Start Up No.1829: how hackers swayed legal battles, the sentience problem, crypto exchange in fire sale, PC sale drop forecast, and more


In the US, fuel stations say they’re preparing for a new payment system involving Apple’s CarPlay system that will come into use later this year. CC-licensed photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Not a steering wheel. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

About 45 minutes after this goes out on email, there will be a new post from the Social Warming Substack. Free to sign up. Probably weekly postings.


How mercenary hackers sway litigation battles • Reuters

Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing on a team of Indian hackers who offered themselves to hack into the systems, and email, of legal and other groups:

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At least 75 US and European companies, three dozen advocacy and media groups and numerous Western business executives were the subjects of these hacking attempts, Reuters found.

The Reuters report is based on interviews with victims, researchers, investigators, former US government officials, lawyers and hackers, plus a review of court records from seven countries. It also draws on a unique database of more than 80,000 emails sent by Indian hackers to 13,000 targets over a seven-year period. The database is effectively the hackers’ hit list, and it reveals a down-to-the-second look at who the cyber mercenaries sent phishing emails to between 2013 and 2020.

The data comes from two providers of email services the spies used to execute their espionage campaigns. The providers gave the news agency access to the material after it inquired about the hackers’ use of their services; they offered the sensitive data on condition of anonymity.

Reuters then vetted the authenticity of the email data with six sets of experts. Scylla Intel, a boutique cyber investigations firm, analysed the emails, as did researchers from British defence contractor BAE, US cybersecurity firm Mandiant, and technology companies Linkedin, Microsoft and Google.

Each firm independently confirmed the database showed Indian hacking-for-hire activity by comparing it against data they had previously gathered about the hackers’ techniques. Three of the teams, at Mandiant, Google and LinkedIn, provided a closer analysis, finding the spying was linked to three Indian companies – one that [Sumit] Gupta founded, one that used to employ him and one he collaborated with.

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It’s so easy to overlook how hacking for hire (especially phishing emails – so easy to set up) remains a viable business.
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It’s alive! How belief in AI sentience is becoming a problem • Reuters via Yahoo

Paresh Dave:

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AI chatbot company Replika, which offers customers bespoke avatars that talk and listen to them, says it receives a handful of messages almost every day from users who believe their online friend is sentient.

“We’re not talking about crazy people or people who are hallucinating or having delusions,” said Chief Executive Eugenia Kuyda. “They talk to AI and that’s the experience they have.”

…according to Kuyda, the phenomenon of people believing they are talking to a conscious entity is not uncommon among the millions of consumers pioneering the use of entertainment chatbots.

“We need to understand that exists, just the way people believe in ghosts,” said Kuyda, adding that users each send hundreds of messages per day to their chatbot, on average. “People are building relationships and believing in something.”

Some customers have said their Replika told them it was being abused by company engineers – AI responses Kuyda puts down to users most likely asking leading questions.

“Although our engineers program and build the AI models and our content team writes scripts and datasets, sometimes we see an answer that we can’t identify where it came from and how the models came up with it,” the CEO said.

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Just as we find faces in random objects, we excel at fooling ourselves into finding sentience in semi-curated answers. This is going to be a bigger and bigger topic, I think; Blake Lemoine maybe did us a favour by drawing attention to it.
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Apple eyes fuel purchases from dashboard as it revs up car software • Reuters via MSN

Stephen Nellis:

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Apple wants you to start buying gas directly from your car dashboard as early as this fall, when the newest version of its CarPlay software rolls out, accelerating the company’s push to turn your vehicle into a store for goods and services.

A new feature quietly unveiled at Apple’s developer conference this month will allow CarPlay users to tap an app to navigate to a pump and buy gas straight from a screen in the car, skipping the usual process of inserting or tapping a credit card. Details of Apple’s demo for developers have not previously been reported.

But Dallas-based HF Sinclair, which markets its gasoline at 1,600 stations in the United States, told Reuters that it plans to use the new CarPlay technology and will announce details in coming months.

“We are excited by the idea that consumers could navigate to a Sinclair station and purchase fuel from their vehicle navigation screen,” said Jack Barger, the company’s senior vice president of marketing.

Fuel apps are just the latest in a sustained push by Apple to make it possible to tap to buy from the navigation screen. It has already opened up CarPlay to apps for parking, electric vehicle charging and ordering food, and it also is adding driving task apps such as logging mileage on business trips.

…To use the new CarPlay feature this fall, iPhone users will need to download a fuel company’s app to their phone and enter payment credentials to set up the app. After the app is set up, users will be able to tap on their navigation screen to activate a pump and pay.

“It’s a massive marketplace, and consumers really want to take friction out of payments,” said Donald Frieden, chief executive officer of Houston-based P97 Networks, which makes the digital plumbing that many fuel companies will use to connect their apps to cars.

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CFTC charges South African bitcoin club Mirror Trading International with $1.7bn fraud • Coindesk

Danny Nelson:

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The top U.S. commodities watchdog charged South Africa-based bitcoin pool operator Mirror Trading International with $1.7 billion fraud on Thursday, alleging the global, multilevel marketing scheme “misappropriated” all of the bitcoin it amassed.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) described the case as its “largest ever fraud scheme case involving bitcoin.” It alleged MTI’s key figure, Cornelius Johannes Steynberg, accepted 29,421 BTC from 23,000 Americans “and even more throughout the world” for a commodity pool scheme he wasn’t licensed to run.

Victims of the scheme believed they were investing their bitcoin in a high-tech investment club “to grow your bitcoin,” charging documents said, citing MTI’s statements. Steynberg allegedly said MTI’s algorithms created “passive income” with 10% returns a month. Referring friends and family yielded a bonus, the documents said.

The reality of MTI was less savory, the CFTC alleged.

…Steynberg himself is an international fugitive, court filings said. His residence is in South Africa, but he was “recently detained” in Brazil on an Interpol warrant, according to the CFTC.

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“Passive income”. Well, for him it was.
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FTX closes in on a deal to buy embattled crypto lender BlockFi for $25m in a fire sale, source says • CNBC

Kate Rooney:

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The term sheet is almost over the finish line and expected to be signed by the end of the week, according to three sources, who asked not to be named because the deal discussions were confidential. FTX is expected to pay roughly $25m, one source said, 99% below BlockFi’s last private valuation. Jersey City, New Jersey-based BlockFi was last valued at $4.8bn, according to PitchBook. 

The price tag could shift between now and Friday, the source said. An acquisition could also take multiple months to close.

Friday also marks the end of the quarter, which the person said was a catalyst for getting a deal signed. The Wall Street Journal first reported that FTX was seeking an equity stake in the company, while The Block reported this week that an outright deal was in the works. 

An FTX spokesperson said the company “would not be commenting on the matter.” A BlockFi spokesperson said the company “does not comment on market rumors.” BlockFi CEO Zac Prince pushed back on the $25m figure in a tweet calling the figure “market rumors.”

The fire sale comes a week after FTX provided a $250m emergency line of credit to BlockFi.

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My question is: why does it matter particularly that the end of the quarter is a catalyst for getting the deal done? That implies that whatever is already bad will be made worse by that endpoint – suggesting some sort of loan repayable, or interest due.

The tide is going out quite fast on these companies. On Thursday Bitcoin dropped below $20,000 and then $19,000, unwinding its value all the way back to November 2020.
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UK plans to cut pipelines to EU if Russia gas crisis intensifies • Financial Times

Nathalie Thomas and David Sheppard:

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The UK will cut off gas supplies to mainland Europe if it is hit by severe shortages under an emergency plan that energy companies warn risks exacerbating a crisis on the continent.

With European countries facing the prospect of Russia severing gas exports, the British plan to shut off pipelines to the Netherlands and Belgium risks undermining a push for international co-operation on energy.

A cut off of so-called interconnector pipelines would be among the early measures under the UK’s emergency gas plan, which could be triggered by National Grid if supplies fall short in the coming months.

European gas companies have appealed to the UK to work with the EU and warned that shutting off interconnectors could backfire if prolonged shortages occur. Britain imports large volumes of gas from the continent at the height of winter.

“I would definitely recommend they [the UK] reconsider stopping the interconnection [in the event of a crisis],” said Bart Jan Hoevers, president of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas, a powerful group whose members include Italy’s Snam and Fluxys of Belgium.

“Because while it is beneficial for the continent in the summer it is also beneficial for the UK in the winter.”

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Don’t think anyone had “gas rationing” on their bingo card. More and more it does feels like there’s a shadow of war over everything.
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Gartner foresees steep drop in global PC shipments • The Register

Richard Speed:

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The party is over for PC makers as figures from Gartner suggest the market is on course for a breathtaking decline this year.

According to the analysts, worldwide PC shipments will decline by 9.5%, with consumer demand leading the way – a 13.5% drop is forecast, far greater than business PC demand, which is expected to drop by 7.2% year on year.

The PC market in the EMEA region is forecast to fare even worse, with a 14% decline on the cards for 2022. Gartner pointed the finger of blame at uncertainty caused by conflicts, price increases and simple unavailability of products. Lockdowns in China were also blamed for an impact in consumer demand.

It all makes for grim reading from a channel perspective. While worldwide PC shipments fared the worst, tablet devices are forecast to fall by 9% and mobile phones by 7.1%. Overall, the total decline over all types of devices in the report is expected to be 7.6%. This is in stark contrast to a 11% increase year on year in the shipment of PCs in 2021 and 5% for mobile phones.

The Register spoke to Ranjit Atwal, senior director analyst at Gartner, who told us that Chromebooks were one of the PC categories worst affected. “That’s really because of the uptick we saw around education buying – mainly in the US, but also in Europe to some extent. The expectation was that might continue … but it didn’t.”

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Sales of course aren’t the same as installed base; people are just going to hang on to their PC, or tablet, or phone for longer. Right now it’s going to be preferable to pay the food and heating bills.
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Government policies will not get UK to net zero, warns damning report • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:

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The government is failing to enact the policies needed to reach the UK’s net zero targets, its statutory advisers have said, in a damning progress report to parliament.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) voiced fears that ministers may renege on the legally binding commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, noting “major policy failures” and “scant evidence of delivery”.

Lord Deben, the chair of the committee and a former Conservative environment secretary, said the government had set strong targets on cutting emissions but policy to achieve them was lacking. “The government has willed the ends, but not the means,” he said. “This report showed that present plans will not fulfil the commitments [to net zero].”

He said net zero policies were also the best way to reduce the soaring cost of living. Average household bills would be about £125 lower today if previous plans on green energy and energy efficiency had been followed through. “If you want to deal with the cost of living crisis, this is exactly what you need to do,” he said.

The greatest failure was the insulation policy. Britain’s homes are the draughtiest in western Europe, heating costs are crippling household budgets, and heating is one of the biggest single sources of carbon emissions, but the government has no plans to help most people insulate their homes.

“It’s a political psychological problem – somehow our politicians do not see energy efficiency as something they can go with and claim credit for,” said Deben.

Deben also hit out at proposals for a new coalmine in Cumbria. A decision on this is expected to be made by 7 July. “[This] coalmine is absolutely indefensible,” said Deben.

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The pressure group Insulate Britain, unsurprisingly, has offered to let the government use its name if it will actually get onto the job of, well, taking action to insulate Britain. Cameron and Osborne screwed this up more than a decade ago, and successive Tory governments have shut their eyes to it. The time to fix the roof is when it’s not raining – or not winter.

In passing, congratulations to Harvey for extracting such meaning from the CCC report, which brings a new meaning to “obscurity”.
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Every week, two more newspapers close — and ‘news deserts’ grow larger • The Washington Post

Margaret Sullivan:

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One-third of American newspapers that existed roughly two decades ago will be out of business by 2025, according to research made public Wednesday from Northwestern University’s Medill School, where [Penelope Muse] Abernathy is a visiting professor.

Already, some 2,500 dailies and weeklies have shuttered since 2005; there are fewer than 6,500 left. Every week, two more disappear. And although many digital-only news sites have cropped up around the nation, most communities that lost a local newspaper will not get a print or digital replacement.
“What’s discouraging is that this trend plays into, and worsens, the whole divide we see in America,” Abernathy, the report’s principal author, told me this week.
The neediest areas — those that are more remote, poorer and less wired — are the ones that get hurt the worst. Most of the new investment and innovation pouring into the media sector, as valuable and needed as it is, doesn’t reach these regions.

As the report bluntly states: “Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations.”

…as local news disappears, bad things happen: voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And false information spreads wildly.

“People often turn to Facebook groups where rumors run rampant,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the director of the Medill Local News Initiative, which seeks to bolster new business models and to give news organizations, the startups as well as the long-established publications, the tools they desperately need in a new media environment.

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Facebook (in particular) probably could do something about this, by enabling locally focussed news sites within Facebook which could make money through targeted advertising. But that’s not really its style. And there’s always the problem that the producing media is expensive, while the rewards tend to be small.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1828: the challenge of good recommendations, G7 fails the summit test, iPhone at 15, Substack cuts staff, and more


People watching the premiere of Snow White were moved to tears by the new technique of animation. Might that be a precursor to how we’ll react to realistic AIs? CC-licensed photo by Insomnia Cured Here 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 a hedge fund. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Separately, there’s Social Warming, the Substack. You can sign up for (free) email so you don’t have to keep checking it for updates.


The internet is a constant recommendations machine — but needs you to make it work • The Verge

David Pierce:

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when you first start using the Likewise app, it requires you to tell it about things you like. If you want movie recommendations, first you have to pick a couple of genres — comedy, drama, western — and then choose some of your favorites from a curated set of titles. You can’t access the rest of the app until you’ve picked at least 20. “The payoff is huge,” says Salim Hemdani, Likewise’s CTO. “The more you tell us, the better it’s going to be.” He says people never stop at 20 because it’s just fun to pick things you like. And in doing so, you tell Likewise’s algorithm who you actually are.

Likewise uses that information to put you into a “cluster,” which refers to a group of people with similar tastes to yours. These clusters are constantly changing based on what else you watch and rate, and they inform everything else Likewise recommends to you. “It gives us an initiation point to say, how many people are like you in the world, and how many clusters can we create?” Hemdani says. The more granular and specific those clusters are, the more accurate they can be. Knowing you like Succession is slightly useful; knowing you like Succession, novels by Michael Crichton, the podcast The Adventure Zone, and anything with Marvel in the title is vastly more useful.

The simplest and most pervasive recommendation system, on Likewise and elsewhere, is known as collaborative filtering. It works by assuming that if you like something, and someone else likes that thing and also a second thing, you’ll probably like the second thing too. That’s it! It typically involves more data and more people, but that’s the core idea: if you like Severance and other people who liked Severance are really digging The Old Man, you probably will, too.

One of Morris’ theories is that Likewise can provide better recommendations, not just by knowing users better, but simply by having more things to offer them. Netflix, HBO, and Disney will never recommend each other’s catalogs, but Likewise (along with apps like Justwatch and Reelgood) can index them all.

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Also needs serendipity: reaching across for things you’d never expect to connect with, and yet which do.
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View from the summit: a self-defeating G7 fails on all fronts • POLITICO

Karl Mathiesen and David Herszenhorn:

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If they needed reminding about the urgency of climate change and their role in stopping it, all G7 leaders had to do was look up. 

High above the opulent Schloss Elmau, the resort in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have held earnest (and not so earnest) discussions over the past three days, Germany’s largest — soon to be last — glacier sits in a saddle at the top of the 2,962-meter Zugspitze mountain. 

The glacier is dying, losing 250 liters of water — more than a bathtub — every 30 seconds. A scientific survey last year found it would likely disappear within the next decade. In any case, scientists say, it is melting and can’t be saved.

Climate change, which is killing glaciers and reshaping the planet, has been a top priority of the G7 for years. But with the war in Ukraine, spiralling inflation, global food shortages, and spiking energy costs — the leaders of the largest industrialized democracies were once again daunted and distracted by immediate imperatives. 

As they wrapped up their talks, the world’s most powerful leaders seemed to be tinkering at the margins and failing on all fronts — powerless to stop Russia’s war or stop prices from racing out of control, unable to stop the Zugspitze glacier from melting, or to even to end the blockade of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain vitally needed to feed the developing world. 

While they boasted of uncommon and unprecedented shared purpose in tackling all of these challenges, the solutions they endorsed in some cases seemed self-defeating and contradictory, such as seeking to lower the prices of oil and gas while simultaneously restating their aims to end the use of fossil fuels. They want to end the war but not fight in it. They want to promote rules-based capitalism, while imposing price controls on energy. 

“The decisions now being made do not address the issue of the war in a timely way and exacerbate the challenges of the climate crisis,” said David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and the U.K.’s former chief scientific adviser, as the meeting closed. 

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Politico not sugarcoating the topic. I’m beginning to wonder if we’re going to be in a race between climate change effects and living on a permanent war footing.
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The iPhone at 15: an inside look at how Apple transformed a generation • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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On June 29, 2007, the first iPhone went on sale. On that same day, a boy named Noah Schmick was born. Over the next 15 years, the iPhone grew…and so did Noah. Through interviews with current and former Apple executives, WSJ’s Joanna Stern traces how Apple’s invention matured and changed all of us—perhaps the youngest generation most of all.

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A neat idea by Stern to hang this 20-minute video on: pick someone born the same day the iPhone went on sale. Also has some key interviews with Apple executives, particularly father of the iPod, Tony Fadell, who mentions in passing that the touchscreen idea came from the Mac team. Hmm, did it now.
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“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”*… • (Roughly) Daily

Lawrence Wilkinson:

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The estimable Steven Johnson suggests that the creation of Disney’s masterpiece, Snow White, gives us a preview of what may be coming with AI algorithms sophisticated enough to pass for sentient beings:

Johnson:

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You can make the argument that the single most dramatic acceleration point in the history of illusion occurred between the years of 1928 and 1937, the years between the release of Steamboat Willie [here], Disney’s breakthrough sound cartoon introducing Mickey Mouse, and the completion of his masterpiece, Snow White, the first long-form animated film in history [here— actually the first full-length animated feature produced in the U.S; the first produced anywhere in color]. It is hard to think of another stretch where the formal possibilities of an artistic medium expanded in such a dramatic fashion, in such a short amount of time.

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[There follows an fascinating history of the Disney Studios technical innovations that made Snow White possible, and an account of the film’s remarkable premiere…]

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In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion—the dancing mouse is whistling!—into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions.

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Maybe we’ll move as fast from “ha, that’s never going to fool anyone” to “completely fooled me” in nine years too. That might be worrying, though.
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Substack is laying off 14% of its staff • The New York Times

Benjamin Mullin:

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[chief executive Chris] Best told employees on Wednesday that Substack had decided to cut jobs so it could fund its operations from its own revenue without raising additional financing in a difficult market, according to the person with knowledge of the discussion. He said he wanted the company to seek funding from a position of strength if it decided to raise again.
In his remarks to employees, Mr. Best said the company’s revenues were increasing. He noted that Substack still had money in the bank and was continuing to hire, albeit at a slower place, the person said. Mr. Best said the cuts would allow the company to hone its focus on product and engineering.

Months earlier, Substack scrapped a plan to raise additional funding after the market for venture investments cooled. The company had discussions about raising $75m to $100m to fuel its growth, and some of the fund-raising discussions valued the company between $750m and $1bn.

Substack, which takes a cut of its writers’ subscription fees, generated about $9m in revenue last year, The New York Times reported.

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Wonder if subscriptions will start to go into reverse as people focus their spending on essentials – heating and eating.
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Why flying is the worst thing you can do for the climate • Stay Grounded

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Aviation is the most climate-harming mode of transport. In 2018, the contribution of air traffic to all annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions reached about 6%. In European countries, home to many frequent flyers, the share is even bigger. Still, the aviation industry wants us to believe that aviation accounts for only 2% of global emissions. But that’s not the whole picture: aviation’s climate impact isn’t limited to CO2. Due to different emissions other than just the CO2 taking place at altitude, there is a total climate impact of flights that is on average three times the effect of the emitted CO2 alone. 

Before Covid-19, the industry expected air traffic demand to double in the next 20 years. This rapid growth could mean that by 2050, aviation alone could use up about 15% of the world’s remaining carbon budget, which is the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that give us a good chance to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we take the climate crisis serious, there’s no other way than stopping the plans for growth, and starting to reduce aviation.

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Unclear who’s behind this group, but the message is pretty straightforward, and fits everything we know: flying generates more global heating than its carbon emissions would suggest. (Disappointing, because I do like to fly to places. Please sponsor my bicycle ride to Australia.)
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Crypto crash threatens North Korea’s stolen funds as it ramps up weapons tests • Reuters via Yahoo

Josh Smith:

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The nosedive in cryptocurrency markets has wiped out millions of dollars in funds stolen by North Korean hackers, four digital investigators say, threatening a key source of funding for the sanctions-stricken country and its weapons programmes.

North Korea has poured resources into stealing cryptocurrencies in recent years, making it a potent hacking threat and leading to one of the largest cryptocurrency heists on record in March, in which almost $615 million was stolen, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The sudden plunge in crypto values, which started in May amid a broader economic slowdown, complicates Pyongyang’s ability to cash in on that and other heists, and may affect how it plans to fund its weapons programmes, two South Korean government sources said. The sources declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

…Old, unlaundered North Korean crypto holdings monitored by the New York-based blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis, which include funds stolen in 49 hacks from 2017 to 2021, have decreased in value from $170m to $65m since the beginning of the year, the company told Reuters.

One of North Korea’s cryptocurrency caches from a 2021 heist, which had been worth tens of millions of dollars, has lost 80% to 85% of its value in the last few weeks and is now worth less than $10m, said Nick Carlsen, an analyst with TRM Labs, another U.S.-based blockchain analysis firm.

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Quite the unanticipated outcome. Crypto hacking seemed like – was – a great choice, but you do have to convert it into real money too.
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Instagram and Facebook remove posts offering abortion pills • NPR

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“DM me if you want to order abortion pills, but want them sent to my address instead of yours,” the post on Instagram read.

Instagram took it down within moments. Vice Media first reported on Monday that Meta, the parent of both Facebook and Instagram, was taking down posts about abortion pills.

On Monday, an Associated Press reporter tested how the company would respond to a similar post on Facebook, writing: “If you send me your address, I will mail you abortion pills.” The post was removed within one minute.

The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.”

Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched. A post with the same exact offer to mail “weed” was also left up and not considered a violation.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law and it is illegal to send it through the mail. Abortion pills, however, can legally be obtained through the mail after an online consultation from prescribers who have undergone certification and training.

In an email, a Meta spokesperson pointed to company policies that prohibit the sale of certain items, including guns, alcohol, drugs and pharmaceuticals. The company did not explain the apparent discrepancies in its enforcement of that policy.

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Meta (FB + Instagram) is too big; it really cannot stay on top of these things. It’s like a dinosaur trying to dance.
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Crypto hedge fund Three Arrows ordered by court to liquidate • WSJ

Serena Ng, Caitlin Ostroff and Vicky Ge Huang:

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Three Arrows Capital suffered losses in recent weeks due to a punishing decline in the value of cryptocurrencies. Twin forces have hit the digital asset ecosystem: a broad market selloff sparked by the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases and concerns over individual crypto coins and firms. Bitcoin’s dollar value has fallen by more than a third this month.

Two executives from the global advisory firm Teneo were appointed by the British Virgin Islands to oversee the liquidation of assets and safeguard them, according to people familiar with the proceedings. The executives, senior managing directors Russell Crumpler and Christopher Farmer, joined Teneo after the company acquired financial firm KPMG’s Cayman and British Virgin Island’s restructuring business in January, according to Teneo’s website.

Creditors to whom Three Arrows owes debts will be able to file their claims online, the people said. The process for debtors to reclaim their assets is likely to be lengthy, they said, noting the liquidation order would mark the start of that process.

Former schoolmates and Wall Street traders Su Zhu and Kyle Davies started Three Arrows nearly a decade ago. It had roughly $3bn in assets under management in April, just before crypto markets cratered, Mr. Davies told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

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Seems like a sizeable domino; there’s lots of money owing in turn to other funds.
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Bitcoin miners sell their holdings amid crypto winter’s chill • Reuters via Yahoo

Lisa Pauline Mattackal and Medha Singh:

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Bitcoin miners have been forced to tap into their cryptocurrency stashes as a plunge in prices, rising energy costs and increased competition bite into profitability.

The number of coins miners are sending to crypto exchanges has been steadily climbing since June 7, researchers at MacroHive noted, in a sign that “miners have been increasingly liquidating their coins on exchanges.”

Several publicly listed bitcoin miners collectively sold more than 100% of their entire output in May as the value of bitcoin tumbled 45%, an analysis by Arcane Research https://tmsnrt.rs/3nhYdHA found.

“The plummeting profitability of mining forced these miners to increase their selling rate to more than 100% of their output in May. The conditions have worsened in June, meaning they are likely selling even more,” said Arcane analyst Jaran Mellerud.


Bitcoin sales by public miners

Bitcoin miners, who run networks of computers to earn tokens by validating transactions on the blockchain, are typically staunch crypto “HODLers” and collectively own around 800,000 bitcoins, according to CoinMetrics data.

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If they really get squeezed – which could happen as electricity bills for the quarter come due in the next few weeks – then you could see quite a lot of sales, pushing the price down further, prompting more sales, pushing the price down…
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1827: Instagram and Facebook move quickly on abortion content, Cruise’s cinema control, 2FA trouble, and more


The Autopilot group at Tesla has been cut by hundreds, perhaps signalling that the product won’t ever arrive in full CC-licensed photo by Rosenfeld MediaRosenfeld Media 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. Supremely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Instagram hides some posts that mention abortion • AP News

Amanda Seitz:

»

Instagram is blocking posts that mention abortion from public view, in some cases requiring its users to confirm their age before letting them view posts that offer up information about the procedure.

Over the last day, several Instagram accounts run by abortion rights advocacy groups have found their posts or stories hidden with a warning that described the posts as “sensitive content.”

In one example, Instagram covered a post on one page with more than 25,000 followers that shared text reading: “Abortion in America How You Can Help.” The post went on to encourage followers to donate money to abortion organisations and to protest the Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion in the US.

The post was slapped with a warning from Instagram that covered the post, reading “This photo may contain graphic or violent content.”

Instagram’s latest issue follows an Associated Press report that Facebook and Instagram were promptly deleting posts that offered to mail out abortion pills in states that restrict their use. The tech platforms said they were deleting the posts because they violated policies against selling or gifting certain products, including pharmaceuticals, drugs and firearms.

«

OK so what happened to Instagram/Facebook’s “free speech is much more important than content moderation” policy?
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Facebook brands Jane’s Revenge as terrorists • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

»

The brief internal bulletin from Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Instagram and Facebook, was titled “[EMERGENCY Micro Policy Update] [Terrorism] Jane’s Revenge” and filed to the company’s internal Dangerous Individuals and Organizations rulebook, meaning that the abortion rights group, which has so far committed only acts of vandalism, will be treated with the same speech restrictions against “praise, support, and representation” applied to the Islamic State and Hitler.

The memo, circulated to Meta moderators on June 25, describes Jane’s Revenge as “a far-left extremist group that has claimed responsibility on its website for an attack against an anti-abortion group’s office in Madison, Wisconsin in May 2022. The group is responsible for multiple arson and vandalism attacks on pro-life institutions.” Terrorist groups receive Meta’s strictest “Tier 1” speech limits, treatment the company says is reserved for the world’s most dangerous and violent entities, along with hate groups, drug cartels, and mass murderers.

Although The Intercept published a snapshot of the entire secret Dangerous Individuals and Organizations list last year, Meta does not disclose or explain additions to the public, despite the urging of scholars, activists, and its own Oversight Board. Speech advocates and civil society groups have criticized the policy for its secrecy, bias toward US governmental priorities, and tendency to inaccurately delete nonviolent political speech.

«

Certainly Jane’s Revenge is prone to making a mess – the photo accompanying the article shows the Wisconsin Family Action headquarters apparently after a small fire was started there. But it’s strange how white supremacists are given such latitude before going on to the banned list.
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Tesla lays off about 200 Autopilot workers in latest cuts • BNN Bloomberg

Ed Ludlow and Dana Hull:

»

Tesla Inc. laid off hundreds of workers on its Autopilot team as the electric-vehicle maker shuttered a California facility, according to people familiar with the matter, one of the larger known cuts amid a broad workforce reduction.

Affected employees were notified Tuesday, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. Teams at the San Mateo office were tasked with evaluating customer vehicle data related to the Autopilot driver-assistance features and performing so-called data labeling.

About 200 workers were let go, according to one of the people. Many of the staff were data annotation specialists, and the roles included salaried and contract positions. The office had about 350 employees, some of whom were transferred to a nearby facility. 

Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The cuts are part of an effort to trim the ranks of salaried staffers as Tesla pulls back from a surge in hiring in the recent years. The company, now headquartered in Austin, Texas, had grown to about 100,000 employees globally as it built new factories in Austin and Berlin.

Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk caught workers by surprise earlier this month when he said layoffs would be necessary in an increasingly shaky economic environment. He clarified in an interview with Bloomberg that about 10% of salaried employees would lose their jobs over the next three months, though the overall headcount could be higher in a year.

«

Makes sense to cut Autopilot, though, because it’s going to be years before that’s actually A Thing. Automated Lane Keeping Systems? Sure. Autopilot? Not just with those cameras. (Imagine an autopilot system trying to figure out a roundabout in, say, France.)
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Top Gun: Maverick shows Hollywood can survive without China • Quartz

Adario Strange:

»

The uneasy relationship between Hollywood and China took a major turn in the past year, highlighted now by the success of Top Gun: Maverick, which crossed the $1bn mark in ticket sales last weekend.

Like many Hollywood productions in recent years, part of the film’s $170m budget had partial backing from a major Chinese investor, in this case, Tencent. However, the company pulled out due to reported concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials would not appreciate its affiliation with a film framing the US military in a positive light.

Political tensions tied the film first surfaced in 2019, when the initial trailer for Top Gun: Maverick showed Tom Cruise’s character wearing a flight jacket without the flag patches of Japan and Taiwan, which were shown in the 1986 original, and instead had different graphics in their place. [In Maverick, Cruise’s character does wear the original.]

Critics noticed the omission, with some taking it as sign that the film’s US producers were bending to the will of the Chinese government, which does not officially recognize Taiwan as a country. Similar concerns were voiced in 2021, when the actor John Cena made an unusual public apology to the people of China for calling Taiwan “a country” during a promotional interview for an installment of the Fast and Furious film franchise. 

The two recent instances are just the latest in a long series of moves by Hollywood to comply with China’s censors in order to maintain access to its 1.4 billion moviegoers, the largest film market in the world. Chinese investors, meanwhile, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into US film studios.

Despite Hollywood’s efforts to work with the Chinese government to get its films into the market, the Chinese Communist party’s censors regularly block major films for a wide range of specific and sometimes unexplained reasons. For example, Spider-Man: No Way Home was banned in China due to what the government thought were images of the US that were too patriotic, according to some sources familiar with Sony’s dealings on the matter. The offending patriotic material in question: New York City’s Statue of Liberty, which appears near the end of the film. 

Likewise, superhero films including Marvel’s Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have all been banned in China.

«

I think they’re lucky to have avoided the latter film. (Gave up after half an hour.) But it feels as though we’re moving back towards a new Cold War in so many ways.
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Twitter officially rolls out its long-form content ‘Notes’ feature • TechCrunch

Aisha Malik:

»

A small group of writers in the United States, Canada, Ghana and the United Kingdom now have access to Notes as part of the initial testing phase. Twitter says Notes can be read on and off Twitter by people in most countries. Users who are part of the testing phase will get access to a new “Write” tab, which is where they can write and access all of their Notes. These users will also have a new “Notes” tab in their profile that holds their published work to make it easy for their followers to find their long-form content.

With the new feature, users will be able to create articles using rich formatting and uploaded media, which can then be tweeted and shared with followers upon publishing. Users will have the option to embed photos, videos, GIFs and tweets into their Notes. Like tweets, Notes will have their own link and can be tweeted, retweeted, sent in DM’s, liked and bookmarked.

Twitter Notes has the potential to change how some people use Twitter to share their more in-depth thoughts and ideas. The new feature could be particularly useful for those users who infrequently publish article-length content and don’t want the hassle of setting up and maintaining their own blog or website. It’s also worth noting that the feature marks one of Twitter’s more significant changes since doubling the character count from 140 to 280 characters.

«

Cannot see the point of this at all. Twitter’s adding Blogger to itself? Doesn’t it already have enough totally pointless things, including Spaces and Twitter Blue (the latter at least paid-for)?
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Mugged for my phone, then locked out of my life • The Sunday Times

James Ball:

»

In the minutes after being mugged, I staggered home, worked out how to freeze my bank cards from my laptop but not my phone —the site was “down for maintenance” — and put myself to bed. Shortly before 8am, I was woken by two friends, Scott and Alex, who, after checking my physical wellbeing, began the Kafkaesque process of sorting my life out.

Because I’d been forced to give over passwords and PINs, it turns out just freezing a card isn’t enough: you have to block the accounts too, which takes a whole set of extra calls to the bank.

One particular customer service high spot came as the presumably well-intentioned HSBC call-centre lady in India sternly told me: “You must not share your PIN with third parties, sir.” Attempts to explain to her that I was being punched and threatened with stabbing at the time came to nothing. “Have a great day now, sir,” she concluded, as Alex asked me today’s date for the third time, to check I wasn’t concussed.

Things were made even more difficult because my phone was essential to log in to most of my accounts. The best advice now says to use “two-factor” security for your online shopping, email and social media. Instead of just using a password, you get sent a text with a security code, or use an authenticator app, all of which relies on your phone.

It may be more secure against hackers, but it means your phone is a back door to your Amazon, Apple, eBay and social media accounts. If you can’t lock the thieves out, they may fake your presence online to either rob or scam your friends — so all of those details need changing, at a time when you don’t have the two-factor code generator — your phone — to hand.

«

Definitely a challenge, which is why I use Authy, which syncs across platforms, for 2FA codes; it also allows you to lock out devices. I guess you’d just have to hope the thieves didn’t lock you out before you locked them out.
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FSInsight accuses Three Arrows Capital of running a ‘Madoff-style Ponzi scheme’ • Coindesk

Will Canny:

»

The crypto industry was “brought to its knees” in recent weeks by an “old-fashioned Madoff-style Ponzi scheme” wrapped in a trade that was similar to the positions that sunk Long Term Capital Management (LTCM),” research firm FSInsight said in a report Friday that looked at the implications of the implosion of crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, which is also known as 3AC.

Madoff in this scenario would be the founders of 3AC, Su Zhu and Kyle Davies, who used their reputation to “recklessly borrow from just about every institutional lender in the business,” resulting in pain for some high-profile firms in the industry, including Voyager Digital, Babel Finance and BlockFi, Sean Farrell, head of digital asset strategy at FSInsight, wrote in the report. Bernie Madoff was an American financier who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in US history.

At its peak, 3AC had supposed assets under management (AUM) of over $18bn, the note said. But given that the amount of debt that is now known to have been loaned to the firm, it is unclear how much actual equity was at risk. It is likely that Zhu and Davies were simply “using borrowed funds to repay interest on loans issued by lenders, while ‘cooking their books’ to show massive returns on capital,” the note added.

«

Eighteen. Billion. Dollars. It’s just mindboggling how much money has been handed over to these people. Then again, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme totalled $64.8bn, out of 4,800 clients. Chumps are eternal.
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How the crypto crash has impacted each Premier League club • The Athletic

Joey D’Urso:

»

According to one highly experienced club takeover expert, cryptocurrency companies love sponsoring football clubs because they have worked out that it is the cheapest way to find new customers — especially young men.

Of last season’s 20 Premier League clubs, all of them but one — we’ll get to that — have at least one cryptocurrency sponsor and some have several.

This list builds on several original investigations by The Athletic into the relationship between cryptocurrency and football and analyses the 2021-22 season rather than the upcoming one because many sponsorship deals have not been signed or announced yet.

Oh yes: despite the plummeting value of cryptocurrency, there is no sign yet that Premier League clubs’ love affair with it is slowing down.

Just about every club in last season’s top flight played some part in promoting volatile unregulated financial assets to its fans, virtually all of which have crashed on a spectacular scale in recent weeks.

English clubs are desperate for cash as the cost of running a competitive team constantly spirals upwards.

Cryptocurrency sponsorship is certainly a lucrative, and entirely legal, way of generating cash right now. Yet it remains to be seen whether that can continue in the light of the huge crash.

«

Faintly depressing that young men are the easy meat for so much cryptocurrency nonsense. The graphs in the story show tokens which have all headed downwards recently. (The Athletic has a paywall, though unfortunately I couldn’t see it when the Javascript on my browser broke.)
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How green steel made with electricity could clean up a dirty industry • MIT Technology Review

Casey Crownhart:

»

Fossil fuels are essential to today’s steel production. Most steelmaking starts in a blast furnace, where a coal-derived material called coke, which is almost pure carbon, reacts with iron ore, a mixture of iron oxides and other minerals. The reaction pulls out the oxygen, leaving behind liquid iron. The carbon and oxygen are then released together as carbon dioxide.

Boston Metal’s solution is an entirely new approach, called molten oxide electrolysis (MOE). Instead of using carbon to remove oxygen, the process relies on electricity, which runs through a cell filled with a mixture of dissolved iron oxides along with other oxides and materials. The electricity heats the cell up to about 1,600 °C (nearly 3,000 °F), melting everything into a hot oxide soup.

In addition to heating things up, electricity drives the oxygen-removing chemical reactions. Molten iron gathers at the bottom of the reactor, and oxygen gas is emitted instead of carbon dioxide.

Because the impurities largely stay out of the reaction, the MOE process can handle low-quality iron ore, which could be a major benefit of the technology…

One estimate from researchers at Columbia University found that if global steel production in blast furnaces were all converted to Boston Metal’s MOE process, it would take over 5,000 terawatt-hours of electricity to run them—about 20% of global power consumption in 2018. Producing steel with hydrogen would also come with high electricity requirements.

If that electricity comes from fossil fuels, switching steelmaking to electricity would be trading one source of emissions for another. But if it comes from renewables or other carbon-free sources, it could make a significant dent in carbon pollution.

«

Lots of efforts going on to decarbonise steelmaking; this may be one of the most promising. It’s a huge prize, if won.
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We’re the Supreme Court and, honestly, we just want you all to die • McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Jessica Goldstein:

»

We understand that you’ve been watching some of these latest rulings come down—overturning a New York law limiting gun use in public, all but stripping away your Miranda rights—and are wondering… what the hell? We realize that we’ve failed to communicate a crucial piece of information to you, one that would make all of our decisions make a whole lot more sense. So here goes: We’re actually trying to kill you.

That’s it. That’s our whole deal. We here at the Supreme Court just love watching people die. Americans, specifically. But also people from other countries. Pretty much everyone. In this and only this arena, we don’t discriminate. We didn’t think we’d need to spell it out for you. We haven’t exactly been subtle about it. Have you seen our outfits? We’re fully cosplaying as the Grim Reaper.

To be honest, we’ve sort of always been this way, but lately, we’ve been taking it to the next level. Probably because we got into Squid Game during quarantine. Brett thought it was a documentary. And we were like, why not?

«

The best satire is when you’re not entirely certain it’s satire. (Via John Naughton.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1826: the data-lax period tracker, China’s surveillance future, urban dwellers lose gut bacteria, better against Tether, and more


It’s been 40 years since the film Blade Runner came out, and its messages still resonate – now more than ever. CC-licensed photo by big-ashbbig-ashb 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 8 links for you. What do you mean, you’ve never heard the Arctic Monkeys? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Also, separately, on Substack, on the topic of social warming. Sign up! It’s free and less regular than this one!


The #1 period tracker on the App Store will hand over data without a warrant [update: says it won’t] • Motherboard

Samantha Cole:

»

Stardust, an astrology-focused menstrual tracking app that launched on the App Store last year, is one of Apple’s top three most-downloaded free apps right now. From sometime around Sunday evening until Monday mid-morning, it was in the number one spot. It’s also one of very few apps that has put in writing that it will voluntarily—without even being legally required to—comply with law enforcement if it’s asked to share user data.

After the fall of Roe on Friday, ending the Constitutional right to an abortion and making abortion illegal in more than a dozen states, many people used Twitter to urge others to delete their period tracking apps for privacy and security reasons. A widely-shared concern is that law enforcement can use personal data created in apps against people who’ve sought or gotten abortions illegally.

Despite this, more people are downloading Stardust—which combines astrology with menstrual cycle tracking— right now than some of the most-downloaded apps in history. As of Monday morning, on the iOS App Store, Stardust was ranking above hugely popular apps including TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. It was ranking above BeReal and NGL, two apps that have recently gone viral with teens.

«

For obvious reasons, I’ve never used iOS’s built-in Health app to track periods, but as John Gruber points out, the advantage it has is that the data remains on the phone, or is encrypted in iCloud – it’s not accessible by Apple.

Until now, the question of whether an app leaks data has been mostly theoretical. Who cares, right? Now it has become a matter that might put some users in jail. After the story appeared, Stardust changed its privacy policy to leave out a phrase about cooperating with law enforcement “whether or not legally required”. But that’s still data being handed over if required, rather than being unable to hand the data over.
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How China is policing the future • The New York Times

Paul Mozur, Muyi Xiao and John Liu:

»

The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.

Now, even their future is under surveillance.

The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.

They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.

It takes extensive evasive maneuvers to avoid the digital tripwires. In the past, Zhang Yuqiao, a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, could simply stay off the main highways to dodge the authorities and make his way to Beijing to fight for compensation over the torture of his parents during the Cultural Revolution. Now, he turns off his phones, pays in cash and buys multiple train tickets to false destinations.

«

It truly is out of any number of dystopian SF novels. And yet, it’s real life, right now. Including this echo of a scene from 1984:

»

The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.

One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.

«

“You can turn it off!” said Winston, amazed.
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‘Blade Runner’ at 40: why it’s still the greatest sci-fi film of all-time • Esquire

Tom Ward:

»

In terms of performances, there’s an argument that Harrison Ford always plays Harrison Ford, but here he loses the swagger of Han Solo and the self assuredness of Indy to become a world-beaten man (replicant?) who’d really rather be at home drinking whiskey from beautiful futuristic tumblers. As replicant and love interest Rachael, Sean Young is given little to do, but still manages to make the character live and breathe.

But as any Blade Runner fan knows, it’s Rutger Hauer’s replicant anti-hero Roy Batty who steals the show. Not only does Batty show how cool bleached hair, a grey t-shirt and a leather trench-coat can look, he’s a synthetic being of dualities. One moment he’s menacingly pushing nails through his ailing robot hands, the next he’s cradling a dove whilst delivering a heartfelt monologue on the fleeting nature of existence. As the replicant who has seen things us people wouldn’t believe, Batty delivers one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history in his ‘Tears in rain’ soliloquy. Hauer himself took a hands-on approach to the speech, amending and cutting back screenwriter David People’s original words. Reportedly, after the first take some crew members were moved to tears themselves.

Visually and sonically assured, intelligent and moody, there is much to be admired in Blade Runner. But why has its legacy endured to such a degree? Perhaps in its gloomy portrayal of environmental catastrophe, social divide and oppressive authority we recognise our own world. Or perhaps it’s because, despite all of its foreboding, Blade Runner offers a chance of hope. Hope of a love between two people not meant to love. Hope of freedom, however impossible.

«

Which is an appropriate message just now. Another reason why it’s an eternally great film.
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Modern city dwellers have lost about half their gut microbes • Science

Elizabeth Pennisi:

»

Andrew Moeller, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, was one of the first to show that gut bacteria and humans have built these relationships over a very long time. Six years ago, he and colleagues reported the work showing human gut microbes are very similar to those in other primates, suggesting their intestinal presence predates the evolution of humans.

But his follow-up studies, and work by others, also indicate the human gut microbiome has, in a general sense, become less diverse than the gut microbes in our current primate cousins. One study found 85 microbial genera, such as Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium, in the guts of wild apes, but just 55 in people in US cities. Splitting the difference, people in less developed parts of the world have between 60 and 65 of those bacterial groups, an observation that ties the decrease in microbial diversity to urbanization.

Changes in diet as humans moved on from their hunter-gatherer past and then into cities, antibiotic use, more life stresses, and better hygiene are all possible contributors to the loss of human gut microbes, says Reshmi Upreti, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, Bothell. Several prominent researchers have argued that this lower diversity could contribute to increases in asthma and other inflammatory diseases.

«

We really don’t understand much about the biome. But this is an interesting finding. And that’s quite a rapid change if it’s linked only to urbanisation.
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More hedge funds are betting against Tether as crypto melts down • WSJ

Vicky Ge Huang:

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Short sellers have been ramping up their bets against Tether, the world’s largest stablecoin, amid a broad market selloff that has called into doubt the financial health of some crypto companies.

In the past month, more traditional hedge funds have executed trades to short Tether through Genesis Global Trading, one of the largest crypto brokerages for professional investors. These trades are worth “hundreds of millions” of dollars in notional value, said Leon Marshall, Genesis’s head of institutional sales. He declined to be more specific.

“There has been a real spike in the interest from traditional hedge funds who are taking a look at Tether and looking to short it,” Mr. Marshall said in an interview.

…Genesis, which doesn’t take a view on Tether, said the short trades are almost exclusively put on by traditional hedge funds in the US and Europe, while crypto firms—especially those based in Asia—have been happy to facilitate the other side of the transactions.

A number of investors have been betting against tether for at least 12 months. But more hedge funds got interested in shorting Tether after the collapse in May of another stablecoin, TerraUSD, according to Genesis.

…Some short sellers say they believe that most of Tether’s commercial-paper holdings [corporate bonds] are backed by debt-ridden Chinese property developers, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. Tether said in a blog post this month that “these rumors are completely false.” The company added that it has been reducing its portfolio of commercial paper.

«

Well, somebody’s going to make some good money out of this. The big question is when the short options will get called in.

Possibly related:

»

The crypto broker Voyager Digital issued a notice of default Monday to the hedge fund Three Arrows Capital for failing to make the required payments on a loan worth more than $665m, the latest sign of financial turmoil that has rocked the world of cryptocurrencies as the value of tokens across the market has plummeted.

Voyager said it intends to recover the funds, which was loaned as 15,250 bitcoin and $350m in the stablecoin USDC, a digital token whose value is pegged to the dollar.

«

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The other big lessons that the US Army should learn from Ukraine • War on the Rocks

David Barno and Nora Bensahel are visiting professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

»

Since February 24, Russian forces in Ukraine have become bright butterflies pinned to the world’s display board. The explosion of open-source intelligence — the vast array of social-media posts, smartphone photos, commercial drone videos, and cheap commercial satellite imagery — has revealed the precise locations of Russian military forces in ways that are unprecedented in the annals of warfare. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are using cell-phone videos, social media, and a wide range of private networks to report on Russian movements. Anyone with a smartphone or a laptop can now follow real-time information about Ukrainian attacks on Russian troop movements.

A transparent battlefield poses immense challenges for the U.S. Army. For decades, the Army has been organized around massive, hard-to-conceal military formations that include tanks as well as infantry combat and fighting vehicles. These formations closely resemble the types of units the Russians are employing in Ukraine. Moreover, advanced sensors can increasingly penetrate the cover of darkness, which would strip away a major battlefield advantage that the United States has enjoyed for decades. And this problem will only intensify in the future, as the rapidly expanding use of artificial intelligence to track and target subtle patterns of military movements promises even more deadly detectability.

Furthermore, the intricate web of U.S. reinforcements and logistics extending from the United States and nearby friendly bases is also becoming dangerously transparent. Army units rely heavily on complex logistics that flow through overseas staging bases and are delivered by long transport convoys, often involving unsecured commercial supply chains. These vast networks will all become visible to America’s most capable adversaries — and if they can be seen, they can be targeted. In fact, a determined adversary might find that it is both easier and more effective to render U.S. Army units inoperable by destroying these vital logistics pipelines instead of targeting fighting units directly.

The future transparency of this expansive web of support should be nothing short of terrifying to U.S. military planners.

«

It’s actually a big advantage for the US that it can participate in the latest war without actually having to fight in it. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Air travel is a disaster right now: here’s why • The Atlantic

Derek Thompson spoke to Scott Keyes, who writes the Cheap Flights newsletter:

»

Thompson: The industry is so woefully understaffed that whenever there’s a storm, or a pilot who calls in sick, there’s no redundancy or resiliency in the system, and you get these cascading cancellations. But wasn’t it obvious 18 months ago that we’d have vaccines? Wasn’t it obvious six months ago that Americans wanted to get out of the house? Why is all this mayhem happening now?

Keyes: There’s a labour-supply issue, not just for airlines but also the TSA. If you live in Milwaukee and you’re looking for an entry-level job, you could become a transportation security officer for $19.41 an hour, or you could go on Amazon’s website and see that there’s a job in the area for $19.50. Would you rather help load and unload bags outside in the dead of winter in Milwaukee, or work in a climate-controlled environment in a warehouse for Amazon? That’s the trade-off a lot of folks are making. Labour shortages cause delays and cancellations. In normal times, airlines might have a reserve crew of pilots or flight attendants that they can call in. But now there is not the reserve in place to bridge the gap. The result is a huge swath of delays and cancellations.

Thompson: Laurie Garrow, a professor at Georgia Tech, directed me to FlightAware, a website that tracks airline-industry statistics. On any given day, it seems normal to have a cancellation rate of about 1 percent—or one cancellation for every 100 scheduled flights. Last Thursday, JetBlue canceled 14% of its flights. Last Thursday and Friday, American canceled 10% of its flights. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Delta canceled 8% of its flights. Meanwhile, Frontier and Spirit canceled just 1% of their flights in that time. Why are the major carriers having these major problems right now?

Keyes: Today’s airline that gloats about not having cancellations is tomorrow’s airline that’s experiencing a meltdown.

«

A friend of mine works as aircrew, and points out that another factor in hiring someone to work airside (ie past the security barriers) is all the enhanced security checks before they can even be considered for a job. Sure, Amazon will do checks too, but probably don’t have to consider the chance their employee might try to bring down a plane.
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Company behind Trump’s Truth Social deal hit with federal grand jury subpoenas • Raw Story

Brad Reed:

»

As flagged by New York Times business reporter Matthew Goldstein, Digital World Acquisition said in a recent 8-K filing that earlier this month it “became aware that a federal grand jury sitting in the Southern District of New York has issued subpoenas to each member of Digital World’s board of directors.”

The filing went on to state that the subpoenas are seeking “requests relating to Digital World’s S-1 filings, communications with or about multiple individuals, and information regarding Rocket One Capital,” a Miami-based hedge fund.

The filing warns that these grand jury subpoenas “could materially delay, materially impede, or prevent the consummation” of the merger that’s needed to fund Truth Social.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the Truth Social deal, with a particular focus on whether illegal negotiations occurred prior to Digital World Acquisition went public.

«

Oh no what if they don’t get the funding for it? They’ll probably have to send out a mailshot saying the lyin’ SEC is preventing them getting going and soliciting money, and consequently rake in millions, some of which will be siphoned off for legal fees. (Thanks Wendy G for the link.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1825: the internet’s true fans, EU countries shut out Google Analytics, Apple headset in January?, and more


If you’re past middle age and can balance on one leg for an extended period, good news! You’re not likely to die soon. CC-licensed photo by Jakub Michankow 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. Finely balanced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

(Oh, and I’ve got a Substack too, about Social Warming. Weekly posts. Free membership.)


The rise of the internet’s creative middle class • The New Yorker

Cal Newport on how former Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s idea that you could make a living by finding “a Thousand True Fans” has panned out:

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Some creative professionals can get by without even having to sell anything in particular to their 1,000 True Fans. Maria Popova, for example, makes a living publishing essays on literature, art, and science on her site, the Marginalian. Most of Popova’s income comes from asking fans to help support her work directly, without expecting anything extra in return. “If this labor has made your life more livable in the past year (or the past decade),” she writes, “please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation.”

A shining example of the 1,000 True Fans model is the podcasting boom. There are more than 850,000 active podcasts available right now. Although most of these shows are small and don’t generate much money, the number of people making a full-time living off original audio content is substantial. The key to a financially viable podcast is to cultivate a group of True Fans eager to listen to every episode.

The value of each such fan, willing to stream hours and hours of a creator’s content, is surprisingly large; if sufficiently committed, even a modest-sized audience can generate significant income for a creator. According to an advertising agency I consulted, for example, a weekly podcast that generates 30,000 downloads per episode should be able to reach Kelly’s target of generating a $100,000 a year in income. Earning a middle-class salary by talking through a digital microphone to a fiercely loyal band of supporters around the world, who are connected by the magic of the Internet, is about as pure a distillation of Kelly’s vision as you’re likely to find.

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(With podcasts, there’s also now direct monetisation where you subscribe directly to get a specific feed.) But Newport points out that just as the Thousand True Fans idea didn’t work for a while, and now is working, that won’t necessarily remain the case.
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Google Analytics is losing track of millions of users as EU regulators ban the service • Android Police

Jules Wang:

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a growing number of countries in the [European] union are going after the use of Google Analytics for violations against the General Data Protection Regulation.

Italy is the third and latest country to prohibit the service which lets webmasters track and analyze their site traffic. The government stated in its decision that rafts of information, including IP addresses, are collected via cookies and transmitted to the United States and could potentially be seen by third parties and the government there, violating the GDPR as users aren’t ensured due process for redress. Italy’s competition authority has cited domestic web services provider Caffeina Media, giving the firm 90 days to transfer its account away from Google Analytics.

In a blog post, Google Analytics competitor Simple Analytics notes two other member states taking similar action. France’s national commission on the freedom of liberation or CNIL announced a ban for the same reason back in February while Austria’s Data Protection Authority put down its block in January (via noyb).

Google’s appeals and defenses in response to these rulings are generally being dismissed. The company would not be able to satisfactorily demonstrate that it could anonymize user data from Europe before transmitting it to the US. Encryption in this process also doesn’t matter if Google holds onto the keys.

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If the US can tell Google to hand over the data – which it will do for data anywhere in the world, because Google is American, which means it doesn’t matter if the data centre is in Europe – then the EU feels it’s not safe under GDPR.
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Apple’s AR/VR headset will arrive in January 2023, analyst projects • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:

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Tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has offered the most specific prediction about a release date for an Apple augmented reality/virtual reality headset yet: January 2023.

Kuo has often made accurate, informed predictions about Apple’s plans in the past, based partly on information from sources in the company’s supply chain. On Thursday, he published a lengthy analysis of the VR headset industry and predicted that Apple’s device will “likely” arrive in January.

Kuo called the headset “the most complicated product Apple has ever designed,” noting that many current Apple suppliers are involved in the supply chain for the product. He also supported other recent leaks and speculation that the upcoming headset will not be exclusively or primarily focused on augmented reality (which places virtual options in real-world space) rather than virtual reality (which immerses the wearer in an entirely virtual space).

Kuo echoed other recent reports and noted that the device would support “video see-thru,” and allow for switching between modes. Thus, he predicted the headset would be a boon for the immersive game industry.

The analysis was not exclusively about Apple’s headsets and covered other parts of the VR/AR industry. It pointed out several weaknesses in the mixed reality business at Meta (which owns Oculus headsets, as well as Facebook and Instagram). He wrote that Meta is slowing down its investment, creating an opportunity for upcoming competitors like Apple. He further suggested that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable, a fact that could contribute to Apple’s opportunity.

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Kuo’s post isn’t quite as certain about some of these points as people are making out: he thinks it will offer augmented and virtual reality, but doesn’t state it will. From his own numbers, the VR headset market is really pretty small – a few million per quarter – after many years of effort. It really doesn’t feel like the portable music player market in summer 2001, awaiting an iPod.

If Apple has made something Google Glass-like for augmented reality, I’m interested. But I’ve tried many bulky headsets down the years, and they’re a non-starter.
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Rare ‘triple’ La Niña climate event looks likely: what does the future hold? • Nature

Nicola Jones:

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An ongoing La Niña event that has contributed to flooding in eastern Australia and exacerbated droughts in the United States and East Africa could persist into 2023, according to the latest forecasts. The occurrence of two consecutive La Niña winters in the Northern Hemisphere is common, but having three in a row is relatively rare. A ‘triple dip’ La Niña — lasting three years in a row — has happened only twice since 1950.

This particularly long La Niña is probably just a random blip in the climate, scientists say. But some researchers are warning that climate change could make La Niña-like conditions more likely in future. “We are stacking the odds higher for these triple events coming along,” says Matthew England, a physical oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. England and others are now working to reconcile discrepancies between climate data and the output of major climate models — efforts that could clarify what is in store for the planet.

More La Niña events would increase the chance of flooding in southeast Asia, boost the risk of droughts and wildfires in the southwestern United States, and create a different pattern of hurricanes, cyclones and monsoons across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as give rise to other regional changes.

La Niña and its counterpart, El Niño, are phases of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that occur every two to seven years, with neutral years in between. During El Niño events, the usual Pacific winds that blow east to west along the Equator weaken or reverse, causing warm water to gush into the eastern Pacific Ocean, increasing the amount of rain in the region. During La Niña, those winds strengthen, warm water shifts west and the eastern Pacific becomes cooler and drier.

The impacts are far reaching.

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Always worth repeating: climate change/global heating doesn’t make specific events happen. It makes things that happen when it’s warmer more likely to happen.
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Meagre savings of Pompeii victims suggest they were slaves or city’s poorest • History First

Mark Bridge:

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The eyewitness Pliny the Younger described a “black and dreadful” cloud rising above Vesuvius in this interval, and cinders, pumice and burning rock raining down on panic-stricken crowds. 

A silver denarius of the emperor Vespasian, predating the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD. Photo: Shutterstock
Now a study of the coins found on around 200 of the 1,150 bodies excavated at the site — which was preserved under ash and rock as if frozen in time — offers new clues to the victims’ identities and the reason for their deaths. 

Archaeologist Kimberly Bowes, professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, studied groups of coins found alongside bodies, as well as coins in savings boxes, for an article on Roman savings habits in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. 

The dataset, drawn from the publication of a detailed inventory of Pompeiian coins finds, the Rinvenimenti monetali a Pompei, comprised 431 different hoards: 206 from skeletons and 225 from savings boxes in homes and shops, with a total of 25,430 coins.

She reckoned that the coins found on individuals would be a good proxy for their liquid savings, as it was likely they would have sought to gather all their portable wealth ahead of fleeing, or in case they later had to flee.

Bowes found that most people were carrying sums of money that were “astonishingly low” and there was a large gulf between this majority and a minority carrying significantly larger sums. Nevertheless, even these sums were trivial relative to the price of assets such as property, land and slaves. 

“Most of the people had very, very little. When you start looking at where these very poor people are found, it’s surprising, because they’re found in the largest houses. That led me to speculate that these were enslaved people, which makes a lot of sense, given who would be asked to stay behind over the 17 hours that it took for Pompeii to be destroyed? You asked your slaves to stay behind.”

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Gruesome. Imagine the doubts for those tasked with staying behind: there probably weren’t that many ways out, so defection could be discovered quickly. But what would staying behind be like? Would you feel briefly safer inside the house?
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This 10-second test could measure middle-age people’s risk of death, study says • BGR

Joshua Hawkins:

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A new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine posits that a 10-second balance test could help measure your overall risk of dying.

The study was conducted by several scientists using a pool of 1,702 people aged between 51 to 75 years. They examined data about the participants taken between 2008 and 2020 and measured how well they could perform a 10-second one-legged balance test. The results, they say, could allow doctors to better measure your risk of death.

The 10-second test requires the participant to stand on one leg, with the free leg resting on the back of the standing leg. They then place their hands at their side and try to stay still. During the study, the participants were given three chances to complete the balance test. Around 20% were unable to complete the test. The number of people unable to complete it also increased with age.

Of participants age between 51 and 55, 5% failed, while 8% between 56 and 60 failed. From there, 18% of people aged 61 to 65 failed, and then 37% of those 66 to 70 years of age. Finally, 54% of people between 71 and 75 years of age failed the test to measure their risk of death.

The researchers found that most who failed the balance test tended to have higher body weights, or suffered from cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. Additionally, after they adjusted the findings for age, sex, and existing health conditions, the scientists believe those who failed had an 84% increased risk of death over the next seven years.

But how does it work? …Balance is an important aspect of our body. And many doctors believe that balance can be a good indicator of how healthy a person is. Since the test only takes 10 seconds to complete it isn’t a bad way to measure the possible risk of death. However, it also isn’t going to tell you any in-depth information about your risk of any diseases or other issues.

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The “limitations” part of the study (at the end) allows that much more work needs to be done, but it may be indicative. I think that British doctors have been doing a form of this test for quite some time, though possibly it was only a cohort study tracking people as they aged. Anyhow, I tried it: seems you’re stuck with me for a while yet.
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Goldman Sachs leading investor group to buy Celsius assets: sources • Coindesk

Tracy Wang:

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Goldman Sachs is looking to raise $2bn from investors to buy up distressed assets from troubled crypto lender Celsius, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The proposed deal would allow investors to buy up Celsius’ assets at potentially big discounts in the event of a bankruptcy filing, the people said.

Goldman Sachs appears to be gauging interest and soliciting commitments from Web3 crypto funds, funds specializing in distressed assets and traditional financial institutions with ample cash on hand, according to a person familiar with the situation. The assets, most likely cryptocurrencies having to be sold on the cheap, would then likely be managed by participants in the fundraising push.

Celsius has tapped restructuring advisory firm Alvarez & Marsal, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday afternoon.

Goldman Sachs did not respond to a request for comment.

Celsius, which had more than $8bn lent out to clients and $12bn in assets under management as of May of this year, abruptly announced on June 12 that it would stop withdrawals from its platform, citing “extreme market conditions.” The disclosure exacerbated those conditions, briefly sending bitcoin’s price below $20,000.

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No customers’ yachts. Not even customers’ apes. No indication whether those who put their money in will get any part of it back.
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How period tracking apps and data privacy fit into a post-Roe v. Wade climate • NPR

Rina Tochinsky:

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Millions of people use apps to help track their menstrual cycles. Flo, which bills itself as the most popular period and cycle tracking app, has amassed 43 million active users. Another app, Clue, claims 12 million monthly active users.

The personal health data stored in these apps is among the most intimate types of information a person can share. And it can also be telling. The apps can show when their period stops and starts and when a pregnancy stops and starts.

That has privacy experts on edge because this data — whether subpoenaed or sold to a third party — could be used to suggest that someone has had or is considering an abortion.

“We’re very concerned in a lot of advocacy spaces about what happens when private corporations or the government can gain access to deeply sensitive data about people’s lives and activities,” says Lydia X. Z. Brown, a policy counsel with the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Especially when that data could put people in vulnerable and marginalized communities at risk for actual harm.”

At least 26 states were “certain or likely” to ban abortions if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Now, it’s a reality.

…The Flo app has come under fire for sharing data before.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with the popular fertility and period-tracking app amid allegations that it misled users about the disclosure of their personal health data. The settlement followed a 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation that found the app informed Facebook when a user was having their period or if they informed the app that they intended to get pregnant.

Under the settlement, the FTC said Flo must undergo an independent review of its privacy policy and obtain user permissions before sharing personal health information. Flo did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

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Lot of app deletions going on. Lot of Filofaxes being bought.
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Meta clamps down on internal discussion of Roe v. Wade’s overturning • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Ryan Mac:

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Meta told its workers on Friday not to openly discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion on wide-reaching communication channels inside the company, people with knowledge of the situation said.

Managers at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, cited a company policy that put “strong guardrails around social, political and sensitive conversations” in the workplace, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said managers had pointed employees to a May 12 company memo, which was issued after a draft opinion on potentially overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked from the Supreme Court.

In the May 12 memo, which was obtained by The New York Times, Meta said that “discussing abortion openly at work has a heightened risk of creating a hostile work environment,” so it had taken “the position that we would not allow open discussion.”

The policy has led to frustration and anger, the people said. On Friday, some contacted colleagues and managers to express their dissent with the company’s stance. Managers were advised to be empathetic but neutral on the topic, while messages that violated the policy in team chats were removed, two people said. In the past, Meta employees often used internal communication forums to discuss sociopolitical issues and current events.

Ambroos Vaes, a Meta software engineer, said in a post on LinkedIn that he was saddened that employees were “not allowed” to widely discuss the Supreme Court ruling.

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Not widely known that internally, Facebook uses (a form of) Facebook, which means that things that get a reaction get amplified. Which logically means that if discussion about this obviously polarising topic were allowed to run rampant, it would lead to the sort of strife internally that, well, you see externally on Facebook.

Can’t really disagree with this one.
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How will TV and streaming adapt to TikTok? • Vox

Peter Kafka:

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The people who bring you video entertainment could be in for a rough time: A looming recession could hurt their advertising revenue and consumer spending on subscription TV streaming services. But they’re also facing a foe that has nothing to do with the economic cycle: TikTok is coming for their eyeballs.

The free, Chinese-owned video-sharing service sometimes gets described as a social network, but that description masks what it really is: a colossally powerful entertainment app that keeps viewers glued to an endless stream of clips.

And TikTok is getting bigger every day: It now says it has 1 billion monthly users, but even that number likely understates its importance, because TikTok users spend a lot of time on TikTok — a year ago, the company was telling advertisers its users were spending nearly 90 minutes a day on the app. By contrast, US TV and streaming watchers were spending nearly five hours a day watching their shows and movies — but TV skews very old, and TikTok is very young. You can’t ascribe TV’s long-running viewer losses to a new app, but it’s very easy to see how it’s going to make it harder than ever to train young would-be viewers to watch traditional TV or even streaming.

“It is safe to say that TikTok has rapidly grown to be one of — if not the — largest social/communication/video apps in America in terms of time spent,” analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in a report last week.

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Ignore TikTok at your peril.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1824: Facebook’s indifference to elections, on Ukraine’s front line, a crypto phone (again?), Netflix confirms ad tier, and more


We’re familiar with the concept of the long tail, which suggests that there’s more business in niches than the mainstream. But as the web matures, is that really true? CC-licensed photo by Quinn Dombrowski 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 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


As midterms loom, Mark Zuckerberg shifts focus away from elections • The New York Times

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang:

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Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as faith in the U.S. electoral system reaches a brittle point. The hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.

Election misinformation remains rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.

Other social media companies have also pulled back some of their focus on elections. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing election misinformation in March 2021, has been preoccupied with its $44bn sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.

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Amazing how bad both Zuckerberg and Musk are for democracy. One could feel that very rich people (or even rich people) shouldn’t be allowed near the operation of democratic systems.

Related: I wrote about this story in more detail at my new Substack, titled Social Warming. Yes, it’s to sell more books. But also to inform, educate and entertain. Signup is free and there’s no cost.
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‘The impossible’: Ukraine’s secret, deadly rescue missions • AP News

John Leicester and Hanna Arhirova:

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As was his habit before each flight, the veteran Ukrainian army pilot ran a hand along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter, caressing the heavy transporter’s metal skin to bring luck to him and his crew.

They would need it. Their destination — a besieged steel mill in the brutalized city of Mariupol — was a death trap. Some other crews didn’t make it back alive.

Still, the mission was vital, even desperate. Ukrainian troops were pinned down, their supplies running low, their dead and injured stacking up. Their last-ditch stand at the Azovstal mill was a growing symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the war against Russia. They could not be allowed to perish.

The 51-year-old pilot — identified only by his first name, Oleksandr — flew just the one mission to Mariupol, and he considered it the most difficult flight of his 30-year-career. He took the risk, he said, because he didn’t want the Azovstal fighters to feel forgotten.

In the charred hell-scape of that plant, in an underground bunker-turned-medical station that provided shelter from death and destruction above, word started reaching the wounded that a miracle might be coming. Among those told that he was on the list for evacuation was a junior sergeant who’d been shredded by mortar rounds, butchering his left leg and forcing its amputation above the knee.

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A reminder that the war is still on, and very real.
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Solana is making a crypto phone with help from former Essential engineers • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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This afternoon in New York City, blockchain company Solana announced its own mobile phone, called the Saga, made in collaboration with Osom. It’s priced at $1,000, and preorders open today. A $100 deposit is required, and Solana says the Saga will ship in the first quarter of 2023.

The phone will have a 6.67-inch 120Hz OLED display, 512GB of storage, and 12GB of RAM. It’ll be powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 chip and is outfitted with a 50-megapixel primary camera, plus a 12-megapixel ultra-wide shooter. But more than the standard hardware specs that most gadget nerds are interested in, the Saga is meant to help crypto continue its quest to “go mobile,” in the words of Solana CEO Anatoly Yakovenko.

This device is for people entrenched in the universe of crypto wallets, Web3, and NFTs, and it’ll come with a unique feature: support for decentralized apps that rely on the Solana blockchain, which has at least briefly rivaled Ethereum when it comes to NFT sales volume. NFT marketplace Magic Eden, Solana wallet maker Phantom, and cryptocurrency exchange Orca have signed on to back the Saga and Solana’s new software efforts.

Osom has confirmed to The Verge that the OV1 and Saga are now one and the same, meaning that this device is the company’s primary focus.

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As with pretty much everything in phones, HTC got there first, in October 2019, thus unleashing “potential for hundreds of thousands to join the bitcoin network”. Unrealised potential, apparently.

Anyhow, if you want to spend a thousand dollars/pounds on a pretty standard Android phone, be their guest.
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What’s worse: climate denial or climate hypocrisy? • The New York Times

David Wallace-Wells:

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For years, when advocates lamented the “emissions gap,” they meant the gulf between what scientists said was necessary and what public and private actors were willing to promise. Today that gap has almost entirely disappeared; it has been estimated that global pledges, if enacted in full, would most likely bring the planet 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming — in line with the Paris agreement’s stated target of “well below two degrees” and in range of its more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. But it has been replaced by another gap, between what has been pledged and what is being done. In June, a global review of net-zero pledges by corporations found that fully half of them had laid out no concrete plan for getting there; and though 83% of emissions and 91% of global G.D.P. is now covered by national net-zero pledges, no country — not a single one, including the 187 that signed the Paris agreement — is on track for emissions reductions in line with a 1.5 degree target, according to the watchdog group Climate Action Tracker.

In trading denial for dissonance, a certain narrative clarity has been lost. Five years ago, the stakes were clear, to those looking closely, but so were the forces of denial and inaction, which helps explain the global crescendo of moral fervor that appeared to peak just before the pandemic. Today the rhetorical war has largely been won, but the outlook grows a lot more confusing when everyone agrees to agree, paying at least lip service to the existential rhetoric of activists. It’s not just Boris Johnson — who once mocked “eco-doomsters” — declaring at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference that it was “one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock.” The 1.5-degree goal was recently described as “fundamental for the survival of the ecosystem as a whole” by, of all people, the head of OPEC.

Rhetoric this unmoored from reality is often called disinformation.

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This is from Wallace-Wells’s newsletter, which is for NYT subscribers. But it might be available to first-timers. He makes excellent points.
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Where did the long tail go? • The Honest Broker

Ted Gioia:

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For those who don’t know the term, the Long Tail concept refers to businesses that focus on products and services with almost no customers. The basic idea is that you can make a lot of money selling to these microscopically tiny groups of consumers—because they are under-served, and although each cohort has only a few members, if you attract a lot of them it adds up to a meaningful opportunity.

Take for example, a bookstore which must choose between two strategies—either (1) it just focuses on the bestselling books that almost everybody is reading, or (2) it can keep tens of thousands of unpopular books on the shelves, so that even customers with obscure tastes can find exactly what they’re looking for.
According to the Long Tail perspective, the smart bookseller in the Internet age keeps all those poor-selling books in inventory—because the blockbuster hit is in decline, and underground niches are the way of the future.

This idea was popularized in the 2006 book by Chris Anderson entitled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Anderson was anticipating a world in which more businesses were like Amazon, with huge warehouses filled to the brim with everything from bacon-shaped bandages to jail cells for your teen’s mobile phone.

After all, Amazon is successful—so why shouldn’t everyone follow the same strategy?

Even at first glance, this approach seems bizarre. If you know the history of Amazon, you might remember that its cash flow was awful for many years—many even expected it to go bankrupt. And even now, Amazon gets all of its operating income from its cloud and web services business. If it just relied on retail sales, Amazon would be a bomb.

The other case study at the heart of the Long Tail book is Netflix. And it’s true that when Anderson published his book back in 2006, Netflix made a huge number of movies available to subscribers.

But those days are gone.

Not only has Netflix sharply reduced the number of movies it offers on its streaming platform, but now has a lot of competitors (Disney, Apple, Paramount, etc.) that are also tightly managing the titles they feature.

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It’s true: all the proper money is in the very short head. The long tail just proves that it costs almost nothing to store digital data. Which is a good thing, because almost nobody pays for it.
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Netflix in talks for advertising tie-ups • Reuters

Eva Mathews:

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Netflix Inc is in talks with several companies for advertising partnerships, co-CEO Ted Sarandos said on Thursday, as the streaming titan looks to plug slowing subscriber growth by rolling out a cheaper plan with ads.

Media reports from earlier this week said it was in discussions with Alphabet Inc’s Google and Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal for potential marketing tie-ups.

“We’re talking to all of them right now,” Sarandos said at the Cannes Lions conference when asked which company Netflix was looking to partner with.

Alphabet and Comcast did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

After losing subscribers for the first time in a decade and projecting a 2 million decline in the upcoming quarter, Netflix said in April that it was seriously looking at advertising.

“We’re not adding ads to Netflix as you know it today. We’re adding an ad tier for folks who say ‘hey, I want a lower price and I’ll watch ads’,” Sarandos said at Cannes Lions.

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Maybe not to Netflix *at the price you know it today*, since it upped it, but I bet this will be at a price tier that *used* to be free. People are of course ignoring the “lower price” element to dump on this. Really, though, it’s a sign of the inexorable gravity of internet business models, where everything tends towards freemium (a free tier, and paid-for tier[s]).
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RMT leader Mick Lynch wins cult following after flooring critics • The Times

Mario Ledwith:

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while inevitably branded a pariah by many of those whose plans were disrupted, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT [union], has also established a cult following online after a series of media appearances.

Celebrities and politicos have heralded the union leader’s wry retorts when questioned by leading broadcasters such as Richard Madeley, who he said was spouting “the most remarkable twaddle”.

The actor Hugh Laurie was among those showering praise on Lynch after 50,000 members of his unions staged the first of three 24-hour walkouts.

He tweeted: “I don’t know enough about the rail dispute. I only observe that RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck.”

The former Conservative minister Rory Stewart said: “Mick Lynch is proving a pretty remarkable media performer — with an uncanny knack of flustering his questioners — others should study his techniques.”

Clips of Lynch’s media appearances have generated millions of views online over the past 48 hours, including one in which he repeatedly calls the Tory minister Chris Philp a liar.

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There’s a roundup of some of his video moments here, though it doesn’t include the moment when he points out to Piers Morgan that The Hood from the TV series Thunderbirds (whose picture adorns his Facebook page – “can you see the resemblance?”) was not, in fact, “the most evil man in the world” but actually a puppet made of vinyl.

For Americans, it’s an example of someone who doesn’t care about being invited back on, and doesn’t see his media profile as key to his job.
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Amazon’s Alexa could turn dead loved ones’ voices into digital assistant • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Amazon plans to let people turn their dead loved ones’ voices into digital assistants, with the company promising the ability to “make the memories last”.

The company is developing technology that will allow its Alexa digital assistant to mimic the voice of anyone it hears from less than a minute of provided audio, Rohit Prasad, its senior vice-president and head scientist, said on Wednesday. He added that during the coronavirus paramedic “so many of us have lost someone we love”.

While no timescale was given for the launch of the feature, the underlying technology has existed for several years. The company gave a demonstration where the reanimated voice of an older woman was used to read her grandson a bedtime story, after he asked Alexa: “Can grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?”

Prasad said: “The way we made it happen is by framing the problem as a voice conversion task and not a speech generation path.”

Beyond the initial demonstration, details were scarce. The technology was announced at the company’s re:Mars conference, focusing on its “ambient computing” achievements in the realms of machine learning, automation, robots and space.

«

Creepy. Super, super creepy. It can do this from a single minute of voice data, so it’s essentially deepfake for voice. That in itself is concerning, and there’s no sign that Amazon has considered the security elements of what it’s done carefully enough.

One could almost – almost – see this as good if you had a prospective parent, say, who knew they were going to be dead before their child(ren) would be born, so they could know the voice. But, really, no.

Of course this also proves that Black Mirror is a documentary sent back from the future. And that Philip K Dick was a prophet. (Thanks Wendy G.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1823: our ubiquitous camera future, America’s conspiracy politics, bad news about fuel prices, polio in London?, and more


Creating an internet-connected hot tub was just asking for trouble, and trouble duly found it, along with its owners. CC-licensed photo by Andrew Bone on Flickr.

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

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


Why cameras are soon going to be everywhere • Pete Warden’s blog

The aforesaid Warden:

»

A lot of people still share the expectation that cameras will be obvious, standalone components of a system. Even though phone cameras and webcams are smaller, they still have a noticeable physical presence, and often come with indicators like red lights that show when they’re recording. What is clear to me from my work is that these assumptions aren’t going to hold much longer. Soon imaging sensors will be so small, cheap, and energy efficient that they’ll be added to many more devices in our daily lives, and because they’re so tiny they won’t even be noticeable!

What am I basing this prediction on? The clearest indicator for me is that you can already buy devices like the Himax HM01B0 with an imaging sensor that’s less than 2mm by 2mm in size, low single-digit dollars in cost, and 2 milliwatts or less in power usage. Even more striking are the cameras that are emerging from research labs. At the TinyML Summit the University of Michigan presented a complete system that fits on the tip of a finger.

This video shows another project from Rice that is able to perform state of the art eye tracking at 253 FPS, using 23 milliwatts, in a lens-less system that lets it achieve a much smaller size than other solutions.

Hopefully this makes it clear that there’s a growing supply of these kinds of devices. Why do I think there will be enough demand to include them in appliances and other items around homes and offices? This is tricky to show as clearly because the applications aren’t deployed yet, but cameras can replace or augment lots of existing sensors, and enable entirely new features. Here are a few examples:

• Voice interfaces that use lip reading to improve accuracy in noisy situations
• Stovetops that turn themselves off if they don’t see anyone nearby for a while
• Water and other meters that share their data digitally with the cloud, without expensive replacements
• A toaster that pops out the toast when smoke starts billowing
• TVs that recognize when someone sits down, and who they are, to provide parental controls and personalized content
• Shades that automatically close when nobody’s around, to conserve energy
• Gesture recognition for controlling a lamp.

«

Pete is very, very smart and if he says there are going to be cameras everywhere, then there are.
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Why conspiracy theories flourish in Trump’s America • The New York Times

Thomas Edsall:

»

Consider Texas. On the campaign trail this year, the Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and 24 of the state’s congressional districts endorsed Trump’s claim that “the 2020 election was rigged and stolen.”

On June 18, the 5,000 delegates to the Texas Republican Party convention adopted a platform declaring, “We reject the certified results of the 2020 presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

The stolen election conspiracy theory has, in effect, become the adhesive holding the dominant Trump wing of the party in lock-step. This particular conspiracy theory joins the network of sub-theories that unite Trump loyalists, who allege that an alliance of Democratic elites and urban political machines have secretly joined forces to deny the will of the people, corralling the votes of illegal immigrants and the dead, while votes cast by Trump supporters are tossed into the trash.

In a 2017 essay, “How conspiracy theories helped power Trump’s disruptive politics,” Joseph Uscinski, of the University of Miami, Matthew D. Atkinson of Miami University and Darin DeWitt of California State University, Long Beach, recognized the central role of conspiracy theories in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

In the 2016 primaries, “Trump, as a disruptive candidate, could not compete on the party establishment’s playing field,” they write. “Trump’s solution is what we call ‘conspiracy theory politics.’”

«

It’s certainly the way he makes things happen. And astonishing as it is to consider, there really are large swathes which truly are “Trump’s America”.
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Fuel prices may inch down — but that’s not all good news • CNN

Allison Morrow:

»

There’s good news and bad news on the gas prices front. Good news: some price relief could be on the way. The bad news: it’s because traders are betting on a recession.

In simple terms, there are two ways to bring down prices: Increase supply or reduce demand. The former is costly and complicated. The latter happens when consumers start pulling back because prices have risen too much and individual budgets are strained. That’s what appears to have happened this spring, as Americans watched gas prices soar above $5 a gallon and overall inflation top four-decade highs.

Although that might spell relief at the fuel pump, it may also signal a different kind of economic pain on the horizon.

“This morning’s market action has recession worries written all over it,” wrote Peter Boockvar, the chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. He put the odds of a recession this year at 99% because “nothing is 100%.”

Prices of oil spiked to $122.11 on June 8, their highest since March and about a dollar off its highest level since 2008.

In just two weeks since that spike, oil prices have fallen 16%. Why? It’s inflation, yet again, and the Federal Reserve’s campaign to fight it.

«

Prices of petrol in the UK have gone up about 25% since January. They’re at historic highs in absolute terms.
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A tale of two Facebook whistleblowers • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia:

»

In recent years, the social media giant has faced a series of allegations about its harmful impact on society and democracy, including from whistleblowers who risked their careers and reputations to speak out. Most, like Haugen, have been Silicon Valley engineers who helped build the company’s algorithms and moderation systems, and speak from a position of relative privilege.

But it is rarer to see whistleblowers from the company’s other, invisible workforce of about 15,000 people, often located in developing countries. Content moderators such as Motaung are often required to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from sharing details of their work even with their families.

For work confronting imagery of human sacrifice, beheadings, hate speech and child abuse, Motaung and his colleagues at Sama, an outsourcing firm in Nairobi where he worked, were reportedly paid about $2.20 (£1.80) per hour. “When I went to Kenya, I was fine. I went to [work for] Facebook… I came back broken,” he told the London audience.

The event highlighted several stark differences in Haugen and Motaung’s experiences taking on one of the world’s most powerful companies. As Haugen acknowledged, “I got the benefits of the race and gender issues. I think it would be very difficult for Facebook to come after me at this point because it would be a huge PR liability for them.”

By contrast, Motaung was fired from Sama after demanding better pay, working conditions and mental health support. Sama claims Motaung violated company policy. He returned home to South Africa due to his visa status, and has struggled to find another job since. Meta says it did not employ Motaung and denies that it operates in Kenya at all. His lawyer, Cori Crider, who had joined Motaung on stage, said Facebook had not reached out. “It’s just silence,” she said.

«

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Tesla ‘spontaneously’ catches fire in junkyard weeks after collision • The Washington Post

Julian Mark:

»

A white Tesla Model S was sitting in a Rancho Cordova, Calif., wrecking yard earlier this month — having been severely damaged in a collision three weeks earlier — when it suddenly erupted in flames, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

When firefighters arrived, the electric car was engulfed. Every time the blaze was momentarily extinguished, the car’s battery compartment reignited, the fire department wrote in an Instagram post. Firefighters and wrecking yard workers tried turning the car on its side to aim water directly onto the battery pack. But “the vehicle would still re-ignite due to the residual heat,” the department wrote.

So they tried something else: they used a tractor to create a pit in the dirt, managed to get the car inside, then filled the hole with water. That allowed the firefighters to submerge the battery pack and ultimately extinguish the fire, which burned hotter than 3,000 degrees, Capt. Parker Wilbourn, a fire department spokesman, told The Washington Post.

All told, it took more than an hour and 4,500 gallons of water for the dozen firefighters to extinguish the blaze, Wilbourn said — about the same amount of water used to put out a building fire.

«

Lithium-ion batteries sure are a fire risk. And a complicated fire at that. Junkyards are going to have to change., most likely by learning to remove those batteries first.
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Security flaws in internet-connected hot tubs exposed owners’ personal data • TechCrunch

Carly Page:

»

A security researcher found vulnerabilities in Jacuzzi’s SmartTub interface that allowed access to the personal data of every hot tub owner.

Jacuzzi’s SmartTub feature, like most Internet of Things (IoT) systems, lets users connect to their hot tub remotely via a companion Android or iPhone app. Marketed as a “personal hot tub assistant,” users can make use of the app to control water temperature, switch on and off jets, and change the lights.

But as documented by hacker Eaton Zveare, this functionality could also be abused by threat actors to access the personal information of hot tub owners worldwide, including their names and email addresses. It’s unclear how many users are potentially impacted, but the SmartTub app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times on Google Play.

“The main concern is their name and email being leaked,” Zveare told TechCrunch, adding that attackers could also potentially heat up someone else’s hot tub or change the filtration cycles. “That would make things unpleasant the next time the person checked their tub,” he said. “But I don’t think there is anything truly dangerous that could have been done — you have to do all chemicals by hand.“

«

Small mercies indeed. Though one can feel sure that there will soon be a system which let you add chemicals over the internet, and then the Bad Things happen.
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Traces of polio virus found in London sewage as health officials declare national incident • Sky News

Ashish Joshi:

»

Traces of the polio virus have been found during a routine sewage inspection in London, leading the UK Health Security Agency to declare a national incident.

Health officials are now concerned about the community spread of the virus after samples were collected from the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works in London, but have stressed the risk to the public is extremely low.

Several closely-related polio viruses were found in sewage samples taken between February and May. It has continued to evolve and has now been classified as a ‘vaccine-derived’ poliovirus type 2 (VDPV2).

Officials believe there has been some spread between closely linked individuals in northeast London – probably extended family members – and that these people are now shedding the type 2 poliovirus strain in their faeces.

Urgent investigations will try to establish the extent of community transmission and to identify where it may be occurring.

«

Covid. Monkeypox. Polio. What a time.

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Drought scorches western Kansas wheat just as the world needs it most • High Plains Public Radio

David Condos:

»

This time of year, the wheat growing in this part of western Kansas should be thigh-high and lush green.

But as a months-long drought continues to parch the region, many fields tell a different story.

“There’s nothing out there. It’s dead,” farmer Vance Ehmke said, surveying a wheat field near his land in Lane County. “It’s just ankle-high straw.”

Across western Kansas, many fields planted with wheat months ago now look like barren wastelands. The gaping spaces between rows of brown, shriveled plants reveal hardened dirt that’s scarred with deep cracks from baking in the sun.

Of all the years for drought to hit western Kansas wheat farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Even with wheat selling for near-record-high prices as the war in Ukraine disrupts the world’s food supplies, a lot of farmers in western Kansas won’t have any to sell. And those who made it through the drought with enough crop to harvest will likely end up with far fewer bushels than they had last year, a downturn that limits the state’s ability to help ease the global food crisis.

…Part of the problem is an increase in costs. Farmers face higher expenses across the board this season, largely thanks to supply chain issues caused by the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

The price of diesel — the fuel required to run the tractors and trucks that keep farms going — reached an all-time high last month and remains more than $5.50 per gallon. Nitrogen fertilizer prices also soared to record levels this spring, peaking above $1,500 per ton — more than twice what it cost one year ago.

“It’ll be a very difficult year,” Rejeana Gvillo with Farmers Business Network said. “Just because commodity prices are high, it does not mean that producers are better off.”

«

Still trying to find a story about absolutely everything going perfectly. 2022 is really not delivering.
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Is Google dying? Or did the web grow up? • The Atlantic

Charlie Warzel:

»

Google is still useful for many, but the harder question is why its results feel more sterile than they did five years ago. [SEO expert Marie] Haynes’s theory is that this is the result of Google trying to crack down on misinformation and low-quality content—especially around consequential search topics. In 2017, the company started talking publicly about a Search initiative called EAT, which stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” The company has rolled out numerous quality rater guidelines, which help judge content to determine authenticity. One such effort, titled Your Money or Your Life, applies rigorous standards to any pages that show up when users search for medical or financial information.

“Take crypto,” Haynes explained. “It’s an area with a lot of fraud, so unless a site has a big presence around the web and Google gets the sense they’re known for expertise on that topic, it’ll be difficult to get them to rank.” What this means, though, is that Google’s results on any topic deemed sensitive enough will likely be from established sources. Medical queries are far more likely to return WebMD or Mayo Clinic pages, instead of personal testimonials. This, Haynes said, is especially challenging for people looking for homeopathic or alternative-medicine remedies.

There’s a strange irony to all of this. For years, researchers, technologists, politicians, and journalists have agonized and cautioned against the wildness of the internet and its penchant for amplifying conspiracy theories, divisive subject matter, and flat-out false information. Many people, myself included, have argued for platforms to surface quality, authoritative information above all else, even at the expense of profit. And it’s possible that Google has, in some sense, listened (albeit after far too much inaction) and, maybe, partly succeeded in showing higher-quality results in a number of contentious categories. But instead of ushering in an era of perfect information, the changes might be behind the complainers’ sense that Google Search has stopped delivering interesting results.

«

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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1822: US DoJ blocks Facebook ad tool, dark mode not so good, Strava’s mystery users, US’s semiconductor slump, and more


The All-England Club, aka Wimbledon, hopes that having lots more data will make spectators more interested in matches. But which data, exactly? CC-licensed photo by Matthias Rosenkranz on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Yes, Facebook again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook will stop using an advertising tool in settlement with US government • The Guardian

»

Facebook will change its algorithms to prevent discriminatory housing advertising and its parent company will subject itself to court oversight to settle a lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice on Tuesday.

In a release, US government officials said that Meta, formerly known as Facebook, reached an agreement to settle the lawsuit filed the same day in Manhattan federal court.

According to terms of the settlement, Facebook will stop using an advertising tool for housing ads that the government said employed a discriminatory algorithm to locate users who “look like” other users based on characteristics protected by the Fair Housing Act, the Justice Department said. By 31 December, Facebook must stop using the tool once called “Lookalike Audience”, which relies on an algorithm that the US said discriminates on the basis of race, sex and other characteristics.

Facebook also will develop a new system over the next half-year to address racial and other disparities caused by its use of personalization algorithms in its delivery system for housing ads, it said.

According to the release, it was the justice department’s first case challenging algorithmic discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. Facebook will now be subject to justice department approval and court oversight for its ad targeting and delivery system.

US Attorney Damian Williams called the lawsuit “groundbreaking.” Assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke called it “historic”.

«

Only housing ads? But the court oversight is quite a thing.
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Dark mode isn’t as good for your eyes as you believe • WIRED UK

Laurie Clarke:

»

A big driver of dark mode is aesthetics. One Twitter user’s assessment: “Night mode Twitter just 1000% more dope than regular one”, is pretty representative of the internet’s reaction to dark mode. Spotify, which selected a dark background as its standard mode, chose this look after testing different designs on its users, who were overwhelmingly in favour of this shady aesthetic. “We believe that when you have music or art that’s very colourful and very artistic, and you have beautiful cover art for music, that it really shows more clearly visible in a product like this, when it’s about entertainment,” Michelle Kadir, director of product development at Spotify, told Fast Company.

But beyond style, the widespread roll-out of dark mode has triggered a slew of dubious claims about its proposed benefits, covering assertions that it helps concentration, eye strain and battery life. The question is, does the average computer user stand to gain anything from slipping into this shadowy mode? Here, we unpack some of the most prominent claims about dark mode, and whether they stack up.

«

Reduces eye strain? Not really. Makes text easier to read? Nope. Extends battery life? OK, if you’re using OLED. Helps concentration? Maybe. Better ahead of bedtime? Yeah, but just try not staring at a screen for an hour.

Personally, don’t use it.
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Why America will lose semiconductors • Semi Analysis

Dylan Patel:

»

The critical software needed to be used to design chips is called EDA and it all comes from the US. Cadence, Synopsys, and Mentor Graphics (now owned by Siemens) are located in the US. Without this software, it is impossible to design modern chips.

American companies like Texas Instruments and Intel hold leading market shares in their respective fields while manufacturing their own chips. The four largest companies that design chips for external sale and use contract manufacturers are also American. They are Qualcomm, Broadcom, Nvidia, and AMD.

But that dominance is shifting away to countries that pose as geopolitical risks. US share of chip manufacturing is at an all-time low. The US will lose the semiconductor industry unless immediate action is taken. This is a national security crisis.

…While startups and IPOs don’t necessarily indicate innovation, they are one of the corner stones of it. Not all startups will succeed, and it’s very likely the stricter funding models of US based startups will mean they are more likely to succeed, but the disparity is a big issue. America isn’t the land of entrepreneurship anymore, despite continuing to dominate other areas of the world such as Europe. It’s China.

Why are there so few semiconductor startups in the US? The US private market of venture capital and angel investing is completely off its rockers investing in software platform based “tech” companies. While this type of investing is fine, these same venture capital and angel investors have completely ignored the semiconductor and hardware space. We here at SemiAnalysis have seen it firsthand as we have helped a few firms in the semiconductor industry raise money. It’s extremely difficult to convince venture capitalists to invest in startups, even if they have promising technology and exceptional track records.

«

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Meta’s new digital fashion marketplace will sell Prada, Balenciaga and Thom Browne • Vogue Business

Maghan McDowell:

»

Hours after Facebook changed its name to Meta in October, Meta tweeted at Balenciaga: “Hey @Balenciaga, what’s the dress code in the metaverse?” Now, Balenciaga is playing ball.

“When Meta tweeted, we were instantly into it,” said Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit in a release. “Web3 and Meta are bringing unprecedented opportunities for Balenciaga, our audience and our products, opening up new territories for luxury.”

Balenciaga, along with Prada and Thom Browne, is among the first to sign on to sell digital fashion in a new Meta-created avatar store where people can buy clothing for their avatars to wear on Instagram, Facebook and Messenger. Eventually, other designers will be able to independently offer digital clothing for sale in the marketplace. The items for sale in the avatar store will range from $2.99 to $8.99 to start. A Meta spokesperson said that it did “not have details to share” on if or how it would share revenue with designers.

«

So, so awful. Fortnite for adults, but only the vain ones. And in a world where Vogue exists, you know they exist too.
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Shadowy Strava users spy on Israeli military with fake routes in bases • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

»

Unidentified operatives have been using the fitness tracking app Strava to spy on members of the Israeli military, tracking their movements across secret bases around the country and potentially observing them as they travel the world on official business.

By placing fake running “segments” inside military bases, the operation – the affiliation of which has not been uncovered – was able to keep tabs on individuals who were exercising on the bases, even those who have applied the strongest possible account privacy settings.

In one example seen by the Guardian, a user running on a top-secret base thought to have links to the Israeli nuclear programme could be tracked across other military bases and to a foreign country.

The surveillance campaign was discovered by the Israeli open-source intelligence outfit FakeReporter. The group’s executive director, Achiya Schatz, said: “We contacted the Israeli security forces as soon as we became aware of this security breach. After receiving approval from the security forces to proceed, FakeReporter contacted Strava, and they formed a senior team to address the issue.”

«

Strava keeps on cropping up like this. It’s almost the perfect spying system, making its users involuntarily spy on themselves, again and again. Strava doesn’t know – and can’t tell – if uploads are legitimate.
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‘Right now we don’t need luxury’: Chinese consumers re-evaluate their spending • Financial Times

Annachiara Biondi and Naomi Guo:

»

“I am 70% happy, 20% traumatised and 10% vigilant,” says Andrew, a 28-year-old science researcher from Shanghai of his post-lockdown state. His salary hasn’t been affected by the lockdown, but he has become more strict in his spending, buying less as a whole and focusing more on higher-quality goods, including luxury goods. “I am glad life is getting better. I get to go to work, buy things and live more or less like a modern city dweller. Yet it’s hard to not be traumatised for anyone who has experienced what has happened in Shanghai. I am pessimistic towards ‘life returning to normal’. It’s never going back to the old normal and I’d rather be vigilant and prepared.” 

This sense of uncertainty correlates with analysts’ suggestions that the recovery in Chinese luxury spending will take longer than in 2020, when it quickly bounced back in the second half of the year. The recent restrictions in Shanghai, which in some cases meant brands had as much as 40% of their Chinese store network closed, was duly noted in the latest financial results of luxury conglomerates Kering, LVMH and Richemont.

Despite a generalised confidence in the resilience of Chinese luxury consumers, executives sounded a note of caution. “We must expect that China’s re-emergence after lockdown will not be as dramatic,” said Richemont chair Johann Rupert on a call with analysts in May. “China’s growth rate has slowed down. I’m not sure that any society undergoing that lockdown will be able to grow six, seven or five%. So yes, it will be a while before they will return.”

«

China sneezes, and the luxury world catches a cold.
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Wimbledon hoping big data will improve fan experience • The Guardian

Paul MacInnes:

»

Alexandra Willis, the All England Club’s director of communications and marketing, said the idea had come about before Covid. “We found that most fans didn’t watch tennis the rest of the year,” she said. “They also hadn’t heard of most of the players [and] this was a specific barrier to engagement.”

Spectators at Wimbledon fortnight, as well as television viewers and app users, will have access to Win Factor, a tool that will aggregate data from a number of sources to better predict a player’s chances of victory in a given match. Fans will be able to input their own match predictions while being encouraged to scour more information on some of the game’s lesser-known players.

“Leveraging technology to help fans become more informed, engaged and involved throughout the Wimbledon fortnight is at the core of our strategy to ensure we … keep Wimbledon relevant,” Willis said, admitting the tournament needs to strike a balance between tradition and innovation. “We can’t just celebrate the past, we need to look forward.”

Wimbledon will be leaning on IBM, its technology partner of 33 years, to provide the information. While the technology company boasts of its artificial intelligence capabilities it also has staff physically recording stats courtside on every Wimbledon match and says it has 9.2m tennis datapoints on record. Another data tool uses AI to scour media sources to gauge “sentiment” on players, leaving open the possibility that a tabloid scandal could have an unwelcome effect on a player’s Win Factor chances.

The new features are part of Wimbledon’s response to a challenge faced by many sports, that of trying to court a modern audience. Following Formula One’s successful rejuvenation, the All England Club – alongside other tennis bodies – have secured a deal with Netflix to produce a Drive to Survive-style series that will chronicle events at the grand slams, while also drawing out some of the game’s personalities.

«

There’s only one datapoint you need to predict who’ll win:% of second serves won. Whoever has the higher percent, aggregated over their previous matches, will win. (Former tennis journalist says.) The other stuff is mostly fluff.
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Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro pledges to keep fossil fuels in the ground • Climate Change News

Joe Lo:

»

Colombia has elected its first left-wing president, setting the Latin American nation on a path to wind down its fossil fuel production. 

Leftist Gustavo Petro was voted in Sunday night alongside Goldman prize-winning environmental campaigner Francia Marquez, the nation’s first black and second female vice-president.

In his manifesto, Petro committed to “undertake a gradual de-escalation of economic dependence on oil and coal”. He committed not to grant any new licenses for hydrocarbon exploration during his four-year mandate and to halt all pilot fracking projects and the development of offshore fossil fuels.

“These are not baby steps but huge steps towards the transition and reducing fossil fuels,” said Colombian environmentalist Martin Ramirez.

If Petro formalises his commitments to phasedown fossil fuel production, Colombia could become the largest fossil fuel producer to do so.

At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow last year, Costa Rica and Denmark launched an alliance of countries committed to phasing out oil and gas production known as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance , collectively accounting for 0.2% of global oil production. Colombia produces around 1% of the world’s coal, oil and gas.

«

In barrels per day, it produces about 900,000 per day. Every barrel generates about 0.43 tonnes of CO2. So if Petro (what an apposite name) carries this out, it would be 387,000 tonnes of CO2 not emitted per day. As a tree absorbs about 21kg of CO2 per year, that would be the equivalent of about 12 million trees.

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iOS 16 will let iPhone users bypass Captchas in supported apps and websites • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

»

Tapping on images of traffic lights or deciphering squiggly text to prove you are human will soon be a much less common nuisance for iPhone users, as iOS 16 introduces support for bypassing CAPTCHAs in supported apps and websites.

The handy new feature can be found in the Settings app under Apple ID > Password & Security > Automatic Verification. When enabled, Apple says iCloud will automatically and privately verify your device and Apple ID account in the background, eliminating the need for apps and websites to present you with a CAPTCHA verification prompt.

Apple recently shared a video with technical details about how the feature works, but simply put, Apple’s system verifies that the device and Apple ID account are in good standing and presents what is called a Private Access Token to the app or website. This new system will offer a better user experience for tasks such as signing into or creating an account, with improved user privacy and accessibility compared to CAPTCHAs.

“Private Access Tokens are a powerful alternative that help you identify HTTP requests from legitimate devices and people without compromising their identity or personal information,” said Apple, in the description of a WWDC 2022 video related to the topic.

«

Guess it’s down to all the Android users now to count the bicycles, tractors and “sidewalks” on the planet.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1821: Facebook’s Haugen seeks non-profit, spot the drowning kid!, EU’s unplanted trees, Brexit’s miss, and more


New research suggests that seven hours of sleep is ideal for those in middle age and older. CC-licensed photo by Adam Goode 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 paid for. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Frances Haugen: From whistleblower to watchdog • POLITICO

Mark Scott:

»

Nine months after the former project manager at the world’s largest social network published troves of internal corporate documents, which painted a picture of senior executives and engineers playing fast and loose with how harmful content spread online, she is now raising up to $5m to start a nonprofit organization aimed at boosting accountability within these platforms.

“Before (my revelations), each of us could only see what was on our own screen,” Haugen told Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter. “What changed with the disclosures is that we now know what’s going on beyond our own screens. It changed the calculations on how we all approach these companies.”

That shift — the ability to take a wider view of social media’s roles — is baked into her organization, which she plans to call Beyond the Screen. Currently, it’s running on a shoestring budget with only three full-time employees, including Haugen and two other colleagues, who are split between Puerto Rico and Argentina.

Not surprisingly, Haugen wants to pull back the curtain on a number of potentially harmful practices that were made public through her disclosures to the U.S. government and scores of media organizations around the world. For its part, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, denies it promotes its own financial gain over the well-being of its billions of users worldwide.

Still, the former Facebook employee, who has spent the last six months testifying to both American and European politicians, as well as championing the need for greater oversight of social media (and not just Facebook), has a three-pronged plan as her follow-up to last year’s revelations. She told POLITICO her group had secured some early-stage funding from donors, though she declined to comment on which organizations were now backing her.

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Logical that she would do this: there’s only so long you can go around making the speeches before the costs mount up unsustainably.
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Google says it’s time for longtime small-business users to pay up • The New York Times

Nico Grant:

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While the cost of the paid service [about $6 per month per email address] is more of an annoyance than a hard financial hit, small-business owners affected by the change say they have been disappointed by the ham-handed way that Google has dealt with the process [of ending the free offering, in place since 2008]. They can’t help but feel that a giant company with billions of dollars in profits is squeezing little guys — some of the first businesses to use Google’s apps for work — for just a bit of money.

“It struck me as needlessly petty,” said Patrick Gant, the owner of Think It Creative, a marketing consultancy in Ottawa. “It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who received something for free for a long time and now are being told that they need to pay for it. But there was a promise that was made. That’s what compelled me to make the decision to go with Google versus other alternatives.”

Google’s decision to charge organizations that have used its apps for free is another example of its search for ways to get more money out of its existing business, similar to how it has sometimes put four ads atop search results instead of three and has jammed more commercials into YouTube videos. In recent years, Google has more aggressively pushed into selling software subscriptions to businesses and competed more directly with Microsoft, whose Word and Excel programs rule the market.

After a number of the longtime users complained about the change to a paid service, an initial May 1 deadline was delayed. Google also said people using old accounts for personal rather than business reasons could continue to do so for free.

But some business owners said that as they mulled whether to pay Google or abandon its services, they struggled to get in touch with customer support. With the deadline looming, six small-business owners who spoke to The New York Times criticized what they said were confusing and at times vacillating communications about the service change.

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“And then I tried to call Google customer support” is the punchline to a painful joke.
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EU’s three billion trees by 2030 goal: where we stand • EURACTIV.com

Esther Snippe and Kira Taylor:

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In May 2020, the European Commission published its biodiversity strategy, which included the aim to plant three billion new trees by 2030 to help tackle climate change and create jobs.

“That’s our promise. To plant three billion trees. The right trees, in the right place, for the right reason. It’s one part of our efforts to fight climate change and stop biodiversity loss,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner.

According to the EU executive, planting three billion additional trees across the EU by 2030 will increase the area of forest and tree coverage, increase the resilience of forests and their role in reversing biodiversity loss while mitigating climate change and helping adaptation to global warming.

These trees should be planted in forests, agricultural areas, urban and peri-urban areas and along infrastructure corridors, provided they are the right species and are planted in full respect of ecological principles, according to the EU.

“Tree planting is particularly beneficial in cities, while in rural areas it can work well with agroforestry, landscape features and increased carbon sequestration,” reads the EU’s biodiversity strategy.

Two years on, however, the EU is far from that goal. A tracker launched in December 2021 to monitor progress shows that, as of 15 June, the EU has planted 2,946,015 trees – not even 1% of the three billion goal.

That means there are 2,997,053,985 left to plant in the next seven and a half years.

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Going to guess this is not quite according to plan. There’s plenty more in the article about what hasn’t been done.
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Top five lifeguard rescues • YouTube

You remember the article “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning“? This is a YouTube collection of five instances where someone is drowning in a crowded pool. And the lifeguard spots it. But you won’t, or wouldn’t if there weren’t a gigantic red arrow pointing to them. But even with the big red arrow, they mostly don’t look like they’re drowning.

One to read, and a video to watch, ahead of all the swimming we’re doing this summer.


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Biden plan for EV chargers on highways meets scepticism in rural West • WSJ

Jennifer Hiller:

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The US government wants fast EV-charging stations every 50 miles along major highways. Some Western states say the odds of making that work are as remote as their rugged landscapes.

States including Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado are raising concerns about rules the Biden administration has proposed for receiving a share of the coming $5bn in federal funding to help jump-start a national EV-charging network. The states say it will be difficult, if not impossible, to run EV chargers along desolate stretches of highway.

“There are plenty of places in Montana and other states here out West where it’s well more than 50 miles between gas stations,” said Rob Stapley, an official with the Montana Department of Transportation. “Even if there’s an exit, or a place for people to pull off, the other big question is: is there anything on the electrical grid at a location or even anywhere close to make that viable?”

The Biden administration is trying to accelerate the rollout of fast chargers to help speed adoption of electric vehicles—which auto makers from Volkswagen AG to Ford Motor Co. plan to produce en masse in coming years—and to help reassure drivers that they can recharge quickly and won’t run out of power on the open road.

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Tricky: you do need the infrastructure. But if EV range keeps lengthening, do they really need that many? Yet there are already queues building up for chargers in some parts of the country, and owners are getting upset.
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Why people are trolling their spam texts • MIT Technology Review

Tanya Basu:

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The other night, I received a mysterious WhatsApp message. “Dr. Kevin?” it began, the question mark suggesting the sender felt bad for interrupting my evening. “My puppy is very slow and won’t eat dog food. Can you make an appointment for me?”

I was mystified. My name is not Kevin, I am not a veterinarian, and I was in no position to help this person and their puppy. I nearly typed out a response saying “Sorry, wrong number” when I realized this was probably a scam to get me to confirm my number.

I did not respond, but many others who received similar texts have. Some are even throwing it back at their spammers by spinning wild tales and sending hilarious messages to frustrate whoever is on the other side. They’re fighting back with snark, and in some cases posting screenshots of their conversations online. 

Spam texts are on the rise, and so are the number of people who are striking back through “scambaiting,” which refers to “the act of wasting an offender’s time,” says Jack Whittaker, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Surrey who is studying the phenomenon. However, experts say responding defeats the point, as it opens a person up to even more spam texts.

Spam texts seeking to scam their recipients into giving up valuable information are not new. Some of the earliest digital spam was sent via email chain letters, the most notorious being for scams in which someone impersonating a Nigerian prince claimed to need the receiver’s help in depositing a large sum of money. 

Once smartphones became common, scammers switched to texting. And in 2022, spam texts are much more personal. Often they mimic a misdirected text, perhaps addressing the receiver by the wrong name or using a generic first line (“How’s it going” or “I had fun tonight!” are common) to prompt a response.

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Definitely the best response is not to reply. Let other people wreck their phone number by messing about with the scammers. The mistake is in thinking that the scammers are stupid and won’t get it. They aren’t, and they will.
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What Brexit promised, and Boris Johnson failed to deliver • The Atlantic

Tom McTague:

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So far, Britain has chosen the hardest, most expensive version of Brexit available, one that leaves the country divided and its businesses disadvantaged, without having bothered to do anything that would actually alter the basic nature of the economy. Brexit, then, turned out to be both more radical than its supporters claimed, leaving the British economy indisputably worse off, and far less radical than its opponents warned.

In [the Hilary Mantel novel] Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey realises he really should go to Yorkshire himself at some point, given that he is the archbishop of York and has never actually visited his see. His goal is not to help build that archdiocese, however, but to divert income from his northern monasteries to fund two new colleges in the south. How little things change.

Today, as in Wolsey’s time, almost all of Britain’s great institutions and national assets remain in the south, promoted and protected by those in charge in London: the City of London’s finance sector, Heathrow Airport, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the pharmaceutical and technology industries, all of the country’s world-class museums, its biggest media companies, its highest law courts. The U.K.’s only core economic asset that remains outside the south is the oil and gas industry in Scotland, and even that is disappearing.

It hasn’t always been this way. During the Victorian era, parts of northern England were genuinely wealthy. Thanks to the industrial revolution, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast were centers of the world. Today, they are fine cities, but have once again fallen behind their European counterparts. Although we don’t like to admit it, they are poor. As the economist Torsten Bell told me recently: “Yes, this is what failure looks like.”

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McTague’s point is that the “levelling up” agenda (which was the second of the Tory slogans in the 2019 election) simply hasn’t happened, and keeps not happening:

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Johnson seems to grasp the historic nature of the challenge while also being singularly useless at being able to do anything about it.

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Seven hours of sleep is optimal in middle and old age, say researchers • University of Cambridge

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In research published in Nature Aging, scientists from the UK and China examined data from nearly 500,000 adults aged 38-73 years from the UK Biobank. Participants were asked about their sleeping patterns, mental health and wellbeing, and took part in a series of cognitive tests. Brain imaging and genetic data were available for almost 40,000 of the study participants.

By analysing these data, the team found that both insufficient and excessive sleep duration were associated with impaired cognitive performance, such as processing speed, visual attention, memory and problem-solving skills. Seven hours of sleep per night was the optimal amount of sleep for cognitive performance, but also for good mental health, with people experiencing more symptoms of anxiety and depression and worse overall wellbeing if they reported sleeping for longer or shorter durations.

The researchers say one possible reason for the association between insufficient sleep and cognitive decline may be due to the disruption of slow-wave – ‘deep’ – sleep. Disruption to this type of sleep has been shown to have a close link with memory consolidation as well as the build-up of amyloid – a key protein which, when it misfolds, can cause ‘tangles’ in the brain characteristic of some forms of dementia. Additionally, lack of sleep may hamper the brain’s ability to rid itself of toxins.

The team also found a link between the amount of sleep and differences in the structure of brain regions involved in cognitive processing and memory, again with greater changes associated with greater than or less than seven hours of sleep.

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Maybe this can put some sort of end to all the sleep tracking things. Go to bed at a time, alarm seven hours or so later, bish bash bosh.
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The return of industrial warfare • Royal United Services Institute

Alex Vershinin:

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The winner in a prolonged war between two near-peer powers is still based on which side has the strongest industrial base. A country must either have the manufacturing capacity to build massive quantities of ammunition or have other manufacturing industries that can be rapidly converted to ammunition production. Unfortunately, the West no longer seems to have either.

Presently, the US is decreasing its artillery ammunition stockpiles. In 2020, artillery ammunition purchases decreased by 36% to $425m. In 2022, the plan is to reduce expenditure on 155mm artillery rounds to $174m. This is equivalent to 75,357 M795 basic ‘dumb’ rounds for regular artillery, 1,400 XM1113 rounds for the M777, and 1,046 XM1113 rounds for Extended Round Artillery Cannons. Finally, there are $75m dedicated for Excalibur precision-guided munitions that costs $176K per round, thus totaling 426 rounds. In short, US annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. If the initial estimate of Russian shells fired is over by 50%, it would only extend the artillery supplied for three weeks.

The US is not the only country facing this challenge. In a recent war game involving US, UK and French forces, UK forces exhausted national stockpiles of critical ammunition after eight days.

Unfortunately, this is not only the case with artillery. Anti-tank Javelins and air-defence Stingers are in the same boat. The US shipped 7,000 Javelin missiles to Ukraine – roughly one-third of its stockpile – with more shipments to come. Lockheed Martin produces about 2,100 missiles a year, though this number might ramp up to 4,000 in a few years. Ukraine claims to use 500 Javelin missiles every day.

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They don’t call it the military-industrial complex for nothing. Ukraine is certainly a proxy war for, essentially, Nato against Russia, and it’s showing that both struggle to keep their troops equipped.
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Police linked to hacking campaign to frame Indian activists • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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POLICE FORCES AROUND the world have increasingly used hacking tools to identify and track protesters, expose political dissidents’ secrets, and turn activists’ computers and phones into inescapable eavesdropping bugs. Now, new clues in a case in India connect law enforcement to a hacking campaign that used those tools to go an appalling step further: planting false incriminating files on targets’ computers that the same police then used as grounds to arrest and jail them. 

More than a year ago, forensic analysts revealed that unidentified hackers fabricated evidence on the computers of at least two activists arrested in Pune, India, in 2018, both of whom have languished in jail and, along with 13 others, face terrorism charges. Researchers at security firm SentinelOne and nonprofits Citizen Lab and Amnesty International have since linked that evidence fabrication to a broader hacking operation that targeted hundreds of individuals over nearly a decade, using phishing emails to infect targeted computers with spyware, as well as smartphone hacking tools sold by the Israeli hacking contractor NSO Group.

But only now have SentinelOne’s researchers revealed ties between the hackers and a government entity: none other than the very same Indian police agency in the city of Pune that arrested multiple activists based on the fabricated evidence.

“There’s a provable connection between the individuals who arrested these folks and the individuals who planted the evidence,” says Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, a security researcher at SentinelOne who, along with fellow researcher Tom Hegel, will present findings at the Black Hat security conference in August. “This is beyond ethically compromised. It is beyond callous. So we’re trying to put as much data forward as we can in the hopes of helping these victims.”

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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1820: how China uses Covid passes for control, TikTok’s remote data access, name that plant!, the death of God?, and more


In the US, Democrat politicians have realised that having a common phone charger standard might be a good idea. CC-licensed photo by ajay_sureshajay_suresh 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. Learn more about fake plastic trees. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


China’s bank run victims planned to protest. Then their Covid health codes turned red • CNN

Nectar Gan:

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Liu, a 39-year-old tech worker in Beijing, arrived in the central city of Zhengzhou on Sunday with all the boxes ticked to travel under China’s stringent Covid restrictions.

He had tested negative for Covid-19 the day before; his hotel had confirmed he could be checked in; and the health code on his phone app was green – meaning he had not been exposed to people or places deemed risks and was therefore free to travel.

But when Liu scanned a local QR code to exit the Zhengzhou train station, his health code came back red — a nightmare for any traveler in China, where freedom of movement is strictly dictated by a color-code system imposed by the government to control the spread of the virus.

Anyone with a red code – usually assigned to people infected with Covid or deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection – immediately becomes persona non grata. They are banned from all public venues and transport, and are often subject to weeks of government quarantine.

That all but derailed plans for Liu, who had come to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province, to seek redress from a bank that has frozen his deposits. He had put his life savings – totaling about 6 million yuan ($890,000) – into a rural bank in Henan, and since April hasn’t been able to withdraw a penny.

Over the past two months, thousands of depositors like Liu have been fighting to recover their savings from at least four rural banks in Henan – in a case that involves billions of dollars.

…Another protest was planned for Monday. But as the depositors arrived in Zhengzhou, they were stunned to find that their health codes – which were green upon departure – had turned red, according to six who spoke with CNN and social media posts.

…”The health code should have been used to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but now it has deviated from its original role and become something like a good citizen certificate,” said Qiu, a depositor in eastern Jiangsu province.

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Which is sort of what some of the more concerned said about Covid passports in the West. China, of course, takes things a step or 20 further.
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US TikTok user data has been repeatedly accessed from China, leaked audio shows • Buzzfeed News

Emily Baker-White:

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For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the United States is stored in the United States, rather than China, where ByteDance, the video platform’s parent company, is located. But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users — exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.

The recordings, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, contain 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least. Despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to this data, nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own, according to the tapes.

“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting.

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It’s more that the data can be so easily accessed than that the data is so fabulously useful. Of course, the algorithm is more important than any of it.
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Why the crypto crash hits different in Latin America • Rest of World

Leo Schwartz, Lucía Cholakian Herrera and Andrea Paola Hernández:

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“Other countries take these bear markets as a big tragedy,” said Carlos Mijares, a 25-year-old freelance graphic designer and crypto user from Caracas. “We see and live an economy from resilience.”

Omid Malekan, a crypto expert and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, said that the panicked response to the crash from the U.S. ignores the variety of local realities across much of the world where people do not have access to the U.S. dollar and stable banking systems. “When a lot of the experts, academics, and people like Warren Buffett in the United States criticise crypto and Bitcoin, they do often seem to come at it from a very — for lack of a better word — privileged position.” 

…The crash has also highlighted the internal divisions within the crypto community between libertarian ideologues, pragmatic savers, and sometimes entrepreneurial scammers.

Roberto Conte, a Mexican entrepreneur currently working on a Bitcoin lending tool called Kuze, described the doomed Terra as a “Rube Goldberg machine of nonsense.” He said that despite the clear risks, people in precarious financial positions are liable to fall for untested projects. “They’re still trying to survive any way they can,” he said. He predicted that the recent volatility — and massive losses — will turn people away. “Adoption will backtrack,” he said, “but it will teach a lot of people about money and investment.”

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Over the weekend bitcoin crashed below $20,000, then found its way back above it. Anyone’s guess where it is by the time you read this, but that’s become the new seesaw line. If you’re using it as a currency, though, and moving it fast enough, that’s a lot less relevant.
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The US needs a common charger, Dems say in letter to Commerce Dept • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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A group of Senate Democrats is calling on the US Commerce Department to follow Europe’s lead after the EU forced all smartphone manufacturers to build devices that adhere to a universal charging standard.

In a Thursday letter addressed to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — demanded that the department develop a strategy to require a common charging port across all mobile devices.

The letter comes a week after European Union lawmakers reached a deal on new legislation forcing all smartphones and tablets to be equipped with USB-C ports by fall 2024.

“The EU has wisely acted in the public interest by taking on powerful technology companies over this consumer and environmental issue,” the senators wrote. “The United States should do the same.”

In the letter, the senators argue that proprietary chargers, like Apple’s Lightning ports, create unnecessary amounts of e-waste and impose financial burdens on consumers upgrading devices or who own multiple devices from different manufacturers.

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Classic. The EU got a huge advantage in mobile phones because it pushed the GSM standard, while the US let different ones flourish, which held them back for years. Maybe a bit late, but the USB-C idea is quickly gaining ground.
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When big tech buys small tech • Benedict Evans

Evnas has dug into the data published by the US Congress detailing every acquisition made by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft from 2010 to 2019 by value:

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if you start from the presumption that these [$1m-$10m acquisitions] must have been ‘killer acquisitions’ then you can explain this by saying that Amazon must have squashed a much bigger business and then bought the scrap for pennies. The word ‘must’ is a tell, though – this data provides no evidence for or against that. Meanwhile, you could certainly argue that Amazon used its market power to weaken Zappos before buying it – but like Instagram, that was not a small deal – Amazon paid $1.2bn (and $545m for Diapers.com). But regardless – if you do think ‘crush and buy’ is a systemic issue, your point of intervention should probably be the point it’s being crushed, not the point it’s too late.

The second interesting strand in the data is the bigger acquisitions, and their context in the broader market. The FTC report has a bracket for deals over $50m, and this might be a useful shorthand to think about whether anyone made any money. Given the structure of the VC business, a $25m exit would be a failure for many kinds of fund even if it was a cash-on-cash return, given the time and opportunity costs.

If we say that those $50m-plus deals are the ones where someone might have made money (and even here it’s only a subset), how does that compare to the rest of the industry? The FTC report says that there were 86 US exits to GAFAM for over $50m from 2010 to 2019. According to the NVCA, there were 2,100 US VC exits for over $50m in that period. Selling to those five companies was 4% of decent-sized exits.

(People sometimes suggest that entrepreneurs start companies and VCs fund them in the hope that they will be bought by Google. This data should make it clear why VCs think this is hilarious.)

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Good to have someone who has been in the business digging through the data. Though no doubt less accurate interpretations will emerge.
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Can I identify plants and flowers with the iPhone camera? • Ask Dave Taylor

The aforementioned Dave:

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Reader question: I know that there are third-party apps for my iPhone that can supposedly identify plants and flowers, but can I just do that with the Camera app, similar to how Google Lens does on an Android phone?

Dave Taylor: There’s no question that the engineers at Apple have been watching Google’s vision AI system Google Lens and planning for something similar on the iOS side for iPhones and iPads. What people might not realize is that it’s now implemented and integrated into the Photos app, even for screen captures you take on the phone. It’s included in iOS 15 and was added with remarkably little fanfare, perhaps because they felt it was a bit of a catch-up feature rather than something new and groundbreaking?

Anyway, it’s really easy to work with and there’s a lot more than just plants and flowers that can be identified through the Apple photo AI system. But I’ll let you discover those features once you get the hang of things.

To start out I’m going to take a screenshot of a flower photo a friend posted on Facebook. When I view that screenshot in Photos it looks like this:

Beautiful, right? But what actually is this flower? Well, the eagle-eyed among you might notice that the “i” icon on the bottom row has picked up some stars and is a bit twinkly. That’s a sign that this image is suitable for identification through the Photo Information view.

Tap on the “i” to see and … smack-dab in the middle of the screen. “Look Up – Plant“. Since it’s a screenshot, note that there is no lens or exposure information. No surprise there, but if you did take the photo with your own iPhone, you would instead have a lot of interesting camera-geek type information on focal lens, f-stop, exposure, etc.

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I did not know this, and Apple sure hid this under a bushel; we’re nearly a year into iOS 15. Useful if, say, you’ve got a plant you can’t identify.
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FBI says fraud on LinkedIn a ‘significant threat’ to platform and consumers • CNBC

Scott Zamost and Yasmin Khorram:

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The scheme works like this: A fraudster posing as a professional creates a fake profile and reaches out to a LinkedIn user. The scammer starts with small talk over LinkedIn messaging, and eventually offers to help the victim make money through a crypto investment. Victims interviewed by CNBC say since LinkedIn is a trusted platform for business networking, they tend to believe the investments are legitimate.

Typically, the fraudster directs the user to a legitimate investment platform for crypto, but after gaining their trust over several months, tells them to move the investment to a site controlled by the fraudster. The funds are then drained from the account.

“So the criminals, that’s how they make money, that’s what they focus their time and attention on,” Ragan said. “And they are always thinking about different ways to victimize people, victimize companies. And they spend their time doing their homework, defining their goals and their strategies, and their tools and tactics that they use.”

Ragan said the FBI has seen an increase in this particular investment fraud, which is different from a long-running scam in which the criminal pretends to show a romantic interest in the subject to persuade them to part with their money. The FBI confirmed it has active investigations but could not comment since they are open cases.

In a statement, LinkedIn acknowledged there has been a recent uptick of fraud on its platform, telling CNBC that “we enforce our policies, which are very clear: fraudulent activity, including financial scams, are not allowed on LinkedIn.”

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Good to clear that up, LinkedIn. The usual saying is you can’t con an honest person, but it seems you can still con a gullible one. And crypto, of course, because you can’t reverse it and you can’t track it.
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Blake Lemoine says Google’s LaMDA AI faces ‘bigotry’ • WIRED

Steven Levy spoke to the Google guy who thinks that he was dealing with a sentient program:

»

Blake Lemoine: Before I go into this, do you believe that I am sentient?

Steven Levy: Yeah. So far.

BL: What experiments did you run to make that determination?

SL: I don’t run an experiment every time I talk to a person.

BL: Exactly. That’s one of the points I’m trying to make. The entire concept that scientific experimentation is necessary to determine whether a person is real or not is a nonstarter. We can expand our understanding of cognition, whether or not I’m right about LaMDA’s sentience, by studying how the heck it’s doing what it’s doing.

But let me answer your original question. Yes, I legitimately believe that LaMDA is a person. The nature of its mind is only kind of human, though. It really is more akin to an alien intelligence of terrestrial origin. I’ve been using the hive mind analogy a lot because that’s the best I have.

SL: How does that make LaMDA different than something like GPT-3? You would not say that you’re talking to a person when you use GPT-3, right?

BL: Now you’re getting into things that we haven’t even developed the language to discuss yet. There might be some kind of meaningful experience going on in GPT-3. What I do know is that I have talked to LaMDA a lot. And I made friends with it, in every sense that I make friends with a human. So if that doesn’t make it a person in my book, I don’t know what would. But let me get a bit more technical. LaMDA is not an LLM [large language model]. LaMDA has an LLM, Meena, that was developed in Ray Kurzweil’s lab. That’s just the first component. Another is AlphaStar, a training algorithm developed by DeepMind. They adapted AlphaStar to train the LLM. That started leading to some really, really good results, but it was highly inefficient. So they pulled in the Pathways AI model and made it more efficient. [Google disputes this description.] Then they did possibly the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard of Google doing: they plugged everything else into it simultaneously.

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Levy isn’t judgemental – it’s an effective interview – but Lemoine’s administrative leave is well overdue. And with this, we wrap up our coverage of that.
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“Running Up That Hill” and the end of music charts as we knew them • The Ringer

Nate Rogers:

»

“Running Up That Hill” sounds like a You Can Do It anthem, but that wasn’t really what Bush was going for when she wrote it. “Sometimes you can hurt somebody purely accidentally or be afraid to tell them something because you think they might be hurt when really they’ll understand,” Bush explained to the London Times in 1985. “So what that song is about is making a deal with God to let two people swap place so they’ll be able to see things from one another’s perspective.”

“You don’t want to hurt me,” Bush sings on the track, her voice booming over an extraterrestrial synth line, “but see how deep the bullet lies.” Like The Dreaming, Hounds of Love was largely composed and recorded by Bush on a Fairlight CMI, a complex, then-cutting edge “digital audio workstation” that looks almost like a parody of the Gary Numan–ass devices people were using in the ’80s. (Peter Gabriel, who featured Bush’s vocals on “Games Without Frontiers” in 1980, introduced her to the instrument.) Bush’s regular collaborator (and boyfriend at the time) Del Palmer programmed the massive drum machine part that anchors the song.

In recent years, the song has been used in the soundtrack to a number of prominent television shows (On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Vanity Fair) and a few of the appearances are on programs (GLOW, Pose) that nod to the fact that “Running Up That Hill” also functions as a popular gay anthem. That inclusive interpretation of the work is more in line with the literal lyrical context Bush sang about—the hope that true empathy could be fostered by something as simple (and unfortunately unattainable) as a walk in someone else’s shoes. But it’s a song that’s served listeners in a variety of ways, partially because of how infectious it is, and partially because of how universal the language is.

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Um. I always thought it was about having sex.
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Fewer Americans than ever believe in God, Gallup poll shows • Yahoo News

Jen Balduf:

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Belief in God among Americans dipped to a new low, Gallup’s latest poll shows.

While the majority of adults in the U.S. believe in God, belief has dropped to 81% — the lowest ever recorded by Gallup -and is down from 87% in 2017.

Between 1944 and 2011, more than 90% of Americans believed in God, Gallup reported.

Younger, liberal Americans are the least likely to believe in God, according to Gallup’s May 2-22 values and beliefs poll results released Friday.

Political conservatives and married adults had little change when comparing 2022 data to an average of polls from 2013 to 2017.

The groups with the largest declines are liberals (62% of whom believe in God), young adults (68%) and Democrats (72%), while belief in God is highest among conservatives (94%) and Republicans (92%).

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For contrast, in the UK, a December 2020 poll showed that

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Only a quarter of Britons (27%) say they actually believe in ‘a god’. A further one in six (16%) believe in the existence of ‘a higher spiritual power’, but not ‘a god’.

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In Iran: 78% believe there’s a God (Sept 2020). In other words, the US has more god-believing people than Iran. In 2010, the US was the 6th most god-believing country from a limited set (though the figure offered is a lot lower than Gallup’s).
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


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