Start Up No.1394: Facebook’s internal discord grows, Apple One for all?, hacking Tony Abbott, how PG&E messed up maintenance, and more


The internal email says there’s a car with its lights on – so should you click the link to the photo? CC-licensed photo by oatsy40 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 11 links for you. Closer than ever. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Phishing tricks: the top ten treacheries of 2020 • Naked Security

Paul Ducklin:

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the Phish Threat team asked themselves, “Which phishing templates give the best, or perhaps more accurately, the worst results?”

Are business email users more likely to fall for sticks or carrots? For threats or free offers? For explicit instructions or helpful suggestions? For “you must” or “you might like”?

The answers covered a broad range of phishing themes, but had a common thread: not one of them was a threat.

Most of them dealt with issues that were mundane and undramatic, while at the same time apparently being interesting, important, or both.

Nothing on this list was truly urgent or terrifying, and they all sounded likely and uncomplicated enough to be worth getting out of the way quickly.

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The examples here are so generic, yet brilliant: emails claiming to be new HR rules of conduct, tax summaries, “scheduled server maintenance”, “task assigned to you”, email tests, vacation policies, the utterly brilliant “car lights left on – I uploaded the picture *here*” (which leads to the malware), and more.

Don’t think you’ll be perfect. Some years back a military group which had been briefed to watch out for phishing all eagerly clicked on an attachment in an email which said “BIN LADEN KILLED BY SPECIAL FORCES”. (Before OBL was really killed, obviously.) Luckily for them it was just a test run by the security team to show how vulnerable people are.
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Is Apple One a bargain? It’s complicated • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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in most cases, Apple One only makes sense if you’re already subscribing to Apple’s most in-demand services: iCloud storage, which is essential for backing up most iPhones given Apple’s increasingly absurd (and stingy) 5GB allowance for new devices, and Apple Music. And at the end of the day, Apple One doesn’t make subscribing to those two key services dramatically cheaper — it just provides a discount for subscribing to Apple’s less popular services. It’s a good discount, mind you, but one that still results in most customers paying more than they are right now.

The hard numbers confirm this. According to Counterpoint Research, Apple Music had an estimated 68 million users by the end of 2019. Barclays Analysts estimated that the company had 170 million paid iCloud customers in 2018. Comparatively, Apple had just 10 million subscribers as of February 2020 for Apple TV Plus — many of whom were riding along on the free one-year trial that Apple offers for the service, which will coincidentally start to expire for the earliest customers next month. And while estimates for Arcade are harder to come by, it’s likely far below Apple Music and iCloud.

In other words: the number of customers who already subscribe to Apple services beyond Music and iCloud––the ones who would actually get the benefits of the discounted pricing––are far outnumbered by those that don’t. And that’s the real point of Apple One: not to save you money, but to get you to spend more on services like Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus that you might not have been considering subscribing to before.

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That numbers for iCloud customers is about one-fifth of the iPhone installed base. Apple clearly thinks there’s some room for expansion, particularly with the lowest-tier “Personal” offering as a way either to get people to sign up for Apple Music, or to get more iCloud storage. Something of a problem if they’re using Spotify, though.
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Facebook to curb internal debate over sensitive issues amid employee discord • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

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Facebook is moving to curb internal debate around divisive political and social topics, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday, after a spate of disputes and criticism that has fueled discord among staff.

The steps will include delineating which parts of its internal company messaging platform are acceptable for such discussions, and careful moderation of the discussions when they occur, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees at a company meeting, according to a spokesman. Employees shouldn’t have to confront social issues in their day-to-day work unless they want to, the CEO said.

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Kevin Roose of the NYT pointed out that this is due to Facebook using Facebook internally for its communications. Which means that all the amplification of polarising content happens same as it does for people outside. That’s really dogfooding. (In a followup tweet, Roose said “A FB employee told me once that they often made their Workplace posts sharper and more opinionated than their actual beliefs, so they’d have a better chance of appearing in managers’ feeds.”)

So the answer is “careful moderation”? Looking forward to that for the other billion-odd users. Separately, Facebook said it’s going to try harder to moderate Groups. Only a few years too late; Zuckerberg began promoting them in 2017 because he thought we were all too lonely. Turned out that included terrorists too.
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When you browse Instagram and find former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s passport number • Mango

@mangopdf:

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Tony Abbott is one of Australia’s many former Prime Ministers.

(For security reasons, we try to change our Prime Minister every six months, and to never use the same Prime Minister on multiple websites.)

This particular former PM had just posted a picture of his boarding pass on Instagram (Instagram, in case you don’t know it, is an app you can open up on your phone any time to look at ads).

The since-deleted Instagram post showing the boarding pass and baggage receipt. The caption reads “coming back home from japan 😍😍 looking forward to seeing everyone! climate change isn’t real 😌 ok byeee”

“Can you hack this man?” [came the request]

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Entertaining post about how to discover a vulnerability that lets you capture personal information (and a lot more) while keeping out of trouble. Who knew that airline websites have so much data – including employee discussions about you – hung around your own boarding pass login.
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Thread by @TubeTimeUS on Thread Reader App • Thread Reader App

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This electrical transmission tower has a little problem. Can you spot it? Actually, it’s not a small problem–it cost us 16.65 *billion* dollars and caused the deaths of 85 people.

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Thus (illustrated with a picture of what is technically known as a transposition tower, but looks to most people like an electricity pylon) begins a fascinating thread which reveals the creaking infrastructure of the US and how you need really strong financial incentives to keep utilities in line. You don’t need to be on Twitter to read it.
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Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg need Trump even more than Trump needs Facebook • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner:

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after Republicans complained about the voter registration efforts, Facebook seemed to back off further, according to emails obtained by the Tech Transparency Project. The company had planned a two-day promotion over the July 4th holiday on Facebook, as well as on Instagram and Messenger, but then cut that down to a one-day push on Facebook alone.

Facebook has said that the suggestion that the company scaled down its voter registration plans for political reasons is “pure fabrication.” Another spokesman, replying to a Twitter user who suggested the same, responded with a picture of a woman in a tin foil hat.

The company, of course, knows lots about conspiracy theorists, who thrive on the site. There’s QAnon, a far-right movement that espouses a complex theory involving a cabal of elites engaged in child sex trafficking. The FBI deemed it a form of domestic terrorism in August 2019, but Facebook only started removing accounts in May. The company also initially ignored posts tied to a Kenosha, Wis., militia in which users discussed shooting Black Lives Matter protesters. The militia’s event page was flagged more than 400 times, but moderators allowed it to stay up, according to BuzzFeed. Not long after the posts began appearing, a 17-year-old with an assault rifle shot and killed two people at a protest in the city.

…Biden, meanwhile, has said he also favors removing Section 230 protections and holding executives personally liable. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” he told the New York Times in January. Zuckerberg seems keenly aware of the risks of a Trump loss. He’s told employees that Facebook is likely to fare better under Republicans, according to people familiar with the conversations.

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TikTok accepts deal revisions as Trump prepares to review proposal • The New York Times

David McCabe, Erin Griffith, Ana Swanson and Mike Isaac:

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Some Republican lawmakers, such as Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, have criticized any deal that would leave ByteDance in control of TikTok’s code or algorithms as inadequate in addressing national security concerns. That has raised questions of whether Mr. Trump could face criticism for the Oracle-TikTok proposal while running for re-election.

…While rushing to secure a deal, TikTok is also hunting for a permanent chief executive to replace Kevin Mayer, who resigned in late August, citing the changing political pressures of the role. Vanessa Pappas, the general manager of TikTok in North America, took over in the interim.

Among those whom TikTok has talked to about the job is Kevin Systrom, a founder and former chief executive of Instagram, people briefed on the matter said. Talks are preliminary, and no final decisions have been made, they said.

The parties to a deal expect to name an American chief executive of the new TikTok entity, one person familiar with the matter said.

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Criticism of Trump while he’s running for re-election? I thought he was running for that right now. And I could find plenty of people who are critical of him. As ever, the NYT manages to pretend that Trump is some sort of vaguely normal politician who cares what people think, rather than a corrupt real estate broker with narcissistic personality disorder.

Kevin Systrom would be a fascinating choice for TikTok’s CEO.
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QArmyJapanFlynn (QAJF): the collective delusion is global • Medium

Geoff Golberg:

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According to the account’s bio description, Eri is the “sole [Japanese] translator” for QMap, in addition to being the “founder” of QAJFlynn (aka QArmyJapanFlynn). Moreover, the official QAJF site is listed in the account’s bio description, as are three Twitter accounts that, in our research, have emerged as being central to QAnon (@StormIsUponUs, @GenFlynn, and @intheMatrixxx). The @StormIsUponUs account, aka JoeM, was one of the largest QAnon supporting accounts prior to its suspension on April 9th, 2020. At the time of suspension, @StormIsUponUs reflected having 273 thousand Followers.

Given Eri(QMapJapan)’s Followers count is approaching 80 thousand, it would be easy for one to conclude that QAnon is wildly popular among Japanese speakers.

Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the vast majority of accounts following @okabaeri9111 are fake accounts.

Twitter’s refusal to enforce their own rules not only results in advertisers like Rolex wasting their advertising dollars on useless inventory (i.e. Rolex is a victim of blatant ad fraud and where their brand appears adjacent QAnon), but also functions to create the illusion that QAnon has a massive following among Japanese speakers.

Social Forensics has contacted Mounia Mechbal, Rolex’s VP of Marketing and Communications, to inform her that Twitter is engaging in ad fraud that presents Rolex’s brand adjacent QAnon (we will update this post should we receive a response):

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“Half of what I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half,” goes the famous saying. With online advertising you know: more than half.
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Exclusive: AT&T considers cellphone plans subsidized by ads • Reuters

Sheila Dang, Helen Coster, Krystal Hu, Kenneth Li:

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AT&T is considering offering wireless phone plans partially subsidized by advertising as soon as a year from now, chief executive John Stankey said in an interview on Tuesday.

The consideration, which has not been previously disclosed, underscores AT&T’s commitment to the advertising business as the US phone carrier reviews its portfolio to identify assets to sell in order to reduce its debt load. AT&T is considering selling its advertising-technology unit Xandr, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

“I believe there’s a segment of our customer base where given a choice, they would take some load of advertising for a $5 or $10 reduction in their mobile bill,” Stankey said.

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I wonder if Stankey would be willing to suffer advertising that tracked and targeted him for the sake of a few dollars off his phone bill. You might say: of course not, and he doesn’t have to because he can afford to pay more. But if the CEO isn’t willing to use his own product, why should others have to tolerate having their privacy invaded and ads barked at them all the time?

I wonder too how many spam calls Stankey gets to his mobile number. If that number were to go up rapidly, perhaps AT&T would start figuring out how to block them more effectively. Again: it’s a matter of getting the CEO to use the product, not live in a bubble of exception.
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Listen to an unheard Steve Jobs NeXT keynote from 1988 • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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“The Macintosh architecture is going to peak next year sometime. And that means that there’s enough cracks in the wall already, and enough limitations to the architecture, that the Mac’s pretty much going to be everything it’s ever going to be sometime next year.”

A tech CEO is onstage helpfully explaining that the Mac’s expiration date is imminent. More important, he’s about to introduce us to a new computer designed for the next decade. I am in a distant seat among his audience of more than 2,000 at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the anticipation in the air is thick enough to induce a contact high.

After all, we are among the lucky few who will hear about the NeXT computer directly from Steve Jobs himself.

What we were witnessing on the evening of November 30, 1988 wasn’t the NeXT launch event. That had happened seven weeks earlier at San Francisco’s Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, before 3,000 invited developers, educators, and reporters. Jobs was now giving a second performance of the same basic presentation at the monthly general meeting of the Boston Computer Society. It was open to all members, and therefore a much more public affair than the exclusive San Francisco version.

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What McCracken is excited about – and historians of computing will be excited about – is a huge trove of audio recordings of many of the big names from the dawn of personal computing speaking about important moments there. If that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this.
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Swedish consortium unveils mammoth wind-powered car carrier • The Driven

Joshua Hill:

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A Swedish consortium including ship design firm Wallenius Marine has unveiled a modern-day sailing ship which will be capable of carrying 6-7,000 vehicles and be able to reduce emissions for the trans-Atlantic crossing by 90%.

The wPCC – wind Powered Car Carrier – is a Swedish collaborative project led and overseen by Wallenius Marine and including the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and maritime consulting firm SSPA.

Heralded as a “Swedish project for truly sustainable shipping,” the wPCC is currently being developed by the consortium and is expected to be sailing by the end of 2024.

The world’s largest sailing vessel, the wPCC is billed as being able to reduce emissions by 90% as compared to other ocean-going freighters. A transatlantic crossing aboard the wPCC would take twelve days, instead of the current seven days it takes a conventional freighter.

Conversely, the current fleet of around 450 large car transporters currently use 40 tonnes of fossil fuel per day, opening the door for significant reductions to shipping emissions.

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That’s splendid news! Although these, er, vehicles that you’re sail-shipping. What sort of fuel do they run on, precisely?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1393: Oracle TikTok bid still uncertain, Spotify negative on Apple One, iOS 14 released, cyberwar on newspapers, and more


Who’s unafraid of Apple’s new Fitness+ offering? These people. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster 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. Spin, but in a good way. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Oracle’s TikTok bid leaves US security concerns unaddressed • Bloomberg

Saleha Mohsin , Nick Wadhams, and Jennifer Jacobs:

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Oracle’s bid for TikTok falls short of resolving concerns of Trump administration officials that the Chinese-owned video-sharing app poses a risk to US national security, according to people familiar with the matter.

President Donald Trump has the authority to sign off on a deal, but continuing concerns from national security officials could sway his decision. The agreement remains on the table, with discussions continuing between administration officials and the companies, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are confidential.

Addressing those remaining issues could pave the way for US approval, the people said.

The officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, are concerned that after a potential transaction, TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, could still have access to user data from its nearly 100 million users in America, said the people. The officials remain wary about the proposed new ownership structure and how much influence that would give China over the company.

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I wonder if ByteDance is just trying as best it can to string this out beyond the election date. The reality is still that if the algorithm isn’t part of the deal, it’s just a hosting deal – just the same as Apple being obliged to store iCloud data for Chinese users in China (so the Chinese government can inspect it). We have met the enemy, and he is us. Though quite what the NSA hopes to find out from 100 million American kids dancing, who knows. WSJ reports overnight that US wants over 50% of ownership. Good luck with that.
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Peloton CEO on Apple launching workouts: ‘a legitimization of fitness content’ • CNBC

Lauren Thomas:

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Peloton CEO John Foley said Tuesday that Apple launching a fitness platform is a “legitimization” of this type of content. 

Foley’s remarks were made during the bike maker’s first-ever investor meeting as a public company, and coincided with Apple’s splashy unveiling of the fitness platform, which will allow users to access a catalog of workout videos on iPhones, iPads, or on an Apple TV that sync to an Apple Watch. 

Peloton shares dipped slightly on the news and recently were up about 4%. 

“We’re just digesting the announcement like everybody,” Foley said. “The biggest thing I will say is it’s quite a legitimization of fitness content, to the extent the biggest company in the word, a $2 trillion company, is coming in and saying fitness content matters. It’s meaningful enough for Apple.” 

However, he said, Peloton separates itself from Apple with its high-tech spin bikes and treadmills, which Apple isn’t planning to offer customers.

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Peloton kit is flipping expensive. Like £2,000 for a bike and then a subscription for the service. But this is not a Swiss watch v Apple Watch situation. Peloton users love their kit and the experience, so aren’t going to abandon it. If you can afford it, you’ll probably go for Peloton rather than something cheaper. Apple though is going to mop up a significant number of people for whom Fitness+ will be a gym membership on their wrist (you need an Apple Watch to use it).
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Spotify steps up antitrust war over Apple One bundling • Yahoo

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Sweden’s global number one music streamer Spotify is urging EU competition authorities to probe Apple’s One bundled subscription services as it steps up its antitrust criticisms of the US tech titan.

“Once again, Apple is using its dominant position and unfair practices to disadvantage competitors and deprive consumers by favoring its own services,” said Spotify in a statement.

“We call on competition authorities to act urgently to restrict Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, which if left unchecked, will cause irreparable harm to the developer community and threaten our collective freedoms to listen, learn, create, and connect,” the firm added in a Tuesday statement.

Spotify has already been involved in two other competition face-offs with Apple surrounding the latter’s Apple Store and Apple Pay.

The Swedish company says that a low-priced bundle including music streaming from Apple Music, a key rival, skews the market.

Spotify is by a distance the global leader in music streaming, with 299 million users according to latest data from June – including 138 million subscription holders – and sales of €1.89bn ($2.2bn).

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As Ben Thompson pointed out, there’s nothing stopping Spotify bundling itself with some offering from Google or an Android OEM or a carrier or.. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s done a few of those. Spotify might have a case the cost of signing people up through the App Store, but this is thin gruel. Apple’s nowhere near a monopoly of smartphones.

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Apple releases iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 with home screen redesign, App Library, compact UI, Translate app, Scribble support, App Clips, and more • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

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Apple has released iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, the newest operating system updates designed for the iPhone and iPad. As with all of Apple’s software updates, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 can be downloaded for free. iOS 14 is available on the iPhone 6s and later, while iPadOS 14 is available on the iPad Air 2 and later.

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Good rundown of what’s new. I think the instantly most popular thing will be pinning message recipients to the top of the screen for quick access to people or groups you often communicate with.

And people are going to be quite puzzled for a while by incoming calls not taking over the screen. Expect lots of people to miss calls for a while.

Plus you can change your default browser and mail app. Say goodbye to your battery if you choose Chrome and Gmail, I suspect.
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Oregon GOP senator who walked out to stop climate vote loses house to wildfire • Labour 411

Sahid Fawaz:

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Oregon Republican state senator Fred Girod was one of 11 Republicans who made headlines when they walked out of the senate – some even leaving the state – so that a quorum could not be achieved for a climate change bill.

As Wikipedia states:

“From June 20, 2019, all 11 Republican state senators for Oregon, including Girod, refused to show up for work at the Oregon State Capitol, instead going into hiding, some even fleeing the state. Their aim was to push the vote on a cap-and-trade proposal that would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to combat climate change to voters instead of being instituted by lawmakers. The Senate holds 30 seats, but 1 is vacant due to a death. Without the Republican senators, the remaining 18 Democratic state senators could not reach a quorum of 20 to hold a vote…”

…Now with wildfires raging in Oregon, climate change has come to Girod’s doorstep. Literally.

Oregon Live reports:

“Fred Girod stood near the edge of a steep drop between what remained of his house and the Santiam River, grasping the destruction days after the Beachie Creek wildfire destroyed homes, businesses and landmarks along the canyon.

The walls of the one-story home had collapsed, leaving two stone columns and a chimney that rose out of the rubble. The heat and flames had twisted the frame of the deck where he would sit to watch bald eagles, ospreys and sunrises.”

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Oregon Live somehow omits the point about preventing the vote.
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Climate science contrarian installed in upper-level NOAA position • Ars Technica

Scott Johnson:

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The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently hired a new person in an upper-level deputy assistant secretary position. Normally, this would not be too surprising or newsworthy, but this is an exception. Joining NOAA as the “Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction” is University of Delaware Professor David Legates—a well-known contrarian who rejects the science of human-caused climate change.

The position apparently reports to acting head of NOAA Neil Jacobs, although the circumstances of the hire are unknown. Ars asked NOAA about the duties of this position, but the agency has not responded. Jacobs was entangled in the fallout from President Trump’s inaccurate tweets about Hurricane Dorian that culminated in a forecast map doctored with a black marker. A pair of investigations found that Jacobs capitulated to directives from the office of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the White House, releasing an unsigned NOAA statement that sought to rescue the president’s inaccurate statements by mildly admonishing the forecasters who corrected him.

…Legates was Delaware’s State Climatologist between 2005 and 2011. Although he started his career working on precipitation data and patterns, he is primarily known for rejecting, at every opportunity, the human role in climate change. He’s a frequent contributor to work by the Heartland Institute—a “think tank” that opposes the facts of climate science. When Ars visited a Heartland conference in 2015, Legates was there, presenting a talk that waved away trends in US rainfall extremes as an artifact of measurement changes.

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No, it’s fine, checks and balances, norms of behaviour, standards, etc.

In reality there’s very little time left for the US. If this goes on it will effectively become a rogue state acting to destroy the world’s climate. Which might sound extreme. But there’s very little time before things get bad all over.
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Facebook’s first ‘smart glasses’ will be Ray-Bans, coming next year • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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The company has talked for years about its plans to build AR devices that resemble a standard pair of glasses, and the company is now working with Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica to design the frames of its first consumer smart glasses, confirming rumors last fall that the company had partnered with the Italian eyewear brand.

“We’re passionate about exploring devices that can give people better ways to connect with those closest to them. Wearables have the potential to do that. With EssilorLuxottica we have an equally ambitious partner who’ll lend their expertise and world-class brand catalogue to the first truly fashionable smart glasses,” Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of the Reality Labs division, said in a statement.

We don’t have any details on what Facebook’s eventual AR glasses will be called, what they look like beyond the Aria prototype, or how much they might cost (or for that matter how much the Ray-Ban designed smart glasses will cost).

But AR and smart glasses designed to look like standard pieces of eyewear have become more common in recent years, with companies like North (now owned by Google) and Nreal developing pretty impressive devices. Meanwhile, all the major tech giants — including Amazon, Apple, Google, Intel, and others — have either already released a device in the smart glasses or AR category, or are said to be actively working on something.

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Colour me continually sceptical about these things. There won’t be a display, so what’s the point? To take photos? Snap tried that and lost a bucketload of money. If it doesn’t have a display and so can’t provide any useful info, hardly anyone is going to tolerate the nerd factor of wearing them.
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Amazon Music jumps into the podcasting game with original and exclusive shows • Android Police

Jules Wang:

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Spotify is pushing nearly all of its chips onto podcast browsing and production as a way to drive its revenues. Amazon may be looking to do the same for its Amazon Music service as it has enabled podcast streaming and is making a splash with what it can call its own shows including “Disgraceland,” “That Scene with Dan Patrick,” and new shows from Will Smith.

Free and paid Amazon Music users in the Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. can listen to widely-available podcasts right now through its website. We weren’t immediately able to find podcasts on the Android app — there is a supporting update and changelog for that feature — but it’ll also be there as well as iOS, Google Assistant, and Echo devices. Listeners will be able to download shows for offline listening and follow their favorite series as well.

The company is also claiming production credit and exclusive rights to a number of shows…

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Podcasts are the perfect way for music streaming services to get away from having to pay per-play (as with music tracks) and into lump sums, so that they can benefit from the zero marginal cost of serving every extra podcast. In Spotify’s case it’s evident that it really wants to push that; now that Amazon is doing the same, is Apple going to be able to hold back from doing it too?
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What newsrooms can learn from threat modeling at Facebook • The Verge

Alex Stamos, former security chief at Facebook (interviewed by Jay Rosen):

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So, let’s imagine The New York Times has hired me to help them threat model and practice for 2020. This is a highly unlikely scenario, so I’ll give them the advice here for free.

First, you think about your likely adversaries in 2020. You still have the Russian security services. FSB, GRU, and SVR. So I would help gather up all of the examples of their disinformation operations from the last four years.

This would include the GRU’s tactic of hacking into websites to plant fake documents, and then pointing their press outlets at those documents. When the documents are inevitably removed, they spin it as a conspiracy. This is something they did to Poland’s equivalent of West Point, and there has been some recent activity that looks like the planting of fake documents to muddy the waters on the poisoning of Navalny.

You have the Russian Internet Research Agency, and their current activities. They have also pivoted and now hire people in-country to create content. Facebook broke open one of these networks this week.

This year, however, we have new players! You have the Chinese. China is really coming from behind on combined hacking / disinformation operations, but man are they making up time fast. COVID and the Hong Kong crisis has motivated them to build much more capable overt and covert capabilities in English. And most importantly, in 2020, you have the domestic actors.

The Russian activity in 2016, from both the security services and troll farms, has been really well documented.

JR: And breakdowns created by government, like an overwhelmed Post Office.

Yes, true!

I wrote a piece for Lawfare imagining foreign actors using hacking to cause chaos in the election and then spreading that with disinfo. It’s quaint now, as the election has been pre-hacked by COVID.

The struggles that states and local governments are having to prepare for pandemic voting and the intentional knee-capping of the response by the Administration and Republican Senate has effectively pre-hacked the election — in that there is already going to be huge confusion about how to vote, when to vote, and whether the rules are being applied fairly.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1392: telework better, what Apple announced, life on.. Venus?, Kardashian v Facebook, Goodreads or bad?, and more


Smoke from the fires in the western US is playing havoc with automated weather forecasts too. CC-licensed photo by Joe Wilcox 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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to (actually) save time when you’re working remotely • Harvard Business Review

Lauren Howe , Ashley Whillans and Jochen Menges:

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While the widespread shift to remote work hasn’t been without its challenges, it does offer a major silver lining: For many of us, commuting has become a thing of the past. In the United States alone, eliminating the daily commute has saved workers around 89 million hours each week — equivalent to time savings of more than 44.5 million full workdays since the pandemic began! These numbers suggest that working remotely could be a deus ex machina for reclaiming one of our most precious and limited resources: time.

But despite the potential for staggering time savings, many have struggled to achieve everything they hoped the pandemic would finally make time for: baking sourdough, meditating, or writing the next great literary masterpiece. On the contrary, data we collected from 12,000 people across the U.S. and Europe during the pandemic show that the additional time is often burned on unproductive work and unsatisfying leisure activities. Having more time does not necessarily mean that we use it wisely. So, what are we doing wrong?

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Definitely good recommendations in here (as freelances will tell you). I’m very much in favour of the Feierabend. (It’s a German compound word, of course.)
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Is America a myth? • The New Yorker

Robin Wright:

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Today, America is littered with prideful secessionist movements. Mirroring Brexit—Britain’s exit from the European Union—they advocate for Texit (Texas), Calexit (California), and Verexit (Vermont). In 2017, a Vermont poll found that more than twenty% of Vermonters believed that the state should consider “peaceably leaving the United States and becoming an independent republic, as it was from 1777 to 1791.”

The Texas Nationalist Movement, which claims hundreds of thousands of members, is demanding a state referendum on secession. Then there’s the more fanciful proposal for Cascadia, a progressive bio-republic carved out of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The trend is bipartisan and transregional; secessionist sentiment has even emerged in the last two states to join the union—Alaska and Hawaii.

The need for internal trade and the dangers of external threats have helped hold America together. Disparate factions throughout the country rallied to counter British aggression in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the Germans and the Japanese, in the twentieth; and Al Qaeda, after the 9/11 attacks, in the twenty-first.

But, now, without outside threats, the nation is increasingly turning on itself. “We are definitely not united,” Blight said. “Are we on the brink of secession of some kind? No, not in a sectional sense. But, in the interior of our minds and our communities, we are already in a period of slow-evolving secession” in ways that are deeper than ideology and political beliefs. “We are tribes with at least two or more sources of information, facts, narratives, and stories we live in.” The United States today, Blight said, is a “house divided about what holds the house up.”

«

I can’t decide whether to feel anxious for America, or just accept that it’s going to turn into an utter pudding. Not long before we find out, I guess.
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Apple’s ‘Time Flies’ event: the nine biggest announcements • The Verge

• New Apple Watch
• new cheaper less featured Apple Watch
•no USB adapter in the Watch boxes
• Family Setup for Watches (so you can track your kids..)
• new iPad Air
• new cheaper iPad
• Fitness subscription service
• Apple One bundling lots of services such as iCloud, Music, T+ and News+ (which is interesting if, like me, you’ve got a family setup)
• the new version of iOS and iPadOS and WatchOS being released today.

Read the whole thing for the finer detail.
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Scientists find gas linked to life in atmosphere of Venus • The Guardian

Ian Sample:

»

Traces of a pungent gas that waft through the clouds of Venus may be emanations from aerial organisms – microbial life, but not as we know it.

Astronomers detected phosphine 30 miles up in the planet’s atmosphere and have failed to identify a process other than life that could account for its presence.

The discovery raises the possibility that life gained a foothold on Earth’s inner neighbour and remnants clung on – or floated on, at least – as Venus suffered runaway global warming that made the planet hellish.

For 2bn years, Venus was temperate and harboured an ocean. But today, a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere blankets a near-waterless surface where temperatures top 450C. The clouds in the sky are hardly inviting, containing droplets of 90% sulphuric acid.

The conditions on Venus are so deeply unpleasant that many scientists believe the planet is dead. Rather than coming from floating Venusians, they suspect phosphine arises from more mundane processes.

“It’s completely startling to say life could survive surrounded by so much sulphuric acid,” said Prof Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University, leader of the team who made the discovery. “But all the geological and photochemical routes we can think of are far too underproductive to make the phosphine we see.”

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Faintly exciting: this has been predicted for decades. There are flybys by existing spacecraft due over the next few months; not clear whether they have the telemetry to analyse this. Fingers crossed.
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Facebook climate change hub to fight misinformation • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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The climate change hub comes after the company dealt with a rash of misinformation across its services regarding the cause of the wildfires raging across the Western U.S. One article containing false information blaming the wildfires on antifa arsonists had been shared more than 63,000 times on Facebook, according to The Guardian.

The new feature is called the Climate Science Information Center, and it will provide Facebook users with facts, figures and data from factual sources, the company said in a blog post. These sources include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.N. Environment Programme, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, World Meteorological Organization and the Met Office.

In addition to the information center, Facebook said it will continue to reduce the distribution of posts containing false information on its News Feed feature and it will label those posts as false. Facebook, however, did not say it would remove those posts. The company also did not say if it would remove or label posts within private Facebook groups that contain misinformation about climate change.

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Why oh why oh flipping why won’t Facebook remove false information, but will do for spam and female nipples? We can be sure that this “climate change hub” is going to make a big difference; look how well it worked for coronavirus. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.
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Oracle doesn’t buy TikTok, but gets a lucrative hosting deal, and Trump & friends will pretend this means something • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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Oracle put out a very short press release saying that it will “serve as the trusted technology provider” to TikTok. That’s not how you describe a sale. This is a hosting deal.

Oracle will just host TikTok on its wannabe, way-behind-the-competition, cloud platform. And Trump and his cult-like supporters will pretend this actually accomplishes something. Oracle’s executive suite has long been vocal Trump supporters, so this basically dumps a giant hosting contract into Oracle’s lap. ByteDance will effectively still own TikTok, and Trump will pretend he’s done something. For what it’s worth, this is the second big Oracle cloud deal done in the last few months, with the previous one being with videoconferencing company Zoom.

As Russell Brandom over at the Verge notes, this deal “accomplished nothing.” ByteDance still owns TikTok (and, according to reports, retains full control over TikTok’s algorithm). As former Yahoo and Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos points out, literally none of the concerns people have raised about TikTok (most of which were bogus in the first place) are solved by an Oracle hosting deal.

(On Twitter, Stamos said that “A deal where Oracle takes over hosting without source code and significant operational changes would not address any of the legitimate concerns about TikTok, and the White House accepting such a deal would demonstrate that this exercise was pure grift.”)

As Stamos points out, accepting this deal would show that it’s nothing but “pure grift,” basically dumping a forced contract into Oracle’s lap, a company which (again) has had an executive licking Trump’s boots since day one.

And people can’t even truly argue that Oracle will somehow make whatever little “private” data there is on TikTok “more secure.” It’s not like it was just months ago that an Oracle-owned subsidiary, BlueKai, leaked data that tracked users all over the web, exposing billions of records.

In other words, the whole thing was a joke. Like so much of this administration it was performative nonsense by Trump, who was mad that some kids made him look foolish on TikTok, combined with anti-Chinese racism, to push for a deal he had no legal right to push for, resulting in a weird scramble that doesn’t accomplish what he wanted, but does shift a bunch of money to some of his vocal and wealthy supporters. The “Art of the Grift.”

«

The SwiftOnSecurity account, which is wise, pointed out that Oracle’s claim that the deal would create 25,000 jobs in the US is beyond ridiculous: “Gmail has 1.5 billion users and is engineered by a team of a few hundred people,” it noted. Snapchat: 2,000 people. Total.
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Kim Kardashian to freeze Facebook, Instagram accounts in #StopHateForProfit effort • Axios

»

Kim Kardashian West announced that she will temporarily freeze her Instagram and Facebook accounts on Wednesday because the platforms “continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation — created by groups to sow division and split America apart.”

Why it matters: The announcement from such a high-profile user is likely to be a PR disaster for Instagram and Facebook, as well as a boost to the #StopHateForProfit campaign. Kardashian West is the 7th most followed account on Instagram with 188 million followers. She currently has 30 million followers on Facebook.

What she’s saying: “I love that I can connect directly with you through Instagram and Facebook, but I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart – only to take steps after people are killed,” Kardashian West wrote.

«

She announced it on Twitter. Though of course with Facebook and Instagram, if you don’t post on these platforms, all that happens is that you subside beneath the waves; other people will come and fill the space.

A style note about Axios, which loves to think that it’s being edgy and different with its paragraph introductions of “Why it matters” and “What she’s saying”: if you remove them (which I usually do when quoting Axios stories), it makes absolutely no difference to how the story reads.
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Beware rigged China fever cameras • IPVM

Ethan Ace and John Honovich:

»

how do these China systems get near ‘normal’ temperatures of a person zooming by on a skateboard?

Many China systems we tested rig measurements using “compensation” algorithms to estimate skin temperature. So for example, when the measured max temperature of a person is ~91°F, the camera might add 6 degrees reporting them at 97°, but when measured at 94°, it might add just 4 degrees, reporting them at 98°.

The chart below shows our findings from one of our tests:

This is clever but dangerous. It is clever since these algorithms correctly assume most people have normal temperatures, so they disproportionately increase low readings into more normal ones. And since almost no one has a fever at any given time, it is typically right even if the process is wrong / rigged.

It is dangerous because when the system has an obvious bad reading (like a guy zooming by on a skateboard) it gives a false sense of accuracy. The guy on the skateboard probably does not have a fever since very few have fevers but a thermal system can not determine that directly, since the angle of incident and the speed of the skateboarder makes that impossible.

«

Don’t miss the example in the post of what happened when they had skateboard guy walk past one of these “fever cameras” holding a piece of cardboard over his forehead. And the diagnosis of a printout of someone’s face. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Why Goodreads is bad for books • New Statesman

Sarah Manavis:

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Ten years ago, Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant from the UK (now based in New York), mounted his own challenger to Goodreads: 7books, launched in 2010 and now offline, having peaked at 6,000 users. Since then, Critchlow has been analysing why Goodreads competitors tend not to work. Earlier this year, he published a blog post called “A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads”.  In it, he outlined the fundamental challenges behind creating a serious Goodreads competitor. 

“In my mind, there’s three core reasons that Goodreads remains dominant,” he tells me. “Firstly, they are the incumbent with a large user base.” Secondly, he explains, the sheer mass of books data Amazon holds is unparalleled. Goodreads and Amazon dominate web searches for books, which allows them to account for a large proportion of book-related internet traffic. While Amazon’s product API, which catalogues huge numbers of books, can be used by anyone, it is also the only repository of its kind, meaning any new competitor would almost certainly have to use the same tools Goodreads has been working with for many years. 

“Amazon,” Critchlow tells me, “has showed no mercy when dealing with competitors before.”

The final issue Critchlow cites is monetisation: margins on books are already “razor-thin”, and most demand goes via Amazon. “If you were to compete you would need significant scale,” he says, to make any money – and the most likely way to make money in the short term would be through affiliate links, which pay commission on sending readers to online stores – and one online store in particular. “Again,” notes Critchlow, ”you’d be dealing with Amazon directly.”

Critchlow believes all of this all contributes to Amazon doing next to nothing to improve Goodreads’s functionality.

…Critchlow may be sceptical, but new competitors continue to enter the book-tech fray, and one in particular is beginning to make waves.

«

That would be The StoryGraph (which bought the URL from a creative writing site for undergraduates; web searches are thus a bit puzzling.) The example of Goodreads is a classic case of how the internet doesn’t necessarily solve for global equilibria; its faults are legion but tolerated because whaddya gonna do, huh?
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Smoke has caused temperature forecasts to go crazy (plus an update) • Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Clifford Mass:

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The wildfire smoke has a profound impact on surface temperature, causing cooling by reflecting the sun’s rays back to space and absorbing some of it aloft. That is probably obvious to most of you from being outside yesterday, but consider the radiation measurements on the roof of my building at the University of Washington (see top panel below).  Much less radiation yesterday (a drop of 22% from 19.83 to 15.49).

The temperature plot is shown right below – highs dropping from 95 to 73.

Now here is the problem.  Most weather prediction systems are not including smoke and thus are missing its profound cooling effect.  Thus, their forecasts are too warm–and too warm by as much as 20F in areas of dense smoke. On my smartphone right now, Portland is predicted to get to 79F and Eugene, Oregon to 82F. In truth, they won’t get out of the 60s. These forecasts are coming from Weather.com.

The automated services are all too warm because the modelling systems on which they are based do not include smoke. That is also true of many of the National Weather Service models. The NOAA/NWS HRRR smoke modeling system is still experimental and will go operational this year. And I expect all modeling systems will include smoke within the next few years.

This situation shows why it is good we have skilful human forecasters minding the shop at the National Weather Service: they are manually correcting the model predictions so that accurate forecasts are still available

«

Hurrah for humans at times of maximum disaster, I guess. (If you live in the US northwest, Mass’s blog looks like a useful resource on weather.)
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USB-C was supposed to simplify our lives. Instead, it’s a total mess • OneZero

Owen Williams:

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Anyone going all-in on USB-C will run into problems with an optional standard called Power Delivery. The standard allows devices to charge at a much higher wattage relative to older connectors, therefore allowing them to charge faster. But it requires the right combination of charger, cables, and device to actually achieve this.

If you buy a USB-C charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery and try to use it with a Microsoft Surface, for example, the laptop will complain that it’s “not charging” despite receiving some power. Fixing this requires figuring out whether or not it’s the cable or wall charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery, and replacing it with something that does support it. There would be no way for a layperson to hold two USB-C chargers and know the difference between one that supports Power Delivery and one that doesn’t.

Furthering the confusion, some devices actually can’t be charged with chargers supporting Power Delivery, despite sporting a USB-C port — because they weren’t designed to negotiate the higher wattage being delivered by the Power Delivery standard. A pair of cheap Anker headphones I own, for example, refuse to charge when plugged into a MacBook charger. Other devices, like the Nintendo Switch, only partially support the standard, and some unsupported chargers have bricked devices, reportedly due to the Switch’s maximum voltage being exceeded.

Then there’s DisplayPort and Thunderbolt, another set of standards supported by some USB-C devices. DisplayPort allows the use of an external display, such as a 4K monitor, but only supports one at a time at full resolution.

Thunderbolt, yet another optional standard, is a much faster layer on top of USB-C that allows additional possibilities, like the use of multiple displays daisy-chained from a single port, or the use of an external graphics card. It uses the exact same connector, but can be identified with an additional “lightning” symbol when supported.

«

The standards committees must have thought that they were doing just the right thing by bringing all of these different things – Data! Power! Video! Audio! – into one plug. Too clever by half. And too late now to undo the mess. We’re stuck with USB-C and this incomprehensible mess until someone splits them up again.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1391:


Plastic recycling is mostly unrecyclable. The industry knew that… but didn’t admit it CC-licensed photo by Adam Cohn 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. Remember, not iPhones. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook turned blind eye to global political manipulation, whistleblower says • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman, Ryan Mac and Pranav Dixit:

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Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them.

“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her Linkedin profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”

«

There is example after example. At this point it’s impossible to deny that Facebook is harmful to democratic politics. The ease with which people in power can sway it in particular countries, and influence elections and voters, just can’t be ignored.

Which is unlike what Facebook’s senior leadership did. Zhang says they ignored her again and again. And: she was fired.
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Is plastic recycling a lie? Oil companies touted recycling to sell more plastic • NPR

Laura Sullivan:

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NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled.

“The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now,” Russell said.

«

The investment happening now? Plastic’s been on sale for decades. The first report quoted in the piece dates back to 1973. Of course – of course! – it’s the fossil fuel industry pushing the not-actually-true idea.
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It’s the biggest job in tech. So why can’t they find anyone to do it? • ZDNet

Daphne Leprince-Ringuet:

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An exciting new vacancy has opened up that will likely tempt some IT leaders into freshening up their CV: the UK is recruiting a Government Chief Digital Officer (GCDO), who will be working at the highest levels of the Cabinet Office to lead the digital transformation of public services in the country. All of this and more, for £200,000 a year.

The job is the biggest one in government tech so you’d expect the recruiters at the Cabinet Office to be deluged with applications from hyper-qualified aspiring GCDOs, who got tech goosebumps from just reading the role description.

Yet strangely enough, the GCDO job has been open for almost a year now. 

“We sought out candidates for a similar role last autumn,” confirmed Alex Chisholm, the chief operating officer of the civil service, as he announced the new vacancy. And indeed, a similar vacancy went live last October albeit with a slightly different name – Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) – but almost exactly the same responsibilities. 

In both versions of the job, the successful candidate is expected to “enhance Her Majesty’s government’s reputation as the world’s most digitally-advanced government.” This includes leading the Government Digital Service (GDS), a branch of the UK Cabinet Office dedicated to the digital transformation of government, and heading the 18,000-strong Digital, Data and Technology Profession department.

«

Cabinet Office means crossing swords (almost literally) with Dominic Cummings, with his dreams of trillion-dollar companies. That’s not going to end well.
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How algorithms are changing what we read online • The Walrus

Russell Smith was a columnist about arts and culture at the Globe & Mail, the most widely read (in print) paper in Canada:

»

Both at the Globe and across Canada, there wasn’t a lot of competition for what I was doing. I was providing a lot of content—content that helped maintain the paper’s literary brand—for very cheap. But a new arts editor, who came on board around 2016, displayed increasing concern for me. My guess, based on all his talk about “engagement,” was that he was getting pressure from management about my weak numbers. The Globe had, by then, developed Sophi, its own analytic software. Sophi tallies how much of an article is read, how many times it is shared and commented on, and most importantly, whether it being behind a paywall spurs anyone to buy a subscription.

Articles that show low engagement typically get sidelined in favour of pieces that show more, a measurement that, along with all of the above, takes into account the click-through rate, or CTR. “You’re looking at your analytics,” Gorham explained to me, “and you’re saying, Holy shit, this story’s got a high CTR, let’s move it forward. Surface it—share it on Facebook, put it on the home page, release a news alert, put it in the newsletter.” That support is key to keeping engagement up. “If we don’t juice it,” he said, “it just evaporates.”

In practice, this ensures the less read become even less read. It creates what one might call popularity polarization: a few pieces rise to the top, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. With print, this didn’t happen as much. Flipping pages, you would see every article somewhere. But, on your phone, you scroll through what’s been selected for you.

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That’s why Smith’s Globe & Mail columnist days are in the past tense now. We live in populist times: it’s not about the idea of the quality, it’s about “popularity”. Something of a problem for the arts.
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Feds seize almost $400K of ‘counterfeit Apple AirPods’ that are actually OnePlus Buds • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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It can be hard to tell a difference between AirPods and the many earbuds that resemble them, but checking the box is always a good start. US Customs and Border Protection tonight tweeted that its officers had “recently seized 2,000 counterfeit Apple AirPods from Hong Kong, valued at $398K had they been genuine.” There’s also this press release on the situation, which praises CBP officers for “protecting the American public from various dangers on a daily basis” and says that “the interception of these counterfeit earbuds is a direct reflection of the vigilance and commitment to mission success by our CBP officers daily.”

The only problem is, based on the agency’s own photos, the seized products appear to be legitimate OnePlus Buds — transported in a box that plainly says as much. But CBP proudly tweeted “THAT’S NOT AN APPLE,” as if its people had astutely detected a forged piece of 18th-century art. It’s not clear if all of the 2,000 blocked units were OnePlus Buds, though the CBP images are unmistakable.

«

If you look at the pictures in the press release, you realise that the Customs officers probably thought they had a good case. And, in fact, they do. OnePlus hardly put a lot of effort into putting clear water between its design and Apple’s; pretty much zero, in fact.

Plenty of people on Twitter saying that it’s not the Customs’ job to enforce counterfeiting laws. No, but it is their job to prevent counterfeits – or what they think are – from coming into whichever country.
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UK tech giant Arm Holdings to be sold to US company Nvidia in $40bn deal • The Guardian

Martin Farrer, Julia Kollewe and Rob Davies:

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Nvidia, a US company, will pay SoftBank $21.5bn in shares and $12bn in cash for the chip designer, although the deal is still subject to regulatory approval in the UK and could face opposition from its new owners’ rivals and British politicians concerned about foreign takeovers.

It is expected that Nvidia will face tough conditions on protecting jobs and the status of Arm’s headquarters in Cambridge as part of the deal.

Arm co-founder Hermann Hauser described the takeover as an “absolute disaster” and said it would destroy the company’s business model and lead to job losses at its Cambridge headquarters and elsewhere in the UK.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning, he said any promises made on jobs were “meaningless unless they are legally enforceable”, pointing to the takeover of Cadbury by US company Kraft in 2010.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of science and technology union Prospect, called on the government to intervene in a deal he described as a “worrying development”.

“If the UK tech sector is to flourish and create the jobs of the future here in Britain, then we need our crown jewels to be owned and managed in a sustainable way that prioritises investment in the workforce and in research and development.

“It is not too late for the government to take a more hands-on approach to this deal and impose some binding conditions to secure a stable future for Arm that benefits the whole country.”

SoftBank paid $32bn for the company four years ago in a deal that pledged to keep the headquarters in Cambridge. It also netted a fortune for Arm’s executives, and this time around Arm employees will share $1.5bn in Nvidia shares.

«

The Kraft/Cadbury takeover is notorious: US company Kraft promised to preserve jobs at Cadbury, a famous British brand. A week after the takeover, it closed a key factory.

How do you stop Nvidia doing what it wants with Arm? The government would need to take a “golden share”. Even then, the reality is that Arm’s real value walks in and out of the door every day. Without new designs, it’s nothing.
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Oracle wins bid for TikTok in US, beating Microsoft • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Aaron Tilley:

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Oracle is set to be announced as TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” in the US, and the deal is likely not to be structured as an outright sale, the people said.

The next step is for the White House and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US to approve the deal, said one of the people, adding that the participants believe it satisfies the concerns around data security that have been previously raised by the US government.

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed that his office received a bid proposal from Oracle for TikTok’s operations over the weekend and said that the Treasury-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the US would review it this week.

“We will be reviewing that at the CFIUS committee this week and then will be making a recommendation to the president and reviewing it with him,” Mr. Mnuchin said on CNBC. “From our standpoint, we’ll need to make sure that the code is, one, secure, Americans’ data is secure, that the phones are secure and we’ll be looking to have discussions with Oracle over the next few days with our technical teams.”

Mr. Mnuchin also said the Oracle deal includes a commitment to establish TikTok as a global company headquartered in the US, which he said would mean 20,000 new jobs.

«

This is just ridiculous from top to bottom. The US has never specified precisely what the “risk” of TikTok is compared to, say, any other company; it’s even more vague than the claims about Huawei. The suspicion is that it’s another of Trump’s psychotic rages for claiming to have screwed up one of his rallies. Oracle will stuff things up, and there will be a lot of angry young folks out there.
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Addicted to losing: how casino-like apps have drained people of millions • NBC News

Cyrus Farivar:

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Jackpot Magic is an app made by Big Fish Games of Seattle, one of the leaders in an industry of “free-to-play” social games into which some people have plowed thousands of dollars. Big Fish Games also operates a similar app, Big Fish Casino. Both are labeled as videogames, which allows the company and others like it to skirt the tightly regulated U.S. gambling market.

But unlike the gambling market, apps like Jackpot Magic and Big Fish Casino are under little oversight to determine whether they are fair or whether their business practices are predatory.

NBC News spoke to 21 people, including Shellz and her husband, who said they were hooked on the casino-style games and had spent significant sums of money. They described feelings of helplessness and wanting to quit but found themselves addicted to the games and tempted by the company’s aggressive marketing tactics.

Most of the 21 players wished to remain anonymous, as they were ashamed of their addictions and did not want their loved ones to find out about their behavior.

A 42-year-old Pennsylvania woman said she felt saddened that she spent $40,000 on Big Fish Casino while working as an addiction counselor.

“The whole time I was working as an addiction counselor, I was addicted to gambling and with no hope of winning any money back,” she said.

Big Fish Games did not make anyone available for an interview, nor did the company respond to detailed questions. The company has said in previous court filings that only a fraction of the game’s players actually spend money.

In a response to NBC News’ inquiries, the company issued a statement saying its games are not gambling and should not be regulated as such.

“These games are not gambling because, among other reasons, they offer no opportunity for players to win money or anything of value,” the statement said in part.

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Well that’s sort of true. No matter how much money you put in or seem to win, it never pays out. Put like that, it’s astonishing that anyone would put money in.

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Google says its carbon footprint is now zero • BBC News

»

Google says it has wiped out its entire carbon footprint by investing in “high-quality carbon offsets”.

It became carbon-neutral in 2007 and says it has now compensated for all of the carbon it has ever created. It also aimed to run all of its data centres and offices on carbon-free energy by 2030, chief executive Sundar Pichai has announced.

Other large technology companies have also committed to reducing or eliminating their carbon use.

• In January Microsoft revealed plans to become “carbon negative” by 2030
• In July, Apple announced a target of becoming carbon neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain by 2030
• Amazon has set a 2040 target to go carbon neutral

Mr Pichai said Google’s pledge to be using only carbon-free energy by 2030 was its “biggest sustainability moonshot yet”. “We’ll do things like pairing wind and solar power sources together and increasing our use of battery storage,” he said.

“And we’re working on ways to apply AI [artificial intelligence] to optimise our electricity demand and forecasting.”

…Greenpeace said Google was setting “a new high-bar for the sector” with its ambition.

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Hate speech on Facebook is pushing Ethiopia dangerously close to a genocide • Vice

David Gilbert:

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[The popular Ethiopian singer Hachalu] Hundessa’s death at age 34 set off a wave of violence in the capital and his home region of Oromia. Hundreds of people were killed, with minorities like Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos, and Gurage people suffering the biggest losses.

This bloodshed was supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger. Mobs destroyed and burned property. They lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims.

The calls for violence against a variety of ethnic and religious groups happened despite the government shutting down the internet within hours of Hundessa’s murder. Soon, the same people who’d been calling for genocide and attacks against specific religous or ethnic groups were openly posting photographs of burned-out cars, buildings, schools and houses, the Network Against Hate Speech, a volunteer group tracking hate speech in Ethiopia, told VICE News.

These attacks reflect the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. [President] Abiy’s rise to power in 2018 led to a brief period of hope that Ethiopia could be unified under the first Oromo to lead the country. But that quickly evaporated, and the country has since been wracked by violence, coinciding with a rapid increase in access to the internet, where Facebook dominates. And rather than helping to unify the country, Facebook has simply amplified existing tensions on a massive scale.

“When the violence erupts offline, online content that calls for ethnic attacks, discrimination, and destruction of property goes viral,” Berhan Taye, Africa policy lead at digital rights group Access Now, told VICE News.

«

Ethiopia has one of the lowest social media penetrations in the world. Yet Facebook has twice been warned about the risks it poses, including posts that have incited violence and killings.

We’ve seen this story before.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1390: the Arctic is on fire too, preventing California’s infernos, Britain’s coronavirus testing shortage, and more


Britain’s Arm Holdings is about to be snapped up by America’s Nvidia, reportedly for $40bn CC-licensed photo by Adam Greig 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. And we’re back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Arctic is burning like never before — and that’s bad news for climate change • Nature

Alexandra Witze:

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Wildfires blazed along the Arctic Circle this summer, incinerating tundra, blanketing Siberian cities in smoke and capping the second extraordinary fire season in a row. By the time the fire season waned at the end of last month, the blazes had emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide — that’s 35% more than last year, which also set records. One culprit, scientists say, could be peatlands that are burning as the top of the world melts.

Peatlands are carbon-rich soils that accumulate as waterlogged plants slowly decay, sometimes over thousands of years. They are the most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth; a typical northern peatland packs in roughly ten times as much carbon as a boreal forest. When peat burns, it releases its ancient carbon to the atmosphere, adding to the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change.

Nearly half the world’s peatland-stored carbon lies between 60 and 70 degrees north, along the Arctic Circle. The problem with this is that historically frozen carbon-rich soils are expected to thaw as the planet warms, making them even more vulnerable to wildfires and more likely to release large amounts of carbon. It’s a feedback loop: as peatlands release more carbon, global warming increases, which thaws more peat and causes more wildfires (see ‘Peatlands burning’). A study published last month1 shows that northern peatlands could eventually shift from being a net sink for carbon to a net source of carbon, further accelerating climate change.

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I’ve been reading a sci-fi series dubbed the “Lady Astronaut” books which opens in 1952 with a meteor impact destroying Washington and putting so much water vapour into the atmosphere that runaway heating becomes inevitable, so that escaping Earth becomes the only solution.

Not sure that’s our best option, even with nearly 60 years’ more technology experience. What we really need is technology to remove carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere in gigantic amounts. It would be the most valuable breakthrough imaginable.
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They know how to prevent megafires. Why won’t anybody listen? • ProPublica

Elizabeth Weil:

»

in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line,[Tim Ingalsbee] started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

So what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week.

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“Sclerotic” seems an apt word for the inability to make effective decisions.
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Why email registration is dead, and how removing it improved retention by a surprising 4.5% • Solitaired

“Neal”:

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I was watching my sister play, who had become a solitaire addict after she QAd [did quality assurance on] the game. She was obsessed with beating her personal bests and getting high scores for the game of the day. When I watched her play though, quizzically, she had not registered for an account.

I asked her why, she said she just didn’t want to give her email away and get bombarded by more emails. I was dumbfounded, because after all, her brother (me), was the co-founder of the site and yet she still had these concerns.

The lightbulb went off. Since sending emails did not provide value, and if anything was an additional cost, what if we just asked for a username. While this creates issues with password recovery, we thought this would drive up registrations and improve retention. We also have a long term cookie so users wouldn’t have to login again.

When we changed email sign ups simply to usernames, we saw registrations increase by a huge 36%! More importantly, we saw return users increase another 4.5%.

This meant email registration was holding us back from driving retention.

Digging in further, we’re also seeing return visitors playing more games like Freecell and Spider. Leaderboards and simple registration have encouraged users to try new games.

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A long time ago at The Guardian, another startup wrote an article for me about how his startup had struggled (it was aimed at teens) until they stopped asking for email registration. Then user numbers rocketed. Generally now your computer will remember these details for you.
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What I found out when I blocked apps from tracking my iPhone for one week • Pando

Rob Sturgeon:

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I tried a little experiment: blocked apps from tracking my iPhone for just one week

And during that time I was tracked 4,341 times by 33 tracking platforms.

Some highlights:
• Google tracked me nearly twice as much as all others combined
• Facebook and Amazon tracked me more than any other company (except Google)
• The rest of the data goes to 29 companies, most of which I’ve never heard of

Let’s remember this was just one week. If we assume the rate of tracking has always been somewhat similar, we can extrapolate from there. If all 52 weeks in a year are the same, I’m being tracked 225,732 times a year. And I’ve been using iPhones exclusively for 10 years, which means…

My iPhone has been tracked 2,257,320 times. [Surely less, since not all of those trackers will have been running all those ten years – CA.]

…Analytics are far more popular than any other category of tracker

This is more than a little disturbing, because the defenders of trackers tend to claim that they exist for reasons that ultimately benefit the user. If an app we regularly use crashes, we can at least be reassured that the developer has probably been notified. Though the developer failed to catch the crash in testing, they get a second chance at finding it and fixing it with crash management.

Apparently advertising is more useful to users if it’s personalised, as we’re more likely to take an action like buying a product or downloading an app. That makes it sound a lot more useful to the advertisers if you ask me. I often hear the defense that if we have to see ads everywhere, they might as well be for things we want. I don’t really have that need as a user, as I have plenty of ways of discovering new things without being targeted based on the most personal information I possess.

Instead of fixing crashes or providing targeted advertising, the majority of trackers on my iPhone are just plain old analytics. 

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Ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt says US ‘dropped the ball’ on innovation • BBC News

Karishma Vaswani:

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In the battle for tech supremacy between the US and China, America has “dropped the ball” in funding for basic research, according to former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.

And that’s one of the key reasons why China has been able to catch up.

Dr Schmidt, who is currently the Chair of the US Department of Defense’s innovation board, said he thinks the US is still ahead of China in tech innovation, for now. But that the gap is narrowing fast.

“There’s a real focus in China around invention and new AI techniques,” he told the BBC’s Talking Business Asia programme. “In the race for publishing papers China has now caught up.”

China displaced the US as the world’s top research publisher in science and engineering in 2018, according to data from the World Economic Forum. That’s significant because it shows how much China is focusing on research and development in comparison to the US.

For example, Chinese telecoms infrastructure giant Huawei spends as much as $20bn (£15.6bn) on research and development – one of the highest budgets in the world.

…Dr Schmidt blames the narrowing of the innovation gap between the US and China on the lack of funding in the US.

“For my whole life, the US has been the unquestioned leader of R&D,” the former Google boss said. “Funding was the equivalent of 2% or so of GDP of the country. Recently R&D has fallen to a lower percentage number than was there before Sputnik.”

According to Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a US lobby group for technology, the US government now invests less in R&D compared to the size of the economy than it has in more than 60 years.

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San Francisco lets just one person delay eco-friendly projects in the midst of a climate crisis. How is that fair? • SFChronicle.com

Heather Knight:

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in supposedly environmentally conscious San Francisco, we’re fighting over bike lanes and prohibiting through traffic on a tiny percentage of our streets. Even though making it easier and more appealing for people to leave their cars at home to walk, bike, carpool or take public transit instead is one of the main ways cities can fight climate change.

Two San Franciscans seem to have made it their pandemic hobby to file appeals for just about every emergency action taken by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in the past six months. They’re gadfly David Pilpel and attorney Mary Miles, who says she represents the Coalition for Adequate Review. Yes, she’s sticking up for CAR. They’re both well known at City Hall for trying to thwart various projects over the years, and they’re at it again.

Pilpel could not be reached for comment. Miles did not return a call, but did email copies of her appeal letters.

Because of them, the next phase of the Slow Streets program is on hold. That program shuts some streets to through traffic so people can walk and bike safely while social distancing. Temporary emergency changes to streets to make way for coronavirus testing sites and pop-up food pantries are also on hold.

Emergency transit lanes for buses operating at reduced capacity for social distancing to whisk essential workers to their jobs without getting stuck in traffic are on hold. A protected bike lane on Fell Street to alleviate the crush of exercisers in the crowded Panhandle is also being fought over.

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I don’t think the question is whether it’s “fair” but whether it’s “sensible”. (It’s not.)
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Nvidia reportedly to acquire ARM Holdings from SoftBank for $40bn • FT via Ars Technica

Arash Massoudi, Robert Smith, and James Fontanella-Khan:

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SoftBank is set to sell the UK’s Arm Holdings to US chip company Nvidia for more than $40bn, just four years after its founder Masayoshi Son bought the chip designer and said it would be the linchpin for the future of the Japanese technology group.

Multiple people with direct knowledge of the matter said a cash-and-stock takeover of Arm by Nvidia may be announced as soon as Monday, and that SoftBank will become the largest shareholder in the US chip company.

The announcement of the deal hinged on SoftBank ending a messy dispute between Arm and the head of its China joint venture, Allen Wu, who earlier rebuffed an attempt to remove him and claimed legal control of the unit.

…Nvidia had a market valuation of roughly similar to that of Arm’s at the time of the 2016 deal, but now trades with a market value of $300bn, or roughly 10 times the amount SoftBank paid in cash for Arm. By paying for a large portion of the deals with its own shares, it is also passing part of the risk of the transaction to SoftBank.

For Nvidia, which recently overtook Intel to become the world’s most valuable chipmaker, the deal will further consolidate the US company’s position at the centre of the semiconductor industry. The British chip designer’s technology is starting to find broader applications beyond mobile devices, in data centres and personal computers including Apple’s Macs.

Arm would transform Nvidia’s product line-up, which until now has largely focused on the high end of the chips market. Its powerful graphics processors—which are designed to handle focused, data-intensive tasks—are typically sold to PC gamers, scientific researchers and developers of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, as well as cryptocurrency miners.

«

Question is, could Arm have been made more valuable? Companies take its designs as they come. Should it crank out more? Then it becomes harder for chip foundries to meet the design needs. I’ve never quite understood how Arm makes itself more valuable. Obviously, if it doesn’t come up with enough designs, the value will fall. But there must be some balance.

The British government won’t get in the way of this, though.

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🇨🇦 Marshall Ferguson 🏈 on Twitter

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I’d like to nominate cardboard humans watching baseball in a dystopian hell scape for photo of the year, thanks.

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You can view the tweet. This is the picture. One must agree. There are no visible clocks, but the sun is clearly up (on the right hand side).


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Leaked figures reveal scale of coronavirus test shortage • The Sunday Times

Gabriel Pogrund, Tom Calver and Caroline Wheeler:

»

The government’s “world-beating” testing programme has a backlog of 185,000 swabs and is so overstretched that it is sending tests to laboratories in Italy and Germany, according to leaked documents.

A Department of Health and Social Care report marked “Official: sensitive” also confirms that most British laboratories are clearing fewer tests than their stated capacity, as they are hit by “chaos” in supply chains.

The government claims that it has capacity for 375,000 tests a day. However, the actual number of people being tested for the coronavirus stalled to just 437,000 people a week at the start of the month — equivalent to just 62,000 a day.

Throughout last week, people in Covid-19 hotspots across the north of England struggled to get tests and were told to travel hundreds of miles for an appointment. In Bolton, which has the highest infection rate in Britain of more than 180 weekly cases per 100,000 people, no tests were available on the government’s online booking system between Thursday and Saturday.

…Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, pledged last week that testing would be available in schools so that pupils could return safely. But schools of any size are receiving just 10 test kits each, and are being told to use them only in “exceptional circumstances” and where the pupils could not otherwise access tests at home.

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The UK government is obscuring this through data which doesn’t clarify the number of test per person.
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Why the Taboola-Outbrain deal fell apart and what it means for publishers • Digiday

Lara O’Reilly on the merger that didn’t happen between the two companies which provide most (though not quite all) of the “chumboxes” of junk links (“People Who Look Like Fish!”) that you see beneath otherwise respectable stories in otherwise respectable publishers’ sites:

»

Taboola and Outbrain have now clearly shifted back into their familiar position of old foes. Both companies now have the added benefit of having peeled back the curtain on one another’s finances — even if only at a high level, given the disclosure rules surrounding mergers and acquisitions — said Richard Marques, CEO of Taboola and Outbrain rival Revcontent.

“The way this business works is if I’m a huge publisher, I get two to three [content recommendation] companies to start a bidding war against each other and sell the deal to the highest bidder,” said Marques. “From a vendor side [it’s about] how high can you go where you are as solvent as can be; there’s a real art threading that needle to find as close to breakeven as possible.”

«

Taboola and Outbrain get billions of clicks per month. (I know, I know.) They pay publishers handsomely. The deal fell apart because competition authorities reckoned if there was one big player rather than two competitors, the market would be worse served.

They’re also responsible for undermining peoples’ confidence in news sites: if you see one of their links on a site, your respect for that site goes down at once. And they used to be everywhere.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1389: Moonshot under the microscope, Zuck ignores vaccine lies, Surface Duo reviewed, TikTok censorship, and more


Looking for the Broomway? Just follow the footpath that has killed around a hundred people. CC-licensed photo by Adrian Miller 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 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The government’s mass testing Moonshot project looks like a 90s Silicon Valley PowerPoint nightmare • Diginomica

Derek du Preez:

»

The idea is that if millions and millions of tests are readily available and results can be delivered in minutes, rather than days, then people can live a fairly normal life knowing their COVID-19 status. That’s all well and good, but this major project is being pushed by the same government that has still failed to deliver a contact tracing app and also didn’t have the foresight to recognise that maybe using algorithms to predict students’ grades would be a disaster. Amongst a litany of other technology blunders over the years…

Not to mention that the testing technology in question isn’t yet available and the alleged cost of the project is almost the equivalent of the entire NHS budget.

But hey, we like ambition! And no one ever did anything worthwhile without breaking new ground and trying something new. And as everyone knows, these are ‘unprecedented times’ and we’d all like to be able to go to the pub with our mates…

Well, that might be your thinking until you glance over the leaked briefing documents for project Moonshot. A quick scan over the slides – which are full of Venn diagrams, misaligned text, unexplained colour coding, BS consultancy catchphrases – and even the most optimistic amongst us will start to lose confidence.

It honestly looks and reads like a 90s Silicon Valley PowerPoint presentation from a sales exec that knows they’re pitching a piece of technology and an idea that doesn’t yet exist and isn’t achievable.

So, let’s take a look at how taxpayer money could be used to deliver 70 million COVID-19 tests a week. Because, you’d imagine that if the government was considering forking out £100bn it would want a clear, understandable, workable plan in place to instil public confidence and stand up to peer review.

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I think this idea will quietly sink under the waves. Meanwhile Dominic Cummings had told the Department of Culture, Media and For Some Reason Sport that he wants the UK to have a trillion-dollar company. Perhaps they could set up a company with a million shares and buy one of them for million pounds. Voila! (American trillion.)
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Twitter expands misinformation rules to cover premature election results • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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Starting September 17th, the platform will label or remove tweets involving election rigging or premature election results, treating those categories as particularly likely to cause immediate harm.

“The conversation happening on Twitter is never more important than during elections,” Twitter said in a blog post rolling out the new policy. “Twitter is where people come to hear directly from elected officials and candidates for office, it’s where they come to find breaking news, and increasingly, it’s an integral source for information on when and how to vote in elections.”

Twitter’s new rules will likely bring the platform into conflict with President Trump. Over the last few months, Trump has sent out numerous tweets making false or misleading statements about the November election and voting process. Under this new policy, confusing posts regarding ballot box tampering, elections results, and election rigging will either be fact-checked or removed.

«

Looking forward to Twitter trying to keep up with Trump’s sure-to-be-bonkers tweets on November 3 and afterwards. Perhaps just put his account in Twitter jail for a bit.

A wider question: assuming the best outcome, should Twitter delete his account after next January?
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This desolate English footpath has killed more than 100 people • BBC Travel

Robert Macfarlane:

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If you consult a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the River Crouch and the River Thames, you will see a footpath – its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes – leaving the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and then heading due east, straight out to sea. Several hundred yards offshore, it curls northeast and runs in this direction for around three miles, still offshore, before cutting back to make landfall at Fisherman’s Head, the uppermost tip of a large, low-lying and little-known marshy island called Foulness.

This is the Broomway, allegedly “the deadliest” path in Britain, and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Broomway is thought to have killed more than 100 people over the centuries; it seems likely that there were other victims whose fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard; the other bodies were not recovered. Edwardian newspapers, alert to the path’s reputation, rechristened it “The Doomway”.

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You start out thinking “oh, it can’t be that bad can it?” and then he heads out onto it and you realise that yes, a hundred people could have been killed on it.
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How America’s war on Huawei may boost Chinese technology • The Economist

»

According to IC Insights, a firm of analysts, HiSilicon broke into the global top-ten design companies by revenue in the first half of 2020, the first Chinese firm to do so. Since it will no longer be able to design chips for its owner [Huawei] after September 14th, HiSilicon could profitably focus on doing so for third parties in China. That would generate a new revenue stream for Huawei. If instead Huawei were forced to shut HiSilicon, its laid-off engineers would be snapped up by chip-design teams at other Chinese technology giants like Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance. Or they could start new design firms of their own; many are said to be slipping out pre-emptively.

Each scenario worries firms like Qualcomm. The big American chip-designer lists Chinese competition as a risk in its annual filings. Last year Chinese sales made up $11.6bn out of Qualcomm’s $24.3bn in revenue. A HiSilicon liberated from Huawei would threaten those sales.

Huawei is putting on a brave face. It says it will spend over $20bn on research and development this year, $5.8bn more than in 2019 and about as much as Amazon, a firm with double its sales. It hopes to gain new revenue streams less vulnerable to American attacks. These are unlikely to let up even if Joe Biden becomes president next year. But as Uncle Sam tightens the grip, it risks squeezing Chinese technology into a form which it no longer controls. Huawei hopes to hang on until then.

«

Economist articles are typically unsigned, but this was written by Hal Hodson, the Asia technology correspondent. His tweets have a lot more thoughts about the situation.
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Hate social media? You’ll love this documentary • WIRED

Arielle Pardes:

»

the documentary carries an air of gravitas. It prosecutes its case like a trial lawyer, calling one witness after another up to the stand. They include many of the great architects of social media as we know it today—people like Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetization; Justin Rosenstein, who invented the Like button; and Guillaume Chaslot, who created the recommended-video infrastructure for YouTube—all of whom denounce their former work.

But while The Social Dilemma establishes that there is a problem, it struggles to locate the source of the stink. The film begins with an offscreen producer asking technologists what, exactly, is wrong with social media. It ends with those same technologists offering their prophecies for the future. Mostly, it shows the technologists squirming in their seats, unsure of where to begin.

Eventually, though, they start talking. According to them, the problems are thus: We spend too much time on social media. We do this because, in essence, we have no choice. The people who work at tech companies have invested infinite money, time, and engineering power to design systems that keep us hooked, and which predict our every move. It’s how they make money: We are not the user, we are the product (such clichés are repeated frequently). Mark Zuckerberg and Susan Wojcicki are billionaires; meanwhile, everyone else has given up happiness, knowledge, intimacy, spontaneity, time with our families, free will.

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On Netflix now. I haven’t seen it yet, but certainly sounds intriguing.
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Russian intelligence hackers are back, Microsoft warns, aiming at officials of both parties • The New York Times

David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth:

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The Russian military intelligence unit that attacked the Democratic National Committee four years ago is back with a series of new, more stealthy hacks aimed at campaign staff, consultants and think tanks associated with both Democrats and Republicans.

That warning was issued on Thursday by the Microsoft Corporation, in an assessment that is far more detailed than any yet made public by American intelligence agencies.

The findings come one day after a government whistle-blower claimed that officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security suppressed intelligence concerning Russia’s continuing interference because it “made the president look bad,” and instructed government analysts to instead focus on interference by China and Iran.

Microsoft did find that Chinese and Iranian hackers have been active — but often not in the way that President Trump and his aides have suggested.

Contrary to an assessment by the director of national intelligence last month that said China preferred former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. win the election, Microsoft found that Chinese hackers have been attacking the private email accounts of Mr. Biden’s campaign staff, along with a range of other prominent individuals in academia and the national security establishment, including groups like the Atlantic Council and the Stimson Center.

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Microsoft Surface Duo review: two screens, too many problems • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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With OneNote, I’ve loved brainstorming and taking notes with the $100 Surface Pen (sold separately). I’d love it even more if the pen could keep up with my writing. Another performance issue. Unfortunately, key Microsoft apps like Excel and Skype haven’t been optimized for two screens.

Microsoft and Google are also working with third-party app developers. The Kindle app, for instance, places a page on each screen to make this one adorable little e-reader. (Or at least it should. It glitched midway through testing, but began working again later, after I complained to Microsoft.)

You can also launch one app on each screen—Edge browser on left, Word on right, for instance. One of my favorite features is App Groups, which lets you pair two apps together to simultaneously launch. I have Twitter and TikTok in one with the label, “Bad for My Brain.”

One screen is still better suited to many of our current needs, and that makes this wide device feel awkward more often than not. Talking phone-style on the folded Duo is like holding a baking pan up to your head (cue sales pitch for $200 Surface Earbuds), and the display definitely gets in the way when you’re just responding to a quick text or snapping a quick photo. (And don’t get me started on the 11-megapixel camera and its position on the top left screen.)

Mr. Barlow said he often keeps his Duo in single-screen mode so he doesn’t have to unfold it when he wants to do something quickly.

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The review video is five minutes, but they zip by. There are definitely quite a few tablet-y things that it does well, and quite a few phone-y things (particularly taking photos and making calls) that it does badly. A folding tablet? That wouldn’t be so bad. Dieter Bohn’s review at The Verge is worth reading for the software section too.
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How Google and Microsoft teamed up to try to reinvent smartphones • Protocol

David Pierce with the story of how the Surface Duo came to be; the most interesting details being how the two organisations struggled to mesh:

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A few weeks after their initial meeting, [Microsoft’s chief product officer Panos] Panay brought a small team to Mountain View and redid his pitch for a team of Microsoft and Google employees, this time with [Google head of Android, Hiroshi] Lockheimer by his side. From that point on, things kicked into gear. There was no hands-in moment, no signing on the dotted line. The two teams just started building a product together. Small cultural differences — should meetings happen on Teams or Meet? Do they last 25 minutes (Google’s way) or 30 (Microsoft’s)? — mostly fell by the wayside.

The hardest part of the project, both Lockheimer and Panay said, was getting the rest of their companies on board. It was a bit easier for Google, Lockheimer said, since the Android team is used to working with partners that look suspiciously like competitors. Still, every time a new team within either company got involved, it took time and convincing to bring them up to speed. Panay described it this way: “It starts with, ‘Hey, we’re building this new Surface.’ And they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s awesome, what are we doing?’ ‘We’re building it on Android.’ And then … there’s a pause.” People would ask Panay, you know you’re in charge of Windows, right? And he’d say, yes, but we’re doing this with Android. “That’s a hurdle” for people, Panay said, “and an emotional one.”

Current and former employees said Microsoft remains mostly a top-down culture, driven by leaders and corporate edicts, while Google allows employees huge latitude to make and ship stuff. In theory that would make it easier for Panay to get buy-in from the rest of Microsoft, who might be expected to fall in line with the big new product. And it could make it harder within Google, where an Android exec might have trouble persuading a Maps or Gmail product manager to make dual-screen devices a priority.

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Apps for children must offer privacy by default • BBC News

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Apps, social media platforms and online games that are specifically targeted at children will now have to put privacy at the heart of their design.

A code of practice outlining how children’s data should be protected has come into force and firms have 12 months to comply with the new rules. If they do not, they could face huge fines imposed by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Some questioned whether the code would bring about real change. Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said it was an important step towards protecting children online. “A generation from now we will all be astonished that there was ever a time when there wasn’t specific regulation to protect kids online. It will be as normal as putting on a seatbelt.

“This code makes clear that kids are not like adults online, and their data needs greater protections.”
She said the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recognised that it could be difficult for smaller businesses to comply with the code and would offer “help and support” over the coming year.

…The scope of protections needed for children online was huge and the ICO might not be up to the job, said one digital rights campaigner, Jen Persson.

“The code is well-intentioned, and if enforced, may bring about some more focused change in the approach of some apps and platforms to stop collecting excessive data from children for example, and start to meet the requirements of core data protection law in place for over 20 years.

“The key risks are that since the ICO has not enforced to date on behalf of children in its current remit of concrete data protection law, that it may be seen as not having the capability to enforce those new things in the code that go beyond that and are subjective, such as the best interests of the child, or that outstrip the ICO technical knowledge and capacity.”

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Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook won’t remove anti-vaccine posts despite Covid concerns • The Guardian

Edward Helmore:

»

Zuckerberg acknowledged [in the interview on Axios on HBO] that conservative voices and opinions ranked as Facebook’s most engaged content.

“It’s true that partisan content often has kind of a higher% of people … engaging with it, commenting on it, liking it,” Zuckerberg said. “But I think it’s important to differentiate that from, broadly, what people are seeing and reading and learning about on our service.”

Also in the Axios interview, the Facebook chief said he would not remove anti-vaxxer posts, even as the leading virus experts express cautious optimism that a Covid-19 vaccination may become available late this year or early next year.

“If someone is pointing out a case where a vaccine caused harm or that they’re worried about it – you know, that’s a difficult thing to say from my perspective that you shouldn’t be allowed to express at all,” Zuckerberg said.

But he denied that Facebook’s algorithms are designed to push viewpoints “that are going to kind of enrage people somehow, and that’s what we try to show people”.

“That’s not actually how our systems work,” he added.

«

Zuckerberg is being so absurdly disingenuous here. He knows, because the point has been made to him so often, that this isn’t about “a case” where “a vaccine caused harm”. It’s about anti-scientific propaganda allied to people selling harmful “cures”. Facebook is derelict. I haven’t used the original Axios writeup because it’s all over the place. Rather than a transcript, it’s bite-size junk.
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TikTok admits restricting some LGBT hashtags • BBC News

Chris Fox:

»

TikTok has acknowledged that it restricts LGBT-related hashtags in some countries as part of its “localised” approach to moderation.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think-tank said many LGBT hashtags were “shadow-banned” in Bosnia, Jordan and Russia.

A shadow ban limits the discovery of content without indicating that a particular hashtag is on a ban list. TikTok said that some hashtags were restricted to comply with local laws.

According to the ASPI, terms that were not linking to content included:
• “gay” in Russian and Arabic
• “I am a lesbian” and “I am gay” in Russian
• “transgender” in Arabic

TikTok said that while some terms were restricted to comply with local laws, others were limited because they were primarily used to discover pornographic content.

«

There’s that Chinese censorship/moderation (one of those irregular verbs: I moderate, you censor), just as you might expect. What you don’t know is what else gets banned.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1388: China’s failed 7nm chip effort, ethics row deepens at Facebook, 5G iPhones await, cartels try drone killing, and more


Does this make you think of a Google Pixel photo? The man behind that liked Caravaggio’s style. CC-licensed photo by jean louis mazieres 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 11 links for you. Recordings, you say? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook engineer Ashok Chandwaney quits, slamming Zuckerberg’s stances on hateful and racist speech • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin:

»

Facebook software engineer Ashok Chandwaney has watched with growing unease as the platform has become a haven for hate. On Tuesday morning, it came time to take a stand.

“I’m quitting because I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally,” Chandwaney wrote in a letter posted on Facebook’s internal employee network shortly after 8 a.m. Pacific time. The nearly 1,300-word document was detailed, bristling with links to bolster its claims and scathing in its conclusions.

“We don’t benefit from hate,” Facebook spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois said. “We invest billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe and are in deep partnership with outside experts to review and update our policies. This summer we launched an industry leading policy to go after QAnon, grew our fact-checking program, and removed millions of posts tied to hate organizations — over 96% of which we found before anyone reported them to us.”

Tuesday’s resignation made Chandwaney the latest Facebook employee to quit amid rising discontent within a company that, just a few years ago, was considered an ideal employer — exciting, deep-pocketed and, as chief executive Mark Zuckerberg frequently said, animated by the seemingly benevolent mission of connecting the world together. Worker frustration with Facebook’s policies on hate and racist speech has risen as protests against racial injustice have swept the country, with thousands of employees demanding that Zuckerberg, who controls a majority of Facebook’s voting shares, change his stances.

«

Guess I picked the wrong week to go for my “no Facebook links” attempt.
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Apple to start producing first 5G iPhones in mid-September • Nikkei Asian Review

Lauly Li and Cheng Ting-Fang:

»

Apple has overcome travel curbs and other coronavirus disruptions to begin initial production of its 5G iPhones in mid-September, narrowing the production delay to just weeks instead of months, the Nikkei Asian Review has learned.

Manufacturing will begin on a limited scale, with mass production expected to begin gradually between the end of September and early October. This timetable is still behind Apple’s usual schedule over the past few years, when mass production began in August for lineups released in September, but it is a large improvement compared with the situation a few months ago, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Given the lost time, however, Apple may fall short of its production target for the year. The California tech giant ordered components for up to 80 million 5G iPhones, but sources say the actual number produced this year may end up being between 73 million and 74 million, with the rest deferred into early 2021, two sources with knowledge of the matter said. 

At the same time, Apple has also significantly boosted manufacturing orders for the upcoming iPads to meet demand for teleworking and remote learning, sources said…

«

So that’s mid-October for the phones confirmed. Who’s spending all the money on iPads for remote learning, though?
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Marc Levoy on the balance of camera hardware, software, and artistic expression • The Verge

Nilay Patel talks to the man who led Google’s camera team for its Pixel phones:

»

Q: Marques Brownlee does these challenges every so often where he asks people to vote “blind Pepsi challenges” of smartphone photos. I think every time he’s done it, it doesn’t matter how good the photo is, the brightest photo always wins. That’s the easiest cheat that any camera maker has, is just to overexpose it a little bit and then you’ll win on Twitter. How do you solve for that in a moment like this?

That was a debate that at Google we had all the time. At Adobe, I’m hoping to put it more in the hands of the consumer or the creative professional. Let them decide what the look will be.

But of course, that was a constant debate because you’re right, brighter would often win in a one-to-one comparison. One factor that you haven’t mentioned that I should add in here is the tuning of the displays on these smartphones. Most smartphones are a little bit cranked relative to a calibrated so-called SRGB display. They’re more saturated. They’re more contrasty. You could argue that that’s probably the right thing to do on the small screen. It would be a terrible thing to do on a large screen. It would look very cartoony, but that kind of contributes to what people want to see and to taste, especially since most photographs are looked at only on the small screen.

Yeah, it’s a constant debate, a constant emerging trend.

«

He cites Caravaggio and Titian as influences. Not kidding.
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AstraZeneca halting COVID-19 vaccine trial is “one of the safety valves,” Dr. Fauci says • CBS News

Nicole Brown:

»

The halting of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine trial is “not uncommon,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday. Being alert for potential adverse reactions is part of the process, he explained. 

“It’s really one of the safety valves that you have on clinical trials such as this,” he said on “CBS This Morning.” “So it’s unfortunate that it happened. Hopefully they’ll work it out and be able to proceed along with the remainder of the trial.”

AstraZeneca paused its Phase 3 trial on Tuesday after one participant became ill. It was not clear what symptoms the participant had. AstraZeneca is one of three companies currently in the final phase of vaccine trials. 

“This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials,” AstraZeneca said in a statement.

Fauci said “generally,” the adverse event is related to something else, not the vaccine, but those running the trial can’t presume that. 

“You always make the presumption that it’s due directly to the actual vaccine or therapeutic or whatever it is that’s in the clinical trial,” he said.

«

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Bob Woodward book ‘Rage:’ Trump admits to concealing true threat of coronavirus • CNNPolitics

Jamie Gangel, Jeremy Herb and Elizabeth Stuart:

»

In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. “Pretty amazing,” Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.

Trump’s admissions are in stark contrast to his frequent public comments at the time insisting that the virus was “going to disappear” and “all work out fine.”

The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In “Rage,” Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe.” But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

«

Predictable: people will rage at Woodward for not releasing this at the time. Also: they will roll their eyes because it’s so unsurprising that Trump would say this.

In any other election year this would be seen as an early “October surprise”. This year? It will be rolled over to something else in a day. Remember that time when everyone was scandalised by Trump’s indifference to the military dead? That was the weekend.
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HSMC promised China’a first 7 nm chips. It didn’t go well • TechNode

Wei Sheng:

»

“The strange thing about HSMC is that it’s unclear where its money is from… It seems that the company didn’t actually receive as much money as it claimed to have,” Gu Wenjun, chief analyst at Shanghai-based semiconductor research company ICwise, told TechNode (our translation).

Chen Rang, a semiconductor investor cited by the National Business Daily, hinted that the Wuhan municipal government may have leveraged land resources to attract private capital to back the project. “But the semiconductor industry has a high standard on investment and it is far from enough to just utilize land resources [to raise money],” Chen said.

HSMC’s goal was to make China’s first 7-nanometer chips. All it has to show for it is a few uncompleted buildings. It did buy a high-end machine needed for bleeding-edge semiconductor production, but it was put up as collateral for a loan.

The semi-annual report by the Dongxihu District government also said that HSMC had bought “China’s only mask aligner that can produce 7-nm chips” from Dutch company ASML, referring to an instrument that enables photolithography in the fabrication process.

If true, it would be quite a coup—the US government has been campaigning since 2018 to prevent ASML from selling the most advanced machine required to make high-end chips to Chinese companies, according to Reuters.

Chinese media Caixin tried to find the unique 7-nm machine, and it does seem to exist. But they found that it was under mortgage; is good only for 14-nm chips, not 7-nm; and, citing an anonymous semiconductor industry insider, that SMIC has around 10 units of the same model.

Court files show that the machine had never been used when it was held as security for the RMB 582 million loan in January. “You will need at least two mask aligners and nearly 100 pieces of other machinery to make chips,” said Gu of ICwise. He added that no Chinese chipmaker has realized the mass production of 7 nm chips.

«

A strange story, but the key point is that China is – for now – behind Taiwan’s work in chipmaking.
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Report: Now Samsung and LG are halting display supply to Huawei • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

»

Huawei has endured a torrid 18 months, as the US ban means it’s lost Google Mobile Services, chipset supplies from various third parties, and the services of chipmaker TSMC. If it looks like things couldn’t get any worse for the company, well, they can.

South Korean news outlet Chosun Biz reports that LG and Samsung have decided to suspend the supply of “premium” smartphone displays to Huawei. The suspension is said to go into effect from September 15.

Huawei has generally turned to LG and Samsung, along with China’s own BOE for its display needs. So removing LG and Samsung from the equation means that BOE will likely need to pick up the slack. However, Chosun Biz also adds that Huawei is testing displays from local companies like Visionox, Tianma, and CSOT.

«

At this point, there aren’t many outside suppliers left to cut off supply.
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Jalisco cartel adopts new tactic: drones armed with C-4 explosive • Mexico News Daily

»

A citizens’ militia group in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, reports finding two drones inside an armored car that cartel hitmen had abandoned after an attempted raid on the city, which borders Jalisco, on July 25. 

The C4 was packed with ball bearings to serve as shrapnel in Tupperware-like containers that were equipped with a remote detonation system and duct-taped to the drones, militia members explained. The drones were found in a cardboard box that was soaked in blood, indicating to the militia members that whoever was intending to fly the drones was injured before they could be launched. 

The new tactic represents the cartel’s determination to wrest control of the western Michoacán municipality from the self-defense militia and an evolution of their air attack strategy. In April, the cartel used small planes to drop explosives on Tepalcatepec, but after authorities increased aerial surveillance in the region the CJNG opted for drones, which cannot be detected on radar. 

Militia members say that loud explosions have been heard across the municipality, but no one thus far has been injured in a drone attack. They believe the cartel has not yet learned how to fly and detonate them with precision.

«

They’re probably all stuck in trees and on roofs. More seriously, this seems like a version of the tactics that Isis tried in 2016 when it was being driven out of Syria and Iraq.
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Inside the secret plan to reboot Isis from a huge digital backup • WIRED UK

Carl Miller:

»

It all began on October 27, 2019. Rumour was, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, was dead. Nothing was confirmed, but already the jihadist world online was thrumming with excitement and trepidation.

“I was walking through an airport,” Moustafa Ayad tells me. “Jet-lagged out of my mind.” A deputy director of the counter-extremism think tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Ayad tries to stay on top of the constant struggles and skirmishes, retreats and resurgences between Isis and their many enemies online. That day, as he scrolled through his phone, a blitz of Isis propaganda stared back at him. The digital Jihad was raising a dirge to Baghdadi on Twitter.

Flitting from account to pro-Isis account, Ayad noticed something strange. Some accounts carried short, discreet links, not within their tweets, but nestled in their biographies. He clicked.

The link, he realised, was not quite like any other he’d ever followed before. On his phone, Ayad saw folder after folder of meticulously catalogued terrorist content. “I thought it was a joke,” Ayad says. “Some kind of scam.” In the echoing marbled expanse of Dubai International Airport, on public Wi-Fi, in a Starbucks queue, he had stumbled upon a gigantic, sprawling cache of Isis material.

«

Strange: an entire movement can now effectively bury everything it needs on the web, so that it can revive – cicada-like – when the situation is right. Or, more likely, the ideology becomes outdated and the tactics are taken up and evolved by another group. As above.
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Highlights of the day: TSMC to start making Apple Silicon in 4Q20 • Digitimes

TSMC is expected to start making Apple Silicon in fourth-quarter 2020. Apple’s growing adopting of SiP [System-in-Package] technology is setting a trend that many in the semiconductor sector are keen to follow. And leading backend services providers expect sales from their SiP businesses to climb about 30% in 2020.

Apple will kick off its 5nm wafer starts at TSMC for its new Apple Silicon processors starting the fourth quarter of 2020, with monthly output estimated at 5,000-6,000 wafers, according to industry sources.

«

The rest of the Digitimes story is behind a paywall. SiP means you’ve got everything – CPU and GPU and other things – in a single chip. One wafer would contain hundreds of chips. For comparison: AMD has ordered 200,000 wafers from TSMC for 2021. At the rate cited above, Apple would have 60,000-72,000 wafers in a year.
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Overcast’s latest beta update tells listeners which podcasts are tracking them • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

»

The latest update to Overcast, a popular iOS podcast app, is bringing new transparency to podcast ads. Listeners who are in the beta can now view the services their favorite podcasts use to serve ads and track listeners. This means listeners will be able to tell when a podcast is using dynamic advertising, which allows networks to swap and target ads based on the specific person listening. For most people, this likely won’t change the shows they enjoy, but for the audience that cares or wants more information about how a podcast serves them ads, it’s a notable transparency feature that isn’t yet available in any of the other major podcasting apps.

This distinguishes Overcast particularly from Spotify, which gathers more information than any other platform with little transparency. Because Spotify users listen to music and podcasts under the same account, the platform knows what content they consume outside of an individual show as well as where they’re based, how old they are, their billing info, and their actual name. The same could eventually go for Google when and if it builds out its Google Podcasts analytics dashboard or gets into serving podcast ads. Google already runs a vast ad-serving platform that pulls from a wide range of data, notably information from users’ Gmail accounts, search history, and browsing activity to target them with ads.

«

This is a little over a week old, but still notable. Making how you’re tracked a bit more explicit is a worthwhile endeavour. Though it then raises the question: what if you’d like to have podcasts recommended to you and adverts targeted to you? (Personally I subscribe to a number of paid-hence-ad-free podcasts. When I don’t, I skip ads: hurrah for the Apple Watch’s onscreen controls.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1387: London’s falling bridges, the iPhone pause, Android 11?, thoughts before dying, Apple sues Epic, and more


The biker event at Sturgis, South Dakota, spread Covid-19 to multiple states and thousands of people. CC-licensed photo by Chris Heald 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 12 links for you. Can I take it to the bridge? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

London’s bridges really are falling down • The New York Times

Mark Landler:

»

Philip Englefield, a professional magician who lives in Barnes [on the river in south-west London], pointed out that when a suspension bridge collapsed in Genoa, Italy, in 2018, killing 43 people, the Italians worked tirelessly, even as the country battled the coronavirus pandemic, to build a replacement. It was inaugurated last month.

“Why can’t we do that?” Mr. Englefield asked the crowd, as a gentle rain further dampened their spirits. “For goodness’ sake, this is England.”

It turns out that is precisely the problem: Hammersmith Bridge is an apt metaphor for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic, the last of which has decimated already-stressed public finances.
Like other London roads and bridges, Hammersmith Bridge had been neglected for decades. Fully repairing it would cost an estimated £141m ($187m) — funds that neither Hammersmith & Fulham Council, which owns the bridge, nor London’s transportation authority, which depends on it, currently have.

Transport for London, which runs the subway and bus system and some major roads, has already had to negotiate a nearly £2bn bailout from the government to make up for a shortfall in revenue after ridership plummeted during the lockdown. Except for rush hour, London’s subways are still largely ghost trains.

Hammersmith has appealed for help to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But he won election by promising to spend money on marquee projects like a $130bn-plus high-speed railway, not a cast-iron relic of Queen Victoria’s reign.

«

Classic case of the ha’porth of tar. It probably will take the complete collapse of a bridge for anything to get done. Hammersmith is a beautiful bridge, but neglect is cheaper than care – for a while. And what a metaphor for the state the country finds itself in.
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iPhone 12 and AirTags appear to be on track for October launch • BGR

Jacob Siegal:

»

Apple announced its first digital event since WWDC 2020 on Tuesday, but all signs point to the event focusing entirely on new Apple Watch and iPad models rather than the highly-anticipated iPhone 12. After Apple confirmed that its next iPhone would be delayed by “a few weeks,” rumors began to pop up claiming that Apple wouldn’t announce its latest iPhone until October. Since then, the evidence of an October launch has continued to pile up.

Nikkei Asian Review is the latest publication to add fuel to the fire, reporting that Apple has finally overcome all of the issues and disruptions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic and plans to begin production of the 5G iPhone 12 models in mid-September. This lines up with recent reports pointing to a mid-October launch.

Sources familiar with Apple’s plans tell Nikkei that the company is planning to start manufacturing iPhone 12 units on a limited scale in the coming days, while mass production will ramp up later in the month and in early October. Mass production of new iPhone models typically begins in August ahead of a late September launch, but this timetable is said to be a significant improvement over the delays that Apple was looking at just months ago.

«

Seems that next Tuesday’s virtual event is going to be for the Apple Watch, iPad and perhaps Apple TV. Other stuff will have to wait.
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Samsung reportedly cutting off chip sales to Huawei • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

Samsung and SK Hynix will reportedly stop selling components to Huawei as the Trump administration tightens sanctions on the Chinese phone maker. According to Chosun Ilbo and other Korean news outlets, the companies will suspend trade on September 15th, the day a new set of rules limits dealing with Huawei.

These sanctions were introduced in August, following a string of other restrictions implemented since last year. They ban non-American companies from selling components that were developed with US technology unless these companies obtain special approval. This poses a serious threat to Huawei, which has said it may no longer be able to make its Kirin chipsets. Conversely, Huawei’s business is valuable to many other companies, as it recently became the top-selling smartphone manufacturer. Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC reportedly suspended sales to Huawei this May after an earlier round of restrictions. Huawei called those rules “arbitrary and pernicious.”

«

The plug comes out; the water starts draining away.
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Android 11 update: When will your phone get it? • Android Authority

Mitja Rutnik:

»

The stable Android 11 update is finally here for select devices. Google officially released the OS today and is rolling it out to its Pixel phones. The search giant is joined by OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Realme this year, all of which are releasing the update for a few of its phones on day one.

But what about other handsets from companies like Samsung, Sony, and LG? Which models will get the Android 11 update and when? While most manufacturers haven’t announced their release schedules yet, we can get a good idea of what to expect by looking at how fast they shipped out previous versions of Android.

«

I notice the presence of the phrases “don’t hold your breath” and “you’re in for a wait”.
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How to infect your state in three easy steps • Dr Bob Morris

Bob:

»

It takes a special kind of magic to make South Dakota the pandemic poster child. With only eleven people per square mile, the state has almost the lowest population density in the country (46th out of 50).  That translates to an average social distance of about 1,500 feet.  Sounds like an easy place to keep a pandemic in check.

Enter Governor Kristi Noem.

Not only was Noem one of the few governors to refuse to issue either stay-at-home or mandatory mask orders, she has actively encouraged unmasked public gatherings without social distancing.  Even an outbreak of 450 cases at a meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls wasn’t enough to sway her. Instead, she hosted the President at a Mt. Rushmore 4th of July event. No masks. No distance. No problem.

What was she thinking? As she put it in her recent speech to the Republican National Convention, no “elite class of so-called experts” was going to infringe on the “God given liberties and civil rights” of her constituents.  For a while, she seemed to be getting away with it. Then, two weeks after the Trump rally, the story began to change. Between July 18 and August 8, the average number of cases per day in South Dakota rose by 80%.

And then, there was Sturgis.

There is general consensus among epidemiologists that the following steps will control the spread of SARS-COV-2 and minimize its impact.

• Avoid large gatherings
• Minimize the time spent in close proximity to people outside your household
• Protect older adults
• Wear a mask when away from home
• Do not share food and drink with others
• If you may have been exposed to the virus, do not travel.

So maybe, just maybe, bringing together hundreds of thousands of people with an average age of 54 for a ten day booze-soaked party in a state where the Governor calls masks a waste of time, and then, when it’s all over, sending them to their homes in every state in the country, is a bad idea. Welcome to Sturgis. Violating all six rules for ten days struck most epidemiologists as a bad idea. Now, the data seem to confirm this concern.

«

Truly astonishing that there are still, so many months in, people who think that the virus respects your beliefs. Again, the outcomes aren’t die/survive untouched; we’re still discovering the aftereffects of Covid. Sturgis caused 250,000 cases and an estimated $12.2bn in healthcare costs.
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Pasco’s sheriff created a futuristic program to stop crime before it happens. It monitors and harasses families • Tampa Bay Times

Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi:

»

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco took office in 2011 with a bold plan: to create a cutting-edge intelligence program that could stop crime before it happened.

What he actually built was a system to continuously monitor and harass Pasco County [in Florida] residents, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

First the Sheriff’s Office generates lists of people it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts.

Then it sends deputies to find and interrogate anyone whose name appears, often without probable cause, a search warrant or evidence of a specific crime.

They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.

One former deputy described the directive like this: “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

…Pasco’s drop in property crimes was similar to the decline in the seven-largest nearby police jurisdictions. Over the same time period, violent crime increased only in Pasco.

Criminal justice experts said they were stunned by the agency’s practices. They compared the tactics to child abuse, mafia harassment and surveillance that could be expected under an authoritarian regime.

«

“Or America”, thinks everyone outside America. What about the “move or sue”? The families or people would be too poor to sue. A terrible overreach, though there is a lawsuit against it in progress. (Via @benedictevans.)
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At 31, I have just weeks to live. Here’s what I want to pass on • The Guardian

Elliot Dallen:

»

At this point I should say a word to my friends. Being this ill complicates all relationships. The rut I found myself in a few weeks back hasn’t lifted. I’ve definitely been “feeling the victim” a lot more than usual. My acceptance that my time and energy is now limited comes with the knowledge that I won’t be able to catch you all properly to give our relationships the time and appreciation they deserve. I get so many messages from you all, which often exceed the energy I have to reply. Where I am able to see people, I’d just say keeping me company and being positive is helpful. I want fun, laughter, happiness, joy. I think it’s very possible to have this kind of death – there is likely to be a shadow of sadness hanging over proceedings, but for the most part I want everyone relaxed and to be able to feel the love.

Because I know that that moment isn’t too far away. I haven’t asked for a specific prognosis, as I don’t believe there’s much to gain from doing so, but I think it’s a matter of weeks. Medicine has luckily turned this into quite a gentle process. That really does take a lot of the fear away. And I’m hoping impending death now grants me the licence to sound prematurely wise and overly grandiose. Because I’ve had time to think about the things that are really important to me, and I want to share what I’ve discovered.

«

The points he shares may seem obvious (depending on your age, I guess). No less worth noting.
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True kindness is locking a friend out of their social media accounts • Mel Magazine

Madeleine Holden:

»

knowing you should be spending less time online isn’t the same thing as actually doing it, and that’s where the friend lockout can be an ingenious tool. As Franklin suggests, there are plenty of apps and plug-ins available for people wanting to go on a social media detox, but they often prove minimally useful in comparison.

Demi says Screen Time is useless because it allows you the option of 15 more minutes, and Beth, a 30-year-old editor from New Zealand, had limited success with Focus. “I quickly worked out that it doesn’t work in incognito mode, and I just circumvent the plug-in whenever I want to waste lots of time online,” she says, adding that she sometimes deletes all the social media apps on her phone, only to find herself checking the same sites on her web browser. “The only thing that actually works is being locked out.”

The way a lockout works is simple: You entrust a loved one with the password to whichever social media platform is causing you the most angst; they log in and change your password, ideally without doing any DM snooping along the way; and then they log you out, rendering you unable to access your own account — until you come crawling back, that is.

Demi says that the indignity of having to plead to be logged back in is part of what makes this method work. “There’s an element of shame or like, abasing myself,” he says. “If I have to ask someone for the password, I immediately think, ‘I better have a good reason for it or else this will be stupid.’” 

«

Hate to disappoint Demi and the others, but all these apps offer a thing called “Forgot your password?” which sends a reset to your email. Then you can create a new password and log in.

Maybe they need to get their friend to do the second step: change the email on the account. (To their email, ideally?)
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Drug companies issue rare joint pledge on vaccine safety amid political fears • TheHill

Peter Sullivan:

»

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has also offered reassurances that his agency will base vaccine decisions only on science and not on politics. 

But the statement from the pharmaceutical companies is an illustration of how deep the fears are about politicization of the process and the need for companies to try make their own reassurance about science guiding the process. 

An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll last month found that a significant portion of the public, 35 percent, said they would not take a coronavirus vaccine. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla reiterated Tuesday on NBC that his company’s vaccine could have results from the phase 3 trial by the end of October, a faster timeline than other experts have predicted.

«

The Pfizer trial (which is a joint one with a German company and, don’t tell Trump, a Chinese company) moved to phase 3 at the end of July with 30,000 people in the US and other countries. The end of October would be pretty rapid for any sort of useful analysis, and anyway it couldn’t be made and distributed in time for the US elections. (Check on the vaccine tracker.)

Hahn, by the way, is the guy who stood beside Trump and completely misrepresented the data about “convalescent plasma” (which is not a miracle cure, and certainly not as efficacious as he made it out to be). So he can say that it will be science and not politics, but his track record indicates otherwise. Also, don’t count your chickens: the AstraZeneca/Oxford University phase 3 trial has been halted after an adverse reaction.
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Apple seeks damages from Epic Games for breach of App Store contract • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

»

Apple will seek damages against Epic Games for allegedly breaching its contract with the iOS App Store, in a new escalation of the two companies’ ongoing legal fight. The move came in a filing entered on Tuesday, alongside counterclaims for unjust enrichment and tortious interference with Apple’s relationship with its customers.

“Epic’s flagrant disregard for its contractual commitments and other misconduct has caused significant harm to Apple,” the filing reads. “Left unchecked, Epic’s conduct threatens the very existence of the iOS ecosystem and its tremendous value to consumers.”

Epic Games sued Apple in August, after the company’s hit game Fortnite was removed from the iOS App Store over the implementation of an unauthorized payment system. The complaint, filed August 13th, alleges that Apple is violating antitrust law, using its total control over iOS to extract a commission for all software that passes through the App Store.

Apple’s filing comes in response to an exhaustive motion for a preliminary injunction, filed by Epic over the weekend. Tuesday’s filing lays out a range of defenses against that motion. Among other claims, Apple maintains there were legitimate business justifications for all of the actions it undertook, which would undercut a broader antitrust claim.

«

Apple’s claim for harm is that Epic has “reaped millions of dollars in in-app purchases through its unauthorised external purchase mechanism” and also harmed the App Store’s reputation as a place where you can download apps you want. (Might have explained that in the intro, Vergefolk.) Epic can’t argue it was accidental. This could be expensive.
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SoftBank, Robinhood and a Margins singularity • Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk

Ranjan Roy, who used to work on a trading floor, explains what SoftBank was up to with its ginormous purchase of call options on tech stocks:

»

Let’s say my co-host Can and me have taken Margins public (maybe via a reverse merger with the Mergence Corp to get the ticker $MRGN). $MRGN stock is now worth $10, because this free newsletter is such a great business.

Robin H. the investor thinks MRGN will go up a lot and very soon. But instead of buying the stock itself, she buys a call option – which is the right to buy the stock at a given price on a set date.

• Robin buys call with a strike price of 20 that expires on October 16th, 2020 for $1.
• If on October 16th MRGN is trading at $30, that contract/option is now worth $10 and happy days, Robin H. has made $9.

Where things get interesting is Robin had to buy that option from someone. Enter the market maker who we’ll call Ditacel.

• When the market-maker ‘writes’ the option and sells it to Robin they make $1 upfront. They now have the obligation to sell MRGN to Robin at 20 on Oct 16th.
• But if our MRGN stock goes up to $30 when that option expires, they have now effectively lost $9.
• If free newsletters get even hotter and MRGN is at $100, Ditacel after taking $1 upfront to sell that option to Robin, has lost $80.

Again, Robin has the right to buy at a certain price while Ditacel has the obligation to sell at that price.

The most important dynamic to understand is the people selling the call options have theoretically infinite losses.

«

I’ve never understood how people keep their cool when they’re dealing with calls and puts. It’s what melted the market in 1929, after all. (The Margins, meanwhile, is consistently excellent.)
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The ‘brushing’ scam that’s behind mystery parcels • BBC News

Zoe Kleinman:

»

If you’ve ever received a parcel from a shopping platform that you didn’t order, and nobody you know seems to have bought it for you, you might have been caught up in a “brushing” scam.

It has hit the headlines after thousands of Americans received unsolicited packets of seeds in the post, but it is not new.

It’s an illicit way for sellers to get reviews for their products. And it doesn’t mean your account has been hacked.

Here’s an example of how it works: let’s say I set myself up as a seller on Amazon, for my product, Kleinman Candles, which cost £2 each. I then set up a load of fake accounts, and I find random names and addresses either from publicly available information or from a leaked database that’s doing the rounds from a previous data breach.

I order Kleinman Candles from my fake accounts and have them delivered to the addresses I have found, with no information about where they have been sent from. I then leave positive reviews for Kleinman Candles from each fake account – which has genuinely made a purchase.

This way my candle shop page gets filled with glowing reviews (sorry), my sales figures give me an algorithmic popularity boost as a credible merchant – and nobody knows that the only person buying and reviewing my candles is myself.

It tends to happen with low-cost products, including cheap electronics. It’s more a case of fake marketing than cyber-crime, but “brushing” and fake reviews are against Amazon’s policies.

Campaign group Which? advises that you inform the platform if sent any unsolicited goods.

«

So now you know. A couple of days ago I was going to include a link to a WSJ story about the seeds stuff, but this clears it up. More reading at Vice, which reckons “hundreds” of Americans planted the seeds. Oh no.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1386: how Senegal beat the US on Covid, Lucent’s fall into darkness, the sci-fi energy gap, Epic demands a lifeline, and more


Unfortunately, some venture capitalists think “tabletop” games like Dungeons & Dragons are ripe for disruption. Or something. CC-licensed photo by hal_99 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. Untested, untraced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

COVID 19: Why Senegal is outpacing the US in tackling pandemic • USA Today

Deirdre Shesgreen:

»

COVID-19 test results come back within 24 hours – or even faster. Hotels have been transformed into quarantine units. Scientists are racing to develop a cutting-edge, low-cost ventilator.

This isn’t the pandemic response in South Korea, New Zealand or another country held up as a model of coronavirus containment success.  

It’s Senegal, a west African country with a fragile health care system, a scarcity of hospital beds and about seven doctors for every 100,000 people. And yet Senegal, with a population of 16 million, has tackled COVID-19 aggressively and, so far, effectively. More than six months into the pandemic, the country has about 14,000 cases and 284 deaths.  

“You see Senegal moving out on all fronts: following science, acting quickly, working the communication side of the equation, and then thinking about innovation,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank. 

Senegal deserves “to be in the pantheon of countries that have … responded well to this crisis, even given its low resource base,” Devermont said.

Senegal snagged the No. 2 slot in a recent analysis looking at how 36 countries have handled the pandemic. The United States landed near the bottom: 31st of the 36 countries examined by Foreign Policy magazine, which included a mix of wealthy, middle income and developing nations.

«

Learnt the lesson from Ebola, kept those public health measures in place, don’t have culture wars about masks, have a public health system. Basically the polar opposite of the US.
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Who lost Lucent?: The decline of America’s telecom equipment industry • American Affairs Journal

Robert Atkinson:

»

in the 1970s the two largest telecom equipment manufacturers were U.S. companies: Western Electric and ITT. Even in the late 1990s, the two largest were still based in North America: Lucent and Nortel (headquartered in Canada but employing tens of thousands of workers in the United States). In 1999, Lucent was almost three times larger than its next two rivals and was the sixth largest company in America in terms of capitalization. Nortel ac counted for over one-third of the capitalization of the Toronto Stock Exchange. By 2008, however, Nortel was bankrupt, and Lucent was a sliver of its former self, having been sold off to Alcatel, a French company, which was later bought by Finland’s Nokia.

What happened? How did America go from the world’s leader to not even an also-ran in the span of just two decades? Equally troub ling, why did no one sound the alarm bell when there was still time for action?

Economists say America lost its telecom equipment industry (firms that make the hardware and software that enable wireline and wireless telecommunications) because it naturally lost comparative advantage as the economy shifted to industries like internet services. Business administration scholars blame bad management. Neither view explains what really happened.

The answer lies in the fact that other nations saw the industry as strate gic and they fought to protect and promote their own companies within this sector. Nowhere is this more true than in China, where, without “innovation mercantilist” policies, Huawei and ZTE (the other major Chinese competitor) would not exist today. Indeed, as Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei himself admitted in 2002, without Beijing’s policy of protecting Chinese companies from aggressive foreign competition at home, “Huawei would no longer exist.” And if Huawei did not exist, Nortel and possibly Lucent would still be with us today.

While other nations were promoting and defending their industry, U.S. policymakers put their abiding faith in free markets.

«

Essentially, the whole article is a plaint about the US’s mistake in not subsidising its telecoms companies, and having antitrust laws. Even so, the management culture and the stock market didn’t help.
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Apple: how app developers manipulate your mood to boost ranking • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

»

Gaming apps will solicit a rating just after you reach a high score. Banking apps will ask when they know it’s payday. Gambling apps will prompt users after they are dealt the perfect Blackjack hand. A sporting app will give the nudge only when a user’s team is winning. 

Apple has for a decade clamped down on “ratings farms” and “download bots” that companies use to fraudulently garner five-star scores and manipulate App Store rankings. And it has had some success. But these are blunt instruments trying to cheat the system in clear violation of Apple’s rules. The more sophisticated techniques stay within the rules but draw on behavioural psychology to understand your mood, emotions and behaviour — they are not hacking the system; they are hacking your brain.

“The algorithms that are used are very hush-hush,” says Saoud Khalifah, chief executive of Fakespot, a service that analyses the authenticity of reviews on the web. “They can target you when you are euphoric, when you have a lot of dopamine . . . They can use machine learning to determine [when] a user will be more inclined to leave positive reviews.”

Conversely, developers know when not to ask: a news app won’t solicit reviews from someone reading a story about death and destruction. The person who keeps getting their password wrong will certainly not be asked. This helps to prevent negative scores from becoming public, raising the overall average. “We call it latent value sensing,” says Michael Sikorsky, chief executive of Robots and Pencils, which helps businesses in the mobile economy. “When you think you’ve got someone into a dark corner of the app, that is not the time to ask for a review.”

Such tactics — hidden from the public but an open secret among developers — have sparked widespread ratings inflation and become so prevalent that “among major enterprises, it’s hard to find ones that don’t do this”, says Brian Levine, vice-president of strategy and analytics at Mobiquity, a consultancy. 

«

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The digital future of tabletop games • Andreeseen Horowitz

Jonathan Lai and Andrew Chen:

»

Today, more than 40 million people play D&D around the world and sales have grown by double-digit percentages for the last five consecutive years. No longer a fringe hobby, D&D features prominently in mainstream and celebrity culture (call it the “Stranger Things” bump).

D&D’s growth is illustrative of a larger trend. Tabletop games—a quintessentially analog experience that encompasses board games, card games, and parlor games—are being dramatically improved by digital tools. While the first attempts at modernizing tabletop games sought to merely replicate games in the digital realm, the next generation of games goes a step further, integrating tools such as live-streaming, user generated content (UGC), audio products, and community platforms. This digital transformation is reinventing the way we learn, play, and connect with one another over tabletop games.

«

I liked the comment by Alex Hern, the Guardian’s UK technology editor, about this post (which is pretty long, and meanders off into how you’ll have audio-enhanced tabletop games and boards that can do anything and become anything and you’ll have parts that can be anything, praise the digital gods): “God, it takes a VC writing about an area you know real well to see the hollowness of their thought.” (Hern plays a lot of “tabletop” games, or what we used to call “board games”.)
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What we didn’t get • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:

»

Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?

Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.

If you watch Star Trek or Star Wars, or read any of the innumerable space operas of the mid-20th century, they all depend on a bunch of fancy physics. Faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, force fields of various kinds. In 1960, that sort of prediction might have made sense. Humanity had just experienced one of the most amazing sequences of physics advancements ever. In the space of a few short decades, humankind discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, invented the nuclear bomb and nuclear power, and created the x-ray, the laser, superconductors, radar and the space program. The early 20th century was really a physics bonanza, driven in large part by advances in fundamental theory. And in the 1950s and 1960s, those advances still seemed to be going strong, with the development of quantum field theories.

Then it all came to a halt. After the Standard Model was completed in the 1970s, there were no big breakthroughs in fundamental physics. There was a brief period of excitement in the 80s and 90s, when it seemed like string theory was going to unify quantum mechanics and gravity, and propel us into a new era to match the time of Einstein and Bohr and Dirac. But by the 2000s, people were writing pop books about how string theory has failed. Meanwhile, the largest, most expensive particle collider ever built has merely confirmed the theories of the 1970s, leaving little direction for where to go next. Physicists have certainly invented some more cool stuff (quantum teleporation! quantum computers!), but there have been no theoretical breakthroughs that would allow us to cruise from star to star or harness the force of gravity.

The second thing that happened was that we stopped getting better sources of energy.

«

From a couple of years ago, but still true, and a good read in its forecast about what we’ll see next.
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Morrison warns Facebook and Google he won’t respond well to any threats over news code • The Guardian

Paul Karp:

»

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed a mandatory industry code to apply to search engine and social media giants in April after negotiations stalled over issues including the media’s access to data. The overriding sticking point was Google and Facebook’s stonewalling on payment for content, the ACCC told the government.

Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Monday that he supported the Australian competition regulator’s work on the code. “I have had engagement with very senior-level executives,” he said. “I spoke to the CEO of Google just last week, and continue to invite them to participate in that process.

“I remember Amazon said to me once, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay this tax’, when it comes to the low-value threshold, and they threatened to pull Amazon, and they did, and they were back three months later.

“So, look, I think people from these companies understand that when I say something, I mean it. And that I intend to follow through with it.”

In mid-2018 while Morrison was treasurer, Amazon retaliated against changes in the collection of Australia’s goods and services tax on low-value imported items by directing Australians to amazon.com.au and barring them from purchasing items from its US store. It backed down in November 2018.

«

Over the falls we gooooooooo!
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Epic Games is getting desperate in its failed ‘Fortnite’ battle with Apple • BGR

Yoni Heisler:

»

Epic Games recently filed for a preliminary injunction that would force Apple to keep Fortnite in the App Store. In its filing, Epic argues that keeping the game out of the App Store while the case goes through the legal system would cause the company “irreparable harm.” Of course, the irony of Epic claiming that it’s not looking for special treatment while at the same time demanding that Apple give it a benefit no other developer gets is rich, to say the least.

As part of its filing, Epic details some of the harm it’s suffered already:

»

Fortnite is more than just a game. It is an intensely social community whose value to its users depends in large part on the ability to connect with other users. Epic has built a community that people rely on. By removing Fortnite from the App Store, Apple has cleaved millions of users from their friends and family in the Fortnite community, which entirely depends on connectivity. The user outcry has been deafening, showing real harm to the public interest.

Daily active users on iOS have declined by over 60% since Fortnite’s removal from the App Store. And removal already has resulted in a loss of goodwill and irreparable damage to Epic’s reputation. The continued loss of Fortnite as a gathering place for users on all platforms will lead Epic’s customers to defect. Epic may never see these users again. It will also be denied the opportunity to access even a single new user among the one-billion-plus iOS users for at least the next year.

«

«

That 60% figure is dramatic, but are those lost users not logging in on any other platform either? Epic doesn’t say. Other data in the filing: 116m of Fortnite’s registered users, or nearly one-third of the 350m total, play on iOS at some time. Also, 63% of those 116m (that’s 73m) play only on iOS. The numbers are hard to parse, but clearly some iOS users have just logged off entirely.

As to Epic’s woe-is-me – as the judge in the first TRO pointed out, it’s their own fault. And where’s their TRO against Google, precisely?
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TikTok estimated to generate $88.1m in revenue in August • Tech In Asia

Doris Yu:

»

It’s estimated that the Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok generated more than US$88.1m in revenue last month, 6.3x higher than its earnings for the same period last year, Caixin reported, citing statistics from SensorTower.

It attributed the year-on-year growth to the strong performance of TikTok’s Chinese version, Douyin, which accounted for about 85% of the app’s August revenue. Meanwhile, the US market, being its second-largest revenue source, took up 7.8%.

The app’s August revenue, however, represented a decline when compared with the months of July, June, and May, with US$102.5m, US$90.7m, and US$95.7m, respectively.

«

OK, so that’s about a billion dollars over the course of the year, which is respectable. But that must pale into insignificance compared to its costs. Growth first, profits later; no wonder Facebook is terrified.
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Brexit: the reason why Boris Johnson is jeopardising an EU free trade deal • ITV News

Robert Peston:

»

if the government of Boris Johnson has an ideology, it is that of Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave crew. And Cummings’s passionate conviction is that Johnson’s government MUST have the discretion to invest without fetter in hi-tech, digital, artificial intelligence and the full gamut of the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

How so? Well here is the Cummings/Vote Leave fundamental article of faith for this era: “Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.”

The whole point of being in government for Cummings – and he would say for his Vote Leave team who work with him in Downing Street – is “to try to change what happens on these questions”, I am told.

This is a remarkable and important statement.

It won’t escape you, if you did an O level or GCSE in history, that the UK was one of those few nations early to the first industrial revolution, which then did indeed own and coerce those that were late.

But more importantly, it says that Cummings – and we have to assume his boss Johnson too – are obsessed about not being bossed around by the two superpowers that already have trillion dollar tech companies, namely the US and China (and James Forsyth in The Times elaborated on all this in his column on Friday).

To be honest, it is moot whether there is any chance for the UK to catch up in this latest industrial revolution with China and America, even if every penny of taxpayers’ money was devoted to backing tech innovation. But it certainly matters that this government feels it is an imperative not to be fatalistic and to have a go.

«

So let’s consider this. There are currently four trillion-dollar companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft. Apple and Microsoft took more than 30 years to reach this level, Google and Amazon more than 20. There are zero trillion dollar companies in Europe; zero that are halfway there (SAP is the largest, worth $190bn; most people have no idea what it does). The UK will not have a trillion-dollar-value company in 20 years. If it blocks external acquisitions (such as DeepMind and ARM.. perhaps not Accenture?), it might have a tech sector with that value in that time.
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Are radioactive diamond batteries a cure for nuclear waste? • WIRED

Daniel Oberhaus:

»

In the summer of 2018, a hobby drone dropped a small package near the lip of Stromboli, a volcano off the coast of Sicily that has been erupting almost constantly for the past century. As one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, Stromboli is a source of fascination for geologists, but collecting data near the roiling vent is fraught with peril. So a team of researchers from the University of Bristol built a robot volcanologist and used a drone to ferry it to the top of the volcano, where it could passively monitor its every quake and quiver until it was inevitably destroyed by an eruption. The robot was a softball-sized sensor pod powered by microdoses of nuclear energy from a radioactive battery the size of a square of chocolate. The researchers called their creation a “dragon egg”.

Dragon eggs can help scientists study violent natural processes in unprecedented detail, but for Tom Scott, a materials scientist at Bristol, volcanoes were just the beginning. For the past few years, Scott and a small group of collaborators have been developing a souped-up version of the dragon egg’s nuclear battery that can last for thousands of years without ever being charged or replaced. Unlike the batteries in most modern electronics, which generate electricity from chemical reactions, the Bristol battery collects particles spit out by radioactive diamonds that can be made from reformed nuclear waste.

Earlier this month, Scott and his collaborator, a chemist at Bristol named Neil Fox, created a company called Arkenlight to commercialise their nuclear diamond battery.

«

Now this seems the sort of thing that would make far more sense to invest in – but is the government the right body to do the investing? We want governments to build roads, not cars, traintracks not trains.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1385: students hack AI testers, Pink Floyd’s Wine Glasses (yes), Huawei runs low on chips, Amazon’s odd reviewers, and more


Despite disappointing sales, Samsung is prepping another folding phone. Maybe on the diagonal this time? CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns 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. Undogged. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

These students figured out their tests were graded by AI — and the easy way to cheat • The Verge

Monica Chin:

»

On Monday, Dana Simmons came downstairs to find her 12-year-old son, Lazare, in tears. He’d completed the first assignment for his seventh-grade history class on Edgenuity, an online platform for virtual learning. He’d received a 50 out of 100. That wasn’t on a practice test — it was his real grade.

“He was like, I’m gonna have to get a 100 on all the rest of this to make up for this,” said Simmons in a phone interview with The Verge. “He was totally dejected.”

At first, Simmons tried to console her son. “I was like well, you know, some teachers grade really harshly at the beginning,” said Simmons, who is a history professor herself. Then, Lazare clarified that he’d received his grade less than a second after submitting his answers. A teacher couldn’t have read his response in that time, Simmons knew — her son was being graded by an algorithm.

Simmons watched Lazare complete more assignments. She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it.

Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like… ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”

«

I feel we will be hearing more and more of these stories as schools (and universities) start to implement more systems that aren’t really “smart” (as in human smart), but those up against them are.
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Shelved: Pink Floyd’s Household Objects • Long Reads

Tom Maxwell:

»

Listening to a renowned album as cohesive as The Dark Side of the Moon, you would never guess that the follow-up to that historic release was going to be made using everyday items. Household Objects, recorded during several desultory sessions over a two-year time frame, was constructed with rubber bands, wine glasses, spray cans, newspapers, brooms, and other such utilitarian gear. It was shelved.

When people talk about Household Objects — including the members of Pink Floyd themselves — it’s usually described as a wasteful and pointless distraction, a primary example of mid-70s rock star indulgence. This is not the case. Household Objects may not have turned into an album, but it was entirely consistent with the band’s previous use of found sound on The Dark Side of the Moon. What initially appears as a stylistic deviation from its powerhouse predecessor — or worse, full-blown self-sabotage — is, in fact, a return to form. Moreover, the mournful tone of one of its experimental tracks became the emotional center of Wish You Were Here, the highly successful follow-up to Dark Side. Most interesting of all, the work on Household Objects can be seen as the musicians’ affirmative attempt at reconnection to the “non-musical” world, to their past, and ultimately to each other.

«

Here’s “Wine Glasses”, which was one of the tracks – sort of – that was going to be part of Household Objects. If you have any familiarity with Wish You Were Here, you’ll recognise this immediately; you’ll almost be expecting the four-note guitar line to come in.

More than that, though, this is a thoughtful essay about how one rediscovers creativity, and how imposing limitations makes it flow.


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Huawei to launch phone with Kirin 9000 chips in limited numbers • Global Times

»

Huawei has a stockpile of about 10 million Kirin 9000 chips that will support shipments for about half a year, one telecom expert said, as the “deadline” for production of the Kirin 9000 is drawing near after the US government moved to block shipments of semiconductors to Huawei Technologies from global chipmakers. 

Richard Yu Chengdong, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, disclosed recently that Huawei plans to launch its smartphone equipment with Kirin smartphone chips, but only in “limited numbers.” He also confirmed that production of the chip will stop after September 15 due to US sanctions.

This has left the market guessing about the soon-to-be launched Mate 40 series, which is expected to be Huawei’s last smartphone to carry Kirin chips. There have also been worries as to when Huawei will run out of Kirin 9000 chips and what solutions it will have.  

Huang Haifeng, a veteran high-tech observer, said that based on his knowledge, Huawei’s Kirin 9000 chip supplier, Taiwan-based TSMC, is working “day and night” to produce the chips for Huawei. The company earlier confirmed that it will stop shipping semiconductors to Huawei after mid-September to comply with the US sanctions.

“Huawei has about 10 million Kirin 9000 chips on hand, which means that about 10 million Mate40/Pro phones installed with the chip will be available, and I believe they will sell out very quickly,” Huang told the Global Times on Sunday. 

«

Now it’s really starting to bite. First it will be the smartphones, then it will be the network kit. Speaking of which…
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It will cost $1.8 billion to pull Huawei and ZTE out of US networks, FCC says • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

»

Removing Chinese equipment will cost small carriers as much as $1.8bn, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission. The report estimates that as much as $1.6bn of the cost would be eligible for federal reimbursement — but Congress has yet to appropriate the necessary funds.

Significant national security concerns have been raised about the use of Huawei and ZTE equipment in US networks — but many small carriers are still struggling with the cost of replacing it. In one instance, Eastern Oregon Telecom told The Verge that replacing the $500,000 of Huawei equipment was likely to cost as much as $1.5m — a cost too high for the small carrier to shoulder on its own. Today’s report makes clear that story is all too common among US providers.

The FCC report looks specifically at carriers who receive support from the Universal Service Fund, meant to subsidize coverage of underserved areas. It does not cover all carriers in the US using Huawei or ZTE equipment, and there may also be eligible carriers who have yet to report their equipment. As a result, the total cost of replacing Chinese equipment is likely even higher than the reported $1.8bn.

«

The reason so many of those carriers plumped for Huawei is because again and again it is the cheapest. So naturally it’s going to cost more to replace. And to the delight of Nokia and Ericsson, this is going to be spent with them.
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KryptoCibule malware has been stealing and mining cryptocurrency • Tripwire

Graham Cluley:

»

Security researchers at Slovak security firm ESET have discovered a new family of malware that they say has been using a variety of techniques to steal cryptocurrency from unsuspecting users since at least December 2018.

The malware, which has been named KryptoCibule, uses a variety of legitimate technology – including Tor and the Transmission torrent client – as part of its scheme to mine cryptocurrency, divert digital currency transactions into its creators’ own accounts, and plant a backdoor for hackers to remotely access infected systems.

KryptoCibule poses a three-pronged threat when it comes to cryptocurrency.

Firstly, it exploits the CPU and GPU of infected computers to mine for Monero and Ethereum. In an attempt to avoid detection by the legitimate user of the computer, KryptoCibule monitors the battery level of infected devices and will not do any mining if the battery is at less than 10% capacity.

If the battery level status is between 10% and 30%, however, Ethereum-mining via the GPU is suspended and only Monero-mining via the CPU takes place, albeit limited to one thread.

However, if the battery level is 30% or more and there has been no user activity for the last three minutes, “both the GPU and CPU miners are run without limits.”

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It’s a bit like SETI, really, but with even less utility. At least if we’d found alien life maybe they could have lent us some money.
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Foldable phones have flopped, but Samsung hopes its new model will flip the script • WSJ

Elizabeth Koh

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The foldable phone was supposed to upend the smartphone industry, but so far it has flopped.

Pitched last year as novel introductions to a staid industry over the past decade, folding phones promised portability with displays that opened up to the size of tablets yet when closed could still perform most functions of a smartphone.

But just as device makers were expecting sales to surge, the global coronavirus pandemic hit and sheared away early enthusiasm. Buyers stuck at home didn’t need a multifunctional gadget on-the-go, while lockdowns closed many retail shops where buyers could be wooed by the flashy phones up close. The economic shocks also have left fewer people craving a high-price device.

Globally, 1.74m foldable devices were shipped from the first launch last September through June 30, according to market tracker Canalys. That is a fraction of prepandemic forecasts and a rounding error in an industry that shipped 1.28bn smartphones during the 12 months ended that same date.

The latest entrant arrives Tuesday with Samsung Electronics Co.’s unveiling of the Galaxy Z Fold 2, the second iteration of its flagship foldable-screen model. It has a reinforced folding hinge and an even larger 7.6in main display. The price remains the same as its predecessor at $2,000.

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Hang on, I think I just saw the reason why the foldable market isn’t making an impact on the wider business. To be honest, I still don’t see what the attraction would be.

But also:

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Phone makers had expected initially modest sales, but even those forecasts have proven to be lofty. Samsung had originally aimed for 6 million foldable-device shipments in 2020; halfway through the year, they have hit one-tenth of that target.

The disappointment comes at a tough time for the industry. Overall smartphone sales slumped 20% in the first half of the year, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

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OK, other people don’t see the attraction either – especially not at that price.
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Amazon deletes 20,000 reviews after evidence of profits for posts • Financial Times

Dave Lee:

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Amazon has deleted approximately 20,000 product reviews, written by seven of its top 10 UK reviewers, following a Financial Times investigation into suspicious activity.

The FT found evidence the users were profiting from posting thousands of five-star ratings.

Those who had their reviews deleted included Justin Fryer, the number one-ranked reviewer on Amazon.co.uk, who in August alone reviewed £15,000 worth of products, from smartphones to electric scooters to gym equipment, giving his five-star approval on average once every four hours.

Overwhelmingly, those products were from little-known Chinese brands, who often offer to send reviewers products for free in return for positive posts. Mr Fryer then appears to have sold many of the goods on eBay, making nearly £20,000 since June.

When contacted by the FT, Mr Fryer denied posting paid-for reviews — before deleting his review history from his Amazon profile page. Mr Fryer said the eBay listings, which described products as “unused” and “unopened”, were for duplicates.

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What I particularly like about this story is that Dave Lee is based in San Francisco, from which he carried out his investigation into let’s-not-call-it-dodgy reviews by people apparently in Britain.

But also: this is crap, Amazon. All these years on and you still have no handle on your ratings system.
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Privately built border wall will fail, engineering report says • The Texas Tribune

Jeremy Schwartz and Perla Trevizo, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica:

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Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the [three-mile] Rio Grande fence [his company built] the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

“It seems like they are cutting corners everywhere,” said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s not a Lamborghini, it’s a $500 used car.”

Since Fisher’s companies embarked on construction of the Rio Grande fence, the Trump administration has awarded about $2bn in federal contracts to the firms to build segments of the border wall in other locations.

Fisher agreed to the inspection as part of ongoing lawsuits against Fisher Sand and Gravel filed last year by the National Butterfly Center and the International Boundary and Water Commission. They unsuccessfully sought to convince a federal judge to stop the construction of the project until the potential impacts of the wall on the Rio Grande could be determined.

Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer hired by the wildlife refuge, noted in his report that widespread erosion and scouring occurred after heavy rain events such as Hurricane Hanna in July, but that the fence has yet to experience a flood of the Rio Grande.

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Certain to fail; scammed. Trump said he was going to build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it. Hasn’t happened either.
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SoftBank unmasked as ‘Nasdaq whale’ that stoked tech rally • Financial Times

Kana Inagaki, Katie Martin, Robert Smith and Robin Wigglesworth :

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The surge in purchases of call options — derivatives that give the user the right to buy a stock at a pre-agreed price — has been the talk of Wall Street, as the sheer size of the trades appears to have exacerbated a “melt-up” in many big technology stocks over the past few months. In August alone, Tesla’s share price shot up 74%, while Apple gained 21%, Google’s parent Alphabet rose 10% and Amazon 9%.

One person familiar with SoftBank’s trades said it was “gobbling up” options on a scale that was even making some people within the organisation nervous. “People are caught with their pants down, massively short. This can continue. The whale is still hungry.”

SoftBank declined to comment.

The Nasdaq was at one point on Friday down 10% from its peak — the common definition of a correction — yet the options boom means that the US stock market remains vulnerable to further bursts of volatility, according to Charlie McElligott, a strategist at Nomura. “The street is still very much in a dangerous space, and that flow is still out there,” he wrote in a note on Friday.

…The size and aggressiveness of the mysterious call buyer, coupled with the summer trading lull, has been a big factor in the buoyant performance of many big tech names as well as the broader US stock market, according to Mr McElligott. This week, he warned that dynamics around options meant the heavy purchases forced banks on the other side of the trades to hedge themselves by buying stocks, in a “classic ‘tail wags the dog’ feedback loop”.

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Great to know that money is being used so productively to… buy notional things.

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Facebook’s political ad ban also threatens ability to spread accurate information on how to vote • ProPublica

Jeremy Merrill:

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For elections administrators, the last few days before an election can be the most stressful and when communication is needed most. They remind voters to mail back their absentee ballots and when Election Day voting begins and ends. Many of these ads can still be run under Facebook’s new rules, as long as they’re set up more than a week before the election.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, local election offices are scrambling to find new ways for eligible voters to cast their ballots. Voting methods and locations will be changing fast, even within the seven-day window included in Facebook’s ban.

A few days before Connecticut’s primary election on Aug. 11, Hurricane Isaias struck the state, knocking out power to more than a million people. That led Connecticut’s governor to make a subtle, but crucial, change to the state’s election rules on the day before the election. He instructed elections officials to count mail-in ballots that had been postmarked by election day, instead of only those that had arrived by election day.

With power still out to tens of thousands of people and businesses, “it was really important that we told people that they only needed to postmark their ballots by election day, because the little bit of news they were getting was that the Postal Service was down,” Rosenberg said. The Postal Service’s sorting hub in Hartford had lost power for a time after the storm.

“The only way we can notify people of something changing that late in the process is via Facebook and Instagram,” he said

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Should we expect Facebook to make a tweak to its “ban” to allow for this?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified