Start Up No.1719: Djokovic’s strange ‘biotech’ investment, Covid’s air loss, NFT site drop kills NFTs, crypto miners under fire, and more


Once the darling of the stock market, exercise company Peloton has seen a dramatic drop in demand – and expected profits. 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 10 links for you. Turning the wheels. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Peloton to pause production of its Bikes, treadmills as demand wanes • CNBC

Lauren Thomas:

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Peloton is temporarily halting production of its connected fitness products as consumer demand wanes and the company looks to control costs, according to internal documents obtained by CNBC.

Peloton plans to pause Bike production for two months, from February to March, the documents show. It already halted production of its more expensive Bike+ in December and will do so until June. It won’t manufacture its Tread treadmill machine for six weeks, beginning next month. And it doesn’t anticipate producing any Tread+ machines in fiscal 2022, according to the documents. Peloton had previously halted Tread+ production after a safety recall last year.

The company said in a confidential presentation dated Jan. 10 that demand for its connected fitness equipment has faced a “significant reduction” around the world due to shoppers’ price sensitivity and amplified competitor activity.

Peloton has essentially guessed wrong about how many people would be buying its products, after so much demand was pulled forward during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s now left with thousands of cycles and treadmills sitting in warehouses or on cargo ships, and it needs to reset its inventory levels.

The planned production halt comes as close to $40bn has been shaved off of Peloton’s market cap over the past year. Its market value hit a high of nearly $50bn last January.

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It’s lost eighty percent of its market cap? (Market cap being the market’s guess about the net present value of its total future profits.) But it gets worse:

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However, Peloton said, the latest forecast doesn’t take into account any impact to demand the company might see when it begins to charge customers an extra $250 in delivery and setup fees for its Bike, and another $350 for its Tread, beginning at the end of this month.

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Benedict Evans suggested it’s another GoPro – madly fashionable for a while, and then just a tiny niche.
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What sort of ‘biotech’ company has Novak Djokovic invested in? • Thread Reader App

Dr Darren Saunders is a biomedical scientist, and he’s taken a closer look at that company Novok Djokovic and his wife have invested in to find a “cure” for Covid:

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Here’s the site of Novak’s “biotech” company QuantBioRes. The inclusion of “Quant” (ie quantum) in the name is a massive red flag 🚩🚨
quantbiores.com.

The second red flag is the liberal sprinkling of words like “resonant” and “frequencies” through the word salad on that site. (Let’s just park the false staement that coronaviruses are retroviruses for now).

So, if you haven’t fgured it out yet, Novak’s “biotech company” is working on homeopathy as a cure for COVID.

I’ve read the “discover more” section about their innovatove technology (I highly reccomend against this), here are a few choice quotes… “During this rapid research effort, we will identify the common component of proteins responsible for initial infection for all related RNA viruses and then design a vaccine based on this component and thus create the cure.”

Guys, this isn’t how biochemistry works

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Possibly – just possibly – Djokovic is better at tennis than biomedical investment. (Thanks Toby A.)
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Covid loses 90% of ability to infect within 20 minutes in air – study • The Guardian

Linda Geddes:

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Coronavirus loses 90% of its ability to infect us within 20 minutes of becoming airborne – with most of the loss occurring within the first five minutes, the world’s first simulations of how the virus survives in exhaled air suggest.

The findings re-emphasise the importance of short-range Covid transmission, with physical distancing and mask-wearing likely to be the most effective means of preventing infection. Ventilation, though still worthwhile, is likely to have a lesser impact.

“People have been focused on poorly ventilated spaces and thinking about airborne transmission over metres or across a room. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but I think still the greatest risk of exposure is when you’re close to someone,” said Prof Jonathan Reid, director of the University of Bristol’s Aerosol Research Centre and the study’s lead author.

“When you move further away, not only is the aerosol diluted down, there’s also less infectious virus because the virus has lost infectivity [as a result of time].”

Until now, our assumptions about how long the virus survives in tiny airborne droplets have been based on studies that involved spraying virus into sealed vessels called Goldberg drums, which rotate to keep the droplets airborne. Using this method, US researchers found that infectious virus could still be detected after three hours. Yet such experiments do not accurately replicate what happens when we cough or breathe.

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Not peer-reviewed, but makes a lot of sense. And drier air is even more effective at deactivating it. (No mention of washing hands, eh.)
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People can’t see some NFTs on Twitter and crypto wallets after OpenSea goes down • Vice

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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OpenSea, one of the most popular marketplaces for non-fungible tokens or NFTs, is suffering a “database outage,” the company announced on Thursday. As a result, several services which rely on OpenSea’s APIs, including the popular crypto wallet MetaMask, are having trouble displaying NFTs.

“We’re caching that data so their outage doesn’t wipe the wallet,” MetaMask co-founder Dan Finlay told Motherboard in an email. “We store what NFTs the user has in the wallet. OpenSea’s outage means we are currently not auto-detecting new NFTs that are sent to the user’s wallet, although users can always tell the wallet about NFTs they have by entering its address manually.”

In other words, because OpenSea is down, some NFT owners who just bought their tokens may not be able to see their expensive JPEGs even in their crypto wallet. 

“We are experiencing technical issues leading to a site outage. Teams are currently investigating,” the company wrote around 9 a.m. ET. As of this writing, OpenSea published an update saying “a fix has been implemented and we are monitoring the issue. Programmatic access remains disabled.”

Some people are taking advantage of this situation to make the point that the NFT market and the so-called web3 is not as decentralized as its supporters often argue.

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Er, yeah. It’s centralised as the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter tri-opoly, for all the denials.
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Georgia’s mountainous cryptocurrency problem • Eurasianet

Giorgi Lomsadze :

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Svaneti is best known for its towering, snowy peaks, picturesque stone-hewn hamlets, and strict traditional code of honor. Increasingly, however, it is also known for cryptocurrency production.

Some residents have been taking advantage of a government program providing free electricity to mountain regions, with the aim of keeping the remote communities alive, and using the subsidized power to churn out virtual money in their medieval towers.

Georgia has emerged as an unlikely global cryptocurrency hotspot, with prospectors attracted to the country’s laissez-faire business environment and cheap electricity needed for the power-hungry process of “mining” the virtual money. Svaneti – with its free electricity for households and discounts for businesses – is an especially appealing base for the industry.

While that has allowed some in Svaneti to make a mint in the virtual economy, it has meant that many others in the hardscrabble region suffer from the resulting power outages. The region has no natural gas supply, meaning that electricity (along with wood) is used for heating in winter. Svaneti’s other new economic hope – tourism – suffers particularly from the frequent power outages, which affect hotels, restaurants, and ski lifts.

Svaneti’s cryptocurrency frenzy peaked in 2019, when the power company and police were forced to go door to door to disconnect consumers who had gotten involved in cryptocurrency mining. Energo Pro said it then took offline about five million laris [$1.6 million] worth of mining hardware.

But miners were undeterred, and last year the region’s electricity consumption returned to 2019 levels, the company said. The regional capital of Mestia and nearby towns consume almost four times more power than the seven megawatt hours they are expected to.

Mountain dwellers are not the only Georgians using electricity subsidies for cryptocurrency: monasteries, too, have become unlikely outposts of virtual mining. In a dump last year of security services’ surveillance files, one revelation was the extent to which the clergy had gotten involved in the crypto business.

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Keep going…
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EU should ban energy-intensive mode of crypto mining, regulator says • Financial Times

Eva Szalay:

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A top EU financial regulator has renewed calls for a bloc-wide “ban” on the main form of bitcoin mining and sounded the alarm over the rising proportion of renewable energy devoted to crypto mining.

Erik Thedéen, vice-chair of the European Securities and Markets Authority, told the Financial Times that bitcoin mining had become a “national issue” for his native country Sweden and warned that cryptocurrencies posed a risk to meeting climate change goals in the Paris agreement.

Thedéen said that European regulators should consider banning a mining method known as “proof of work” and instead nudge the industry towards the less energy-intensive “proof of stake” model to cut down on the sector’s vast power usage.

Bitcoin and ether, the two largest cryptocurrencies by volume, both rely on a proof of work model, requiring all participants on the blockchain digital ledger to verify transactions. Miners, who use sprawling data centres filled with fast computers to solve complex puzzles, are rewarded for recording transactions with newly minted coins.

That requires significantly more energy than the proof of stake model, where the number of parties signing off trades is much smaller.

“The solution is to ban proof of work,” said Thedéen, who is also director-general of Sweden’s Financial Supervisory Authority and chair of sustainable finance for international body Iosco. “Proof of stake has a significantly lower energy profile.”

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Keep going…
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Russia proposes ban on use and mining of cryptocurrencies • Reuters

Elena Fabrichnaya and Alexander Marrow:

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Russia’s central bank on Thursday proposed banning the use and mining of cryptocurrencies on Russian territory, citing threats to financial stability, citizens’ wellbeing and its monetary policy sovereignty.

The move is the latest in a global cryptocurrency crackdown as governments from Asia to the United States worry that privately operated and highly volatile digital currencies could undermine their control of financial and monetary systems.

Russia has argued for years against cryptocurrencies, saying they could be used in money laundering or to finance terrorism. It eventually gave them legal status in 2020 but banned their use as a means of payment.

In a report published on Thursday, the central bank said speculative demand primarily determined cryptocurrencies’ rapid growth and that they carried characteristics of a financial pyramid, warning of potential bubbles in the market, threatening financial stability and citizens.

The bank proposed preventing financial institutions from carrying out any operations with cryptocurrencies and said mechanisms should be developed to block transactions aimed at buying or selling cryptocurrencies for fiat currencies.

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“Mechanisms”. Blocking the IPs of cryptocurrency exchanges, so they’re unreachable in Russia? Have to block all the VPNs too. That’s going to inconvenience the ransomware operators.
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More than half a billion people worldwide subscribe to music •Midia Research

Mark Mulligan:

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The global base of music subscribers continues to grow strongly with 523.9 million music subscribers at the end of Q2 2021, which was up by 109.5 million (26.4%) from one year earlier. Crucially, this was faster growth than the prior year. There is a difference between revenue and subscribers – with ARPU [average revenue per user] deflators, such as the rise of multi-user plans and the growth of lower-spending emerging markets – but growth in monetised users represents the foundation stone of the digital service provider (DSP) streaming market. So, accelerating growth at this relatively late stage of the streaming market’s evolution is clearly positive.

Spotify remains the DSP with the highest market share (31%), but this was down from 33% in Q2 2020 and 34% in Q2 2019. With Apple Music being a distant second with 15% market share, and Spotify adding more subscribers in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021 than any other single DSP, there is no risk of Spotify losing its leading position anytime soon – but the erosion of its share is steady and persistent.

Amazon Music once again out-performed Spotify in terms of growth (25% compared to 20%), but the standout success story among Western DSPs was YouTube Music, for the second successive year. Google was once the laggard of the space, but the launch of YouTube Music has transformed its fortunes, growing by more than 50% in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021. YouTube Music was the only Western DSP to increase global market share during this the period. YouTube Music particularly resonates among Gen Z and younger Millennials, which should have alarm bells ringing for Spotify, as their core base of Millennial subscribers from the 2010s in the West are now beginning to age.

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Ageing Millennials! A new problem. Though Mulligan admits he had thought that by now we’d be up to a billion subscribers. Nothing like.
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Police in this tiny Alabama town suck drivers into legal ‘black hole’ • al.com (Alabama)

John Archibald:

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Ramon Perez came to court last month ready to fight the tickets he’d been handed by Brookside police, including one for rolling through a stop sign and another for driving 48 mph in a 40 zone.

He swore he’d seen the cop from a distance and was careful as he braked. “I saw him and we looked eye to eye,” the Chelsea business owner said. “There’s no way I was going to run that stop sign.”

When he got to court Dec. 2, he saw scores of people just like him lining up to stand before Judge Jim Wooten, complaining of penny-ante “crimes” and harassment by officers. He saw so many people trying to park in the grassy field outside the municipal building that police had to direct traffic. He figured there was no point. “I saw the same attitude in every officer and every person,” he said. “That’s why I hesitated to fight it. They were doing the same thing to every person that was there. They own the town.”

Perez, it appears, was right. Months of research and dozens of interviews by AL.com found that Brookside’s finances are rocket-fuelled by tickets and aggressive policing. In a two-year period between 2018 and 2020 Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared more than 640% and now make up half the city’s total income. And the police chief has called for more.

The town of [population] 1,253 just north of Birmingham reported just 55 serious crimes to the state in the entire eight year period between 2011 and 2018 – none of them homicide or rape. But in 2018 it began building a police empire, hiring more and more officers to blanket its six miles of roads and mile-and-a-half jurisdiction on Interstate 22.

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Also: drives people into debt, which is shown to encourage them into crime.. so policing causes crime.
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Polar bears on Kolyuchin Island, Chukotka, Russia • YouTube

They’re such passive-looking creatures who, of course, could rip you to shreds in moments. Amazing drone footage; stills from it have appeared and made people think they were taken by an excessively brave (or foolish) human photographer. The drone looks imperilled enough. (Via John Naughton.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: plenty of reaction to the Royal Society’s proposal about leaving “misinformation” on social media, and my comments on it. A couple of responses. First from HW:

It’s difficult.

Vaccines are a good example, from a public policy perspective the messaging needs to be clear, “vaccines work and are safe”.

From a scientific perspective that message would probably be “Vaccines drastically reduce the risk of serious illness and somewhat reduce the risk of transmission. For the overwhelming majority most indications show them to be safe. Past data on other vaccination programs suggests that most problems with vaccines show up in the first three months suggesting that longer term worries about safety should be seen in that perspective”.

In the social media driven world we now inhabit the nuance in the scientific perspective leaves plenty of space for questioning by well meaning and ill meaning types alike.

Of course on top of that you can add the paranoid and conspiracy minded to boot.

And from Wendy G:

Because to have trust in science requires showing your work? Because one year’s scientific consensus (ulcers are caused by stress, continents do not move, silicon implants are safe) may be next year’s misinformation?

Maybe what we need to mandate is confidence intervals.

Start Up No.1718: should social media ban misinformation?, Afghans try cryptocurrency, London drivers face road pricing, and more


As in chess, human poker players now rely on computers to show them the best way to play in all sorts of game situations. CC-licensed photo by World Poker Tour 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. Is it still January? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How AI conquered poker • The New York Times

Keith Romer:

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One of the earliest and most devoted adopters of what has come to be known as “game theory optimal” poker is Seth Davies’s friend and poker mentor, Jason Koon. On the second day of the three-day Super High Roller tournament, I visited Koon at his multimillion-dollar house, located in a gated community inside a larger gated community next to a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. On Day 1, Koon paid $250,000 to play the Super High Roller, then a second $250,000 after he was knocked out four hours in, but again he lost all his chips. “Welcome to the world of nosebleed tourneys,” he texted me afterward. “Just have to play your best — it evens out.”

For Koon, evening out has taken the form of more than $30 million in in-person tournament winnings (and, he says, at least as much from high-stakes cash games in Las Vegas and Macau, the Asian gambling mecca). Koon began playing poker seriously in 2006 while rehabbing an injury at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he was a sprinter on the track team. He made a good living from cards, but he struggled to win consistently in the highest-stakes games. “I was a pretty mediocre player pre-solver,” he says, “but the second solvers came out, I just buried myself in this thing, and I started to improve like rapidly, rapidly, rapidly, rapidly.”

In a home office decorated mostly with trophies from poker tournaments he has won, Koon turned to his computer and pulled up a hand on PioSOLVER. After specifying the size of the players’ chip stacks and the range of hands they would play from their particular seats at the table, he entered a random three-card flop that both players would see. A 13-by-13 grid illustrated all the possible hands one of the players could hold. Koon hovered his mouse over the square for an ace and queen of different suits. The solver indicated that Koon should check 39% of the time; make a bet equivalent to 30% the size of the pot 51% of the time; and bet 70% of the pot the rest of the time. This von Neumann-esque mixed strategy would simultaneously maximize his profit and disguise the strength of his hand.

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Interesting that it’s 13×13 (Go is 19×19), but that’s a clever way to display it. And that’s another game where computers have become crucial. (If you tried to play against them, you’d get slaughtered – there’s no such thing as a tell with a computer, which is part of how AlphaGo thrashed Lee Sedol.)
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Major solar farm coming to coal country • EcoWatch

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes:

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A solar farm atop a former coal mine in Martin County, Kentucky, may be a sign of things to come. A $231m solar project covering hundreds of acres is slated to take over the former Martiki coal mine in Appalachia, a place that has been greatly defined by its natural beauty and the contrasting dirty business of coal mining. Its neighbor to the west, Johnson County, is famous for the singers and coal miner’s daughters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle.

Throughout the country, coal mining jobs have continuously decreased since the mid-1980s, from about 175,000 to around 40,000 in 2021, and Martin County is no stranger to poverty since coal mining began fading into lore. The unemployment rate in the county is almost twice the national average and about a third of the population lives in poverty. Once employing thousands of coal miners, the county had only 26 left by its most recent tally.

Due to their stark economic situation, many former coal workers have embraced the transition to employment in renewable energy, even as some have doubts as to the severity of the climate crisis.

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Will generate enough energy for 33,000 homes, and employ.. 250-300 people, for 12-18 months. Not a lot, is it? They’re pretty simple and quick to put together.
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Social media bans of scientific misinformation aren’t helpful, researchers say • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

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The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of sciences. On Wednesday, it published a report on what it calls the “online information environment,” challenging some key assumptions behind the movement to de-platform conspiracy theorists spreading hoax info on topics like climate change, 5G, and the coronavirus.

Based on literature reviews, workshops and roundtables with academic experts and fact-checking groups, and two surveys in the UK, the Royal Society reached several conclusions. The first is that while online misinformation is rampant, its influence may be exaggerated, at least as far as the UK goes: “the vast majority of respondents believe the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, that human activity is responsible for climate change, and that 5G technology is not harmful.” The second is that the impact of so-called echo chambers may be similarly exaggerated and there’s little evidence to support the “filter bubble” hypothesis (basically, algorithm-fueled extremist rabbit holes). The researchers also highlighted that many debates about what constitutes misinformation are rooted in disputes within the scientific community and that the anti-vax movement is far broader than any one set of beliefs or motivations.

One of the main takeaways: The government and social media companies should not rely on “constant removal” of misleading content is not a “solution to online scientific misinformation.” It also warns that if conspiracy theorists are driven out of places like Facebook, they could retreat into parts of the web where they are unreachable. Importantly, the report makes a distinction between removing scientific misinformation and other content like hate speech or illegal media, where removals may be more effective:

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… Whilst this approach may be effective and essential for illegal content (eg hate speech, terrorist content, child sexual abuse material) there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach for scientific misinformation, and approaches to addressing the amplification of misinformation may be more effective.

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Really not persuaded by this. Misinformation is a parasite, a virus, on the algorithmic (and natural) feedback loops in platforms. Deplatforming abusive people works; why shouldn’t deplatforming content that has the same effect?
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Starving Afghans use crypto to sidestep bank sanctions and the Taliban • The Intercept

Lee Fang:

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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August of last year, Fereshteh Forough feared that the group would close her school in Herat, the country’s third-largest city. Code to Inspire, an NGO Forough founded, was teaching computer programming to young Afghan women, and the Taliban oppose secondary education for women.

Months later, the picture is much different — and worse — from what Forough imagined. The school survived, becoming mostly virtual, but has transformed from a coding boot camp into a relief organization. The biggest risk for Forough’s students wasn’t lack of education, it was hunger. Forough looked for a way to provide emergency checks to the women but was stymied by banks that don’t want to risk violating severe US sanctions.

JPMorgan Chase repeatedly blocked her attempts to transfer money, she said, and she grew increasingly alarmed by students who said they couldn’t access cash at local Afghan banks — many of which have closed or imposed strict withdrawal limits. In response, she turned to cryptocurrency to provide monthly emergency payments to help students afford enough food to survive.

“Since September, we’ve been sending cash assistance, about $200 per month, for each family, because the majority of our students have said their family lost their jobs. They are the sole breadwinner of the family,” explained Forough, whose family fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s, during the Soviet occupation, and now lives in New Hampshire. Code to Inspire pays its recipients in BUSD, a so-called stablecoin whose value is tied to the US dollar, and then the women convert it to afghanis, the local currency, at money exchanges. “We created a safe way for our girls to cash out their crypto and pay for expenses, so they can pay for medical expenses and food and everything that’s needed.”

There are several advantages to using crypto: Afghans fleeing the Taliban can take their assets with them without risk. Humanitarian agencies seeking to bypass banks and discreetly avoid the Taliban can provide cash directly to those in need. Smugglers and intermediaries who may steal or try to resell aid packages can be circumvented if aid is given directly through a digital transaction.

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I’d love to know how widespread this is, and of course it’s only another way of hiding money; the ancient system of hawala does the same task, but it’s paper-based. The BUSD might be a little easier to transfer, of course.
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London mayor wants daily driving charge of up to £2 • BBC News

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London’s mayor says he needs to charge drivers a “small” daily fee of up to £2 for “all but the cleanest vehicles” to help hit climate change targets.

The road pricing proposal is part of a push by Sadiq Khan to encourage people towards public transport, walking, cycling or electric vehicles.

The RAC called the plan “poorly timed” with cleaner vehicles being “too expensive for most people”.
Longer term, Mr Khan says he needs to bring in a pay-per-mile system.

He is also considering charging drivers from outside the capital who wish to travel into Greater London, widening out the current charging zone. Mr Khan said he was “not willing to put off action”.

A report commissioned by City Hall found that a 27% reduction in London’s car traffic was required by 2030 to meet net-zero ambitions.

It stated that London faces severe impacts of climate change, with an increase in extremes such as last summer’s flash floods which closed hospitals, hit Tube stations and flooded homes and businesses, as well as deadly heatwaves.

Road user charging would be a “simple and fair scheme” that could replace existing fees such as the congestion charge and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), according to the report.

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The pay-per-mile solution is going to be interesting, because it means a lot more surveillance than needed for the present ULEZ zone, where you only need to see if a car enters it, and whether or not it’s exempt.

There are comments on the story. Read them if you want to feel concerned about education levels.
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We will miss the BBC when it’s gone • Ed West

Ed West presents a right-winger’s view of the BBC, and attitudes around it:

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Nostalgia plays a big part in people’s reflective [Overspill Ed: perhaps “reflexive”?] defence of an institution they love against a government they (quite reasonably) loathe. Some have been sharing a 40-year-old advert featuring a man from a long-distant age whose comedy would never see the light of day today (and who is no longer a fan of the Beeb). For others, love of the institution runs so deep that they see it as essential as the fire service. Or road building. (I actually agree with Wallace, but unironically, that road pricing is a great idea.)

But a major national broadcaster is not an essential service, its existence depends on some deeper spiritual need, and none of the arguments for the licence fee address the question. Many have argued what great value the BBC is for only 43p a day, which may be true, but that’s a consumer selling point, an argument to subscribe (and I certainly would); it doesn’t at all answer the question as to why other people should be forced to.

If the BBC makes all these programmes well via forced subscription, it could surely do so in the open market; if the argument is for broadcasting high culture – and almost no one is making that – then that could be produced by a much smaller corporation, as with the fact-based news that Snow writes of. I’m sceptical about the BBC’s ability to produce high culture at any rate, partly for the ideological reason that most high culture is the work of men born within the empire of Charlemagne; but partly because the British cultural elite have a sort of reverse-Bolshevik prejudice that high culture is anti-working class.

The case for a national broadcaster rests on the belief that there is something especially important and significant about the nation, that the British people remain distinctive enough that they need something to reflect this ideal, and promote it. The idea that Reith’s contemporaries believed in.

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The “if you can do it when you’re handed money, you’ll manage it in the open market” argument is plain wrong. The BBC’s hugely diverse radio output (which doesn’t even require the licence fee) can’t exist as a commercial entity, and if it could, then it would suck (advertising) money away from the existing commercial stations. West makes some good points, but nobody is grasping the nettle here: you can’t make the BBC happen without substantial public funding, and if it stops, even for a moment, it will take decades to get started again.
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Does the BBC offer a model for public service digital platforms? • Bennett Institute

The economist Diane Coyle (who is married to ex-BBC technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones, and served as a trustee of the BBC from 2007-2014, until the Tory government abolished her role) :

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There is no doubt a debate is needed about whether the Licence Fee should be replaced with a different mechanism, whether a household tax or a charge on purchases of devices (as used to be the case). Whatever the outcome, competition needs to occur on the basis of the business models too: different financial incentives will lead to different behaviours, increasing quality, variety and choice.

This point applies to other online markets where (as I argue in a forthcoming paper in Philosophy) most of the revenues of most tech companies come from selling advertising. This drives behaviours like tracking individuals, amassing personal data, and favouring whatever will drive viral clicks. These are arguably the main source of many of the online harms governments – including in the UK – are grappling with now. There is nothing wrong with funding a service through selling advertising as long as there is another business model operating in the market.

So rather than attacking the BBC, the UK Government – and others – should be considering whether a mixed economy that has worked so well in broadcasting markets can work in online markets, particularly social media. As others have also pointed out, there is a case to be made for a publicly-funded, public purpose and independent competitor of scale in the online world.

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If you’re not going to put a continuing fee on the ownership of a TV, then you’ll need to put a continuing fee on something else. (I suspect a one-off price on devices wouldn’t work.) A surcharge on broadband, according to speed?
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Djokovic bets on a COVID cure as he quests for tennis history • Reuters

Nikolaj Skydsgaard:

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The Serbian superstar, who became a focus of the global vaccine debate over his failed attempt to enter Australia without being inoculated, holds a majority stake in a Danish biotech firm aiming to develop a treatment to counter COVID-19, the company’s CEO told Reuters. read more

QuantBioRes boss Ivan Loncarevic, who described himself as an entrepreneur, said the tennis player’s acquisition of the 80% stake was made in June 2020 but declined to say how much it was.

The company is developing a peptide, which inhibits the coronavirus from infecting the human cell, expects to launch clinical trials in Britain this summer, according to Loncarevic, who stressed the firm was working on a treatment, not a vaccine.

The CEO said the company had about a dozen researchers working in Denmark, Australia and Slovenia. According to the Danish company register, Djokovic and his wife Jelena own 40.8% and 39.2% of the company, respectively.

A spokesperson for Djokovic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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To be honest, we’ve got a treatment for Covid. It’s called three vaccine doses. That, however, doesn’t seem to suit Djokovic.

(Meanwhile, new joke doing the rounds: Djokovic has been hired as the England cricket team’s new batting coach. “Yes, he’s new to the game, but it took Australia more than a week to get him out,” said the head of the English Cricket Board.)
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Democrats unveil bill to ban online ‘surveillance advertising’ • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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On Tuesday, Democrats introduced a new bill that would ban nearly all use of digital advertising targeting on ad markets hosted by platforms like Facebook, Google, and other data brokers.

The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act – sponsored by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) – prohibits digital advertisers from targeting any ads to users. It makes some small exceptions, like allowing for “broad” location-based targeting. Contextual advertising, like ads that are specifically matched to online content, would be allowed.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Eshoo, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a Tuesday statement. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms. The surveillance advertising business model is broken.”

If enacted, the bill would radically change Facebook and Google’s business models. For years, lawmakers have debated ways to regulate the tech industry on issues like privacy, disinformation, and content moderation. Eshoo and her co-sponsors argue that the tech industry’s current advertising models incentivize the spread of harmful content and encourage them to amplify damaging posts to keep users on their platforms.

The bill empowers the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general with the authority to enforce the new rules for ad targeting. It also allows individual users to sue platforms like Facebook and Google if they break the law, granting up to $5,000 in relief per violation.

«

They’re conflating different things – tracking people to see their interests to show them ads, and tracking people to see their interests to show them content. They’re not the same. Though I’d really like to see some data on how much better “surveillance ads” perform than just random ads.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1717: YouTube halts original content, Microsoft buys Blizzard, US 5G airline row grows, crypto ad boom, and more


Though China might look crowded – and 68% of its population is in cities – its population is set to shrink in the coming decades. CC-licensed photo by 11×16 Photoworks 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. Also available on 5G. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


YouTube shuts down original content group • Variety

Todd Spangler:

»

YouTube is getting out of the business of originals: The Google-owned video giant said it is winding down its original productions team after more than six years.

Earlier, news broke that Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content, will leave the company in March. Going forward, YouTube will only be funding programs that are part of its Black Voices and YouTube Kids funds, chief business officer Robert Kyncl announced Tuesday.

Citing the growth of YouTube’s Partner Program for ad-revenue sharing — which now tops 2 million participants — Kyncl said “now our investments can make a greater impact on even more creators when applied towards other initiatives.”

“We will honor our commitment for already contracted shows in progress and creators who are involved with those shows should expect to hear from us directly in the coming days,” Kyncl wrote in the message posted to Twitter.

When it first started out in originals, YouTube had planned to make a run at the subscription-streaming business. But within a couple of years, it pivoted — and starting in 2018, YouTube killed off its slate of scripted TV series and movies: Several of its projects moved to other outlets: “Cobra Kai” has gone on to Netflix; “On Becoming a God In Central Florida” went to Showtime; and “Step Up” was acquired by Starz.

Instead, Daniels and her team shifted to focus on unscripted fare in three different areas: music, celebrity and creator-focused originals, and educational programming. Now YouTube is ending its efforts in those areas, as well.

«

The colossal money fountain pouring through there isn’t enough to make good content happen. Although, to be fair, people like Mr Beast with their real-life recreations of Squid Game mean the internal team doesn’t have to bother. YouTube is so big that good original content happens by a sort of infinite monkeys process.
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Microsoft is buying Activision-Blizzard – if Washington lets it • Vox

Peter Kafka:

»

Microsoft is buying Activision Blizzard for $69bn. For those of you who play video games or pay attention to video games — and there are a lot of of you — we don’t really need to spell out why this is a Really Big Deal.

The rest of you might want some context. Remember when Disney bought much of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox empire, and formally kicked off a wave of consolidation in Hollywood? This is like that.

Maybe bigger: The deals are roughly the same size. Microsoft’s deal values Activision at about $69bn, and Disney paid a little more than $70bn for Fox’s movie studio and other assets. But this deal — if it goes through — is both horizontal and vertical integration, pairing Microsoft’s Xbox console business, which already owns huge game franchises like Minecraft and Halo, with one of the world’s most valuable gaming companies, which owns giant titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush.

While streaming TV shows and movies occupy a ton of media attention, video games capture a ton of regular people’s attention: Microsoft says there are 3 billion gamers around the world today, and says that number will get to 4.5 billion by 2030.

And if you want to get really fanciful: If any version of the metaverse or virtual reality future we’ve been hearing about for the past couple years comes to pass, it will almost certainly be grounded in games. Maybe Future You won’t want to strap on face goggles throughout your day. But putting on a device to shoot at virtual strangers is less of a stretch.

«

That “3 billion gamers” number is hooey. It requires pretty much every smartphone user to be playing (and paying?) for them, and that makes “gamer” such a loose definition (Wordle players?) that it rolls off a spreadsheet.

GamePass prices will probably go up in the short term. And as Kafka points out, Microsoft’s probably pushing the (not happening yet, probably not for a while) metaverse angle because that would make it seem like a competitor to Facebook, and doesn’t everyone love competition?
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Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

»

The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet now threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, scientists have said.

Plastics are of particularly high concern, they said, along with 350,000 synthetic chemicals including pesticides, industrial compounds and antibiotics. Plastic pollution is now found from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, and some toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, are long-lasting and widespread.

The study concludes that chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary”, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.

Chemical pollution threatens Earth’s systems by damaging the biological and physical processes that underpin all life. For example, pesticides wipe out many non-target insects, which are fundamental to all ecosystems and, therefore, to the provision of clean air, water and food.

“There has been a fiftyfold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 and this is projected to triple again by 2050,” said Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) who was part of the study team. “The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”

«

#dontlookup
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China’s population may start to shrink this year, new birth data suggest • Science

Dennis Normile:

»

After many decades of growth, China’s population could begin to shrink this year, suggest data released yesterday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. The numbers show that in 2021, China’s birth rate fell for the fifth year in a row, to a record low of 7.52 per 1000 people. Based on that number, demographers estimate the country’s total fertility rate—the number of children a person will bear over their lifetime—is down to about 1.15, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and one of the lowest in the world.

Young couples are deciding against having more children, “despite all the new initiatives and propaganda to promote childbearing,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “China’s population decline will be rapid,” he predicts.

The shift from growth to decline has happened startlingly fast. Projections made just a few years ago suggested China’s population would expand until around 2027. Last year, when it announced results from the 2020 census, the statistics bureau still pegged the total fertility rate at 1.3.

China’s government has long promoted population control. But it has reversed course because of worries that a shrinking and aging population will strain pension systems and social services and lead to economic and geopolitical decline. The country ended its notorious one-child policy in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children. In May 2021, the limit went up to three children. Some local governments have started to offer monthly cash subsidies to couples for second and third children.

Experts say it is too little, too late.

«

Wonder if/when India will overtake it as the most populous country. And the reality too is that the workforce won’t grow, even if it all takes off, until 2036 at the earliest.
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AT&T and Verizon limit 5G service near US airports after airlines’ outcry • Financial Times

Steff Chavez and Anna Gross:

»

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to scale back or postpone the launch of 5G wireless service near airport runways after an eleventh-hour outcry from the aviation industry.

Airlines had warned that the debut of high-speed 5G technology, scheduled for Wednesday, could interfere with aircraft safety and navigation systems. United Airlines and American Airlines said earlier on Tuesday that they were preparing to cancel flights if the rollout went ahead.

AT&T said it had voluntarily agreed to “temporarily defer turning on” a limited number of 5G-enabled towers around “certain airport runways” as it provides more information to airlines and regulators, but added it was launching its advanced 5G services elsewhere as planned.

Verizon also said it would launch its 5G “ultra wideband” network on Wednesday, but had voluntarily decided to limit it “around airports”, without specifying the number of airports.

Both telecoms companies expressed frustration with US regulators after repeatedly delaying their planned launch of 5G — first from December 5 to January 5 and then for two more weeks, to Wednesday, at the request of regulators.

“The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries,” Verizon said.

«

The reason why other countries have got it operational is that they’re using different frequencies, and lower power. (Some international airlines said they’d cancel some flights into the US.)

Makes for quite the collision of big-money interests in the US, and has inevitably dragged the federal government in to try to mediate. The issue of altimeter problems – which this is – hasn’t been mentioned before, though concerns have been raised about weather forecasting and GPS. (Thanks Paul G.)
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The FAA’s 5G bungling does not instill confidence • The Washington Post

David von Drehle:

»

At issue is a sweet spot in the radio spectrum between 3.7 and 4.4 gigahertz (GHz). Here, the wavelengths are long enough to travel a good distance — important for cellular coverage — but short enough to hold a lot of data. The space from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz was authorized for 5G, while the band from 4.2 to 4.4 GHz carries messages to aircraft altimeters. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is worried about interference where the bands meet.

Wheeler notes that Boeing, battered by safety issues, proposed a protective margin from 4.1 to 4.2 GHz where 5G would not venture. The FCC, which regulates the wireless spectrum, agreed, then doubled the margin, limiting 5G signals to wavelengths below 4.0 GHz.

The FAA and its aviation constituents say they remain worried that some older altimeters might yet be vulnerable to interference. Instead of acting during the long 5G rollout to improve safety standards for avionics, the agency has chosen this flurry of late-stage hand-wringing. Wheeler counsels: “Clear heads are needed to separate what is only hypothetical possibility based on worst-case assumptions” — the FAA’s Chicken Little scenario — “from what is highly probable based on real-world use.”

More is at stake than the speed with which sports fans can gamble on their phones. High-speed wireless is a major economic and technical battlefield on which national security depends. The United States already lags China in adoption of 5G communications.

Beyond that, the FAA’s foot-dragging raises a red flag over the agency’s competence. Demand for space on the airwaves has been rising steeply for generations. But now we learn that countless aircraft may be flying around with crucial safety equipment vulnerable to interference — and that the number of vulnerable aircraft is unknown because, Wheeler writes, the agency has no set standard for altimeter security.

«

Neither the FAA nor the CDC have covered themselves in glory in the past couple of years.
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Israel police uses NSO’s Pegasus to spy on citizens • Calcalist Tech

Tomer Ganon:

»

One of the problematic instances that has been uncovered is the tracking of activists in the protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he was still in office. The protests against Netanyahu gathered momentum during 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country and the first lockdowns were imposed on Israelis. With the level of anxiety in the Netanyahu government continually rising, efforts were made to reduce the magnitude of the protests through the use of judicial and procedural tools, with police increasing the force and violence against protesters, the leaders in particular.

But the heads of the political protests had no idea that Israel police had remotely planted NSO’s spyware in their phones, taking over their devices and having the ability to listen to all their calls and read all their messages. The order to conduct the surveillance on Israeli citizens that aren’t criminals or suspects with NSO’s spyware was given by high-ranking police officers without a court warrant or the supervision of a judge. Those who received the order and executed it were members of the police’s special operations cyber unit in SIGINT, whose entire activity is confidential.

The political protesters weren’t the only ones the police were tracking through NSO. The Israeli company’s spyware, which has earned a notorious reputation over recent years after being used by oppressive regimes to spy on dissidents, was used, for example, by the police’s SIGINT unit in order to search for evidence of bribery in the cellphone of serving mayor, during the stage in which the investigation was still confidential. The remote hacking delivered in this instance evidence of criminal offenses. This evidence was later whitewashed as intelligence and was followed by an open investigation. At this stage, the evidence already known to police was legally seized with a search warrant provided by a judge.

However, NSO’s spyware was also used by police for phishing purposes: attempts to phish for information in an intelligence target’s phone without knowing in advance that the target committed any crime. Pegasus was installed in a cellphone of a person close to a senior politician in order to try and find evidence relating to a corruption investigation.

«

If the technology for abuse exists, it will be abused. Pegasus is getting to be like Downing St parties – it would be quicker to tell us the times when it was done within the rules.
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Porsche’s electric Taycan outsells 911 in record 2021 • CAR Magazine

Phil McNamara:

»

Porsche’s pure electric Taycan outsold the 911 sports car in 2021, as the German brand posted the greatest sales in its history.

The company delivered 41,296 Taycans worldwide, compared with 38,464 deliveries of the 59-year-old icon. The Taycan didn’t outsell the 911 because it had a bad year – that 911 total was a new high for the nameplate – but it appears more customers wanted the electric sports car.

The Taycan benefited from entry-level rear-wheel drive versions going on sale, and the first full year of the Cross Turismo bodystyle, whereas the 911 is nearing the end of the first 992 wave (pre-facelift). But is this a sliding doors moment regardless? 

It certainly looks that way. The Taycan is bringing new customers to the Porsche brand, as Porsche CEO Oliver Blume told us in 2020. ‘They are first movers, very interested in sustainability, innovation and digitalisation,’ says Blume. They are also younger than Porsche’s traditional customer base.

It’ll be fascinating to see if the Taycan continues its lead over the 911 in 2022, or whether it dips back as fresh rivals from Tesla, Mercedes, Lotus and BMW sway tech-loving EV adopters.

«

Maybe they’ve discovered that an electric car will accelerate faster than a petrol-engined one.
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Pix breaks ground in Brazil, shakes up payments market • S&P Global Market Intelligence

David Feliba:

»

Brazil, notorious for its bureaucracy and complexities, has created one of the most efficient payments systems in Latin America, with blowout numbers proving its success.

Pix, rolled out by the Banco Central do Brasil in Nov. 2020, was built for efficiency and financial inclusion. It now has 107.5 million registered accounts, more than half of the country’s population. One year after implementation, more than half a trillion Brazilian reais were transacted through the low-cost payments system last month. According to central bank data, Pix payments volume is already equivalent to 80% of debit and credit card transactions.

“Pix has set a new standard in Brazil,” Julian Colombo, CEO of banking technology firm N5, said in an interview. “It has already achieved critical mass.”

Pix continues adding new features, making older payment forms obsolete. Traditional banks may be losing revenue as a result, but the system has replaced cash, bringing more people into the digital realm.

“Except for very particular transactions, market penetration tends to 99% on all individual transfers,” he added. However, the rollout has not been without hiccups, including kidnapping.

This month, the central bank announced two new Pix features that will allow cash withdrawals from stores. Coming in 2022 are Pix Offline — no internet required — and Pix NFC Payments, allowing payment by approximation. That is good news for the millions of Brazilians who work informally, like those selling food on the beach or even street musicians.

…According to the central bank, some 30,000 Pix transactions are carried out every minute.

«

Hasn’t needed to draw apes, or claim that it’s breaking clear of fiat, or decentralised (it very much isn’t). But it’s a success. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)

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Cryptocurrency ads reach record levels on London transport • The Guardian

Rob Davies:

»

Cryptocurrency firms bombarded Londoners with a record number of adverts on public transport during 2021, fuelling calls for a ban to prevent people being lured into risky investments.

The surge in adverts for crypto assets, which are unregulated in the UK, has prompted concerns about the risk of addiction and financial harm, particularly given the wild volatility in the price of digital currencies such as bitcoin, which reached record highs last year before crashing again.

It also emerged that Transport for London (TfL) has not implemented a ban on gambling adverts promised by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, allowing the industry to step up its marketing activity in the meantime.

Records obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act show that TfL services displayed 39,560 crypto adverts from 13 firms in the six months between April and September 2021.

Major advertisers include the trading platform eToro, floki – “a “meme coin” named after Elon Musk’s dog – Crypto.com and Luno Money, whose campaign telling people it was “time to buy” bitcoin was banned by the advertising regulator for being “irresponsible”.

«

An official estimate reckoned that 2.4 million Britons have “investments” (read as: crossed fingers) in cryptocurrencies, though that number is going up all the time, principally in the 18-24 age group.

A financial analyst on the radio this afternoon pointed out there is no way to value such …things in the longer term, and added that on that basis “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an honest cryptocurrency advert.”
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1716: Safari’s privacy leak, UK to subsidise energy suppliers?, the wrath of Cummings, the end of Covid, and more


Nobody would stump up huge amounts of money (or “money”) to buy a book they couldn’t do anything with – except crypto enthusiasts after a ‘Dune’ bible. CC-licensed photo by deepskyobjectdeepskyobject on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Not an element of public service broadcasting. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Safari 15 bug can leak your recent browsing activity and personal identifiers • The Verge

Emma Roth:

»

A bug in Safari 15 can leak your browsing activity, and can also reveal some of the personal information attached to your Google account, according to findings from FingerprintJS, a browser fingerprinting and fraud detection service (via 9to5Mac). The vulnerability stems from an issue with Apple’s implementation of IndexedDB, an application programming interface (API) that stores data on your browser.

As explained by FingerprintJS, IndexedDB abides by the same-origin policy, which restricts one origin from interacting with data that was collected on other origins — essentially, only the website that generates data can access it. For example, if you open your email account in one tab and then open a malicious webpage in another, the same-origin policy prevents the malicious page from viewing and meddling with your email.

FingerprintJS found that Apple’s application of the IndexedDB API in Safari 15 actually violates the same-origin policy. When a website interacts with a database in Safari, FingerprintJS says that “a new (empty) database with the same name is created in all other active frames, tabs, and windows within the same browser session.”

This means other websites can see the name of other databases created on other sites, which could contain details specific to your identity. FingerprintJS notes sites that use your Google account, like YouTube, Google Calendar, and Google Keep, all generate databases with your unique Google User ID in its name. Your Google User ID allows Google to access your publicly-available information, such as your profile picture, which the Safari bug can expose to other websites.

«

You can try it out at the safarileaks website. The Google Analytics cookies already do this sort of tracking, as does Facebook. And they’re absolutely everywhere. Yet apparently Apple’s Safari team has already merged some fixes for this, so they’ll presumably be in the next point release.
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UK looks at payments to energy suppliers to shield consumers from high bills • Financial Times

George Parker, Nathalie Thomas and Jim Pickard:

»

The UK is exploring a radical intervention in the power market under which the state would make payments to energy suppliers when wholesale gas prices rise sharply in a bid to soften the blow to consumers

The proposal, which is being promoted by energy companies, is described by government insiders as “plausible” and “logical”, but they admit there are also many downsides to such a step.

Under the initiative, energy suppliers would receive payments from government when wholesale gas prices exceeded a certain threshold so they would not then have to pass the hike on to consumers.

Some suppliers say the proposal — known as a temporary price stabilisation mechanism — could be self-funding over the course of several years as energy companies would have to return money to the government when wholesale prices traded below the agreed level.

Rishi Sunak, chancellor, accepts this could leave the taxpayer heavily exposed if wholesale prices remain high, but he has been discussing with Boris Johnson, the prime minister, ways to mitigate a cost of living crisis, officials say.

Without action by Downing Street, a price cap on household energy bills could rise from £1,277 a year to over £1,900 in April — fuelling inflation — and coming at the same time as tax rises take effect.

«

Contrast this with what it won’t do for the BBC, where the licence fee has been frozen for at least two years, and there’s no viable path to another model that would be as effective. The cost of living rises on the lowest-paid, or those on benefits, have been imposed by the government – cutting Universal Credit, refusing free school meals, withdrawing free TV licences for those over 75. This will be hugely expensive, with nothing at all to show for it – unlike, say, a comprehensive program to shift to air source heat pumps.
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Dominic Cummings, ‘Partygate’ and the campaign to unseat Boris Johnson • Financial Times

Jim Pickard and George Parker:

»

[Former chief adviser to PM Boris Johnson, Dominic] Cummings… revealed the far more damaging details of another gathering in the Number 10 garden on May 20 2020. It involved around 40 people, including Johnson, and was arranged by a senior civil servant with a memo advising invitees to “bring your own booze”.

Cummings added that he and a colleague had warned in writing that the event appeared to break lockdown rules and should not take place, but “we were ignored”. Further details of the party emerged in the Sunday Times just days later. In a blog post published on Monday he said he “would swear under oath” that Johnson not only knew about the May 20 drinks party but “agreed that it should go ahead”.

The former Number 10 chief of staff’s [Overspill ed: Cummings wasn’t CoS. It’s a title he explicitly rejected] criticism of Johnson’s lockdown breaches is not without irony. He was at the centre of another furore in the summer of 2020 after he was found to have broken the rules by driving his family 270 miles from London to Durham, despite thinking they had been exposed to coronavirus. He then made a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to “see if I could drive safely”.

Johnson subsequently defied a wave of public outrage to stand behind his adviser, who had been the brains behind the successful “Vote Leave” Brexit campaign in 2016.

“Dom first got involved in anti-EU campaigning in around 2000: that’s 16 years in which he never gave up, kept fighting, and he is now bringing that level of persistence to taking out Johnson,” said one friend.

«

I doubt it’s going to take him 16 years to get rid of Johnson. 16 months would be closer to it. 16 weeks if the May local elections are bad, and why shouldn’t they be? Cummings is clearly the worst possible person to have as an enemy. And the worst possible person to have as a friend.
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This DAO ‘bought’ Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune bible—but it doesn’t own it yet • Decrypt

Jeff Benson and Jason Nelson:

»

Here’s a quick conundrum. Does the person paying the mortgage own the house, or is it really the property of the bank? Here’s another one: Do viewers own the rights to digital movies they purchase online?

And, finally, who really owns filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune Bible”? Is it the DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) that raised $750,000 to bid on it at Christie’s auction house, or the DAO’s co-founder who used his own funds to purchase it separately—and then spearheaded a fundraising drive for other contributors to buy it back from him?

That’s the curious question being raised this week by Spice DAO (formerly DuneDAO), the latest decentralized community formed to purchase real-world items—just as ConstitutionDAO attempted for a copy of the U.S. Constitution and Krause House aims to do for an NBA team.

DuneDAO was co-founded by Soban Saqib, who goes by “Soby,” along with a friend to raise money and bid on storyboards for the planned (but never filmed) 1970s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune.” Though the $750,000 in Ethereum they raised via community funding site Juicebox was far more than Christie’s estimated value of €25,000-35,000, it was far below what was needed to win the auction last week. More than that, it was in the wrong type of currency—the auction’s seller wasn’t accepting Ethereum.

Watching the drama unfold, Soby put down his own cash—€2,660,000 ($3,010,750), not including fees—to avoid the fate of the unsuccessful ConstitutionDAO, which raised $45 million but decided the auction fees and storage costs of the centuries-old constitution would be too costly.

“No one wants to fail, no one wants to raise all this money and not win, so I did it,” he told Decrypt. Soby added he was a little worried about bidding that much money but knew the community would support him.

Ever since, he says he’s been looking for a way to transfer the Dune Bible to the DAO, the idea being for it to effectively reimburse him. Soby told Decrypt he’s unsure how much his own investment in the manuscript will total when all is said and done; the cash bid has complicated things.

«

It’s just astonishing how stupid these people are. Do they own any copyright in the book? No. Can they do anything with the contents of the book? Only what copyright allows. They’re in alternative realities.
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Coronavirus: game over • Tomas Pueyo

Pueyo is the non-biologist who appeared on Channel 4 News at the start of the pandemic rolling his eyes at the “herd immunity” plan of the British advisor, and was subsequently proved right on everything – our inability to understand exponential growth, how herd immunity was a bad idea (then), and so on:

»

In Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now, I sounded the alarm on COVID.
In Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance, I explained what we had to do about it.

Today, in Coronavirus: Game Over, I’d like to explain why this means the end of the pandemic phase, and the beginning of the end(emic) phase.

On the 10th of March 2020, the world had not realized what was coming. It was important to share how what had happened to Italy and Iran was going to happen everywhere else if they didn’t shut down their countries. That proved to be true.

One week later, when I published The Hammer and the Dance, I explained why we needed to apply shutdowns: to buy ourselves time, so we could

• Prepare the healthcare system
• Learn to do testing and tracing
• Produce masks we needed at scale (and other things, like ventilators)
• Understand the virus
• Understand the cost-benefits of tackling it
• Find treatments
• Get vaccines
• Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

After the Omicron wave, we’ll be in a world where most people will have some sort of immunity, either through natural infections, vaccines, or both. We now know how to get vaccines fast (we should approve them faster for new variants), and we have treatments too. The value of time for learning has dropped: we know most of what we need to know about it. So the benefits of social measures to stop COVID are much lower.

«

Basically, good news, at least according to Pueyo, who I personally rate as a smart person.
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US airline officials warn of ‘catastrophic’ crisis in aviation with new 5G service • The Guardian

Edward Helmore and agencies:

»

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” the letter, signed by the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue, as well as freight and parcel carriers UPS and FedEx, said.

They warned new C-Band 5G technology could interfere with critical airplane instruments such as radio altimeters – which judge the distance from the ground to the bottom of the flying vessel – and have an impact on low-visibility operations.

“This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the letter cautioned, adding a call for urgent action to be taken.

“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt,” the executives said.

Airlines for America, the lobbying group that organized the letter, and government agencies were not immediately available for comment.

In a letter dated 4 January, the group thanked Buttigieg, Dickson and Deese for “reaching the agreement with AT&T and Verizon to delay their planned 5G C-band deployment around certain airports for two weeks and to commit to the proposed mitigations”.

“Safety is and always will be the top priority of US airlines,” it said. “We will continue to work with all stakeholders to help ensure that new 5G service can coexist with aviation safely.”

«

I recall airlines being terrified about Wi-Fi. Then Bluetooth. (Maybe both at once.) And also mobile phones. And 3G. And 4G. Look, I’m not saying that the cry wolf over every mobile network innovation, but I’m struggling to think of one where they said “this is absolutely fine, go ahead.” (Maybe UWB?)
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Crypto.com suspends withdrawals after ‘unauthorized activity’ • Bloomberg via LA Times

Emily Nicolle:

»

Several users had reported on social media that their cryptocurrencies, at times equating to tens of thousands of dollars, had disappeared from their Crypto.com accounts in recent days. A spokesperson from Crypto.com didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Technical issues on crypto trading platforms have become commonplace as the hype surrounding digital assets grows. Providers such as Coinbase, Binance and Kraken have all suffered widespread outages at times of peak demand in the last year, causing trouble for investors who were prevented from making withdrawals or liquidating their positions amid volatile trading periods.

Crypto.com has more than 10 million customers and is one of the most prominent platforms in the US, having recently secured naming rights to take over from Staples as the title sponsor of the Los Angeles sports center. The $700-million deal accompanied a major marketing push starring Crypto.com investor and Hollywood actor Matt Damon.

Crypto influencer and podcast host Ben Baller said in a tweet on Monday that around 4.28 Ether, which equates to roughly $14,000, had been “stolen out of nowhere” from his account, a move that would have required a potential hacker to surpass two-factor authentication security measures.

«

People having money hacked from their accounts?? Must be a day ending with a “y”.
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Citation needed? Wikipedia bibliometrics during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic • BiorXriv

Benjakob, Aviram and Sobel (Israel-based academics) did an academic study into Wikipedia during the pandemic:

»

Investigating if and how Wikipedia remained up to date and in line with science is key to formulating strategies to counter misinformation. Using citation analyses, we asked: which sources informed Wikipedia’s COVID-19-related articles before and during the pandemic’s first wave (January-May 2020).

Results: We found that coronavirus-related articles referenced trusted media sources and high-quality academic research. Moreover, despite a surge in COVID-19 preprints, Wikipedia had a clear preference for open-access studies published in respected journals and made little use of preprints.

Building a timeline of English COVID-19 articles from 2001-2020 revealed a nuanced tradeoff between quality and timeliness. It further showed how preexisting articles on key topics related to the virus created a framework for integrating new knowledge. Supported by a rigid sourcing policy, this “scientific infrastructure” facilitated contextualization and regulated the influx of new information. Lastly, we constructed a network of DOI-Wikipedia articles, which showed the shifting landscape of pandemic-related knowledge on Wikipedia and how academic citations create a web of shared knowledge supporting topics like COVID-19 vaccine development.

Conclusions: Understanding how scientific research interacts with the digital knowledge-sphere during the pandemic provides insight into how Wikipedia can facilitate access to science. It also reveals how, aided by what we term its “citizen encyclopedists”, it successfully fended off COVID-19 disinformation and how this unique model may be deployed in other contexts.

«

Wikipedia’s ability to resist any sort of partisan capture in general is remarkable. It’s been attacked again and again, but in general it self-corrects. And that’s always a cause for relief.
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July 2013: Bitcoin: man charged over alleged multimillion-dollar Ponzi fraud • The Guardian

Nearly nine years ago I wrote about a ripoff preying on the credulous:

»

The digital currency Bitcoin may have its own Bernie Madoff. An investment scheme promising a 7% weekly return was in fact a fraudulent “Ponzi” scheme, in which a Texas man used new investors’ money to pay interest to existing ones, according to charges filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Trendon T Shavers, from KcKinney in Texas, was the founder and operator of “Bitcoin Savings and Trust” (BTCST), allegedly raised a total of 700,000 Bitcoins in 2011 and 2012 – then worth about $4.5m – for his scheme, claiming that he made his profits on market arbitrage.

Using online handles such as “Pirate” and “pirateat40”, Shavers sold “investments” to people around the US. He claimed that “I have yet to come close to taking a loss on any deal” and that the “risk is almost 0” when challenged. He also said that he couldn’t reveal his investment strategy: “If I told you, then I couldn’t do what I do,” he once wrote.

«

Shavers subsequently got 18 months’ prison time. I bet he’s looking at all the NFTs and junkcoins and seeing an opportunity. It’s hardly as if the number of credulous dolts has gone down. Quite the opposite.
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Social unrest stirred up by social media postings? It’s still a problem. Social Warming, my latest book, explains why, and what we – and governments – can do about it.


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.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1715: new Facebook and Google antitrust details, the undersea fibre empire, Canon’s printer DRM fail, and more


The Ladybower reservoir is overflowing again, and people are (just like you!) fascinated by the spillway patterns. CC-licensed photo by Ian Carroll 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. It’s a work meeting. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Revealed: UK government plans publicity blitz to undermine chat privacy • Rolling Stone

James Ball:

»

The UK government is set to launch a multi-pronged publicity attack on end-to-end encryption, Rolling Stone has learned. One key objective: mobilizing public opinion against Facebook’s decision to encrypt its Messenger app.

The Home Office has hired the M&C Saatchi advertising agency — a spin-off of Saatchi and Saatchi, which made the “Labour Isn’t Working” election posters [in 1979], among the most famous in UK political history — to plan the campaign, using public funds.

According to documents reviewed by Rolling Stone, one the activities considered as part of the publicity offensive is a striking stunt — placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking “knowingly” at the child as the glass fades to black. Multiple sources confirmed the campaign was due to start this month, with privacy groups already planning a counter-campaign. 

“We have engaged M&C Saatchi to bring together the many organisations who share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement.

Successive Home Secretaries of different political parties have taken strong anti-encryption stances, claiming the technology — which is essential for online privacy and security — will diminish the effectiveness of UK bulk surveillance capabilities, make fighting organized crime more difficult, and hamper the ability to stop terror attacks. The American FBI has made similar arguments in recent years — claims which have been widely debunked by technologists and civil libertarians on both sides of the Atlantic.

«

This is truly insane, especially the idea considered for the publicity stunt. (Possibly it’s been rejected and this leaked out as part of a “look how not-unreasonable what we’re actually doing is!”)

Enormous irony being that all MPs, especially Tories, use WhatsApp to plot their next moves. E2E encrypted, and owned by Facebook.
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Antitrust docs detail alleged plot between Facebook and Google • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

»

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton first spearheaded a blockbuster multistate antitrust case against Google towards the end of 2020, it included some (heavily redacted) allegations of a secret agreement with Facebook that let the duo squash fellow competitors in the advertising space and lord over the lion’s share of digital ad spending to this day. Now, some details about that deal are finally open to the public: new court filings from the suit that were unsealed on Friday allege that the deal, dubbed “Jedi Blue,” gave Facebook an illegal leg-up in Google’s ad auctions in exchange for Facebook’s word that it would back down from its own ad plans. Further, it claims that the top executives at both companies signed off on the deal.

The tech that’s used to serve ads across the internet is byzantine in a way that can even leave people in the online ad industry scratching their heads, which means more than 240 pages in the latest leg of the Texas case can be tricky to explain concisely. In a nutshell, publishers across the web—news sites, recipe blogs, and any other site you can name—typically rely on so-called “ad exchanges” to pawn off their available ad space to advertisers across the web. Google’s ad exchange has historically been one of the biggest around, leaving websites with little option but to work with the company if they wanted to get any sort of decent ad revenue.

This all changed in 2017 with the invention of a new kind of tech called “header bidding” that would let websites bypass Google’s exchange and still make decent earnings from their ad space. Facebook quickly announced it would make itself header bidding-compatible soon after, which meant publishers could tap into Facebook’s many, many (many) advertisers in exchange for surrendering a small chunk of their ad dollars to the company. More ad dollars in Facebook’s pocket meant fewer in Google’s, which the case alleges left the latter scrambling for a way to diffuse this competitive threat.

The deal the two allegedly landed on was “Jedi Blue.”

«

The details are, as she says, mindbending but the essence is simple: Google and Facebook are accused of collusion in a gigantic market in which they collectively control a majority.
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Ladybower Reservoir’s overflowing ‘plug holes’ attract photographers • BBC News

Amy Woodfield:

»

Photographers have been flocking to see “plug holes” dramatically overflowing at a reservoir in the Derbyshire Peak District.

The two holes – technically known as shaft spillways – are designed to regulate water levels when Ladybower Reservoir becomes full.

The excess water flows away into the River Derwent downstream. The high water levels are most likely down to the recent wet and snowy weather in the surrounding hills.

One of the many photographers to capture the spectacle was Peaklass – an avid Instagrammer based in the Peak District. She said: “They’re running over at the moment because of the high levels in the reservoir, possibly because of the snowmelt and also the wet weather we’ve been having. They don’t do it very often.”

Photographer Lee Gibson, from Lincolnshire said: “Howden and Derwent dams are overflowing at the moment. I think they’ve had a lot of snowfall over the last couple of weeks which has slowly filled it up. Perfectly normal for this time of year.”

«

“Shaft spillways”? Bah. They’re lovely pictures of overspills, well worth taking a couple of minutes for. (Thanks Steve!)
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Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft weave a fiber-optic web of power • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

»

In less than a decade, four tech giants — Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon — have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.

And these four are just getting started, say analysts, submarine cable engineers and the companies themselves. In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, according to subsea cable analysis firm TeleGeography.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S.

Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors, and helped the world increase capacity to transmit data internationally by 41% in 2020 alone, according to TeleGeography’s annual report on submarine cable infrastructure.

«

Apple and Netflix notably absent from that list. Still renting Amazon and Microsoft’s capacity.
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Canon can’t get enough toner chips, so it’s telling customers how to defeat its DRM • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

»

To enforce the use of first-party cartridges, manufacturers typically embed chips inside the consumables for the printers to “authenticate.” But when chips are in short supply, like today, manufacturers can find themselves in a bind. So Canon is now telling German customers how to defeat its printers’ warnings about third-party cartridges.

“Due to the worldwide continuing shortage of semiconductor components, Canon is currently facing challenges in procuring certain electronic components that are used in our consumables for our multifunction printers (MFP),” a Canon support website says in German. “In order to ensure a continuous and reliable supply of consumables, we have decided to supply consumables without a semiconductor component until the normal supply takes place again.”

The chip in question tells the printer when toner levels are getting low. A useful feature, certainly, but one that printer companies often use to lock out third-party cartridges—without the chip, the printer will say it doesn’t know how much ink or toner is inside the cartridge, assume it’s zero, and refuse to print.

But Canon has been having a hard time getting chips amid the shortage, so the company is telling owners of its imageRUNNER large-office printers how to defeat its own protections against cartridges that don’t have chips.

The software on these printers comes with a relatively simple way to defeat the chip checks. Depending on the model, when an error message occurs after inserting toner, users can press either “I Agree,” “Close,” or “OK.” When users press that [last] button, the world does not end. Rather, Canon says users may find that their toner cartridge doesn’t give them a low-toner warning before running empty.

«

My printer (not a Canon), with its own-brand cartridges, continually insists that it’s low on ink. I’d love to be able to stop that message.
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The cost of a byte: a summary of where energy is consumed • Geek Culture

Noah Martin:

»

The size of an app has wide-reaching consequences on user experience.

At first glance, you might consider slower install times, more install failures, and a higher uninstall rate. But it doesn’t stop there. Unnecessary code leads to rising compile times. Large binaries increase how much work the runtime does to lookup conformances, slowing down every aspect of an app. The more classes you have, the more work is done by dyld, slowing app launches, and increasing memory usage. Some users pay for bandwidth usage, creating a literal direct cost to download your app. The effects even reach beyond your users, to the energy usage of the Internet as it transfers app downloads.

With more and more time spent online, people have been taking an interest in the energy usage and environmental impact of the Internet. Researchers from MIT, Purdue, and Yale even demonstrated that turning off the camera during a Zoom meeting shrinks the environmental footprint by 96%. This got me thinking about the environmental footprint of app size. While an app download is small compared to live video streaming, the scale of downloads can be in the 100s of millions. As is often the case with development at scale, a single decision shipped to this wide user base gives us a big opportunity.

«

The effect of a difference in size of just one megabyte on emissions is truly surprising. (Even more than that one about turning off the Zoom camera, which is a little suspicious, but the full paper lies behind an academic paywall.)
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After ruining Android messaging, Google says iMessage is too powerful • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo, following up on Google’s outrage (following from a WSJ article about how the iPhone dominates with teens, and they like iMessage):

»

Google once had a functional competitor to iMessage called Google Hangouts. Circa 2015, Hangouts was a messaging powerhouse; in addition to the native Hangouts messaging, it also supported SMS and Google Voice messages. Hangouts did group video calls five years before Zoom blew up, and it had clients on Android, iOS, the web, Gmail, and every desktop OS via a Chrome extension.

As usual, though, Google lacked any kind of long-term plan or ability to commit to a single messaging strategy, and Hangouts only survived as the “everything” messenger for a single year. By 2016, Google moved on to the next shiny messaging app and left Hangouts to rot.

Even if Google could magically roll out RCS everywhere, it’s a poor standard to build a messaging platform on because it is dependent on a carrier phone bill. It’s anti-Internet and can’t natively work on webpages, PCs, smartwatches, and tablets, because those things don’t have SIM cards. The carriers designed RCS, so RCS puts your carrier bill at the center of your online identity, even when free identification methods like email exist and work on more devices. Google is just promoting carrier lock-in as a solution to Apple lock-in.

Despite Google’s complaining about iMessage, the company seems to have learned nothing from its years of messaging failure. Today, Google messaging is the worst and most fragmented it has ever been. As of press time, the company runs eight separate messaging platforms, none of which talk to each other: there is Google Messages/RCS, which is being promoted today, but there’s also Google Chat/Hangouts, Google Voice, Google Photos Messages, Google Pay Messages, Google Maps Business Messages, Google Stadia Messages, and Google Assistant Messaging. Those last couple of apps aren’t primarily messaging apps but have all ended up rolling their own siloed messaging platform because no dominant Google system exists for them to plug into.

The situation is an incredible mess, and no single Google product is as good as Hangouts was in 2015.

«

This is the consequence of Google’s warring product managers: it’s all about who wins, not whether the customer wins. (Also: Pixel Envy takes apart the WSJ story.)
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NBA games in virtual reality have potential. Here’s what watching one is like • CNBC

Jabari Young:

»

Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka popped up from the team bench, and before I knew it, he was blocking my view. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was close enough for me to see his Cole Haan shoes, and I saw a Lance Stephenson 3-pointer from an angle I’d never seen before.

That’s just some of my recent experience watching an NBA game while wearing a virtual reality headset.

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual courtside seats on Meta’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 devices. The headsets were one of the most popular Christmas gifts in 2021, showing that people seem to be more willing than ever to give virtual reality a try. And businesses are trying to keep your eyeballs on their content by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

The NBA experience is free and available on Meta’s Horizon Venues platform, which is a free software download for the Oculus headset. People appear as digital avatars, sort of like cartoon versions of their real selves, and watch an NBA game from a courtside perspective. It’s not Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles Lakers seat at Crypto.com Arena or Spike Lee’s seat at Madison Square Garden, but it almost replicates the real thing.

From a business perspective, the deal could give the NBA a new set of media rights, which is important as regional sports networks struggle.

…As the Celtics were up 23-18 in the first quarter, one avatar approached me to ask for assistance on watching. I was confused at first, as my stream was fine, but it became clear the real person behind the avatar had a bad connection or was restricted due to local blackout rules.

That prompted him to label the NBA’s metaverse experience “trash.” Moments later, I asked another avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

“This is dope,” responded the avatar named “TUtley.” “They need to get this for football.”

The scenic views of Boston that appeared during game breaks were pretty impressive, too, and gave me a sense of being in the city where the game is played.

«

Ehhh. It doesn’t sound that great to be honest. But I remember things like this, which come round about every 10 years or so. Maybe this time it’ll stick.
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Who is web3 really good for? • Margins

Can Duruk:

»

Once you see what is going on for real in the crypto space, you realize it’s not that the [warning: irony ahead] extremely normal Twitter user and part-time venture capitalist [at a16z, aka Andreessen Horowitz] Chris Dixon was being delirious in his seminal “Why Web3 Matters” thread. It was just that he was being extremely evasive (or maybe ignorant) about why firms like his are now so interested in this space.

It’s just business. The short of it is that these firms that have brought you Web 2.0** style centralization with all its benefits and downsides, are now looking for their next big hit. And while Big Tech has already grown to a democracy-defying size while making all their early investors and employees wealthier than gods already, crypto promises a whole lot more; an ability to own and fully control entire economies. Who could (or should, as an investor) miss out on investing in new monopolies that are vertically integrated across entire economies? Imagine El Salvador, but way…worse? Dumber?

It’s probably not lost on people who have been investing in Coinbase that if you could own the on-ramp into the crypto ecosystem for the masses, that you can exploit all the advantages of being a, or even the, bottleneck. And surely, you could exploit all the benefits of economies of scale over time.

But a gold rush is going to attract a lot of people.

So while [crypto exchange] Coinbase can charge exorbitant transaction fees today on the retail side, they must know that music will stop with competitors coming in. It’s an existential necessity for them to expand into other parts of the crypto industry. They already announced its own NFT marketplace, and have a MetaMask competitor in the works as well.

«

That point about “new monopolies that are vertically integrated across entire economies” made me shiver when I read it. That’s absolutely what a venture capital company would want. What it would salivate for.
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“You don’t own web3”: a Coinbase curse and how VCs sell crypto to retail

Fais Khan:

»

Coinbase is like the New York Stock Exchange of crypto – a listing there is a huge deal, and usually leads to massive profits for everyone involved. But unlike the NYSE or NASDAQ, Coinbase gets to choose whatever assets they want, using their own process.

Second, [venture capital company] a16z and Coinbase’s own returns are particularly interesting, given a16z is supposedly the best investor in this space, and there’s a potential for conflict of interest. Is the game rigged?

Third, Coinbase pivoted its strategy last year to go from being cautious to listing as many coins as they can. That raises the ante even higher for them and their users.

So I started to dig in, and what I found surprised me: most coins underperformed, returns got worse over time, and VC-backed coins did worst of all.

But I was able to do one better – for the last few years, Coinbase put out the names of coins they were thinking to list, but never did. I analyzed those coins – and found they did even better than the ones that made it, and the VC-backed ones didn’t show any of the same underperformance. 

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In other words, the game is rigged.
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Why is Android 12 so buggy? It’s complicated • The Verge

Allison Johnson:

»

we talked to Mishaal Rahman, former editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, who’s well known for digging into Android codebases and discovering Google’s secrets. Speaking to the Pixel 6 bugs in particular, Rahman guesses that it has a lot to do with the unusually large size of the update. “Many people have called it, myself included, the biggest OS update to Android since Android 5.0 Lollipop, and that was many years ago. There are just so many massive changes to the interface and to the feature set.”

He also suggests that Google’s commitment to issue a new Android update every year can make things worse when it’s trying to do so much, and the self-imposed one-year development cycle doesn’t leave much wiggle room in the timeline. “They started immediately after Android 11 was released to the public — and they have a hard cutoff date… After that, they just focus on fixing bugs.” Delay any longer, and they’d risk bumping into next year’s development cycle.

It’s also possible that the attempt to bring timely Android updates to non-Google devices wound up backfiring. Android phone owners have been asking for faster updates for a long time — outside of Google’s Pixel phones and pricey flagships, many devices face long waits for OS updates. Sure enough, the updates have come faster this year. Case in point: Samsung users are accustomed to waiting about three months after an Android stable release to get their finished One UI update with the new version of the OS, but this year, One UI 4.0 arrived just one and a half months after Android 12. But the way things have gone this year, many users would likely have opted for a slower, stable update rather than a fast one riddled with bugs.

«

With both iOS and Android, you get occasional years when things pile on top of themselves. For iOS, it was (I think) 12, which had all sorts of problems. Yet Android shouldn’t really have this problem; it doesn’t need to be on an annual upgrade cycle, which Apple very much does to meet its self-imposed iPhone deadlines.
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The paperback of Social Warming is coming out soon. But the hardback will serve for now.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1714: MS blamed on glandular fever virus, why NFTs are bad (astrobiologically), are App Store scams on demand?, and more


Even if you’re playing chess anonymously, an AI can probably pick you out by your style (given enough of your back catalogue). Surprised? CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic 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. Complete: one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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

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


The worrisome rise of NFTs • Nautilus

Caleb Scharf is an astrobiologist:

»

NFTs are (for now) almost comically bereft of anything most of us would associate with social or cultural value. Down the line there may be value in attaching permanent ownership or provenance to digital works of art. But at the moment it’s Pudgy Penguins for the masses, or a pixel-heavy version of Nyan Cat going for an eye-watering $1.2 million for cynical investors. With an explosive growth of equally speculative and bewildering offerings appearing every day.

This represents a tangible planetary burden. Prompting the people behind the blockchains to try to improve their environmental image. The company Ethereum (that supports cryptocurrency as well as NFTs) has indicated it aims to cut energy use by more than 99% by changing its core methodology. That change will make it possible for aspiring currency “miners” to participate without so much hardware and electricity consumption.

That sounds great but understanding the nature of these changes is not easy, since the whole idea of blockchains is rooted in astonishingly arcane concepts like “proof of work” or “proof of stake” manifested in computer hardware and algorithms. It’s also far from clear that other companies will follow suit, or that the most energy-intensive pieces can ever be fully removed from the scheme without risking the innate reliability that makes the blockchain so appealing in the first place.

The much bigger question, though, has less to do with these emergent upstarts in our informational world and more to do with humanity’s overall trajectory. Any species that endlessly grows, and continually invents energy-hungry processes, may not be destined for a happy ending. At best, such a species will go through boom-and-bust cycles, with big corrective failures. At worst, a species like this simply won’t make it through to the future. NFTs and cryptocurrencies by themselves may not be the cause of a future collapse, but they are symptoms of what ails us. And like all symptoms, they can offer clues to a cure, because the root of the problem may be much deeper—in the fabric of digital information itself.

«

Also: “NFTs, an overblown speculative bubble inflated by pop culture and crypto mania“. If only articles criticising NFTs could make them go away.
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Team GB athletes offered temporary phones over China spying fears • The Guardian

Sean Ingle:

»

The British Olympic Association will offer temporary phones to Team GB athletes and staff at next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing after fears they could be spied on by the Chinese government.

While the British delegation will not be banned from taking their own mobile devices, they have been warned against doing so by the BOA because it fears the authorities could install spyware to extract private information or track future activity.

A BOA spokesperson said: “We’ve given athletes and staff practical advice so that they can make their own choice as to whether they take their personal devices to the Games, or not. Where they do not want to take their own equipment, we have provisioned temporary devices for them to use.”

The Dutch Olympic Committee*Dutch Sports Federation (NOC*NSF) has gone a step further by telling its athletes not to bring their personal mobile phones or laptops because it anticipates China may carry out surveillance on electronic devices during the Games.

The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant said the NOC*NSF would give athletes and support staff phones and laptops which will be destroyed when they return home.

NOC*NSF spokesperson Geert Slot declined to discuss specific cases but said cybersecurity was part of the risk assessment. “The importance of cybersecurity has grown over the years,” he said. “But China has completely closed off its internet, which makes it a specific case.”

«

Don’t remember this in 2008.
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Epstein-Barr virus found to trigger multiple sclerosis • Scientific American

Lydia Denworth:

»

A connection between the human herpesvirus Epstein-Barr and multiple sclerosis (MS) has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary cause of mononucleosis and is so common that 95% of adults carry it. Unlike Epstein-Barr, MS, a devastating demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, is relatively rare. It affects 2.8 million people worldwide. But people who contract infectious mononucleosis are at slightly increased risk of developing MS. In the disease, inflammation damages the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells, ultimately disrupting signals to and from the brain and causing a variety of symptoms, from numbness and pain to paralysis.

To prove that infection with Epstein-Barr causes MS, however, a research study would have to show that people would not develop the disease if they were not first infected with the virus. A randomized trial to test such a hypothesis by purposely infecting thousands of people would of course be unethical.

Instead researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School turned to what they call “an experiment of nature.” They used two decades of blood samples from more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the US military (the samples were taken for routine HIV testing). About 5% of those individuals (several hundred thousand people) were negative for Epstein-Barr when they started military service, and 955 eventually developed MS.

…The results, published on September 13 in Science, show that the risk of multiple sclerosis increased 32-fold after infection with Epstein-Barr but not after infection with other viruses. “These findings cannot be explained by any known risk factor for MS and suggest EBV as the leading cause of MS,” the researchers wrote.

«

A stronger connection than smoking 25 cigarettes per day v lung cancer. So is the next step some sort of vaccination against EBV?
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Lords Committee pours cold water on UK CBDC • FinExtra

»

A Committee of peers in the House of Lords has concluded that there is no convincing case for the creation of a central bank digital currency in the UK.

The Economic Affairs Committee found that while a CBDC may provide some advantages, it could present significant challenges for financial stability and the protection of privacy.

The Bank of England and HM Treasury have been actively pursuing the case for a CBDC, dubbed Britcoin, due to the declining use of cash and the threats to monetary sovereignty posed by private digital currencies.

The upper chamber of the House of Commons commenced its inquiry into the issue in November, taking evidence from the Bank of England and senior banking officials.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Committe Chair, comments: “We took evidence from a variety of witnesses and none of them were able to give us a compelling reason for why the UK needed a central bank digital currency. The concept seems to present a lot of risk for very little reward. We concluded that the idea was a solution in search of a problem.”

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Amen on that one.
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Alleged Apple App Store scammer AmpMe lowers prices and says it’ll investigate its ‘consultants’ • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

»

AmpMe isn’t a brand-new app that popped up just to scam unsuspecting users out of their money. [In] 2015… we first covered the idea: an app that can sync up a room full of smartphones into a single gigantic speaker with no fees in sight. But as App Store scam hunter Kosta Eleftheriou points out, the app looks seriously shady more than six years later — if you downloaded it yesterday, it would immediately try to sell you on a $9.99 a week automatic recurring subscription. That’s $520 a year, an incredible sum if you pull it out as a party trick and then forget to cancel.

AppFigures estimates the app has raked in $13m since 2018.

As we discussed last April, it’s ridiculously easy to find scams on Apple’s App Store — just follow the money and look at the reviews. If you see an app that charges ridiculous subscription fees, yet still has loads of five-star ratings, something might be off. And if those reviews look absolutely fake, and the app’s barely functional, you’ve probably spotted a scam.

«

So Hollister emailed AmpMe, which replied in part:

»

To claim that our users are commonly paying $520 per year does not reflect reality. For example, in 2021, the average user that subscribed and took advantage of our free trial paid a total average of $17. If you take only paying users, the average yearly subscription revenue is about $75. Internally, this has reinforced our belief that AmpMe’s pricing is transparent with clear and easy opt-out procedures.

Regarding the reviews, we hear the feedback loud and clear. Through the years, like most startups, we’ve hired outside consultants to help us with marketing and app store optimization. More oversight is needed and that’s what we are currently working on.

«

“Outside consultants” is an interesting phrase. It sounds as though there are companies out there ranging around spotting “undermonetised” opportunities on the App Store and perhaps taking a cut when they turn them into moneyspinners through a combination of subscriptions and fake reviews.
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January 6 panel targets social media companies with subpoenas after ‘inadequate responses’ to voluntary request • CNNPolitics

Annie Grayer, Ryan Nobles and Zachary Cohen:

»

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 riot has issued four subpoenas to giant social media conglomerates after the panel said the companies provided “inadequate responses” to its initial request for documents and information over the summer.

The subpoenas were sent to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Alphabet, the parent company to Google and YouTube, Twitter and Reddit.

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps – if any – social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence,” Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson who chairs the committee said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that after months of engagement, we still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions,” he continued.

The committee writes to Alphabet that it believes the company has “significant undisclosed information that is critical to its investigation” about how it moderated its content and how those policies impacted what was on the platform on January 6.

Although Thompson in his letter acknowledges that the committee and Alphabet have had “subsequent engagements” since the panel’s initial reach out in August, he writes that Alphabet “has not demonstrated a commitment to voluntarily and expeditiously” produce the documents being requested.

«

Didn’t expect it to be YouTube that got told off. But Thompson is annoyed at the lack of detail from YouTube.
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AI unmasks anonymous chess players, posing privacy risks • Science

Matthew Hutson:

»

Chess-playing software, such as Deep Blue and AlphaZero, has long been superhuman. But Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto and principal investigator of the new project, says the chess engines play almost an “alien style” that isn’t very instructive for those seeking to learn or improve their skills. They’d do better to tailor their advice to individual players. But first, they’d need to capture a player’s unique form.

To design and train their AI, the researchers tapped an ample resource: more than 50 million human games played on the Lichess website. They collected games by players who had played at least 1000 times and sampled sequences of up to 32 moves from those games. They coded each move and fed them into a neural network that represented each game as a point in multidimensional space, so that each player’s games formed a cluster of points. The network was trained to maximize the density of each player’s cluster and the distance between those of different players. That required the system to recognize what was distinctive about each player’s style.

The researchers tested the system by seeing how well it distinguished one player from another. They gave the system 100 games from each of about 3000 known players, and 100 fresh games from a mystery player. To make the task harder, they hid the first 15 moves of each game. The system looked for the best match and identified the mystery player 86% of the time, the researchers reported last month at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS). “We didn’t quite believe the results,” says Reid McIlroy-Young, a student in Anderson’s lab and the paper’s primary author. A non-AI method was only 28% accurate.

…The researchers are aware of the privacy risks posed by the system, which could be used to unmask anonymous chess players online. With tweaks, McIlroy-Young says, it could do the same for poker. And in theory, they say, given the right data sets, such systems could identify people based on the quirks of their driving or the timing and location of their cellphone use.

«

You can already be identified from your gait, so this is just adding to the dimensions by which you can be deanonymised. Shades of Philip K Dick’s ‘The Unreconstructed M’.

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How Twitter rolled over to get unblocked in Nigeria • Rest of World

Abubakar Idris and Peter Guest:

»

Twitter’s negotiated return to Nigeria, which was announced this week, has been in the works for months and was finalized before Jack Dorsey’s departure as the company’s CEO, a senior source in the Nigerian government told Rest of World. 

The senior official, who asked not to be named, said that Twitter had agreed to all of the government’s demands in November 2021. The agreement had been sent to the president for approval in December 2021, but took until January 13 to work its way through the bureaucracy. Dorsey resigned as Twitter CEO on November 29. 

Nigeria ended its seven-month ban on Twitter after the social media company agreed to a list of demands from the government. Twitter will open an office in the capital Abuja, register as a broadcaster, pay taxes, and commit to being sensitive to national security and cohesion, according to documents seen by Rest of World. 

«

Paying taxes?! Those things that go to the government?
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The ethics of a second chance: pig heart transplant recipient stabbed a man seven times years ago – The Washington Post

Lizzie Johnson and William Wan:

»

Leslie Shumaker Downey was at home babysitting her two grandchildren Monday when a message pinged on her cellphone.

Her daughter had sent a link to a news article about a 57-year-old man with terminal heart disease. Three days earlier at the University of Maryland Medical Center, he had received a genetically modified pig heart. The first-of-its-kind transplant was historic, saving the man’s life and offering the possibility of saving others.

What a great breakthrough for science, Downey thought, reading the headline. Then her phone pinged again.

“Mommmmmmm,” Downey’s daughter wrote. She told her to look at the man’s name.

Downey froze. The man being heralded as a medical pioneer, David Bennett Sr., was the same man who had been convicted in 1988 of stabbing her younger brother seven times, leaving him paralyzed. Edward Shumaker had spent the next 19 years using a wheelchair, before he had a stroke in 2005 and died two years later — one week before his 41st birthday.

«

If one were into writing sermons, this would be a terrific opener.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1713: what if email were slower?, PC sales boom, Argentina roasts, scientists complain at Spotify misinfo, and more


A German newspaper has raised questions about the timings and dates of tennis’s Novak Djokovic’s PCR Covid tests. Big questions. CC-licensed photo by angela n. 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. No blue site! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The subversive genius of extremely slow email • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

»

Every day, the mail [British readers: post] still comes. My postal carrier drives her proud van onto the street and then climbs each stoop by foot. The service remains essential, but not as a communications channel. I receive ads and bills, mostly, and the occasional newspaper clipping from my mom. For talking to people, I use email and text and social networking. The mail is a ritual but also a relic.

That relic is also the model for a new personal-communication app called Pony Messenger. Think of it as email, if email arrived by post: You compose a message and put it in an outbox; once a day (you can choose morning, afternoon, or evening “pickups”), Pony picks up your outbound dispatches and delivers your inbounds. That’s it. It’s postal-service cosplay. It’s slow email.

Dmitry Minkovsky has been working on Pony over the past three years, with the goal of recovering some of the magic that online life had lost for him. The work falls into a long tradition, part conceptual art and part whimsy, that emerged in response to the oppressive instantaneity of the internet. In 2007, the Near Future Laboratory made Slow Messenger, an IM appliance that would reveal messages only if you cradled it in your hand; last year, the artist Ben Grosser created the Minus social network, on which you can post only 100 times. Other technologies of unhurriedness include Dialup (a surprise-phone-call app), Slowly (a pen-pal service), and Mail Goggles (a Gmail add-in to prevent email regret).

I used to find such projects appealing for their subversiveness: as art objects that make problems visible rather than proposing viable solutions to them. But now it’s clear that the internet needs design innovations—and brake mechanisms—to reduce its noxious impact. Our suffering arises, in part, from the speed and volume of our social interactions online. Maybe we can build our way toward fewer of them.

«

The thing we used to value about email was that it would be delivered immediately. Now though we have messaging, and everyone* has a smartphone, so that isn’t such a pressing issue. I’m really not sure I’d trade my constant stream of email for a once-per-day drop, unless it all came at 7am. Which I suppose could be arranged.
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Growth streak for traditional PCs continues during holiday quarter of 2021 • IDC

»

Total PC shipments during 2021 reached 348.8 million units, up 14.8% from 2020. This represents the highest level of shipments the PC market has seen since 2012.

“2021 has truly been a return to form for the PC,” said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile and Consumer Device Trackers. “Consumer need for PCs in emerging markets and global commercial demand remained strong during the quarter with supply being a gating factor. While consumer and educational demand has tapered in some developed markets, we continue to believe the overall PC market has reset at a much higher level than before the pandemic.”

“A challenging logistical environment, coupled with ongoing supply-side shortages, meant that the PC market could have been even larger than it was in 2021,” according to Tom Mainelli, group vice president of IDC’s Device and Consumer Research. “We closed the year with many buyers still waiting for their PC orders to ship. As we move through the first half of the year, we expect supply to remain constrained, especially with regards to the commercial segment where demand is the most robust.”

«

Really remarkable. Apple did very well (unsurprisingly, given the pent-up demand for the new M1 MacBook Pros and Airs) with 22% growth, half as much against as the rest of the market. So it had 7.5% sales share for the year, its highest in ages. The M1 project has surely paid off.
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Ground temperatures hit 129ºF as Argentina suffers blackouts • Gizmodo

Molly Taft:

»

On Tuesday, air temperatures rose to 106.7ºF (41.5ºC) in Buenos Aires, the second-highest reading in the city in more than 100 years of records. Other parts of the country saw temperatures as high as 113ºF (45ºC). The heat was so bad in Argentina on Tuesday that it was briefly the hottest place in the world, surpassing parts of Australia that usually have that honor during austral summer.

“This is a heat wave of extraordinary characteristics, with extreme temperature values ​​that will even be analyzed after its completion, and it may generate some historical records for Argentina temperatures and persistence of heat,” meteorologist Lucas Berengua told Reuters.

Infrastructure has sagged in the face of sweltering temperatures. Around 700,000 people were without power for hours on Tuesday afternoon as temperatures rose and the grid struggled; the city’s electric providers blamed increased demand from cooling during the heatwave. The agency that provides drinking water also asked residents to take conservation measures, saying that its purification system was affected during the outage.

Climate change is a key ingredient in basically all heat waves now. The planet has warmed roughly 1.8ºF (1ºC) since the world began burning fossil fuels. That seeming small rise has majorly shifted the odds toward more extreme heat, and observations around the world have borne that out.

«

#dontlookup. Though at least this isn’t a wet-bulb high – the sort that kills.
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🤔 What if the Industrial Revolution had started 2,000 years ago rather than 200? (And why didn’t it?) • Faster Please

James Pethokoukis:

»

why didn’t the Industrial Revolution start 2000 years ago? One important reason: Those pre-industrial societies intentionally extinguished the sparks of progress. For millennia, stasis had powerful defenders. The Roman Emperor Tiberius executed rather than rewarded a man who had invented unbreakable glass. Queen Elizabeth I declined to grant a patent to the inventor of the stocking-frame knitting machine, worrying that the invention would deprive textile workers of their employment. The guilds of preindustrial Europe played a key role in making sure Europe stayed preindustrial by blocking new technologies.

Then the protectors of the status quo, like the textile machinery-wrecking Luddites, started to fail. Governments started siding with the innovators and disruptors. Politicians did not like angry workers, but they liked losing wars to richer and technologically superior enemies even less. This is all documented in The Technology Trap by Carl Benedikt Frey, the Oxford Martin Citi Fellow at Oxford University, where he teaches economics and economic history. In November 2019, I had a podcast chat with Frey. From that conversation:

Pethokoukis: What was the original catalyst for the industrial revolution as you understand it?

Frey: So I don’t believe in mono-causal explanations of economic development. I think it was a blend of things that came together that made the industrial revolution, but I think that one very underestimated factor that I highlight in the book has to do with the structure of political power.

Before the industrial revolution, in most pre-industrial societies, craft skills were a source of political clout. They didn’t have any interest in technologies that threatened their jobs and incomes. And, fearing social unrest, monarchs of governments typically sided with the guilds rather than pioneers of industry, fearing that they might challenge the political status quo.

And what happened in Britain was, first of all, with the rise of Atlantic trade, the new merchant class emerged. They were the ones who stood to benefit from mechanization because, with rising wages, mechanization was what allowed them to remain competitive in trade.

«

A very interesting counterfactual. But also, what are the modern equivalents of craft guilds? Fossil fuel companies?
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Novak Djoković: were the results of his positive PCR test manipulated? • DER SPIEGEL

Jörn Meyn, Max Hoppenstedt, DER SPIEGEL:

»

A coronavirus test with the number 7371999 was actually supposed to be Novak Djoković’s ticket for unproblematic entry into Australia. That positive test is the most important argument the unvaccinated tennis player has presented for why he should be allowed into the country, despite its strict entry regulations, to play in the Australian Open, which begins on Jan. 17. The PCR test was performed at 1:05 p.m. on Dec. 16, and seven hours later, the positive result was returned.

That, at least, is the story told by documentation from the Institute of Public Health of Serbia, which Djoković’s lawyers later presented in court. But a closer look at the allegedly positive PCR test, especially its digital version, raises questions.

The digital data suggests that the test results aren’t from Dec. 16 at all. In the digital results, there is a timestamp for 2:21 p.m. Serbian time on Dec. 26. Such timestamps are normally produced automatically by corona test systems, marking when individual tests are entered into the relevant database. That usually happens just a few minutes after the test result becomes available. Another possibility could be that the timestamps are generated when the tested person downloads the results from the server.

Djoković’s lawyers also presented a second, negative test as part of the tennis star’s immigration proceedings. That test was apparently meant to prove that Djoković had since recovered from his COVID-19 illness. According to the documentation presented, it is from the afternoon of Dec. 22 – and the timing of that test is confirmed by the digital timestamp.

«

Very sus. And the other, natural question: if he hadn’t happened to get infected, what was he going to do to qualify for entry to Australia, which offers only very narrow options for the unvaccinated?
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An Open Letter to Spotify

»

On Dec. 31, 2021, the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a Spotify-exclusive podcast, uploaded a highly controversial episode featuring guest Dr. Robert Malone (#1757). The episode has been criticized for promoting baseless conspiracy theories and the JRE has a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals. JRE #1757 is not the only transgression to occur on the Spotify platform, but a relevant example of the platform’s failure to mitigate the damage it is causing.

We are a coalition of scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators spanning a wide range of fields such as microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, and neuroscience and we are calling on Spotify to take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform. With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.

«

That last bit isn’t quite right. Spotify’s misinformation policy is that it doesn’t care about misinformation spread by Joe Rogan, because it paid $100m to get him exclusively and so anything that gets attention is tickety-boo. Probably including this open letter.
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BBC does not subscribe to ‘cancel culture’, says director of editorial policy • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

»

The BBC opposes so-called “cancel culture” and will actively provide a platform for individuals with contrary viewpoints, according to the man who enforces its editorial standards.

David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy, said the broadcaster should “represent all points of view” and wanted to see a belief in impartiality triumph over identity.

“We are very committed to ensuring that viewpoints are heard from all different sorts of perspectives and we don’t subscribe to the ‘cancel culture’ that some groups would put forward,” he said.

Jordan said everyone should expect their views to be appropriately represented by the national broadcaster – even if they believe the Earth is flat. “It’s critical to the BBC that we represent all points of view and give them due weight,” he said.

“Flat-earthers are not going to get as much space as people who believe the Earth is round, but very occasionally it might be appropriate to interview a flat-earther. And if a lot of people believed in flat Earth we’d need to address it more.”

Asked about issues such as transgender rights, Jordan told the House of Lords communications committee that impartiality should triumph over personal identity. He criticised the New York Times for some of its editorial choices in this area and said individual BBC staff should not be able to veto coverage.

«

The flat earth bit has attracted a lot of attention. Though I think Jordan was trying, in a hurry, to think of a topic where there might be an emergent difference of opinion with most of the opinion coming down on one particular side. And he lighted on “flat earth”, which was a terrible choice because it’s settled science, right back to the Greeks. Next time could I suggest trying “the presence of alien life on a distant planet”, Mr Jordan?
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Lawsuit filed against Kim Kardashian for promoting bogus cryptocurrency to her followers • Finbold

Jordan Major:

»

With the ever-increasing number of scams occurring in the cryptocurrency space, investors are starting to take matters into their own hands.

Ryan Huegerich, a New York resident, and other claimants filed a class-action lawsuit against  Kim Kardashian, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and Paul Pierce in a California district court, for promoting an Ethereum knockoff, Ethereum Max (EMAX), according to a lawsuit filed on January 7.

The investors acquired EMAX tokens between May 14, 2021, and June 27, 2021, and the complaint was placed on classaction.org, which serves as a consumer resource for class action litigation.

“Defendants touted the prospects of the Company [EMAX] and the ability for investors to make significant returns due to the favorable ‘tokenomics’ of the EMAX Tokens,” the complaint said.
Unknown entities behind the knockoff coin

Apart from suing the celebrities, New York resident Huegerich is also suing the as-of-yet unidentified business body that is behind the EMAX tokens.

“Plaintiff will identify the appropriate Corporate Defendant through discovery of the Executive Defendants,” according to the complaint.

The EMAX cryptocurrency reached an all-time high of $0.0000008546 in May of last year, however at the time of publication, it was trading at $0.0000000197, roughly 97% less than that figure.

«

So basically it went from needing a microscope to see the price to needing an electron microscope to see the price. But the point is that Kardashian pushed the EMAX token to her followers.
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Wordle and IP law: what happens when a hot game gets cloned • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:

»

t’s important to note that the basic five-letter guessing game underlying Wordle is not itself a completely original idea. The same basic gameplay was popularized by Lingo, a game show that dates back to the ’80s in the US and other countries. The two-player pen-and-paper game Jotto, which goes back to 1955, would also be very familiar to Wordle players. Before that, a more traditional version of the game called Bulls and Cows has been played since the 19th century, according to at least one source.

Conveniently, none of this history provides a legal problem for Wordle itself. “Whenever you have a copyright, you’re protecting the expression, not the idea,” Dallas attorney Mark Methenitis told Ars. “It’s a line a lot of people have a very hard time with, especially when you get into games.”

In other words, it’s exceedingly hard to copyright an abstract game mechanic like “guessing five-letter words and giving hints based on correct letters.” A game developer can file for a patent on an original gaming idea, a legal process that has been used to strangle video game clones in the past. But getting a patent is a long and arduous process that can fall apart if there’s “prior art” predating the idea (or if the mechanic could be considered legally “obvious”).

Separate from copyright or patent, a trademark could at least legally protect the name Wordle from being exploited by copycats. But unlike copyright, which applies automatically when a work is published, trademarks offer very limited protection until and unless they are registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

«

So all the ripoffs that have been thrown out of the iOS App Store… probably weren’t breaking any demonstrable law.
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Hoping to get an important ex-Facebooker to talk to me for the paperback edition of Social Warming, my latest book. Stick around.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1712: today’s Wordle is ‘clone’, the 25-year road to pig-human transplants, how the iPlayer won, QR phishing, and more


With the spread of the ‘Western’ diet has come a growth in the incidence of autoimmune diseases in countries where they weren’t known. Genes seem to be the issue. CC-licensed photo by MIKI Yoshihito 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. Still not quite crypto-free. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


There are scores of Wordle clones on iOS because of course there are • Protocol

Nick Statt:

»

Wordle is the newest viral game taking over your Twitter feed and group chats, and with popularity comes cloning. If you search “Wordle” on the App Store right now, you’ll find nearly a dozen copycat versions of the game, many of which shamelessly use the game’s name in the app title with little to no alteration.

Most of the games look identical to the version created in private and for free by software engineer Josh Wardle, who maintains the game but has not asked for any monetary compensation for doing so. But as is the case with anything organic and popular on the internet, there are always those interested in profiting off it in one way or another. That’s especially true in the world of mobile gaming where so-called cloning is a rampant practice with little to no recourse for creators.

Usually, cloned apps are made by relatively anonymous developers whose skill lies in quickly turning new and popular ideas in game design into quick, functional apps. In some cases, developers will rework existing apps and change the name, too. But slap some ads on there or attach a small price like $1.99 and they stand to make some money.

However, in this case, a developer by the name of Zachary Shakked created a Wordle clone as a self-described fan of the game, and then released it on iOS with a $30-per-year pro version that allows you to keep playing and also modify the number of letters in the word you’re guessing. It’s one of the more popular of the Wordle clones on the iPhone right now. Shakked has since put his Twitter profile to private after users found older tweets in which he criticized those who shamelessly copy other’s ideas.

Cloning is not exactly what you would call honest app development work, and it’s an endemic issue in mobile gaming that’s not quite solvable given the industry-wide truce around abuse of copyright law and trademarks. Games wouldn’t be very fun if you had to pay a licensing fee or risk a lawsuit every time you wanted to borrow a good idea, so most developers just treat copying and cloning as the cost of doing business.

«

Intriguingly, the Google Play store has two, and they’re older than Wardle’s version. (At least, as of late Tuesday.)
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Pig heart transplanted to human for the first time • Ars Technica

John Timmer:

»

The patient who received the heart had end-stage heart disease and was too sick to qualify for the standard transplant list. Three days after the procedure, the patient was still alive.

The idea of using non-human organs as replacements for damaged human ones—called xenotransplantation—has a long history, inspired by the fact that there are more people on organ waiting lists than there are donors. And in recent years, our ability to do targeted gene editing has motivated researchers to start genetically modifying pigs in order to make them better donors. But the recent surgery wasn’t part of a clinical trial, so it shouldn’t be viewed as an indication that this approach is ready for widespread safety and efficacy testing.

Instead, the surgery was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration under its “compassionate use” access program, which allows patients facing life-threatening illnesses to receive investigational treatments that haven’t gone through rigorous clinical testing yet.

The heart used for this transplant did come from a genetically modified line that was specifically engineered to reduce the chance of rejection by the human immune system. There are a number of lines that have been engineered with this in mind (there’s a review of some of the competing ideas on what to modify). This line was developed by a company called Revivicor (now part of United Therapeutics), but the company doesn’t provide any details on its website of the precise changes made. Searching for Revivicor on ClinicalTrials.gov returns only a single hit that involves a completely different pig line.

So it’s difficult to know exactly what genes were modified in these pigs. The University of Maryland’s press release indicates that there were three pig genes knocked out to lower its immune profile and avoid rejection, and a fourth knocked out to block “excessive growth” of the porcine cells. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the pigs to enhance the human immune system’s tolerance of the foreign cells.

«

This has been ages in the making. Nature, October 1995: “Pig-to-human heart transplant slated to begin in 1996.” The key issue is the rejection by the human body of proteins on the surface of the pig cells: in essence it looks to the body like an invading virus.

By 2015 Novartis had bought Imutran, one of the pioneers in the xenotransplantation field, and was experimenting with primates. And now we reach humans, via a different company.
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After identity theft, Salvadorans now report funds disappearing from Chivo wallets • Coindesk

Andrés Engler:

»

In the last few weeks, dozens of Salvadorans have reported on social media that money has disappeared from their Chivo wallets, the digital application developed by the Salvadoran government for the use of bitcoin throughout the country.

The reports come after hundreds of Salvadorans complained in October that hackers had illegally activated wallets associated with the nine-digit numbers on their identity cards – known as DUI for its acronym in Spanish – to claim the $30 bitcoin incentive dangled by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele.

Luis Guardado, a Salvadoran who has lived in the United States for 30 years, was one of those who experienced the loss of funds. On Dec. 2, he sent $190 from Coinbase to his Chivo wallet for an upcoming visit to his home country, he told CoinDesk.

Noticing that the amount was slow to arrive, Guardado decided to trace the hash of the transaction. He discovered that the amount had been sent from his Coinbase wallet to a temporary address provided by Chivo from which it sends money to final recipients, but within the hour it had been removed from there. And the money never arrived in his wallet.

Guardado is no newbie to the crypto world, having started investing four years ago in coins such as bitcoin and ether.

“The glitch is not from Coinbase. I have the blockchain record, which says the money was released,” Guardado said.

Guardado called Chivo’s customer service center and received a case number. Chivo’s official Twitter account also contacted Guardado, but as of Dec. 16, it had stopped answering his messages, according to screenshots Guardado provided to CoinDesk.

«

There’s very little reporting about what’s going on on El Salvador. Hard to tell if this is big or limited.
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China’s digital currency comes to Tencent’s WeChat in expansion push • CNBC

Arjun Kharpal:

»

Tencent-owned WeChat, China’s largest messaging app and one of the country’s biggest payment services, will begin supporting the country’s sovereign digital currency.

China has been working on the digital yuan since 2014 and is yet to roll it out nationwide. But the move by WeChat, which has over 1 billion users, to support the digital currency could provide it with a huge boost if people begin to pay with it.

WeChat may not be that well know to users outside of China, but inside the world’s second-largest economy it is ubiquitous. It is often dubbed a “super app” because many services are wrapped into it. People can use messaging functions and make payments via WeChat Pay, but also hail taxis and order food.

WeChat Pay allows users to show merchants a barcode on their phone to pay for items in store. It can also be used for purchases online. WeChat Pay has over 800 million monthly active users.

To date, the People’s Bank of China, which issues the digital yuan or e-CNY, has done limited trials in certain cities via lotteries where the central bank has handed out small amounts of the currency to some citizens.

But there are now signs that the PBOC is looking to expand usage of the digital yuan, despite no concrete date for a nationwide rollout. This week, the PBOC launched an e-CNY app for users in certain regions and cities in China. That will enable anyone in those areas to download and sign up to use the digital currency. Previously, users could get the app on an invite-only basis.

«

Hmm. An earlier article by CNBC explaining the digital yuan says “payments would be anonymous to some degree, but data analysis tools could help the central bank catch illegal activities.”

“To some degree” is doing a lot of work there.
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Global spread of autoimmune disease blamed on western diet • The Guardian

Robin McKie:

»

Internationally, it is now estimated that cases of autoimmune diseases are rising by between 3% and 9% a year. Most scientists believe environmental factors play a key role in this rise.

“Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades,” said Lee, who was previously based at Cambridge University. “So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”

This idea was backed by Vinuesa, who was previously based at the Australian National University. She pointed to changes in diet that were occurring as more and more countries adopted western-style diets and people bought more fast food.

“Fast-food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fibre, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of micro-organisms that we have in our gut and which play a key role in controlling various bodily functions,” Vinuesa said. “These changes in our microbiomes are then triggering autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered.”

Both scientists stressed that individual susceptibilities were involved in contracting such illnesses, ailments that also include celiac disease as well as lupus, which triggers inflammation and swelling and can cause damage to various organs, including the heart.

“If you don’t have a certain genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily get an autoimmune disease, no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” said Vinuesa. “There is not a lot we can do to halt the global spread of fast-food franchises…”

«

So the western diet triggers autoimmune diseases but, oh well, don’t bother anyone unnecessarily.
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Tom Loosemore and BBC iPlayer • Big Bets

Alice Newton Rex talks to Tom, who was the BBC’s Head of Strategic Innovation:

»

In the case of iPlayer, Tom describes the idea of putting TV online as the “obvious next move” – not a stroke of genius from any particular individual. He thinks the really original idea actually happened in 2001, when the BBC put radio online with Radio Player, which allowed you to catch up on seven days of radio. After that, putting telly online was somewhat inevitable, it was just about how and when to do it.

…There’s a skill to protecting and nurturing projects within organisations that might otherwise kill them. For example, he tells me an early internal version of iPlayer was called the BBC Archive Testbed: “we picked a boring name so the lawyers wouldn’t get too nervous”. The early prototypes were built in 2004-5, but it wasn’t until 2006 that iPlayer got escape velocity. He describes the early product itself as terrible, but says it didn’t matter because there was so much momentum by that point. A second version, which turned it into a proper service, was subsequently built and then launched to the public.

So how do you decide whether a big bet is working? We agree it’s the hardest part: you can accidentally stop something promising in its tracks by walking away from an idea too early, or you can mistakenly keep grinding away at an idea long after you should’ve moved on. “The bigger the organisation, the more likely you are to leave it too late,” Tom says ruefully (he has worked in government, after all). “But the worst option of all is when you continually pivot on an idea.” I’m interested in this – pivoting seems like a good idea in some circumstances, or at least superior to sticking with something that you’ve proved won’t work. He clarifies: you can acknowledge you’ve found an important strategic area, but it might have to be addressed by a different product. But he’s seen many teams fail when they kept trying things that were too close to their original idea.

As a rule of thumb, Tom likes to have something in front of users within 3 months, get enough users on it to know whether it has momentum within 6 months, and then by a year he needs to see clear signals of success. In his role as Head of Strategic Innovation, he built a lot of new products – not just iPlayer – and most of them never went anywhere.

«

This is a fascinating series. Unlike Cortana, iPlayer became a huge hit; in many ways the future of the corporation.
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US police warn of parking meters with phishing QR codes • Bitdefender

Graham Cluley:

»

In a hurry to park your car? Don’t want to fumble around in your pocket to find cash for the parking meter, and don’t have the correct payment app installed on your phone?

Well, think carefully before rushing to scan the payment QR code stuck on the side of the meter – it may well be an attempt by fraudsters to phish your financial information.

Police are warning that they have discovered bogus QR codes stuck onto public parking meters across Austin, Texas – a city where parking meters don’t display QR codes, and only accept payment via coins, cards or a smartphone app.

So what happens if visitors to the city, or those in a rush who are not suspicious, simply scan the bogus QR code without thinking?

The QR codes found by Austin police department directed unsuspecting users to a fraudulent website which would ask for payment details with the false promise that their parking session would be paid for.

The City of Austin checked its parking meters after being notified of a similar QR code scam by officials in San Antonio. They had discovered over 100 parking meters similarly stickered in late December.

«

QR codes really have had quite the year, haven’t they.
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AP to launch NFT marketplace built by Xooa • Associated Press

»

The Associated Press will launch a non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace built by blockchain technology provider Xooa, where collectors can purchase the news agency’s award-winning contemporary and historic photojournalism.


This image of a home covered in ash from a volcano erupting on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain, on Nov. 1, 2021, will be available as an NFT on AP’s NFT marketplace. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The marketplace and first NFTs are set to debut on Monday, Jan. 31.

The initial collection will feature photography by current and former AP photojournalists and a selection of digitally enhanced depictions of their work. Pulitzer Prize-winning AP images will be included.

“For 175 years AP’s journalists have recorded the world’s biggest stories, including through gripping and poignant images that continue to resonate today,” said Dwayne Desaulniers, AP director of blockchain and data licensing. “With Xooa’s technology, we are proud to offer these tokenized pieces to a fast-growing global audience of photography NFT collectors.”

Each NFT will include a rich set of original metadata offering collectors awareness of the time, date, location, equipment and technical settings used for the shot.

«

You mean.. the EXIF data? The stuff that’s embedded in any digital photo these days? This announcement has gone down like the proverbial cup of cold sick with photographers and anyone who has a working brain.
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Google exec says Apple is ‘holding back’ customers who text • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

»

On Saturday, Android boss Hiroshi Lockheimer accused Apple of “using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products,” after a Wall Street Journal report revealed how US teens have turned Apple’s iMessage into a social status symbol that locks Android users out.

Now, Lockheimer is taking a slightly less abrasive stance: the Google executive said Monday that “we’re not asking Apple to make iMessage available on Android. We’re asking Apple to support the industry standard for modern messaging (RCS) in iMessage, just as they support the older SMS / MMS standards.”

“By not incorporating RCS, Apple is holding back the industry and holding back the user experience for not only Android users but also their own customers,” adds Lockheimer, later in the Twitter thread.

That’s still a big accusation, but one that pulls the conversation back into familiar territory: will Apple accept Google’s olive branch to make iMessage more compatible with Android, or will it continue to use lock-in to sell more iPhones?

On the lock-in front, there’s little question about Apple’s motivation. Thanks to the Epic v. Apple trial, the world has now seen confidential emails between Apple executives that show the company is intentionally withholding iMessage in favor of lock-in.

…What’s less clear is whether RCS, the next-gen replacement for SMS that’s championed by Google and incorporates popular features common to iMessage, has any convincing reason for Apple to sign on. That’s likely why Google is creating a little peer pressure of its own.

The Verge has asked Apple if it intends to support RCS literally years with no comment, so we’re not holding our breath.

«

As I observed about Lockheimer’s first tweet, nobody could accuse Google of locking anyone into a single messaging service. Supporting RCS is surely feasible. The question is whether the encryption of RCS (which is a plus) is sufficient incentive for Apple to support it.
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WIRED’s ‘On Background’ policy • WIRED

»

Many powerful companies make a practice of obfuscating or dodging accountability when speaking to media outlets, by providing information that they refuse to attribute to anyone in particular, sometimes not even to the company itself. For that reason, WIRED is joining the Verge, Quartz, and others in making its editorial standards clearer.

Anyone talking to WIRED reporters in any official capacity does so on the record by default. This means that what you say or write can be quoted and attributed to you by name, not just as “a company spokesperson.” We typically allow anonymity only to sources who could face retaliation or be endangered by the information they provide, and when we do so we explain our reasons to readers. As Julia Angwin, editor in chief of the Markup, has noted, “Corporate spokespeople who are paid to provide information simply don’t meet the criteria for being granted anonymity.”

Sometimes we may agree to have a conversation on background, meaning we can use the information you provide, but will not identify you by name. Conversations are on background only when we agree to it. If you send us a statement “on background” without prior agreement, we may still treat it as on the record.

«

I continue to disagree with American journalists about the practice of naming spokespeople, who have no choice about the lines they’re obliged to say (if they want to stay in their job). But it certainly makes sense that if the spokespeople are talking to you, it should be taken as coming from the company. However, my experience was always that the companies would preface the discussion by saying “this is on background”. I guess the Wired (and others) response will be “no, it isn’t”. We’ll have to see whether this makes the slightest difference to what gets reported.
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It’s nearly time for the paperback of Social Warming, my latest book. There will be a new foreword (or maybe postscript) to bring it bang up to date. So if you’ve only got the hardback, you might need to buy it again.


How Signal is playing with fire • The Verge

Casey Newton:

»

There’s nothing sinister about putting payments into a messaging app, and Signal is not alone in adding crypto payments to messaging: the company formerly known as Facebook has undertaken a multiyear effort to create a new currency and integrate it with WhatsApp and Messenger. What sets Signal’s effort apart is the combination of end-to-end encryption in messaging and a cryptocurrency with privacy features designed to make any transactions anonymous.

Last year, current and former Signal employees told me they were worried about what that combination would bring to the app. Anonymous transactions would likely attract criminals, they told me, and that in turn would attract regulatory scrutiny. Given that end-to-end encryption already faces legal challenges around the globe, they said, Signal’s addition of anonymous payments was a needless provocation. And it could give more ammunition to lawmakers who want to end encryption as we know it.

To make my own feelings clear: I’m in favor of end-to-end encryption, because in a world of ubiquitous surveillance and rising authoritarianism, I think it’s important that truly private communication systems are widely available. But I also support anti-money-laundering and Know Your Customer (KYC) laws, which are useful in combating terrorists, murder-for-hire plotters, and other harms. If messaging apps are going to add crypto payments, it seems to me they at least ought to do so in a way that is consistent with those laws.

Other supporters of end-to-end encryption have privately lobbied Signal to be more cautious about its payment plans, I’m told. But Signal, which is funded by a nonprofit organization and relies on donations, has forged ahead anyway.

«

Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission, but better not to be regulated out of existence either.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1711: coding supply chain undermined, the unheard Facebook chief, bitcoin miners seized in Kosovo, and more


Podcasting hasn’t had a big hit for years, and new ones attract smaller audiences than old ones. Is there a solution?CC-licensed photo by nrkbeta on Flickr.

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

A selection of 10 links for you. Not funged. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Developer sabotages his own apps, then claims Aaron Swartz was murdered • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

The developer who sabotaged two of his own open source code libraries, causing disruptions for thousands of apps that used them, has a colorful past that includes embracing a QAnon theory involving Aaron Swartz, the well-known hacktivist and programmer who died by suicide in 2013.

Marak Squires, the author of two JavaScript libraries with more than 21,000 dependent apps and more than 22 million weekly downloads, updated his projects late last week after they remained unchanged for more than a year. The updates contained code to produce an infinite loop that caused dependent apps to spew gibberish, prefaced by the words “Liberty Liberty Liberty.” The update sent developers scrambling as they attempted to fix their malfunctioning apps.

…There’s also evidence that Squires may have been charged two years ago with reckless endangerment after allegedly starting a fire in his Queens, New York, apartment. According to news articles, a then-37-year-old man named Marak Squires was arrested after being taken to the hospital after authorities allegedly observed him acting erratically as they responded to the fire.

The articles said Squires was a software developer and early bitcoin investor. A month after the fire, Squires reported on Twitter having “lost all my stuff in an apartment fire” and asked for financial support.

…Last week’s sabotage raises concerns about the safety of the software supply chain that is crucial to large numbers of organizations—including Fortune 500 companies. The two sabotaged libraries—Faker.js and Colors.js—created problems for people using Amazon’s Cloud Development Kit. Big companies, critics have long said, benefit from open source ecosystems without adequately compensating developers for their time. In turn, developers responsible for the software are unfairly strained.

Indeed, Squires in 2020 said he would no longer support large companies with work he does for free. “Take this as an opportunity to send me a six-figure yearly contract or fork the project and have someone else work on it,” he wrote.

The ability of a single developer to throw a wrench into such a large base of apps underscores a fundamental weakness of the current free and open source software structure.

«

So I guess now we also have to check not only for bugs, but for the mental health of developers whose work we rely on. Fun!
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Facebook’s former elections boss now questions social media’s impact on politics • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

»

[Katie Harbath] eventually oversaw a staff of as many as 60 employees that trained political parties in how to best use the platform and helped design the company’s election policy. She says there was a working assumption throughout the company that more Facebook usage would make governments more transparent and expand people’s ability to engage in public discourse.

Ms. Harbath says her doubts about the premise originated in 2016, when elections in the Philippines and the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK were awash in misinformation spread on Facebook.

After that, Ms. Harbath says, her role shifted from primarily trying to promote Facebook as a positive force to more often trying to prevent foreign governments, criminals, troll farms and other bad actors from abusing it.

As public criticism of Facebook mounted, she says, executives put a heavy focus on what internally was called defensibility—forming policies based in part on whether the company would face external attacks or criticism. She says her job became consumed by “escalations”—an internal term for potential public-relations crises and high-profile complaints.

“Eighty% of my time was spent doing escalations,” she says.

A restructuring in her department stripped her of much of her authority over election policy heading into 2020, she said, and the company rejected her proposal to refocus her work on heading off electoral threats before 2024, when a number of major global elections are scheduled. On Jan. 6, she watched the riot at the Capitol unfold on television.

“That was a key day in terms of deciding to leave,” she said. “If I wasn’t going to be able to have impact internally, I needed to go somewhere where I could actually do something.”

«

Harbath features in Social Warming, because she was so blithe about the misinformation that disrupted first the Philippines, and then the Brexit referendum, and then the US elections. It’s telling that the insurrection was the final straw for her. But note what she says: Facebook wasn’t listening to her, one of the most senior people inside the company.
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The paperback of Social Warming, my latest book, is coming out soon. Or you could just follow the link and have a wonderful hardback.


Five hundred million Avira Antivirus users silently introduced to cryptomining • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

»

Many readers were surprised to learn recently that the popular Norton 360 antivirus suite now ships with a program which lets customers make money mining virtual currency. But Norton 360 isn’t alone in this dubious endeavor: Avira antivirus — which has built a base of 500 million users worldwide largely by making the product free — was recently bought by the same company that owns Norton 360 and is introducing its customers to a service called Avira Crypto.

Founded in 2006, Avira Operations GmbH & Co. KG is a German multinational software company best known for their Avira Free Security (a.k.a. Avira Free Antivirus). In January 2021, Avira was acquired by Tempe, Ariz.-based NortonLifeLock Inc., the same company that now owns Norton 360.

In 2017, the identity theft protection company LifeLock was acquired by Symantec Corp., which was renamed to NortonLifeLock in 2019. LifeLock is now included in the Norton 360 service; Avira offers users a similar service called Breach Monitor.

Like Norton 360, Avira comes with a cryptominer already installed, but customers have to opt in to using the service that powers it. Avira’s FAQ on its cryptomining service is somewhat sparse. For example, it doesn’t specify how much NortonLifeLock gets out of the deal (NortonLifeLock keeps 15% of any cryptocurrency mined by Norton Crypto).

«

I mean, the difference in effect on your machine of running third-party antivirus and a cryptominer is pretty minimal. They’re both going to bring it to its knees. So you might as well let them fight it out by running both at once.
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Kosovo seizes hundreds of cryptocurrency mining devices; one person arrested • AFP

»

Kosovo police on Saturday seized hundreds of cryptocurrency mining machines and arrested one person in the tense ethnic-Serb majority north as the country suffered an energy crisis.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are created through solving complex equations – an endeavour that consumes enormous amounts of energy.

Tensions between the Serb-majority area and the ethnic Albanian majority government are running high and Kosovo’s government on Tuesday brought in a temporary ban on cryptocurrency mining in an effort to bring down electricity consumption.

During the operation police “confiscated 272 different anti-miner devices used for the production of bitcoin”, a police statement said. One person was arrested, it said.

“The whole action took place and ended without incidents,” Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said on Facebook.

The confiscated equipment uses as much electricity as 500 homes a month or between €60,000 and €120,000 (US$68,000 and US$136,000), said Finance Minister Hekuran Murati on Facebook.

“We cannot allow the illegal enrichment of some, at the expense of taxpayers,” Murati said.

«

Not sure about “anti-miner devices”, but after the tensions in Kazakhstan (where a lot of cryptominers moved after being booted out of China) this is quite a signal.
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IBM tries to sell Watson Health (again) • Axios

Sarah Pringle:

»

IBM has resurrected its sale process for IBM Watson Health, with hopes of fetching more than $1bn, people familiar with the situation tell Axios.

Big Blue wants out of health care, after spending billions to stake its claim, just as rival Oracle is moving big into the sector via its $28bn bet for Cerner.

IBM spent more than $4bn to build Watson Health via a series of acquisitions. The business now includes health care data and analytics business Truven Health Analytics, population health company Phytel, and medical imaging business Merge Healthcare.

IBM first explored a sale of the division in early 2021, with Morgan Stanley leading the process.

The WSJ reported at the time that the unit was generating roughly $1 billion in annual revenue, but was unprofitable. Sources say it continues to lose money.

IBM in late 2021 engaged BofA Securities to find a buyer for Watson Health.

Bids were due Jan 4, according to one source who says IBM hopes to select the winner by month’s end. One strategic buyer and several private equity firms are said to be in the mix.

«

Despite winning Jeopardy, Watson has proved to be a total nothingburger when it comes to real applications.
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Wordle mania and the remixable web • Glitch Blog

Anil Dash:

»

as the New York Times documented, Wordle is just as interesting for the context in which it was made. Josh made it as a gift for his puzzle-loving partner, Palak Shah, and the Times rightly described it as “an act of love”. Being a community of people who make the web, our perspective at Glitch also found a lot of romance in the idea that this is a fast, simple, well-implemented web app. Wordle is a PWA that can install instantly on any device, doesn’t have a ton of extraneous junk loading on the page, and it’s really speedy (a Lighthouse performance score of 95!).

No surprise, then, that Wordle has inspired a host of other creators in the Glitch community and elsewhere to make their own riffs on the idea, all of which bring fun and interesting innovations to the game:

«

Dash (who wrote the seminal “The Web We Lost” post in 2012, about how the promise of Web 2.0 had been squandered – alway worth an occasional re-read) points to all the interesting remixes of the idea of Wordle, just in case you’re sick of the original version, or need something more challenging.
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Podcasting hasn’t produced a new hit in years • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw:

»

Dawn Ostroff wants to find more hits. The chief content officer of Spotify is upset that her company isn’t producing enough new popular podcasts, and has been putting pressure on her in-house studios to deliver. I’ve now heard the same message from every corner of the Spotify universe, though no one wanted to talk about it on the record.

It’s hard for new shows to find an audience. Every new show has a smaller audience than its predecessors.

This is not specific to Spotify. Executives at studios large and small echoed the sentiment. While the overall audience for podcasting expands, the audience for individual new shows is shrinking across the board.

None of the 10 most popular podcasts in the U.S. last year debuted in the last couple years, according to Edison Research. They are an average of more than seven years old, and three of the top five are more than a decade old. (“The Joe Rogan Experience,” “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know.”)  Only a few podcasts in the top 50 (“SmartLess,” “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” “Frenemies”) are less than two years old. And none of them are in the top 25.

This trend vexes executives and producers across the podcasting industry, who worry they are wasting a lot of money on new shows. Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and outside investors have plowed billions of dollars into production companies. Spotify has spent more than anyone, paying about $500 million for three studios. Where is all this money going if these companies aren’t producing new hits?

Pretty much everyone agrees on the reason. There are more podcasts than ever before. Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago. While the vast majority of those new shows are either defunct or have minuscule audiences, there are still way more podcasts than there were just a few years ago.

«

How lovely for the thirsty podcast producers to discover the power law, and especially that later entrants never have the attractive power of early ones. Exactly the same thing happened with blogs. I described the mechanics in Social Warming; it’s part of why people defected to social media.
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Microsoft hit by defections as tech giants battle for talent to build the metaverse • WSJ

Aaron Tilley:

»

Competitors have been snapping up people with experience developing Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headsets, sometimes offering to double their salaries, said former Microsoft employees. The Microsoft augmented-reality group employs around 1,500 people, they said.

The LinkedIn profiles of more than 70 former employees on the HoloLens team show they have left Microsoft in the past year. More than 40 joined Meta, formerly known as Facebook, which is making a big push into alternate-reality tech, the LinkedIn profiles show. [Around 100 are reckoned to have left Microsoft’s HoloLens team.]

The departed staffers include some longtime leaders of the team. Charlie Han, who was responsible for taking customer feedback for HoloLens, left over the summer to join Meta. Josh Miller, who worked in the display team, became the display director at Meta in recent months. Mr. Han and Mr. Miller didn’t respond to requests for comment about the moves.

A Microsoft spokesman said the company has been at the forefront of innovation in metaverse technology for years and “will keep advancing state of the art hardware that is more immersive, affordable and in various form factors.”

«

Cortana: too late after Alexa and Google Home. Windows Phone: too late after iOS and Android. (Yes yes Windows Mobile came earlier, but it couldn’t handle the touchscreen world.) HoloLens: too early. Timing counts for so much.

(Style note: the metaverse, not the Metaverse.)
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Tech startup wants to gamify suing people using crypto tokens • Vice

Maxwell Strachan:

»

Kyle Roche, a trial lawyer and one of the startup’s founders, says: “What I want to do is make the federal court system more accessible for all.”

Roche believes the US federal court system is one of the best in the world, but that navigating it is cost prohibitive for the average American. As a result, he believes, potential whistleblowers are too often hesitant to defy “well-resourced” corporations and other entities due to the potential cost of legal action. Through [startup company] Ryval, Roche wants to “make lawsuits happen that maybe might not have happened.”

However, on its website, Ryval focuses all of its attention on the potential return for investors. “Buy and sell tokens that represent shares in a litigation and access a multi-billion dollar investment class previously unavailable to the public,” the company states. Ryval also promises “50%+ Annual Returns,” though Roche admitted the figure “may be a little high” when Motherboard asked him about it.

“What we do is: tell the story, vet the legal claim, and then allow the public to invest and give you the funds to go and litigate your case,” Roche explained. “And what does the public get in return? The public gets an interest in the outcome of your suit.”

The way it works is a little like a crypto-infused and lawsuit-focused GoFundMe, if the crowd stood to profit from their investment. The company takes advantage of a rule created through former President Barack Obama’s JOBS Act, which allowed a private company to crowdfund up to $5 million from Americans, regardless of their wealth.

…(A caveat: While wealthy and sophisticated “accredited investors” will be able to trade lawsuit tokens immediately, the non-rich will be legally required to agree to a year-long lockup period, according to Insider.)

«

Sure, because what the US really needs is both more people filing lawsuits and more people buying digital nothings.
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How politics got so polarised • The New Yorker

Elizabeth Kolbert:

»

On June 19, 1954, eleven boys from Oklahoma City boarded a bus bound for Robbers Cave State Park, about a hundred and fifty miles to the southeast. The boys had never met before, but all had just completed fifth grade and came from middle-income families. All were white and Protestant. When they reached the park, the boys were assigned to a cabin at an empty Boy Scout camp. They dubbed themselves the Rattlers.

The following day, a second group of boys—also all white, Protestant, and middle class—arrived at the camp. They were assigned to a cabin that could not be seen from the first. They decided to call themselves the Eagles.

For a week, the two groups went about their activities—swimming, tossing a baseball, sitting around a campfire—unaware of the other. The groups had separate swimming holes, and their meal hours were staggered, so they didn’t meet at the mess hall. As they ate, played, and tussled, each band developed its own social hierarchy and, hence, its own mores. The Rattlers, for instance, took to cursing. The Eagles frowned on profanity.

Toward the end of the week, the two groups learned about each other. The reaction was swift. Each group wanted to challenge the other to a contest, and their counsellors [running the camp] scheduled a tournament.

«

It’s not exactly the Hunger Games, but it’s not that far off either. Even just the rest of the introduction to this book review (for that’s what it is) is riveting.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1710: Apple at $3 trillion, the central crypto question, Wordle that fights back, Cortana’s Achilles heel, and more


Steve Jobs in 2007 posed for press photos with the iPhone. How big a revolution did it bring to our everyday lives? CC-licensed photo by Nobuyuki Hayashi 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. Happy new year! We’ve got a lot to get through today, so let’s get started. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The paperback of Social Warming, my latest book, will be out in February. If you’ve been holding off because you hate hardbacks, your wishes will soon be answered!


15 years ago, the iPhone created ‘Big Tech’ • PC Mag

Sascha Segan:

»

In a lot of ways, that iPhone release helped herald in our current era of “Big Tech,” where a few huge platform companies control so much of our software and services. Lots of other factors made it happen, to be sure, but Apple did a few key things to push our tech world into its current centralized state.

Back before the iPhone, carriers dictated a lot of the software preloaded on phones. A lot of that software sucked! But there were also a lot of carriers, which meant a lot of diversity and decentralization.

From 2007, I can think of AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon; Sprint and Nextel with the same ownership but different networks; MetroPCS and Cricket, both then independent companies; US Cellular, Alltel, and Dobson Cellular One. That whole list except the Big Three [AT&T, Sprint, Verizon] is now gone.

Apple broke the carrier control over software—in consumer’s favor!—by loading its own Google and Yahoo! relationships onto that first phone. Big Tech now dealt with Big Tech. And as the iPhone’s influence spread, especially after it became available on all US carriers in 2011, Apple’s sole power to make those deals grew.

…We’re very much now living in a world the iPhone made—a world of user-friendly, strictly controlled platforms in the grip of a small number of private companies.

And honestly, I don’t see how that changes. The current froth over “web3” and distributed organizations misses what made the iPhone great: simplicity and ease. Given a complex, difficult system like the new blockchain-based systems versus Apple’s simple user interfaces, policies, and guidance, consumers will almost certainly pick ease of use.

When the first iPhone came out, I saw it as a revolution. Revolutions, history tells us, often resolve into monarchies. Will the wheel turn again?

«

The answer, as you’ll see in the next link, feels like “nope”.
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My first impressions of web3 • Moxie Marlinspike

Marlinspike is a very skilled cryptographer who works on the end-to-end encrypted app Signal, and who decided to really find out what the “web3” fuss is about:

»

One thing that has always felt strange to me about the cryptocurrency world is the lack of attention to the client/server interface. When people talk about blockchains, they talk about distributed trust, leaderless consensus, and all the mechanics of how that works, but often gloss over the reality that clients ultimately can’t participate in those mechanics. All the network diagrams are of servers, the trust model is between servers, everything is about servers. Blockchains are designed to be a network of peers, but not designed such that it’s really possible for your mobile device or your browser to be one of those peers.

With the shift to mobile, we now live firmly in a world of clients and servers – with the former completely unable to act as the latter – and those questions seem more important to me than ever. Meanwhile, ethereum actually refers to servers as “clients,” so there’s not even a word for an actual untrusted client/server interface that will have to exist somewhere, and no acknowledgement that if successful there will ultimately be billions (!) more clients than servers.

For example, whether it’s running on mobile or the web, a dApp like Autonomous Art or First Derivative needs to interact with the blockchain somehow – in order to modify or render state (the collectively produced work of art, the edit history for it, the NFT derivatives, etc). That’s not really possible to do from the client, though, since the blockchain can’t live on your mobile device (or in your desktop browser realistically). So the only alternative is to interact with the blockchain via a node that’s running remotely on a server somewhere.

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The point being that the “decentralised” has in fact to rely on very centralised servers. Marlinspike’s elegant post shows that web3 will inevitably become centralised (and in fact already is, very heavily) and also that it’s a complete mess. This blogpost is sure to be the touchstone for the rest of the year on this topic.
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The development of Cortana with Sandeep Paruchuri • Alice Newton Rex

Alice Newton Rex talks in depth to the person in charge of the development of Microsoft’s voice assistant, who details how its early success inside Windows Phone came about from being small and essentially unregarded, though clearance was still required all the way to the top:

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The one last hurdle to clear was approval from the CEO, a position which was in the process of being handed over from Steve Ballmer to Satya Nadella. ‘Ballmer had poor product taste,’ says Sandeep with a slight smile. ‘He wanted the whole thing to be Microsoft branded. And then his parting gift was to try to name it Bingo. But we waited it out.’ Luckily, Satya had different ideas, and was a huge supporter of the project because of his belief in the power of AI. Under his leadership, Cortana got to keep her name and was declared ready to ship.

Cortana was successfully released as part of Windows Phone 8.1. The user reaction was great – it seemed like the scenarios really landed, and people loved the scenarios, including package tracking and smart reminders, which allowed you to e.g. create a reminder to buy flowers next time you passed a flower shop. The investments in making Cortana have a strong personality and great look and feel were also noticed. Between when they started working on Cortana and when it launched, Google had released Google Now, which was based on the same insight about being proactive, but had the opposite approach to persona and approachability.. Reviews described Cortana as ‘smart and witty’ or ‘like Google Now, but with cohesion and polish’.

…We all know that Cortana didn’t have a bright future. Windows Phone itself was discontinued in 2017, and the Cortana apps were turned off for iOS and Android last year. I ask Sandeep what went wrong, after this promising start. He says the decline began immediately. ‘Everything that was right about the first release went wrong for the second release,’ he tells me. No longer did they have a small team (‘us against the world’), working in an iterative way, investing in a great toolkit. For v2, there were hundreds of PMs [product managers] trying to get in on the action, and getting anything done required dozens of cross-company meetings. All of the new people diluted the original ethos they’d built and diluted the focus. They’d worked out how to scale their product but not their culture.

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That last sentence contains multitudes.
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Adversarial Wordle • Things Of Interest

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ADVERSARIAL WORDLE by qntm

An adversarial version of the excellent Wordle.

I’m thinking of a five-letter English word. You have unlimited guesses.

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Of course Wordle is the hit of the Christmas break. This is the evolution. It’s adversarial in that you’ll never get any correct letters in your first attempt. And probably not your second. It looks at what you’ve typed and chooses – as you continue – a word that doesn’t use those letters, as far as it can. If you use a good strategy, you’ll probably corner it in about seven attempts.
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Apple at $3tn: the enigma of Tim Cook • Financial Times

Patrick McGee:

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Apple’s ascendancy during the “second coming” of [Steve] Jobs from 1997 to 2011 had set the paradigm for Apple as a disruptive innovator that could upend entire industries with single products. The launches of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad became the stuff of movies. But Cook, who earned nearly $100m last year thanks largely to stock awards, does not fit this model. His skills lie in areas that popular culture doesn’t really comprehend, let alone appreciate.

“Steve was a visionary firebrand, and Tim is an efficiency expert, an operational guru,” says Ray Wang, chair of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research.

“You need both in a company,” he adds. “You need a person that comes up with the great idea that gets people excited . . . and you need the person who puts it in the market at massive scale.” nous

Cook’s supporters insist he has fundamentally changed the nature of the company. During his time at the helm, Apple’s annual revenues have ballooned from $108bn in the year he took over to $365bn in 2021. Net profits have grown 3.7 times, from $26bn to $95bn.

But more significant is how Cook has built a services juggernaut to eke out every penny of the Apple ecosystem, garnering a steady stream of recurring revenues from App Store fees and nearly 800m customers paying for digital media that expanded during his tenure. That substantially reduced Apple’s dependence on the iPhone — and propelled the company’s share price to a level where its price-to-earnings ratio is now three times higher than what it was a decade ago.

“Tim Cook’s biggest success is the cultivation and the fostering of services, and the degree to which he’s been able to revolutionise the way that the company is perceived in the eyes of investors,” says [WSJ journalist Tripp] Mickle.

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Mickle has a book on post-Jobs Apple coming out, which we can confidently expect to be a lot better than the dire “Haunted Empire” published in 2014 by another then-WSJ journalist, Yukari Iwatani Kane, which insisted that Apple after Jobs would run into the ground, just like Sony after its founder Akio Morita. (Mickle’s book couldn’t possibly be worse.)

McGee’s analysis here is excellent; the point that Services gives the ship stability is crucial.
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Podcasters are letting software pick their ads, and it’s already going awry • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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The podcast industry is working up to something big; you can see it in the acquisitions. All the industry’s major players have, over the past two years, acquired companies focused on one feature: inserting ads into podcasts.

Of course, podcasting has always primarily depended on ad revenue, so this incoming era has more to do with getting podcast ads to act like the online advertising we see everywhere else. Wherever there’s a website, there can be a targeted ad, and now wherever there’s a podcast, there’s the potential of inserting a targeted ad, too. Whichever company can make that transition happen the fastest, across the most shows, and with the best data, could not only recoup all those millions of dollars in acquisition costs but make more on top of them.

The industry is sprinting toward this programmatic advertising future. However, there are some obstacles along the way, and podcasters are already running into them. The Verge has identified multiple examples of programmatic advertising going wrong, according to sources who asked to remain anonymous over concerns of fraying industry relationships. Ads are showing up in places they shouldn’t, signaling not so much a death knell for the effort, but more of a warning that if the trend continues, early trust between podcast networks and tech companies could fall apart.

Last year, an ad for the TV show The Sex Lives of College Girls popped up on an American Public Media (APM) podcast it shouldn’t have been approved for: a children’s show, a source familiar with the situation tells The Verge. Separately, a science podcaster says ads for BP and ExxonMobil were inserted into their program, despite them explicitly blocking ads for oil and gas companies. In both cases, the ads were served through the Spotify Ad Network, or SPAN, which launched last spring.

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Companies are reluctant to offer brand advertising with no immediate “call to (profitable) action” on podcasts. There used to be so many mattress ads on podcasts because one sale generated a lot of cash all at once, for a comparatively tiny outlay. Low-return ads didn’t get a look in.
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Google Home app update makes Speaker Group volume controls much worse • Android Police

Rajesh Pandey:

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Earlier this week, Google was handed a big blow in its legal tussle with Sonos over patent infringement. The US International Trade Commission found the company guilty of violating Sonos’ IP. Due to this, Google was forced to remove unified Speaker Group volume controls. Going forward, users will have to adjust each speaker’s sound level individually, with the option of controlling it using the phone’s volume buttons completely removed. A new Google Home app update (v2.47.79.5) is now out with the regressions in tow.

Pressing the volume rocker while on the Media screen in the latest Google Home app will adjust your phone’s volume. Previously, the same action changed the sound level of a speaker or an entire speaker group. You must now adjust the speaker output using the virtual slider in the Home app.

I am used to tapping the Cast playback notification on my phone’s notification shade to get to the Media screen in the Home app and then adjust the speaker playback volume. Admittedly, this change makes that process more frustrating, as controlling the volume is no longer as seamless. What was previously a two-tap process will now require my attention and fiddling around with a virtual slider, especially when controlling a speaker group.

You can avoid this change for now by ensuring you don’t install the latest Google Home update. However, this workaround is likely going to be temporary. While it is currently possible to control the full Speaker Group volume directly from your Nest Hub or Nest Hub Max, that functionality will also be pulled in the near future.

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So Google – which had $136bn in cash and equivalents at the end of 2020 (2021 data isn’t in yet) and operating cashflow of $89bn in the 12 months to December 2020 – couldn’t find the cash to pay for the patents to keep its customers’ systems running as before? How many Google Home devices are out there? Best estimate is about 30m in the US, where this would be relevant – though 8m homes there have multiple units, which accounts for more than half of them.
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How fake science is infiltrating scientific journals • Sydney Morning Herald

Harriet Alexander:

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Publishers and researchers have reported an extraordinary proliferation in junk science over the last decade, which has infiltrated even the most esteemed journals. Many bear the hallmarks of having been produced in a “paper mill”: submitted by authors at Chinese hospitals with similar templates or structures. Paper mills operate several models, including selling data (which may be fake), supplying entire manuscripts or selling authorship slots on manuscripts that have been accepted for publication.

The Sydney Morning Herald has learned of suicides among graduate students in China when they heard that their research might be questioned by authorities. Many universities have made publication a condition of students earning their masters or doctorates, and it is an open secret that the students fudge the data. The universities reap money from the research grants they earn. The teachers get their names on the papers as contributing authors, which helps them to seek promotions.

International biotechnology consultant Glenn Begley, who has been campaigning for more meaningful links between academia and industry, said research fraud was a story of perverse incentives. He wants researchers to be banned from producing more than two or three papers per year, to ensure the focus remained on quality rather than quantity.

“The real incentive is for researchers to get their papers published and it doesn’t have to be right so long as it’s published,” Dr Begley said. He recently told the vice-chancellor of a leading Australian university of his frustration with the narrative that Australia was “punching above its weight” in terms of research outcomes. “It’s outrageous,” Mr Begley told the vice-chancellor. “It’s not true.”

“Yes,” the vice-chancellor replied. “I use that phrase with politicians all the time. They love it.”

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The ticking bomb of crypto fascism • In These Times

Hamilton Nolan:

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The crash of crypto is bound to happen for the same reason that all Ponzi schemes eventually crumble: there is not an infinite supply of new people willing to pay ever-increasing prices for the stuff that you currently own. The more interesting question is not whether many small-time investors will lose a lot of money on their crypto investments, but what will happen when they do?

Here is what will happen when hundreds of thousands of younger investors are smashed by the crypto crash: they will be radicalized. This will not be experienced as simply a decline in prices, because crypto represents much more than a simple investment to its most fervent adherents — it represents a way out of the American trap. It represents the existence of opportunity, the possibility of economic mobility, the validation of the idea that you, a regular, hard working person without connections, can go from the bottom to the top, thanks to nothing but your own savvy choices. When that myth is shattered, disillusionment with the American system will follow. Unfortunately, given the realities of the moment, these newly disillusioned and radicalized and angry and broke people are far more likely to turn to fascism than to socialism.

Crypto, a portfolio of inherently worthless online tokens, is already sustained almost entirely by myth. Its value proposition is so inscrutable that when it melts down, almost any narrative could be crafted to plausibly explain it. It was the Fed! The government! The leftists who hate entrepreneurialism! It was the dark and devious forces of the shadowy deep state! Anything will do. It will enforce the priors of those who placed their faith in crypto as a good substitute for the American dream — a crowd of Barstool Sports readers and tech libertarians and the types of people who used to buy silver bars from Alex Jones before they turned to Bitcoin.

The crypto-evangelist population skews heavily towards a sort of New Age libertarian, anti-government right wing-ism, and when they see their financial dreams evaporate, they will likely set their sights for revenge on the things they already despise. The broad effect will lead to a large number of newly angry, bitter, disillusioned, hopeless people who are too steeped in the culture wars to turn towards working class solidarity, and instead turn towards hate. 

…If the crash strikes, say, six months before the 2024 presidential elections, it could be sufficient fuel to propel Donald Trump or one of his acolytes back into the White House and to further poison the national dialogue with rage and a spirit of vengeance. A fun thing to speculate on.

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Happy 2022. Oh well.
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Opinion: the American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare • The Globe and Mail

Thomas Homer-Dixon gives the Canadian perspective of what happens if the US plummets into authoritarianism, or civil war (which look like less and less remote possibilities):

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A terrible storm is coming from the south, and Canada is woefully unprepared. Over the past year we’ve turned our attention inward, distracted by the challenges of COVID-19, reconciliation, and the accelerating effects of climate change. But now we must focus on the urgent problem of what to do about the likely unravelling of democracy in the United States.

We need to start by fully recognizing the magnitude of the danger. If Mr. Trump is re-elected, even under the more-optimistic scenarios the economic and political risks to our country will be innumerable. Driven by aggressive, reactive nationalism, Mr. Trump “could isolate Canada continentally,” as one of my interlocutors put it euphemistically.

Under the less-optimistic scenarios, the risks to our country in their cumulative effect could easily be existential, far greater than any in our federation’s history. What happens, for instance, if high-profile political refugees fleeing persecution arrive in our country, and the U.S. regime demands them back. Do we comply?

In this context, it’s worth noting the words of Dmitry Muratov, the courageous Russian journalist who remains one of the few independent voices standing up to Mr. Putin and who just received the Nobel Prize for Peace. At a news conference after the awards ceremony in Oslo, as Russian troops and armour were massing on Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Muratov spoke of the iron link between authoritarianism and war. “Disbelief in democracy means that the countries that have abandoned it will get a dictator,” he said. “And where there is a dictatorship, there is a war. If we refuse democracy, we agree to war.”

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Clubhouse’s explosive growth has slowed. Its CEO does not care • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy and Miles Kruppa:

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Ahead of publication, Clubhouse disputed the App Annie figures [of about 28m downloads in total, 920k in November], which do not include downloads to tablet devices and do not include re-installs or app updates. Clubhouse said its own data shows 1.8m downloads in November. It declined to share download figures for other months. It also declined to share an active user number.

Davison remains unconcerned. “We’ve gone from a single community of beta testers last year to a global network of many different communities,” he said, pointing to recent growth in geographies such as Thailand. “It’s a big graph now with different clusters that are growing at different times.”

He added that over the course of summer alone, the number of conversation “rooms” created a day more than doubled from 300,000 to 700,000, driven by a rise in the number of private groups in particular.

After he declined to share a more up-to-date figure, the company later said this was “700,000+” rooms per day, adding that there was an “acceleration in growth in recent weeks”.

Despite this, Davison denied ever seeking out Clubhouse’s dizzying rise in the first place, citing the decision to make the app invite-only at first, until July this year. “We’ve never tried to grow. We’ve only tried to not grow,” he said. “I think that when you scale online communities, if you go too quickly, things can break.”

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No idea why there’s any pretence that Clubhouse is like Radio 4. It’s long since raced right to the bottom – it’s a haven for cryptogrifters and the rest. But it’s probably small enough that it won’t burn through the investment cash for a while. We’ll check back in three months unless something happens.
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What the hell is this company the 76ers just partnered with? • Defector

Maitreyi Anantharaman and Chris Thompson:

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It’s worth taking a few moments to dig around in the history of this Color Star operation [which just signed a deal with the famous basketball team to “collaborate on content featuring exclusive interviews”]. This company proposes to operate a metaverse, and thus to facilitate the refashioning of your human identity, to host as much as you are willing to relocate of your moment-to-moment social engagement away from the physical world, and to occupy a frankly alarmingly substantial part of your very experience of living. Proposing such a thing ought to require some sort of burden of proof, if not a straitjacket. If nothing else, we ought at least to know something about those inviting us to digitize and monetize our infinitely precious lives. Are these Metaverse Lords sufficiently grounded in whatever fields might conceivably make a person qualified to operate, uhh, existence itself? Or are they, for example, a hastily retrofitted construction materials outfit hoping to cash in on a sudden frenzied pan-cultural lurch into blockchain hell?

The Sixers spokesperson pointed out that the company is traded on NASDAQ, which it is; shares of Color Star Technology Co., Ltd. closed Wednesday [near the end of December] at $0.52. Certain facts can be learned about Color Star from a trove of boring old filings the company has made over time to the Securities and Exchange Commission since Color Star began issuing shares in 2018. According to a summary found in the company’s 2019 annual report, Color Star began its life way back in 2005, as TJS Wood Flooring, and in 2007 was subsequently incorporated (like so many companies seeking maximally favorable business conditions) in the state of Delaware. A year later, but still long before TJS Wood Flooring became Color Star: Administrator Of The Metaverse, it was renamed China Advanced Construction Materials Group, after something called a “reverse acquisition transaction.” In 2013, China Advanced Construction Materials Group did something called a “reincorporation merger” with a wholly owned subsidiary, and was suddenly operating out of Nevada. At this point the company still at least postured as if straightforwardly operating in the construction industry, and in fact would continue doing so through the end of 2019.

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It’s simultaneously hilarious and terrifying that a serious company like the 76ers would sign a deal with what looks like a bunch of chancers like this. Then again, English cricket once happily signed up with a complete fraudster, so maybe it’s something about sports.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified