apple!” the headlines will no-doubt scream. The fact of the matter, though, is that Apple is a $2 trillion hardware company, and the iPhone is its biggest product, while Google is an advertising company with a hardware division as a small side project. Whitechapel will give Google more control over its smartphone hardware, but Google’s custom chips in the past have not exactly set the world on fire, and therefore it’s reasonable to temper expectations for the company’s first-generation SoC [expected in its phones this year].

Google’s consumer hardware team has already shipped several custom chips, and I don’t know if you could call any of them world-beaters:

• The Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 and 3 was a custom camera co-processor created with the help of Intel. The Visual Core helped with HDR+ processing, but Google was able to accomplish the same image quality on the Pixel 3a, which didn’t have the chip.
• The Pixel Neural Core in the Pixel 4 was spun out of the company’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) AI accelerator efforts and had a similar job doing camera and AI voice recognition work. It was unimportant enough to just cut from the Pixel 5 entirely.
• There was the air-gesture detection chip, Project Soli, on the Pixel 4. This was a radar-on-a-chip concept that Google originally pitched as capable of detecting “sub millimeter motions of your fingers,” but by the time it was commercialized, it could only detect big, arm-waving gestures. The feature still exists today in the new Nest Hub, for sleep tracking, but it was not good enough to make the jump to the Pixel 5.
• The company’s Titan M Security Chip works as the secure element in some Pixel phones. Google says this makes the Pixel phones more secure, though a roughly equivalent secure element also comes with a Qualcomm chip, or at least, the company has never demonstrated a tangible difference.

I think the biggest benefit we’ll see from a Google SoC is an expanded update timeline.


Amadeo is Ars’s Google reporter, and is regularly unimpressed with what Google does. It makes for an interesting dynamic.
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Strain on NHS as tens of thousands of staff suffer long Covid • The Guardian

Denis Campbell:


Intense pressures on the already overstretched NHS are being exacerbated by the tens of thousands of health staff who are sick with long Covid, doctors and hospital bosses say.

At least 122,000 NHS personnel have the condition, the Office for National Statistics disclosed in a detailed report that showed 1.1 million people in the UK were affected by the condition. That is more than any other occupational group and ahead of teachers, of whom 114,000 have it.

Patient care is being hit because many of those struggling with long Covid are only able to work part-time, are too unwell to perform their usual duties, or often need time off because they are in pain, exhausted or have “brain fog”.

“Ongoing illness can have a devastating impact on individual doctors, both physically and by leaving them unable to work. Furthermore, it puts a huge strain on the health service, which was already vastly understaffed before the pandemic hit,” said Dr Helena McKeown, the workforce lead at the British Medical Association, which represents doctors.

“With around 30,000 sickness absences currently linked to Covid in the NHS in England, we cannot afford to let any more staff become ill. Simply put, if they are off sick, they’re unable to provide care and patients will not get the care and treatment they need.


The NHS workforce is about 1.3 million, so this suggests that nearly 10% are suffering from this post-viral syndrome. Very concerning. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Why computers won’t make themselves smarter • The New Yorker

Ted Chiang doesn’t think we’re at risk from superintelligent AI:


Some proponents of an intelligence explosion argue that it’s possible to increase a system’s intelligence without fully understanding how the system works. They imply that intelligent systems, such as the human brain or an A.I. program, have one or more hidden “intelligence knobs,” and that we only need to be smart enough to find the knobs. I’m not sure that we currently have many good candidates for these knobs, so it’s hard to evaluate the reasonableness of this idea. Perhaps the most commonly suggested way to “turn up” artificial intelligence is to increase the speed of the hardware on which a program runs. Some have said that, once we create software that is as intelligent as a human being, running the software on a faster computer will effectively create superhuman intelligence. Would this lead to an intelligence explosion?

Let’s imagine that we have an A.I. program that is just as intelligent and capable as the average human computer programmer. Now suppose that we increase its computer’s speed a hundred times and let the program run for a year. That’d be the equivalent of locking an average human being in a room for a hundred years, with nothing to do except work on an assigned programming task. Many human beings would consider this a hellish prison sentence, but, for the purposes of this scenario, let’s imagine that the A.I. doesn’t feel the same way. We’ll assume that the A.I. has all the desirable properties of a human being but doesn’t possess any of the other properties that would act as obstacles in this scenario, such as a need for novelty or a desire to make one’s own choices. (It’s not clear to me that this is a reasonable assumption, but we can leave that question for another time.)

So now we’ve got a human-equivalent A.I. that is spending a hundred person-years on a single task. What kind of results can we expect it to achieve? Suppose this A.I. could write and debug a thousand lines of code per day, which is a prodigious level of productivity. At that rate, a century would be almost enough time for it to single-handedly write Windows XP, which supposedly consisted of forty-five million lines of code. That’s an impressive accomplishment, but a far cry from its being able to write an A.I. more intelligent than itself. Creating a smarter A.I. requires more than the ability to write good code; it would require a major breakthrough in A.I. research, and that’s not something an average computer programmer is guaranteed to achieve, no matter how much time you give them.


Chiang’s short story Understand gives you a wonderful glimpse of what it might be like to be a superintelligent human.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: today in Nuclear Physics Corrections Newsletter: a criticality (of plutonium) wouldn’t necessarily explode – it could just blast everyone in the near area with a lethal dose of radiation. And there’s a fascinating video about the Demon Core (from yesterday).

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Start Up No.1520: a feminist future internet?, Ted Chiang on AI v capitalism, Facebook sees huge data leak, Waymo CEO goes, and more

In 1945, scientists began dangerous lab tests on the “demon core” – which would have been the third atom bomb. CC-licensed photo by Kelly Michals on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Subcritical. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why a more feminist internet would be better for everyone • MIT Technology Review

Charlotte Jee:


So what would a “feminist internet” look like? 

There’s no single vision or approved definition. The closest thing the movement has to a set of commandments are 17 principles published in 2016 by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a sort of United Nations for online activist groups. It has 57 organizational members who campaign on everything from climate change to labor rights to gender equality. The principles were the outcome of three days of open, unstructured talks between nearly 100 feminists in 2014, plus additional workshops with activists, digital rights specialists, and feminist academics. 

Many of the principles relate to redressing the vast power imbalance between tech companies and ordinary people. Feminism is obviously about equality between men and women, but in essence it is about power—who gets to wield it, and who gets exploited. Building a feminist internet, then, is in part about redistributing that power away from Big Tech and into the hands of individuals—especially women, who have historically had less of a say. 

The principles state that a feminist internet would be less hierarchical. More cooperative. More democratic. More consensual. More customizable and suited to individual needs, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model.

For example, the online economy would be less reliant on scooping up our data and using it to sell advertising. It would do more to address hatred and harassment online, while preserving freedom of expression. It would protect people’s privacy and right to anonymity. These are all issues that affect every internet user, but the consequences are often greater for women when things go awry. 

To live up to these principles, companies would have to give more control and decision-making power to users. This would mean not only that individuals would be able to adjust things like our security and privacy settings (with the strongest privacy as the default), but that we could act collectively—by proposing and voting on new features, for example. Widespread harassment would not be seen as a tolerable price women have to pay, but as an unacceptable sign of failure.


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Ted Chiang: fears of technology are fears of capitalism • kottke

Chiang, the SF writer whose short “Story of Your Life” was turned into the fantastic film Arrival, appeared on the Ezra Klein podcast recently:


I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off.


Here’s the whole podcast. If you haven’t read any of Chiang’s stories, you utterly should.
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Supreme Court’s pro-Facebook ruling could unleash “flood” of robocalls • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:


A Supreme Court ruling today in favor of Facebook limits the reach of a 1991 US law that bans certain kinds of robocalls and texts. The court found that the anti-robocall law only applies to systems that have the ability to generate random or sequential phone numbers. Systems that lack that capability are thus not considered autodialers under the law, even if they can store numbers and send calls and texts automatically.

Advocates say the ruling will make it harder to block automated calls and texts, potentially unleashing a “flood” of new robocalls.

The ruling “nullifies one of the most important protections against unwanted robocalls: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s (TCPA) prohibition against autodialed calls and texts to cellphones without the called party’s consent,” said the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), which had filed a brief in the case.

“Companies will use autodialers that are not covered by the Supreme Court’s narrow definition to flood our cellphones with even more unwanted robocalls and automated texts,” said Margot Saunders, the group’s senior counsel. The court ruling “interpreted the statute’s definition of autodialer so narrowly that it applies to few or none of the autodialers in use today,” the NCLC also said.

The Facebook case was decided over a question of grammar, as the court had to decide exactly what Congress meant in a key section of the TCPA. The law imposes restrictions on calls made with an “automatic telephone dialing system” and defines that term as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.”

What that sentence means was at the heart of the case that Noah Duguid filed against Facebook.


Bizarrely, Duguid didn’t even have a Facebook account. That was the origin of the problem.

Other Facebook news: 533 million users’ mobile number, Facebook ID, name, gender, location, relationship status, occupation, date of birth, and email addresses have leaked onto hacker forums. They include Zuckerberg’s details, and that of other Facebook founders. Inevitable, really.
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Apple Arcade just got a huge update of new games, including some mobile classics • The Verge

Andrew Webster:


Apple’s gaming subscription service just got a massive influx of new titles. The headliner is Fantasian — the latest release from the creator of Final Fantasy — which is joined by other titles like new versions of NBA 2K and The Oregon Trail, and World of Demons from PlatinumGames. As part of the update, the service is getting two new categories of games: Apple calls them “Timeless Classics” and “App Store Greats.”

For the greats, Apple is adding a number of high-profile mobile hits to the service, including Threes, Monument Valley, Mini Metro, and a remaster of Cut the Rope. Timeless classics, meanwhile, refers to iconic games like backgammon, solitaire, and Zach Gage’s recent takes on chess and sudoku. While most Arcade games are playable across Apple TV, Mac, and iOS, these new categories will only work on iPhone and iPad. The update adds more than 30 titles to the service, bringing the entire library to more than 180.


What’s probably attractive to people is not the “new” titles, but the old ones. Who wants to try out a service that has loads of games of unknown quality? Whereas you know just where you are with old favourites.
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Waymo CEO John Krafcik steps down • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:


John Krafcik, the former auto industry exec who took over Google’s self-driving car project in 2015, is stepping down as CEO of Waymo. Waymo, which spun off as a separate Alphabet subsidiary in 2016, accomplished a lot during Krafcik’s 5.5-year tenure. Still, Krafcik failed to meet the lofty expectations he faced when he took the helm.

Until 2015, the Google self-driving car project was led by engineer Chris Urmson. At that point, Google CEO Larry Page believed the technology was nearly ready for commercialization, so he hired a car guy—Krafcik—to manage the practicalities of turning the technology into a shipping product.

Krafcik spent his first few years negotiating partnerships with automakers. Talks over a potential partnership with Ford fell apart in early 2016. Krafcik then inked a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to buy 100 hybrid Pacifica Minivans—a deal that was later expanded to 500 minivans.

In early 2018, Waymo announced plans to buy “up to” 20,000 Jaguar I-PACE electric cars and “up to” 62,000 more Pacificas. Around the same time, Waymo said it planned to launch a driverless commercial taxi service before the end of 2018.

In short, Waymo expected its self-driving taxi service to be a big business by around now.

…the pace of growth seems glacial compared to the expectations the company set a few years ago. A Waymo spokeswoman told Ars that the company’s fleet has “well over 600 vehicles across all of our locations.” Six hundred vehicles is fewer than 1% of the 82,000 vehicles Waymo ordered three years ago.


Hard not to see this as an admission of failure. Has Google’s “Other Projects” done anything that has lasted?
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The digital news industry was built on lies • The Atlantic

Josh Marshall:


Have you ever wondered why digital ads, which were fairly sedate 15 years ago, suddenly started taking over your screen or demanding your attention with hideous images? Or why publications let advertisers track you across the web? It’s simple: The chronic oversupply of publications chasing a fixed number of ad dollars has required publishers to continually charge less for ads that demand more of readers. For the biggest players, which scaled up quickly to dominate digital media, there was—at first—enough money to go around. But most digital publications were funded on the premise that scale would eventually lead to dominance and stability, much as it had with technology firms. News publishing, however, doesn’t work that way.

By the middle of the 2010s, the highfliers were still flying high, but their success was mostly an illusion. They were sustained by ongoing infusions of equity investment, all in the hunt for eventual dominance and lock-in. And this is where the real darlings of venture-capital investing, the emerging platform monopolies, came into the picture decisively. Scaling up quickly and wiping out competitors didn’t work in the news business, but it allowed platforms such as Google and Facebook to take control of the advertising industry, and they took an ever-mounting share of its profits for themselves.

Platforms dissolved the privileged space that publishers held in the advertising economy, sending ad revenues at digital publications into sharp decline. Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot. Publications that had spent lavishly to build up scale were suddenly whipsawed by catastrophic declines in their two primary sources of money.

Many of the jobs that have disappeared over the past three or four years never had business models that could sustain them—at least not in the old-fashioned sense of bringing in more revenue than they cost. These hires were made in pursuit of a theory of publishing economics that was simply wrong. The journalists themselves, in most cases, weren’t read into this part of the equation.


Marshall runs a site with an optional subscription; he’s done so for years. And it works.
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The chilling story of the ‘Demon Core’ and the scientists who became its victims • Science Alert

Peter Dockrill:


After Nagasaki proved Hiroshima was no fluke, Japan promptly surrendered on August 15, with Japanese radio broadcasting a recorded speech of Emperor Hirohito conceding to the Allies’ demands.

As it turns out, this was the first time the Japanese public at large had ever heard one of their emperors’ voices, but for scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico – aka Project Y – the event had a more pressing significance.

It meant the functional heart of the third atom bomb they’d been working on – a 6.2-kilogram (13.7-pound) sphere of refined plutonium and gallium – wouldn’t be needed for the war effort after all.

If the conflict had still been raging, as it had for almost five straight years, this plutonium core would have been fitted into a second Fat Man assembly and detonated above another unsuspecting Japanese city just four days later.

As it was, fate issued those souls a reprieve, and the Los Alamos device – code-named ‘Rufus’ at this point – would be retained at the facility for further testing.

It was during these tests that the leftover nuke, which ultimately became known as the demon core, earned that name.

The first accident happened less than a week after Japan’s surrender, and only two days after the date of the demon core’s cancelled bombing run.

That mission may have never launched, but the demon core, stranded at Los Alamos, still found an opportunity to kill.

The Los Alamos scientists knew well the risks of what they were doing when they conducted criticality experiments with it – a means of measuring the threshold at which the plutonium would become supercritical, the point where a nuclear chain reaction would unleash a blast of deadly radiation.

The trick performed by scientists in the Manhattan Project – of which the Los Alamos Lab was a part – was finding how just how far you could go before that dangerous reaction was triggered.

They even had an informal nickname for the high-risk experiments, one which hinted at the perils of what they did. They called it “tickling the dragon’s tail”, knowing that if they had the misfortune to rouse the angry beast, they would be burned.

And that’s exactly what happened to Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian.


Since last week there was a discussion about the second atomic bomb.. I didn’t know they had a third ready. (Though of course they would, on reflection.) Turns out there was nearly a third blast. Twice.
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How Trump steered supporters into unwitting donations • The New York Times

Shane Goldmacher:


hat the Blatts believed was duplicity was actually an intentional scheme to boost revenues by the Trump campaign and the for-profit company that processed its online donations, WinRed. Facing a cash crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the campaign had begun last September to set up recurring donations by default for online donors, for every week until the election.

Contributors had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually uncheck a box to opt out.

As the election neared, the Trump team made that disclaimer increasingly opaque, an investigation by The New York Times showed. It introduced a second prechecked box, known internally as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution. Eventually its solicitations featured lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.

The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists — retirees, military veterans, nurses and even experienced political operatives. Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

“Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed. It recurred seven more times — adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”

The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts issued more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3m to online donors. All campaigns make refunds for various reasons, including to people who give more than the legal limit. But the sum the Trump operation refunded dwarfed that of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6m in that time.

The recurring donations swelled Mr. Trump’s treasury in September and October, just as his finances were deteriorating. He was then able to use tens of millions of dollars he raised after the election, under the guise of fighting his unfounded fraud claims, to help cover the refunds he owed.


The level of grift is such an incredible, lasting stain on America. It’s hard to know what will ever wash it out.
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Novel HIV vaccine approach shows promise in “landmark” trial • European Pharmaceutical Review

Hannah Balfour:


A novel vaccine approach for the prevention of HIV has shown promise in Phase I trials, reported IAVI and Scripps Research. According to the organisations, the vaccine successfully stimulated the production of the rare immune cells needed to generate antibodies against HIV in 97% of participants.

The vaccine is being developed to act as an immune primer, to trigger the activation of naïve B cells via a process called germline-targeting, as the first stage in a multi-step vaccine regimen to elicit the production of many different types of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). Stimulating the production of bnAbs has been pursued as a holy grail in HIV for decades. It is hoped that these specialised blood proteins could attach to HIV surface proteins called spikes, which allow the virus to enter human cells, and disable them via a difficult-to-access regions that does not vary much from strain to strain.

…The company said this study sets the stage for additional clinical trials that will seek to refine and extend the approach, with the long-term goal of creating a safe and effective HIV vaccine. As a next step, the collaborators are partnering with the biotechnology company Moderna to develop and test an mRNA-based vaccine that harnesses the approach to produce the same beneficial immune cells. According to the team, using mRNA technology could significantly accelerate the pace of HIV vaccine development, as it did with vaccines for COVID-19.

…The scientists believe the same approach could also be applied to vaccines for other challenging pathogens such as influenza, dengue, Zika, hepatitis C and malaria.


Clouds, silver linings.

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It looks like a Vespa, rides like a Vespa, but doesn’t smell like a Vespa • The New York Times

Nick Czap on a British entrepreneur who created a kit that could (reversibly) turn polluting Vespas into electric Vespas to conform with low-emission rules which original Vespas couldn’t:


Three years later, Retrospective Scooters sells kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Costing £3,445 (about $4,750), each includes a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can push a scooter to a top speed of 50 miles an hour and go 30 to 35 miles on a charge.

Certain scooters can accommodate two or three batteries. A Lambretta GP for instance, packed with three lithium-ion units, can go 120 miles between charges. Mr. McCart, though, thinks a single battery is sufficient.

“Let’s not forget what scooters were invented for — traveling in a 20-to-30-mile radius of where you lived,” he said.

To date, Mr. McCart has sold 60 kits — 24 in Britain (20 of them installed at his shop), and 36 to customers overseas, mostly, and somewhat surprisingly to Mr. McCart, in the United States.

“I expected more to go into Europe,” he said, “but there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy and official inspections of any vehicle alterations, so there’s really no incentive for Europeans to buy our kit with all that up against them.”


What I find interesting here is the distance. 30 miles per charge doesn’t sound much, but if you just do two trips per day, you’ll struggle to go that far. I had been idly wondering the other day about whether there are electric motorbikes as there are cars. Clearly, yes. (Via John Naughton.)
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NFTs were supposed to protect artists. They don’t • The Atlantic

Anil Dash was the technical co-creator (with an artist) of the NFT idea in 2014:


the NFT prototype we created in a one-night hackathon had some shortcomings. You couldn’t store the actual digital artwork in a blockchain; because of technical limits, records in most blockchains are too small to hold an entire image. Many people suggested that rather than trying to shoehorn the whole artwork into the blockchain, one could just include the web address of an image, or perhaps a mathematical compression of the work, and use it to reference the artwork elsewhere.

We took that shortcut because we were running out of time. Seven years later, all of today’s popular NFT platforms still use the same shortcut. This means that when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.

But the situation gets worse.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified