Start Up No.1467: Brexit’s dawning reality, should Sandberg resign?, the Westminster Abbey railway, the bitcoin heaters, and more


Radio was the social media of 1930s America – and led to a big ban that might sound familiar CC-licensed photo by Joe Haupt 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. Inaugural. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

That time private US media companies stepped in to silence the falsehoods and incitements of a major public figure … in 1938 • The Conversation

William Kovarik is professor of communication at Radford University:

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In speeches filled with hatred and falsehoods, a public figure attacks his enemies and calls for marches on Washington. Then, after one particularly virulent address, private media companies close down his channels of communication, prompting consternation from his supporters and calls for a code of conduct to filter out violent rhetoric.

Sound familiar? Well, this was 1938, and the individual in question was Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic priest with unfettered access to America’s vast radio audiences. The firms silencing him were the broadcasters of the day.

As a media historian, I find more than a little similarity between the stand those stations took back then and the way Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have silenced false claims of election fraud and incitements to violence in the aftermath of the siege on the US Capitol – noticeably by silencing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters.

Coughlin’s Detroit ministry had grown up with radio, and, as his sermons grew more political, he began calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt a liar, a betrayer and a double-crosser. His fierce rhetoric fueled rallies and letter-writing campaigns for a dozen right-wing causes, from banking policy to opposing Russian communism. At the height of his popularity, an estimated 30 million Americans listened to his Sunday sermons.

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If you’ve read Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ – about that America sliding into fascism – you’ll have heard Coughlin’s name. What’s worth reading in Kovarik’s piece is precisely what tipped all those radio stations into cancelling Coughlin.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.
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Brexiters are waking up to the damage they’ve done • The Guardian

Polly Toynbee lays out some of the industries that are being walloped by the effects of new border arrangements due to Brexit, then continues:

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And then there is the unfolding Northern Ireland disaster. Stena Line ferries has diverted its Great Britain-Northern Ireland sea crossings to the Rosslare-to-Cherbourg route instead. The Times headline reads “Doldrums ahead in shipping forecast as Brexit complicates customs”.

Over the past year I have been following the impending haulage disaster through Manfreight, a 200-lorry company in Coleraine. Its owner Chris Slowey says no, the crisis in the GB/UK crossing is not down to “teething problems”, as Raab put it, but is baked into the nature of Brexit. His lorries carrying exports to England return empty, doubling his costs, as English exporters find it too costly to sell to Northern Ireland – and that’s permanent. The Telegraph reports that one in 10 lorries are being turned back at the EU border. Delays will continue: spot checks at EU borders are standard. So will queues, lorry parks and roadside squalor. The pandemic has worsened the Brexit effect, but that was a good reason to extend the transition period.

It’s only human to confess to some remainer “I told you so” glee when ex-MP Kate Hoey wails in the Telegraph, “The Tories have betrayed Northern Ireland with their Brexit deal”. What on earth did she expect? That’s why Northern Ireland wisely voted remain.

Expect a lot more shocked Brexiters to discover what they have done, the Brexit cabinet itself is on a steep learning curve. Here’s one Telegraph columnist: “We Brexiters are being blamed for the problems we warned about. In reality, the fault lies squarely with the government and poor planning.” Oh the schadenfreude! That’s a sharp U-turn from the Telegraph’s too-eager 1 January report from the Dover front: “Chaos? What chaos?”

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Are we going to get used to this? Or will it chafe with people as they realise it and try to hold those responsible to account?

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Sheryl Sandberg, resign • The New Republic

Melissa Gira Grant:

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“If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism,” a member of the “Red-State Secession” Facebook group posted the day before the insurrection, according to The New York Times: “Beneath it, dozens of people posted comments that included photographs of the weaponry—including assault rifles—that they said they planned to bring to the rally. There were also comments referring to ‘occupying’ the Capitol and forcing Congress to overturn the November election that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won—and Mr. Trump had lost.”

“I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sheryl Sandberg told the Reuters Next conference on Monday, as the fallout from the Capitol riot was still unfolding. This is not the first time Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has performed this duty—the reasonable public face of the private company with an outsize power over the public square.

Sandberg’s words follow a familiar pattern in all Facebook P.R. efforts: They simultaneously embrace and downplay the company’s power. Yet, as Vice reported, “at the very moment Sandberg made these comments, there were at least 60 ‘Stop the Steal’ groups active on Facebook, some with tens of thousands of members and millions of interactions.” The same day Sandberg minimized Facebook’s role in service of the armed people who tried to take the Capitol, people who claimed responsibility for organizing the mob were using Facebook and Instagram to plan more of them.

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In truth, Facebook has lots of people who go in front of cameras and make demi-apologies for whatever terrible thing has been shown to be its fault, from Zuckerberg on down; Sandberg hardly stands out there. (Monika Bickert has done this at least as often.) Grant’s argument is that if Sandberg really wanted to lean in to her responsibilities as a woman, she’d have nothing more to do with the company. It’s a point of view, at least.
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Behind a secret deal between Google and Facebook • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu:

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The agreement between Facebook and Google, code-named “Jedi Blue” inside Google, pertains to a growing segment of the online advertising market called programmatic advertising. Online advertising pulls in hundreds of billions of dollars in global revenue each year, and the automated buying and selling of ad space accounts for more than 60% of the total, according to researchers.

In the milliseconds between a user clicking on a link to a web page and the page’s ads loading, bids for available ad space are placed behind the scenes in marketplaces known as exchanges, with the winning bid passed to an ad server. Because Google’s ad exchange and ad server were both dominant, it often directed the business to its own exchange.

A method called header bidding emerged, in part as a workaround to reduce reliance on Google’s ad platforms. News outlets and other sites could solicit bids from multiple exchanges at once, helping to increase competition and leading to better prices for publishers. By 2016, more than 70% of publishers had adopted the technology, according to one estimate.

Seeing a potentially significant loss of business to header bidding, Google developed an alternative called Open Bidding, which supported an alliance of exchanges. While Open Bidding allows other exchanges to simultaneously compete alongside Google, the search company extracts a fee for every winning bid, and competitors say there is less transparency for publishers.

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Like all adtech, it’s fiendishly difficult to figure out what’s going on. But you have to love the tortured NewSpeak of the Facebook flack:

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Christopher Sgro, a Facebook spokesman, said deals like its agreement with Google “help increase competition in ad auctions,” which benefits advertisers and publishers. “Any suggestion that these types of agreements harm competition is baseless,” he said.

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Cartels – they’re just what the market is calling for!
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The year a “railway” ran inside Westminster Abbey • Ian Visits

Ian Mansfield:

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For a few months in 1952, railway tracks could be found running through the middle of Westminster Abbey.

It’s autumn, and the Abbey is being prepared for Coronation of a Queen the following June, and a lot of steel and wood needs to be delivered to build the massive seating stands to hold all the nobles and important people who were invited to attend.

What better to carry all that material than a railway?

OK, it can be technically argued that a railway with humans as the “locomotive” isn’t a railway, but there’s a locomotive, and carriages, and track – it’s a railway. A railway inside an ancient abbey.

The railway ran through the side entrance of the Abbey — where tourists arrive today and ran to the lorries outside delivering goods. Although there are photos of the conversion works, there are sadly few written records of the railway itself.

What’s fascinating is how most of the interior of Westminster Abbey is covered in plywood, so that hardly anything of the ancient original can be seen. The Westminster Abbey we see on television is largely a fantasy created for the Coronation to make the Abbey look grander than it really is. Even the raised dais where the Queen is crowned is just a wooden stage covered in carpet.

It was also packed — literally — to the rafters.

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The pictures are absolutely amazing. Really worth your time.
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Online speech and publishing • Benedict Evans

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The internet and then social platforms break a lot of our definitions of different kinds of speech, and yet somehow Facebook / Google / Twitter are supposed to recreate that whole 200-year tapestry of implicit structures and consensus, and answer all of those questions, from office parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, for both the USA and Myanmar, right now. We want them to Fix It, but we don’t actually know what that means.   

You can see a microcosm of this in the US debate last year about political ads on Facebook. Do you run ads that tell lies? Newspapers do, and they run opinion pieces that their own reporting staff might disagree with. US TV stations aren’t allowed to block ads from qualifying candidates. Meanwhile a ban on advertising is good for incumbents, who already have organic reach, and for populists and trolls, who can get it, but shuts out moderates and new entrants. And yet a lie on Facebook, spread with money (from where?), reaches new people. In the UK, political TV ads are regulated – should the US apply that? These are all interesting questions, but who decides? For now, one 36-year-old called Mark. 

This is part of the challenge: everyone at a big social media company thinks about these problems, but they do so conscious that they don’t have much legitimacy to make those kinds of decisions. They have neither the social legitimacy of a newspaper editor nor the political legitimacy of a regulator or a law. In 2015, most people in Silicon Valley would have said censorship was both wrong and unscalable – now ML means you can at least try to scale it (with tens of thousands of human moderators) and everyone understands how bad things can get and the responsibility to do something. But what?

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We are glimpsing the reality: that even understanding what we do and don’t want to moderate on social media is difficult. And then there’s the problem of doing it.
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Chilly this winter? Cozy up to your computer that’s mining bitcoin • WSJ

Sarah Needleman:

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As winter approached, Dan van der Ster worried his annual utility bill would skyrocket since his family of five was homebound with the pandemic.

It hardly budged.

While the electric portion shot up in 2020, the gas-heat expense surprisingly declined. He thinks that’s largely thanks to the beefy new computer he uses to mine cryptocurrency and on which his teenage son plays videogames. Mr. Van der Ster, a 40-year-old engineer who lives in France near the Switzerland border, now has a new concern: “It’s getting too warm.”

With the health crisis keeping people home, computer gamers and bitcoin miners are taking greater advantage of a cold-weather perk. The more they use their high-powered machines, the more heat the devices give off.

In the pandemic’s early days, photographer Thomas Smith funneled heat through a tube from a computer he uses mainly for mining bitcoin to maintain a small greenhouse in his garage. It yielded fresh basil and heirloom cherry tomatoes.

“It was like those heaters on a restaurant patio,” he said. “I made a caprese salad.”

Now Mr. Smith, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., is experimenting with using his computer to heat at night a coop he recently set up in his backyard for two chickens. “It’s chilly out there,” he said, though he is concerned about the birds’ safety. “I don’t want to overheat them.”

Rebecca Ratchford hasn’t had to raise the thermostat this winter in her three-bedroom Cary, N.C., home, where she has been working remotely as an administrative assistant since the pandemic began. Her custom-built computer gives off plenty of warm air, she said, especially during intense battles in “Destiny 2,” the science-fiction shooter game.

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This feels a little like a commercial from Intel. “Stay with our computers – they get wonderfully hot!” Ignoring the reality that that’s all wasted energy. Buy a blow heater, people.
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Facebook said it would stop pushing users to join partisan political groups. It didn’t • The Markup

Leon Yin and Alfred Ng:

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In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook said it was taking “emergency” measures to prevent people from using the platform to spread misinformation or coordinate violence. Among those measures, CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified under oath before Congress in October, Facebook had stopped recommending all “political content or social issue groups”—a practice its own internal research has suggested steers users toward divisive and extremist content. 

Days after a riot organized at least partially on social media overtook the US Capitol, Facebook reiterated in a Jan. 11 blog post that it was “not recommending civic groups for people to join.”

But contrary to Facebook’s claims, The Markup found the platform continued to recommend political groups to its users throughout December. We found 12 political groups among the top 100 groups recommended to the more than 1,900 Facebook users in our Citizen Browser project, which tracks links and group recommendations served to a nationwide panel of Facebook users. Our data shows Facebook also continued to recommend political groups throughout January, including after it renewed its promise not to on Jan. 11.

Facebook pushed political groups most often to the Trump voters on our panel. Almost one quarter of the top 100 groups suggested to Trump voters were political—and political groups accounted for half of the top 10 groups recommended to Trump voters. Some posts in those groups contained conspiracy theories, calls to violence against public officials, and discussions of logistics for attending the rally that preceded the Capitol riot. 

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Why did this happen, you may wonder? Because Facebook relied on group administrators ticking a box that said “political”. And once more, Facebook’s Groups system is making things worse.
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Spotify, Substack, and Clubhouse are the next fronts in the moderation war • OneZero

Alex Kantrowitz:

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“I think we have all become smarter about the downsides of communication at scale,” Siri Srinivas, an investor at Draper Associates, told OneZero. As an early user of Clubhouse, Srinivas has seen the trade-offs firsthand. Clubhouse — a live, audio-only conversation platform — has already endured a lifetime’s worth of moderation controversy.

“We discovered a lot of the issues with the bigger platforms about five years after they became too large,” Srinivas said. “We’re using the same vocabulary to talk about Clubhouse.”
Over the summer, while still in beta, Clubhouse experienced its first high-profile flare-up. After New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz criticized ex-Away CEO Steph Korey for views she expressed about the press, some Clubhouse users attacked Lorenz viciously in a Clubhouse room asking whether journalists have too much power. The attack was bad enough that Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison spoke with Lorenz about what happened, and what Clubhouse could do to improve.

Clubhouse, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, has since added user controls like a block button and an option to report abusive behavior. But the reporting functionality — which includes options to report content under categories like “discrimination or hateful conduct” — doesn’t seem to be doing much. Lorenz has kept a running list of disturbing content on Clubhouse. An explicitly anti-LGBT conversation in December, for instance, featured one speaker who said, “I’m bringing down you fucking faggots.”

Clubhouse’s tentative moderation approach might reflect the ideological reticence that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube displayed in their early days. It may also reflect a unique business problem. As smaller platforms take off and fill with content, the cost to moderate can be overwhelming. “That’s why you see so much emphasis on automation,” the former Twitter employee said. “Taken to its logical conclusion, you could have a full federal jobs program moderating content on a platform like Facebook or Twitter.”

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It’s moderators, almost all human, all the way down.
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Hudson to introduce Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’ tech in airport stores • Retail Dive

Kaarin Vembar:

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Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech may have been created in part to eliminate lines, but it also has an added bonus of being contactless when hygiene is top of mind for shoppers during the pandemic. 

Just Walk Out does not require that users download an app or create an Amazon account. Instead, shoppers use a credit card and the technology detects what products are being selected via a virtual cart. The service leverages similar technology that is used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning, according to Amazon. 

“Today’s traveler is progressively more connected, mobile, and time sensitive — and they have higher expectations for convenience, safety, and speed during their shopping experiences,” Brian Quinn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Hudson, said in a statement. 

Retail foot traffic is down overall, sliding 49.3% in malls, according to a December report from foot traffic analytics firm Placer.ai. Even harder hit is the larger travel industry. According to December research from the US Travel Association, since the beginning of March the pandemic resulted in over $500bn in cumulative losses for the US travel economy.

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Airports are the ideal location for these: if people are airside (past security checks) they can’t really escape if they somehow zoom out without paying. Plus the lack of hassle is a boon. But how will they make you show your boarding card for the VAT scam?
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Vaccine maker BioNTech reports potential multiple sclerosis breakthrough • The Week

Peter Weber:

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BioNTech, the German biotechnology company that paired with Pfizer to develop first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the US, reports in the journal Science that a new vaccine using the same mRNA technique has proved effective in treating or stopping multiple sclerosis (MS) in lab mice. MS is caused not by a virus but by the immune system malfunctioning and attacking the protective covering of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, disrupting signals between those cells and their targets in the body, causing neurological, sensor, and motor issues.

BioNTech said it successfully encoded MS-specific autoantigens that, when delivered via its experimental vaccine, stopped MS symptoms in mice bred with a condition mirroring MS in humans, and prevented further deterioration in mice with early signs of MS. Mice given a placebo showed typical MS symptoms.

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Only mice – which is a notoriously unreliable guide to whether something will work in humans. But an important first step. mRNA looks ready to overtake CRISPR as the next big hope in medicine.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1466: the trouble with social media algorithms, happy at work?, the vaccine’s good news, the carbon capture conundrum, and more


Israel has vaccinated more than a quarter of its population and says its Covid problem is over. CC-licensed photo by Israel Defense Forces 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. Heartily. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Social-media algorithms rule how we see the world. Good luck trying to stop them • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we lost control of what we see, read—and even think—to the biggest social-media companies.

I put it right around 2016. That was the year Twitter and Instagram joined Facebook and YouTube in the algorithmic future. Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, they promoted stuff we’d most likely tap, share or heart—and buried everything else.

Bye-bye, feeds that showed everything and everyone we followed in an unending, chronologically ordered river. Hello, high-energy feeds that popped with must-clicks.

At around the same time, Facebook—whose News Feed has been driven by algorithms since 2009—hid the setting to switch back to “Most Recent.”

No big deal, you probably thought, if you thought about it at all. Except these opaque algorithms didn’t only maximize news of T. Swift’s latest album drops. They also maximized the reach of the incendiary—the attacks, the misinformation, the conspiracy theories. They pushed us further into our own hyperpolarized filter bubbles.

“There are bad people doing bad things on the internet—QAnon, white supremacists—it’s not that Facebook, YouTube and other social-media sites allow it on their platform. It’s that they amplify it,” says Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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The only social network I use to any extent is Twitter, and I use that through a third-party app (Tweetbot) which doesn’t show the algorithmic timeline – it’s the reverse-chronological timeline due to limitations of the API. That suits me fine. There aren’t similar solutions for Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube (though turning off Autoplay – which Google keeps trying to turn back on – helps a lot). What we might call the “Tweetbot solution” could help us all, a lot.
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A wristband that tells your boss if you are unhappy • BBC News

Suzanne Bearne:

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At first glance the silicone wristband could be mistaken for one that tracks your heart rate when you are doing exercise.

However, the wearable technology, called a Moodbeam, isn’t here to monitor your physical health. Instead it allows your employer to track your emotional state.

The gadget, which links to a mobile phone app and web interface, has two buttons, one yellow and one blue. The idea is that you press the yellow one if you are feeling happy, and the blue one if you are sad.

Aimed at companies who wish to monitor the wellbeing of staff who are working from home, the idea is that employees are encouraged to wear the wristband (they can say no), and press the relevant button as they see fit throughout the working week.

Managers can then view an online dashboard to see how workers are feeling and coping. With bosses no longer able to check in physically with their team, Moodbeam hopes to bridge the gap.

“Businesses are trying to get on top of staying connected with staff working from home. Here they can ask 500 members: ‘You ok?’ without picking up the phone,” says Moodbeam co-founder Christina Colmer McHugh.

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Trials found that people didn’t want these to be anonymous; they’d rather be identifiable. Lots of people dunked on this idea on social media, but as described it could clearly have beneficial effects.
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Underselling the vaccine • The New York Times

David Leonhardt:

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Here’s my best attempt at summarizing what we know:

• The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — the only two approved in the U.S. — are among the best vaccines ever created, with effectiveness rates of about 95% after two doses. That’s on par with the vaccines for chickenpox and measles. And a vaccine doesn’t even need to be so effective to reduce cases sharply and crush a pandemic.

• If anything, the 95% number understates the effectiveness, because it counts anyone who came down with a mild case of Covid-19 as a failure. But turning Covid into a typical flu — as the vaccines evidently did for most of the remaining 5% — is actually a success. Of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in a research trial, do you want to guess how many contracted a severe Covid case? One.

• Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. “If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one!” Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine. (And, no, exclamation points are not common in medical journals.) On Twitter, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco, argued: “Please be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters — disease and spreading.”

• The risks for vaccinated people are still not zero, because almost nothing in the real world is zero risk. A tiny percentage of people may have allergic reactions. And I’ll be eager to see what the studies on post-vaccination spread eventually show. But the evidence so far suggests that the vaccines are akin to a cure.

Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me we should be greeting them with the same enthusiasm that greeted the polio vaccine: “It should be this rallying cry.”

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The point about whether vaccinated people can spread the virus is giving me whiplash. So many people have said you shouldn’t assume you won’t pass it on. Then we have other experts saying ah, no, that’s hardly going to happen. What is clear is that the second shot makes a huge difference (raising antibody count by 6x – 20x) and that even the first shot means you don’t get seriously ill. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Businesses aim to pull greenhouse gases from the air. It’s a gamble • The New York Times

Brad Plumer and Christopher Flavelle:

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Occidental Petroleum and United Airlines are investing in a large “direct air capture” plant in Texas that will use fans and chemical agents to scrub carbon dioxide from the sky and inject it underground. Stripe and Shopify, two e-commerce companies, have each begun spending at least $1 million per year on start-ups working on carbon removal techniques, such as sequestering the gas in concrete for buildings. Microsoft will soon announce detailed plans to pay to remove one million tons of carbon dioxide.

The United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said nations may need to remove between 100 billion and 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century to avert the worst effects of climate change — far more than can be absorbed by simply planting more trees. But many carbon removal technologies remain too expensive for widespread use, often costing $600 or more per ton of carbon.

The hope, companies say, is that early investments can help drive down prices to something more palatable — say, $100 per ton or less — much as investments in wind and solar have made those energy sources cheaper over time.

But there are risks, too. As more companies pledge to zero out their emissions by 2050, some experts warn that they could hide behind the uncertain promise of removing carbon later to avoid cutting emissions deeply today.

“Carbon removal shouldn’t be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Jennifer Wilcox, a leading expert on the technology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It has a role to play, particularly for sectors that are very difficult to decarbonize, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for everyone to keep emitting greenhouse gases indefinitely.”

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Remove 100 billion to 1 trillion ton(ne)s of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s an astonishing amount. It’s so easy to think that targets like being “carbon-neutral” by 2050 mean the problem’s over. But it’s absolutely not; it just means the greenhouse gases that will warm the atmosphere as long as they are there aren’t being added to. To stop the heating, you need to remove the excess of gases that trap heat.
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That’s not how 2FA works • Terence Eden’s Blog

Pointing to someone being advised, on seeing a credible phishing site, to use two-factor authentication:

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A second factor allows a site to better authenticate you. It does not help you identify the site.

If you log on to fake-bank.com, the scammers will immediately take your username and password and send it to real-bank.com – the fake bank will then ask you for your 2FA token. That could come via SMS, email, an authenticator app, or even post. Then the fake site uses your real token and logs in as you. Game Over.

There is almost nothing you can do to authenticate that a site is legitimate:
• Any information that you can request from the real site can be proxied to the fake site.
• The green SSL padlock means nothing for validity. Anyone can get one.
• The top result on Google is invariably an advert for a scam site.

Realistically the only thing you can do is look for “out of band” verification. What’s the URL stamped on your credit card? What’s written on the welcome letter sent by snail mail? None of these are infallible – and they can all be manipulated by a suitably determined attacker.

The best defence is to use a password manager. I recommend the open source Bit Warden.

A password manager stores your passwords. But it also stores the web address of site’s login page. If you visit githud, the password manager won’t prompt you to use the login details for github.

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Never heard of Bit Warden before. The Google and Apple password managers would also do the same thing.
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Top official: Israel in ‘final stages’ of COVID, showing world an exit strategy • The Times of Israel

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Israel is in the “final stages” of the coronavirus pandemic, a senior health official said Friday after data showed the country was seeing clear results of its massive vaccination drive.

“We are in the final stages of the coronavirus. Israel, with the scale of its vaccine drive, is showing the world that there is an exit strategy,” Ronni Gamzu, who was Israel’s COVID czar and has since returned to his job as director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, told Channel 12 news.

His assessment appears to be shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recorded earlier this week telling a closed-door meeting that “It’s over.”

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“You all understand that everything we are talking about the corona is just compensation for the past. It’s over,” Netanyahu told members of a protest group representing independent business owners in leaked remarks recorded Wednesday and broadcast by Channel 12 on Friday.

The confidence comes with Israel having vaccinated nearly a quarter of the eligible population and clear signs the shots are having an impact.

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Worth having a look at the vaccination page on Our World In Data. UAE in second, Bahrain third, UK fourth, US fifth. Israel is miles ahead of everyone. Though of course this is only the first shot: they only started in the week of 20 December. Five weeks have elapsed since then, so many people are going to be due for the second quite soon.
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Misinformation went down after Twitter banned Trump • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:

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Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73% after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week, research firm Zignal Labs has found, underscoring the power of tech companies to limit the falsehoods poisoning public debate when they act aggressively.

The new research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm reported that conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter.

Election disinformation had for months been a major subject of online misinformation, beginning even before the Nov. 3 election and pushed heavily by Trump and his allies.

Zignal found it dropped swiftly and steeply on Twitter and other platforms in the days after the Twitter ban took hold on Jan. 8.

The president and his supporters also have lost accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, Spotify, Shopify and others. Facebook called Trump’s suspension “indefinite” but left open the possibility that the account could later be restored.

The findings, from Jan. 9 through Friday, highlight how falsehoods flow across social media sites — reinforcing and amplifying each other — and offer an early indication of how concerted actions against misinformation can make a difference.

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Wonder how it will look after Wednesday. A clear illustration of how untruths spread far more quickly than the truth on social networks because untruths can be manipulated into simpler, more outrageous messages.
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Massive blackouts have hit Iran. The government is blaming bitcoin mining • The Washington Post

Miriam Berger:

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Iran’s state-owned electricity firm Tavanir announced Wednesday that it had shut down a large Chinese-Iranian-run cybercurrency center in the southeastern province of Kerman because of its heavy energy consumption. The company reportedly was licensed to operate under a process the government had put in place to regulate the industry.

Alongside pointing a finger at legal operations, Iranian officials have specifically singled out illegal cryptocurrency miners as a strain on the electricity grid spurring outages, Mostafa Rajabi Mashhadi, a spokesperson for the electricity industry at Iran’s energy ministry, told the IRNA state-run news agency. On Wednesday, Ali Vaezi, a spokesperson for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said the government would be investigating cases of unlicensed cryptocurrency farms.

But Iranians in the bitcoin industry reject the government’s accusations, saying the industry is being blamed for a broader problem.

“The miners have nothing to do with the blackouts,” Ziya Sadr, a cryptocurrency researcher in Tehran, told The Washington Post. “Mining is a very small percentage of the overall electricity capacity in Iran.”

He added, “It is a known fact that the mismanagement and the very terrible situation of the electricity grid in Iran and the outdated equipment of power plants in Iran can’t support the grid.”

The government itself has pointed to cheap electricity rates, enabled by government subsidies, as another major cause of the blackouts. A member of the board of the Iranian Blockchain Association told IRNA that the electricity used by cybercurrency miners in Iran was estimated to be about equal to the electricity lost by the network during distribution.

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So it’s like doubling the network loss? You can see why Iranians might want to do this on the down-low, though.
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An oral history of Wikipedia, the web’s encyclopedia • OneZero

Tom Roston:

»

Jimmy Wales: The big battle was between Google and their algorithmic search, and Yahoo!, which categorized things. They manually approved links, and they put them into categories. And nobody knew which was going to prevail as the dominant way of searching.

I thought, “Gee, [Yahoo!’s model] doesn’t scale very well, because Yahoo! has to hire people to do it. [Instead] we could just let anybody come and create a category.”

[Bomis [the company under which this was being done] created a model for information discovery called] a web ring. [Note: web rings were groups of topic-based blogs which linked to each other and selectively quoted each other and linked to each other. – CA] And people could come and create web rings on any topic. One of the first examples was somebody collected a bunch of links about Jupiter and they made a web ring about Jupiter.

Andrew Lih: It was trying to create an open source version of Yahoo!.

Jimmy Wales: We asked, “Who’s looking at all [these web rings]?” Well, it was men in their twenties. So, we did a baseball blog web ring. That went nowhere. Tim Shell built a web ring for Pamela Anderson, the actress, and it was like, unbelievable traffic. And then it turned out that people loved building web rings for actresses and models and porn stars. We didn’t set it up to do that.

«

Wikipedia narrowly avoided being sucked up into the maw of internet porn. The step that’s astonishing, in retrospect, is deciding not to engage experts, but to trust in the wisdom of the crowd.
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Bitcoin cannot store energy (but could it help to build solar?) • Noahpinion

Noah Smith, having explained why people who say “bitcoin is a store of energy!” are wrong:

»

Physical storage is one way of dealing with intermittency. You produce as much energy as you can during the sunny hours, and then you store that energy in a battery or in water reservoir etc. Then you draw down the energy when you need it. In fact, if you want energy at night, when there’s no sun at all, you definitely need physical storage.

But another way of dealing with intermittency is to overbuild. You build so many solar panels that even on a cloudy winter morning you can produce enough to power your home or office or factory.

But overbuilding costs money. Yes, solar is coming down fast in price, but it would still be nice to have some way to defray the costs of overbuilding.

Well, Bitcoin may help with that. If you build enough solar to power you during a cloudy winter morning, you have a lot of extra, wasted capacity on a clear summer midday. This is what produces the famous “duck curve”.

So if you’re not going to store it, what do you do with all that extra solar electricity during the sunny times? One thing you could do is to use it to mine Bitcoin. That will make some money for the utility company, which it can then use to recoup some of the cost of building the solar plant in the first place.

«

But as he quickly points out, that won’t work if more people get into the bitcoin mining business. In which case you might as well do other more profitable things with the surplus energy. Or more useful things, like desalinating water or electrolyzing water. In fact, forget about bitcoin. Just build the solar.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the iOS app that I used to check my heart rate variability (HRV) is called Heartwatch.

Start Up No.1465: WhatsApp delays data change, is there a social media fix?, Twitter to reboot POTUS account, new MacBook Pros?, and more


A medical study says Apple Watch data can predict Covid infection. CC-licensed photo by hey tiffany! 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. Walking well. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

WhatsApp to delay new privacy policy amid mass confusion about Facebook data sharing • The Verge

Nick Statt:

»

WhatsApp on Friday announced a three-month delay of a new privacy policy originally slated to go into effect on February 8th following widespread confusion over whether the new policy would mandate data sharing with Facebook.

The update does not in fact affect data sharing with Facebook with regard to user chats or other profile information; WhatsApp has repeatedly clarified that its update addresses business chats in the event a user converses with a company’s customer service platform through WhatsApp.

“We’ve heard from so many people how much confusion there is around our recent update. There’s been a lot of misinformation causing concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and the facts,” the company wrote in a new blog post published today.

Since 2016, WhatsApp has shared certain information with Facebook, including your phone number, unless you were one of the select few users who chose to opt out of data sharing while the option was still available that year. WhatsApp does not, however, look at people’s chat messages or listen to their phone calls, and WhatsApp conversations are end-to-end encrypted to protect against those abuses.

Despite this, a pop-up informing users of the new change included mention of how WhatsApp partners with Facebook, and it also included an ultimatum instructing users to delete their account if they chose not to agree to the new terms. That gave people the idea they were being railroaded into new, more invasive terms.

«

The irony is so thick you could spread it on toast. Misinformation spread on WhatsApp has been blamed for deaths in India and election distortion in Brazil, but the company slow-walked complaints there. But when people start defecting, that’s a different matter: it acts like it’s on fire.
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Banning Trump won’t fix social media: 10 ideas to rebuild our broken internet – by experts • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

»

considering the role social media played in elevating Trump to the presidency and its part in spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories and calls for violence, it is clear that the end of the Trump presidency won’t provide an immediate fix. There is something fundamentally broken in social media that has allowed us to reach this violent juncture, and the de-platforming of Trump is not going to address those deeper pathologies.

Much of the ensuing debate about the Trump bans has played out along predictable and unproductive lines, with free speech absolutists refusing to acknowledge that harassment and hate lead to the silencing of marginalized groups and those who support tougher crackdowns tending to elide good-faith concerns about overly aggressive censorship. It’s a fight we’ve been having about the internet for so long that people on either side can probably recite the lines of the other from memory.

Still, away from the clamor of social media, meaningful and innovative work is being done by researchers and activists who have been living with and studying the brokenness of social media for years now. We asked a dozen of them to help us move the debate forward by sharing their proposals for concrete actions that can and should be taken now to prevent social media platforms from damaging democracy, spreading hate, or inciting violence.

«

I think most of these are useless – in that they’ll make minimal differences – apart from Brandi Collins-Dexter’s.
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Block Party – Bye-bye, Twitter trolls 👋 • Product Hunt

Tracy Chou:

»

Block Party builds tools against online abuse. Our mission is to create a safer online experience by building solutions for user control, protection and safety. Use Block Party to filter out unwanted @mentions from Twitter and take control of your online experience.

«

Can you guess why this was developed by a non-white woman?
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PocketCasts for sale: where did it go wrong? • Medium

James Cridland:

»

Perhaps part of that reason is that PocketCasts doesn’t appear to have innovated much – no WebSub, no episode images, no payment options. They could have taken a punt on Adam Curry’s Podcast Index work and made themselves the defacto app for that work. I can’t see any evidence that they have even investigated it.

The competition is now stronger. Google Podcasts is now at a point where it’s the #3 podcast app in more than a few pieces of data from hosts. For many, it’s now the default “decently capable” podcast app on Android: the platform that PocketCasts started on. PocketCasts will be losing significantly from Google getting into the game, since new users will just use the Google option.

On the other hand, the Android power users will use PodcastAddict, which (unlike PocketCasts) has continued to innovate and has incorporated plenty of Podcast Index stuff. I find it unintuitive and not that pretty, though that’s a personal view (and I’m no design genius); but Xavier is keen to improve it all the time, and it’s notable that he is very visible wherever podcast devs hang out.

«

Seems that the company (in which NPR owns a big minority stake) lost about $2m last year. When you compare it to Marco Arment, who runs Overcast (a podcast app on Apple) entirely on his own, it’s not hard to see that any podcast app employing more than a couple of people is onto a loser.
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Online far-right movements fracture in wake of Capitol riot • NBC News

Ben Collins:

»

QAnon adherents, who believe Trump is secretly saving the world from a cabal of child-eating Satanists, have identified Inauguration Day as a last stand, and falsely think he will force a 10-day, countrywide blackout that ends in the mass execution of his political enemies and a second Trump term.

Several QAnon supporters were arrested after storming the Capitol last week, including Jacob Chansley, whose lawyer said his client believed he was “answering the call of our president.”

QAnon believers have spent the last week forwarding chain letters on Facebook and via text message, often removing the conspiracy theory’s QAnon origins, in an effort to prepare friends and family for what they believe to be the upcoming judgment day.

According to researchers who study the real-life effects of the QAnon movement, the false belief in a secret plan for Jan. 20 is irking militant pro-Trump and anti-government groups, who believe the magical thinking is counterproductive to future insurrections.

Travis View, who hosts the QAnon-debunking podcast QAnon Anonymous, said Q supporters are waiting for a “miracle that prevents Biden from being inaugurated,” and it is beginning to grate on those anxious for more real-world conflict.

“I have seen some Trump supporters chastising people promoting QAnon-like conspiracy theories,” he said. “It seems some Trump supporters are reassessing their coalition and laying judgment on the QAnon wing.”

«

Always happy to see these conspiracists falling out. Though you can be sure that for many, just like the cults which believed there were particular days on which the world would end and then discovered it didn’t, they will find excuses for the non-event and continue believing. Don’t forget, after all, that the whole QAnon thing rose from nowhere with absolutely no help from Trump – just from Facebook and its recommendation algorithms, and a credulous segment of society.
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Twitter refuses to engage in the peaceful transfer of posting • Gizmodo

Matt Novak:

»

When President Barack Obama left office on January 20, 2017, all followers of the official @POTUS and @WhiteHouse accounts were transferred to newly elected President Donald Trump. But that’s not happening this year when Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. Instead, Biden will have to start from scratch, according to Biden’s new Digital Director, Rob Flaherty.

YouTube is transferring followers on the official White House account, as is Snapchat, while Facebook is transferring all of Biden’s Facebook fans to the official White House account. But when it comes to Twitter, Biden is expected to do all the heavy lifting on a fresh account, which Biden’s team just started, called PresElectBiden.

“Twitter is starting us at zero…but recommended the President of the United States tag other accounts to encourage growth,” Flaherty tweeted late Thursday.

When Gizmodo reached out to Twitter for an explanation, a spokesperson directed us to a blog post that did not contain an explanation for why Biden isn’t being afforded the same courtesy that Trump received. Instead, the blog notes that anyone who currently follows the POTUS account will receive a notification about the archival process for Trump’s institutional accounts.

«

Best explanation for this I’ve seen: Trump’s POTUS account followers included huge numbers of trolls and bot networks: removing them as followers means Biden’s account can shake them off – and Twitter can more clearly identify them.
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CES 2021: a deep breath for the smart home to determine its future • Stacey on IoT

Kevin Tofel:

»

CES 2021 has been more of a product refinement show for the smart home.

The pandemic likely had some impact as to why. When you can’t readily get the chips you need or the production line power to build new devices, the product life-cycle can’t move as rapidly. But that last part is probably the bigger reason: For several years, the smart home industry has moved a little too rapidly, without a cohesive understanding of what problems it should solve and what services or features consumers want.

For context, I think back to the 2015 CES event. There, Stacey and I attended a lengthy Samsung keynote that was filled with promise on how everything in the home was about to be connected, bringing a nirvana to our personal abodes. Samsung and many other companies set out to deliver on that promise without really thinking it through beyond the high level.

That doesn’t mean it’s been a complete wash since then. In fact, we’ve seen much progress ranging from the now ubiquitous digital assistants and smart speakers to video doorbells and connected cameras to intelligent appliances in the kitchen. By and large, though, these are the “low-hanging fruit” of the smart home solution.

To put it another way: has voice control of the lights or connected devices in your home really made a profound impact? Would it be that much more difficult for you to use a traditional oven to cook dinner instead of a smart oven? And how many times have you actually used that smart front door lock to remotely let someone in your home?

«

It seems like the question of what is “smart” keeps moving. Voice-activated lights! Fantastic a few years ago, now not “smart” enough. I guess you’d ultimately want a house that was responsive to all sorts of conditions, self-monitoring for problems (leaks?), and would alert you.

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Smartwatches can help detect COVID-19 days before symptoms appear • CBS News

Megan Cerullo:

»

Smartwatches and other wearable devices that continuously measure users’ heart rates, skin temperature and other physiological markers can help spot coronavirus infections days before an individual is diagnosed.

Devices like the Apple Watch, Garmin and Fitbit watches can predict whether an individual is positive for COVID-19 even before they are symptomatic or the virus is detectable by tests, according to studies from leading medical and academic institutions, including Mount Sinai Health System in New York and Stanford University in California. Experts say wearable technology could play a vital role in stemming the pandemic and other communicable diseases.

Researchers at Mount Sinai found that the Apple Watch can detect subtle changes in an individual’s heartbeat, which can signal that an individual has the coronavirus, up to seven days before they feel sick or infection is detected through testing. 

“Our goal was to use tools to identify infections at time of infection or before people knew they were sick,” said Rob Hirten, assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and author of the Warrior Watch study. 

Specifically, the study analyzed a metric called heart rate variability (HRV) — the variation in time between each heartbeat — which is also a measure of how well a person’s immune system is working. 

«

Well, here’s the record of my HRV in the month of March 2020, during which I got Covid. See if you can spot five days leading up to the point where I developed Covid. (The days are numbered at the top.)

HRV data for March 2020

Correct answer (because I know it) is at the end of this post.
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Trump leaves as a broken president • NY Mag

Jonathan Chait:

»

Many of his sources of income are drying up, either owing to the coronavirus pandemic or, more often, his toxic public image. The Washington Post has toted up the setbacks facing the Trump Organization, which include cancellations of partnerships with New York City government, three banks, the PGA Championship, and a real-estate firm that handled many of his leasing agreements. Meanwhile, he faces the closure of many of his hotels. And he is staring down two defamation lawsuits. Oh, and Trump has to repay, over the next four years, more than $300m in outstanding loans he personally guaranteed.

…If this were still 2015, Trump could fall back on his tried-and-true income generators: money laundering and tax fraud. The problem is that his business model relied on chronically lax enforcement of those financial crimes. And now he is under investigation by two different prosecutors in New York State for what appear to be black-letter violations of tax law. At minimum, these probes will make it impossible for him to stay afloat by stealing more money. At maximum, he faces the serious risk of millions of dollars in fines or a criminal prosecution that could send him to prison.

Trump reportedly plans to pardon himself along with a very broad swath of his hangers-on. But a pardon hardly solves his problems. For one thing, a federal pardon is useless against state-level crimes. For another, the self-pardon is a theoretical maneuver that’s never been tested, and it’s not clear whether the courts will agree it is even possible to do so.

And what’s more, a pardon might constitute an admission of guilt, which could open up Trump to more private lawsuits. Remember how O. J. Simpson was ordered to pay $34m to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, even after he beat the murder rap? The families of victims of the January 6 riot might well sue Trump for his role in inciting the violence.

«

As Oscar Wilde said about the death of Little Nell, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.
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Kuo: new MacBook Pro models to feature flat-edged design, MagSafe, no Touch Bar and more ports • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

»

Apple is working on two new MacBook Pro models that will feature significant design changes, well-respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a note to investors that was obtained by MacRumors.

According to Kuo, Apple is developing two models in 14 and 16-inch size options. The new MacBook Pro machines will feature a flat-edged design, which Kuo describes as “similar to the iPhone 12” with no curves like current models. It will be the most significant design update to the MacBook Pro in the last five years.

There will be no OLED Touch Bar included, with Apple instead returning to physical function keys. Kuo says the MagSafe charging connector design will be restored, though it’s not quite clear what that means as Apple has transitioned to USB-C. The refreshed MacBook Pro models will have additional ports, and Kuo says that Most people may not need to purchase dongles to supplement the available ports on the new machines. Since 2016, Apple’s MacBook Pro models have been limited to USB-C ports with no other ports available.

«

If Apple is really abandoning the Touch Bar and adding non-USB C ports, then that’s three big retreats it has made on its laptops in the past two years: these two, and the butterfly keyboards. Like the keyboards, the Touch Bar had its fans.

However: Kuo says the 16in isn’t due until the third quarter. That’s surprising: Apple must be seeing the demand for M1 devices, and I bet sales of the 16in have cratered. The pros who want that screen size know that Intel-based ones are effectively a waste of money. Apple’s leaving money on the table if it delays the launch.
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US blacklists Xiaomi in widening assault on China tech • Bloomberg

»

Xiaomi Corp. plunged a record 10% after the Trump administration blacklisted China’s No. 2 smartphone maker and 10 other companies, broadening efforts to undercut the expansion of the country’s technology sector.

The U.S. has targeted scores of Chinese companies for the stated purpose of protecting national security, but going after Xiaomi was unexpected. The Beijing-based company has been viewed as China’s answer to Apple Inc., producing sleek smartphones that draw loyal fans with each new release. The company, which vies with Huawei Technologies Co. for the title of China’s No. 1 mobile device brand, also makes electric scooters, earphones and smart rice cookers.

The news was “really surprising to me,” said Kevin Chen, a Hong Kong-based analyst at China Merchants Securities Co.

The US Defense Dept. identified Xiaomi as one of nine companies with alleged ties to the Chinese military – which means American investors will be prohibited from buying their securities and will have to divest holdings by November.

«

Wonder if Biden will reverse this. It’s not on the list of executive orders he’s going to implement immediately, which makes sense: this will be a useful bargaining chip in any negotiations with China.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

HRV answer: yes, I developed Covid late on Friday 27th, and was properly ill on the 28th and 29th. The week with the low HRV before it? No idea. Wasn’t exposed to Covid, though. The exposure was from a child picked up from university on the preceding Sunday. Three hours in a car with someone who’s mildly symptomatic will sort it.

Start Up No.1464: how Facebook’s numbers create radicals, the virtual CES, DuckDuckGo hits 100m per day, why herd immunity takes jabs, and more


Tesla was the best-selling car brand in the UK in December. Really, it was. CC-licensed photo by rulenumberone2 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. Friday already? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

They used to post selfies. Now they’re trying to reverse the election • The New York Times

Stuart Thompson and Charlie Warzel:

»

for years, [Dominick McGee’s] feed was unremarkable — a place to post photos of family and friends, musings about love and motivational advice.

Jan. 9, 2019: Replacing “why is this happening to me” with “what is this trying to teach me” is a better way of thinking. Positivity only..

Most of his posts received just a handful of likes and comments.

That changed after the presidential election, when he began posting about what he believed was suspicious activity around the vote: Nov 8 2020: “Americans have always viewed the media as an enemy of the people until President Trump was elected. We have allowed the media to earn our trust in this nation because the masses would accept anyone who wouldn’t accept Trump. #StopTheSteal🇺🇸”

He saw a sharp rise in engagement — more than 50 comments and nearly a dozen shares.

On Nov. 6, he wrote that he’d “rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” garnering 106 comments and 134 likes.

A post about Democrats supporting slavery in the 1800s received even more attention. Within weeks, he was committing nearly all his time to sharing what he learned from the Stop the Steal movement. He started a Facebook group, Win the Win, with the goal of overturning the election results. Tens of thousands of people joined in just weeks. Mr. McGee, who uses the pseudonym Dom Lucre on Facebook, wrote in the group that a “storm was coming,” a common QAnon reference, getting 440 comments and 1,500 likes.

Suddenly he had followers: “Thank you for helping we the people to wake up and see the truth, and see how we’ve been lied to for way too long,” one commented. “Thank you Dom!”

By the time he drove from Tennessee to Washington to march on the Capitol, his Facebook group had swelled to more than 61,000 members, and he was eager to meet some of them in person.

…He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many Americans into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

«

It’s like a weird game. Imagine, though, if there weren’t any numbers associated with posts. Would people do the same things? (I did. You can pre-order my book where I look, among other things, at what happens when you take away those numbers.)
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Look, but don’t touch… the painful shortcomings of a virtual CES • Medium

Barry Collins:

»

When in Vegas, I take an almost masochistic pride in largely swerving the major stands and pre-booked appointments, and instead wander the halls trying to find the gems for myself. In particular, I love the Eureka Park that’s normally in the Sand’s Convention Center, where you find hundreds of students and startups from all over the planet, most arriving with prototype landfill that will never make a commercial product, but a few with something genuinely innovative and brilliant. Things such as a beer fridge that restocks itself or a chess board that moves its own pieces. Things that are not just another sodding slab of glass…

It’s not been a total blowout. I enjoyed the Pepcom press event that was held last night. Instead of being thrust into a giant hall with journalists left to scrum it out with exhibitors, Pepcom held a virtual event instead, where you clicked on the exhibitor’s name, were given a short video of their new products and could then dive into Zoom sessions with their staff if you wanted more details.

It was certainly much easier to get through than a hall crammed full of backpack-toting bloggers, many of whom think nothing of chopping into your conversations or chokeslamming you out of the way so they can film their YouTube videos. But it’s harder for the more interesting, niche players to get noticed at an event like that. If you’re just a logo on a screen, how are you going to attract a journalist’s attention? I dived into a couple of Zooms with the smaller exhibitors and they were almost shocked to see me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were their only visitor all night. It was, well, awkward.

Perhaps what’s hardest of all for a journalist is virtual CES makes it impossible to tell which products are generating a buzz. When you can see hundreds of people crammed around a stand or a product on the showfloor, you know there’s something worth investigating there.

«

The trouble I always felt with CES was that you’d see a gazillion me-too products, which told you where the centre of gravity of Shenzhen’s thinking (or factories) was; then the few items that looked fascinating but which you felt would vanish without trace. Which they pretty much inevitably did.
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DuckDuckGo traffic

Now past 100 million search queries per day. Google does about 3.5 billion per day. The growth line is exponential, if slow. I started using it somewhere back by the letter A on its graph.
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Twitter shuts down account of Sci-Hub, the pirated-papers website • Science

Jeffrey Brainard:

»

Twitter last week permanently suspended the account of Sci-Hub, the website that has posted millions of freely accessible copies of scientific articles pirated from subscription journals. Twitter said Sci-Hub had violated its policy against promoting “counterfeit goods,” according to Sci-Hub’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan.

The notification came shortly after a 6 January court hearing in India about a lawsuit filed by three of the world’s largest journal publishers—Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society—which are seeking to block public access to Sci-Hub in that country because of copyright infringement. Elbakyan says Sci-Hub’s defense to the suit, filed in December 2020, will rely in part on tweets from Indian scientists who have said they support continued access to Sci-Hub because they cannot afford subscriptions to journal content.

The now-suspended Twitter account had included some tweets that linked to Sci-Hub’s website, Elbakyan wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. But the “account was used primarily for discussions around open science issues,” she wrote.

«

Well I guess that forestalls any attempt by Donald Trump to get back on Twitter by borrowing Sci-Hub’s account. Not sure meanwhile how Sci-Hub’s defence in India is going to pan out. Lots of people can’t afford (virtual) things they want because the price put on them is inflated, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the price.
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Fitbit joins Google • Fitbit Blog

James Park:

»

When Eric [Friedman] and I founded Fitbit 13 years ago, we did so with a simple, but bold idea: to make everyone in the world healthier. Since shipping the original Fitbit tracker in 2009 to now having sold more than 120 million devices in over 100 countries, this mission has never wavered. Instead, millions of you joined that mission, and made Fitbit a movement that transformed lives. In some cases, we heard from our users that we even helped save lives. Together, we’ve taken 275 trillion steps and logged over 15 billion hours of sleep.

This is just the beginning because becoming part of the Google family means we can do even more to inspire and motivate you on your journey to better health. We’ll be able to innovate faster, provide more choices, and make even better products to support your health and wellness needs. On our own, we pushed the bounds of what was possible from the wrist, pioneering step, heart rate, sleep and stress tracking. With access to Google’s incredible resources, knowledge and global platform, the possibilities are truly limitless.

«

Well, limitless apart from the restrictions that have been put on the takeover about data sharing. Is Google going to do any better with Fitbit than Fitbit did? Its hardware efforts have been unfocussed for years.
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Fix The Planet: what’s up with electric car sales? • New Scientist

Adam Vaughan:

»

The pandemic meant that many countries saw new car sales fall around the world last year. In the UK, they were down a staggering 29%. Yet the UK also saw battery electric car sales increase by 186%. In Norway, electric cars outstripped petrol and diesel car sales for the first time . Volkswagen (VW), the world’s biggest car-maker, saw global battery electric model sales rise by 197% in a year when its overall sales were down by 15%. “2020 was very important for Europe. It is the beginning of the real, irreversible EV revolution,” says Viktor Irle at EV-Volumes, which tracks electric car sales globally. As his graph below shows, this electric boom is largely a European story, but it is also a Chinese one too. The US is lagging.

“This is what a technological transformation feels like,” says Ben Lane at Next Green Car. He points out the growth isn’t just linear, but accelerating. A few factors explain why Europe is leading the charge, says Lane. One is European Union regulation around car emissions, which has been tightening for two decades. A second is the VW emissions scandal that started in 2015 and triggered a decline in diesel car sales. Meanwhile, money has poured into electric car development, and new entrants, including Tesla, have scaled up. In some markets, individual policies helped electric car sales mushroom last year. For example, it’s no coincidence that 68% of 2020’s UK electric car sales were for company cars, the same year that the government changed rules to let them pay no company car tax.

Is this a tipping point?
Yes, says Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, UK. In a paper he co-authored with Simon Sharpe at the UK Cabinet Office this week, he writes: “A small number of countries could make a large contribution to accelerating the activation of this global tipping point.”

«

Quentin Stafford-Fraser bought a Tesla – which was the best-selling brand in the UK in December. Really.
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When to trade bitcoin? When Saturn crosses Mercury, of course • Reuters

Anna Irrera and Tom Wilson:

»

Bitcoin seems so flighty, some might argue you may as well consult a crystal ball, read the runes or stare at the stars to divine the direction of the capricious cryptocurrency.

Enter Maren Altman, bitcoin investor and astrologer.

The New Yorker has been following the movements of celestial objects to predict bitcoin price fluctuations since last summer. And while many people might mock her methods, she has built up a 1 million-strong social-media following on TikTok.

Last week, the 22-year-old told her followers to watch for a price correction on Jan. 11.

Why? Saturn was going to cross Mercury.

Lo and behold, bitcoin fell as much as 21% on that day, before recovering most of its losses, slamming the brakes on a meteoric rally that saw it double from early December to a record $42,000 last week.

«

It’s the “lucky horse” scheme, of course. Send out horse tips to 10,000 people; break them into 10 groups, different tip for each. You’ll get it right with one group, so then you sell them your paid-for newsletter. Choose two-horse races, get half of them right, amp up the cost of the newsletter..

It’s as good a method as any, especially for bitcoin.
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Facebook turned on Trump after warnings that ‘business as usual isn’t working’ • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman:

»

As footage of a pro-Trump mob ransacking the US Capitol streamed from Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, Facebook’s data scientists and executives saw warning signs of further trouble.

User reports of violent content jumped more than 10-fold from the morning, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. A tracker for user reports of false news surged to nearly 40,000 reports an hour, about four times recent daily peaks. On Instagram, the company’s popular photo-sharing platform, views skyrocketed for content from authors in “zero trust” countries, reflecting potential efforts at platform manipulation by entities overseas.

Facebook’s platforms were aflame, the documents show. One Instagram presentation, circulated internally and seen by the Journal, was subtitled “Why business as usual isn’t working.”

Company leaders feared a feedback loop, according to people familiar with the matter, in which the incendiary events in Washington riled up already on-edge social-media users—potentially leading to more strife in real life.

…“Hang in there everyone,” wrote chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer in a post reviewed by the Journal, asking for patience while the company figured out how best “to allow for peaceful discussion and organizing but not calls for violence.”

“All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” responded one employee, one of many unhappy responses that together gathered hundreds of likes from colleagues. “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now out of control.”

…Mr. Zuckerberg, who has grown more involved in politics over the last four years, has been personally involved in the decisions, people familiar with the matter say. One person familiar with the discussions said the changes were already being planned but that Wednesday’s events “sped it up by 10x.”

«

Just on the headline: Facebook didn’t “turn on” Trump. It banned him.
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Ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the foreign-policy mess Trump is leaving behind • Foreign Policy

Kelly Bjorklund:

»

Bjorklund: Was it difficult to get a message through to the president? How did you navigate that when the stakes were so high?

Tillerson: His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.

Trump’s “understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited.”I had to constantly evaluate my last conversations with him—what seemed to resonate, what seemed to get across, what didn’t—and I would try different approaches with him. I used to go into meetings with a list of four to five things I needed to talk to him about, and I quickly learned that if I got to three, it was a home run, and I realized getting two that were meaningful was probably the best objective.

So I began to adjust what I went into a meeting with and what I attempted to explain and describe, and then I started taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better. If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that. Just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work.

…I think the other challenge that I came to realize early on is there were so many people who had access to his ear who were telling him things, most of which were untrue, and then he began to listen to those voices and form a view that had no basis in fact. So then you spent an inordinate amount of time working through why that’s not true, working through why that’s not factual, working through why that’s not the basis on which you want to understand this, you need to set that aside, let’s talk about what’s real. I think that was as big a challenge as anything. 

«

His thinking about the biggest problem that’s ahead – over China and Taiwan – is worth reading, and a bit chilling: would the US public have the tolerance for a war with China over a little island?
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Herd immunity by infection is not an option • Science

Devi Sridhar and Deepti Gurdasani:

»

Herd immunity is expected to arise when a virus cannot spread readily, because it encounters a population that has a level of immunity that reduces the number of individuals susceptible to infection. On page 288 of this issue, Buss et al. (1) describe the extent of the largely uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil. Their data show the impact on mortality rates of a largely unmitigated outbreak where even with an estimated 76% of the population being infected, herd immunity was not achieved. Manaus provides a cautionary example of unmitigated spread across a population, showing that herd immunity is likely not achieved even at high levels of infection and that it comes with unacceptably high costs.

Buss et al. used data on the occurrence of SARS-CoV-2–specific antibodies (seroprevalence) in blood donors, adjusted for waning antibody responses over time, to calculate an estimated attack rate for COVID-19 of 66% in June, rising to 76% in October, in Manaus. The attack rate is the proportion of at-risk people who develop infection after exposure in a period of time. This attack rate resulted in a factor of 4.5 excess mortality in 2020 relative to previous years.

The infection fatality rate was estimated to be between 0.17% and 0.28%, consistent with the population being predominantly young and at reduced risk of death from COVID-19. Manaus recorded 2642 [1193/million inhabitants (mil)] confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and 3789 (1710/mil) deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome likely to have been caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection. These figures are starkly different from the fatality rates during the same period (until 1 October) in the United Kingdom (620/mil), France (490/mil), and the United States (625/mil), and orders of magnitude higher than in Australia (36/mil), Taiwan (0.3/mil), and New Zealand (5/mil). Despite such a high proportion of the population being infected, transmission in Manaus has continued, even in the presence of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), with the effective reproduction rate (R) near 1.

«

That’s quite worrying that even with three-quarters of the population having had it that spread doesn’t stop. Fingers crossed for the vaccine to achieve it.
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Axios wants to help companies write like its reporters—for $10,000 a year, or more • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:

»

Punchy news startup Axios is betting that companies will pay big bucks to write like its reporters.

The company next month will launch AxiosHQ, a communications platform that will enable businesses to update their employees—including through internal newsletters—in Axios’s just-the-facts, bullet-point style.

The software tool, which Axios said would cost at least $10,000 a year depending on a customer’s size, is the first paid-subscription product launched by the digital-news startup. Founded in 2017, Axios mostly covers U.S. politics, media and technology, and is known for its short, exclusive stories.

Subscribers to the platform have the option to add a service that allows them to tap a team of editors—separate from Axios’s news division—for writing tips, Axios co-founder and President Roy Schwartz said. One member of that team used to help edit the presidential daily briefing for President Trump, Mr. Schwartz said. AxiosHQ also features a tool that recommends grammar and usage changes based on a database of edits from Axios staff.

The product is part of Axios Chief Executive Jim VandeHei’s desire to build a subscription business, which he stated when the company was founded. Axios, which was profitable last year, doesn’t have a paywall and currently generates most of its revenue through advertising.

«

Smart enough, though there’s honestly no special sauce to what Axios does. It’s standard newsform: two most important paragraph at the top, third paragraph is the context, and on you go. Take out the stuff they dress it with in bold (Why It Matters or The Big Picture) and it’s just like any tabloid-style story.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1463: Intel ditches its CEO, Qualcomm buys ex-Apple chip startup, Congress Covid infections show vaccine delay, and more


Apple held talks with electric vehicle maker Canoo last year – but why precisely? CC-licensed photo by Magnus Johansson on Flickr.

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

Exclusive: Apple held talks with EV startup Canoo in 2020 • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

»

Apple held meetings with California EV startup Canoo in the first half of 2020 as part of the Silicon Valley giant’s secretive effort to advance its own electric vehicle project, three people familiar with the talks have told The Verge. The two companies discussed options ranging from investment to an acquisition, according to two of the people.

Canoo’s scalable electric vehicle platform, or “skateboard,” is largely what drew Apple’s interest, the people said. The platform is different from ones developed by other startups and larger automakers because it integrates more of the car’s electronics, allowing for greater flexibility in cabin design. It also features steer-by-wire technology, which also increases design flexibility and is not yet widely adopted in the industry.

Canoo was more interested in taking on an investment from Apple, two of the people said. Ultimately, the talks fell apart. Canoo has since become a publicly traded company after merging with a blank check fund that was listed on the NASDAQ in late 2020. Apple has made at least one other acquisition in the mobility space in recent years, buying Drive.ai in 2019.

«

Canoo’s vehicles are the ugliest things, judging by the picture on the story. The bigger question is, how do you make an electric vehicle stand out? What elements can you have that others can’t completely copy?
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The bitcoin cryptocurrency dream is dead • Marker

James Surowiecki:

»

It’s easy to forget now, but Bitcoin’s promise in those early days was that it would be a new currency, one that could challenge the hegemony of so-called fiat currencies like the dollar (which are issued by governments) by being untraceable money that would allow people to conduct business cheaply and anonymously. And because Bitcoin was designed to have a fixed number of coins — it will have 21 million coins by 2140, and then no more — people could use it without worrying about inflation debasing its value. It was a kind of cyberpunk fantasy that enchanted many. As recently as 2018, Twitter CEO and Square founder Jack Dorsey said, “The world will ultimately have a single currency. I personally believe that it will be Bitcoin.” Even today, you can still find pundits who trumpet Bitcoin’s revolutionary possibilities and point to things like PayPal’s plan to offer its merchants the ability to transact in cryptocurrencies in 2021 as evidence that radical change is afoot.

And yet the reality is that Bitcoin has never really functioned as a currency. Almost from the beginning, only a small percentage of Bitcoin transactions have been for actual goods and services — and of those, many have been for illicit goods and services, like drugs and online gambling. Most Bitcoin transactions have been trades: people simply buying and selling it. The blockchain analysis company Chainalysis, for instance, found that in the first four months of 2019, just 1.3% of total transactions involved merchants. And that trend has only accelerated as the value of Bitcoin has soared.

«

As he says, it’s easy to forget that it was once touted as a currency. Where did it go wrong? Too slow and too expensive to process transactions. At some point, the fact you’d get rewarded with a bitcoin for doing the “mining” that was required for the processing distorted incentives: chasing bitcoin became the thing.

There’s more, of course. Surowiecki used to write the business column for the New Yorker (sadly missed; gone due to budget cuts, I think) and sets them out clearly.
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Intel ousts CEO Bob Swan • WSJ

Asa Fitch:

»

Intel ousted its chief executive in a surprise move that pivots the semiconductor giant closer to its engineering roots after a period of technology missteps, market-share losses and pressure from a hedge fund.

Intel on Wednesday said CEO Bob Swan would be succeeded by VMware chief Pat Gelsinger effective Feb. 15. Mr. Gelsinger, who was once Intel’s technology chief, has served as CEO of the business-software provider since 2012.

The leadership transition unfolds after Intel last year ceded the title as America’s most valuable semiconductor company to rival Nvidia and fell further behind rivals in churning out the most advanced chips. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is also considering a broader embrace of third-party chip makers rather than relying on its own factories.

“This is incredibly important strategically to what Intel is looking to accomplish and be defined more as a technology innovator and operator,” said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer at the Bahnsen Group, a wealth-management firm that owns a stake in Intel through one of its funds.

«

Pressure from the hedge fund Third Point (which owns around $1bn in Intel stock – worth a bit more now) seems to have hit home. But can a new CEO actually improve their technology processes?
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Qualcomm to acquire NUVIA: a CPU magnitude shift • Anandtech

Andrei Frumusanu:

»

Qualcomm has announced they will be acquiring NUVIA for $1.4bn – acquiring the start-up company consisting of industry veterans which originally were behind the creation of Apple’s high-performance CPU cores. The transaction has important ramifications for Qualcomm’s future in high-performance computing both in mobile, as well as laptop segment, with a possible re-entry into the server market.

NUVIA was originally founded in February 2019 and coming out of stealth-mode in November of that year. The start-up was founded by industry veterans Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati, having extensive industry experience at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD.

Gerard Williams III in particular was the chief architect for over a decade at Apple, having been the lead architect on all of Apple’s CPU designs up to the Lightning core in the A13 – with the newer Apple A14 and Apple M1 Firestorm cores possibly also having been in the pipeline under his direction.

NUVIA had been able to recruit a lot of top industry talent from various CPU design teams across the industry, and had planned to enter the high-performance computing and enterprise market with a new server SoC with a new CPU core dubbed “Phoenix”.

NUVIA particularly had made aggressive claims about how their design would be able to significantly outperform the competition both in raw performance and power efficiency once it came to market. Usually such claims are to be taken with scepticism. However due to the members of the design team and talent having proven themselves in the form of Apple’s very successful CPU microarchitectures, there’s a lot more weight and credibility to them compared to other start-ups.

«

That’s quite a turn-up for the books, and might give Qualcomm a chance to catch up with Apple. So what’s happening at Apple’s chip design team?
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Samsung Galaxy S21 facing challenges ahead of intensifying competition and uncertain 2021 • Counterpoint Research

»

Counterpoint Research’s Model Level Quarterly Smartphone Forecast shows the Galaxy S21 performing slightly better than last year’s Galaxy S20, but falling significantly short of the Galaxy S10. The research firm estimates the Galaxy S21 will ship almost 30% fewer units over four quarters than 2019’s Galaxy S10.

Several factors have led to this year’s more muted forecasts including extended replacement cycles, uncertainty around pricing, a more crowded competitive environment and proximity to the iPhone 12 launch.


Source: Counterpoint Research. *Includes forecasted quarters.

Research Analyst Sujeong Lim commented, “Galaxy launch dates over the past two years have crept closer to the iPhone, but prices have not. Last year’s delay from Apple coupled with an accelerated launch from Samsung puts the Galaxy S21 within 12 weeks of the iPhone 12 launch – this is not ideal from a price comparison standpoint.”

Better specifications does put the Galaxy S21 at a higher price point, but Ms. Lim believes Samsung is likely feeling pressure to keep prices as low as possible. “The iPhone 12 is hitting a massive sweet spot with its $749 entry price. Furthermore, we are now in mid-winter, with the impact of COVID-19 only intensifying across key markets. Pricing will need to improve from S20 levels for Samsung to avoid disappointment.”

«

Remember when smartphone launches were A Thing?
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Parler users’ video GPS data shows involvement in Capitol attack • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehorotra:

»

At least several users of the far-right social network Parler appear to be among the horde of rioters that managed to penetrate deep inside the US Capitol building and into areas normally restricted to the public, according to GPS metadata linked to videos posted to the platform the day of the insurrection in Washington.

The data, obtained by a computer hacker through legal means ahead of Parler’s shutdown on Monday, offers a bird’s eye view of its users swarming the Capitol grounds after receiving encouragement from President Trump — and during a violent breach that sent lawmakers and Capitol Hill visitors scrambling amid gunshots and calls for their death. GPS coordinates taken from 618 Parler videos analyzed by Gizmodo has already been sought after by FBI as part of a sweeping nationwide search for potential suspects, at least 20 of whom are already in custody.

«

“At least several” is horribly clumsy – wouldn’t “several” do? What’s emerging is how narrowly some sort of real disaster was avoided. There’s the black officer who appeared to be running scared of the mob, but was instead cleverly leading them away from the just-closed Senate chamber. There’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying she didn’t want to shelter with some of the Republicans because they’re QAnon nuts who might have given away her location. And there’s the congresswoman who found the panic buttons in her room all mysteriously gone.
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Congress coronavirus cases show one vaccine dose might not prevent infection • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino:

»

Three members of Congress contracted the coronavirus after sheltering in a crowded room as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, testing positive despite having been vaccinated against the virus.

Those positive tests do not mean the vaccines were faulty, experts said, noting that immune protection takes more than a week to kick in. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are available to Americans require two doses for full protection; a single dose is not as effective as both.

“Early protection against covid-19 may occur from about 12 days after dose one,” said Naor Bar-Zeev, an infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. People “should not really consider themselves protected really until after a week or two following dose two.”

…Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective after two doses, according to the companies. Pfizer’s vaccine consists of two doses, given three weeks apart and Moderna’s contains two doses given 28 days apart.

Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tested positive this week. All three of the lawmakers have said they received the first dose of coronavirus vaccine in the days before the riot.

«

Quite a dramatic way to demonstrate that immunity takes some time to develop. If the mob doesn’t kill you, the idiots not using masks and social distancing will.
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Extremists move to secret online channels to plan for Inauguration Day in D.C. • NBC News

Anna Schechter:

»

Right-wing extremists are using channels on the encrypted communication app Telegram to call for violence against government officials on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, with some extremists sharing knowledge of how to make, conceal and use homemade guns and bombs.

The messages are being posted in Telegram chatrooms where white supremacist content has been freely shared for months, but chatter on the channels has increased since extremists have been forced off other platforms in the wake of the siege of the US Capitol last week by pro-Trump rioters.

Telegram is a Dubai-based messaging service that does little moderation of its content and has a sizable international user base, particularly in eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In the days since the Capitol attack, for example, an Army field manual and exhortations to “shoot politicians” and “encourage armed struggle” have been posted in a Telegram channel that uses “fascist” in its name.

Chris Sampson, chief of research at the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideologies, a defense research institute, said his group is focused on and concerned about users of the channel and has alerted the FBI about it. (The institute is run by Malcolm Nance, an NBC News terrorism analyst.)

«

Maybe it was better when they were all visible on Parler.
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Telegram hits 500 million users after WhatsApp backlash • Business Insider

Natasha Dailey:

»

Messaging app Telegram added more than 25 million new users in the last three days, following backlash to a new privacy policy at competitor WhatsApp.

With the surge in new additions, Telegram announced it hit a milestone, surpassing 500 million active users.

The user boost comes after competitor WhatsApp faced widespread backlash following a new privacy policy, in which users will have to let Facebook and its subsidiaries collect WhatsApp data, like phone numbers and locations, before February 8 or lose access to the app. The company has since clarified the change doesn’t affect the privacy of messages with friends and family.

“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook,” WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said on Twitter. “It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”

«

Your update is clear as mud, Mister Cathcart. Hence people heading to Telegram.
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A 25-year-old bet comes due: has tech destroyed society? • WIRED

Steven Levy:

»

The visit [in 1995] was all business, [author of Luddite-admiring ‘Rebels Against the Future’, Kirkpatrick] Sale recalls. “No eats, no coffee, no particular camaraderie,” he says. Sale had prepped for the interview by reading a few issues of WIRED—he’d never heard of it before [Wired editor Kevin] Kelly contacted him—and he expected a tough interview. He later described it as downright “hostile, no pretense of objective journalism.” (Kelly later called it adversarial, “because he was an adversary, and he probably viewed me the same way.”) They argued about the Amish, whether printing presses denuded forests, and the impact of technology on work. Sale believed it stole decent labor from people. Kelly replied that technology helped us make new things we couldn’t make any other way. “I regard that as trivial,” Sale said.

Sale believed society was on the verge of collapse. That wasn’t entirely bad, he argued. He hoped the few surviving humans would band together in small, tribal-style clusters. They wouldn’t be just off the grid. There would be no grid. Which was dandy, as far as Sale was concerned.

“History is full of civilizations that have collapsed, followed by people who have had other ways of living,” Sale said. “My optimism is based on the certainty that civilization will collapse.”

That was the opening Kelly had been waiting for. In the final pages of his Luddite book, Sale had predicted society would collapse “within not more than a few decades.” Kelly, who saw technology as an enriching force, believed the opposite—that society would flourish. Baiting his trap, Kelly asked just when Sale thought this might happen.

Sale was a bit taken aback—he’d never put a date on it. Finally, he blurted out 2020. It seemed like a good round number.

«

Kelly then pinned him down on precisely how you’d know society had collapsed. After all, opinions might differ. It’s an entertaining piece. And does raise the question: how can you be sure that society hasn’t actually collapsed, and we’re just going through the motions?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1462: the bitcoin millionaires with no money, the “clean” CES, the trouble with scotch eggs, Uganda bans social media, and more


The Chinese deny Uighurs are imprisoned; one person’s experience demonstrates that’s a lie. CC-licensed photo by futureatlas.com 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. Giri/haji. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs • The Guardian

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, as told to Rozenn Morgat:

»

How even to begin the story of what I went through in Xinjiang? How to tell my loved ones that I lived at the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, because of the status their uniforms gave them, could do as they wished with us, our bodies and souls? Of men and women whose brains had been thoroughly washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously enforcing orders, petty bureaucrats working under a system in which those who do not denounce others are themselves denounced, and those who do not punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we were enemies to be beaten down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.

In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.

«

This is awful. And happening to people now.
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Lost passwords lock millionaires out of their bitcoin fortunes • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper:

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Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million.

The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin. While the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply on Monday, it is still up more than 50% from just a month ago, when it passed its previous all-time high of around $20,000.

The problem is that Mr. Thomas years ago lost the paper where he wrote down the password for his IronKey, which gives users 10 guesses before it seizes up and encrypts its contents forever. He has since tried eight of his most commonly used password formulations — to no avail.

“I would just lay in bed and think about it,” Mr. Thomas said. “Then I would go to the computer with some new strategy, and it wouldn’t work, and I would be desperate again.”

…as Bitcoin’s value has soared and fallen and he could not get his hands on the money, Mr. Thomas has soured on the idea that people should be their own bank and hold their own money.

“This whole idea of being your own bank — let me put it this way: Do you make your own shoes?” he said. “The reason we have banks is that we don’t want to deal with all those things that banks do.”

«

Or you can leave it to the exchanges, which of course get hacked. About 20% of bitcoin mined so far is reckoned to be lost.
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CES 2021: ‘clean tech’ gadgets dominate this year’s show • WIRED

Boone Ashworth:

»

IN THE BEST of times, CES is disgusting. Previous to this year, when CES was moved online because of an increasingly deadly pandemic, the tentpole event for the consumer technology industry was notorious for being a cesspool of germs. Hundreds of thousands of attendees would congregate in Las Vegas every January to crowd together, cough into the air, and unwittingly smear their excretions across touchscreens, rotating TVs, and robot bartenders.

“We talk about CES as a petri dish,” says Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst and founder of the market research firm The Heart of Tech. “You touch a lot of stuff all the time. Catching the flu at CES is something we always do, every year.”

But this year’s virtual event will be the cleanest of them all, and not just because there aren’t any crowds to sneeze on. With the world still gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the first-ever online CES has become a place for companies to show off new tech meant to make the world more sanitary.

«

Certainly is true that those who attended CES would generally come home with a cold that some other attendees had generously brought to share around. Of course they’ve all jumped on the “disinfectant” bandwagon – I guess it makes a change from tablets, or smart home speakers, or fitness bands, or some other new hotness – though I do wonder whether that will still be a thing people want as the year goes on.
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Inside the Google-Facebook ad deal at the heart of a price-fixing lawsuit • WSJ

Ryan Tracy and Jeff Horwitz:

»

Crucial to the backdrop of the Google-Facebook deal was the advertising industry’s movement toward an ad-sales method called header bidding.

Header bidding helped website publishers circumvent Google’s exchange for buying and selling ads across the web. The exchange auctions ad space to the highest bidder during the split second it takes a webpage to load.

Header bidding allowed the publishers to directly solicit bids from multiple ad exchanges at once, leading to more favorable prices for publishers. By 2016, about 70% of major publishers used the tool, according to the states’ lawsuit. Google worried a big rival might embrace header bidding, such as the Facebook Audience Network ad service, or FAN, cracking Google’s profitable monopoly over ad tools, the states allege. The Facebook service said it paid publishers $1.5bn in 2018, the last time it provided such details on its financial payouts.

“Need to fight off the existential threat posed by header bidding and FAN,” Google advertising executive Chris LaSala wrote in an internal document outlining 2017 priorities, according to the draft complaint.

In March 2017, Facebook publicly endorsed header bidding. Google approached Facebook and in September 2018 reached the digital advertising agreement, the states allege. The draft lawsuit says Google code-named it “Jedi Blue.” In December 2018, Facebook announced it was joining an advertising program, “Open Bidding,” that Google offers as an alternative to header bidding.

«

Lots of detail, specifically from the full lawsuit. But adtech is confusing as hell if you’re not steeped in it.
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Scott Atlas, controversial former Trump adviser, deletes Twitter account • Stat News

Matthew Herper and Lev Facher:

»

Scott Atlas, the radiologist who served for much of 2020 as President Trump’s most controversial coronavirus adviser, deleted his Twitter account this week, he confirmed to STAT, apparently in response to the social media site’s removal of many accounts following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“In my view, Twitter has become a destructive place that mainly inflames extreme thinking and disseminates distortions, rather than elucidating factual information and respectful, civilized discussion,” Atlas said in an email.

Atlas deleted his account amid Twitter’s purge of users it says spread misinformation following the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

…On Nov. 15, Atlas used his Twitter account to encourage a citizen uprising in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had imposed a new set of Covid-19 restrictions, dubbed a “lockdown,” in light of a wave of new cases there.

“The only way this stops is if people rise up,” he wrote. “You get what you accept.”

His remarks drew instant criticism for appearing to incite violence, though he later argued he had only advocated that “people peacefully protest.”

«

Really not going to miss him and his lack of expertise and useful knowledge. The Augean stables are gradually being cleaned.

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Stop the Scotch Egging and focus on the big picture • CapX

John Ashmore:

»

Back in the autumn barrister John McMillan outlined on these pages just how preposterously inconsistent the rules are, and how difficult it is to stay onside. But it was his overriding argument, that the law is a blunt, unhelpful tool for changing behaviour in a crisis, that we ought to keep in mind.

There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship here between journalists, social media rabble-rousers and politicians: the former know that clicky stories and tweets will reel in the punters, the latter that they can waste time on case of individual rule-breaking, rather than explaining why it took over nine months to demand travellers have a negative Covid test before entering the country, or why quarantine was barely enforced, or why our public health messaging still focuses on hand-washing when we should be banging on relentlessly about ventilation and aerosol transmission.

The scotch egg affair is a good example of this, insofar as we should have been debating the merits of gathering inside at all, rather than splitting hairs over precisely what people would be eating while they were spending hours sitting down near people from other households.

«

Hence “Scotch Egging”: arguing about the wrong thing. Now entering the lexicon.
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Uganda bans social media ahead of presidential election • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

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Uganda banned social media and beefed up security in the capital on Tuesday, two days ahead of a presidential election pitting Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, against opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, a popular singer.

Campaigning ahead of the vote has been marred by brutal crackdowns on opposition rallies that have left scores dead and the repeated intimidation and arrest of some opposition candidates, their supporters and campaign staff.

Videos posted on social media on Tuesday showed a convoy of armoured military vehicles heading towards Kampala and then moving slowly through various streets in the heart of the capital, which typically votes against Museveni.

In a television address on Tuesday evening, the 76-year-old leader who took power in 1986, said he had met with the security forces and they were ready to defend any Ugandans worried about coming out to vote because of intimidation by the opposition.

…Museveni apologised for the inconvenience caused by the ban on social media and messaging apps but he said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts which backed his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

“If you want to take sides against the NRM, then that group should not operate in Uganda,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”

«

That phrasing has a familiar ring.
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An absurdly basic bug let anyone grab all of Parler’s data • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

»

By Monday, rumors were circulating on Reddit and across social media that the mass disemboweling of Parler’s data had been carried out by exploiting a security vulnerability in the site’s two-factor authentication that allowed hackers to create “millions of accounts” with administrator privileges. The truth was far simpler: Parler lacked the most basic security measures that would have prevented the automated scraping of the site’s data. It even ordered its posts by number in the site’s URLs, so that anyone could have easily, programmatically downloaded the site’s millions of posts.

Parler’s cardinal security sin is known as an insecure direct object reference, says Kenneth White, codirector of the Open Crypto Audit Project, who looked at the code of the download tool @donk_enby posted online. An IDOR occurs when a hacker can simply guess the pattern an application uses to refer to its stored data. In this case, the posts on Parler were simply listed in chronological order: Increase a value in a Parler post url by one, and you’d get the next post that appeared on the site. Parler also doesn’t require authentication to view public posts and doesn’t use any sort of “rate limiting” that would cut off anyone accessing too many posts too quickly. Together with the IDOR issue, that meant that any hacker could write a simple script to reach out to Parler’s web server and enumerate and download every message, photo, and video in the order they were posted.

“It’s just a straight sequence, which is mind-numbing to me,” says White. “This is like a Computer Science 101 bad homework assignment, the kind of stuff that you would do when you’re first learning how web servers work. I wouldn’t even call it a rookie mistake because, as a professional, you would never write something like this.”

«

Honestly, it was so insecure that it’s astonishing this hadn’t been done before. I guess it wasn’t considered relevant enough to go after until recently when Twitter began getting serious about killing QAnon and other accounts. If they were operating in Europe, they’d be getting dunked under GDPR.
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Stripped of Twitter, Trump faces a new challenge: how to command attention • The New York Times

Maggie Haberman:

»

while his presidency has often been compared to a reality television show, Mr. Trump has personally moved away from relying first and foremost on the medium that built him into the celebrity he was before running for office and propelled him to the White House.

…Yet by not using the tools available to a president, including public appearances or interviews for most of the past two months, Mr. Trump has in some ways chosen to muzzle himself.

Over the years of his presidency, as controversies and investigations of his conduct began to grow, television became a less reliable safe space. Broadcast networks, pressured to be more aggressive in their approach to him and his aides, asked tougher questions. With the exception of Fox News, cable networks that had rushed to put him on air throughout 2016 and the early stages of his presidency clamped down, cutting back on broadcasting his live appearances in particular.

And his adventures in the White House briefing room generally did not go well and revealed the limits of his grasp of policy or current events. One Trump adviser was blunt, saying that the president did not like most aspects of his job, and that included being asked questions for which he did not know the answers.

…Twitter became a stage he could manage more tightly.

It was telling that throughout his time in office, Mr. Trump chose as his primary Twitter channel his @realdonaldtrump account and not his official @Potus account. He understood the power of building his personal brand and keeping it separate from his official duties as president. Twitter gave him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.

He would scroll his own Twitter feed, looking at the replies for new topics to throw out. He studied the Twitter trending lists as signals of where the discourse was headed.

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets. The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

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Twitter without Trump is a lot quieter, I feel.
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Yes, it was a coup. Here’s why • POLITICO

Fiona Hill was deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Oh, which president? Er.. Trump:

»

Trump’s goal was to keep himself in power, and his actions were taken over a period of months and in slow motion.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coup attempt. Trump disguised what he was doing by operating in plain sight, talking openly about his intent. He normalized his actions so people would accept them. I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for three decades, and I know the signs of a coup when I see them.
Technically, what Trump attempted is what’s known as a “self-coup” and Trump isn’t the first leader to try it. Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the first Napoleon) pulled one off in France in December 1851 to stay in power beyond his term. Then he declared himself Emperor, Napoleon III. More recently, Nicolas Maduro perpetrated a self-coup in Venezuela after losing the 2017 elections.

The storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode. Trump declared “election fraud” immediately on November 4 even while the votes were still being counted. He sought to recount and rerun the November 2020 presidential election so that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, was the winner. In Turkey, in 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully did the same thing; he had called elections to strengthen his presidency, but his party lost its majority in the parliament. He challenged the results in the courts, marginalized the opposition, and forced what he blatantly called a “re-run election.” He tried again in the Istanbul mayoral election in 2019 but was thwarted.

«

The best comment I’ve seen on “was it a coup, though?” is this tweet. Which reads “It’s only a coup if it comes from the Coup D’état region of France. Otherwise it’s just sparkling white nationalism.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1461: India’s digital goldrush, Sony gets drone-y, Parler hacked, Parler sues Amazon, why Twitter was right to zap Trump, and more


These empty shelves were caused by panic buying, but Brexit is causing them too now. CC-licensed photo by Sheep”R”Us 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. Uninserrectionable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK supermarkets short of fruit and veg amid Brexit and Covid chaos • Daily Mail Online

Sean Poulter:

»

Gaps are appearing on supermarket fruit and veg shelves amid warnings that supplies are being squeezed by Brexit red tape at ports and staff shortages at food producers due to Covid.

Lettuce, cauliflower packs, oranges, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are listed as ‘out of stock’ in some areas on Tesco’s website while prepared carrots, cauliflower and broccoli were among the fruit and veg listed as being unavailable on Ocado’s.

The problem at food production plants of staff going sick or needing to shield or self-isolate is an issue for the entire food industry, particularly chicken and red meat processors.

Meanwhile, food industry experts and the Cabinet minister with responsibility for Brexit, Michael Gove, have warned that problems at the ports are likely to escalate from today as the number of trucks going through Dover and the Channel Tunnel rises to normal levels after a New Year lull as the French step up enforcement of post-Brexit paperwork.

Freight expert John Shirley said: ‘The chaos has begun. Organising even the simplest load to Europe has become an almost impossible task due to the mountain of red tape brought in on January 1.’

«

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of our actions. This was predicted and predictable, but I highlight it here because this is just the first wave – these are the FMCGs, fast-moving consumer goods, where supply chains are most immediately vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be other industries which will be affected in spotty, unpredictable ways, because that’s the complexity of the supply chains we rely on now: they’re essentially chaotically, and any pertubation to them can throw things wildly off. This is just the start.
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Inside India’s digital gold rush • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:

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n early August, Peter Johnson watched as the price of gold soared to more than $2,000 an ounce, the highest it had been in more than a decade. He was ecstatic: The sharp increase meant his wife’s jewelry was now worth almost twice as much as when he pawned it last year. Johnson, a 43-year-old father living in southern India, has never earned enough to support his family of four. For the past 15 years, pawning gold heirlooms has kept him afloat, allowing him to do everything from pay rent to put his children through school. Whenever he needed cash, Johnson would simply find a bank or pawnbroker. “You name a place, I would have gone there,” he said. 

But in the middle of a global pandemic — when visiting pawnshops posed a health risk — Johnson instead turned Rupeek. The startup, which raised $60 million from investors earlier this year, promises gold loans delivered right to your doorstep. Rupeek is part of a wave of Indian companies that are digitizing the centuries-old practice of borrowing against gold. The trend could ultimately help millions of unbanked Indians enter the formal credit market, jump-starting economic growth. And during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent financial downturn, business is booming.

«

India has been quite inventive for centuries in the use of money transfer without using actual goods or money through the hawala system – effectively, promissory notes carried from one place to another which evade exchange regulations (back when those were a thing).
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This is Sony’s Airpeak drone • The Verge

Chaim Gertenberg:

»

Sony is getting into the drone business, with the company showing off a brief first look at its new Airpeak drone at CES 2021. The new drone is said to be the smallest drone capable of carrying an Alpha camera and is designed for video content creation and professional photography.

There are very few concrete details about the new drone system right now, although Sony mentioned that it’s been exploring using the drones to film landscape and city shots. It showcased the Airpeak working as a chase camera for footage of its Vision-S concept car from last CES. The model shown off at CES 2021 is a quadcopter design and features two landing gear extensions that retract upward during flight (so as not to spoil your footage).

While Sony hasn’t dabbled in drones before, its cameras are among the best in the industry — so much so that market leader DJI already offers camera mounts for Sony Alpha products. And the idea of Sony bringing that expertise to bear with bespoke drone-focused products is certainly an intriguing one.

«

I guess drones was the one space where Sony might as well try to get its cameras used. But it’s a market that has burnt a lot of money; only DJI has managed to hang in there. Focussing on the pro side rather than consumers is wise. Small market but high margin.
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70TB of Parler users’ data leaked by security researchers • CyberNews

Vilius Petkauskas:

»

Parler, a social network used to plan the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week, has been hit by a massive data scrape. Security researchers collected swaths of user data before the network went dark Monday morning after Amazon, Google, and Apple booted the platform. 

The scrape includes user profile data, user information, and which users had administration rights for specific groups within the social network. Twitter user @donk_enby, who first announced about the scrape, claims that over a million video URLs, some deleted and private, were taken. 

“These are original, unprocessed, raw files as uploaded to Parler with all associated metadata,” claims one of the authors. 

Security researchers claim that the scrapped posts are linked to accounts that posted them, and some of the video and image data have geolocation information. That is said also to include data from Parler’s “Verified Citizens,” users of the network who verified their identity by uploading photographs of government-issued IDs, such as a driver’s license. 

The data might prove valuable to law enforcement since many who participated in the riots deleted their posts and videos afterward. The data scrape includes deleted posts, meaning that Parler stored user data after users deleted it.

«

Based on WordPress code, Parler was vulnerable to an exploit in a plugin; this was used to create a ton of administrator accounts which were able to access the databases. A historical artefact of sorts.
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Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election • CNN

Brian Fung:

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Facebook will begin removing all content that mentions the phrase “stop the steal,” a full 69 days after Election Day.

The social media giant said in a blog post that it will ramp up enforcement against the phrase because it was used by those who participated in last week’s riots at the US Capitol.

“With continued attempts to organize events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence, and use of the term by those involved in Wednesday’s violence in DC, we’re taking this additional step in the lead up to the inauguration,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of integrity, wrote in a post about the company’s preparation for Inauguration Day.

On Election Day, the slogan “stop the steal” quickly became a rallying cry among President Donald Trump’s supporters, many of whom were egged on by Trump himself and his allies with false claims of election fraud. As a hashtag, its origins date back years, according to Facebook’s CrowdTangle analysis tool, but it became wildly popular in recent months as a gathering place for conspiracy theories about the election outcome.

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Not sure what happened to “move fast and break things”. There’s not a lot of moving fast going on around there – and people doing idle searches were still finding huge Groups with the same phrase, bringing into question Facebook’s capability to do anything effectively.
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Not easy, not unreasonable, not censorship: the decision to ban Trump from Twitter • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

they’re making the rules up as they go along, but the problem with this framing is that it assumes that there are some magical rules you can put in place and then objectively apply them always. That’s never ever been the case. The problem with so much of the content moderation debate is that all sides assume these things. They assume that it’s easy to set up rules and easy to enforce them. Neither is true. Radiolab did a great episode a few years ago, detailing the process by which Facebook made and changed its rules. And it highlights some really important things including that almost every case is different, that it’s tough to apply rules to every case, and that context is always changing. And that also means the rules must always keep changing.

A few years back, we took a room full of content moderation experts and asked them to make content moderation decisions on eight cases — none of which I’d argue are anywhere near as difficult as deciding what to do with the President of the United States. And we couldn’t get these experts to agree on anything. On every case, we had at least one person choose each of the four options we gave them, and to defend that position. The platforms have rules because it gives them a framework to think about things, and those rules are useful in identifying both principles for moderation and some bright lines.
But every case is different.

And no matter what you think of Trump, his case was different.

«

You may think you’ve read all the posts about this, but this is the one to read if you’ve had enough of them.
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Parler sues Amazon after tech giant kicks site off its servers • WSJ

Keach Hagey:

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In a complaint filed Monday in Seattle federal court, Parler alleged that Amazon Web Services kicked the company off its cloud servers for political and anti-competitive reasons. The conservative social network founded in 2018 exploded in popularity among supporters of President Trump after the November U.S. election.

“AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus. It is also apparently designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter, ” according to the complaint, which also accused Amazon of breaching a contract between the parties.

Amazon said Saturday that it would cut off Parler because it wasn’t confident in its ability to sufficiently police content on its platform that incites violence. The company said while it would no longer provide web services to Parler after Sunday at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time, it would preserve the platform’s data and help it migrate to different servers.

In its complaint, Parler also accused Amazon of applying a double standard than with other platforms, noting that Twitter had recently signed a multi-year web-hosting deal with the company.

An AWS spokesman said the claims had no merit and it respected Parler’s right to determine what content it allows.

“However, it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service,” the AWS spokesman said.

«

The complaint is pretty much a grumble about Twitter having a contract and Parler not having one. Though it does say that its code is written for AWS, and “To have to switch to a different service provider would require rewriting that code, meaning Parler will be offline for a financially devastating period.” See also Dave Troy, who thinks Parler is simply going to vanish.
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Global PC market ends 2020 on a high with 25% growth in Q4 • Canalys Newsroom

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Ongoing strong demand in the holiday season led to a third consecutive quarter of sequential growth, with shipments in Q4 up 13% sequentially over what was a stellar performance in Q3. On the back of this remarkable recovery after a supply-constrained Q1, total PC shipments in 2020 grew 11% to reach 297.0 million units.

This represents the highest full-year growth since 2010 and the highest shipment volume since 2014. Worldwide PC market growth in 2020 was singlehandedly driven by notebooks and mobile workstations. Shipments of these devices increased 44% from 2019 to reach 235.1 million units. Conversely, desktop and desktop workstation shipments fell 20% from last year to reach 61.9 million units in 2020.

«

Not surprising, of course: everyone’s still Out Of Office. Apple introduced its M1 models and, according to Canalys (though of course we don’t have official figures any more) saw a 45% increase in sales in Q4 compared to the year before. That gave it an 8% share – higher than many, many years. Lenovo, HP and Dell still dominate, of course, and all grew.
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“An Extremely Online Riot” • BIG by Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller on the death of Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot as she tried to climb through a broken window in the Capitol towards lawmakers (and who is profiled in this NYT article):

»

There’s no moral or practical equivalence between these pro-Trump rioters and those who protested against police brutality; anger against racism in America is grounded and legitimate, while QAnon paranoia is not. And the pro-Trump protesters are not a group of sad sack victims taking out legitimate grievances by attempting to attack the counting of electoral votes. What Babbitt did was obviously wrong, and she did not have to do it. Most in her situation do not.

But still, environments nudge us in different directions. And Babbitt was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.

I don’t know that a different set of life experiences would have led Babbitt to a different place, but it’s not hard to see why someone like this would start to imagine a giant secret conspiracy was controlling her life. It’s more likely that people will distrust political institutions if those political institutions have repeatedly failed them. After all, Babbitt didn’t send herself to war; George W. Bush, as much as he might condemn her actions at the Capitol, did that.

Again, I’m not justifying, but I am trying to understand, because anti-democratic rage, which we tend to center around specific political leaders, is deep-rooted.

«

America’s advantage is it’s so big that companies can really scale. America’s disadvantage is it’s so big that when companies scale, they crush the little people. Babbitt’s death was a stupid waste: she clearly didn’t know she was in danger. It was her final bad decision.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1460: what the Trump ban means, the madness of the radicalised, why vaccination doesn’t prevent onward infection, and more


Mornings (without Trump on Twitter) are arriving more quickly than before. CC-licensed photo by Ivan on Flickr.

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

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

Amazon is suspending Parler from Amazon Web Services • Buzzfeed News

John Paczkowski and Ryan Mac:

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Amazon notified Parler that it would be cutting off the social network favored by conservatives and extremists from its cloud hosting service Amazon Web Services, according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. The suspension, which will go into effect on Sunday just before midnight, means that Parler will be unable to operate and will go offline unless it can find another hosting service.

People on Parler used the social network to stoke fear, spread hate, and coordinate the insurrection at the Capitol building on Wednesday. The app has recently been overrun with death threats, celebrations of violence, and posts encouraging “Patriots” to march on Washington, DC, with weapons on Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

In an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, an AWS Trust and Safety team told Parler Chief Policy Officer Amy Peikoff that the calls for violence propagating across the social network violated its terms of service. Amazon said it was unconvinced that the service’s plan to use volunteers to moderate calls for violence and hate speech would be effective.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” the email reads. “It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service.”

«

Well, there’s a lot to round up here. Of course Trump got permanently booted off Twitter. Here’s a list of where he’s banned. And here’s a list explaining how people are misinterpreting the words “free speech” about the ban. (Plenty of other politicians have been ejected, just not American presidents.) The funniest one is “this is communism!!” where it’s actually capitalism red in tooth and claw. Also, and possibly not on the list, Stripe on Sunday said it would stop processing payments on Trump’s website.

And, since we’re here, here’s a long thread on how AWS got started: because it shifted from Sun servers to much cheaper Linux ones.
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The American abyss • New York Times

Timothy Snyder is a historian of fascism:

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Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth. His use of the term “fake news” echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (“lying press”); like the Nazis, he referred to reporters as “enemies of the people.” Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating; the financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones. The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter.

Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

…In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures.

«

A terrific essay with the sweep both of history and the present. Though it’s chilling too how close America came, once more, to fascism. (The last time was before the Second World War, when “America First” initially raised its ugly head. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” – the book, not the TV series – shows the boiling-frog way it would have happened then.)
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A truth reckoning: why we’re holding those who lied for Trump accountable • Forbes

Randall Lane is editor of Forbes Magazine and its chief content officer:

»

Trump’s lawyers lie gleefully to the press and public, but those lies, magically, almost never made it into briefs and arguments – contempt, perjury and disbarment keep the professional standards high.

So what’s the parallel in the dark arts of communication? Simple: Don’t let the chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty. Press secretaries like Joe Lockhart, Ari Fleischer and Jay Carney, who left the White House with their reputations in various stages of intact, made millions taking their skills — and credibility — to corporate America. Trump’s liars don’t merit that same golden parachute. Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.

[It’s not political.] …It’s just a realization that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, in a thriving democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Our national reset starts there.

«

Good. Though I would point out that the reputation of Fleischer (George W Bush’s press secretary) is hardly solid gold. Carney (ditto for Obama) is accused of lies too, though since many of the accusations revolve around (sigh) Benghazi, on which the GOP hasn’t had a good-faith argument literally ever, that’s harder to judge. To be a presidential press secretary is to bend the truth in some peoples’ view. But the Trump team absolutely lied, and deserve to be shunned. They reaped, and now they can sow.
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The silence of the damned • NY Mag

Olivia Nuzzi:

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During his early days on Twitter, in 2011, Trump relied on an aide to tweet for him. Justin McConney, a former Trump Organization employee, once told me how he’d print out Trump’s mentions to show him in analog what was happening online, and Trump would manually select what to respond to. But by 2012, when he replaced the flip phone with an Android, Trump began tweeting himself.

Even the tweets that seemed like they had to have been sent in a fit of rage with no forethought whatsoever sometimes were actually the result of careful planning and workshopping with advisers. For instance, when Trump accused Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough of murdering his constituent services director while serving in Congress, a senior member of the White House staff told me they were upset with the president not over what he said, but that he’d fucked up the delivery. The version of the tweet he’d worked on with staff had been much funnier, according to the staffer.

Upon Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Trump’s account, and other social-media platforms doing the same, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the new uselessness of his phone. “cannot even imagine how mad he is rn [right now],” joked the New York Times’ Mike Isaac, “my mans phone is a paperweight.”

And it’s kind of true. He might use it to call into Fox & Friends, or to otherwise contact the outside world from within the bunker of the White House, sure…

…When his daughter Ivanka posted a selfie with him last week, on the way to the Georgia rally where he campaigned for two Republican candidates who then lost, she smiled and looked at the camera. Trump, in the background, stared down at his phone, his face set aglow from the screen.

«

The idea that Trump and staff workshopped a tweet insinuating that Scarborough murdered someone is just debased. Nobody thought to say “is this really appropriate to this office?” Both petty and scummy. A companion piece: “How @realDonaldTrump changed politics – and America” at Politico.
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What Happened? • kieranhealy.org

Kieran Healy with his idea about what people planned, and didn’t plan, that day last week:

»

In summary, the theory is that these are not the brightest guys, and things got out of hand. Trump and the White House et al knew there were genuinely dangerous people in their MAGA/Q mob. The MAGA people they were in communication with (as per Acosta’s tweet) were likely more on the leading edge of the rank and file, rather than the true loons. They thought things would go as protests outside the Capitol usually go, and as their rallies usually go. The crowd would serve as a loud prop. The really dangerous people would be diluted by the rank and file and kept out by the Capitol Police in any case. There would be a great deal of immediate drama and a great deal immediately at stake. Trump loves his crowd, but he has no tolerance at all for the individuals who make it up. As soon as they got inside the building and resolved once more into identifiable individuals, Trump was reportedly and unsurprisingly grossed out by all the “low class” stuff he was seeing. What he envisioned, I think, was a mass of adoring supporters at the very gates of the Capitol, expressing their love and loyalty for him, and together, they would make Congress capitulate to their will.

This is all just speculation on my part. There are many other plausible scenarios. People who know much more about American history than me have argued that some subset of people in the Administration and the GOP really did want protestors to get inside the Senate chamber and gum up the works such that an 1877-style “compromise” would be the wise way for cooler heads to prevail. There’s a lot to be said for this view.

…After the fact, the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events.

«

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The journey of Ashli Babbitt • bellingcat

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Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, was shot and killed by Capitol Police while attempting to enter the Speaker’s Lobby on the second floor of the US Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. Babbitt was part of a thousands-strong mob that stormed the building after the conclusion of the #StopTheSteal rally at the Washington Monument earlier in the day.

At that event, President Donald Trump had encouraged rally goers to head to the Capitol to protest the certification of the 2020 presidential election. His comments came after weeks of false and inflammatory statements to the effect that he had won the election, and that his enemies had rigged it against him.

Babbitt’s shooting was captured on several videos that were recorded and shared by people in the crowd. Her own social media history also reveals her movements on the morning and afternoon of January 6. But looking back further shows an ideological journey that saw her travel from stating she had backed President Barack Obama to engaging in damaging right-wing conspiracy theories.

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Babbitt’s Twitter account was only set up in October 2016, ie just before the previous election. I’m guessing bellingcat couldn’t get access to her Facebook account. But her Twitter account is a mess of conspiracist nonsense. Mental health is an insufficiently discussed topic in the US.
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The Earth has been spinning faster lately • Phys.org

Bob Yirka:

»

Several decades ago, the development of atomic clocks began allowing scientists to record the passage of time in incredibly small increments, in turn, allowing for measuring the length of a given day down to the millisecond. And that has led to the discovery that the spin of the planet is actually far more variable than once thought. Since such measurements began, scientists have also found that the Earth was slowing its spin very gradually (compensated by the insertion of a leap second now and then)—until this past year, when it began spinning faster—so much so that some in the field have begun to wonder if a negative leap negative second might be needed this year, an unprecedented suggestion. Scientists also noted that this past summer, on July 19, the shortest day ever was recorded—it was 1.4602 milliseconds shorter than the standard.

Planetary scientists are not concerned about the new finding; they have learned that there are many factors that have an impact on planetary spin—including the moon’s pull, snowfall levels and mountain erosion. They also have begun wondering if global warming might push the Earth to spin faster as the snow caps and high-altitude snows begin disappearing. Computer scientists, on the other hand, are somewhat concerned about the shifting spin speed—so much of modern technology is based on what they describe as “true time.” Adding a negative leap second could lead to problems, so some have suggested shifting the world’s clocks from solar time to atomic time.

«

Probably explains why the news cycle has speeded up, right?
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Coronavirus: few vaccines prevent infection – here’s why that’s not a problem • The Conversation

Sarah Caddy is a clinical research fellow in Viral Immunology at the University of Cambridge:

»

not all vaccines provide the same level of protection. Some vaccines stop you getting symptomatic disease, but others stop you getting infected too. The latter is known as “sterilising immunity”. With sterilising immunity, the virus can’t even gain a toehold in the body because the immune system stops the virus entering cells and replicating.

There is a subtle yet important difference between preventing disease and preventing infection. A vaccine that “just” prevents disease might not stop you from transmitting the disease to others – even if you feel fine. But a vaccine that provides sterilising immunity stops the virus in its tracks.

In an ideal world, all vaccines would induce sterilising immunity. In reality, it is actually extremely difficult to produce vaccines that stop virus infection altogether. Most vaccines that are in routine use today do not achieve this…

…The first SARS-CoV-2 vaccines to be licensed have been shown to be highly effective at reducing disease. Despite this, we don’t yet know whether these vaccines can induce sterilising immunity. It is expected that data addressing this question will be available from the ongoing vaccine clinical trials soon. Although even if sterilising immunity is induced initially, this may change over time as immune responses wane and viral evolution occurs.

…It is generally understood that a particular type of antibody known as a “neutralising antibody” is needed for sterilising immunity. These antibodies block virus entry into cells and prevent all replication. However, the infecting virus may have to be identical to the vaccine virus in order to induce the perfect antibody.

«

This answers a question I’ve been asking for ages: if someone’s been immunised, how could they pose any risk of passing Covid on? What’s the biological mechanism? Now you (or I) know.
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Quibi’s $1.75bn experiment ends with Roku acquisition for “less than $100m” • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:

»

Quibi, the curious “TV on your phone” service that lasted for roughly six months last year, will soon live on—as a free-with-ads channel on Roku.

After rumors began circulating earlier this week, Quibi and Roku confirmed on Friday that the two companies had reached terms for an acquisition, putting most of Quibi’s hours of original programming into Roku’s hands. Most of the Quibi service involved scripted series, along with documentary and reality-TV content, and Roku will host these series on a dedicated Roku “channel” later this year, while Quibi’s previous “daily” news episodes will not be part of the deal.

Surprisingly, it’s not just a deal for last year’s content. Whatever had been previously cranking as part of the Quibi portfolio of talent and producers appears to be back on the table, with Roku telling users to expect “more than a dozen new programs” that hadn’t previously debuted on the Quibi app in 2020. Roku didn’t use today’s announcements to clarify what the programming is, but Variety pegs many of the shows as documentary miniseries, along with a horror series written by Steven Spielberg that would have originally only been available for streaming during nighttime hours.

«

Like the sub-headline on this one: “Roku has yet to tell viewers whether they’ll need to turn their TVs sideways.” Though there was always a landscape option, so Roku can go with that. Anyway, at least this terrible drought of streaming services is at an end.
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The tiny satellites that will connect cows, cars and shipping containers to the internet • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

»

The smartphone industry has miniaturized all electronics, benefiting everything from cars to drones. Then there are falling launch costs, due to companies like SpaceX, active national space programs like India’s, and an array of new launch technologies, from reusable boosters to 3-D-printed engines.

Just as important, there’s the rollout and adoption of new long-distance, low-power wireless communication standards that can work just as well in outer space as they do on the ground.

Like so many innovations in their early days, from the internet to the smartphone, no one is quite sure what low-cost, low-power data relays from space will enable—or whether there will be enough demand to sustain the many companies jostling to provide it. In the next year, hundreds of satellites from more than a dozen companies are set to launch.

These startups aren’t going head-to-head with more expensive and ambitious efforts from the likes of Amazon and SpaceX, which aim to deliver high-speed internet to households and businesses. Those “megaconstellations” of hundreds or even thousands of relatively large satellites cost billions of dollars; networks of up to 100 nanosats can cost in the tens of millions, say their operators.

The truly global “Internet of Things” these tiny satellites can enable would have been much more difficult to achieve even 24 months ago, says Alasdair Davies, director of the Arribada Initiative, which designs and builds satellite tracking and connectivity systems for researchers, including the penguin-watching ones.

For the penguin project, Mr. Davies created low-cost cameras that can withstand the harsh Antarctic conditions. While the images they grab are stored on SD cards and must be physically collected once a year, the cameras can report their status—low battery, covered in ice, tipped over, etc.—to their keepers in London via tiny satellites.

«

You’re probably wondering if they won’t just turn into space junk, but they can be propelled to fall to Earth when their time is up.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1459: what’s Trump without big social media?, Boeing pays $2.5bn to settle 737 Max charge, Apple Car running slow, and more


The US politician Matt Gaetz will tell you this is definitely someone from antifa, because it’s… antifa/cial recognition? CC-licensed photo by EFF Photos 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. Another week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Trump is losing his social media platforms • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

»

For years, being able to use Facebook and Twitter as his personal battering rams has been one of Mr. Trump’s biggest political assets. He is an inveterate poster who uses these apps to pick fights, settle scores, promote conspiracy theories and disseminate disinformation, and who has faced remarkably few consequences for doing so. He has more than 100 million combined followers on the platforms, and his posts routinely generate more engagement than those of any other public figure.

Mr. Trump would still find ways to reach his followers without Facebook and Twitter, of course. There would still be Fox News, Newsmax, OANN and legions of pro-Trump partisans willing to repost his messages. Newspapers and cable news stations, which have long treated anything a president said as inherently newsworthy, might not be able to resist giving Mr. Trump airtime and attention even when he is a private citizen. And he has expressed interest in starting his own digital media empire, where he could set his own rules.

The most obvious short-term move for Mr. Trump, after a Twitter and Facebook ban, would be to move to one of the “alt-platforms” such as Parler and Gab, where many of his most ardent followers have flocked after being kicked off more mainstream apps. (On Wednesday night, Gab’s chief executive, Andrew Torba, said he was “in the process of connecting with President Trump’s team” about setting up the president’s account.)

But these apps are small and culturally insular, and wouldn’t likely satisfy the president’s desire for a mass audience.

«

What Trump does is a process I call “social warming” (book available for preorder!) – driving polarisation and outrage, denying truth, aided by social media and its algorithms. But once you shrink his reach (or the networks’ reach), you dramatically lessen the impact. At least, that’s my hypothesis.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz’s antifa-detecting facial recognition story is complete nonsense • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

In a speech during the process of certifying President-elect Joe Biden, Gaetz claimed there was “some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company” that some Capitol rioters were actually “members of the violent terrorist group antifa.” (Antifa is not a single defined group, does not have an official membership, and has not been designated a terrorist organization, although President Donald Trump has described it as one.)

Gaetz attributed this claim to a short Washington Times article published yesterday. That article, in turn, cited a “retired military officer.” The officer asserted that a company called XRVision “used its software to do facial recognition of protesters and matched two Philadelphia antifa members to two men inside the Senate.” The Times said it had been given a copy of the photo match, but it didn’t publish the picture.

There is no evidence to support the Times’ article, however. An XRVision spokesperson linked The Verge to a blog post by CTO Yaacov Apelbaum, denying its claims and calling the story “outright false, misleading, and defamatory.” (Speech delivered during congressional debate, such as Gaetz’s, is protected from defamation claims.) The Times article was apparently deleted a few hours after Apelbaum’s post.

«

There’s some truly incredible wishful thinking going on there. Deluded too. Surely it would be antifa-cial recognition, though?
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DC live updates: New Capitol fence in place; D.C. police identify three who died during riots • The Washington Post

Julie Zauzmer:

»

The secretary of the Army and the chief of D.C.’s police force acknowledged Thursday that they did not expect President Trump’s supporters to try to enter the Capitol building, despite extensive online conversations in which far-right groups publicly discussed their plans to do just that.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said a breach of the Capitol was not in his “wildest imagination.”
D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said, “There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol.”

When that breach did occur, the Capitol Police called D.C. police to help, and eventually the D.C. National Guard moved in to help. But Bowser pointed out Thursday that her hands were tied in calling in the National Guard — unlike the governors of states, Bowser cannot summon the Guard on her own but must seek the approval of the Pentagon.

If D.C. became a state or if Congress approved a bill giving the mayor less restricted powers, Bowser said, “We wouldn’t have to clear a deployment plan with the secretary of the Army. We could be nimble in how we change it.”

McCarthy said the increased Guard presence and the new fencing around the Capitol will last past the inauguration, and Bowser warned that violence might continue even longer.

«

To which everyone on all of social media said “you were able to infiltrate all sorts of underground organisations and yet this one which was getting T-shirts printed and for which the president and his cronies laid out a timetable, you couldn’t see coming?”

Truly shows the gap between old thinking and new thinking which includes the online space.
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Boeing charged with 737 Max fraud conspiracy and agrees to pay over $2.5bn • Department of Justice

»

The Boeing Company (Boeing) has entered into an agreement with the Department of Justice to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group (FAA AEG) in connection with the FAA AEG’s evaluation of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplane.

Boeing, a US-based multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells commercial airplanes to airlines worldwide, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) in connection with a criminal information filed today in the Northern District of Texas. The criminal information charges the company with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Under the terms of the DPA, Boeing will pay a total criminal monetary amount of over $2.5bn, composed of a criminal monetary penalty of $243.6m, compensation payments to Boeing’s 737 MAX airline customers of $1.77bn, and the establishment of a $500m crash-victim beneficiaries fund to compensate the heirs, relatives, and legal beneficiaries of the 346 passengers who died in the Boeing 737 MAX crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

“The tragic crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 exposed fraudulent and deceptive conduct by employees of one of the world’s leading commercial airplane manufacturers,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General David P. Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

«

Bear in mind that this is essentially all down to software:

»

As Boeing admitted in court documents, Boeing—through two of its 737 MAX Flight Technical Pilots—deceived the FAA AEG about an important aircraft part called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that impacted the flight control system of the Boeing 737 MAX. Because of their deception, a key document published by the FAA AEG lacked information about MCAS, and in turn, airplane manuals and pilot-training materials for U.S.-based airlines lacked information about MCAS.

«

Biggest ever fine for what is essentially a software bug?
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Apple’s Tesla killer won’t ship for at least half a decade • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant has a small team of hardware engineers developing drive systems, vehicle interior and external car body designs with the goal of eventually shipping a vehicle. That’s a more ambitious goal than in previous years when the project mostly focused on creating an underlying self-driving system. The company has also added more ex-Tesla Inc. executives to the project.

Still, some Apple engineers on the project believe the company could release a product in five to seven years if Apple goes ahead with its plans. The car is nowhere near production stage, the people said, though they did warn timelines could change. They asked not to be identified discussing sensitive, internal work. The majority of the team is currently either working from home or at the office for limited time, slowing the company’s ability to develop a full vehicle. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

…A key differentiator would be Apple’s ability to integrate its self-driving system, a pricey initiative that has spurred the company to develop its own software, sensor hardware and chip technologies. The goal is to let a user to input their destination and be driven there with little or no other engagement, according to the people familiar with the project.

…Apple has continued to investigate building its self-driving car system for a third-party car partner rather than its own vehicle, the people said, and it could ultimately again abandon its own car efforts in favor of this approach.

The company first set out to build an electric car in 2014, hiring hundreds of hardware engineers for the effort before rapidly paring it back around 2016 to focus on the self-driving car system. From 2016 through 2019, Apple cut hundreds of workers from the team. However, it kept some hardware engineers with expertise in car components who either stayed on the car project or worked on other initiatives.

«

The label “Tesla killer” is just absurd. This sounds like a concept, but what’s Apple really going to bring to the party that multiple others can’t?
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Leaked documents show how China’s army of paid internet trolls helped censor the coronavirus • ProPublica

Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Aaron Krolik, and Jeff Kao:

»

In the early hours of Feb. 7, China’s powerful internet censors experienced an unfamiliar and deeply unsettling sensation. They felt they were losing control.

The news was spreading quickly that Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak only to be threatened by the police and accused of peddling rumors, had died of COVID-19. Grief and fury coursed through social media. To people at home and abroad, Li’s death showed the terrible cost of the Chinese government’s instinct to suppress inconvenient information.

Yet China’s censors decided to double down. Warning of the “unprecedented challenge” Li’s passing had posed and the “butterfly effect” it may have set off, officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets.

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

The orders were among thousands of secret government directives and other documents that were reviewed by The New York Times and ProPublica. They lay bare in extraordinary detail the systems that helped the Chinese authorities shape online opinion during the pandemic.

«

Long and detailed. Though China faces new problems: it’s locked down a city in northern Hebei province (Shijiazhuang, about 300km from Beijing) after recording 63 cases of Covid. That sucker ain’t going away.
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The Big Thaw: how Russia could dominate a warming world • ProPublica

Abrahm Lustgarten:

»

A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

Around the world, climate change is becoming an epochal crisis, a nightmare of drought, desertification, flooding and unbearable heat, threatening to make vast regions less habitable and drive the greatest migration of refugees in history. But for a few nations, climate change will present an unparalleled opportunity, as the planet’s coldest regions become more temperate. There is plenty of reason to think that those places will also receive an extraordinary influx of people displaced from the hottest parts of the world as the climate warms. Human migration, historically, has been driven by the pursuit of prosperity even more so than it has by environmental strife. With climate change, prosperity and habitability — haven and economic opportunity — will soon become one and the same.

«

Swings and roundabouts, winners and losers. How weird if Russia is able to transform from a giant supplier of fossil fuels to a giant supplier of food – over which it will of course wield its power. (Via John Naughton.)
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In India, smartphones and cheap data are giving women a voice • WIRED

Yasaswini Sampathkumar:

»

Mallika, like 200 million other women in India, is illiterate. In the past few years though, millions of Indian women have gone online thanks to cheaper smartphones and mobile data, and apps that let them communicate using sounds and images. Anecdotal evidence suggests the phones are empowering many women to access information, build networks, and participate in markets.

For Mallika, the ability to use smartphones visually and orally has been a game changer. The internet is no longer sealed off with written words. She uses photographs and audio memos to communicate with friends and family, and voice commands to look for videos.

“I can tap on the picture of Annan (what she calls Thanaraj) and send him an audio message,” she says. Before getting the phone, she had to travel by foot over mountains to enter Madurai and interact with Thanaraj—her single point of contact with the outside world. “The phone connects her directly to the people who can help her,” says Thanaraj. “I am no longer the only person she speaks to.”

Mallika is part of a WhatsApp group where she shares videos and photographs of the forest with local journalists. Illegal logging is a persistent problem. “Sometimes teak or sandalwood trees go missing,” she says. “I take pictures and compare them to older photographs.” She shares the photos with rangers and forest officials. In case of a confrontation, “my husband videotapes the skirmish to protect me. We send the video along with a voice message to the journalists’ group.” She also watches videos of activists in other parts of India.

«

People were astonished a few years ago when Apple added the ability to include short voice messages in iMessage. But it turned out that was in high demand in China. Similarly in India: voice is hugely important as a command mechanism. And not only for women.
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Giuliani to senator: ‘try to just slow it down’ • The Dispatch

Steve Hayes:

»

At approximately 7 p.m., Giuliani called newly sworn-in Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a staunch Trump ally, imploring him to stall the process. “I want to discuss with you how they’re trying to rush this hearing and how we need you, our Republican friends, to try to just slow it down so we can get these legislatures to get more information to you,” Giuliani said in a voicemail. “And I know they’re reconvening at 8 tonight, but it … the only strategy we can follow is to object to numerous states and raise issues so that we get ourselves into tomorrow—ideally until the end of tomorrow. I know McConnell is doing everything he can to rush it, which is kind of a kick in the head because it’s one thing to oppose us, it’s another thing not to give us a fair opportunity to contest it.”

Giuliani tells Tuberville that McConnell wants to narrow the objections to just three states and explains that the Trump team wants to object to 10. “So if you could object to every state and, along with a congressman, get a hearing for every state, I know we would delay you a lot, but it would give us the opportunity to get the legislators who are very, very close to pulling their vote, particularly after what McConnell did today.”

The problem for Giuliani? He left his message on the voicemail of another senator, who shared it with The Dispatch. 

It’s not clear whether Giuliani—who opens the call by referring to himself as “the president’s lawyer”—was directed to call Tuberville by President Trump. Requests for comment to Giuliani’s cell phone and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows went unanswered. One longtime Trump adviser still talking to top White House officials says Trump is in constant communication with Giuliani. Asked if such a call is something Trump would know about, he said: “Oh, yeah, 100 percent.” 

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You know, I have a sneaking suspicion about how that whole Four Seasons Total Landscaping thing came about, and who was responsible.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1458: London faces Covid ICU crisis, Facebook’s WhatsApp data grab, Apple’s long plan for the M1, do targeted ads work?, and more


It was 20 years ago today (more or less)… remember how Microsoft came to games? CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch 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. Collegiate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: London will be overwhelmed by Covid in a fortnight, says leaked NHS England briefing • Health Service Journal

Alastair McLellan:

»

London’s hospitals are less than two weeks from being overwhelmed by covid even under the “best” case scenario, according to an official briefing given to the capital’s most senior doctors this afternoon.

NHS England London medical director Vin Diwakar set out the stark analysis to the medical directors of London’s hospital trusts on a Zoom call.

The NHS England presentation, seen by HSJ (see slides below story), showed that even if the number of covid patients grew at the lowest rate considered likely, and measures to manage demand and increase capacity, including open the capital’s Nightingale hospital, were successful, the NHS in London would be short of nearly 2,000 general and acute and intensive care beds by 19 January.

The briefing forecasts demand for both G&A [general and acute] and intensive care beds, for both covid and non-covid patients, against capacity. It accounts for the impact of planned measures to mitigate demand and increase capacity.

For both G&A and intensive care, three scenarios are detailed: “Best”, which projects 4% daily growth; “average” which plots 5% daily growth; and “worse” which forecasts 6% daily growth.

The briefing says that growth on 5 January was 3.5% for G&A beds, 4.8% for ICU beds.

«

As has been clear since this outbreak began, exponential growth flummoxes humans: we’re so unused to seeing it that we struggle terribly to cope when confronted with it.
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WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: share data with Facebook or stop using the app • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messenger that claims to have privacy coded into its DNA, is giving its 2 billion plus users an ultimatum: agree to share their personal data with the social network or delete their accounts.

The requirement is being delivered through an in-app alert directing users to agree to sweeping changes in the WhatsApp terms of service. Those who don’t accept the revamped privacy policy by February 8 will no longer be able to use the app.

Shortly after Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, its developers built state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption into the messaging app. The move was seen as a victory for privacy advocates because it used the Signal Protocol, an open source encryption scheme whose source code has been reviewed and audited by scores of independent security experts.

In 2016, WhatsApp gave users a one-time ability to opt out of having account data turned over to Facebook. Now, an updated privacy policy is changing that. Come next month, users will no longer have that choice. Some of the data that WhatsApp collects includes:

• User phone numbers
• Other people’s phone numbers stored in address books
• Profile names
• Profile pictures
• Status message including when a user was last online
• Diagnostic data collected from app logs

Under the new terms, Facebook reserves the right to share collected data with its family of companies.

«

Other versions of this report say that it won’t be requiring this in the EU because of GDPR, and the fact that Facebook promised the EU as a condition of its acquisition that it wouldn’t merge data. (Please let me know, EU readers.) Unclear: what happens in the UK, which isn’t part of the EU, but does still have lots of its regulations.
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“down so bad im 3rd wheeling an e-couple 🤦‍♂️” – Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick:

»

Last month, I wrote about “the main characterification of Twitter.” TL;DR — I believe that Twitter is a dying website and that it has entered a period of deep insularity and cultural decline and is now virtually unintelligible to outsiders. Put simply, 2021 Twitter is 2015 Tumblr, 2016 Reddit, or 2013 4chan. The only difference is that its hopelessly-addicted user base is made up of journalists, politicians, celebrities, and academics. So we’re forced, as a society, to take Twitter’s inane message board drama more seriously than we would if we were talking about a Something Awful goon building a wildly unsafe house. Toxic Twitter power users have filled vacuums where community moderation should be and now they police the site like warlords, serving up public vigilante justice for their restless and angry followers.

Which is how we end up with Bean Dad.

«

Ohhh, Bean Dad. If you missed Bean Dad over the weekend… lucky you. But here it is, so you can’t miss it! And as Broderick points out, Bean Dad

»

decided to make the worst possible choice you can make when you’re at the center of a Twitter storm. He engaged.

«

(Bean Dad deleted his account as a result.)

Broderick’s conclusion, in part:

»

in my opinion, Bean Dad is very simple. It means one thing — your website is poorly run. That’s it. It means that context collapse has gotten so bad and the scale of your trending algorithms are so completely out of whack that a total moron tweeting about beans can create the same level of discussion within your community as the Trump Georgia call [criminally seeking to change the outcome of an election].

«

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Where tech workers are moving: new LinkedIn data vs. the narrative • OneZero

Alex Kantrowitz:

»

There’s a narrative that the tech industry’s future lies in Texas and Florida. That tech workers and executives — sick of California’s oppressive policies and sky-high real estate costs — are moving en masse to Miami and Austin this year. That these cities are building dominant talent foundations that will persist for years due to the pandemic. That narrative is wrong.

The story crumbles when placed next to new LinkedIn data showing where tech workers are actually moving in 2020. The key beneficiaries of this year’s tech migration are less buzzy cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Richmond, Virginia; and Sacramento, California. These places don’t get much play in the news, but they’re attracting tech talent at significantly higher rates than they were last year. Austin, conversely, is gaining tech workers more slowly.

The new LinkedIn data, which Big Technology is first publishing here, examines several hundred thousand tech workers in the US. It breaks down the ratio at which they’re moving into a city vs. moving out, something LinkedIn calls the inflow/outflow ratio. The data ranges from April to October, comparing 2020 with 2019. It encompasses the core months people left their cities due to the pandemic.

«

New York and San Francisco losing workers, though. Not rapidly, for the latter – for every 100 that leave, 96 come. But still, notable.
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Former Apple engineer details how the magic of M1 Mac performance began 10 years ago • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:

»

a former Apple engineer has shared interesting details on what key ARM advancements Apple made starting around 10 years ago that led to the magic of M1 Mac performance that we have today. And notably, Apple’s work really pushed the rest of the industry as it forged the leading edge with ARM.

Shac Ron, a former Apple kernel engineer shared some fascinating details about Apple’s work on its ARM chips over the years and gave some perspective on why the M1 chip is so powerful

«

It’s very technical, but essentially boils down to Apple having had a plan back in 2010, three years before its first 64-bit (ARM) chip appeared. “low clocks[peed], highly OoO [out of order execution of instructions], highly speculative”. And it designed ARM 64 around that.

They sure are fast, though.
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Facebook managers trash their own ad targeting in unsealed remarks • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

»

The [unsealed court] documents feature internal Facebook communications in which managers appear to admit to major flaws in ad targeting capabilities, including that ads reached the intended audience less than half of the time and that data behind a targeting criterion was “all crap.” Facebook says the material is presented out of context.

The documents emerged from a suit currently seeking class-action certification in federal court. The suit was filed by the owner of Investor Village, a small business that operates a message board on financial topics. Investor Village said in court filings that it decided to buy narrowly targeted Facebook ads because it hoped to reach “highly compensated and educated investors” but “had limited resources to spend on advertising.” But nearly 40% of the people who saw Investor Village’s ad either lacked a college degree, did not make $250,000 per year, or both, the company claims. In fact, not a single Facebook user it surveyed met all the targeting criteria it had set for Facebook ads, it says.

The complaint features Facebook documents indicating that the company knew its advertising capabilities were overhyped and underperformed.

A “February 2016 internal memorandum” sent from an unnamed Facebook manager to Andrew Bosworth, a Zuckerberg confidant and powerful company executive who oversaw ad efforts at the time, reads, “[I]nterest precision in the US is only 41%—that means that more than half the time we’re showing ads to someone other than the advertisers’ intended audience. And it is even worse internationally. … We don’t feel we’re meeting advertisers’ interest accuracy expectations today.”

«

OK, so it was 2016, but there’s still a question about how effective targeted advertising is.
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Facebook smart glasses coming ‘sooner than later’, without AR • Bloomberg

Kurt Wagner and Sarah Frier:

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Facebook Inc.’s planned smart glasses will arrive “sooner than later” in 2021, but won’t feature the kind of digital overlay technology that is associated with augmented reality, according to hardware chief Andrew Bosworth.

The glasses, which are being built in partnership with Ray-Ban and parent Luxottica Group SpA, will connect to a device – though users won’t be able to overlay digital objects onto their real-world view, a foundational element of AR.

“These are certainly connected glasses, they are certainly providing a lot of functionality, [but] we’re being quite coy about which functionality precisely we are providing,” Bosworth said. “We’re excited about it but we don’t want to over-hype it. We’re not even calling it augmented reality, we’re just calling it ‘smart glasses,’” he added.

Facebook first announced plans for AR glasses in 2017 and has since built a handful of camera features that allow people to project digital images onto the physical world, like face-distorting photo filters. The company has invested substantial resources into hardware development in recent years, acquiring virtual-reality startup Oculus and launching an in-home video device called Portal. Facebook’s VR, AR and hardware teams account for more than 6,000 employees, according to a person familiar with its staffing. That’s a larger group than Facebook has working on billion-user apps Instagram and WhatsApp.

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Smart glasses without visual overlays – isn’t that just a rerun Google Glass, which crashed and burned in the consumer space so thoroughly a decade or so ago? No wonder Bosworth is being coy.
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Xbox 20 Year Anniversary: how an American video game empire was born • Bloomberg

Dina Bass:

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The project got its spark, as things often do inside big companies, at an executive retreat. The next two years brought competing visions, infighting, numerous focus groups and near-cancellation of the product, until a team of 2,000 delivered something Bill Gates could unveil onstage, standing beside a famous pro wrestler, to a bemused audience in Las Vegas.

“We needed to penetrate the living room,” said Steve Ballmer, then the chief executive officer of Microsoft. His former boss, the co-founder Bill Gates, said: “Xbox might seem like an unlikely success story to other people, but it wasn’t a stretch for me to believe in this project and the people who were bringing it to life.”

“I was very cognizant of Microsoft’s market power. Look, they may have all been the world’s nicest guys,” said John Riccitiello, then the president and chief operating officer at video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. “But they’re also the guys that shut down Netscape.”

In the original team’s own words, here is the story of how an ungainly, over-budget project spawned a gaming powerhouse.

…Rick Thompson (who became the first head of XBox): “By June, it might’ve been July, there’s a big meeting, a dozen VPs, 50 people in the room. And the DirectX guys are saying, “We want to go off and start working on this thing.” One of them was this guy, Nat Brown. Brown was not in the room. He’s on a squawk box, and the last thing he says on this several-hour phone call after they pretty much get the go-ahead is, “We want Rick Thompson to lead it.” I turned bright red and said, “I’m not big enough for this job.” The next day, Ballmer showed up in my office with a baseball bat in his hand, literally, and told me that this is what I was going to do.”

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Bass then asks Ballmer about that. His answer’s priceless. (A reminder – if you don’t have a Bloomberg subscription, you can probably find the article by plugging the headline into a search engine.)
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Minecraft Earth coming to an end • Minecraft

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Minecraft Earth was designed around free movement and collaborative play – two things that have become near impossible in the current global situation. As a result, we have made the difficult decision to re-allocate our resources to other areas that provide value to the Minecraft community and to end support for Minecraft Earth in June 2021.

That said, we still have one update left. Today we are releasing the final build of the game, containing some changes to make your time in Minecraft Earth as fun as possible. We hope these adjustments will allow you to explore, craft, and build more – while staying safe indoors.

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Two years after it launched, because it turns out that augmented reality games that rely on your going outdoors don’t handle pandemics involving lockdowns too well.
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Ticketmaster admits it hacked rival company before it went out of business • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Ticketmaster has agreed to pay a $10m criminal fine after admitting its employees repeatedly used stolen passwords and other means to hack a rival ticket sales company.

The fine, which is part of a deferred prosecution agreement Ticketmaster entered with federal prosecutors, resolves criminal charges filed last week in federal court in the eastern district of New York. Charges include violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, computer intrusion for commercial advantage or private financial gain, computer intrusion in furtherance of fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and wire fraud.

In the settlement, Ticketmaster admitted that an employee who used to work for a rival company emailed the login credentials for multiple accounts the rival used to manage presale ticket sales. At a San Francisco meeting attended by at least 14 employees of Ticketmaster or its parent company Live Nation, the employee used one set of credentials to log in to an account to demonstrate how it worked.

The employee, who wasn’t identified in court documents, later provided Ticketmaster executives with internal and confidential financial documents he had retained from his previous employer. The employee was later promoted to director of client relations and given a raise. Court documents didn’t identify the rival company, but Variety reported it was Songkick, which in 2017 filed a lawsuit accusing Ticketmaster of hacking its database. A few months later, Songkick went out of business.

The charges against Ticketmaster come 26 months after Zeeshan Zaidi, the former head of Ticketmaster’s artist services division, pled guilty in a related case to conspiring to hack the rival company and engage in wired fraud.

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Far too tempting to hack the rival, isn’t it. Though of course the winners write history.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified