Start Up No.1494: the new competition in social networks, Apple Fitness+ two months in, who’s spy(pixel)ing on you?, and more


The pandemic is leading local authorities to remove swings from playgrounds, bizarre though it sounds. CC-licensed photo by Simon 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. Roundabouts next? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why swings are disappearing from UK playgrounds • City Monitor

Emma Haslett:

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“In case nobody’s pointed this out, in terms of equipment, swings are way more popular than anything else,” says Tim Gill, author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities. “Always have been, always will be.”

Their popularity could be the very reason swings are disappearing, says Gill. Local authorities are faced with a dilemma: on one hand, successive lockdowns have hit kids’ mental health hard, with a report by the NHS and the UK’s statistics authority indicating one in six children had a probable mental health disorder last year, up from one in nine three years previously – and outdoor play is seen as a way to combat that. On the other, local residents are complaining to councils that parents may be using playgrounds as an excuse for under-the-radar socialising while their kids exercise.

“Members of the public have noticed that kids are still playing in playgrounds and adults are congregating around playgrounds, so they then have complained to local authorities,” says Mark Hardy, head of the Association of Play Industries (API), which represents 85% of the UK’s play sector. One poll on the TV show Loose Women in January showed 75% of the public wanted playgrounds to be closed.

An easy solution for councils may be to remove the most popular piece of equipment on the playground to control the number of people there. Taking away swings cuts a whole group of parents – of kids who aren’t old enough to use anything but a swing – out of the equation. It also cuts down on the number of people lingering, and potentially socialising, around swing sets as they push their kids or wait for one to become available.

“If a council does… feel the need to stop people from coming to a place – reduce the numbers – the quickest and easiest way to do that is to disable the swings,” says Gill. “It’s a device, I guess, for a certain end to be achieved.”

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People standing near each other in the open air: utterly minimal risk of coronavirus transmission. Kids stuck inside with parents: bigger risk of all sorts of other adverse effects. It would be great if busybody non-parents could stay out of some things. (Thanks Citizen Sev for the pointer.)
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Atlantic Ocean circulation at weakest in a millennium, say scientists • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:

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The Atlantic Ocean circulation that underpins the Gulf Stream, the weather system that brings warm and mild weather to Europe, is at its weakest in more than a millennium, and climate breakdown is the probable cause, according to new data.

Further weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could result in more storms battering the UK, more intense winters and an increase in damaging heatwaves and droughts across Europe.

Scientists predict that the AMOC will weaken further if global heating continues, and could reduce by about 34% to 45% by the end of this century, which could bring us close to a “tipping point” at which the system could become irrevocably unstable. A weakened Gulf Stream would also raise sea levels on the Atlantic coast of the US, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who co-authored the study published on Thursday in Nature Geoscience, told the Guardian that a weakening AMOC would increase the number and severity of storms hitting Britain, and bring more heatwaves to Europe.

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The only sort of climate news we’re going to get from here on it is bad climate news. Yet unlike the rule that usually applies for news – don’t give us the good, give us the doom! – we don’t seem to welcome the bad climate news.
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Exclusive: Google pledges changes to research oversight after internal revolt • Reuters

Jeffrey Dastin, Paresh Dave:

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An internal email, seen by Reuters, offered fresh detail on Google researchers’ concerns, showing exactly how Google’s legal department had modified one of the three AI papers, called “Extracting Training Data from Large Language Models.”

The email, dated Feb. 8, from a co-author of the paper, Nicholas Carlini, went to hundreds of colleagues, seeking to draw their attention to what he called “deeply insidious” edits by company lawyers.

“Let’s be clear here,” the roughly 1,200-word email said. “When we as academics write that we have a ‘concern’ or find something ‘worrying’ and a Google lawyer requires that we change it to sound nicer, this is very much Big Brother stepping in.”

Required edits, according to his email, included “negative-to-neutral” swaps such as changing the word “concerns” to “considerations,” and “dangers” to “risks.” Lawyers also required deleting references to Google technology; the authors’ finding that AI leaked copyrighted content; and the words “breach” and “sensitive,” the email said.

Carlini did not respond to requests for comment. Google in answer to questions about the email disputed its contention that lawyers were trying to control the paper’s tone. The company said it had no issues with the topics investigated by the paper, but it found some legal terms used inaccurately and conducted a thorough edit as a result.

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Quantifying carbon fluxes in the world’s forests • World Resources Institute

Nancy Harris and David Gibbs:

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The world is getting a better understanding of just how important forests are in the global fight against climate change.

New research, published in Nature Climate Change and available on Global Forest Watch, found that the world’s forests sequestered about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted between 2001 and 2019. In other words, forests provide a “carbon sink” that absorbs a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year, 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually.

Unlike other sectors, where carbon makes a one-way trip to the atmosphere, forests act as a two-way highway, absorbing CO2 when standing or regrowing and releasing it when cleared or degraded.

Before now, scientists estimated these global “carbon fluxes” from the sum of country-reported data, creating a coarse picture of the role forests play in both carbon emissions and sequestration. With these new data that combine ground measurements with satellite observations, we can now quantify carbon fluxes consistently over any area, from small local forests to countries to entire continents.

Using this more granular information, we found that the world’s forests emitted an average of 8.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year due to deforestation and other disturbances, and absorbed 16 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year.

…Over the past 20 years, forests across Southeast Asia have collectively become a net source of carbon emissions due to clearing for plantations, uncontrolled fires and drainage of peat soils.

The Amazon River basin, which stretches across nine countries in South America, is still a net carbon sink, but teeters on the edge of becoming a net source if forest loss continues at current rates.

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To prevent climate change getting worse, we need to not just stop carbon being added to the atmosphere (because what’s in there has an amplification effect) but also take it out, as the forests do.

How much? Something like half a trillion tonnes.
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Brexit trade delays getting worse at UK border, survey finds • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:

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Delays importing and exporting goods to and from the EU have worsened since Brexit was introduced at the start of the year and will result in stock shortages and price rises for consumers, according to a report.

A survey of 350 supply chain managers found that two out of three had experienced delays of “at least two to three days” getting goods into the UK, compared with 38% who reported delays in a similar survey in January.

A third of this group said the delays were “significantly longer” than in January, 28% said “slightly longer” and 15% reported delays of a similar length to January. Just 18% of those surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) said they experienced no delays or fewer delays.

The situation was only slightly better for exports, with 44% experiencing delays of at least two to three days getting goods into the EU.

The survey comes as one of the UK’s largest chemical producers, BASF, reveals it has experienced “substantial friction” from the new trade barriers caused by withdrawal from the EU.

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O’Carroll is The Guardian’s Brexit correspondent. I think she’s going to be in work for a long time. The UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested we should expect to see benefits of Brexit in about ten years’ time. By which time he’ll be well out of office.
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How social networks got competitive again • Platformer

Casey Newton:

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If I had to put a date on when competition ended among social networks in the United States, I’d choose Aug. 2, 2016. That’s when Instagram introduced its copy of Snapchat stories, blunting the momentum of an upstart challenger and sending a chill through the startup ecosystem.

I don’t think copying features is necessarily anti-competitive — in fact, as I’ll argue below, it’s a sign that the ecosystem is working as intended — but the effect of Facebook’s copying here was dramatic. Snap fell into a long funk, and would-be entrepreneurs and investors got the message: Facebook will seek to acquire or copy any upstart social product, dramatically limiting its odds of breakout success. Investment shrunk accordingly.

The previous year, after the success of Twitter’s Periscope app, Facebook had cloned its live video features, and enthusiasm for both products seemed to broadly peter out. When live group video experienced momentary success under Houseparty, Facebook cloned that too, and Houseparty later sold to Epic Games for an undisclosed sum.

It was in this stagnant environment that many people, myself included, came to believe that it had been a mistake to let Facebook acquire Instagram and WhatsApp.

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But he thinks there’s now serious competition again:

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when it comes to mobile short-form video, Facebook and YouTube face a real challenge [from TikTok].

So where else does Facebook suddenly find itself forced to compete?

For starters, there’s audio. While still available only by invitation, Clubhouse recently hit an estimated 10 million downloads. Celebrities including Tiffany Haddish, Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and Zuckerberg himself have made appearances on the app, granting it a cultural cachet rare in a social startup that is still less than a year old. Clubhouse raised money last month at a valuation of $1 billion — more than Facebook paid ultimately paid for Instagram.

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Apple Fitness Plus review: two months in, still on easy mode • The Verge

Dieter Bohn, Ashley Carman, Monica Chin, and Becca Farsace have all been giving it a try for the past two months:

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Fitness Plus’ main selling point is it’s easy to jump into — so long as your own oodles of Apple devices. The app requires an Apple Watch to access the classes, and then you’ll need an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to stream the workouts. (Critically, there’s no way to stream from a Mac, which makes no sense and required me to stream from my tiny iPhone display.) But because the app connects to the Watch, your rings show up in the corner of the screen throughout a workout. It serves as a reminder of how hard you’ve worked and how far you have to go to meet your goals for the day. Some people might find this motivational. I did.

As for equipment, the app offers a variety of cardio workouts, such as cycling, treadmill classes, and rowing, which require special equipment. But it also offers classes like Time to Walk, which Becca will dive into below, and dance classes that require no equipment at all. Most of the strength classes would like you to use dumbbells (which can be hard to find in stock currently), but you could get away with your bodyweight if necessary.

There’s no way to filter classes by equipment requirements or even area of focus, so expect to spend time in the app reading descriptions and watching previews to discern whether a class is for you. This is a pain and a hurdle that shouldn’t exist. Filters by workout type and equipment should be table stakes for any fitness app.

…If there’s a single message to take away from this review, it’s this: Apple Fitness Plus is great for beginners but may not offer the depth you’re looking for if you’re advanced in any specific sport. It’s accessible to anybody who is able to buy into Apple’s whole ecosystem, though.

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The Arizona Republic considers killing “zombies” as a staple of its digital subscription strategy • Better News

John Adams and Alia Beard Rau:

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The latest flash sale promising everything you’ve ever wanted in local journalism can bring the masses through the front door. But just as quickly as they flood the proverbial lobby, many will exit through the back door as soon as their sweet subscription deal expires.

So, at the end of 2018, The Arizona Republic decided we needed to focus on reducing churn. We were tired of working so hard to gain one subscription only to see two leave. We also wanted to focus on what the newsroom could control, separate from efforts in other departments that address churn issues like credit card expirations and customer service complaints.

When we began analyzing the data, we found an unnerving reality. About 42% of The Republic’s digital-only subscribers were not visiting our site once a month. Yes, re-read that and let it sink in. Forty-two% of the people paying for a digital subscription were not even reading one single article. Introducing: our “zombies.” The un-dead. Paying subscribers, but not a part of our living community.

We also discovered that 50% of our stops each month originated from that same group of disengaged subscribers. And so we started our journey to reduce churn through killing zombies.

Special side note to all the journo nerds out there: No zombies were actually hurt during this exercise in churn reduction. We also know that we didn’t want to “kill” these zombies (yes, technically, they are already dead). We actually wanted to bring them back to life as loyal, engaged subscribers. But we also knew that, “Creating loyalists and bringing zombies back to life” didn’t have the same pizzazz. So, don’t @ us.

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Surprised that they’re not counting their blessings at getting free money from 42% of subscribers. They might be like the AOL users who were still on dialup in 2010.
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‘Spy pixels in emails have become endemic’ • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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The use of “invisible” tracking tech in emails is now “endemic”, according to a messaging service that analysed its traffic at the BBC’s request.

Hey’s review indicated that two-thirds of emails sent to its users’ personal accounts contained a “spy pixel”, even after excluding for spam. Its makers said that many of the largest brands used email pixels, with the exception of the “big tech” firms.

Defenders of the trackers say they are a commonplace marketing tactic. And several of the companies involved noted their use of such tech was mentioned within their wider privacy policies.

Emails pixels can be used to log:
• if and when an email is opened
• how many times it is opened
• what device or devices are involved
• the user’s rough physical location, deduced from their internet protocol (IP) address – in some cases making it possible to see the street the recipient is on

This information can then be used to determine the impact of a specific email campaign, as well as to feed into more detailed customer profiles.

Hey’s co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson says they amount to a “grotesque invasion of privacy”.

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I did talk about this topic on BBC Radio Berkshire (fame!) last week, when it appeared. This is something that has been going on for absolutely years: PR firms used it to track whether journalists had opened emails; spammers have been using it since the 1990s. In that sense, I felt it was already endemic long before this.

But it’s becoming a topic du jour. John Gruber has been focusing on it, and I think the point he makes in a footnote at the end of his article linked there is the most cogent one:

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Effectively all email clients are web browsers now, yet don’t have any of the privacy protection features actual browsers do.

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(Thanks Sam R for the suggestion.)
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Quitting Twitter • Krishna’s words

Krishna Sundarram joined Twitter wayyyyyy back in.. late 2020:

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Problem 3 – Twitter warps people

Some guy with 14k followers said something. It was something like “only Indian people are rude/assholes in this particular way. Here are some anecdotes proving this”. This is a generalisation about a race of people based on anecdotes, so by definition racist. But since the person was Indian, it’s not. Don’t look at me, I don’t make the rules.

Dunking on other Indian people is a common pastime for Indian people – it makes us feel superior to our compatriots. Of course we wouldn’t do the thing that we’re talking about, we’re better than that. He wasn’t doing anything I haven’t heard a hundred others do.

I commented that there could be sampling bias here. Since we’re more likely to be annoyed/embarassed by the actions of Indian people, we’re more likely to notice and remember it. I relayed an anecdote of my Indian friend being very annoyed by something an Indian did but not even remembering that a white person had done the exact same thing the previous day (making us wait while taking a photo). I thought it was ok to say this. I asked “You ever think this is sampling bias? You notice and get annoyed when Indians do it and embarrass you but don’t if it’s someone else?”

Apparently not. He went on a massive tirade. Not content with responding rudely, he quote tweets me so he can dunk in front of all his followers. Apparently, I’m jingoistic deflector, part of the “elite” that refuses to “accept and introspect” and that I “deny deny deny” legitimate issues with India.

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So anyway, he’s gone. Another for the long list of “I’m quitting Twitter” blogposts. Which are usually followed in a couple of months by “Hey, I’m back on Twitter!” Said on Twitter, rather than a blogpost, because who has time for blogging?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1493: the Mars Easter egg, the bitcoin key generator that leaked, scrap the F-35?, how music’s growth outpaced payments, and more


Is the world’s future – one with far fewer people? A new book, Empty Planet, suggests so. CC-licensed photo by Tim Samoff 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. Contains unhidden messages. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

There’s a hidden message in the parachute of NASA’s Mars rover • The Verge

Joey Roulette:

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The parachute that helped NASA’s Perseverance rover land on Mars last week unfurled to reveal a seemingly random pattern of colors in video clips of the rover’s landing. But there was more to the story: NASA officials later said it contained a hidden message written in binary computer code.

Internet sleuths cracked the message within hours. The red and white pattern spelled out “Dare Mighty Things” in concentric rings. The saying is the Perseverance team’s motto, and it is also emblazoned on the walls of Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the mission team’s Southern California headquarters.

The parachute’s outer ring appears to translate to coordinates for JPL: 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W.

Allen Chen, the entry, descent, and landing lead for Perseverance, dared the public to figure the message out during a press conference on Monday. “In addition to enabling incredible science, we hope our efforts in our engineering can inspire others,” he said.

“Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find for that purpose, so we invite you all to give it shot and show your work.”

Adam Steltzner, Perseverance’s chief engineer, confirmed the message late Monday night on Twitter.

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Maxence Abela and his father (a software engineer at Google – talk about a team with an advantage) were the first to figure this out. (His sister’s cartoon about it is sweet.) No easy task, given that it uses 10-bit coding (not 8-bit) and you have to start in the right place. Very reminiscent of the method used to send messages to Earth by the survivor in The Martian. Now, of course, everyone’s going to be too busy looking for Easter eggs in everything about Perseverance to listen to its discoveries.
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BitcoinPaperWallet ‘back door’ responsible for millions in missing funds, research suggests • Coindesk

Colin Harper:

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It was just past midnight on Jan. 7, 2020, when “Nick Wendell” (a pseudonym) lost half a million dollars in bitcoin.

Bitcoin’s price was roaring toward $40,000, and Wendell was moving some of his bitcoin to a paper wallet generated by BitcoinPaperWallet.com. These wallets allow you to store your private key on a PDF that can then be printed out or saved as a computer file.

Within a minute of depositing 14.5 BTC, worth over $500,000 at the time (and now worth over $700,000), it was all gone. Someone had swept the funds from Wendell’s wallet and, after playing blockchain hopscotch across multiple addresses, sent them to the Binance exchange.

The situation set Wendell’s world spinning.

“Within one minute I realized what happened and it felt like I was falling but [wouldn’t] hit the ground for several minutes. I remember walking in circles around the kitchen as if I were dizzy,” Wendell told CoinDesk.

Wendell is one of at least half a dozen users who claim to have lost dizzying sums to the paper wallet. A quick Google search reveals posts on Reddit, Bitcointalk and elsewhere that tell several individual accounts of a multi-million dollar collective heist: someone with access to the site appears to be filching user funds through a back door in the code that gives them access to private keys.

In fact, some users of the most popular bitcoin paper wallet generator on Google’s search ranking claim to have collectively lost millions of dollars worth of bitcoin over the past two years, CoinDesk has learned.

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Because, as some researchers discovered, the private keys it generates get sent to whoever runs the site. That’s sneaky smart. The site’s owner might want to check his own privacy: there are going to be angry people out there.
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The music industry makes more money but has more mouths to feed • Financial Times

Will Page is formerly Spotify’s chief economist, is the author of ‘Tarzan Economics’ due out in April (and, I recall, was one of the few voices inside the music industry talking sense about the internet’s effects in the early 2000s):

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In 1984, a mere 6,000 music albums were released in the UK. Today, streaming services make available a similar volume — 55,000 new songs — every single day. 

There are not only more songs, but more musicians. Since Spotify launched in 2009, the number of British songwriters has increased by 115% to 140,000 and the ranks of UK recording artists have ballooned 145% to 115,000. Twenty years ago, there were five UK major labels and at most two dozen independent distributors; today Spotify hosts music from 751 suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, there are also more genres to classify all these songs. In 2000, the industry classified all the world’s music into no more than a dozen-and-a-half genres. Today, Spotify’s “everynoise” acoustic map tracks 5,224 genres, including Coptic hymns, Russian romanticism and the new lockdown hit of shanty, of course.

Music was one of the first industries hit by digital disruption. Its fate shows the rest of us the future. When digitisation removes barriers to entry, there is so much more of everything. 

…A UK parliamentary inquiry, which I submitted evidence to, has highlighted this dichotomy. Politicians have been pummelled with angry testimony about the industry. Mercury Prize-nominated Nadine Shah told MPs, “I’m critically acclaimed but I don’t make enough money from streaming and am struggling to pay my rent . . . I am just not being paid fairly for the work.”

…Even as the UK considers whether to update music copyright rules, everyone else should be watching this industry as a living demonstration of what happens when barriers to entry fall. The pie definitely grows, but the number of creators wanting a piece of it grows even faster.

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The US Air Force just admitted the F-35 stealth fighter has failed • Forbes

David Axe:

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As conceived in the 1990s, the [F-35] program was supposed to produce thousands of fighters to displace almost all of the existing tactical warplanes in the inventories of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The Air Force alone wanted nearly 1,800 F-35s to replace aging F-16s and A-10s and constitute the low end of a low-high fighter mix, with 180 twin-engine F-22s making up the high end.

But the Air Force and Lockheed baked failure into the F-35’s very concept. “They tried to make the F-35 do too much,” said Dan Grazier, an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.

There’s a small-wing version for land-based operations, a big-wing version for the Navy’s catapult-equipped aircraft carriers and, for the small-deck assault ships the Marines ride in, a vertical-landing model with a downward-blasting lift engine.

The complexity added cost. Rising costs imposed delays. Delays gave developers more time to add yet more complexity to the design. Those additions added more cost. Those costs resulted in more delays. So on and so forth.

Fifteen years after the F-35’s first flight, the Air Force has just 250 of the jets. Now the service is signaling possible cuts to the program.

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A program to solve all the past problems onto which too many things are added? Sounds like every government project ever. This one just happened to cost multiple billions.
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The world might actually run out of people • WIRED

Megan Molteni:

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YOU KNOW THE story. Despite technologies, regulations, and policies to make humanity less of a strain on the earth, people just won’t stop reproducing. By 2050 there will be 9 billion carbon-burning, plastic-polluting, calorie-consuming people on the planet. By 2100, that number will balloon to 11 billion, pushing society into a Soylent Green scenario. Such dire population predictions aren’t the stuff of sci-fi; those numbers come from one of the most trusted world authorities, the United Nations.

But what if they’re wrong? Not like, off by a rounding error, but like totally, completely goofed?

That’s the conclusion Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker come to in their newest book, Empty Planet, due out February 5th. After painstakingly breaking down the numbers for themselves, the pair arrived at a drastically different prediction for the future of the human species. “In roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline,” they write. “Once that decline begins, it will never end.”

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Is this a scary forecast? Or a reassuring one, of a world where people don’t have to fight each other for resources and the planet can, er, heal?
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Funky electronics chain Fry’s is no more • Associated Press

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Fry’s Electronics, the go-to chain for tech tinkerers looking for an obscure part, is closing for good.

The company, perhaps even more well known for outlandish themes at some of its stores, from Aztec to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” said Wednesday in an online posting that the COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible to continue.

Fans immediately took to Twitter to post images and memories (good and bad).

The chain was concentrated on the West Coast, but had 31 stores in nine states. It was founded 36 years ago.

Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData, called it “the end of an era, and a sad day” for an army of loyal customers.

The pandemic has done heavy damage to retailers, but Fry’s was already getting hammered by online competition and a battle between heavy-hitters Best Buy and Amazon.com.

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In the UK, the equivalent was a store chain called Maplin, which had all sorts of fun electronics gizmos and gadgets, and closed in March 2018.
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Texas electric bills were $28 billion higher under deregulation • WSJ

Tom McGinty and Scott Patterson:

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Nearly 20 years ago, Texas shifted from using full-service regulated utilities to generate power and deliver it to consumers. The state deregulated power generation, creating the system that failed last week. And it required nearly 60% of consumers to buy their electricity from one of many retail power companies, rather than a local utility.

Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28bn more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities, according to the Journal’s analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Administration.

…None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said.

“If all consumers don’t benefit from this, we will have wasted our time and failed our constituency,” then-state Sen. David Sibley, a key author of the bill to deregulate the market, said when the switch was first unveiled in 1999. “Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates,” then-Gov. George W. Bush said later that year.

…From 2004 through 2019, the annual rate for electricity from Texas’s traditional utilities was 8% lower, on average, than the nationwide average rate, while the rates of retail providers averaged 13% higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Journal’s analysis.

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There are 9.6m households in Texas, with an average 2.85 people each: if we take it that that’s 5.8m households (60% of the total) who overpaid $28bn over 16 years, that’s about $300 extra per year per household on a bill of about $2,300.

Once again, wild beliefs that The Market will fix everything are proven to be wrong. And people died because of this deregulation – it wasn’t just pricier bills.
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Google has finally added iOS’s privacy labels to Gmail • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Google has finally added Apple App Store privacy labels to its Gmail app, almost a month after we ran an article wondering what was taking so long (via MacRumors). The app is the second major Google app to get the labels, after they were added to YouTube when it was updated earlier this month.

According to the privacy label, it doesn’t collect your name, physical address, or phone number (though as an email client, Gmail obviously collects your email address). Location data is also used for analytics and there are some features of the app that will request it as well. If you want to see the full label, there’s a video below [in the original post] that scrolls through.

It is worth noting that Apple’s app privacy labels are meant to show all the things that the app might access, not what information that app will access. For example, an app may only use location data when it needs to show you a map, but the privacy labels don’t make that clear — it’s just a binary used/not used. Also, the information in the labels is submitted by the company itself, and Apple doesn’t make promises about its accuracy.

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And yet it didn’t give an update for a bug on the Gmail app. Google’s clearly quite embarrassed about this. Or else it has just given up on updating its apps.
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Chess.com finds streaming success • Protocol

Hirsh Chitkara:

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In 2018, Chess.com acquired [a chess playing, solving, predicting] engine of its own, Komodo, which was once considered the best but has since been narrowly usurped by the open-source Stockfish project. Regardless, investment in engines has been another key to Chess.com’s success. Komodo offers post-game analysis, revealing player blunders and missed mate opportunities. Chess.com’s engineers have also developed dozens of opponent AI personalities for the community: Some are adaptive, meaning they adjust the skill of each move according to how well the opponent plays; others bring chess legends back to life, using old game logs to emulate their skill and style of play. Following the release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Chess.com worked with Netflix to develop engines that simulated Beth Harmon’s gameplay from different periods in the show.

These factors are foundational to the success of Chess.com, but they haven’t been driving the incredible growth over the last year. That would be streaming.

“The first thing to understand is that this is many years in the making,” Nick Barton, VP of business development at Chess.com, told Protocol. “We’ve had a partnership going with Twitch since 2018 in which the onus was on Chess.com — because of our market position within the playing sphere, the size of our playing platform and the size of our player base — to try to grow what we would call now the middle class of streamers.”

Chess.com has showcased how investing in a streaming community can provide immense returns over time. Building out from a core group of Chess.com-sponsored streamers, chess has taken Twitch by storm. Throughout February, for instance, Chess.com has been hosting the latest iteration of its signature PogChamps tournament featuring Twitch megastars xQc, Rubius and Pokimane as well as rapper Logic and actor Rainn Wilson. Altogether, Twitch users watched 18.3 million hours of chess in January 2021 — nearly as much as they consumed in the entirety of 2019.

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From this I take it that people are quite bored in lockdowns, and rediscovering their past passions. And that Twitch is very compelling.
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The future of QAnon • Vox

Sean Illing:

»

for the most die-hard QAnon followers, hope springs eternal! The next big prophecy is supposed to unfold on March 4, which had been Inauguration Day before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933 — and the day Trump will gloriously return to power and retake the White House, according to the febrile imaginings of the QAnon movement.

All of which is to say, QAnon is still with us, and may be with us for a while. Conspiracy theories are powerful precisely because they’re so flexible. They never have to cohere; they just have to explain what seems otherwise inexplicable and, above all, offer the believer a sense of direction in a complicated world.

With that in mind, it’s worth asking what might become of the QAnon movement. Assuming March 4 doesn’t go as expected, where do the followers of Q turn next? And what does it mean for our politics moving forward if QAnon shape-shifts into an even more nebulous cult?

To get some answers, I reached out to eight journalists and researchers who’ve covered the conspiracy beat over the past four years or so. Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are below.

There wasn’t a perfect consensus, but a couple of themes emerged. One, the way to think about QAnon is that it’s less a political movement than a religion. Two, that is precisely why QAnon will keep going even as its prophecies fail to materialize. Everyone agreed that QAnon will likely persist as a major factor in American politics.

If these experts are right, and I suspect they are, the problems driving the QAnon movement will probably get worse before they get better, if they get better at all.

«

Nothing that “Q” predicted ever came true; it couldn’t, because it was all rubbish, carefully obfuscated so as not to mean anything except what people read into it. The fact that there aren’t any more “drops” (breadcrumbs of “information”) is the most interesting thing. What happened?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1492: UK considers ‘vaccine passports’, what Uber’s court loss means, what will Clubhouse do to podcasts?, and more


What happened when Waze became part of Google? The classic story of a startup swallowed by a whale – which the founder has now left. CC-licensed photo by Travis Wise 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. Someone’s sitting there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK ministers weigh testing as alternative to vaccine passports • Financial Times

im Pickard, Daniel Thomas, Sarah Neville and Kate Beioley:

»

The UK government reassured people on Tuesday they will not face major restrictions if they refuse to have a coronavirus jab with officials considering a recent Covid-19 test result as an alternative to ‘vaccine passports’.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has announced he is considering the introduction of some kind of documentation or smartphone app which people would be asked to show in order to demonstrate they are free of the disease.

Despite Johnson expressing concerns over the “philosophical, ethical” issues raised by the introduction of Covid status certification, people may be asked to produce such proof to enter workplaces, stadiums or restaurants when England’s lockdown ends in the summer.

On Tuesday Johnson announced Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove would lead an official review into the contentious issue.

Critics have warned that a “vaccine passport” could be discriminatory against those who cannot be inoculated because of existing health conditions or, for example, pregnancy. Refusal to take the jab is more common among ethnic minorities in the UK — opening up the potential for racial discrimination claims.

For these reasons government officials said on Tuesday it was hard to envisage a scenario where vaccination was the only criteria for being able to go to an event or enter a workplace after the lockdown ends. Instead the government is much more likely to use a combination of testing and vaccine proof.

At the same time however the review will not rule out the possibility that companies could choose to ban people who have not been vaccinated.

«

It’s that last point which is key. The government might not mandate it, but queasy companies (and, unless prevented, insurance companies) will quietly, or not-so-quietly, demand it. Doesn’t matter what you call them: vaccine passports are coming, and will be as essential as yellow fever certificates used to be.

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What you need to know about COVID-19 and hair loss? • Shape

Allie Strickler:

»

The latest post-COVID symptom to emerge among “long haulers”? Hair loss.

A scroll through social media groups such as Survivor Corps on Facebook—where COVID-19 survivors connect to share research and firsthand experiences about the virus—and you’ll find dozens of folks opening up about experiencing hair loss after COVID-19.

“My shedding is getting so bad I’m literally putting it up in a scarf so I don’t have to see the hairs falling all day long. Each time I run my hands through my hair, another handful is gone,” wrote one person in Survivor Corps. “My hair has been falling out way too much and I’m scared to brush it,” said another.

In fact, in a survey of more than 1,500 people in the Survivor Corps Facebook group, 418 respondents (nearly one-third of those surveyed) indicated that they’d experienced hair loss after being diagnosed with the virus. What’s more, a preliminary study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found a “high frequency” of hair loss among male COVID-19 patients in Spain. Similarly, the Cleveland Clinic recently noted “an increasing number of reports” related to COVID-19 and hair loss.

Even Alyssa Milano has experienced hair loss as a COVID-19 side effect. After sharing that she was sick with the virus in April, she posted a video on Twitter in which she’s seen brushing literal clumps of hair out of her head. “Thought I’d show you what COVID-19 does to your hair,” she wrote alongside the video. “Please take this seriously. #WearaDamnMask #LongHauler”

«

The cause is put down to stress, where the body puts the hair follicles into a “resting” phase to focus energy elsewhere; the eventual result is shedding. I noticed that Boris Johnson seems to be losing his hair quite fast, though it’s impossible to say if that’s the stress of the job, or a post-Covid effect. (Thanks Lloyd Wood for the link.)
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Walk a city somewhere in the world and listen to its radio • Netlify

It might be a while before you actually go somewhere, so this will do the job for you. The London one that I got started a video walking through Covent Garden on a rainy night – very beautiful – and playing a song that I hadn’t heard before, but immediately recognised as Royal Blood. Serendipity.

Plenty of other cities, including Bangkok, Delhi, Dubai, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, through to Tokyo. Options to walk, drive, take a train; day or night; with no, some or a lot of street noise.
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Uber has lost in the Supreme Court. Here’s what happens next • WIRED UK

Natasha Bernal:

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In their judgment on Friday, Supreme Court judges said they made their decision based on five key points. Firstly, Uber sets the fare price and drivers are not permitted to charge more than the fare calculated by the Uber app. Judges determined that therefore, Uber dictates how much drivers are paid for the work they do.

Second, Uber imposes contracts and terms of service and drivers have no say in them. Third, once a driver has logged onto the Uber app, their choice is constrained by Uber by monitoring their acceptance rate and imposing “penalties” if too many trips are declined. Fourth, they found that Uber also exercises “significant control” over the way in which drivers deliver their services, using a passenger ratings system that impacts whether the driver can continue working for Uber.

Finally, they determined that Uber restricts communications between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the particular trip and takes active steps to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship with a passenger capable of extending beyond an individual ride.

…the floodgates will open for around 1,000 similar claims against Uber. It does not mean that all Uber drivers will automatically be classed as workers, but this is the first step in that direction.

The gig economy company has around 60,000 drivers in the UK. If all of these drivers were to require minimum wage (and back pay in compensation), that would severely impact Uber’s bottom line. Prior to its IPO, the company said that it expected drivers to shoulder the burden as it worked to improve its financial results and cut operational losses, which at the time stood at $3bn. At the time, Uber said it aimed to “reduce driver incentives” and expected driver dissatisfaction to increase as a result. It said that its business would be “adversely affected if drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors”.

«

That’s put a proper spoke in the wheels, so to speak. An employment relationship where the worker decides how long they want to work each day: quite the 21st century enabling of change.
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Opinion: the GameStop craze was mostly just crazy • The New York Times

Matthew Zeitlin watched the congressional hearings on that stock, you know, that one we all knew everything about:

»

So did we really learn anything profound? The marketplace of opinions about the meme stock phenomenon has been as volatile as the trading itself: A series of hypotheses about populism, corruption, masculinity, inequality and price bubbles battled for primacy among those of us who watch cable news and consume think pieces.

At the hearing, various members endorsed different theories. “Many Americans feel that the system is stacked against them, and no matter what, Wall Street always wins,” said the Financial Services Committee chairwoman, Maxine Waters, Democrat of California.

The panel’s ranking Republican member, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, suggested that the issue was less that of a game rigged against small-time investors and more the lack of productive assets for them to buy. “We created a world where it’s easier to buy a lottery ticket than it is to invest in the next Google,” he said. “Is it any wonder why the unhealthy dynamics of GameStop happened?”

All in all, some hedge funds got pummeled, but briefly. Some unlucky retail investors got in on the fun too late, taking serious losses. And there were also plenty of life-changing profits taken by people far beyond the usual suspects. That’s a pretty muddied picture.

The most meaningful thing to glean from all of this, according to Josh Brown, the chief executive of Ritholz Asset Management, may be a large incentive change for market behavior going forward: “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to be that visibly vocally ‘short’ on anything,” he told me. “I think that era has ended where there’s this automatic kneejerk reverence for a $5 billion hedge fund manager with a PowerPoint” pitching other investors on why they should bet against a company.

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That’s the lesson: there is no lesson. Life is random. Nobody’s driving the clattering train.
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Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long? • Paygo

Noam Bardin is one of the co-founders of the drive-mapping app Waze, acquired by Google in 2013, and left a couple of weeks ago:

»

I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive start-up leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.

So what happened? I had all the independence I could ask for, no? 

It’s the nature of the beast.

…at Corp-Tech, the salaries are so high and the options so valuable that it creates many misalignments. The impact of an individual product on the Corp-Tech stock is minimal so equity is basically free money. Regardless of your performance (individually) or your product performance, you equity grows significantly so nothing you do has real economic impact on your family. The only control you have to increase your economic returns are whether you get promoted, since that drives your equity and salary payments. This breaks the traditional tech model of risk reward. Corp-Tech gives you no risk returns on equity. Since 2008, FAANG stock have only gone up so employees look at the equity is a fixed part of their salary with the only option of increasing. We tried to build an innovative compensation model but quickly ran into the challenge that employees viewed their equity as a given compensation so why sacrifice it for a risk model?

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There are some other points too. I reiterate my point that Google is hitting a dangerous point in its maturity: corporate sclerosis is a real risk.
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‘Mode confusion’ vexes drivers, carmakers • EE Times

Junko Yoshida:

»

EE Times: Define “mode confusion.”

Missy Cummings [former US fighter pilot, now a professor at Duke University]: Mode confusion happens when an operator thinks a system with some kind of embedded autonomy or automation is in one mode and actually it’s in another.

EE Times: Put that in the context of the aviation industry?

Cummings: This came to light in the 1990s with a lot of Airbus accidents. There was a lot of fighting between the pilot and the automation. The pilot thought the aircraft was doing one thing. It was actually doing a different thing. Sometimes the design of the system causes it. Sometimes it’s feedback to the pilot. In one case, there was this one tiny button. You can press that button, but the light is very small. It wasn’t just obvious.

EE Times: As a fighter pilot, have you witnessed or personally experienced mode confusion?

Cummings: I saw this firsthand when one of my peers was returning from a live weapons area to the aircraft carrier, and he forgot to save his weapons.

Right before he got back, his commanding officer in the other plane decided that they would do a fun one-v.-one, which is like a dogfight. My friend, I like to call him Spider (not his real call sign), got the jump on the commanding officer and got in position to fire. There’s this really compelling shoot queue. So, the system will scream at you to shoot. But you needed to make sure the letters “SIM” were beneath, to show you were in simulated mode. Right? But he didn’t double-check. He thought, in his mind, he was in simulated mode. And the font [for SIM] was so small.

And when you’re doing a dogfight, it’s really rough. He pulled the trigger, thinking he was in stimulated mode. The missile went off the rail.

«

Now read on at the original to find out what happened. (They never showed you THAT sort of thing in Top Gun.) The consequences of “mode confusion” are potentially as bad in cars.
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Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? • Vulture

Nicholas Quah:

»

Let’s call it “live group audio.” Clubhouse is by far the most prominent representation of this archetype for now, but it will soon face intensifying competition. Twitter has Spaces (an effort aided, in part, by its recent acquisition of the team behind Breaker, the social graph-oriented podcast app), Facebook is customarily working on a clone, Mark Cuban is co-founding something called Fireside that carries shades of Twitch, and one imagines there will be a range of more specific, niche-oriented alternatives that will emerge down the line.

In the face of all this, a fair few podcast operators wrote me posing the pertinent question: Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? And to extend the inquiry: Will this new “live group audio” format affect podcasting in either direction?

Well, the answer is yes, of course, probably. For one thing, on the consumption side, all media formats ultimately compete with each other for minutes of attention in a day, and within the specific frontier of audio, one could make the case for thinking in zero-sum terms: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces or whatever is time that could have been spent on, say, Apple Podcasts or Spotify. (It’s also, for that matter, time that could’ve been spent digitally streaming the radio, or listening to music.) But there are also non-zero sum possibilities: time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces could theoretically increase affinity for audio experiences that can be trickled down to elsewhere, which in turn grows, to borrow Edison Research’s terminology, the overall “share of ear.” (Product and M&A possibilities abound for the audio-streaming platforms.) In any case, this isn’t an unprecedented competitive cluster: Think about how Twitch relates to YouTube relates to Netflix relates to cable television. They compete, sure, but they also co-exist.

(For what it’s worth, podcast folk seem pretty mixed on the matter when I asked around. The majority believe it’s a fad; others believe it’ll stick around and will offer strong marketing opportunities. None of them believe Clubhouse to be a meaningful competitor to their interests, though this is to be expected.)

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You could pose it like this: did Twitter and Facebook mean bad things for blogging? Well, a lot more people now generate a lot more content, in total. But a lot of that content is crap. On balance, there might now be more good content than there was before. But it’s harder to find. So: yes. And no.
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Black users turned social app Clubhouse from drab to fun • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

»

as the app has grown, people of more diverse backgrounds have begun to join, and the Clubhouse experience has changed dramatically.

In particular, the app has carved out a niche among Black users, who have innovated new ways for using it.

A few months ago you might’ve opened the app to a panel discussion on the future of artificial intelligence or the potential of Bitcoin. Now, you’ll still see the tech talk, but it’ll be alongside debates over the music of rappers DMX and 50 Cent or the latest happening in the NBA. Nowadays, you can find folks shooting their shots in dating rooms, cracking jokes in virtual comedy clubs, talking about the latest celebrity gossip or having musical jam sessions with their friends.

This sudden burst of innovation in Clubhouse exemplifies the role Black people often play in America as culture makers and trend setters, said Aniyia Williams, founder of Black & Brown Founders, an organization that supports Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. 

“That ingenuity is the other side of being oppressed. At the end of the day, that’s the thing that unites Black people,” Williams said. “Being a have-not forces you to think and see the world differently, and it makes Black people naturally creative and creators in ways that they’re not even trying. It’s just the way that they operate.”

Several Black users of the app told CNBC that they began to join in May and July. That was after Clubhouse secured a funding round from the firm Andreessen Horowitz that valued the company at approximately $100m. 

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Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about ‘smart cities’ • City Monitor

Sommer Mathis and Alexandra Kanik:

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A further obstacle to the global movement towards smart cities may be the name itself. Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t a particularly descriptive term. What does it actually mean, which technologies count as “smart”, and why did this sector deserve so much attention? These questions were all present prior to 2020. In 2021, the idea that the goal of every city should be to get smarter feels painfully out of touch.

This isn’t to suggest that no useful or important smart technologies have been deployed over the past decade. Many are clearly here to stay. There’s a great deal of consensus at this point, for example, that intelligent street-lighting systems combined with LED bulbs – which enable cities to brighten or dim street lamps based on usage – are both cost-effective and vastly more sustainable. It’s also clear that no city will be able to meaningfully tackle its emissions goals without the widespread adoption of smart meters and digitised grids.

But as with so many other aspects of life on our planet over the past year, it is starting to feel like the end of an era.

“Part of it is that people are sick of talking about this term, ‘smart cities’,” says Story Bellows, a partner at the urban-change management consultancy Cityfi. “People are more focused now on creating outcomes in their communities, whether that’s using technology, whether that’s reinventing processes – kind of the layering of all of those various approaches to making meaningful change on key indicators, whether it’s on health or equity or whatever it is. I think there are still a lot of potential technology drivers and contributors in that, but creating a business model of smart cities just on its own, especially within some of these really big companies, it’s hard to really operationalise and execute.”

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(Via John Naughton)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: First: yesterday’s illustration was of a Honda logo, not a Hyundai logo. We have put in a request with Flickr that the person who captions all the photos be fired for sloppiness.

Second: three or four (I lost count) of the links today came via Benedict Evans’s weekly newsletter. I’d have shamelessly used them a day earlier but I get the free edition, which comes out 24 hours later.

Start Up No.1491: how TikTok inspires creativity, Arizona’s bug-ridden prisons, Apple blocks new malware, living on an alien world, and more


a ransomware attack on Hyundai has blocked app and other access to its cars. CC-licensed photo by Michael 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. Buying a calendar. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

American Idle • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei:

»

By network effects of creativity, I mean that every additional user on TikTok makes every other user more creative.

This exists in a weak form on every social network and on the internet at large. The connected age means we are exposed to so much from so many more people than at any point in human history. That can’t help but compound creativity.

Various memes and trends pass around on networks like Instagram and Twitter. But there, you still have to create your own version of a meme from scratch, even if, on Twitter, it’s as simple as copying and pasting.

But TikTok has a strong form of this type of network effect. They explicitly lower the barrier to the literal remixing of everyone else’s content. In their app, they have a wealth of features that make it dead simple to grab any element from another TikTok and incorporate it into a new TikTok.

The barrier to entry in editing video is really high as anyone who has used a non-linear editor like Premiere or compositing software like After Effects can attest. TikTok abstracted a lot of formerly complex video editing processes into effects and filters that even an amateur can use.

Instagram launched one-click photo filters (after Hipstamatic, of course, though Hipstamatic lacked the feed which is like the spine of modern social apps), and later Instagram added additional features for editing Stories, and even some separate apps like Boomerang that were later re-incorporated back into Instagram as features.

Snapchat has a gazillion video filters, too, though many are what I think of as simple facial cosmetic FX.

YouTube has launched almost no creator tools of note ever. WTF.

TikTok launches seemingly a new video effect or filter every week. I regularly log in and see creators using some filter I’ve never heard of, and some of them are just flat out bonkers. What creators can accomplish with some of these filters I can’t even fathom how I’d replicate in something like the Adobe Creative Suite.

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Wei doesn’t write many blogposts. But when he does, there’s a worthwhile observation in pretty much every line. (That one about YouTube: what a killer point.) Give this one your time.
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Whistleblowers: software bug keeping hundreds of inmates in prisons beyond release dates • KJZZ

Jimmy Jenkins:

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According to Arizona Department of Corrections whistleblowers, hundreds of incarcerated people who should be eligible for release are being held in prison because the inmate management software cannot interpret current sentencing laws.

KJZZ is not naming the whistleblowers because they fear retaliation. The employees said they have been raising the issue internally for more than a year, but prison administrators have not acted to fix the software bug. The sources said Chief Information Officer Holly Greene and Deputy Director Joe Profiri have been aware of the problem since 2019.

The Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed there is a problem with the software.

As of 2019, the department had spent more than $24m contracting with IT company Business & Decision, North America to build and maintain the software program, known as ACIS, that is used to manage the inmate population in state prisons.

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More than a year. America specialises in bizarre forms of cruelty to its incarcerated, who have even less power than normal citizens.
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Apple acts to prevent further spread of Silver Sparrow Mac malware • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

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Apple says that it has taken steps to prevent further spread of the Mac malware known as Silver Sparrow. The malware was notable for the fact that it runs natively on the M1 chip. [It also runs natively on Intel Macs. – CA]

Apple says that it has revoked the security certificates of the developer accounts used to sign the packages, which will prevent it being installed on any further Macs…

As we reported over the weekend, this piece of malware has proven to be perplexing to security researchers for a handful of reasons. Silver Sparrow forces infected Macs to check a control server once per hour, and it includes a self-destruct mechanism, but researchers have yet to actually observe its malicious intent.

Apple has reportedly told MacRumors that it is taking several steps to prevent further spread of the Silver Sparrow malware. The company has revoked the certificates of the developer accounts used to sign the packages, which prevents the attackers from infecting any additional Mac users.

Apple also reiterated that Silver Sparrow has yet to deliver a malicious payload yet and that all software downloaded outside of the Mac App Store offers “industry-leading” protection for users. For instance, Apple requires all software to be notarized, whether downloaded from the App Store or elsewhere.

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Very mysterious; had infected about 30,000 machines worldwide, would contact a command server, but didn’t have any payload, and nobody knows what event it was awaiting before acting. Apple will have a clear idea, though, based on the developer certificates it’s now revoked.
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What would it take to actually settle an alien world? • WIRED

»

David Gerrold is the author of dozens of science fiction books, including The Martian Child and The Man Who Folded Himself. His new novel Hella, about a low-gravity planet inhabited by dinosaur-like aliens, was inspired by the 2011 TV series Terra Nova.

“The worldbuilding that they did was very interesting, very exciting, but because I was frustrated that they didn’t go in the direction I wanted to go, I was thinking, ‘Let me do a story where I can actually tackle the worldbuilding problems,’” Gerrold says in Episode 454 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Hella goes into enormous detail about the logistics of settling an alien world, and grapples with questions like: Would it be safe for us to eat alien proteins? Would it be safe for us to breathe alien germs? What effect would plants and animals from Earth have on an alien ecology? It’s a far cry from many science fiction stories which assume that alien planets would be pretty much like Earth. “My theory is that there are no Earthlike planets, there’s just lazy writers,” Gerrold says.

Hella is told from the point of view of Kyle Martin, a neurodivergent young man who struggles with social niceties but possesses a wide-ranging curiosity for technical details. Gerrold says that telling the story from Kyle’s point of view meant making the worldbuilding in Hella especially rich.

“I think it’s a synergistic phenomenon,” Gerrold says. “I wanted to explore the world, Kyle was the right character to explore it, and the more I got into Kyle’s head, the more I wanted to explore the world from his point of view. There are whole chapters about how the predators stalk the herds of megafauna simply because Kyle was interested in that.”

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Huawei turns to pig farming as smartphone sales fall • BBC News

Justin Harper:

»

China has the world’s biggest pig farming industry and is home to half the world’s live hogs.

Technology is helping to modernise pig farms with AI being introduced to detect diseases and track pigs.

Facial recognition technology can identify individual pigs, while other technology monitors their weight, diet and exercise.

Huawei has already been developing facial recognition tech and faced criticism last month for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

Other Chinese tech giants, including JD.com and Alibaba, are already working with pig farmers in China to bring new technologies.

“The pig farming is yet another example of how we try to revitalise some traditional industries with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) technologies to create more value for the industries in the 5G era,” the Huawei spokesman added.

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Hell of a pigot. Sorry, pivot.
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Tesla’s data advantage: can Apple, or others, keep up? • Scobleizer

Robert Scoble has a VERY long post in which he raves about how much data Tesla is collecting from the cameras in its cars:

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When I talk with people, even techies in Silicon Valley, most have no clue just how advanced Tesla is and how fast it’s moving. Wall Street Analysts are even worse. I’ve listened to EVERY analyst and NONE except for [Cathie] Wood’s talks about the data the car is collecting. None have figured out that Tesla is building its own maps, or, if they have, haven’t explained what that means. (I met part of the Tesla programming team building these features and they admitted to me that they are building their own maps, more on that later for the nerds who want to get into why this matters).

She says that the data leads Tesla to doing Robotaxis, which will be highly profitable. She’s right, but that’s only one possible business that Tesla can build off of this new real-time data. Others include augmented reality worlds, GIS data to sell to businesses and cities, and new utilities that will run far ahead of Apple and Google’s abilities. More on that in a bit. These are all multi-billion-dollar businesses and is why tens of billions of dollars are being invested in autonomous technologies, including at GM, with its Cruise division (worth already about one-third of GM’s total market value), and Apple has leaked that it’s going to be entering the space in 2024 with an effort that will cost many billions too.

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Scoble is hugely excited (but he gets hugely excited by many things). The data is useful, but humans (inside cars) are unpredictable things. I’d love to know how Scoble thinks “full self-driving” is going to handle a roundabout – a road construct that is very common throughout Europe (I don’t know about Asia), but which even humans struggle with quite a lot. (Via Quentin Scott-Fraser.)
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February 2002: Citibank overhauls overseas systems • Computerworld

Lucas Mearian, in February 2002:

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In what analysts are estimating to be a $100m-plus project, Citibank is replacing a decades-old set of back-office corporate banking systems in all of its overseas corporate offices with a single platform, which will allow it to create a cross-border set of standard user interfaces and business processes.

The New York-based bank has already completed changeover projects in the Asia-Pacific region, Western and Eastern Europe and Latin America, using a software suite it purchased from an India-based technology vendor spun off by the bank three years ago.

The changeover, which began in early 2000, is expected to continue through 2004. There are still rollouts to be completed in more than 100 countries. Citibank formally disclosed its work on the project late last month.

…Developed in-house in the 1970s, the old system has morphed into 58 disparate software applications, said Jeff Berg, executive director of program management at Citibank’s parent, New York-based Citigroup Inc.

“In the ’70s, we were growing rapidly in countries around the world. To get up and running quickly, we’d use this system called Cosmos [Consolidated Online Modulated Operating System],” Berg said. “As the bank grew, we did make a mistake in that we released the source code to each of the countries, and they changed it.”

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People reckon that this is the rewrite that led to the Flexcube interface – so confusing it caused a Citibank contractor to make a $900m data entry mistake, as we heard last week. (Thanks Mark Cathcart for the link.)
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Hackers expose Hyundai logistics data after apparent ransomware attack • FreightWaves

Nate Tabak:

»

Hackers leaked data related to Hyundai Motor America’s logistics operations on Monday and claimed responsibility for an apparent ransomware attack targeting the automaker and subsidiary Kia Motors America. 

Files posted by the DoppelPaymer ransomware gang contain information about Hyundai Glovis, the automaker’s global logistics firm, as well as documents related to a trucking partner, in addition to other data.   

Hyundai Motor America acknowledged that it had experienced an “IT outage,” but would not confirm that it had been targeted in a ransomware attack.

“Last week, Hyundai Motor America experienced an IT outage affecting a limited number of customer-facing systems and the majority of those systems are now back online,” the company said in a statement. “We would like to thank our customers for their continued patience. At this time, we can confirm that we have no evidence of Hyundai Motor America or its data being subject to a ransomware attack.”

The data leak came in the aftermath of an IT disruption that hit Kia Motors America more than a week ago. Bleeping Computer reported that Kia had been targeted by a ransomware attack by DoppelPaymer and was seeking $20m in payment. 

Brett Callow, a threat analyst with the security software firm Emsisoft, said the attack on Hyundai America could have led to attempts by DoppelPaymer to target any business partnerships.

«

Hyundai drivers can’t use their apps to control their cars (perhaps not a huge loss). This does show though the risks inherent in vehicles that are over-reliant on a company in the middle to route data for them. Not just the cars, but the companies too become targets.
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WhatsApp details what will happen to users who don’t agree to privacy changes • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

»

WhatsApp said earlier this week that it will allow users to review its planned privacy update at “their own pace” and will display a banner to better explain the changes in its terms. But what happens to its users who do not accept the terms by the May 15 deadline?

In an email to one of its merchant partners, reviewed by TechCrunch, Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it will “slowly ask” such users to comply with the new terms “in order to have full functionality of WhatsApp” starting May 15.

If they still don’t accept the terms, “for a short time, these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app,” the company added in the note. The company confirmed to TechCrunch that the note accurately characterizes its plan.

The “short time” will span a few weeks. In the note, WhatsApp linked to a newly created FAQ page that says its policy related to inactive users will apply after May 15.

WhatsApp’s policy for inactive users states that accounts are “generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.”

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A sort of slow strangulation of those who don’t accede to its wishes. Facebook must really like controversy.
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Worldwide smartphone sales declined 5% in fourth quarter of 2020 • Gartner

»

Global sales of smartphones to end users declined 5.4% in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Gartner, Inc. Smartphone sales declined 12.5% in full year 2020.

“The sales of more 5G smartphones and lower-to-mid-tier smartphones minimized the market decline in the fourth quarter of 2020,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner. “Even as consumers remained cautious in their spending and held off on some discretionary purchases, 5G smartphones and pro-camera features encouraged some end users to purchase new smartphones or upgrade their current smartphones in the quarter.”

The launch of the 5G iPhone 12 series helped Apple record double-digit growth in the fourth quarter of 2020. Apple surpassed Samsung to retake the No. 1 global smartphone vendor spot (see Table 1). The last time Apple was the top smartphone vendor was in the fourth quarter for 2016.

«

Samsung top for the year, of course, but during 2020 Huawei shrank by 24%, in a market that shrank by 12.5%. Apple and Xiaomi were the only companies in the top five to show growth.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1490: how Zuckerberg helped right-wingers, Google fires another AI lead, the Texans facing giant electricity bills, and more


White attacks: but is that a comment about a racist onslaught, or a chess game? AI systems can’t tell. CC-licensed photo by Andrew Malone 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. Warmer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Who is still buying VHS tapes? • The New York Times

Hannah Selinger:

»

On Instagram, sellers tout videos for sale, like the 2003 Jerry Bruckheimer film “Kangaroo Jack,” a comedy involving a beauty salon owner — played by Jerry O’Connell — and a kangaroo. Asking price? $190. (Mr. O’Connell commented on the post from his personal account, writing, “Hold steady. Price seems fair. It is a Classic.”)

If $190 feels outrageous for a film about a kangaroo accidentally coming into money, consider the price of a limited-edition copy of the 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid,” which is listed on Etsy for $45,000. The cover art for this hard-to-find copy is said to contain a male anatomical part drawn into a sea castle.

There is, it turns out, much demand for these old VHS tapes, price tags notwithstanding, and despite post-2006 advancements in technology. Driving the passionate collection of this form of media is the belief that VHS offers something that other types of media cannot.
“The general perception that people can essentially order whatever movie they want from home is flat-out wrong,” said Matthew Booth, 47, the owner of Videodrome in Atlanta, which sells VHS tapes in addition to its Blu-ray and DVD rental business.

Streaming, Mr. Booth said, was “promised as a giant video store on the internet, where a customer was only one click away from the exact film they were looking for.”

But the reality, he said, is that new releases are prohibitively expensive, content is “fractured” between subscription services, and movies operate in cycles, often disappearing before people have the chance to watch them. In that sense, the VHS tape offers something the current market cannot: a vast library of moving images that are unavailable anywhere else.

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Technologies never die, they just get less and less use.
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Margaret Mitchell fired from Google • Axios

Ina Fried:

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Margaret Mitchell, the co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team, says that the company has fired her following an investigation into her use of corporate email.

Google was already under fire for its ouster of Timnit Gebru, the other co-lead of the team. Mitchell has been locked out of the corporate email since last month after what a source says was her effort to search corporate correspondence for evidence to back up Gebru’s claim of discrimination and harassment.

The move comes the same day that Google announced internally it had completed its investigation of Gebru’s exit, as Axios first reported. The company didn’t release the findings of that investigation, but announced a series of policy changes, including tying executive pay companywide to diversity and inclusion efforts.

«

Google’s really having some growing pains, and the problem here seems likely to become endemic: that there will be disgruntled employees who don’t like what it’s doing in some area or other and will stir things up. That’s not a comment on the merits or otherwise of this specific case, more a prediction about what will follow. This is hardly the first case where there’s been internal upheaval that’s become public, but we’ve usually seen it nearer the top level.
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Apple cracks down on apps with ‘irrationally high prices’ as App Store scams are exposed • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo:

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It looks like Apple has started to crack down on scam attempts by rejecting apps that look like they have subscriptions or other in-app purchases with prices that don’t seem reasonable to the App Review team.

9to5Mac obtained access to a rejection email shared by a developer that provides a subscription service through their app. It shows a rejection message from Apple telling them that their app would not be approved because the prices of their in-app purchase products “do not reflect the value of the features and content offered to the user.” Apple’s email goes as far as calling it a “rip-off to customers” (you can read the full letter at the end of this post).

We were initially skeptical about the veracity of this email given some of the wording choices, but looking through Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, it’s possible to find the term “rip-off” at least twice, such as in section 3, where Apple states that “we won’t distribute apps and in-app purchase items that are clear rip-offs.”

In contact with the developer of the rejected app, we were able to verify the authenticity of the rejection email from Apple. Unfortunately in this case, it seems clear that the rejection was a mistake. The developer was able to work with the app review team and eventually got their app approved by explaining that the subscription price was justified because the app employed paid APIs to perform its tasks. Just as with many other items in the guidelines, it’s possible for the review team at Apple to encounter false positives that lead to wrongful rejections of apps, which highlights why moderating the App Store is such a complicated task.

This rule has been in place for a long time, so it’s unclear when Apple started enforcing it more rigorously.

«

Very likely that Apple is responding to the PR noise around this – as well it should. Though it could also remove weekly subscriptions, which always feel like a problem looking for a place to happen.
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Online speech is now an existential question for tech • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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just about every site that hosts user-generated content is carefully weighing the costs and benefits of updating their content moderation systems, using a mix of human professionals, algorithms and users. Some are even building rules into their services to pre-empt the need for increasingly costly moderation.

The saga of gaming-focused messaging app Discord is instructive: In 2018, the service, which is aimed at children and young adults, was one of those used to plan the Charlottesville riots. A year later, the site was still taking what appeared to be a deliberately laissez-faire approach to content moderation.

By this January, however, spurred by reports of hate speech and lurking child predators, Discord had done a complete 180. It now has a team of machine-learning engineers building systems to scan the service for unacceptable uses, and has assigned 15% of its overall staff to trust and safety issues.

This newfound attention to content moderation helped keep Discord away from the controversy surrounding the Capitol riot, and caused it to briefly ban a chat group associated with WallStreetBets during the GameStop stock runup. Discord’s valuation doubled to $7bn over roughly the same period, a validation that investors have confidence in its moderation strategy.

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As he points out, even small amounts of hate speech on a large enough platform can have a huge impact.
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Covid pandemic: how Youyang Gu used AI and data to make most accurate prediction • Bloomberg

Ashlee Vance:

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With such intense interest around these forecasts, more models began to appear through the spring and summer of 2020. Nicholas Reich, an associate professor in the biostatistics and epidemiology department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, collected the 50 or so models and measured their accuracy over many months at the Covid-19 Forecast Hub. “Youyang [Gu]’s model was consistently among the top,” Reich says.

In November, Gu decided to wind down his death forecast operation. Reich had been blending the various forecasts and found that the most accurate predictions came from the this “ensemble model,” or combined data.

“Youyang stepped back with a remarkable sense of humility,” Reich says. “He saw the other models were doing well and his work here was done.” A month before stopping the project, Gu had predicted that the U.S. would record 231,000 deaths on Nov. 1. When Nov. 1 arrived, the U.S. reported 230,995 deaths.
The IHME’s Murray has his own take on Gu’s exit. He says Gu’s model would not have picked up on the seasonal nature of the coronavirus and would have missed the winter surge in cases and deaths. “He had the epidemic going away in the winter, and we had picked up that there was seasonality as early as May,” Murray says.

The machine learning methods used by Gu work well at short-range predictions, Murray says, but “are not very good at understanding what is going on” in the bigger picture.

«

Certain amount of sour grapes there from Murray, whose forecasting system at the IHME was outclassed by Gu’s. But there’s also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy: with so many people attempting to create their own forecast, someone had to win the jackpot. Gu managed it, but if it hadn’t been him, someone else would have.
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AI may mistake chess discussions as racist talk • Carnegie Mellon University

»

“The Queen’s Gambit,” the recent TV mini-series about a chess master, may have stirred increased interest in chess, but a word to the wise: social media talk about game-piece colors could lead to misunderstandings, at least for hate-speech detection software.

That’s what a pair of Carnegie Mellon University researchers suspect happened to Antonio Radić, or “agadmator,” a Croatian chess player who hosts a popular YouTube channel. Last June, his account was blocked for “harmful and dangerous” content.

YouTube never provided an explanation and reinstated the channel within 24 hours, said Ashique R. KhudaBukhsh a project scientist in CMU’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI). It’s nevertheless possible that “black vs. white” talk during Radić’s interview with Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura triggered software that automatically detects racist language, he suggested.

“We don’t know what tools YouTube uses, but if they rely on artificial intelligence to detect racist language, this kind of accident can happen,” KhudaBukhsh said. And if it happened publicly to someone as high-profile as Radić, it may well be happening quietly to lots of other people who are not so well known.

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Black, white, attack, threat – to an AI, that sounds like something bad. But it’s that last sentence that matters: that it’s probably happening to other people, and they won’t have any clue why either, while probably having less recourse or leverage to get reinstated.
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Joel Kaplan’s policy team sways big Facebook decisions like Alex Jones ban • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

»

The strategic response team that had gathered evidence for the Alex Jones and Infowars ban in spring 2019 drew upon years of examples of his hate speech against Muslims, transgender people, and other groups. Under the company’s policies for dangerous individuals and organizations, Jones and Infowars would be permanently banned and Facebook would have to remove content that expressed support for the conspiracy theorist and his site.

In April 2019, a proposal for the recommended ban — complete with examples and comments from the public policy, legal, and communications teams — was sent by email to Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, and her boss, Kaplan. The proposal was then passed on to top company leadership, including Zuckerberg, sources said.

The Facebook CEO balked at removing posts that praised Jones and his ideas.

“Zuckerberg basically took the decision that he did not want to use this policy against Jones because he did not personally think he was a hate figure,” said a former policy employee.

…IFR [In Feed Recommendations] was intended to foster new connections or interests. For example, if a person followed the Facebook page for a football team like the Kansas City Chiefs, IFR might add a post from the NFL to their feed, even if that person didn’t follow the NFL.

One thing IFR was not supposed to do was recommend political content. But earlier that spring, Facebook users began complaining that they were seeing posts from conservative personalities including Ben Shapiro in their News Feeds even though they had never engaged with that type of content.

When the issue was flagged internally, Facebook’s content policy team warned that removing such suggestions for political content could reduce those pages’ engagement and traffic, and possibly inspire complaints from publishers. A News Feed product manager and a policy team member reiterated this argument in an August post to Facebook’s internal message board.

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Kaplan really does emerge as a malign influence over everything in the past ten years.
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The bizarre reaction to Facebook’s decision to get out of the news business in Australia • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

as any economist will tell you, taxing something doesn’t just bring in revenue, it decreases whatever you tax. This is why we have things like cigarette taxes and pollution taxes. It’s a tool to get less of something. So, in this case, Australia is saying it wants to tax links to news on Facebook, and Facebook responds in the exact way any reasonable economist would predict: it says that’s just not worth it and bans links. That’s not incompatible with democracy. It’s not bringing a country to its knees. The country said “this is how much news links cost” and Facebook said “oh, that’s too expensive, so we’ll stop.”

Contrary to the idea that this is an “attack” on journalism or news in Australia, it’s not. The news still exists in Australia. News companies still have websites. People can still visit those websites.
Indeed, the people who are saying that this move by Facebook is somehow an “attack” on news or an attack on Australian sovereignty seem to be admitting more than they’d really like: that they think Facebook must be a dominant source of news in the country.

I mean, if Facebook is really such a problem, shouldn’t they all be celebrating? This is Facebook saying “okay, okay, we’ll completely remove ourselves from the news business.” Since everyone was complaining that Facebook was too much of a presence in the news business… isn’t that… a victory?

And we haven’t even gotten to the other problematic part of the law — which is that it requires Facebook and Google to give newspapers heads up to algorithmic changes. This is completely disconnected from reality. Facebook and Google may make multiple algorithm changes every day, just to keep their services running. Having to tell newspapers (and them alone) about those changes with a few weeks notice is basically giving those news organizations the keys to the kingdom: it’s telling them how to game the algorithms.

«

You really can’t argue with his middle point: if Facebook is bad for news, then how can it getting out of news be bad, unless actually it’s good for news?
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Griddy customers face $5,000 electric bills for five freezing days in Texas • Dallas News

Maria Halkias:

»

Some Texans are facing yet another crisis: how to pay enormous electric bills.

The Texas power supplier Griddy, which sells unusual plans with prices tied to the spot price of power on the Texas grid, warned its customers over the weekend that their bills would rise significantly during the storm and that they should switch providers.

Some quickly looked into doing that but found the actual changeover of service wouldn’t happen for days.

Now customers say they never dreamed they’d be billed in the four figures for five days of service.

Karen Cosby said her cost is $5,000 for usage since Saturday at her 2,700-square-foot house in Rockwall.

DeAndre Upshaw of Dallas said the electric bill for his 900-square-foot, two-story townhouse was also $5,000.

Other customers on social media expressed frustration with similar bills from Griddy, the power supplier that told its 29,000 customers on Saturday, after spot electricity prices soared, to quickly shift out of its network and find a new supplier.

Those spot prices hit $9,000 per megawatt-hour. That means $9 for a kilowatt-hour that usually costs Cosby around 7 cents, and sometimes as little as 2 cents.

«

Of course when they signed up, they’d never have expected a once-in-a-generation snowstorm to hit. But the US has 50 states. Going by 25-year generations, on average you’ll get a once-per-generation event at least every year somewhere. And with climate change forcing the issue, more often. The Texas governor and public utilities say they’re “taking steps” to help people with such bills.
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Decarbonising America: Joe Biden’s climate-friendly energy revolution • The Economist

»

The vast majority of Republicans elected to federal office reject policies to cut emissions, which is why Congress has not seriously confronted the issue for more than a decade. The power of Republicans in the Senate made it pointless.

The problem is made worse by the fact that some conservative Democrats have their own reservations. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, says that he supports climate action. But he rejects the idea that coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, might be permanently removed from the world’s energy portfolio: “Get into reality,” he says. “It’s not going to be eliminated.” The fact that the Senate is split 50-50 between the parties means that, even with Vice-President Kamala Harris’s casting vote, Mr Manchin in effect has a veto over legislation.

Should such obstacles lead to America punting for another decade, it will pay for the privilege. Delaying to 2030 would make the transition to a net-zero emissions economy almost twice as expensive as it would be if started today, with costs soaring to $750bn a year by 2035 and more than $900bn a year by the early 2040s, according to Energy Innovation, a policy group. But today’s urgency comes from greater concerns than fiscal prudence. America’s emissions are not only a problem for the climate in and of themselves. They are also a check on its opportunities to influence the rest of the world’s emissions, which copiously outweigh its own.

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(Thanks Cam Ross for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1489: Facebook v Australia pt 2, Facebook’s ad lies, FBI charges North Korean hackers, Citibank’s $500m UI failure, and more


If electric cars simply replace internal combustion ones, that won’t fix traffic jams. But they need fixing. CC-licensed photo by sese_87 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. Another one done. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Paying for news • Benedict Evans

the Australian proposal, for example, very clearly covers raw links themselves. (I encourage anyone with an opinion on this to read the government’s explanation of the proposed law.) Under this law, whenever anyone posts any link to a newspaper site on Facebook, Facebook would have to pay – even, perhaps, if the newspaper has posted the link itself. This is not about ‘using content’ or ‘profiting from journalism’. It’s about links. In Facebook’s case, these are also links it has no control over.

A lawyer would point out that the great advantage of this model is that it doesn’t look like a tax and a subsidy (and the EU, for example, has rather serious rules against state support). It looks like a competition case. The argument goes that even though Google and FB get little to no direct economic value from news, they get indirect value from being comprehensive, and so they ‘would’ pay to link to news of their own accord it it were not for their market dominance, and so this is a competition law problem.

There is a wilful blindness to this logic. No-one has ever paid to link, regardless of their market power. No-one has ever asked me to pay to link to them, and if asked I would refuse, and I have no market power at all. You don’t have to ask the hypothetical “what would happen if Google and Facebook had less market power- would they pay for links?” You can just look at, well, every other site on the internet.

But if you do accept the novel theory that links being free for 25 years is a market failure, there’s a further breach of basic logic: if all links have value, why should only newspapers be paid? If all links were paid, then newspapers’ share would be a pittance. But “newspapers are worth more to society! They deserve it!” Well, perhaps they do – but ‘we like them more’ is not a competition law argument. It’s an argument for a subsidy from public funds. There are perfectly coherent arguments to be made for such a subsidy, but I’d suggest that if you do want a subsidy, you should be honest and debate it on that basis, instead of basing it on entirely imaginary, Alice-in-Wonderland theories of internet economics.

Of course, a law can be passed and enforced, and the money spent (whether on journalism or on dividends), even if its economic and intellectual basis is incoherent. I would suggest that this makes it brittle – if it’s based on unreason and dishonesty, it’s more likely to be discarded sooner rather than later.

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This is going to blow up even more over the weekend. Facebook removed too much content on Thursday, and had to replace it hastily. The NYT article on it is pretty good, especially the headline: “Facebook’s New Look in Australia: News and Hospitals Out, Aliens Still In”.
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Facebook knew for years ad reach estimates were based on ‘wrong data’ but blocked fixes over revenue impact, court filing shows • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»

Some more internal emails Facebook really doesn’t want you to see: turns out in 2017 chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had already known for years there were problems with a free ad planning tool the company offers to marketeers to display estimates of how many people campaigns running on its platform may reach, per newly unsealed court documents.

…In early 2018 Facebook estimated that removing duplicate accounts would cause a 10% drop in potential reach, per the unsealed filing. While Facebook management rejected an employee’s suggestion to change the language the tool showed to advertisers, declining to swap out the words “people” and “reach” for the (more accurate) term “accounts” — on the grounds that “people-based marketing was core to Facebook’s value proposition”.

The filing also reveals that a product manager for “potential reach”, Yaron Fidler, proposed a fix for the tool that would have decreased its numbers. His proposal was rejected by Facebook’s metrics leadership on the grounds that it would have a “significant” impact on the company’s revenue — to which Fidler responded: “It’s revenue we should have never made given the fact it’s based on wrong data.”

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Monopoly power: when you lie to the people who pay you, but they have no choice except to keep on paying you.
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US charges three North Korean hackers over $1.3bn cryptocurrency heist • Hacker News

Ravie Lakshmanan:

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The US Department of Justice (DoJ) on Wednesday indicted three suspected North Korean hackers for allegedly conspiring to steal and extort over $1.3bn in cash and cryptocurrencies from financial institutions and businesses.

The three defendants — Jon Chang Hyok, 31; Kim Il, 27; and Park Jin Hyok, 36 — are said to be members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military intelligence division of North Korea, also known as the Lazarus group, Hidden Cobra, or Advanced Persistent Threat 38 (APT 38).

Accusing them of creating and deploying multiple malicious cryptocurrency applications, developing and fraudulently marketing a blockchain platform, the indictment expands on the 2018 charges brought against Park, one of the alleged nation-state hackers previously charged in connection with the 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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Takes a looooong time, but eventually you can pin down who’s behind these attacks. Though it was clearly North Korea back in 2014 with Sony, despite the obfuscation (as I wrote in Cyber Wars). Most of the money – more than $1bn – was to come from a hack of the SWIFT banking network (but they screwed it up); only about $100m from crypto hacks. But for North Korea, every little helps.
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There’s one big problem with electric cars: they’re still cars • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

»

while we go about the project of building electric cars into tomorrow’s infrastructure — Biden has pledged to create a network of 500,000 charging stations around the country and replace the roughly 650,000 cars in the federal government’s fleet with E.V.s — let’s not overlook a more immediate menace on the roads today. I refer to the millions of big, inefficient trucks and S.U.V.s that are America’s favorite cars, each poisoning our atmosphere for years beyond any transition to E.V.s.

The promise of electric cars grants us a little leeway to party on in the gas-guzzling present — E.V.s offer a politically simple, one-stop expiation for our unsustainable ways, so long as we all ignore the Escalade in the room.

Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place — an entrenched culture of careless car dependency. Liberation from car culture requires a more fundamental reimagining of how we get around, with investments in walkable and bike-able roadways, smarter zoning that lets people live closer to where they work, a much greater emphasis on public transportation and above all a recognition that urban space should belong to people, not vehicles. Policy changes that reduce the amount Americans drive could lead to far greater efficiency gains than we’d get just from switching from gas to batteries.

«

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Share of US workers holding multiple jobs is rising, new Census report shows • Reuters

Jonnelle Marte and Lucia Mutikani:

»

The share of Americans working more than one job to make ends meet has been growing over the past two decades, and the pay from second jobs make up a substantial share of workers’ earnings, according to a paper published by the US Commerce Department on Wednesday.

An estimated 7.8% of US workers had more than one job as of the first quarter of 2018, up from 6.8% in 1996, according to new data unveiled by the Census bureau, which provides a more detailed analysis of multiple job holders than was previously available. The findings were based on data from 18 states.

The earnings from the workers’ second jobs make up an average 28% of their total earnings, showing that workers are likely relying on that pay, researchers said.

In general, women were more likely to have multiple jobs than men, with 9.1% of women holding multiple jobs as of 2018, compared with 6.6% of men.

They also noted that multiple-job holding occurred at all levels of income, but was more common for low-wage workers. Those juggling more than one occupation earned less, on average, than people who had only one job.

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“Work expands to fill the time available” – never more true than in the age of the internet. Though now it’s more like labour expanding to fill the time available.
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Texas second-in-command sticks up for wind, solar: energy update • Bloomberg via MSN

Joe Carroll, Sergio Chapa, Josh Saul and Mark Chediak:

»

Power plants forced to shut because of the cold are gradually coming back online, but about 40 gigawatts of generation capacity remains idled – enough to power 8 million homes, the grid operator said.

The economic fallout from the crisis is broad and potentially lasting. US oil production has plunged by a record 40%, while fracking in the Permian shale plays has gone dark. Several companies in the oil industry have claimed force majeure, a warning to customers that they won’t be able to meet deliveries under contract. Repercussions are being felt in the global crude market. Top US liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy said it’s temporarily cutting gas and electricity consumption.

“None of the massive infrastructure was designed to handle freezing conditions,” Paul Sankey, an oil analyst at Sankey Research, wrote in a note. “This is an energy crisis that very few in the market, certainly outside Texas and Oklahoma, realize.”

…Texas’s grid operator credited solar power with the fast restoration of power that began Wednesday afternoon.

“We had quite a bit of solar generation online,” Dan Woodfin, director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told reporters Thursday. “When the solar generation was online, we started trying to bring back a lot of the load.”

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Texas was minutes away from months-long power outages, officials say • The Texas Tribune

Erin Douglas:

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The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

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Citibank just got a $500m lesson in the importance of UI design • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

A federal judge has ruled that Citibank isn’t entitled to the return of $500 million it sent to various creditors last August. Kludgey software and a poorly designed user interface contributed to the massive screwup.

Citibank was acting as an agent for Revlon, which owed hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. On August 11, Citibank was supposed to send out interest payments totaling $7.8 million to these creditors.

However, Revlon was in the process of refinancing its debt—paying off a few creditors while rolling the rest of its debt into a new loan. And this, combined with the confusing interface of financial software called Flexcube, led the bank to accidentally pay back the principal on the entire loan—most of which wasn’t due until 2023.

Here’s how Judge Jesse Furman describes the situation:

»

On Flexcube, the easiest (or perhaps only) way to execute the transaction—to pay the Angelo Gordon Lenders their share of the principal and interim interest owed as of August 11, 2020, and then to reconstitute the 2016 Term Loan with the remaining Lenders—was to enter it in the system as if paying off the loan in its entirety, thereby triggering accrued interest payments to all Lenders, but to direct the principal portion of the payment to a “wash account”—”an internal Citibank account… to help ensure that money does not leave the bank.”

«

The actual work of entering this transaction into Flexcube fell to a subcontractor in India named Arokia Raj. He was presented with a Flexcube screen that looked like this:


(Via Judge Jesse Furman)

Raj thought that checking the “principal” checkbox and entering the number of a Citibank wash account would ensure that the principal payment would stay at Citibank. He was wrong. To prevent payment of the principal, Raj actually needed to set the “front” and “fund” fields to the wash account as well as “principal.” Raj didn’t do that.

«

As sort of follow-on to yesterday’s 6cm-high man. Such classic enterprise software design: no interest at all in the user. But Raj wasn’t the only one to make this mistake: three people had to review the transaction. They all thought the same as him.
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Nvidia’s RTX 3060 will be less attractive to cryptocurrency miners • Polygon

Samit Sarkar:

»

Supply issues for both Nvidia’s and AMD’s consumer-oriented graphics cards date back at least as far as 2017. People mining for cryptocurrency such as Ethereum had realized that the chips in many high-end GPUs are well-suited to the task because of the processors’ capability to perform complex math. These folks often seek to build “mining rigs” containing multiple graphics cards working together to increase efficiency, and they have caused demand for GPUs to skyrocket over the past few years, making it harder for people who want to buy graphics cards for, y’know, playing video games to get their hands on them. Throughout much of 2017 and 2018, this drove the market prices for GPUs well above their suggested retail prices.

This tends to affect the lower end of the market more severely, since it costs less to buy GPUs in bulk when the cards themselves are cheaper. On Feb. 25, Nvidia is launching the GeForce RTX 3060 — the lowest-priced GPU in its latest line of graphics cards — and the company also announced Thursday a move intended to make the card less attractive to miners. Software drivers for the RTX 3060, said Nvidia, will be able to “detect specific attributes of the Ethereum cryptocurrency mining algorithm.” If mining operations are detected, the RTX 3060 will automatically cut their efficiency in half.

Nvidia’s message to miners is clear: leave the GPUs to gamers.

«

I would expect the next step is the aforementioned miners trying to hack the drivers in order to work around that. It’s hardly unknown, and everyone loves a challenge.
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Microsoft says SolarWinds hackers downloaded some Azure, Exchange, and Intune source code • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

»

In a blog post published on December 31, Microsoft said it discovered that hackers used the access they gained through the SolarWinds Orion app to pivot to Microsoft’s internal network, where they accessed the source code of several internal projects.

“Our analysis shows the first viewing of a file in a source repository was in late November and ended when we secured the affected accounts,” the company said on Thursday, in its final report into the SolarWinds-related breach.

Microsoft said that after cutting off the intruder’s access, the hackers continued to try to access Microsoft accounts throughout December and even up until early January 2021, weeks after the SolarWinds breach was disclosed, and even after Microsoft made it clear they were investigating the incident.

“There was no case where all repositories related to any single product or service was accessed,” the company’s security team said today. “There was no access to the vast majority of source code.”

Instead, the OS maker said intruders viewed “only a few individual files […] as a result of a repository search.”

Microsoft said that based on the search queries attacker performed inside their code repositories, the intruders appeared to have been focused on locating secrets (aka access token) that they could be used to expand their access to other Microsoft systems.

The Redmond company said these searches failed because of internal coding practices that prohibited developers from storing secrets inside source code.

«

I’d be suspicious that they were also looking for vulnerabilities in the code to exploit.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1488: how Team Trump’s love of coal screwed Texas’s electricity, why Loon failed, Apple’s M1X spotted?, and more


Australian publications won’t appear on Facebook, as of today, after it banned them in a row there. CC-licensed photo by State Library of Queensland 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. Not Australian, honest. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook blocks Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing news • The Guardian

Josh Taylor:

»

Facebook has followed through on its threat to ban Australians from seeing or posting news content on its site in response to the federal government’s news media code.

The tech giant’s Australian and New Zealand managing director, Will Easton, said this would block links to Australian publishers from being posted, while no Australian users would be able to share or see content from any news outlets, both Australian and international.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” he said in a blog post published on Thursday morning. “It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.

“With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

News sites, including Guardian Australia, show no posts on their Facebook page as of Thursday morning.

Users on Thursday reported seeing a pop-up error window when they attempted to post links to news, stating these cannot be posted in response to the news media code.

Easton said publishers stood to gain more from sharing content on Facebook than Facebook does, with news content accounting for less than 4% of all content shared, and the company was willing to support news, but only with “the right rules in place”.

«

That’s quite a piece of brinkmanship. A decision that must have been agreed, if not put forward, in California. We’ll find out which by watching how quickly this decision is reversed – I’d have thought that if it’s a Zuckerberg decision, it’ll stick for longer. (Also, what precisely is “news” and a “publisher”? Is Substack a “publisher”? Is this blog?) Benedict Evans has a useful thread on this matter.

Meanwhile, Google has signed a deal to pay “significant” amounts to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the next three years.
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How Trump appointees short-circuited grid modernization in 2018 • The Atlantic

Peter Fairley, writing in August 2020:

»

On August 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policy makers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the US power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the fuel contributing the most to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

…unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience during the talk: Catherine “Katie” Jereza, then a deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Energy Office of Electricity.

Jereza fired off an email to DOE headquarters—before Novacheck had even finished speaking, according to sources who viewed the email—raising an alarm about Seams’ anti-coal findings. That email ignited an internal firestorm. According to interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by more than 900 pages of documents and emails obtained by InvestigateWest through Freedom of Information Act requests and by additional documentation from industry sources, Trump officials would ultimately block Seams from seeing the light of day. And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.

A nearly impermeable electrical “seam” divides America’s eastern and western power grids. These giant pools of alternating current on either side of the Rockies contain a total of 950 gigawatts of power generation by thousands of power plants. (A third grid serves Texas.) But only a little over one gigawatt can cross between them. Western-grid power plants in Colorado send bulk power more than 1,000 miles away to California, for example, but merely a trickle across the seam to its next-door neighbor Nebraska. That separation raises power costs, and makes it hard to share growing surpluses of environmentally friendly wind and solar power. And years of neglect have left the grids—and the few connections between them—overloaded and ill-prepared to transition to highly variable renewable energy.

The Seams study set out to determine whether uniting America’s big grids would pay. Seven aging converter stations presently mediate the meager power flows across the East-West seam. Should power companies simply rebuild these electrical “stitches,” or should they upgrade to longer or stronger links? Seams’ working hypothesis had been that upgrading might create a more reliable, sustainable, and affordable US power system. The study’s results bore that hypothesis out.

«

Who should Texans blame for their loss of power? Trump and his political appointees.
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Why Google’s internet balloon project Loon failed • Business Insider

Hugh Langley spoke to a number of former employees of the now-shuttered scheme, which was burning through $100m annually by the end:

»

CEO Alastair Wingarth told The New York Times last year that the team chose Kenya because it was open to adopting new technologies, yet it took two years for Loon to get the project off the ground. Meanwhile, a contract to bring internet to users in Peru remained stuck in a similar regulatory hell.

“To get these government sign-offs and actually put our balloons on the stratosphere? That was hard,” said one former employee. “That was really hard.”

Unlocking more airspaces would have also allowed Loon to share balloons between countries. For example, if a balloon in Kenya flew off course, it could be rerouted to Mozambique and used there. Clearing these aerial pathways meant Loon could also deliver its balloons to their destinations efficiently – surfing any particularly good stratospheric winds that appeared en route.

But as time went on, Loon realized how tough it was to land these agreements. The company tried to get clearance to fly balloons over Venezuela, which would have made it easier to travel to other parts of South America, but the country’s authoritarian government would not allow Loon to do so, one former employee said.

Some governments were also suspicious of allowing Loon in their airspace. Employees say it was not uncommon for foreign dignitaries to visit Loon’s sites and offices to inspect their balloons for surveillance technology.

As Loon wrestled with sticky geopolitics, SoftBank’s money was fast drying up, and the company spent most of 2020 trying to attract new investment. Loon had some leads, the most promising of which was a new deal with SoftBank for a second cash injection, according to two former employees familiar with the negotiations.

The amount Loon hoped to get from the new deal could not be learned, but one said they expected it would have had to be at least $100m to be worth it.

«

What’s odd to me is how Page and Brin, so farsighted in many other things about internet connectivity spreading, couldn’t see this bet was a failure. (Same happened with Google Fiber, for different reasons.)
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YouTube’s Shorts, quick-video answer to TikTok, coming to US in March • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw and Nico Grant:

»

YouTube will introduce a short-form video feature called Shorts to the U.S. in March, making its biggest move yet to respond to the growing challenge from TikTok.

Americans will be able to use a preliminary version of Shorts while the company, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, continues developing the feature, YouTube said Wednesday in a blog post. Shorts lets users create and upload 15-second videos, the length of an average video on ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok. YouTube has been testing the feature in India since September, and said the videos are now being watched more than 3.5 billion times a day in the country, which is its largest market.

TikTok’s surge in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic has forced other social media companies to adjust their strategy and come up with similar products. Facebook Inc.’s Instagram debuted Reels, while Snap Inc. introduced Snapchat’s Spotlight and YouTube unveiled Shorts.

YouTube is the largest video site in the world and the easiest way for an amateur filmmaker, comedian or musician to make money. But as YouTube has gotten bigger and more professionalized, many younger people have turned to TikTok to popularize dance crazes and lip-synch video challenges with only their smartphones.

“We know there’s still a huge amount of people who find the bar for creation too high” on YouTube, Neal Mohan, chief product officer, wrote in the blog post.

«

For ages YouTube has been pressing creators to make videos that have got longer and longer for “engagement” rather than brief clicks. Which worked… too well, so TikTok came in and made it simple to create stuff that was really engaging – or which the algorithm could choose so you’d always be shown something engaging.

I wonder how early in TikTok’s existence the scramble to create these me-too products occurred at each of the different companies.
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I was invited for a Covid vaccine because the NHS thought I was 6cm tall • Liverpool Echo

Liam Thorp is aged 32, fit and healthy, and the political editor at the Liverpool Echo, though that isn’t relevant to this story (which is completely true).

No extract, because the challenge is for you to work out why Thorp was invited, if you haven’t already read the story. Having begin vaccination for the most vulnerable groups, the NHS is now trying to begin it for the groups with the highest Covid mortality. So why would they invite Thorp, given the computers think he’s 6cm tall, a literal Tom Thumb? (Dwarfism – even the most extreme forms – is not a risk factor for Covid.)

Thorp does explain why in the story, if you give up.
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Apple ‘M1X’ chip specification prediction appears on benchmark site • AppleInsider

Mike Peterson:

»

A supposed listing for an Apple M1 successor has surfaced on a benchmark site, though it’s likely that the chip’s specifications are a prediction rather than the results of a test.

The “M1X” chip is said to be a 12-core Apple Silicon CPU. As an iteration on the M1, the chip features 12 cores instead of its predecessor’s eight. Its internal GPU features 16 cores, instead of the 8-core GPU in the M1.

This is according to an alleged benchmark of a “pre-sample” of the “M1X” that appeared on CPU Monkey. It’s impossible to independently verify whether the specifications are accurate, so it’s likely wiser to take them as a forecast rather than a true leak of the next-generation Mac chipset.

The specifications do appear in-line with what Apple could release this year. The “M1X,” according to the listing, is still a 3.2GHz chip based on a 5-nanometer production process.

If the prediction turns out to be accurate, it looks like the upgrade would be focused on graphics. The listing suggests that “M1X” could have a 16-core GPU with 16GB of maximum memory. It could feature 256 execution units, rather than the M1’s 128, and may be able to drive three displays instead of two.

«

The “benchmark” does indeed look like some sort of prediction, though of course it has attracted attention. (Here it is!) All this is in line with what we expect.
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Twitter begins testing voice DMs in India, Brazil, and Japan • Android Central

Babu Mohan:

»

Twitter today announced that it has started testing a new voice messaging option for direct messages. The experimental feature is now available to users in three countries: India, Brazil, and Japan.

Manish Maheshwari, Managing Director, Twitter India, said in a statement:

»

India is a priority market for Twitter and that is why we’re constantly testing new features and learning from people’s experience on the service here. We’re excited to bring the voice messages in DMs experiment to the country and give people a new way to express themselves and help them connect through the nuances, emotion, and empathy built by hearing someone’s voice.

«

To send a voice DM to someone on Twitter, you will first have to tap on an existing conversation or start a new one. Next, tap on the voice recording icon to begin recording your message. Once you are done, tap it once more to stop recording. You’ll also be able to listen to the message before you hit send. While you can send a voice DM only through the Twitter app on Android and iOS devices currently, you’ll be able to listen to them even you’re using Twitter on a web browser.

«

Twitter’s doing this because it’s essentially a text network, but India and Brazil particularly are countries where lots of users are semi-literate, and greatly prefer voice to text. (Why Japan too? Don’t know.) Google noticed about a decade ago that huge amounts of search queries were coming via speech-to-text conversions on phones. And now here’s Twitter finally getting in on the act.
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How a thriving fake review industry is gaming Amazon marketplace • Which? News

Hannah Walsh:

»

In December 2020, we signed up to 10 sites offering review manipulation services, including free or discounted products in exchange for reviews, or sales campaigns for sellers to boost their positive reviews. We found:

• 702,000 product reviewers across just five businesses
• One site claiming to have processed $8.9m of refunds for reviews it had organised on Amazon
• Review campaigns claiming to be able to achieve ‘Amazon’s Choice’ status on products in just 10-14 days
• One site selling contact and social media details for Amazon reviewers

We also quizzed review businesses on the tactics they employ to stay one step ahead of Amazon’s checks.

AMZTigers is a company based in Germany offering ‘review campaigns’ that it claims will ‘help your products become best sellers’. It has a large army of reviewers: 62,000 globally, which can be used depending on where sellers ship to, and 20,000 are based in the UK.

Amazon prohibits sellers from paying third parties in exchange for reviews, and says that it suspends, bans and takes actions against those who violate these policies. But this is exactly the sort of service AMZTigers offers.

We posed as an Amazon seller and signed up to find out more. After a short registration, we were assigned an account manager who arranged a call to discuss what we were looking for, including whether we already had stock to sell.

For Amazon marketplace sellers that just want reviews, AMZTigers sells them individually for around £13, or in bulk packages starting at £620 for 50 reviews going up to an eye-watering £8,000 for 1,000 reviews – showing how seriously sellers take reviews, and the investment they’re willing to make.

«

Worth remembering that it’s not just app stores that have problems with fake reviews, but and sort of store.
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Juily 2018: Starling Bank launches vertical debit cards • Starling Bank

»

London, 24 July 2018: Starling, the mobile challenger bank, is introducing a new debit card with a vertical design that puts all customer details, including name, card number and expiry date, on the back.

The new card – the first of its kind for a UK bank – has been designed to reflect the way people use cards today, slotting them into ATMs and card machines or making contactless payments in a vertical, or portrait, orientation.

The new personal account card is teal, an understated and cool hue inspired by the blue-green tones of the plumage of the starling bird. It is also one of the initial group of 16 original ‘web colours’ formulated in 1987 to display web pages, reflecting Starling’s digital heritage. The business account card will be dark navy and both have a pearlised finish to produce a smooth, premium feel.

The front of the card bears the Starling Bank name. All the clutter of the customer name and banking details are on the back. This discreet design feature improves security by making it less easy to copy personal information.

«

Thanks to Gareth Bowker for the pointer. So vertical credit card layounts aren’t such a new thing after all, but probably going to become widespread before long.
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AirPods as a Platform • julian.digital

Julian Lehr on how Apple could create yet another platform:

»

I’m not against Apple opening Siri for developers. On the contrary, given that AirPods are meant to be worn all the time, a voice interface for situations that require multitasking is actually a very good idea. But voice input should remain the exceptional case. And it shouldn’t be what makes AirPods a platform.

Instead of voice, I’d love to see other input mechanisms that allow developers to build new ways for users to interact with the audio content they consume.

Most headsets currently on the market offer the following actions with one (or multiple) clicks of a physical button: pause/play/answer, skip forward, skip backward, volume up, volume down.

These inputs were invented a long time ago and there has been almost zero innovation since. Why has no one thought about additional buttons or click mechanisms that allow users to interact with the actual content?

For example, when listening to podcasts I often find myself wanting to bookmark things that are being talked about. It would be amazing if I could simply tap a button on my headphones which would add a timestamp to a bookmarks section of my podcast app. (Or better even, a transcript of the ~15 seconds of content before I pressed the button, which are then also automatically added to my notes app via an Apple Shortcut.)

Yes, you could build the same with voice as the input mechanism, but as we discussed earlier, saying “Hey Siri, please bookmark this!” just doesn’t seem very convenient.

While podcast apps might use the additional button as a bookmarking feature, Spotify could make it a Like button to quickly add songs to your Favorites playlist. Other developers could build completely new applications: Think about interactive audiobooks or similar two-way audio experiences, for example.

This is the beauty of platforms: You just provide developers with a set of tools and they will come up with use cases you hadn’t even thought about. Crowdsourced value creation.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1487: Ericsson chief slams Europe on 5G, Bloomberg insists on Supermicro, Apple escapes Epic sideload bill, and more


A huge winter storm caught Texas’s power system out. But what form of power was at fault, and why? CC-licensed photo by Shiva Shenoy 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. Not funded by a PAC. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ericsson chief slams Europe’s ‘non-functioning’ telecoms market • Financial Times

Richard Milne and Michael Peel:

»

Borje Ekholm, chief executive of the Swedish telecoms equipment maker, told the Financial Times that it was rational for Europe’s telecoms operators not to invest in next generation 5G networks, because many of them failed to earn their cost of capital.

“The problem is that the guys that are supposed to build out that infrastructure don’t make any money. There is a very big cost to waiting,” he added.

Ericsson is worried that Europe is falling far behind China and the US in the rollout of 5G, which it argues will be crucial for the digitalisation of businesses. It has forecast that 5G could boost the continent’s gross domestic product by 2 percentage points a year.

“Without [5G], general industry will be less efficient and less competitive. Without the infrastructure, it’s hard to develop the digital industry, and that impacts huge value potential and potentially millions of future jobs,” said Ekholm.

…The Ericsson chief executive also renewed his criticism of Sweden’s decision to ban Huawei from its telecoms networks because of concerns about spying and technology theft, warning that doing so ran “significant risk of hurting our ability to compete on a global scale”.

He said he had two concerns about the ban: that other countries could “restrict free trade”, endangering the 99% of group revenues that came from outside Ericsson’s home country; and that it was vital for Ericsson “to be in markets at the forefront of tech development: China and the US”.

He added: “For us to have a presence in both China and the US allows us to be a global tech leader. It is high risk to be only in one ecosystem and not the other. It could ultimately lead to the Chinese ecosystem developing faster thanks to its scale.”

«

Strange for the maker of 5G kit to say it doesn’t earn back. I would love to know the precise process by which 5G rather than pervasive 4G (or even fibre to premises) would add 2% to European GDP. It’s true that the introduction of mobile where it hasn’t been, or of data where it hasn’t been, boosts GDP. But would the raw speed of 5G truly make this so possible? Or is the year where it would do that a long way off?
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Supermicro hack: how China exploited a US tech supplier over years • Bloomberg

Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley:

»

By 2014, investigators across the U.S. government were looking for any additional forms of manipulation—anything they might have missed, as one former Pentagon official put it. Within months, working with information provided by American intelligence agencies, the FBI found another type of altered equipment: malicious chips added to Supermicro motherboards.

Government experts regarded the use of these devices as a significant advance in China’s hardware-hacking capabilities, according to seven former American officials who were briefed about them between 2014 and 2017. The chips injected only small amounts of code into the machines, opening a door for attackers, the officials said.

Small batches of motherboards with the added chips were detected over time, and many Supermicro products didn’t include them, two of the officials said. 

Alarmed by the devices’ sophistication, officials opted to warn a small number of potential targets in briefings that identified Supermicro by name. Executives from 10 companies and one large municipal utility told Bloomberg News that they’d received such warnings. While most executives asked not to be named to discuss sensitive cybersecurity matters, some agreed to go on the record.

“This was espionage on the board itself,” said Mukul Kumar, who said he received one such warning during an unclassified briefing in 2015 when he was the chief security officer for Altera Corp., a chip designer in San Jose. “There was a chip on the board that was not supposed to be there that was calling home—not to Supermicro but to China.”

«

This is the same pair of writers who did the original Big Hack story wayy back in 2018. Matt Tait (aka pwnallthethings) did a big Twitter thread about it; he’s utterly unconvinced, thinks it’s briefings passed on in a big game of telephone. (Thanks Himanshu Gupta for the pointer.)
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A radical change is coming to the way major credit cards work • BGR

Andy Meek:

»

In recent days, PayPal released new debit and credit card vertical designs for its Venmo app, which a company executive said was partly inspired by the vertical orientation of those popular social media apps. Daniela Jorge, vice president of design at PayPal, told Bloomberg in a recent interview that this is just the way the whole world is thinking now. And what people’s expectations are for apps and consumer products like credit cards. “The world around us is becoming more of the portrait mode and the vertical orientation,” Jorge said.

Besides PayPal, major banks are already moving in this direction. Bank of America, the second-biggest provider in the US of debit card products, was one of the first to adopt a debit card with a portrait orientation. Likewise, Discovery Bank started offering vertical credit cards in 2018. And the reasons we should expect this trend to continue, with more banks adopting a vertical style for their card products, include the fact that with the advent of chip readers and tap-to-pay functionality, this is how most people handle their cards already.

With a chip reader, for example, the credit card is inserted into the reader vertically. Likewise, as digital wallets increase in popularity — with card owners increasingly utilizing a digital version of their credit card that’s stored in their smartphone — the phone becomes the device with which the consumer pays, instead of a physical card.

«

It’s much harder to read a string of numbers (or anything) written vertically. However, there don’t seem to be any actual pictures anywhere of what these are going to look like. Four strings of four numbers, vertically arranged?

Even so, I’m not sure what user experience problem this new orientation actually solves.
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Bitcoin’s overnight collapse probability is about 50% • Trolly McTrollface’s Blog

The aforesaid Trolly:

»

If you ever had a look at CME’s Bitcoin futures, you might have noticed that there are multiple contracts – one for each month, and that they have different prices. Systematically, the futures contracts for months that are further away, are more expensive than those with closer expiration, and also cheaper than spot. When this happens for a commodity like oil, we’re talking about contango [the normal situation where the future price is higher than the current price].

This is usually due to the fact that there’s a risk premium on the uncertainty of the future, and it costs a little bit to be sure of the price that you’ll pay for something three months from now. But for futures on financial products, it’s very rare. Currently, the premium for Bitcoin is a whopping 2% per month, and it’s a red warning sign.

The reason contango for commodities like oil is normal, is that you can’t arbitrage it. The way to arbitrage contango is to buy spot, short the future, wait till expiry, and collect the premium. But you can’t simply “wait” when you buy thousands of barrels of oil – you have to store those barrels somewhere, and it will cost you an arm and a leg. The storage costs will eat up your contango premium, plus some.

There were occurrences in the past where traders were able to arbitrage this premium, but the contango needed to be absolutely off-the-charts (“super-contango”). For instance, after the 2008 financial panic, the spread between spot and futures in the oil market was so big, traders would literally rent tankers and use them as storage facilities for oil, waiting for their futures leg to mature.

The reason contango for financial products isn’t normal, is that you can arbitrage it very easily, as you don’t have storage costs. You buy Bitcoin spot, sell an April future for 4% more than spot, and simply wait two months.

«

The “collapse probability” does emerge in a straightforward way from the numbers, though I feel at this point that there’s a certain amount of wishing in writing stuff like this. Put it this way: is bitcoin like Apple stock? Or is it like Gamestop stock, on different timescales? The problem is that if it’s the former, it’s going to keep consuming electricity until governments prevent it.
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Anti-vaxxers misuse federal data to falsely claim COVID vaccines are dangerous • Vice

Shayla Love and Anna Merlan:

»

In 2004, anesthesiologist James Laidler submitted an alarming report to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Laidler wrote that after he got his annual influenza vaccine, his muscles began to grow in size, his skin became green, and he turned into the Incredible Hulk. 

Laidler’s intent was not to notify government officials of a dangerous side effect, but to show the need for caution when interpreting the data found in VAERS, the national vaccine safety surveillance program run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

VAERS is a passive reporting surveillance system, and the people who submit to it can include doctors and healthcare providers, but also anyone who receives a vaccine, their family members, or even lawyers. (This is different from the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink, which is limited to health care professionals, and requires more documentation for submissions.)

To the CDC’s credit, it followed up with Laidler and asked his permission to remove the report, which he agreed to. “If I had not agreed, the record would be there still, showing that any claim can become part of the database, no matter how outrageous or improbable,” he wrote at the time. 

Since its inception in 1988, anti-vaccine groups have cherry-picked VAERS data and twisted it out of context to show the supposed dangers of vaccines. Now, with several COVID-19 vaccines being administered, and vaccine hesitancy and misinformation on the rise worldwide, VAERS is being used yet again by those same groups—as well as a crop of new bad actors—as a vehicle for claims that various vaccines cause serious side effects like Bell’s palsy, hospitalizations, or death. (A CDC review of safety data to date found this week that Bell’s palsy is no more common in COVID-vaccinated populations than unvaccinated; nor is the rate of death, or other severe health complications.)

«

Very clear that having an open database like this is just asking for trouble. The amount of vaccine distortion going around social media is just astonishing, as this piece points out, and VAERS only helps it.
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Big tech’s unlikely next battleground: North Dakota • The New York Times

Jack Nicas, a couple of days ago:

»

If the bill [which would enforce Apple and Google allowing sideloading of apps] fails, Apple and Google’s fight would appear far from over. Georgia and Arizona lawmakers are considering nearly identical app-store legislation, and Andy Vargas, a state representative in Massachusetts, said he planned to introduce a comparable bill this week. Lobbyists said they were also pushing for app-store bills in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

An Apple spokeswoman said most iPhone apps were free and didn’t pay any commission. She added that most of the North Dakota companies that shared revenue with Apple earned less than $1 million a year from their apps, meaning they pay Apple 15% of some sales, rather than 30 percent. Apple lowered its rate for smaller companies last year amid scrutiny of its App Store policies.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Davison said he had been given the draft legislation by Lacee Bjork Anderson, a lobbyist with Odney Public Affairs in Bismarck. Ms. Anderson said in an interview that she had been hired by Epic Games, the maker of the popular game Fortnite and the plaintiff in lawsuits against Apple and Google over their app policies. She said she was also being paid by the Coalition for App Fairness, a group of firms, including Epic, Spotify and Match Group, that has protested app commissions and is leading the push for app-store bills.

«

The bill died in the North Dakota senate, but Apple clearly needs some lobbyists to put out those fires. Epic isn’t playing by the same rules.
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TikTok slammed in Europe over ‘hidden advertising’ to kids • Gizmodo

Matt Novak:

»

The European consumer advocacy group BEUC filed a complaint against TikTok on Tuesday, including allegations the Chinese-based social media platform isn’t been transparent about why it needs to collect some data on users. The complaint also claims TikTok is deploying “hidden advertising” aimed at children, according to the group’s press release.

While most of the concerns around TikTok in the U.S. revolve around user data and the ability of the Chinese government to monitor content, BEUC’s formal complaint with the European Commission on Tuesday includes allegations which have received little attention in mainstream coverage in the U.S., including fears that kids are receiving marketing messages in covert ways.

A press release from BEUC explains the organization’s concerns about hashtag challenges and other marketing initiatives on TikTok, emphasis ours:

»

TikTok fails to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and potentially harmful content on its platform. TikTok’s marketing offers to companies who want to advertise on the app contributes to the proliferation of hidden marketing. Users are for instance triggered to participate in branded hashtag challenges where they are encouraged to create content of specific products. As popular influencers are often the starting point of such challenges the commercial intent is usually masked for users. TikTok is also potentially failing to conduct due diligence when it comes to protecting children from inappropriate content such as videos showing suggestive content which are just a few scrolls away.

«

«

I guess the EU could threaten to sell TikTok to Larry Ellison.
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Texas’ power grid crumples under the cold • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

»

According to a statement released today by ERCOT, the grid entered a state of emergency shortly after 1am on Monday, meaning it could no longer guarantee enough power generation to meet customer demands. This is because roughly 30 gigawatts of generation capacity has been forced offline.

While some early reports indicated that frozen wind turbines were causing significant shortfalls, 30GW is roughly equal to the entire state’s wind capacity if every turbine is producing all the power it’s rated for. Since wind in Texas generally tends to produce less during winter, there’s no way that the grid operators would have planned for getting 30GW from wind generation; in fact, a chart at ERCOT indicates that wind is producing significantly more than forecast.


Power supplied by wind (green) is coming in ahead of forecasts. Source: ERCOT

So while having Texas’ full wind-generating capacity online would help, the problems with meeting demand appear to lie elsewhere. An ERCOT director told Bloomberg that problems were widespread across generating sources, including coal, natural gas, and even nuclear plants. In the past, severe cold has caused US supplies of natural gas to be constrained, as use in residential heating competes with its use in generating electricity. But that doesn’t explain the shortfalls in coal and nuclear, and the ERCOT executive wasn’t willing to speculate.

With generation failing to meet demand, ERCOT was left with no other option other than to cut off customers’ access to power.

«

Texas isn’t part of the US federated grid, because it wanted to avoid federal regulations many decades ago. Now it’s getting bitten by the fact it can’t bring energy in from other states.
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Trump’s false posts were treated with kid gloves by Facebook • The Markup

Jon Keegan, Colin Lecher and Corin Faife:

»

As users drifted through Facebook in the aftermath of the presidential election, they may have run across a satirical article about the Nashville bombing in December. Playing off conspiracies about COVID-19 death diagnoses, a viral photo jokingly suggested the bomber had “died from COVID-19 shortly after blowing himself up.”

In the beginning of January, a New York woman was shown the photo—shared by a friend—in her news feed. Facebook appended a note over the top: The information was false.

But four days earlier, as a woman in Texas looked at Facebook, she saw the same post—shared to her feed by a conservative media personality with about two million followers. That post only had a “related articles” note appended to the bottom that directed users to a fact-check article, making it much less obvious that the post was untrue.

In August, as the election approached and misinformation about COVID-19 spread, Facebook announced it would give new fact-checking labels to posts, including more nuanced options than simply “false.” But data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, which tracks a nationwide panel of Facebook users’ feeds, shows how unevenly those labels were applied: Posts were rarely called “false,” even when they contained debunked conspiracy theories. And posts by Donald Trump were treated with the less direct flags, even when they contained lies.

…The top spreader of posts that were given flags? Trump. His posts, however, were never called “false” or “misleading,” even when they contained inflammatory lies. When Trump shared a mid-December post claiming it was “statistically impossible” for Joe Biden to have won, for example, Facebook simply noted the United States “has laws, procedures and established institutions to ensure the integrity of our elections.”

In contrast, Joe Biden’s posts were given several flags as well, but they were limited to notes simply saying he had won the election. The flag was placed on even innocuous content, like an obituary for Chuck Yeager

«

You’re not surprised, and this already feels like ancient history. But Facebook is a loop. What happened before happens again. Trump wasn’t the first to get this kid glove treatment.
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Radiooooo

Following on from Radio Garden yesterday, this is suggested by Raymond Lee: “select a country and a decade” and get radio from that time. Though apparently not from the Netherlands in the 1990s.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1486: GameStop saga prompts federal investigation, inside Facebook’s (non) Supreme Court, Nissan disses Apple, and more


After a lot of huffing and puffing and threats to leave, Google has started making deals with Australian news organisations. CC-licensed photo by Luis 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.

Subpoenas start to fly in the GameStop saga as a dude sitting in federal prison offers guidance • Wall Street On Parade

Pam Martens and Russ Martens:

»

Keith Gill is the man who hawked the shares of GameStop on Reddit’s WallStreetBets’ message board under the screen name DeepF***ingValue and on YouTube under the handle Roaring Kitty. As we reported on January 30, far from being an “amateur trader,” as Gill was being characterized by the media, he actually held sophisticated trading licenses and was registered with the broker-dealer unit of MassMutual. As we pointed out in the article, when you are a licensed broker and an associated person of a broker-dealer, you have to follow strict licensing rules. Gill appears to have flouted a number of those rules and Galvin has now subpoenaed him to testify, according to the Boston Globe.

Another poster on the WallStreetBets message board that is likely seeing some sweat beads form on his brow is the infamous Martin Shkreli, who is serving a seven-year sentence for securities fraud in Federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. Shkreli, a hedge fund manager turned “Pharma Bro,” gained notoriety hiking the price of the drug, Daraprim, by 5400 percent. The drug was used to treat life-threatening parasitic infections as well as to treat AIDS and cancer patients with compromised immune systems. Shkreli’s prison sentence was related to his fraud at his hedge funds, not his spiking the price of Daraprim.

Prior to his conviction, Shkreli had been a moderator at Reddit’s WallStreetBets, according to an interview the forum’s founder, Jaime Rogozinski, gave to the news service, Cheddar. In that interview, Rogozinski calls Shkreli “a brilliant financier.”

Rogozinski was removed last year from the WallStreetBets forum over alleged conflicts of interest. Prior to that, he posted under user name jartek. In a post 11 months ago, Rogozinski said he could “confirm” that the posts then being made under the user name “martinshkreli” were “real.” According to the subreddit under the name of user martinshkreli, two people, Mo and Reida, have been making posts on his behalf. In a post under user name martinshkreli on January 29 of this year, it says “I still think GME [stock symbol for GameStop] will trade at 1,000.” The long post notes at the end that it was “sent from martin, posted by mo.”

As a result of Shkreli’s jury convictions, the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from “acting as a broker or investment adviser or otherwise associating with firms that sell securities or provide investment advice to the public.”

We emailed Shkreli to confirm if he was, indeed, the author of the posts under user name martinshkreli. We heard nothing back.

«

As they point out, the Wall Street Journal notes that there’s now an investigation into whether there was market manipulation in GameStop. (Ya think??)
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Australia says Google, Facebook close to media pay deals • Japan Today

Rod McGuirk:

»

Google and Facebook were close to striking “significant commercial deals” to pay Australian media for news ahead of Australia creating world-first laws that would force the digital giants to finance journalism, a minister said Monday.

Parliament is scheduled to consider the draft laws on Tuesday after a Senate committee last week recommended no changes to the proposed regulations that Google and Facebook have condemned as unworkable.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, one of ministers responsible for the legislation, said he had discussions at the weekend with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google. Frydenberg had also spoken with Australian news media executives.

“We’ve made real progress, I think, in the last 48 to 72 hours and I think we’re going to see some significant commercial deals which could be of real benefit to the domestic media landscape and see journalists rewarded financially for generating original content, as it should be, and this is a world-leading reform,” Frydenberg told Nine Network television.

«

From “this will never work” to “OK, we’re leaving Australia” to “here’s some money” in the course of about three weeks. Interesting to discover that Google postures, but its devotion to getting customer data outstrips principle. (The money’s a pittance.)
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Inside the making of Facebook’s Supreme Court • The New Yorker

Kate Klonick:

»

The [Facebook Oversight] board originally included twenty members, who were paid six-figure salaries for putting in about fifteen hours a week; it is managed by an independent trust, which Facebook gave a hundred and thirty million dollars. (“That’s real money,” a tech reporter texted me. “Is this thing actually for real?”) According to Facebook, as many as two hundred thousand posts become eligible for appeal every day. “We are preparing for a fire hose,” Milancy Harris, who came to the governance team from the National Counterterrorism Center, said. The board chooses the most “representative” cases and hears each in a panel of five members, who remain anonymous to the public. Unlike in the Supreme Court, there are no oral arguments. The user submits a written brief arguing her case; a representative for the company—“Facebook’s solicitor general,” one employee joked—files a brief explaining the company’s rationale. The panel’s decision, if ratified by the rest of the members, is binding for Facebook.

The “most controversial issue by far,” Darmé told me, was how powerful the board should be. “People outside the company wanted the board to have as much authority as possible, to tie Facebook’s hands,” she said. Some wanted it to write all of the company’s policies. (“We actually tested that in simulation,” Darmé said. “People never actually wrote a policy.”) On the other hand, many employees wondered whether the board would make a decision that killed Facebook. I sometimes heard them ask one another, in nervous tones, “What if they get rid of the newsfeed?”

«

Very in-depth piece about the FOB, though as it points out, the headline isn’t quite right. FOB decisions don’t set any precedent; nor are they actually binding on Facebook. Nor can it adjudicate on decisions to leave content up (“take-ups”) rather than remove it. But it’s the former which are the real problem. Facebook isn’t suffering a surfeit of overmoderation, as the frequent reports of troubles erupting from it show.

Bonus link: a thread about the FOB in a “historical trajectory” (possibly “context”).
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How our brutal science system almost cost us a pioneer of mRNA vaccines • CommonHealth

Dr David Scales:

»

Here’s my story: 20 years ago, I worked part-time in a tumble-down laboratory in a dusty corner of an old medical school building at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was an undergrad. For three years, I studied HIV replication in T-cells under researchers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó.

These days, they are coronavirus vaccine heroes, but back then, their very early work on mRNA vaccines aimed to fight HIV. After spending my first four months in the lab on an experiment that never worked, I learned that good science is really, really hard.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I also absorbed what I later could describe as the sociology of science — how the sausage is made — and it wasn’t always pretty.

While Weissman was an expert at designing experiments, I remember him most for his generosity. He made sure all contributors in the lab shared the credit, from the lab tech and lowly undergrad all the way to fellow researcher Karikó.

Still, Karikó was struggling. Her science was fantastic, but she was less adept at the competitive game of science. She tried again and again to win grants, and each time, her applications were rejected.

Eventually, in the mid-1990s, she suffered the academic indignity of demotion, meaning she was taken off the academic ladder that leads to becoming a professor. We never discussed it personally because by the time I joined the lab, Karikó’s history was still only discussed in hushed tones as a cautionary tale for young scientists.

«

In case you don’t grok mRNA vaccines, XKCD has you covered. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Slate Star Clusterfuck • My New Band Is

Liz Spiers helped set up Gawker, and here points out that the paranoia about journalists among some of the tech community is simply loopy:

»

The malicious journalist thesis is the one that was the hardest on my ocular muscles [rolling her eyes] yesterday.  Scott Alexander, the figure at the center of the piece himself believes this and has advanced this theory that the journalist who wrote the piece, and perhaps The New York Times institutionally, was out to smear him. To what end, it’s unclear. (A favorite fallacious rationale: clicks! More about that in a bit.) Alexander has reconstituted Slate Star Codex as a Substack publication called Astral Codex Ten. In a statement on the New York Times article, which he did not like, to put it mildly, he writes, “The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people ‘in the know’ that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.”

Only in a bubble as insular and tiny as the SSC community would this theory be even remotely plausible. To put this in context: SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at the New York Times. are aware exists – and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all.

Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject. That reporter is also probably working on six other stories at the same time, thinking about their friends, family, what their kid needs to do in Zoom school tomorrow, the book they want to read, whether Donald Trump will get arrested, whether rats dream of boredom. They do not sit around thinking about how they’re going to “get” people they write about, and when subjects think they do, it’s more a reflection of the subject’s self-perception (or self-importance) and, sometimes, a sprinkling of unadulterated narcissism. 

«

So very much this. The only questions journalists ask themselves about a story are “do I think this a good story?” and then “will anyone else think this is a good story, starting with my editor?” Sometimes the answer to the first question is “no”, but the editor wants them to write it anyway.
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Top five reasons why restaurants fail in the first year • Restaurant Blue Book

What surprised me about this article was that none of the reasons is “food’s not good enough”.
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Clubhouse, a tiny audio chat app, breaks through • The New York Times

Erin Griffith and Taylor Lorenz with your primer about the service, in case you haven’t heard enough about it:

»

Clubhouse has generated debate about whether audio is the next wave of social media, moving digital connections beyond text, photos and videos to old-fashioned voice. In thousands of chatrooms every day, Clubhouse’s users have conducted unfettered conversations on subjects as varied as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood and even cosmic poetry.

“This is a major change in how the social internet works,” said Dave Morin, who founded the social network Path more than a decade ago and has invested in Clubhouse. “I believe it’s a new chapter.”

Clubhouse’s trajectory has been rapid — it had just a few thousand users in May — even though the app is invitation-only and not widely available. The invitations are so coveted that they have been listed on eBay for as much as $89. Media companies such as Barstool Sports have also set up Clubhouse accounts, and at least one firm has said it plans to hire a “senior Clubhouse executive.”

The attention has overwhelmed the tiny San Francisco start-up, which has around a dozen employees and was founded by two entrepreneurs, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. While Clubhouse raised more than $100 million in funding last month and was valued at $1bn, it has struggled to handle the surging traffic. On Wednesday, the app crashed. Also, Facebook and Twitter are working on similar products to compete with it.

Mr. Davison created several social networking apps, including Highlight, which allowed users to see and message people nearby. Mr. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founded a company, Memry Labs, which built apps. Those start-ups were either bought or shut down.

In 2019, the two men — who had met through tech circles in 2011 — built a prototype podcasting app, Talkshow, which they called their “one last try.” But Talkshow felt too much like a formal broadcast, so they decided to add a way for people to spontaneously join the conversation, Mr. Davison said in an interview with the “Hello Monday” podcast last month.

«

So attempts to build podcast businesses/apps have led both to Twitter and now Clubhouse. It’s a space full of frustration which forces people to break out of it.
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Apple approached Nissan to work on autonomous car project • Financial Times

Kana Inagaki, Peter Campbell and Patrick McGee:

»

one person with knowledge of the discussions said talks faltered after the US company asked that Nissan make Apple-branded cars, a demand that would effectively downgrade the automaker to a hardware supplier.

Many carmakers have expressed a fear of becoming “the Foxconn of the auto industry”, a reference to the Taiwanese manufacturing group that assembles iPhones.

Apple declined to comment.

Ashwani Gupta, Nissan’s chief operating officer, said the Japanese group “is not” in talks with Apple, whose interest in entering the auto industry goes back to 2014.

“We have our own customer satisfaction, which comes by car. No way we are going to change the way we make cars,” Gupta said in an interview with the Financial Times. “The way we design, the way we develop, and the way we manufacture is going to be as an automotive manufacturer, as Nissan.”

Gupta said the company was open to exploring partnerships with tech groups to adapt to the shift towards connected vehicles and autonomous driving, pointing to collaborations with Google and other start-ups.

But he added: “We have to check who has got the best competency to catch what the customer is thinking. For this, we can do the partnership, but that is to adapt their services to our product, not vice versa.”

«

Understandable from Nissan; there’s always going to be the fear of being subsumed. Is Apple going to have to struggle to find manufacturing capacity?
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Jaguar to lose internal combustion engines in new EV strategy • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

»

Big change is in store for Jaguar Land Rover. The British automaker has a new global strategy, as revealed earlier on Monday by new CEO Thierry Bolloré. There’s a new roadmap for Jaguar, which will lose its internal combustion engines as it focuses on purely electric luxury cars. Six new battery EVs are in the works for Land Rover, and the company is exploring hydrogen fuel cells as well.

…Under the Reimagine strategy, Bolloré said that JLR will become a “battery first business.” For Land Rover, there are six new BEVs scheduled to arrive by 2026, although the first of these isn’t due until 2024. Future Land Rovers will be built using a pair of new flexible vehicle architectures—Modular Longitudinal Architecture and Electric Modular Architecture—both of which are powertrain-agnostic. And production for MLA vehicles will take place at Solihull in the British midlands.

By 2026, the brand will also retire its diesel engines, and Bolloré said that by 2036, Land Rover should have zero tailpipe emissions, with a goal for the entire company to be carbon-neutral by 2039.

«

Well, things are starting to change. Land Rover’s most ardent fans are usually to be found on weekends destroying bridle paths by churning them up and getting stuck. I wonder if they’ll feel the fun is the same without the roar of wasted diesel.
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This radio website is my favorite discovery so far during our lockdown era • BGR

Andy Meek:

»

For anyone who likes to listen to music online and enjoys services like Spotify, there’s a free Internet site called Radio Garden that’s also worth checking out.

Radio Garden is basically like Google Earth, except for radio stations. Anywhere there’s a green dot on the world map, you can start playing a local radio station there.

With a simply click, you can start listening to local radio across the US and beyond, with broadcasts everywhere from Moscow to London, Tehran and more.

«

It is indeed good. A good lockdown diversion. (There was a version about 10 years ago which required downloading a huge app, or plugin, and wasn’t much good. It’s much improved.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1485: what “accept cookies” really means, why surfaces don’t spread Covid, a Facebook smartwatch?, and more


The WHO’s findings from Wuhan suggest a less dangerous form of Covid-19 was circulating there unnoticed for some time. CC-licensed photo by quapan 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. Pourquoi c’existe?. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What do you actually agree to when you accept all cookies? • Conrad Akunga, Esquire

Conrad Akunga:

»

I have been writing software for exactly twenty years now. In the course of this I have learnt very many things, which I hope to journal over time.

One of them is this: people don’t read instructions.

You almost certainly haven’t read the Windows EULA. You haven’t read the iTunes EULA. You haven’t read the Linux GPL, or the licenses of any software.

Don’t worry. This is normal. You are not alone.

The same issue comes into play in our online existence. We heavily use the internet. And thanks to a thing called the GDPR we increasingly see banners like these [image of typical GDPR banner not bothered with because, hell, you’ll see enough of them today].

And, like almost everybody, the instant you saw one of these you clicked Accept and moved on with your life.

You didn’t click around to learn more, did you?

You are not alone.

The question is – what exactly are you agreeing to when you click Accept All?

So today I set out to actually see what it is one agrees to when they accept all.

«

As with the EULA for your computer software, you won’t actually read all of this post. But you’ll skim it and think bloody hell, is all this infrastructure really necessary?
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WHO Wuhan mission finds possible signs of wider original outbreak in 2019 • CNN

Nick Paton Walsh:

»

Investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) looking into the origins of coronavirus in China have discovered signs the outbreak was much wider in Wuhan in December 2019 than previously thought, and are urgently seeking access to hundreds of thousands of blood samples from the city that China has not so far let them examine.

The lead investigator for the WHO mission, Peter Ben Embarek, told CNN in a wide-ranging interview that the mission had found several signs of the more wide-ranging 2019 spread, including establishing for the first time there were over a dozen strains of the virus in Wuhan already in December. The team also had a chance to speak to the first patient Chinese officials said had been infected, an office worker in his 40s, with no travel history of note, reported infected on December 8.

The slow emergence of more detailed data gathered on the WHO’s long-awaited trip into China may add to concerns voiced by other scientists studying the origins of the disease that it may have been spreading in China long before its first official emergence in mid-December.
Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN: “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”

China seizes on lack of WHO breakthrough in Wuhan to claim coronavirus vindication
The WHO food safety specialist added the team had been presented by Chinese scientists with 174 cases of coronavirus in and around Wuhan in December 2019. Of these 100 had been confirmed by laboratory tests, he said, and another 74 through the clinical diagnosis of the patient’s symptoms.

«

Think back to last week’s Wired article about how the Kent variant very probably emerged from someone in whom the virus was replicating for a long time, keeping just ahead of their weakened immune system which couldn’t quite stamp it out. (Thanks G for the link.)

Now imagine that someone in China with a similarly weakened immune system was infected by a precursor to SARS-Cov-2: a version which couldn’t spread to other humans for whatever reason. They could have had that for months before the virus hit the mutation jackpot inside them and became something that hooked on to ACE2 and had an efficient spike protein.

And, you ask, where did that person get infected? If they had a weak immune system, it could have been from any of the places where humans interact with animals such as bats and pangolins. They’d have been a target for a virus just able to get a toehold in the human body.
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Coronavirus is in the air — there’s too much focus on surfaces • Nature

The Editorial Board:

»

A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare, according to this Lancet paper.

Despite this, some public-health agencies still emphasize that surfaces pose a threat and should be disinfected frequently. The result is a confusing public message when clear guidance is needed on how to prioritize efforts to prevent the virus spreading.

In its most recent public guidance, updated last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised: “Avoid touching surfaces, especially in public settings, because someone with COVID-19 could have touched them before. Clean surfaces regularly with standard disinfectants.” A WHO representative told Nature in January that there is limited evidence of the coronavirus being passed on through contaminated surfaces known as fomites. But they added that fomites are still considered a possible mode of transmission, citing evidence that SARS‑CoV-2 RNA has been identified “in the vicinity of people infected with SARS-CoV-2”. And although the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that surface transmission is “not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads”, it also says that “frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important”.

This lack of clarity about the risks of fomites — compared with the much bigger risk posed by transmission through the air — has serious implications. People and organizations continue to prioritize costly disinfection efforts, when they could be putting more resources into emphasizing the importance of masks, and investigating measures to improve ventilation.

«

The WHO has looked out of touch the entire way through this pandemic. From its assurance that Covid didn’t spread between humans, to its advice on fomites, it’s appeared two steps behind.
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Analysis: Shell says new ‘Brazil-sized’ forest would be needed to meet 1.5C climate goal • Carbon Brief

Josh Gabbattiss:

»

For the first time, Shell has released a “pathway” showing how the world could potentially meet the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

This marks a significant shift in attitude towards action on climate change, given that only six years ago executives at the oil-and-gas major were sceptical about warming not breaching 2C. It now says that the 1.5C goal could be achieved by 2100 with CO2 emissions reaching “net-zero” by 2058.

A pivotal moment came in 2018 when Shell outlined a ”plausible” route to meeting the Paris Agreement’s “well-below 2C” goal, including seeing “peak oil” in 2025 with “peak gas” following a decade later.

However, Carbon Brief analysis of Shell’s new “Sky 1.5” scenario shows that, despite its ”highly ambitious” framing, it is, in fact, nearly identical to its 2C predecessor. Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal until the end of the century remains essentially the same.

Aside from the temporary impact of Covid-19, the major difference between the two scenarios is the “extensive scale-up of nature-based solutions”, specifically planting trees over an “area approaching that of Brazil”.

«

A new forest the size of Brazil. Not sure there are that many Brazil-sized spaces currently available for tree planting. We really need something to get carbon out of the atmosphere.
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A “predatory” stop-sign camera is terrorizing my neighborhood • Defector

Dave McKenna:

»

This particular stop-sign camera’s fortunes, however, may well have turned when it flashed at Deepak Gopalakrishna. 

Gopalakrishna happens to be a transportation engineer with a specialty in road safety. He’s lived in Petworth for years and told me he hadn’t ever gotten a ticket on Kansas Avenue NW until this summer. He started asking around and found that just about everybody else on his block had also gotten multiple $100 fines. He said his professional background and personal leanings have had him support pro-bike, “not car-friendly” programs like the Vision Zero project. And he said he has no fixed bias against speed cameras and red light cameras. But the rate at which he’d been nailed told him that this stop-sign camera had to go.

“I’ve got five tickets,” Gopalakrishna told me. “Before I found out about the first one, I’d gotten four more.”

Gopalakrishna FOIA’d for information on the equipment being used by the city for its stop-sign camera setup and just how many tickets had been issued at that one intersection. He learned that the stop-sign cam’s sensor in Petworth, a Smartmicro UMrr-11 Type 44 Radar Antenna, had been recalibrated on June 5, 2020. A ticket boom commenced soon after.

Data from MPD shows that in June 2020, the camera in question snapped 82 violators. Then there were 2,850 tickets in July 2020 (compared to 231 tickets in July 2019). Then the camera started flashing like paparazzi in Cannes: From August through November, a total of 17,216 tickets were issued. That’s $1,721,600 from one camera at one intersection in just four months. 

«

Turns out there’s no legal definition of “coming to a full stop”. Which means the camera operator can essentially define infractions as they like.
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Report: Facebook plotting Apple Watch competitor for as soon as 2022 • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:

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A new scoop from The Information says Facebook is developing an Apple Watch competitor with a focus on health and messaging. The possible smartwatch launch from the social media giant could happen as soon as 2022.

Based on four anonymous sources close to the project, The Information’s report says that Facebook is planning to include a cellular connection with its smartwatch so it could work without a smartphone. The Facebook wearable would have a tight integration with Facebook Messenger, but health features could be compatible with popular fitness platforms like Peloton.

However, as The Information notes, consumers trusting Facebook with health data may be an uphill battle:

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The wrist device is expected to work via a cellular connection, without needing a smartphone. Facebook additionally plans to allow the device to connect to the services or hardware of health and fitness companies, such as Peloton Interactive, the maker of internet-connected exercise bikes. Given its spotty track record with user privacy, Facebook could face blowback from consumers with its wrist wearable, especially related to health aspects of the device.

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As far as the OS, this first smartwatch is expected to run on Google’s Android but that Facebook is also developing its own OS for future wearables.

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To be sold at cost, in order to push sales. Recall that this didn’t work out well when Facebook made a phone with HTC, though it seems to have gone OK with its Portal product. Now, since we’re talking about health-monitoring devices from surveilling companies…
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What to do when your health and fitness goals turn against you • WIRED UK

Becca Caddy:

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I’ve reviewed many different health and fitness tracking devices over the years, and, at times, I became overly concerned with hitting specific goals each day – to the point where I’d feel panicked or like a failure if my wearable told me I hadn’t burned enough calories or taken enough steps.

I’ve since learned this behaviour wasn’t motivated by fitness challenges or an interest in my health – which would have been my excuses at the time. Instead, this focus on everything my fitness tracker was telling me about my body, my health and my food intake had exacerbated problems I’d had with disordered eating in my teens. Except now I had a smart device strapped to my wrist making the worries about food and weight all that more difficult to escape from.

A growing pile of evidence suggests I’m not alone in finding that excessive tracking can worsen or, possibly, even cause an unhealthy preoccupation with health and fitness.

One 2018 study from Loughborough University and the University of Warwick found that 65% of young people in their sample reported using monitoring tools (this included both fitness trackers and calorie counting apps).

Those who used these tools exercised more compulsively and had more problems with dietary restraint, concerns about weight and shape, exercising for weight control and purging behaviours – which in this case meant exercising to work off calories – than those that didn’t.

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Facebook wouldn’t find a way to make you anxious about your health readings, I’m sure.
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Rise of the Barstool conservatives • The Week

Matthew Walther:

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Trump’s greatest achievement, one that speaks far more than his actual record in office to his business acumen, was recognizing that in the 2012 presidential election, the old [conservative] movement vein had been exhausted and that a much richer one was awaiting exploration.

What Trump recognized was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives. Instead he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: vague concerns about political correctness and “SJWs,” opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia.

Whatever their opinions might have been 20 years ago, in 2021 these are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about. On economic questions their views are a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism, embracing lower taxes on the one hand and stimulus checks and stricter regulation of social media platforms on the other.

I have come to think of the people who answer to the above description as “Barstool conservatives,” in reference to the popular sports website, especially its founder and CEO, Dave Portnoy. For many years the political significance of Barstool was implicit at best, reflected mainly in its conflicts with Deadspin and other members of the tacitly liberal sports journalism establishment.

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This definitely captures something about what was going on. Though don’t forget that many of Trump’s supporters were hardly in the first flush of youth. I do think that Walther is accurate in identifying a segment of the young white male American population which thinks like this. It’s a libertarian streak that has probably been amplified by the internet, which would explain why it has risen so much compared to 20 years ago. The puzzle is how Trump identified it. Through his awful children, perhaps?
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Clubhouse users’ raw audio may be exposed to Chinese partner • Bloomberg

Jamie Tarabay:

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Clubhouse, the popular app that allows people to create digital discussion groups, says it’s reviewing its data security practices after the Stanford Internet Observatory found potential vulnerabilities in its infrastructure that could allow external access to users’ raw audio data.

The SIO confirmed that Agora Inc., a Shanghai-based start-up with offices in Silicon Valley, provides back-end infrastructure to Clubhouse and sells a “real-time voice and video engagement platform.”

User IDs are transmitted in plaintext over the internet, making them “trivial to intercept,” the Observatory noted. User IDs are like a serial number, not the username of the person. Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government, it said.

“Any observer of internet traffic could easily match IDs on shared chatrooms to see who is talking to whom,” the SIO said in its Twitter feed about its findings. “For mainland Chinese users, this is troubling.”

SIO, a program at Stanford University that studies disinformation on the internet and social media platforms, said it observed metadata from a Clubhouse chatroom “being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in” China. Analysts also saw audio being relayed “to servers managed by Chinese entities and distributed around the world,” their report noted.

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This is all totally predictable. There will also at some point be a hack of user IDs, and there will be an influx of Nazis, and…
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Why does the Apple TV still exist? • Six Colors

Jason Snell:

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Why does this product still exist, and is there anywhere for it to go next? [John] Gruber and [Ben] Thompson [in an episode of their podcast Dithering] suggest that perhaps the way forward is to lean into an identity as a low-end gaming console. Maybe amp up the processor power, bundle a controller, and try to use Apple Arcade to emphasize that this is a box that is for more than watching video.

The thing is, that’s really been the story of the Apple TV for the last few years, and so far as I can tell, it’s basically gone nowhere. Apple isn’t Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft when it comes to gaming. Apple’s track record with gaming products isn’t solid, to say the least. It’s hard for me to see this succeeding—but it doesn’t mean Apple won’t try.

The other possibility that I’ve come up with is to merge the Apple TV with some other technologies in order to make something more than just a simple TV streamer. Gaming can be a part of that, yes, but there needs to be more. Broader HomeKit support, perhaps with support for other wireless home standards, would help, as would a much more sophisticated set of home automations.

And if Apple really wants to continue to play in the home-theater space, I’ve been saying for years that there’s room for an Apple SoundBar, that could integrate the big sound of HomePod with the Apple TV software to create a solid music and video experience.

Then there’s the final possibility: no more Apple TV. Removing it simplifies Apple’s product naming scheme (Apple TV is a hardware box, an app, and a streaming service, but not yet a dessert topping), and allows the company to focus on other things—perhaps including other home-themed products that might be more up its alley.

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He’s right: as a streaming box, it’s very expensive. It has the other functions like controlling HomeKit, but I suspect that’s still quite niche. But Apple may be saying that it’s dead already by simply ignoring it, as it did with its Airport range of wireless modems. (Thompson made this point, and I agree.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified