Start Up No.1542: inside Basecamp’s Friday fallout, a subscription for life, monitoring blood bloodlessly, Trump starts blog, and more


A drought in Taiwan is drying up reservoirs – and if it continues, could hit chip manufacture by summer. CC-licensed photo by http://www.dantw.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 9 links for you. Safe journey. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Too much time thinking about Trump? Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and distract yourself.


🚨 How Basecamp blew up • Platformer

Casey Newton, following up on his piece last week about how Basecamp got into a tangle. This feels explosive because of the implications around Ryan Singer, who was the CTO, and who has deleted a ton of tweets – and apparently kept posting Breitbart content approvingly in the company Slack:

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On Friday, employees had their chance to address these issues directly with Fried and his co-founder. What followed was a wrenching discussion that left several employees I spoke with in tears. Thirty minutes after the meeting ended, Fried announced that Basecamp’s longtime head of strategy, Ryan Singer, had been suspended and placed under investigation after he questioned the existence of white supremacy at the company. Over the weekend, Singer — who worked for the company for nearly 18 years, and authored a book about product management for Basecamp called Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters — resigned.

Within a few hours of the meeting, at least 20 people — more than one-third of Basecamp’s 57 employees — had announced their intention to accept buyouts from the company. And while many of them had been leaning toward resigning in the aftermath of Fried’s original post, the meeting itself pushed several to accelerate their decisions, employees said. The response overwhelmed the founders, who extended the deadline to accept buyouts indefinitely amid an unexpected surge of interest.

This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees.

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Newton is doing terrific work; one of the best around in terms of the contacts and context.
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This motorcycle airbag vest will stop working if you miss a payment • Vice

Aaron Gordon:

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Airbag vests are pretty much exactly what they sound like, garments worn by people who undertake exceedingly dangerous personal hobbies in order to slightly reduce the risk of severe bodily harm or death. For example, in 2018 the motorcycle racing circuit MotoGP made airbag vests mandatory.

Since then airbag vests have become steadily cheaper and therefore more popular among recreational riders. One motorcycle apparel company named Klim, for example, sells an airbag vest called the Ai-1 for $400. In the promotional video launching the product, product line manager Jayson Plummer called the vest “a whole new era of a platform where analog meets digital and results in a superior protection story.” Which is an interesting way of framing the fact that the vest includes an additional subscription-based payment option that will block the vest from inflating if the payments don’t go through.

This is possible because the vest includes two components: the vest itself made by Klim and the airbag system including a small black box made by a French company called In&Motion called the “In&Box detection module.” The module has the sensors and computer components that detect a crash and make the bags inflate.

The customer buys the vest for $400 which comes with the module, but then they must download an app and choose how to unlock the module so the vest actually works: either plonk down another $400 to own the whole shebang outright—bringing the total vest cost to $800—or, as Plummer put it in the video, opt for the “subscription-based model” of $12 per month or $120 per year.

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I guess it figures out when you start your ride whether you’re paid up or not. Not clear whether it tells you, though.

Quite a method for extracting money from people. The always-connected, always-paying economy.
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Timepieces that tell you how you are • Gazettabyte

Roy Rubenstein with some info about how the glucose monitoring from Rockley Photonics (mentioned yesterday) might work:

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The technique underpinning smartwatch monitoring has the long title of non-invasive diffuse reflective spectroscopy.

Light at different wavelengths penetrates the skin and is scattered by blood vessels and cells and the interstitial fluid in between. The reflected light is analysed using spectroscopy to glean medical insights.

The smartwatch uses a green LED since blood haemoglobin has a good light absorption at that wavelength. “Effectively, what is being measured is the expansion and contraction of the blood vessels,” says [Rockley Photonics CEO Andrew] Rickman. “It is measuring the amount of light that is absorbed by the change of the volume of blood.”

It doesn’t stop there. Using a red LED and extending it into the infrared range, the blood oxygenation level is measured using the ratio of oxygenated (bright red) and unoxygenated (darker red) haemoglobin. “The ratio of the two wavelengths that you get back is proportional to the blood oxygen level,” says Rickman.

The visible range can also detect bilirubin, a yellow-orange bile pigment associated with jaundice. “But that is pretty much it,” says Rickman. “All the other thousands of constituents, if they have absorption peaks, are swamped in the visual range by haemoglobin.”

What Rockley has done is extend the light’s spectral to measure absorption peaks that otherwise are dwarfed by water and haemoglobin. “We are addressing the visible range and extending it into the infrared range, getting much more accuracy using laser technology compared to LEDs which opens up a whole range of things,” says Rickman.

To do this, Rockley has used its silicon photonics expertise to shrink a benchtop spectrometer to the size of a chip.

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Related: magistrates can now get people to wear “alcohol tags” in sentencing for offenders whose crimes were “influenced by alcohol”. (Thanks Adewale Adetugbo for the Rockley link, Joel D for the tagging link.)
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Taiwan drought may worsen global component shortage • Counterpoint Research

Brady Wang:

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A stable and quality source of water is essential for semiconductor production. However, Taiwan is currently suffering from its worst drought in 56 years due to less than usual rainfall during the past year. The main sources of water in Taiwan are (1) the plum rains that occur in spring and summer when hot and cold air meet, (2) the heavy rainfall from typhoons in summer, and (3) the light rainfall in the mountains from the northeast monsoon in fall and winter. The proportions here are about 12%, 39% and 6% respectively.

Taiwan usually receives 7-9 typhoons every year. However, only one typhoon landed in Taiwan in 2020. To make matters worse, last winter and spring’s rainfall was heavily deficient, causing a shortage of water in Taiwan. The country is topographically divided by the 3,000-metre-high Central Mountain Range, which separates Taiwan’s eastern and western parts. The rains brought by the northeast monsoon in autumn and winter are mostly concentrated in the eastern and northern catchment areas, which means abundant rainfall for Draco, though it is of limited help to the Central and Tainan science parks. Therefore, water shortage becomes a serious problem for Taiwan’s technology industry in 2021. It may also have a serious impact on the global supply chain.

The Taiwanese government has taken many measures to address the water shortage problem, including transferring water between reservoirs, stopping water supply for agriculture, reducing water supply for households, drilling groundwater wells, and desalinating seawater. Besides, industrial users, including semiconductor manufacturers, have been asked to reduce their water consumption. TSMC, for example, has significantly increased the water recycling rate. The water level in the northern reservoirs has reached a multi-year low, though still sufficient for the continued use by Hsinchu Science Park (HSP).

However, the average effective water storage of the reservoirs supplying the Central Taiwan Science Park (CTSP) and Southern Taiwan Science Park (STSP) on April 30 was only 8.9% and 14.3% respectively (Exhibit 2). According to Counterpoint estimates, if there is no heavy rainfall or the rainfall does not fall in the catchment area, CTSP will face a water outage in July and STSP around August.

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Apple is holding the web back with ‘uniquely underpowered’ iOS browsers, says Google engineer • WCCFTech

Furqan Shahid:

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In a blog post, [Google Chrome engineer] Alex [Russel] talks about how the WebKit and iOS browsers are “Uniquely Underpowered” compared to the other modern browsers. He claims that Apple “consistently” delays new features for its browsers that “hold the key to unlocking whole categories of experiences on the web.”

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Apple’s iOS browser (Safari) and engine (WebKit) are uniquely under-powered. Consistent delays in the delivery of important features ensure the web can never be a credible alternative to its proprietary tools and App Store.

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Alex has cited an example of this by mentioning Stadia along with other cloud gaming services. Apple did not allow those services to be available on the App Store and pushed them to use the web instead, which required Apple to allow gamepad APIs so controllers can be used with these new web apps. That is a function that other browsers have offered for a long time except on iOS. But Apple still held back:

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Suppose Apple had implemented WebRTC and the Gamepad API in a timely way. Who can say if the game streaming revolution now taking place might have happened sooner? It’s possible that Amazon Luna, NVIDIA GeForce NOW, Google Stadia, and Microsoft xCloud could have been built years earlier.

It’s also possible that APIs delivered on every other platform, but not yet available on any iOS browser (because Apple), may hold the key to unlocking whole categories of experiences on the web.

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Russel’s post is quite complicated, and does accept that there’s little to choose between the browsers that have any significant share. He also allows that Chrome lacks some of the things that Safari has.
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Don’t buy into Facebook’s ad-tracking pressure on iOS 14.5 • WIRED

Brian Barrett on why you can ignore Facebook’s weepy popups suggesting that letting it track you keeps the site “free of charge”:

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“There are some types of ads, mostly retargeting, that will be harder to display, since now Facebook wouldn’t know who visited an app, put an item in the shopping cart, etc.,” says Ron Berman, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He notes that Facebook will also have a harder time demonstrating that product sales were tied to specific ads, given the limitations on what information can now flow across sites and apps.

But you need not look much further than Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings report, released last week, to see that iOS 14.5 seems unlikely to push the company toward any kind of precipice. The company took in over $26bn of revenue in the first three months of 2021, and its net income of $9.5bn nearly doubled that of the same period a year ago. It has over $64bn of cash and equivalents on hand. It’s doing just fine. Even if every single iOS 14.5 user opts out of tracking, Facebook will still have Android devices aplenty from which to squeeze profits.

It’s also not as if tracking prevention makes ads go away entirely. It arguably makes them less relevant. People may not click on them as often, which makes them less valuable, and outside analysts have predicted that Apple’s new policy will show up in Facebook’s bottom line. “We’ve seen estimates ranging from about a 2% to a 7% impairment of Facebook’s ad revenues this year and that range seems plausible to us, especially at the low end,” says Nicole Perrin, a principal analyst at eMarketer.

However, she adds, the company is expected to increase its ad revenue overall despite App Tracking Transparency. As WIRED’s Gilad Edelman has noted before, when third-party data disappears, companies that hold more first-party data have an edge. That’s Google, and that’s Facebook.

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Trump launches new communications platform months after Twitter, Facebook ban • Fox News

Brooke Singman:

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Former President Trump on Tuesday launched a communications platform, which will eventually give him the ability to communicate directly with his followers, after months of being banned from sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The platform, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” appears on http://www.DonaldJTrump.com/desk.

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2003 called, and would like to point out that the “new communications platform” is known as a “blog”. (Meanwhile, at 1030 EST/ 1530 BST, the Facebook Oversight Board will announce its decision on whether Trump should be allowed back on Facebook. The broad expectation I’m seeing is that the FOB will say he should be. Divisive and polarising, algorithmically fuelled: social warming in action.)
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Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link – BBC News

Zoe Kleinman:

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There remains “little association” between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.

The Oxford Internet Institute compared TV viewing, social-media and device use with feelings of depression, suicidal tendencies and behavioural problems. It found a small drop in association between depression and social-media use and TV viewing, from 1991 to 2019. There was a small rise in that between emotional issues and social-media use.

“We couldn’t tell the difference between social-media impact and mental health in 2010 and 2019,” study co-author Prof Andrew Przybylski. said. “We’re not saying that fewer happy people use more social media.
“We’re saying that the connection is not getting stronger.”

And this was a warning to regulators and lawmakers focusing on commonly held beliefs about the harmful effects of technology on young people’s mental health. Participants, in the US and UK, graded their own feelings using set questions with sliding scale responses. And they were asked about the duration of social-media or device activity but not more specifically how they had spent that time.

The paper is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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I read a lot of these sorts of papers in preparing my book, and they’re very contradictory. I also spoke to Przybylski, who is generally dubious about studies that have suggested these links – there have been quite a few, and some books, strongly pushing the idea. One common problem these studies run up against is that kids use different devices: boys usually play video games (which makes them happy) while girls use social networks (and don’t seem to be happier).
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The loneliness of the modern office team member • Financial Times

Pilita Clark:

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Every other week or so, a number emerges somewhere in the world that I find both understandable and troubling.

It is the percentage of people who consistently say they don’t want to go back to working full-time in the office. Nearly 60% of British workers said this was how they felt back in September last year and also in March this year, even though more than a third of the UK population had had at least one Covid jab by then.

In the US, the share of workers who would prefer to keep working remotely as much as possible went from 35% in September to 44% in January. More recent European research found 97% of people who have been at home would prefer to stay there for at least part of the week once their offices reopen.

Since I am one of the millions thrilled to be liberated from a rushed commute and the tedium of presenteeism, these findings seem utterly rational. But they are also worrying because there is a gloomier reason that even well-paid, valued people in lofty jobs may be in no rush to go back to the office: long before the outbreak, they were lonely.

Their relationships with people in the office felt shallow. Worse, their sense of isolation may have had less to do with their personal lives than the way their work in teams was organised.

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The heavy implication of course being that you’re doing a job that can be done from home. What about delivery drivers? Warehouse workers? People who answer telephones on switchboards? Perhaps I haven’t looked, but I’d like to know what proportion of jobs can and cannot be done remotely. It seems relevant.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1541: Apple v Epic opens, Sweden’s failed Covid strategy, ripoff ads still plague Google, Trump’s Facebook day nears, and more


You’ll probably not be surprised to learn that Yahoo(!) has been sold again, this time to a private equity company. CC-licensed photo by Ippei Ogiwara 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. Just breathe into your watch. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


At a loose end? Why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?


Here are Apple’s and Epic’s full slideshows arguing why they should win at trial • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Both Apple and Epic have released their opening presentations on why they feel they should win this week’s trial, which is set to determine the future of the App Store. In the documents, which you can look through below, each company lays out its case.

The lawsuit started when Apple removed Epic Games’ Fortnite from the App Store after Epic bypassed Apple’s system for in-app purchases. But it’s turned into a much deeper examination of Apple’s walled-garden approach to technology, and whether some of the walls the company puts up might violate antitrust law.

We took a deeper look at the companies’ legal strategies in advance of the trial, but you can see the same arguments play out in these presentations. Epic uses metaphors of brick walls and gas stations to argue that Apple’s control over what can and cannot be installed on the iPhone is unfair, and that allowing other methods of installing apps wouldn’t harm iOS’s security. Apple’s pushes back saying that Epic getting the openness that it wants would harm not just the App Store but other stores from Sony and Nintendo.

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There’s a Zoom link so you can watch proceedings (Pacific Time 0830-1330, or 1130-1630 Mon-Thu). Password: 715 550. According to Gizmodo, the remote court experience has been pretty terrible already.

Plenty of tasty emails emerging, such as Phil Schiller in 2011 suggesting that once the App Store hit $1bn in annual profit they could look at reducing the 70-30 split in case rival methods (web apps!) become more attractive.
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Did Sweden get Covid wrong? • UnHerd

Freddie Sayers speaks to Johan Giesecke, who was very against lockdowns in Sweden:

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When I remind him of his prediction that countries would end up with similar results after a year, he readily concedes he was mistaken. “One of the things I got wrong a year ago is the rate of spread of this disease. I thought it would spread quicker. And I also thought it would be more similar in different countries. We can see now that there are big differences in the rates of spread in between countries. It may have to do with lockdown, it may have to do with cultural things in these countries. But there is a big difference between countries.”

The difference that is most commonly cited in the ‘case for the prosecution’ against the Swedish strategy is the following chart showing Sweden’s deaths per million dramatically exceeding its neighbouring Scandinavian countries. This is generally considered solid proof that the Swedish strategy failed.

Johan Giesecke disagrees: “The differences between Sweden and its neighbours are much bigger than people realise from the outside — different systems, different cultural traditions…If you compare Sweden to other European countries [such as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium] it’s the other way round. On the ranking of excess mortality, Sweden is somewhere in the middle or below the middle of European countries. So I think it’s really Norway and Finland that are the outliers more than Sweden.”

Explaining what he means by cultural differences, he mentions among other factors that “they’re more sparsely populated. There are less people per square kilometre in these two countries. There are also much fewer people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries.”

So, crucially, if Sweden had instituted a hard lockdown and shut the border earlier, would its death rate have been closer to its Nordic neighbours? “Maybe not,” he says, “I think we would still have more deaths than they have.”

He is also fairly dismissive of charts currently showing that Sweden has the highest level of infection in Europe:

“I don’t think you should compare countries now, while we are still in the pandemic. You should wait until the pandemic has receded before we start comparing countries. If you did that chart a month ago it would be very different. And a month from now? I don’t know but it would be very different. These snapshots may not show the whole truth.”

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Quite what Giesecke is implying is important about “people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries” isn’t followed up, which seems a gigantic lacuna. And aside from the point about children not going to school (which I think we’ll realise was a big error), Giesecke just seems to be Mr Wrong About It All – from levels of prevalence to IFR.
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The hardest puzzle you’ll ever see—and the secret you need to solve it • Nautilus

Brian Gallagher:

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Over his near century of life, [Raymond] Smullyan, 96, became an accomplished pianist and magician, made fundamental contributions to modern logic, and wrote about Taoist philosophy and chess. “He is the undisputed master of logical puzzles,” Bruce Horowitz, one of his former Ph.D. students, has said.

One mark of Smullyan’s legacy is the interest philosophers and logicians still have in his most difficult puzzle, known as the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. The title was given by a philosopher of logic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a colleague of Smullyan’s named George Boolos, who—no slouch himself—adored logical challenges of any sort. He once tested himself by giving a lecture on Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, “one of the most important results in modern logic,” using only single syllable words.

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever goes like this:

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Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for “yes” and “no” are “da” and “ja,” in some order. You do not know which word means which.

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Always up for a challenge, I sat down on my couch, pen and paper in hand, confident I could conquer the puzzle in two hours tops.

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Nope. The answer takes you through some mindbending logic (lots of reliance on “if and only if”), but the explanation is done well.
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Why can’t Google get a grip on ripoff ads? • BBC News

Chris Fox:

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In October 2018, the BBC brought several adverts to Google’s attention that broke its rules. A month later, Google told the BBC it had developed a machine learning system that could prevent the adverts appearing again.

At the time, it only banned adverts for third-party services that charged more than the official government website. However, in May 2020 it changed its policy to ban “adverts for documents and/or services that can be obtained directly from a government or a delegated provider” including “offers of assistance to obtain these products or services”.

Since that change, the BBC has repeated the same set of Google searches on seven separate occasions over a 12-month period. Every time, there were adverts for expensive third-party services when searching for:

Esta; US Esta; apply for Esta; US visa; Canada ETA (a travel document for Canada); apply for Canada ETA; apply for Canada visa; apply for Australia visa; apply driving licence; renew driving licence; driving licence change address.

Some of the websites continued to appear in the adverts even after they were flagged to Google with its reporting tools.

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Verizon sells Yahoo and AOL businesses to Apollo for $5bn • CNBC

Steve Kovach:

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Verizon will sell its media group to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $5bn, the companies announced Monday. The sale allows Verizon to offload properties from the former internet empires of AOL and Yahoo.

Verizon will keep a 10% stake in the company and it will be rebranded to just Yahoo.

The sale will see online media brands under the former Yahoo and AOL umbrellas like TechCrunch, Yahoo Finance and Engadget go to Apollo at much lower valuations than they commanded just a few years ago. Verizon bought AOL for $4.4bn in 2015 and Yahoo two years later for $4.5bn.

Verizon will get $4.25bn in cash from the sale along with its 10% stake in the company. Verizon and Apollo said they expect the transaction to close in the second half of 2021.

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Amazing decline in the perceived value of those properties. Remember February 2008, when Microsoft bid $44.6bn for Yahoo? (And the exchange rate: then, $44.6bn = £22.4bn. Now it would be £32.2bn: a 43% decline.) The list of companies that Yahoo acquired and, for the most part, ruined, is long and includes names like Flickr, Delicious, Geocities and Tumblr. At least that’s (probably) over.
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Whatever the ruling, Facebook’s Oversight Board is a smokescreen • The Real Facebook Oversight Board

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Facebook’s Oversight Board will announce on Wednesday [at 1530 BST, 1030 EST] its decision on a permanent ban of Donald Trump. Obviously Donald Trump has violated Facebook’s terms of service repeatedly, incited hate, spread disinformation, fomented violence and been used as a model for other authoritarian leaders to abuse Facebook. He should be banned forever.

But do not let Facebook’s Oversight Board distract from the need to ensure real accountability for hate speech, election lies, disinformation and other harmful content.

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Anyhow, set your calendars.
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Facebook and the normalisation of deviance • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern (where “normalisation of deviance” refers to just accepting and ignoring how your system allows bad outcomes; it was what led to the Challenger explosion):

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On April 19th, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice-president of content policy, announced that, in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the company would remove hate speech, calls to violence, and misinformation relating to that trial. That accommodation was a tacit acknowledgement of the power that users of the platform have to incite violence and spread dangerous information, and it was reminiscent of the company’s decision, after the November election, to tweak its newsfeed algorithm in order to suppress partisan outlets, such as Breitbart.

By mid-December, the original algorithm was restored, prompting several employees to tell the Times’ Kevin Roose that Facebook executives had reduced or vetoed past efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech on the platform, “either because they hurt Facebook’s usage numbers or because executives feared they would disproportionately harm right-wing publishers.” According to the Tech Transparency Project, right-wing extremists spent months on Facebook organizing their storming of the Capitol, on January 6th. Last week, an internal Facebook report obtained by Buzzfeed News confirmed the company’s failure to stop coördinated “Stop the Steal” efforts on the platform. Soon afterward, Facebook removed the report from its employee message board.

…[The Trump reinstatement/permaban] decision will not be a referendum on Trump’s disastrous presidency, or on his promotion of Stop the Steal. Rather, it will answer a single, discrete question: Did Trump violate Facebook’s policies about what is allowed on its platform? This narrow brief is codified in the Oversight Board’s charter, which says that “the board will review content enforcement decisions and determine whether they were consistent with Facebook’s content policies and values.”

As events of the past few months have again demonstrated, Facebook’s policies and values have normalized the kind of deviance that enables a disregard for regions and populations who are not “big on people’s minds.” They are not democratic or humanistic but, rather, corporate. Whichever way the Trump decision—or any decision made by the Oversight Board—goes, this will still be true.

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Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced on Monday it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

…Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

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Can’t see Clubhouse surviving, then. I’d love to see the usage figures now that lockdown is easing.
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Google’s foldable Pixel phone was just confirmed by a top leaker • BGR

Chris Smith:

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A report about Samsung Display providing foldable OLED panels to various smartphone vendors casually mentioned Google a few days ago. Sources from Korea detailed the various foldable handsets in the works at Oppo and Xiaomi, revealing that these two Chinese smartphone vendors are working on new form factors that resemble Samsung’s foldable phones. The report didn’t say which design the foldable Pixel might employ, but it did reveal that the handset will have a 7.6-inch inward-folding panel from Samsung. All these devices are expected to launch sometime this year.

Google has already been working on adapting the Android experience for foldable devices, so making its own “Pixel Fold” handset makes plenty of sense. The best way to demo new features intended for foldable phones is by using its own hardware. And it looks like the Pixel Fold, or whatever Google ends up calling the handset, is real.

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The Pixel range is already a minority sport; the proportion of Pixel buyers who would want a foldable one might be higher than the general market, but I can’t see it turning the range into top sellers. Again, one has to ask what Google’s purpose is with this. It can’t be making any money from it, and it’s hard to see that the lessons from manufacturing have any applicability elsewhere in the company.
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Apple Watch could add blood sugar and alcohol readings after deal with UK tech company • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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Apple is exploring advanced smartwatch technology that monitors wearers’ blood pressure, glucose and alcohol levels under a deal with a British electronics start-up.

The US tech giant has been revealed as the largest customer of Rockley Photonics, which says its next-generation sensors could be in gadgets next year.

The British company has developed ultra-accurate sensors that read multiple blood signals that are typically only detectable using medical equipment, by beaming infrared light through skin from a module on the back of a smartwatch.

The more limited modules in today’s devices are able to detect measures such as heart rate but the ability to track variables such as blood glucose, which could detect diabetes, has been a long-term goal for wearable technology makers.

Rockley, which has offices in Oxford, Wales and Silicon Valley, revealed its relationship with Apple in listing documents as it prepares to go public in New York. 

The filings said that Apple accounted for the majority of its revenue in the last two years and that it has an ongoing “supply and development agreement” with the company under which it expects to continue to rely on Apple for most of its income.

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It seems surprising that you could capture sufficient data to record that sort of data at all accurately. But if it can measure glucose at all accurately, that will make it an automatic purchase for diabetics. And alcohol level, well, useful for drivers…
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1540: Apple’s antitrust cases double up, a geolocation tour de force, AirTag teardowns, Basecamp implodes, and more


Although Coleridge never finished Kubla Khan, we can train the AI system GPT-3 to do it, really quite successfully. What next? CC-licensed photo by Granpic 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. Not H. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Little reminder:
Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

EU says Apple’s 30% cut from rival music providers violates competition law • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The EC sent a Statement of Objections to Apple reflecting its preliminary conclusion that Apple violated European Union competition law. This kicks off a legal process in which Apple will be able to respond in writing and request an oral hearing before a final judgment is made. The EC took today’s action in response to a complaint from Spotify.

“If the case is pursued, the EU could demand concessions and potentially impose a fine of up to 10% of Apple’s global turnover—as much as $27bn, although it rarely levies the maximum penalty,” according to Reuters.

The European regulatory body said it “takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store” and with Apple-imposed “restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

The commission said it found that “Apple has a dominant position in the market for the distribution of music streaming apps through its App Store” and that it abused its dominant position by imposing rules on music streaming apps that compete against the Apple Music service.

“Our concern is that Apple distorts competition in the music streaming market to the benefit of Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music,” said EC Executive VP Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of competition policy. Vestager said that “Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices” by “charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding [third-party app developers] from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

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In Apple versus Epic Games, courtroom battle is only half the fight • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

»

Epic Games faces an uphill legal battle against Apple Inc in an antitrust trial starting Monday, and a defeat for the maker of “Fortnite” could make it harder for U.S. government regulators to pursue a similar case against the iPhone maker, legal experts said.

But win or lose at the trial, Epic, which has pursued an aggressive public relations campaign against Apple alongside its court pleadings, may have already accomplished a major goal: Drawing Apple squarely into the global debate over whether and how massive technology companies should be regulated.

Apple has mostly succeeded in staying out of the regulatory crosshairs by arguing that the iPhone is a niche product in a smartphone world dominated by Google’s Android operating system. But that argument has become harder to sustain with the number of iPhone users now exceeding 1 billion.

Epic alleges Apple has such a strong lock on those customers that the app store constitutes a distinct market for software developers over which Apple has monopoly power. Apple is abusing that power, Epic argues, by forcing developers to use Apple’s in-app payment systems – which charge commissions of up to 30% – and to submit to app-review guidelines the gaming company says discriminate against products that compete with Apple’s own.

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Epic claims that the App Store generates an operating profit margin (ie after costs are taken out) of 78%. Apple says that’s “simply wrong” and looks forward to refuting it in court. Should be fun.
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John Doe 29: image from FBI child exploitation case geolocated to Turkey • bellingcat

Carlos Gonzales:

»

In 2020, a new set of photos linked to the case were published in an FBI poster. Images from this set labelled BB001 and BB002 are shown below.

After careful analysis, we were able to geolocate the poolside seating area in one of the images to a hotel near to the town of Side in Turkey (coordinates: 36.810011, 31.346188). Again, and to be clear, no person or commercial establishments, directly or indirectly referenced in this article, is suspected of being involved in the abuse of children.

«

Put like this, it sounds a bit blah. There was a photo! They geolocated it! Big deal!

Then you go and look at the photos, and you begin to think: how in the world could you pinpoint a place – and an approximate time, as well – based on so little information? It makes “enhance, enhance” in Blade Runner look pretty tame.
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The computers are getting better at writing, thanks to artificial intelligence • The New Yorker

Stephen Marche:

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GPT-3 is a tool. It does not think or feel. It performs instructions in language. The OpenAI people imagine it for “generating news articles, translation, answering questions.” But these are the businessman’s pedantic and vaguely optimistic approaches to the world’s language needs.

For those who choose to use artificial intelligence, it will alter the task of writing. “The writer’s job becomes as an editor almost,” Gupta said. “Your role starts to become deciding what’s good and executing on your taste, not as much the low-level work of pumping out word by word by word. You’re still editing lines and copy and making those words beautiful, but, as you move up in that chain, and you’re executing your taste, you have the potential to do a lot more.” The artist wants to do something with language. The machines will enact it. The intention will be the art, the craft of language an afterthought.

For writers who don’t like writing—which, in my experience, is nearly all of us—Sudowrite may well be a salvation. Just pop in what you have, whatever scraps of notes, and let the machine give you options. There are other, more obvious applications. Sudowrite was relatively effective when I asked it to continue Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” I assume it will be used by publishers to complete unfinished works like Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” or P. G. Wodehouse’s “Sunset at Blandings.” With a competent technician and an editor-writer you could compose them now, rapidly, with the technology that’s available. There must be a market for a new Austen or Wodehouse. I could do either in a weekend.

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Marche includes a couple of examples of work kinda-sorta written by GPT-3: a continuation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – the latter famously unfinished.
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Renew and Refill Bob Cassette for a fraction of the cost! • dekuNukem on Github

“dekuNukem”:

»

With shipping and VAT added, it costs a whopping £43 ($60) for 90 washes! That is 48p (67c) per wash. It might not sound like much, but it quickly adds up.

Over a year of daily washes, it would have cost £174 ($242) in Bob cassettes alone! Imagine paying that much recurring cost for a dishwasher! And remember its internet connectivity? Yep, the whole reason is that it can reorder more cassettes automatically when it runs low, just like those wretched HP inkjet printers.

It is clear that Daan Tech are banking on the convenience of subscription models. Now I’m sure a lot of people would have no problem with that, but personally, I can think of a few better uses of my £174 than on dishwasher detergents.

Another point to consider is what happens if they went bust? No more cassettes, and now you have a fancy paperweight, like so many unnecessarily-smart appliances before it.

Credit where credit’s due, Daan Tech didn’t completely lock down the machine with Bob cassettes. Once empty, you can leave it there and add detergents manually. However, they strongly suggest against this, quoting a few drawbacks:

• It’s a chore to measure and add them manually at each wash.
• Dosing can be tricky, as most tablets, pods, and liquids are for full-size dishwashers.
• Multi-stage dosing impossible, can’t add rinse aid after main wash.
• Limescale might develop over time and damage the machine.

It is clear that this dishwasher was designed with Bob cassettes in mind, and I do enjoy their set-and-forget simplicity. That’s why I made it a priority to investigate how it works.

Looking at the cassette, we can see it has a small circuit board in the middle, with 4 contacts on each side. At the receptacle, we can see the connector for the PCB, as well as two hoses to pump out the detergent during a wash…there are only 4 wires going into the machine. Coupled with the fact that Bob needs to read the cassette to determine how many washes are left, and write to update it after a wash, I had a pretty good guess of what that mystery PCB contains.

The answer is an I2C EEPROM, a popular type of non-volatile memory. EEPROMs retain whatever’s inside even after losing power, and are very cheap, making them perfect at holding small configuration data in embedded systems.

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So of course he looked at the code inside it, and hacked it so he could refill the cassette as he liked.
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AirTag teardown part one: yeah, this tracks • iFixit

Sam Goldheart:

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Unlike the keychain-ready competition, the AirTag’s perfectly round exterior provides no place for you to thread a keyring—at least not easily. The official method to attach one of these to your keys is (wait for it): purchase accessories. But if you can hold a drill steady—and are willing to take a $29 risk—we’ve got a DIY hack for you.

After some reconnaissance inside our first AirTag, we grabbed a 1/16” drill bit and carefully punched a hole through the second tracker in our four-pack—after removing the battery, of course. We miraculously managed to avoid all chips, boards, and antennas, only drilling through plastic and glue. The best part? The AirTag survived the operation like a champ and works as if nothing happened. 

Amazingly, the sound profile didn’t seem to change much: measuring the decibel level  at one iPhone-Mini-length away from the AirTag, the Hole-y One™ was within a +/- 1 dB margin of error from a brand new ‘Tag (about 78-80 dB). Considering Apple is using the plastic dome itself as the speaker diaphragm, this comes as a pleasant surprise.

One last warning before we share our drilling secrets: attempt this at your own risk! Drilling in the wrong place can cause serious damage, so don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to potentially turn your tracker into a very light paperweight. With that out of the way, here’s a hastily-masked video demonstration of the “safe zones” as we see them.

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You’d have to be brave. But no doubt quite a few people are going to try this, with all sorts of mixed outcomes. But the teardown shows that these are really, really compact devices, especially compared with rivals (though those do have.. somewhere to thread into).
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A third of Basecamp’s workers resign after a ban on talking politics • The New York Times

Sarah Kessler:

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About a third of Basecamp’s employees have said they are resigning after the company, which makes productivity software, announced new policies banning workplace conversations about politics.

Jason Fried, Basecamp’s chief executive, detailed the policies in a blog post on Monday, calling “societal and political discussions” on company messaging tools “a major distraction.” He wrote that the company would also ban committees, cut benefits such as a fitness allowance (with employees receiving the equivalent cash value) and stop “lingering and dwelling on past decisions.”

Basecamp had 57 employees, including Mr. Fried, when the announcement was made, according to a staff list on its website. Since then, at least 20 of them have posted publicly that they intend to resign or have already resigned, according to a tally by The New York Times. Basecamp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Fried and David Hansson, two of Basecamp’s founders, have published several books about workplace culture, and news of their latest management philosophy was met with a mix of applause and criticism on social media.

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The past week was the most amazing shot/chaser sequence, starting with Fried’s “hey, no more politics at work!” blogpost through to mass resignations on Friday evening. I guess that’s one way to evaluate management technique.

The resignations included the entire iOS app team for Hey, the email product, so it’s going to be fun to watch how that progresses over the next few months. I suspect we’ll discover that developers are fungible, but Basecamp’s/Hey’s reputation is always going to be marked by this event.
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Crypto miners are killing free CI • Layer CI

Colin Chartier:

»

At LayerCI, we help developers build full-stack websites by creating per-branch preview environments and running end-to-end tests for them automatically. This is called CI (Continuous Integration.)

Because developers can run arbitrary code on our servers, they often violate our terms of service to run cryptocurrency miners as a “build step” for their websites. You can learn more in our docs.

“testronan” is an avid Flask user. Every hour they make a commit to their only GitHub repository: “testronan/MyFirstRepository-Flask”

The prolific programmer is certainly making sure that their contributions are well tested. Their repository contains configurations for five different CI providers: TravisCI, CircleCI, GitHub Actions, Wercker, and LayerCI.

Seemingly quite proficient at shell scripting, their CI tasks run “listen.sh”: A shell script that combines a complicated NodeJS script with some seemingly random numbers:

(sleep 10; echo 4; sleep 2; echo “tex.webd”;sleep 2; echo 7; sleep 1; echo 1; sleep 1; echo “exit”; sleep 2) | stdbuf -oL npm run commands

MyFirstRepository-Flask has nothing to do with Flask or webservers. It hosts cryptocurrency mining scripts that send WebDollars to an anonymous address. The numbers correspond to installation options for the NodeJS implementation of WebDollar.

…At WebDollar’s April peak price of $.0005, the repository was making $77USD per month – a considerable sum in many countries, especially given that the only tools required are a laptop and an internet connection.

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Perhaps crypto is best thought of as a parasite, consuming every computing resource that it possibly can? In which case, what’s the cure?
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He tried to cash in on the NFT craze by auctioning a house. It didn’t work • CNN

Anna Bahney, CNN Business:

»

For months, Shane Dulgeroff had watched NFTs – or non-fungible tokens – for pieces of digital art, baseball cards and other collectibles sell for mind-boggling amounts.

Then, the 27-year-old California real estate broker had an idea. What if he commissioned a digital rendering of a home that he owned and auctioned it off as an NFT, along with the real world property?

Within weeks, he had a technicolor work of digital art by Kii Arens, a contemporary, pop artist and graphic designer. Dulgeroff bundled it with his two-unit duplex in Thousand Oaks, California, which he advertised as bringing in an annual rental income of $60,000. The offering was put up for auction at OpenSea, an online marketplace for digital assets that are backed by a blockchain, like Ethereum.

“This is going down in history,” Dulgeroff said before the auction opened on April 9th. “Not only is it the world’s first property to be sold this way, but once this sale closes, it will open up people’s eyes to a new way to sell real estate.”

When Dulgeroff first put the NFT up for auction, it wasn’t immediately clear how much the house and artwork might go for. But given the booming market for NFTs and the established and reliable rental returns on the investment property — along with the bragging rights of having bought a property through an NFT — he envisioned it could bring in a huge number.

“I keep seeing this number: $20 million,” he said at the time. “It could be in that ballpark.”

«

He got zero bids. Why?

»

While Dulgeroff said he had heard from interested buyers from the real estate world, they had questions about how the title would transfer, whether it had to be an all-cash payment and how to get their money onto the platform.

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Oh, so fussy! Wanting to know if they’d actually own it!
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Joshua Wolf Shenk resigns as editor of the Believer magazine • Los Angeles Times

Dorany Pineda:

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In a farewell letter shared with the staff, Shenk said his resignation followed “a dumb, reckless choice to disregard appropriate setting and attire for a Zoom meeting. I crossed a line that I can’t walk back over. I sorely regret the harm to you — and, by extension, to the people we serve. I’m sorry.”

The incident occurred during a video meeting in early February with about a dozen staff members of the Believer and BMI, according to three sources who were in the meeting.

According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk’s advisor, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.

He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk’s computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.

In a statement to The Times, Shenk apologized for the pain the incident caused to the BMI staff, who he called “the most talented, devoted and creative people I’ve ever worked with.

“After my lapse in judgment, I decided to resign so that BMI’s work — sparking culture in Southern Nevada, publishing The Believer, and hosting writers persecuted in their home countries — could best continue in their exceptionally capable hands,” Shenk said.

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Please, if you’re going to use Zoom (or other video calling systems) this week, don’t try to outdo this. And don’t try to do this.
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Shipping containers are falling overboard at a rapid rate • SupplyChainBrain

Ann Koh:

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The shipping industry is seeing the biggest spike in lost containers in seven years. More than 3,000 boxes dropped into the sea last year, and more than 1,000 have fallen overboard so far in 2021. The accidents are disrupting supply chains for hundreds of U.S. retailers and manufacturers such as Amazon and Tesla.

There are a host of reasons for the sudden rise in accidents. Weather is getting more unpredictable, while ships are growing bigger, allowing for containers to be stacked higher than ever before. But greatly exacerbating the situation is a surge in e-commerce after consumer demand exploded during the pandemic, increasing the urgency for shipping lines to deliver products as quickly as possible.

“The increased movement of containers means that these very large containerships are much closer to full capacity than in the past,” said Clive Reed, founder of Reed Marine Maritime Casualty Management Consultancy. “There is commercial pressure on the ships to arrive on time and consequently make more voyages.”

After gale-force winds and large waves buffeted the 364-meter One Apus in November, causing the loss of more than 1,800 containers, footage showed thousands of steel boxes strewn like Lego pieces onboard, some torn to metal shreds. The incident was the worst since 2013, when the MOL Comfort broke in two and sank with its entire cargo of 4,293 containers into the Indian Ocean.

In January, the Maersk Essen lost about 750 boxes while sailing from Xiamen, China, to Los Angeles. A month later, 260 containers fell off the Maersk Eindhoven when it lost power in heavy seas.

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Of course it’s our fault. Damn consumers, wanting things, forcing ships to overturn.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1539: social networks’ free speech retreat, gig workers targeted in phone scam, iOS is Epic Games’s 5th biggest earner, and more


The US CDC won’t tell you, but based on what we know, wearing masks while outdoors has probably never been necessary throughout the pandemic. CC-licensed photo by Kristoffer Trolle 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. One-third done already. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

On social media, American-style free speech is dead • WIRED

Gilad Edelman interviews Evelyn Douek, a Harvard doctoral student who has written an article in the Columbia Law Review pointing out how the pandemic dismantled the social networks’ claims to be free speech havens:

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GE: One point you make is that, in this First Amendment–style approach, the distinctions are more categorical. Can you give an example of a kind of content moderation decision that embodies that way of looking at it?

ED: Yeah, so this is really important, because it’s one of the defining features of American free speech jurisprudence that the rest of the world has like looked at and gone, Mmm, not so much. It is a bit of technical, and so to break it down, let’s take, for example, adult nudity.

The way that it started [for social media] was fairly unsophisticated. It was like, “If there’s boobs, take it down.” That was the dominant approach for a while. And then people would go, Hold on, you’re removing a whole bunch of things that have societal value. Like people raising awareness about breast cancer, or people breastfeeding that shouldn’t be stigmatized. Or, in a bunch of cultures, adult nudity and breasts are a perfectly normal, accepted, celebrated kind of expression. So gradually this category of adult nudity became, first of all, untenable as an absolute category. And so it got sort of broken down into finer and finer distinctions that no longer really looks like a solid category, but looks much more like, OK we’ll take these finer and finer sort of instances and balance, what’s the social cost of this, what’s the benefit, and how should we reconcile that and approach it in a more proportionate manner?

GE: So it sounds like what you’re saying is a categorical approach to content moderation attempts to draw pretty bright lines around certain categories of posts that are not allowed, versus everything else that is allowed. But over time, you have to keep slicing these categories more and more thinly. And at a certain point, maybe it’s hard to say exactly where, it stops looking like a true category at all, because the judgments have to get so nuanced.

Yeah, that’s basically it. Let’s take another category: false speech. That was a category that was, like, absolutely protected by platforms pretty much universally for the history of content moderation. It was like, “The fact that it’s false is not enough for us to get involved and we’re not going to look at that any further. ‘It’s just false’ is not a reason that we will inquire into the value of that speech.”

The pandemic really changed that.

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It really did. I devote a whole chapter of my forthcoming book (out in June) to looking at how and why the social networks changed their attitude to removing content when Covid-19 appeared. (You might, if you can think back to the 2016 Olympics, be able to think of an example when Facebook in particular proved very unwilling to remove content about a different virus.)
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The CDC’s new guidelines are too timid and too complicated • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci on the US CDC’s new guidelines about when you can and can’t wear a mask, which had an accompanying chart that looked like ratatouille:

»

To add to the confusion, in earlier guidelines, the CDC already said that vaccinated people could meet indoors without masks even if one of the households had unvaccinated members. It’s confusing to say that vaccinated people can meet indoors without masks with unvaccinated people in one guideline, but that they should wear masks outdoors in a crowd in another guideline, without further explanation of why. If the idea is that, in crowds, we should keep masks for everyone because of sociological reasons, to avoid the awkwardness of selective mask enforcement, the CDC should just say so.

What about rules for vaccinated people indoors, then? One could argue that the science is already fairly strong that the vaccinated are likely fine even indoors, especially if community transmission isn’t very high, and that the CDC guidelines implicitly assume this. That said, one can concede that this part of the empirical record is still evolving. However, that’s not currently relevant for public rules and behavior, because just like we can’t tell only the sick to wear masks, we cannot tell only the vaccinated to chuck their masks indoors—a grocery-store clerk shouldn’t have to police this. For now, indoor spaces have to keep masks as a rule simply for sociological reasons. We should make that explicit too.

The CDC needs clearer, science-based guidelines that inform and empower us. People do not need a complicated patchwork of charts with rigid, binary rules. The science supports a simple guideline that allows for the removal of all mask mandates outdoors, except for unvaccinated people in prolonged close contact, especially that involving talking, yelling, or singing.

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The UK’s rules are at least simple, even if they’re just as science-lite in explanation as the CDC’s: hands [wash them – unnecessary, but it comforts people], face [ditto], space [social distance], fresh air. Masks are only presently required inside places you don’t live (shops, gyms, etc), and have never been required outside.

The CDC’s reluctance to inject any science into explaining its advice may say a lot about how terrible most people are at understanding this topic. Ironic, since not understanding can get you killed.
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Scammers are hacking Target’s gig workers and stealing their money • Vice

Lauren Kaori Gurley:

»

On the morning of March 28, a gig worker near Tampa, Florida, was shopping an order for Shipt, Target’s delivery platform, when he received an email from “Shipt Support” asking him to reset his password. 

The worker says he didn’t request to reset his password, but didn’t think much of the email and went on with this day. Later that evening, the worker says he was sitting at home on his couch when he received a phone call from Shipt’s corporate headquarters’ phone number. Someone identifying themselves as a Shipt employee and addressing the worker by his first name said there had been unusual activity on his account regarding his password and asked him to read back a code that had been emailed to him to verify his identity. 

Remembering the password reset email from earlier that day, the worker provided an authentication code that he’d received via email from Shipt. Shortly after, he received an email notifying him that someone had added a debit card to his account. 

When the worker checked his account again, he realized someone had logged in and cashed out his entire paycheck—$499.51. “I noticed my withdrawal balance was zero,” he said in a public video uploaded to Facebook. “At that point, I’m livid. I’m pissed.” 

In recent weeks, personal shoppers on Target’s delivery app, which boasts roughly 300,000 personal shoppers in the United States, have been repeatedly targeted by scammers hoping to steal their earnings by phishing gig workers’ credentials from them. 

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The systemic flaw here is in the US phone network (also found in other phone networks), in not having authentication methods for the origin of phone calls made over the network. Websites have developed SSL so that you can’t pretend to be a site. I don’t pretend to understand the underlying complexity in phone networks, but they’re pretty good at billing you based on the origin and destination of your call, so it seems strange they’re so lax about how they let calls represent themselves.

Phone networks are infrastructure too. Just saying.
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Windows 10 now active on 1.3 billion devices, says Microsoft • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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It’s been just over a year since Microsoft announced it had hit its goal of 1 billion monthly active Windows 10 devices. It took a while to get there, but Microsoft now says Windows 10 is growing even faster, reaching a whopping 1.3 billion active installs in the last quarter. Like a number of other technology firms, Microsoft has the global pandemic to thank for its windfall. It turns out people buy more computers when they’re stuck at home. 

“Over a year into the pandemic, digital adoption curves aren’t slowing down. They’re accelerating, and it’s just the beginning,” said CEO Satya Nadella. The latest device count comes from Microsoft’s earnings report, which featured a stunning $41.7bn in revenue for the quarter.

When Microsoft launched Windows 10 in 2015, it said it expected to reach a billion active monthly devices in summer 2018, but it missed that target by about 18 months. A big piece of Windows 10’s dominance was supposed to be smartphones, and Microsoft decided to abandon its Windows Phone program a few years later. It now makes Android phones, well, one phone so far. The Surface brand, which includes Windows laptops and the Duo Android phone, saw a 12% revenue lift in the last quarter. 

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Growing by 300 million in a single year is pretty remarkable, given that 290m PCs were sold. But that suggests upgrades from older ones have really slowed down.
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Epic Apple documents show PS4, not iPhone, is Fortnite’s cash cow • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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Earlier this month, we learned that the iOS version of Fortnite was a huge revenue driver for Epic Games — the game earned more than $700m from iOS customers over the two years before it was pulled by Apple, according to court documents (PDF) released ahead of Epic’s trial against the iPhone maker. But even though iOS Fortnite players brought in a staggering amount of money for Epic, iOS isn’t the biggest platform in terms of revenue for the game — apparently, it might even be among the smallest.

Court documents reveal that PlayStation 4 generated 46.8% of Fortnite’s total revenues from March 2018 through July 2020, while Xbox One, the second-highest platform, generated 27.5%. iOS ranked fifth, with just 7% of total revenue. The remaining 18.7% would have been split between Android, Nintendo Switch, and PCs.

In 2020, iOS revenues were projected to be an even smaller piece of the pie: just 5.8%, compared to 24% for Xbox One and “almost 40%” for PlayStation 4, according to a new deposition (PDF) of Epic Games’ David Nikdel, a senior programmer who works on the backend services for Fortnite.

“iOS was always the lowest or second lowest if Android was listed, correct?” lawyers asked Joe Babcock, Epic’s CFO until March 2020, in a separate deposition. The answer was yes.

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And because of that, Epic needed to run its own app store? That doesn’t quite make sense.
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Global electric car sales set for further strong growth after 40% rise in 2020 • International Energy Agency

»

The IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021 finds that despite the pandemic setting off a cascade of economic recessions, a record 3 million new electric cars were registered in 2020, a 41% increase from the previous year. By comparison, the global automobile market contracted 16% in 2020. Electric cars’ strong momentum has continued into this year, with sales in the first quarter of 2021 reaching nearly two and half times their level in the same period a year earlier.

Last year’s increase brought the number of electric cars on the world’s roads to more than 10 million, with another roughly 1 million electric vans, heavy trucks and buses. For the first time last year, Europe overtook China as the centre of the global electric car market. Electric car registrations in Europe more than doubled to 1.4 million, while in China they increased 9% to 1.2 million.

“While they can’t do the job alone, electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play in reaching net-zero emissions worldwide,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “Current sales trends are very encouraging, but our shared climate and energy goals call for even faster market uptake. Governments should now be doing the essential groundwork to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles by using economic recovery packages to invest in battery manufacturing and the development of widespread and reliable charging infrastructure.”

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Note how the US is very much not the centre of the electric car market: at most there were 0.4 million cars registered there in the year.
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I Photoshop Paddington into another movie until I forget • Jay Chou on Reddit

These are wonderful: now that (of course) Paddington 2 is the most popular film of all time (as measured by critics), he is adding the Peruvian bear into scenes from all sorts of other films. Particularly good: Justice League (got to look hard) and the film P2 displaced, Citizen Kane.
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The wind and solar boom is here • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

»

“The fossil fuel era is over,” declares Carbon Tracker Initiative, a nonprofit think tank that studies the economics of clean energy, in a new report. Kingsmill Bond, its energy strategist, told me that the transition to renewable energy will alter geopolitics and global economics on a scale comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution.

He cites one telling example to illustrate how and why. The world’s largest conventional oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, has the capacity to produce nearly four million barrels of oil per day. If you were to convert Ghawar’s annual oil output into electricity, you’d get almost one petawatt-hour of power per year. (That’s nearly enough to power Japan for a year; the world’s annual electrical energy demand is 27 petawatt-hours.)

The Ghawar oil field takes up a lot of space — about 3,000 square miles, around the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. But it soon might sound crazy to use that much sunny land for drilling oil. Bond estimates that if you put up solar panels on an area the size of Ghawar, you could now generate more than one petawatt-hour per year — more than you’d get from the oil buried under Ghawar.

But the oil will one day run out, while the sun will keep shining over Ghawar — and not just there, but everywhere else, too. This is the magic of the sun, as Bond explains: Only Saudi Arabia has a Ghawar, but with solar power almost every country in the world with enough space can generate one petawatt-hour of power (and without endangering the planet to boot).

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Nuclear energy • AVC

Fred Wilson is a venture capitalist (hence “AVC”):

»

When I was in my early 20s, I had a conversation with my dad. I told him I was against nuclear power because it was dangerous and because it created radioactive waste that we had no idea how to safely dispose of. He replied that there certainly were problems with nuclear energy but that they paled in comparison to those of burning fossil fuels. This was before greenhouse gases and climate change were front and center in my mind and the minds of most people. I was not convinced by my dad’s argument.

Forty years later, my dad is no longer with us, but his words ring loudly in my ears. I have come full circle on nuclear energy and now see it as way more attractive than most other forms of generating energy.

«

Teenager: “my parents are wrong about so many things.”
Same person, 20 years later: “I can see now that my parents have changed their views about lots of things.” (Joke courtesy my older brother, told to me many decades ago. Thanks, Steve, it stuck.)

This is also Wilson’s way of saying that his company, USV, has a big new climate venture capital fund. Not sure they’ll really have enough money to make a difference to the development of fission or fusion, but can’t hurt, I suppose.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1538: how Basecamp’s politics went out of control, Apple M2 “in production”, how to end India’s Covid plight, and more


In future, Olympic rowing medals might be won virtually. No idea how that works for teams, though. CC-licensed photo [of Heather Stanning, Britain’s world rowing champion] by Defence Images 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. Named tentatively. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• What’s a scissor statement?
• How many people warned Facebook about its effects on Myanmar before 2016?
• What’s the role of social media in Ethiopia’s unrest?
• Are small netwroks less toxic than big ones?
• Should do we fix the problems we perceive?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


🚨 What really happened at Basecamp • Platformer

Casey Newton:

»

[Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier] Hansson wanted to acknowledge the situation as a failure and move on. But when employees who had been involved in the list [of “funny” customer names collected since 2009 for a jape inside the company] wanted to continue talking about it, he grew exasperated. “You are the person you are complaining about,” he thought.

Employees took a different view. In a response to Hansson’s post, one employee noted that the way we treat names — especially foreign names — is deeply connected to social and racial hierarchies. Just a few weeks earlier, eight people had been killed in a shooting spree in Atlanta. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent, and their names had sometimes been mangled in press reports. (The Asian American Journalists Association responded by issuing a pronunciation guide.) The point was that dehumanizing behavior begins with very small actions, and it did not seem like too much to ask Basecamp’s founders to acknowledge that.

Hansson’s response to this employee took aback many of the workers I spoke with. He dug through old chat logs to find a time when the employee in question participated in a discussion about a customer with a funny-sounding name. Hansson posted the message — visible to the entire company — and dismissed the substance of the employee’s complaint.

Two other employees were sufficiently concerned by the public dressing-down of a colleague that they filed complaints with Basecamp’s human resources officer. (HR declined to take action against the company co-founder.)

Less than two weeks later, [CEO Jason] Fried announced the new company policies.

«

Newton with the inside story of the “dispute” (with Basecamp banning discussion of “politics” on company systems) that has had Valley Twitter agog for the past couple of days. It’s very hard to work out how much this is “are you sure this is actually a topic, at all?” and how much it’s “can’t you hear how clotheared the things you’re saying are?”
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Apple’s follow-up to M1 chip goes into mass production for Mac • Nikkei Asia

Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li:

»

The next generation of Mac processors designed by Apple entered mass production this month, sources familiar with the matter told Nikkei Asia, bringing the U.S. tech giant one step closer to its goal of replacing Intel-designed central processing units with its own.

Shipments of the new chipset – tentatively known as the M2, after Apple’s current M1 processor – could begin as early as July for use in MacBooks that are scheduled to go on sale in the second half of this year, the people said.

The latest entry in the “Apple silicon” lineup is, like its predecessor, a so-called system-on-a-chip, meaning it integrates central processing units, graphic processing units and artificial intelligence accelerators all on one chip. Sources said it will eventually be used in other Mac and Apple devices beyond the MacBook.

The new chipset is produced by key Apple supplier Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest contract chipmaker, using the latest semiconductor production technology, known as 5-nanometer plus, or N5P. Producing such advanced chipsets takes at least three months.

The start of mass production came as Apple introduced new iMac and iPad Pro models using the M1.

«

“Tentatively known as the M2”, aka “neither we nor the manufacturer know”. Though I guess calling it the N1 would make it too difficult to distinguish. Together with the schematics ransomwared from Quanta, we now know roughly when and what we’ll get this summer.

Apple also announced its quarterly results – a blow-the-doors-off $90bn in revenue (only just short of the usual bumper Christmas quarter) – in which profits rose 54% and Mac revenue was up 70% year-on-year. The M1 and the usable keyboards are making a hell of a difference.
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Win a gold medal from your front room? IOC launches Olympic Virtual Series • The Guardian

Sean Ingle:

»

The prospect of an Olympic gold medal being won from someone’s living room or garden shed moved a step closer on Thursday after the IOC announced it was moving into esports and virtual sports.

The inaugural Olympic virtual series, which starts next month, will involve five sports – baseball, cycling, rowing, sailing and motor sport – as part of a plan to grow new audiences for the International Olympic Committee.

A well-placed source told the Guardian that while medals would not be awarded for now, the possibility of medal events in the future for “physical” virtual sport, such as online rowing and cycling, should not be ruled out. But the source insisted there would never be gold medals for Overwatch or League of Legends.

In a statement the IOC said the Olympic Virtual Series would “mobilise virtual sport, esports and gaming enthusiasts all around the world in order to reach new Olympic audiences, while also encouraging the development of physical and non-physical forms of sports in line with the recommendations of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020+5”.

«

Rowing, eh? *blows on hands, looks at rowing machine*
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Stinson Beach residents must reckon with abandoning their homes as sea levels rise • SF Gate

Andrew Chamings:

»

Many residents in one of the Bay Area’s most popular day-trip destinations are being told that they may need to abandon their homes as sea levels rise, KPIX reported this week, and the state coastal commission and county is now battling over the town’s future

Studies show that numerous homes in Stinson Beach will flood with just one foot of sea rise, an unavoidable result of human-caused climate change. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects that this will likely happen in under 20 years (the same data set shows a rise of nearly four feet by the end of the century.)

Six years ago, residents in two of the lowest lying neighborhoods in Stinson Beach — Calles and the Sonoma-Patio — received notice from the county informing them that sea level rise would “have an impact on their ability to get permits for improvements on their properties,” KPIX reported.

“Lots of people delighted with their beach house and their one-and-a-half-minute walk to the beach all of a sudden discovered that you wouldn’t be able to get a permit, for anything,” resident and HOA President Mike Matthews told the station. “That equates to ‘can’t sell your house,’ and that equates to loss of the value of it so there was an extreme reaction.”

«

I bet there was an extreme reaction. Those houses would essentially go from being worth millions to zero.
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How to end India’s Covid nightmare • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

»

The US has millions of doses of vaccines which it’s simply not using. I’ve seen the exact number estimated as high as 100 million, but I think it’s widely accepted that there are 30 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses sitting, bottled but unused, in a warehouse in Ohio. There seems to be no short-term likelihood that the US FDA will approve it, over (to my mind misguided) fears about blood clotting, so they’re just gathering dust.

Since Aaronson wrote his post, there has been some apparent good news: the US says it will start releasing AstraZeneca doses, a total of 60 million. But there’s no sense of urgency. It’s waiting for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to complete a “safety review”, which could take weeks, before releasing the first 10 million. Meanwhile, in India, at the very least 2,500 people are dying every day from Covid in an unthinkable, ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

I wanted to remind people of the urgency. Imagine that there are 30 million doses sitting in Ohio; how much good could they do if we could get them into Indian arms straight away? So I thought it would be interesting to attempt a Fermi estimate of that, a sort of first approximation. It won’t be exact, but it might get us to within an order of magnitude, and give us a sense of how much using these vaccines matters.

«

Chivers tries to work out how many deaths could be avoided by sending those doses to India immediately. The number is large. So though are the number of cases every day: though the official figure is around 300,000, best calculations suggest the real number is anywhere between 6 and 10 million per day. India, of course, has 1.4 billion people (close enough), so the numbers could go anywhere – including up.
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Saudi, US net zero oil producer initiative meets sceptical response • Climate Change News

Joe Lo:

»

At Joe Biden’s climate summit on Friday, the US, Canada, Norway, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – together responsible for 40% of global oil and gas production – set up a forum “that will develop pragmatic net-zero emission strategies”.

Strategies could include stopping methane leaks and flaring, deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies, diversification from reliance on hydrocarbon revenues, and “other measures in line with each country’s national circumstances”, according to the joint statement.

There was no mention of leaving oil in the ground, an omission climate advocates were quick to criticise.

Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty campaign, said in a statement: “[This] is worrying because all of these countries continue to expand fossil fuel production and pour billions of dollars into technologies to reduce emissions ‘per barrel’ rather than to manage an equitable decline of overall emissions and production. If your house is on fire you don’t add more fuel.”

«

The climate writer Alex Steffen has a description for this:

»

We’re winning too slowly because we face a set of interest groups for whom losing slowly is the same thing as victory.

We live within what I call the Interval of Predatory Delay, a time that began over 50 years ago, when a set of high-polluting industries decided it was wiser and more profitable to fight to delay change on climate and sustainability than to invest in lower-carbon and more sustainable systems and processes. Easier to torch the planet and lie relentlessly, they decided, than avoid catastrophe and lose revenue.

«

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BT Sport up for sale in broadband push • Daily Telegraph

Christopher Williams and Ben Woods:

»

BT is in talks with Amazon, Disney and others to offload a stake in its television arm, The Telegraph can reveal, as the pandemic casts doubt over the future of sport.

The telecoms operator has appointed the investment bank Lazard to explore a partial sale of BT Sport as it focuses on upgrading Britain’s broadband network.

It is understood that BT is in talks with potential partners including Amazon, Disney and Dazn, an international sports streaming venture funded by Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the Ukraine-born billionaire.

A British broadcaster is also involved in the discussions and potentially leading the bidding, City sources said.

BT has a longstanding partnership with ITV, although has also worked with Channel 4 and the BBC. Any traditional broadcaster could seek to show more top-flight football on terrestrial television.

The same source said Dazn, which recently agreed a sports broadcasting partnership with BT’s Italian equivalent, was “most keen”.

The discussions pit a traditional broadcaster against Dazn, a streaming upstart, and two global media giants. Potential private equity partners including CVC, a major investor in rugby, and Silverlake, a shareholder in Manchester City are understood to have backed away from talks.

A source said: “The world of sport has been rocked by coronavirus. It’s no surprise that BT is rethinking how best to keep growing the business.”

«

BT Sport has never looked like a comfortable match for BT: big bets on how much to pay for content over multiple years is a different game from consultancy services and fibre laying.
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Seven ways Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurb may have broken rules • openDemocracy

Seth Thévoz:

»

The makeover of the prime minister’s flat, reported to have cost up to £200,000, has caused nothing but headaches for the government. Ever since the first carefully phrased denials were issued, this story has kept escalating.

As openDemocracy revealed last month, Boris Johnson has been breaking his own government’s transparency rules by failing to publish an up-to-date register of ministers’ interests. The prime minister’s own former senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, said Johnson planned to “have donors secretly pay” for the work.

Here’s what we do know. The civil service refused to pay £58,000 for luxury designer Lulu Lytle’s June 2020 invoice. There were also concerns about the total bill exceeding the £30,000-limit on taxpayer funds for the project.

In July 2020, with Lytle’s invoice deadline looming and Johnson unable to afford it himself, the Conservatives are said to have used Tory party funds to meet the bill.

In order to cover this amount, Tory donors from the Leader’s Group later dug deep – Tory peer David Brownlow paid £58,000 in October 2020. openDemocracy understands the amount was later repaid back to Brownlow, and that he looked at setting up a Trust with himself as chair, to avoid having to disclose the donation. Lord Brownlow has not commented on this.

The Conservative Party denies currently using its funds to pay the bill – but that was never the allegation. It has refused to be drawn in on whether it had previously used its funds in that way.

Last week, Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True told the House of Lords the extra cost had now been “met by the prime minister personally”. This raises even more questions – Boris Johnson has not declared any income windfall, so how can he suddenly afford a £58,000 bill that he couldn’t afford last July? Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves suggested Johnson was “Possibly breaking the law.”

«

The seven ways are listed. For any readers who are confused over what all this is about, and why it matters. (They all matter, but some more than others.)
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India’s genome sequencing program is finally good to go – so what’s the holdup? • The Wire Science

Priyanka Pulla:

»

Rakesh Mishra, the director of Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), is frustrated. CCMB has been sequencing SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes since the COVID-19 pandemic began – initially as part of its own research program and since December 2020 as part of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), a group of ten labs the government put together to ramp up sequencing across to India.

To do its work, Mishra’s team needs specialised plastic containers and reagents that go into sequencing machines. But buying them has become needlessly complicated in the last year, taking time away from his lab’s core jobs, according to Mishra.

The source of his troubles is a finance ministry order in May 2020 that stopped government labs from importing goods worth less than Rs 200 crore. The order was meant to boost local manufacturing, in the spirit of ‘Make in India’, but had unintended consequences for India’s fledgling genome-sequencing efforts. Several reagents and plastics used by Indian labs come from foreign manufacturers, like the US-based Illumina Incorporation, and have no Indian substitutes.

The ministry’s sudden restrictions threw these labs out of gear. By September 2020, sequencing across the country had come to a near-complete halt, as labs ran out of reagents they needed. Then, in response to their complaints, the ministry exempted reagents from its restrictions in January 2021.

But plastics are now the new thorn in his side, Mishra said. These materials still haven’t been exempted from the ministry’s order, which means his lab can’t buy them in bulk unless it can conduct a market assessment to show that no Indian alternatives exist. Such an assessment is a needless bureaucratic distraction at a time when labs desperately need to sequence more viral genomes – and faster. “It’s like asking us to run a 100-metre dash with our hands tied,” Mishra said. “I can run, but I will run very slow.”

«

The import ban has the Modi feel, that Make India Great Again intervention that screws things up. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1537: are airplanes Covid-safe?, tracking the most powerful cosmic rays, bitcoin’s real users, Google’s contact mess, and more


The European Commission is about to charge Apple with antitrust violations for its App Store behaviour towards Spotify and others, reports say. CC-licensed photo by Scott Beale 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. Best viewed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• What differentiates social networks from forums?
• What happens when machine learnings systems are left to themselves?
• What’s the quickest way to reduce harms from social networks?
• Can we do that?

 

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


EU to charge Apple with anti-competitive behaviour this week • Financial Times

Javier Espinoza:

»

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, will later this week issue charges against Apple stating that its App Store rules break EU law, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.

The charges relate to a complaint brought two years ago by Spotify, the music streaming app, that Apple takes 30% commission to distribute apps through its iPhone App Store and forbids apps from directing users to pay for subscriptions elsewhere.

Brussels opened an official competition investigation in June, when Vestager said Apple appeared to be a so-called gatekeeper “when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices”. 

Apple, which has denied any allegations of anti-competitive behaviour, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. At the time of Spotify’s initial complaint, Apple said the music app wanted to “keep all the benefits” of its App Store “without making any contributions to that marketplace”.

The case is one of the most high-profile antitrust cases in Europe against a US tech group. The people familiar with the process warned that the timing could still slip.

Brussels is also investigating Apple for allegedly breaking EU laws when it comes to promoting its own ebooks over rivals on the App Store, and over concerns that it undermines competition in mobile payments by limiting access to the near-field communication chips in iPhones for rivals to Apple Pay.

If Apple is ultimately found guilty of breaking EU rules, after a long period of potential appeals, the company faces a fine of up to 10% of global revenues.

«

Quite the fun week for Apple, given that the Epic antitrust case is now underway in the US. The App Store turns out to be the blessing – the thing that has persuaded so many people to buy an iPhone, the thing that keeps them tied to it – and, potentially, the curse as well.
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Bitcoin’s most recent adopters are working-class migrants • Rest of World

Andalusia Knoll Soloff:

»

[Maria] Salgado thought cryptocurrencies were a scam when she first heard about them through colleagues and Facebook ads. But in 2017, she realized that more and more of her friends were getting involved in crypto, and that’s when she became a convert. “I realized we were all fighting for the same thing: to have a better life.”

Salgado is now part of a growing number of Latin Americans using cryptocurrency to transfer money from the United States south of the Rio Grande. They represent a new wave of crypto users who are not tech enthusiasts or white-collar financiers but rather working-class people whose livelihoods depend on a technology that is often seen as experimental.

The savings in commission fees makes crypto remittances a gamble worth taking for low-wage migrants. Before Bitcoin, like most migrants, she would send her money via the international transfer companies Western Union, MoneyGram, or Vigo. They all charged her, on average, $10 for every $200 she sent. Meanwhile, companies like Mexican crypto exchange Bitso charge commissions as low as $1 per $1,000 sent.

Jesús Cervantes González, an economist with the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies (CEMLA), told Rest of World that the pandemic led migrants to search for digital solutions to send money home. Many traditional exchanges closed their doors to the public, even as remittances steadily rose between 2010 and 2020, increasing by 8.3% in 2020. They went down for only two months in 2020, when Covid-19 first started spreading widely in the US and unemployment for Latinos surged — from 4.8% in February 2020 to 18.5% in April 2020.

«

Notice that this use of bitcoin is completely independent of its “price”. Transferring a balance from one place to the other would just be an entry in the blockchain. But because some people fixate on its “price” (because they’ve discovered a version of the greater fool system to sell them), the blockchain process consumes – wastes – colossal amounts of energy. Bitcoin’s maximum bound on transactions per second (max: 7) is independent of “price” or hashing rate; it depends on the size of each bitcoin block

In other words, all the energy consumption is unnecessary. It can undercut the greedier exchanges easily.
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High energy cosmic ray sources mapped out for the first time • Quanta Magazine

Natalie Wolchover:

»

A cosmic ray is just an atomic nucleus — a proton or a cluster of protons and neutrons. Yet the rare ones known as “ultrahigh-energy” cosmic rays have as much energy as professionally served tennis balls. They’re millions of times more energetic than the protons that hurtle around the circular tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. In fact, the most energetic cosmic ray ever detected, nicknamed the “Oh-My-God particle,” struck the sky in 1991 going something like 99.99999999999999999999951% of the speed of light, giving it roughly the energy of a bowling ball dropped from shoulder height onto a toe. “You would have to build a collider as large as the orbit of the planet Mercury to accelerate protons to the energies we see,” said Ralph Engel, an astrophysicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and the co-leader of the world’s largest cosmic-ray observatory, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina.

The question is: What’s out there in space doing the accelerating?

«

Before you move on to the next one, I’d like to point out that this article includes a 3D map of the universe (not just the Milky Way – no half measures here) which you can pan, zoom and rotate. It’s not 1:1 scale, you’ll be relieved to hear.
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Mighty’s master plan to reignite the future of desktop computing • MightyApp

Suhail Doshi:

»

We’re excited to finally unveil Mighty, a faster browser that is entirely streamed from a powerful computer in the cloud.

After two years of hard work, we’ve created something that’s indistinguishable from a Google Chrome that runs at 4K, 60 frames a second, takes no more than 500 MB of RAM, and often less than 30% CPU even with 50+ tabs open. This is the first step in making a new kind of computer.

If you’re not sure what that means, imagine your browser is a Netflix video but running on cutting-edge server hardware somewhere else.

When you switch to Mighty, it will feel like you went out and bought a new computer with a much faster processor and much more memory. But you don’t have buy a new computer. All you have to do is download a desktop app.

«

This… makes… no… sense… at… ALL. It’s a browser inside (in effect) a browser? Except it depends on your network connection and.. how fast your computer renders what’s in the app (a bit like.. a browser?) There’s a demo video. I do not understand what they are trying to do. Would it serve as virtualisation? It’s streaming video.. of a browser. Also, I’ve no idea how they think they’ll make money. (Adverts? Selling you data? They don’t say.)

This is the second thing that has been promoted on Paul Graham’s Twitter feed (the other was yesterday’s Prometheus Fuels* – let’s capture carbon from the air and… burn it??) that I’ve noticed in just two days. 🤔

*see correction – not a very big one, but involving chemistry – at end.
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How safe are you from Covid when you fly? • The New York Times

Mika Gröndahl, Tariro Mzezewa, Or Fleisher and Jeremy White:

»

Air is refreshed roughly every two to three minutes — a higher rate than in grocery stores and other indoor spaces, experts say. It’s one reason, in addition to safety protocols, that there have not been many superspreader events documented on flights.

The high exchange rate on planes forces new and existing cabin air to mix evenly, with the goal of minimizing pockets of air that could become stale or linger for too long.

…To prevent air from circulating throughout the cabin, the ventilation system keeps it contained to a few rows.

…Throughout the flight, cabin air is periodically sucked through two HEPA filters into a manifold under the floor, where fresh and recirculated air are mixed. Each filter has 12 panels of densely pleated fiberglass mesh that catch most microscopic particles.

«

The picture you get is that you’re pretty safe, unless you have the bad luck to be seated near someone who is infected and sneezing. (I thought coughing was the thing?) But the bigger risks are perhaps in the airport terminal, where air circulation might be less good and you’ll be closer to people not wearing masks.

The animation for the air circulation is lovely – worth viewing for itself.
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Google promised its contact tracing app was completely private—but it wasn’t • The Markup

Alfred Ng:

»

millions of people have downloaded contact tracing apps developed through Apple’s and Google’s framework: The U.K.’s National Health Services’ app has at least 16 million users, while Canada’s Digital Service COVID Alert app boasted more than six million downloads in January, and Virginia’s Department of Health noted more than two million residents were using its COVIDWISE app.

California governor Gavin Newsom endorsed his state’s version of the app, calling it “100% private & secure” in a tweet last December.

But The Markup has learned that not only does the Android version of the contact tracing tool contain a privacy flaw, but when researchers from the privacy analysis firm AppCensus alerted Google to the problem back in February of this year, Google failed to change it. AppCensus was testing the system as part of a contract with the Department of Homeland Security. The company found no similar issues with the iPhone version of the framework.

“This fix is a one-line thing where you remove a line that logs sensitive information to the system log. It doesn’t impact the program, it doesn’t change how it works, ” said Joel Reardon, co-founder and forensics lead of AppCensus. “It’s such an obvious fix, and I was flabbergasted that it wasn’t seen as that.”

“We were notified of an issue where the Bluetooth identifiers were temporarily accessible to specific system level applications for debugging purposes, and we immediately started rolling out a fix to address this,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in an emailed statement to The Markup.

Serge Egelman, AppCensus’s co-founder and chief technology officer, however, said that Google had repeatedly dismissed the firm’s concerns about the bug until The Markup contacted Google for comment on the issue late last week.

«

Funny how that keeps happening.
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Tesla turns a record profit despite new Model S and Model X delay • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

»

Tesla generated $10.4bn in sales the first quarter, and recorded a $438m profit. That’s basically double the revenue it generated in the first quarter of 2020, when Tesla had to temporarily shut down its factory in China due to the earliest outbreaks of the coronavirus. It’s also the most profit Tesla’s ever made in a quarter.

This is the seventh quarter in a row that Tesla has turned a profit, though the company was once again buoyed by selling emissions credits to other automakers. Tesla said Monday that it sold a record $518m worth of regulatory credits, meaning that it would’ve finished the quarter in the red without them. Tesla presented the growth of regulatory credit sales as a positive in the presentation it published Monday. But many close followers of Tesla have been waiting for the moment when it’s able to turn a profit based on the products it sells. This was not that moment.

Tesla also says it made about $101m on the sale of bitcoin in the first quarter. The company announced in January that it had bought $1.5bn worth of the cryptocurrency and started allowing customers to pay for cars using bitcoin.

«

Reminds me – a bit – of Apple’s darker days from 1996-01, when it used to boost its operating losses into net profits by selling off shares it owned in a company called ARM. Whatever happened to that, eh.

Question is how long the regulatory credit scheme, which also allows normal vehicle makers to keep pumping out gas guzzlers, will keep going.
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The Linux Foundation’s demands to the University of Minnesota for its bad Linux patches security project • ZDNet

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, following up the story from last week:

»

To say that Linux kernel developers are livid about a pair of University of Minnesota (UMN) graduate students playing at inserting security vulnerabilities into the Linux kernel for the purposes of a research paper “On the Feasibility of Stealthily Introducing Vulnerabilities in Open-Source Software via Hypocrite Commits” is a gross understatement. 

Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Linux kernel maintainer for the stable branch, well-known for being the most generous and easygoing of the Linux kernel maintainers, exploded and banned UMN developers from working on the Linux kernel. That was because their patches had been “obviously submitted in bad faith with the intent to cause problems.” 

The researchers, Qiushi Wu and Aditya Pakki, and their graduate advisor, Kangjie Lu, an assistant professor in the UMN Computer Science & Engineering Department of the UMN then apologized for their Linux kernel blunders. 

That’s not enough. The Linux kernel developers and the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board via the Linux Foundation have asked UMN to take specific actions before their people will be allowed to contribute to Linux again. We now know what these demands are.

«

Essentially they’re this:

»

the name of each targeted [piece of] software, the commit information, purported name of the proposer, email address, date/time, subject, and/or code, so that all software developers can quickly identify such proposals and potentially take remedial action for such experiments.

«

This is almost a sociological experiment in “how far along the road with a really bad idea can you get?” Putting vulnerabilities into open source code on purpose with the intent of not being found is the sort of thing you might suggest on Twitter after a few drinks. But sobriety should follow too.
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China set to report first population decline in five decades • Financial Times

Sun Yu:

»

China is set to report its first population decline since the famine that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic policy in the late 1950s that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.

The current fall in population comes despite the relaxation of strict family planning policies, which was meant to reverse the falling birth rate of the world’s most populous country.

The latest Chinese census, which was completed in December but has yet to be made public, is expected to report the total population of the country at less than 1.4bn, according to people familiar with the research. In 2019, China’s population was reported to have exceeded the 1.4bn mark.

The people cautioned, however, that the figure was considered very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications.

“The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work,” said Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. “They need to be handled very carefully.”

…Analysts said a decline would suggest that China’s population could soon be exceeded by India’s, which is estimated at 1.38bn. A fall in population could exact an extensive toll on Asia’s largest economy, affecting everything from consumption to care for the elderly.

“The pace and scale of China’s demographic crisis are faster and bigger than we imagined,” said Huang. “That could have a disastrous impact on the country.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: re Prometheus Fuels yesterday: a litre of petrol only weighs 740g, so doesn’t contain 2.5kg of carbon; it has around 690g of carbon. (When burnt it becomes 2.5kg of carbon dioxide because you add two hefty oxygen atoms.) I don’t think this affects the calculation of how much air has to be processed to produce a litre of fuel. More to the point, removing carbon dioxide in order to burn it again makes as much sense as pulling smoke out of a smoky room and then blowing it back through the keyhole. The “smoke” is the problem here.

Start Up No.1536: Facebook and Apple at odds as iOS 14.5 released, petrol from the air?, publishers reject Google’s FLoC, and more


With renewables and microgeneration on the rise, Google reckons power grids need a “moonshot” to inject machine learning and more for future systems. Can it succeed? CC-licensed photo by sagesolar 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. Friend or foe? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why did so many news sites “pivot to video” in 2015?
• Would online discourse be nicer if algorithms weren’t picking content?
• What sort of content do we really respond to?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


How Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s CEO became foes • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Jack Nicas:

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At the center of the fight are the two C.E.O.s. Their differences have long been evident. Mr. Cook, 60, is a polished executive who rose through Apple’s ranks by constructing efficient supply chains. Mr. Zuckerberg, 36, is a Harvard dropout who built a social-media empire with an anything-goes stance toward free speech.

Those contrasts have widened with their deeply divergent visions for the digital future. Mr. Cook wants people to pay a premium — often to Apple — for a safer, more private version of the internet. It is a strategy that keeps Apple firmly in control. But Mr. Zuckerberg champions an “open” internet where services like Facebook are effectively free. In that scenario, advertisers foot the bill.

The relationship between the chief executives has become increasingly chilly, people familiar with the men said. While Mr. Zuckerberg once took walks and dined with Steve Jobs, Apple’s late co-founder, he does not do so with Mr. Cook. Mr. Cook regularly met with Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, but he and Mr. Zuckerberg see each other infrequently at events like the Allen & Company conference, these people said.

The executives have also jabbed at each other. In 2017, a Washington political firm funded by Facebook and other Apple rivals published anonymous articles criticizing Mr. Cook and created a false campaign to draft him as a presidential candidate, presumably to upend his relationship with former President Donald J. Trump. And when Mr. Cook was asked by MSNBC in 2018 how he would deal with Facebook’s privacy issues if he was in Mr. Zuckerberg’s shoes, he replied, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

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Very much the Irish saying of “I wouldn’t start from here”. Notable how the headline assumes everyone knows who Zuckerberg is, but not Cook. (That is, the title on the web page; the headline on the page does say Cook.)
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Update your iPhone so you can tell apps to stop tracking you • Vice

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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Apple started rolling out the latest version of iOS (14.5) on Monday, which could become a watershed moment in the history of privacy on the internet. The new version of iOS makes tracking an opt-in feature. In other words, when you install an app on your iPhone, you will have to allow it to track you across other apps, and if you want, you can stop it from tracking you entirely.

This is the most aggressive pro-privacy step Apple has taken in years. Facebook hates it so much that it has launched a full-on PR campaign claiming this change will hurt small businesses.

For many people on the internet, however, this is actually good news. Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher, told Motherboard that this is “a great step, particularly the global option to block tracking via one step.”

“It’s in line with the Global Privacy Control project that I’ve been working on, and is required under the California Law,” he said in an online chat. “In addition to technical mitigations, I’m looking forward to Apple supporting the legal right for consumers to opt-out so simply.”

“Apple today is turning on enhanced privacy/transparency in apps. This is a great day for European policy ideas for cookie pop-up boxes, now deployed to millions of smartphones all around the world,” Lukasz Olejnik, a security and privacy researcher, wrote on Twitter.

The feature is called App Tracking Transparency and in practice, it means that when you open apps you will be greeted with a new pop-up: “Allow [App Name] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” The first choice is “Ask App Not to Track” and the second one is “Allow.”

Choosing “Ask App not to Track” makes Apple disable the app from using our Apple device identifier, “a random string of letters and numbers assigned to our iPhones and that is used to track our activities across apps and websites,” and lets the app developer know that you don’t want them to track you in any way

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So, let’s see if the sky does indeed fall as Facebook predicted. (Here’s a list of everything that’s new.)
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Why the electric grid needs a moonshot • Google X

Astro Teller runs Google X, the “moonshot factory”:

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Grid operators ensure that the supply of electricity to the grid stays in balance with the amount being used every moment of every day. One of the biggest challenges they face is that they have to manage and make decisions without full visibility into all the new and intermittent power sources coming onto the grid, like wind turbines or solar panels. And they don’t have visibility into how energy is flowing in real time: there is no global map or end-to-end aggregated view that gives every operator a consistent, full view of what’s happening on the grid from power plants down to the solar panels on your roof.

What you see happening on the grid depends on who’s looking and from what vantage point. Everyone who manages, builds, regulates and provides electricity to our power system — from utilities to system operators — uses their own sets of tools and models of the system. And this is becoming a huge hindrance as operators are now orchestrating novel and unpredictable flows of power from billions of new devices both contributing to and drawing from the grid.

Finding a way to create a single view of this splintered system felt to us like a promising entry point for reimagining things. We think machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced computing tools can help; in the last decade these technologies have powered the creation of virtual representations of real-world environments that act as super-efficient simulated testing grounds for new ideas and software.

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“Moonshot factory” is quite the boast, and not really supported by the facts. Google X has tried lots of things and you’d be pushing it to say any has even achieved orbit. This is a big idea, but DeepMind has effectively pulled out of this space already. That’s not encouraging.
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Fuels from thin air: Prometheus joins the chase to make captured CO2 into net zero hydrocarbon fuels • Biofuels Digest

Jim Lane:

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What is it? Prometheus removes CO2 from the air and turns it into zero-net carbon gasoline and jet fuel at a price that will compete with conventional fossil fuels used in transportation today. Because only renewable energy sources are used in its production, you get net zero carbon fuels.

How does it work? BMW reports that the process uses a solution of liquid water and CO2 that is exposed to an electrified copper plate. This catalyzes a reaction and produces fuel alcohols (mostly ethanol). Closely packed filters made from cylindrical carbon nanotubes embedded in plastic allow ethanol through while blocking water molecules. From there, the more concentrated solution of approximately 95% ethanol can be catalyzed with zeolite to join into more complex hydrocarbons, including gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. This technique works at room temperature, while traditional methods of extraction require heat to distill it from a solution.

Founder Rob McGinnis speculated that even though the theoretical efficiency of Prometheus’ system was only 50–60%, their less energy-intensive process could nevertheless considerably lower overall cost and be competitive with fossil fuels.

Why is it a big deal? As BMW notes, “The modularity of the approach will enable micro-cells of gasoline production where there is a surplus of renewable energy available.”

What’s difficult here? For one, the CO2 processing — it’s aiming to use atmospheric CO2 not point source. That’s tougher. So, the company has pioneered a DAC technology, that’s short for Direct Air Capture. You have to process about 1600 pounds of air to capture a pound of CO2, so having a very passive process is a must.

As BMW noted that the “salvaged CO2 encounters renewable electricity in an electrochemical stack called the Faraday Reactor. The electricity “charges” the carbon with hydrogen molecules from the water to create long-chain alcohols, releasing pure oxygen.

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Petrol contains around 2.3-2.6 kilos of carbon (dioxide? Perhaps) per litre. So this thing has to process 1600 x 2.4 kg = 3.8 tonnes of air to capture the equivalent amount of carbon for a single litre of petrol. Air weighs 1.29kg per cubic metre, so there’s about 3.8kg in 3 cubic metres, hence 3.8 tonnes of air is 3,000 cubic metres. An Olympic swimming pool (50m, 25m wide, 2-3m deep) is 2,500 cubic metres. 120% of that to produce one litre of not-yet petrol.

Let’s say it: that’s insane. Even if it were completely passive, it would still make more sense just to capture the carbon and sequester it, and use the power for electric cars. They’re actually more energy-efficient. (New working hypothesis: things called “Prometheus” are junk.)
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Is an activist’s pricey house news? Facebook alone decides • The New York Times

Ben Smith on how the NY Post is aggrieved that Facebook is blocking sharing of a post because it mentions a house, on which basis Facebook has a policy that the person mentioned can block it:

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What Facebook’s clash with The Post really revealed — and what surprised me — is that the platform does not defer, at all, to news organizations on questions of news judgment. A decision by The Post, or The New York Times, that someone’s personal wealth is newsworthy carries no weight in the company’s opaque enforcement mechanisms. Nor, Facebook’s lawyer said, does a more nebulous and reasonable human judgment that the country has felt on edge for the last year and that a Black activist’s concern for her own safety was justified. (The activist didn’t respond to my inquiry but, in an Instagram post, called the reporting on her personal finances “doxxing” and a “tactic of terror.”)

The point of Facebook’s bureaucracy is to replace human judgment with a kind of strict corporate law. “The policy in this case prioritizes safety and privacy, and this enforcement shows how difficult these trade-offs can be,” the company’s vice president for communications, Tucker Bounds, said. “To help us understand if our policies are in the right place, we are referring the policy to the Oversight Board.”

The board is a promising kind of supercourt that has yet to set much meaningful policy. So this rule could eventually change. (Get your stories deleted while you can!)

For now, though, the deletion seems to be an instance of how the company finds itself constantly debating the literal interpretation of its own, made-up rules rather than exercising any form of actual judgment. That came up again this spring in an internal report finding that Facebook hadn’t cracked down on “Stop the Steal” splinter groups because they were all hovering below its “violation threshold.”

I should note that when it comes to the article about the activist’s house, Facebook waded into one of the trickiest areas of online speech, and one of the hardest calls for news organizations today.

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Poor Facebook, forced to make decisions over policies that it dreamt up itself. Reddit has a similar policy (see No.3), which it enforces effectively: people who doxx someone (give out their personal details) get banned. Facebook could do that, of course.

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Some publishers rejet FLoC while others are open to testing it

Kate Kaye:

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Privacy concerns, potential discriminatory categorization of people and data control have some publishers including The Guardian joining web browsers in blocking Google’s cookieless tracking and ad targeting method, FLoC. Meanwhile, The New York Times is among publishers open to testing FLoC, or Federated Learning of Cohorts, a method that categorizes groups of people based on their website visits and enables ad targeting and measurement in aggregate, rather than at an individual level. But as contributors to WordPress, which operates the foundation for millions of websites, also have mulled disabling FLoC, and as European regulators delay trials there, the anti-FLoC chorus grows louder.

“We’ve decided to opt-out of the FLOC trial, for the moment, as we assess the commercial and privacy implications of the technology,” a Guardian News and Media spokesperson told Digiday. “As we learn more about the technology, we may seek to move to trial in the future, but we are also testing a range of other privacy-respecting identity solutions, as we seek to build out our future advertising strategy.”

Google declined to comment on the record for this story.

…headwinds billow against the increasingly controversial FLoC technique. Facing concerns regarding compliance with data use and privacy restrictions in Europe, Google revealed in March that it will not make FLoC available for testing in countries where the General Data Protection Regulation and ePrivacy Directive are in place.

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Privacy is suddenly quite a thing this year, isn’t it? Almost as if some sort of tipping point had been reached.
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Apple AirTags are about so much more than finding your keys • WIRED UK

Andrew Williams:

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Car keys are just one implementation of the Apple U1 chip’s UWB [ultrawideband wireless]. Apple offered us plenty more in a series of patents it filed towards the end of 2019, as reported by Patently Apple.

Diagrams in these filings show a series of Apple U1 trackers used to model the articulation of someone’s body in front of a TV hooked up to some future version of the Apple TV box. Exercise platform Apple Fitness+ is already here, so how about using UWB to tell when you are performing yoga moves correctly in a virtual class, using a virtual on-screen avatar?

Another suggested application is to use UWB to find the fire extinguisher, fire exit or defibrillator in a building, presumably a hospital. Apple has already made major in-roads into healthcare organisations with Apple Health — particularly in the US — so why wouldn’t it work its way deeper into their infrastructure?

The patent filing also details the use of multiple UWB sensors for posture analysis, with Apple U1 sensors dotted across the spine, arms, legs and head.

The contents of patents can never be taken as a guarantee something is going to be released, or is even actively being seriously developed. Some of these sound like a headache, and we don’t fancy clipping a half-dozen sensors on for a yoga class, but the idea Apple U1 is not really for finding things is not our own. And these patents do lay out AirTag use more-or-less exactly as Apple announced at its launch event.

There are more obvious applications that may have already come to mind as you read this, too. Apple U1 devices could be used as objects or play pieces in an augmented reality game or app you play using Apple AR Glasses.

Take that idea further. An Apple U1 chip could sit in every shop shelf, identifying the products that sit on them. Ask Siri where to find the carrots, or a Hermès AirTag holder, and your Apple Glasses highlight them in your view, appearing to see through walls, showing stock levels and the price.

They could be used to map out the play field for virtual reality, AirTags marking out its limits at the corners of the room. HTC Vive uses dedicated laser-tracking boxes to similar effect, at far greater expense.

Your robot vacuum cleaner need never lose track of its home base again with the help of an Apple U1 chip. It could allow for ultimate energy saving home automation, turning off all appliances in rooms in which there are no beating hearts — assuming everyone in your family is Apple-obsessed enough to own an Apple Watch.

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It’s nice to dream, but Apple isn’t in to “every shop shelf”. It’s into “let the shops stick UWB chips on their shelves and we’ll leverage what they do”. It’s hard to see it making a robovac either – not computer-y enough, and too crowded a market. It hasn’t even put the U1 chip in its new TV remote. Change is slow.
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“Newsworthiness,” Trump, and the Facebook Oversight Board • Columbia Journalism Review

Renee DiResta and Matt DeButts:

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If Facebook’s algorithms didn’t relentlessly promote Trump’s messages, they might not have gone viral, or at least not with the same alacrity. Just look at the past few months: by blocking Trump from their platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media giants appear to have significantly reduced the media coverage about him. If social media made Trump newsworthy, we now know, too, that it can make him less so.

To escape from Facebook’s circular logic of “newsworthiness,” we have two choices: we can either redefine the term, or we can rethink how it is deployed as a justification in content moderation. The first option is tricky. Redefining a widely used term is hard, and would likely encounter resistance. Free speech advocates are understandably reluctant to enable platforms (or Facebook’s Oversight Board, for that matter) to determine what is in “the public interest”—a phrase that often appears alongside “newsworthy.” Many are quick to argue that the public interest is highly subjective or, alternately, that a large profit-seeking corporation may not be appropriately positioned to evaluate it. When the courts have been asked to define “legitimate public interest” in the context of libel cases, they have largely demurred, preferring to rely on editors’ judgments and individual context. Unfortunately, that leaves us where we started. The second option—rethinking newsworthiness in content moderation—is more intriguing.

One possibility is to reverse Facebook’s current position. Consider the following thought experiment: A Facebook user writes something to his audience of ten million. What he says is borderline harmful, though it’s not a clear-cut case. Still, the speech is likely to be newsworthy—in our viral age, when ten million people begin talking about something it will probably become “news”—so the potential damage is high. Furthermore, once this speech has reached ten million accounts, it will become increasingly difficult to remove the message should it prove dangerous in the end. If another Facebook user, this person with an audience of ten, writes the same sentence, the speech is no different, but the potential harm is limited. If the message were to incite violence, the scale would be much more restricted, and Facebook would have an opportunity to intervene before it goes viral. In the latter case, someone’s lack of newsworthiness should make the content more permissible, but in the current enforcement structure, paradoxically, the ordinary person with the small audience is more likely to be moderated and removed.

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Which is the point: exceptions are made for the big accounts. Because they create “engagement” and hence revenue.
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Roku says it may lose YouTube TV app after Google made anti-competitive demands • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Roku says Google is threatening the removal of YouTube TV to force Roku to grant preferential access to its consumer data moving forward.

It says Google has asked Roku to do things that it does not see replicated on other streaming competitors’ platforms, like creating a dedicated search results row for YouTube within the Roku smart TV interface and giving YouTube search results more prominent placement.

Roku says Google has also required it to block search results from other streaming content providers while users are using the YouTube app on Roku’s system. Roku alleges Google has asked it to favor YouTube music results from voice commands made on the Roku remote while the YouTube app is open, even if the user’s music preference is set to default to another music app, like Pandora.

Roku says Google has threatened to require Roku to use certain chip sets or memory cards that would force Roku to increase the price of its hardware product, which competes directly with Google’s Chromecast.

In response to the allegations, a YouTube TV spokesperson says, “We have been working with Roku in good faith to reach an agreement that benefits our viewers and their customers.”

“Unfortunately, Roku often engages in these types of tactics in their negotiations. We’re disappointed that they chose to make baseless claims while we continue our ongoing negotiations.”

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Those Google denials aren’t very denial-y. I haven’t seen Roku making claims like that in the past, either. Who gets hurt more if there’s no YouTube on Roku? Roku isn’t bigger than all the other smart TVs. But Roku users are unlikely to abandon their investment in it, which could include paid channels. So Google loses out. A bit. As does Roku.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Me, on the iTunes “Buy doesn’t mean you own it” row: “amazing concept that ‘buying’ something doesn’t mean you have possession of it.

Alex Barredo: “NFTs :-P”

Start Up No.1535: the Post Office programming scandal, Twitter geoblocks anti-Modi tweets, gravity batteries!, beat the bookies, and more


Remember Fortnite? Its court case against Apple over whether it can run its own store on iOS without paying tithes begins on Monday. CC-licensed photo by Sergey Galyonkin 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. May the odds be ever with you. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


39 Post Office convictions quashed after Fujitsu evidence about Horizon IT platform called into question • The Register

Gareth Corfield:

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Lord Justice Holroyde said that the one-time state monopoly had, by representing Horizon as reliable, “effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof,” leading to criminal defendants having to prove their innocence instead of the Post Office showing they were guilty. Its lawyers compounded this by withholding evidence from courts and defence lawyers alike – evidence which clearly showed the Post Office and Fujitsu knew Horizon wasn’t generating accurate accounting records.

Each prosecution challenged in the Court of Appeal over the past year relied on data from the Horizon business management platform supplied by Fujitsu. This data, called “ARQ data” by the court, was a “complete and accurate record of all keystrokes made” on Horizon by sub-postmasters and their branch office staff.

Yet ARQ data was not often made available in the Post Office’s Crown Court prosecutions, leading to unjustifiable convictions and coerced guilty pleas.

Wrongly deprived of evidence needed to show that the Post Office’s cases against them were flawed, many sub-postmasters pleaded guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences rather than maintaining their innocence at court. Many also wanted to avoid the wrath of judges who had been told they were unrepentant thieves and false accounters.

Holroyde, giving the Court of Appeal’s judgment today, referred to an earlier civil High Court judgment from Mr Justice Fraser, who savaged the Post Office’s claims that Horizon was sound.

“Fraser J referred to two particular bugs, known as the Callendar Square bug and the Receipts and Payments Mismatch (‘RPM’) bug,” said Lord Justice Holroyde. “In his ‘Common Issues’ judgment at [541], he had described the RPM bug as one of the bugs in respect of which contemporaneous internal documents showed ‘at least to some degree, an awareness of Horizon problems within the Post Office itself over a number of years’.”

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This was the worst, biggest, longest miscarriage of justice ever in the UK. It’s not just dozens; hundreds of people were almost surely wrongly prosecuted for errors in the system. Horizon connected by phone line to central servers, but some transactions were missed. That created mismatches which looked as though the people running the offices were stealing money.

The Post Office’s refusal to accept this went beyond any reasonable behaviour. Really, someone should call in AC-12.
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Fortnite’s mastermind goes to battle with Apple • WSJ

Tim Higgins and Sarah E. Needleman:

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By early 2020, “Fortnite” was showing signs of aging, although popularity for online games can sometimes ebb and flow due to new seasons or features. The privately held company doesn’t disclose financial records but app-analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates global consumer spending within “Fortnite” on Apple devices had fallen in the first quarter of last year to $70m from a peak of almost $180m in the third quarter of 2018. Epic Chief Financial Officer Joe Babcock, who departed the company in early 2020, said it expected the trend to continue, according to a deposition he gave cited by Apple. Mr. Babock couldn’t be reached for comment.

Epic disputes the notion that “Fortnite” was waning in popularity, as the company in May 2020 said it had reached 350 million registered accounts.

Epic hatched a plan, according to court records citing a board presentation, to revive interest in “Fortnite” beyond its seasonal updates and occasional music performances and movie screenings that people experience together in a virtual setting. Epic would turn to third-party developers to create new content for “Fortnite,” essentially turning it into an open platform unto itself.

But for this new plan to work, the company needed to find a way it could afford to compensate its would-be partners. Apple’s 30% share, the presentation concluded, was an “existential issue” for its plan and needed to be cut so Epic could share a majority of the profit with creators.

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The court case, with Epic suing Apple on antitrust and anti-competition, begins today (Monday).
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Twitter censors tweets from MP, MLA, editor criticising pandemic handling • Medianama

Aroon Deep and Aditya Chunduru:

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Twitter has complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. These tweets, which are now inaccessible to Indian users of the social media website, include posts by Revanth Reddy, a sitting Member of Parliament; Moloy Ghatak, a West Bengal state minister; actor Vineet Kumar Singh; and two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das. 

MediaNama has seen public disclosures of the orders made available by Twitter to the Lumen Database. Lumen Database receives and publishes disclosures from private entities, including social media companies, of legal takedown notices they get from governments and private entities all over the world. MediaNama has previously reported the withholding of Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Sukhram Singh Yadav’s Twitter account based on a Lumen Database disclosure. Such orders are typically sent by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY).

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Twitter says that it geoblocks content if “illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules”. So the tweets are still on the network, but just not visible in Modi’s India, where Covid cases and deaths are skyrocketing.
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Gravity-based batteries try to beat their chemical cousins with winches, weights, and mine shafts • Science

Cathleen O’Grady:

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Alongside the chilly, steel-gray water of the docks here stands what looks like a naked, four-story elevator shaft—except in place of the elevator is a green, 50-ton iron weight, suspended by steel cables. Little by little, electric motors hoist the weight halfway up the shaft; it is now a giant, gravity-powered battery, storing potential energy that can be released when needed. And that moment is now: With a metallic moan, the weight inches back down the shaft. Reversing direction, the motors become electric generators, sending up to 250 kilowatts of power back to the grid. For peak power, the weight can descend in 11 seconds—but for testing purposes, it moves just a few meters at “creep speed,” says Douglas Hitchcock, project engineer at Scottish startup Gravitricity.  

The company announced this week that its small-scale demonstrator is now operational, capable of switching between drawing energy from the grid and sending it back in a matter of seconds. The design offers an alternative to the chemical batteries that dominate the global energy storage market—a market that is growing hand in hand with renewable power, which needs to bank energy when the Sun shines or the wind blows, and release it when the grid faces high demand.

Gravitricity is one of a handful of gravity-based energy storage companies attempting to improve on an old idea: pumped hydroelectric power storage. Engineers would dam up a reservoir on a hill, pump water to it at times of low demand (usually at night), and release it to generate electricity. But the systems require specific terrain, expensive infrastructure, and planning approval that is increasingly hard to come by. These days, banking energy usually means hooking up renewable power to giant batteries.

Gravity-based storage has some distinct advantages, says Oliver Schmidt, a clean energy consultant and visiting researcher at Imperial College London. Lithium-ion batteries, the technology of choice for utility-scale energy storage, can charge and discharge only so many times before losing capacity—usually within a few years. But the components of gravity storage—winches, steel cables, and heavy weights—can hold up well for decades. “It’s mechanical engineering stuff,” Schmidt says. “It’s relatively cheap.”

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Perhaps not very efficient, but dead cheap to build.
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We applied for a job with a ransomware gant online • CyberNews

“Cybernews Team”:

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In June 2020, a user called ‘Unknown’ submitted a rather peculiar post on a popular Russian hacker forum, looking for people to join their ‘affiliate program.’ In the world of crimeware-as-a-service, an ‘affiliate’ is a person who uses malicious tools provided by another threat actor to commit cyberattacks against individuals or organizations of their choice – in return for a cut of the profits.

What made this particular posting stand out from your typical crimeware-as-a-service ads, was the fact that it seemed to be coming from REvil – also known as Sodinokibi – one of the most notorious ransomware groups in the world.

REvil is infamous for being the very first ransomware-as-a-service cartel to use the so-called “double extortion” tactic, whereby the group (or one of their ‘affiliates’) attacks and locks a company out of their own files, and then gives the owners an additional incentive to pay the ransom by threatening to sell or even auction the stolen data off to other cybercriminals.

Interestingly, it was sometime in June 2020 – the time when this story takes place – when REvil first used the double extortion tactic as it began auctioning off data stolen from a Canadian agricultural production company that refused to pay a ransom.

The potentially big name behind the posting wasn’t the only thing that piqued our interest. The terms of the offer seemed rather tempting as well. According to the ad, the affiliate, if accepted, would get up to 70-80% of any successfully paid ransom, while REvil themselves would keep the other 20-30%.

Clearly, the offer was good. Perhaps, even too good to be true. So how could potential partners in crime be sure that the ad was posted by an actual representative of the REvil cartel, and not by a scammer, a security researcher, or an undercover Interpol agent? Well, money talks, and it seems that the author of the post spoke it fluently. To prove that the job posting was legitimate, the recruiters publicly deposited $1 million worth of bitcoin into their forum wallet.

Prior to the massive deposit, the posting had our curiosity. Now, it had our attention.

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City of Albuquerque refers Trump campaign bill to collection agency • KOB 4

Joy Wang:

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The city is seeking approximately $200,000 following the president’s rally in Rio Rancho in 2019.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the bill covers security costs that stem from the former president staying in a downtown Albuquerque hotel overnight. 

The security cost include blocking off parts of downtown, paying police officers overtime and covering the paid time off expenses of city workers who had to stay home.

“We actually treated it like any other debt, and so it goes through a somewhat process where you send a bunch of letters out,” Keller said. “We got no response from those letters. And then automatically, it does go to an agency that helps try and collect debts, and so that’s those annoying phone calls you get that say, you know, you owe money to so-and-so like now, Trump is getting those.”

Most of America found out about the debt when Keller appeared on the Daily Show to talk about the bill.

Despite the newfound attention to the bill, Keller doesn’t expect the collection agency to get money out of Trump.

“Given what else has happened, I mean in terms of, even his own campaign owing money to donors and lots of shady stuff there, so unfortunately I don’t really expect us to get paid,” he said. “But it’s important that we do, and you know, we would do it for anyone else, so he’s no different.”

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You’d have thought that by then people would have learnt to get payment upfront.
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Apple must face lawsuit over iTunes “Buy” button • Hollywood Reporter

Eriq Gardner:

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If possession is nine-tenths of the law, what happens when possession gets slippery?

That’s a question for a federal courtroom in Sacramento, California, where Apple is facing a putative class action over the way consumers can “buy” or “rent” movies, TV shows and other content in the iTunes Store. David Andino, the lead plaintiff in this case, argues the distinction is deceptive. He alleges Apple reserves the right to terminate access to what consumers have “purchased,” and in fact, has done so on numerous occasions.

This week, US District Court Judge John Mendez made clear he isn’t ready to buy into Apple’s view of consumer expectations in the digital marketplace.

“Apple contends that ‘[n]o reasonable consumer would believe’ that purchased content would remain on the iTunes platform indefinitely,” writes Mendez. “But in common usage, the term ‘buy’ means to acquire possession over something. It seems plausible, at least at the motion to dismiss stage, that reasonable consumers would expect their access couldn’t be revoked.”

Apple tried other ways to slip away from claims of false advertising and unfair competition. For example, it tried the time-tested approach of challenging Andino’s “injury” to knock his potential standing as a plaintiff.

“Apple argues that Plaintiff’s alleged injury — which it describes as the possibility that the purchased content may one day disappear — is not concrete but rather speculative,” sums Mendez, responding, “[T]he injury Plaintiff alleges is not, as Apple contends, that he may someday lose access to his purchased content. Rather, the injury is that at the time of purchase, he paid either too much for the product or spent money he would not have but for the misrepresentation. This economic injury is concrete and actual, not speculative as Apple contends, satisfying the injury in fact requirement of Article III.”

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Amazing concept: that “buying” something doesn’t mean you have possession of it.
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Will quantum computing ever live up to its hype? • Scientific American

John Horgan:

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Quantum-computing enthusiasts have declared that the technology will supercharge machine learning. It will revolutionize the simulation of complex phenomena in chemistry, neuroscience, medicine, economics and other fields. It will solve the traveling-salesman problem and other conundrums that resist solution by conventional computers. It’s still not clear whether quantum computing will achieve these goals, [computer scientist Scott] Aaronson says, adding that optimists might be “in for a rude awakening.”

Popular accounts often imply that quantum computers, because superposition and entanglement allow them to carry out multiple computations at the same time, are simply faster versions of conventional computers. Those accounts are misleading, Aaronson says. Compared to conventional computers, quantum computers are “unnatural” devices that might be best suited to a relatively narrow range of applications, notably simulating systems dominated by quantum effects.

The ability of a quantum computer to surpass the fastest conventional machine is known as “quantum supremacy,” a phrase coined by physicist John Preskill in 2012. Demonstrating quantum supremacy is extremely difficult. Even in conventional computing, proving that your algorithm beats mine isn’t straightforward. You must pick a task that represents a fair test and choose valid methods of measuring speed and accuracy. The outcomes of tests are also prone to misinterpretation and confirmation bias. Testing “creates an enormous space for mischief,” Aaronson says.

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I’ve been writing about quantum computing for around 30 years, and it’s still really unclear what application it could have apart from cracking encryption. Horgan’s attempt (later in the article) to get clarity from a proponent of quantum computers leaves me as puzzled – and sceptical – as ever.
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Why Minnesota faces $800m in extra gas bills from Texas’s freeze in February • The Washington Post

Will Englund:

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When that big freeze hit Texas in February, the Lone Star State couldn’t help but share its pain.

With its ill-equipped natural gas systems clocked by the cold, Texas’s exports across the Rio Grande froze up and 4.7 million customers in northern Mexico went without electricity — more than in Texas itself. The spot price of gas jumped 30-fold as far west as Southern California. And all the way up by the Canadian border, gas utilities in Minnesota that turned to the daily spot market to meet demand say they had to pay about $800m more than planned over the course of just five days as the Texas freeze-up pinched off supplies.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, said in an interview. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The Texas market is so large — second only to California’s — and its natural gas industry is so predominant that when things go wrong there, the impacts can be felt across the country. And in a state that eschews regulation, driving energy producers to cut costs as deeply as they can to remain competitive, things went spectacularly wrong the week of Valentine’s Day.

Minnesota’s biggest gas companies are putting forward plans to recoup their expenses by adding a surcharge to customers’ bills, which the state utility commission would first have to approve. Normally, such adjustments to account for winter prices go into effect in September, but Minnesota’s biggest gas utility, Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, says the financial pinch is so great it wants to start billing customers next month — and charging them nearly 9% interest until the extraordinary costs are paid off.

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Carbon Intensity

Lyndon Ruff and Alasdair Bruce:

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National Grid ESO, in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund Europe, University of Oxford Department of Computer Science and WWF, have developed the world’s first Carbon Intensity forecast with a regional breakdown.

The Carbon Intensity API uses state-of-the-art machine learning and sophisticated power system modelling to forecast the carbon intensity and generation mix 96+ hours ahead for each region in Great Britain.

Our OpenAPI allows consumers and smart devices to schedule and minimise CO2 emissions at a local level.

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Nice – and I particularly like the provision of an API. (Some people have built LED systems that change colour according to the “carbon intensity” of the grid at any moment.) Not clear quite whose ML systems they’re using, or if they just built their own.
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The secret betting strategy that beats online bookmakers • MIT Technology Review

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If you’ve ever been tempted by a flutter, you’ll know how bookmakers and casinos stack the odds against you. The clearest example is roulette, where there are 36 red and black numbers plus the green numbers 0 and (in the U.S.) 00. So that’s 38 possibilities in total. When betting on red or black, the odds of choosing correctly are 18/38, and a fair payout for a $1 stake is $2.111. However, the house pays only $2 and keeps the difference. In that way, it guarantees itself a profit.

A similar bias occurs in bookmakers’ odds on horse races, soccer, and every other sporting event. The bookies always ensure that the odds are in their favor. But setting these odds is harder than those for roulette because the calculations are trickier.

And that raises a tantalizing possibility. Is it possible to come up with a better way to calculate the odds, and thus beat the bookies?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Lisandro Kaunitz at the University of Tokyo and a few pals, who have found a way to consistently make money from the online betting market for soccer.

But their work comes with a serious caveat. Kaunitz and co say that as soon as the bookies became aware of this success, they prevented the researchers from betting further.

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How they did it is fascinating – first mining historical data, then trying it with computers on real-world data (but not placing the bets), then actually placing real bets with a human. And then the bookies noticed. At least the consequences weren’t like being spotted in Casino.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1534: Facebook internal report lists election failures, Daily Mail sues Google, Wirecard’s cash bag runs, and more


There’s lots of new information about Apple’s AirTags. Up to 16 per person, so your phone might look like a radar screen. CC-licensed photo by Antonio Zugaldia on Flickr.

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

A selection of 9 links for you. Is that an AirTag in your pocket? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


How Facebook failed to prevent “Stop The Steal” • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman, Ryan Mac and Jane Lytvynenko:

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Employees were made aware of the original Stop the Steal Facebook group, which emerged on election night [Nov 3 2020], after it was “flagged for escalation because it contained high levels of hate and violence and incitement (VNI) in the comments.” By the time Facebook removed it, on Nov. 5, it had become a movement, amassing more than 300,000 members in a 24-hour span with more than a million people wanting to join. The group’s takedown and splintering into offshoot groups caused a major problem for Facebook, which took a “piecemeal” approach to enforcement and failed to see Stop the Steal as a wider, harmful movement, according to the internal report.

“Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold,” the report reads. “After the Capitol Insurrection [on Jan 6 2021] and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement.”

It was only after the violence of Jan. 6, according to the report, that Facebook teams realised they were dealing with a movement that “normalized delegitimization and hate in a way that resulted in offline harm and harm to the norms underpinning democracy.” And while the company spent months preparing for people to dispute election results, the report calls delegitimization a “new territory” in which “few policies or knowledge existed” prior to election night.

The document contradicts Zuckerberg’s statement to Congress about Facebook being “inhospitable” to harmful content about the election, and refutes chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s January comment that the insurrection was “largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.” It also shows that while Facebook said it was prepared for election destabilization and was monitoring signals for unrest, it failed to stop a movement that led to real-world harm.

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Facebook is too big; it brings together too many people whose desires can be herded into malice. It really is classic social warming: put a lot of people together and then force them closer and watch the temperature rise. To, in this case, deadly effect.

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Daily Mail owner sues Google over search results • BBC News

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The owner of the Daily Mail newspaper and MailOnline website is suing Google over allegations the search engine manipulates search results.

Associated Newspapers accuses Google of having too much control over online advertising and of downgrading links to its stories, favouring other outlets. It alleges Google “punishes” publishers in its rankings if they don’t sell enough advertising space in its marketplace. Google called the claims “meritless”.

Associated Newspapers’ concerns stem from its assessment that its coverage of the Royal Family in 2021 has been downplayed in search results.

For example, it claims that British users searching for broadcaster Piers Morgan’s comments on the Duchess of Sussex following an interview with Oprah Winfrey were more likely to see articles about Morgan produced by smaller, regional outlets. That is despite the Daily Mail writing multiple stories a day about his comments around that time and employing him as a columnist.

Daily Mail editor emeritus Peter Wright told the BBC’s Today programme that the search engine’s alleged actions were “anti-competitive”. He suggested that the Daily Mail’s search visibility dropped after using online advertising techniques “which were allowing us to divert advertising traffic away from Google to other ad exchanges, which paid better prices – and this was their punishment. We think it’s time to call this company out,” he said.

The Daily Mail’s MailOnline site is one of the world’s most-read websites. It has 75 million unique monthly visitors in the US alone, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in New York on Tuesday.

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Really looking forward to whatever becomes public from this. I wonder if the multiple stories just seem to Google’s algorithm like spam? (Also, Wright was never editor of the Daily Mail; he edited the Mail On Sunday.)
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Apple’s AirTag tracker respects privacy and foils stalking • Fast Company

Michael Grothaus:

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Apple designed the AirTag with one useful purpose in mind: helping people find lost objects. But the company also understands that bad actors may try to use any technology for nefarious purposes. An AirTag designed to track a backpack could also be used to track an unwitting  person. AirTags are small, after all, and one could easily be slipped into someone’s purse or coat pocket without them realizing it.

That’s why Apple has built a number of powerful anti-stalking protections into the AirTag platform. If you’re an iPhone owner running iOS 14.5 or later and someone slips an AirTag into your possession in secret in order to track your movements, your iPhone will warn you this has happened by sending you an “AirTag Found Moving With You” notification. This notification will appear only when an AirTag is following you that is not paired with your Apple ID or another iPhone that is in your vicinity. That distinction is critical so that your iPhone won’t be notified of AirTags that, for instance, belong to other people on the same bus you’re riding. Tapping the notification will take you to the Find My app, where you can tell the AirTag that has been slipped into your possession to emit a sound so you can locate it.

But what about people who don’t own an iPhone? How would Android owners—or those without a smartphone at all—know if an AirTag was slipped into their possession by a stalker?

Apple thought of that too. After an AirTag has been away from its paired device for a certain amount of time, the AirTag will automatically emit a sound notifying those around it of its presence. Right now, the AirTag needs to be out of range of its paired device for three days for the sound to emit, but Apple could lengthen or shorten this time via a software update in the future.

And if you do find a strange AirTag in your possession, you can use any NFC-capable phone to scan it. Tapping the notification that appears in the NFC reader will take you to an Apple website with instructions on how to disable the AirTag and its tracking capabilities immediately—by simply removing its battery. On that same page, you’ll see the unique serial number of the AirTag, which is also printed on the AirTag itself. Though you wouldn’t be able to find out the owner of the AirTag from this serial number, Apple could determine the owner since the AirTag’s unique serial number is associated with an Apple ID during its initial Pair Lock setup.

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The battery removal thing means that malicious actors who steal your luggage (say) would be able to inactivate it pretty fast. Hard to be sure that this is the most robust system. (Hide them really well?) Also: each Apple ID is limited to 16 trackers, or only $396 of spending (4-pack four times). Unusual for Apple to put a ceiling on how many you can buy.
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Contractor that ruined 15M doses of J&J vaccine hiked price of another by 800% • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:

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Things are not looking good for Emergent BioSolutions, the contract manufacturer that ruined 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine and millions more doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine at its production facility in Baltimore.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday released a searing inspection report of the facility, finding a slew of significant violations and failings.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have opened a multi-pronged investigation into whether Emergent used ties to the Trump administration to get billions of dollars in federal contracts despite a history of failing to complete contracts. The investigation is also looking into inadequate staff training, persistent quality-control issues, and the company’s “unjustified” 800% price increase for an anthrax vaccine.

In a letter sent to Emergent’s top executives Tuesday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, laid out the investigation, writing:

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Emergent received $628m in June 2020 to establish the primary US facility for manufacturing vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Dr. Robert Kadlec, who served as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under President Trump and previously worked as a consultant for Emergent, appears to have pushed for this award despite indications that Emergent did not have the ability to reliably fulfill the contract.

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It’s astonishing how much cleaning up is required following the wrecking ball of Trump’s administration. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Wirecard employees removed millions in cash using shopping bags • Financial Times

Olaf Storbeck:

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Wirecard employees hauled millions of euros of cash out of the group’s Munich headquarters in plastic bags over a period of years, according to former employees, suggesting that the payments company was looted even more brazenly than previously known.

The once high-flying fintech, which at its peak was worth €24bn, went bust last summer in one of Germany’s biggest accounting frauds. It collapsed after discovering that €1.9bn of corporate cash did not exist and that parts of its business in Asia were a sham.

Former employees have told Munich police investigating the fraud that staff repeatedly removed large amounts of cash from Wirecard’s head office, people with direct knowledge of the matter told the Financial Times.

The practice started as early as 2012, and six-digit amounts of banknotes were often moved in Aldi and Lidl plastic bags, former employees told the police. The total amount, the current whereabouts of the cash and the purpose of removing it from the building are unclear.

Wirecard, whose main business was processing payments for merchants, owned its own bank but did not have branches. As demand for cash grew over time, Wirecard Bank bought a safe which was located in the group’s headquarters in a Munich suburb.

At one point in May 2017, €500,000 in cash was delivered at a time when the safe was full, according to emails seen by the FT and a person with knowledge of the transaction. Some of the cash needed to be hidden elsewhere in the offices.

“From an insurance point of view, that’s crap,” a Wirecard employee wrote in an internal email seen by the FT, urging that delivery and collection of cash needed to be organised on the same day.

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Aldi and Lidl bags. Couldn’t they have done it in something more upscale?
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Linux bans University of Minnesota for committing malicious code to kernel • Bleeping Computer

Ax Sharma:

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a major Linux kernel developer, Greg Kroah-Hartman, has banned the University of Minnesota (UMN) from contributing to the open-source Linux kernel project.

Kroah-Hartman also decided to revert all commits submitted from any UMN email address thus far.

The developer’s justification for taking this step is: “Commits from @umn.edu addresses have been found to be submitted in ‘bad faith’ to try to test the kernel community’s ability to review ‘known malicious’ changes. Because of this, all submissions from this group must be reverted from the kernel tree and will need to be re-reviewed again to determine if they actually are a valid fix. Until that work is complete, [we are removing] this change to ensure that no problems are being introduced into the codebase,” said Kroah-Hartman in a series of published emails.

In February 2021, UMN researchers published a research paper titled, “Open Source Insecurity: Stealthily Introducing Vulnerabilities via Hypocrite Commits.” The focus of this research was to deliberately introduce known security vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel, by submitting malicious or insecure code patches.

As seen by BleepingComputer, the researchers demonstrate many examples of instances where they introduced known vulnerabilities by making these “hypocrite” patch commits.

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UMN researcher claimed that it was part of a new static analyzer (a method of analysing code for vulnerabilities). The Linux kernel team isn’t impressed. UMN has suspended the line of research and says it takes the situation “extremely seriously”.
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Introducing Menuwhere: the menu where you are • Tales of a Running Bird

Rob Griffiths:

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Say hello to Menuwhere, Many Tricks’ newest app. This handy $3 utility puts the frontmost app’s menu bar into a pop-up menu at your mouse’s location—say goodbye to those long trips to the menu bar; the main menu is now just a hot key away:

Once onscreen, you can navigate the menus by typing letters in the names of the menu items you wish to access (then pressing Enter), or by using the arrow keys and Enter, or even via the mouse.

If you’re a long-time Mac user, you’re probably aware of similar apps from the past…which is why we wrote Menuwhere, because those apps are all in the past. Menuwhere is here now, fully supported, 64-bit and Universal—it runs natively on Apple Silicon and Intel.

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Personally I’m more of a keyboard shortcut person, but I can imagine that this might come in handy.

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Apple’s M1 positioning mocks the entire x86 business model • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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If you want to buy a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, Apple will sell you an M1. Want a Mac Mini? You get an M1. Interested in the iMac or the new iPad Pro? You get an M1. It’s possible that the M1 CPUs inside the iMac will have different thermal or clock behavior than those inside the systems Apple has already launched, but the company’s decision to eschew clock speed disclosures suggests that these CPUs differ only modestly. The iMac might have the same 3.2GHz base clock but hold its frequency better under load, for example.

But outside of that, Apple is selling a single CPU across a wider range of products than any competing Intel or AMD CPU is ever sold. This speaks volumes as to what Apple believes it has its hands on, namely: a CPU fast enough at the quad-core level — because, scaling-wise, the M1 is a quad-core chip, with four low-power cores to handle low-power workloads — to address a huge range of markets, while drawing so little power, it can also be sold in a laptop.

Part of the reason Apple can get away with doing this is that — and let’s be honest — it’s been selling badly underpowered systems at certain price points. The old 21.5in iMacs included a $1,099 option with a dual-core CPU and only a 3.6GHz (no turbo) quad-core at $1,299. Only the six-core iMac, at $1,499, had a CPU powerful enough to even arguably be shipping in a 2021 PC. That matters because, when these systems get reviewed, they’re going to be compared in part with the hardware they replaced. The M1 appears to be faster and more power-efficient than current x86 CPUs, regardless, but it’s going to compare particularly well when the other systems are underpowered relative to what a PC OEM would have been selling at the same price point.

But lopsided configurations are only part of the equation. Apple couldn’t position the M1 this way if it wasn’t an excellent CPU in its own right.

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The “badly underpowered” nature of the previous systems was down to Intel, though, not Apple. As Hruska kinda-sorta acknowledges later, the reason why Apple can sell the M1 for these different machines (which have, let’s note, different thermal envelopes: the Air has no fan, while the mini, Macbook Pro and iMac do) is that its business model doesn’t rely on segmenting the market into tiny twitching pieces by using confusing nomenclature and SKUs.
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Tesla’s Autopilot is ‘easily’ tricked into working without anyone in the driver’s seat • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:

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Consumer Reports said Thursday it was “easily” able to trick Tesla’s Autopilot system to operate without anyone in the driver’s seat. The publication’s test came amid questions about the safety of the company’s advanced driver assist system in the aftermath of a fatal crash in Texas in which authorities said there was no one behind the steering wheel.

Using a weighted chain attached to the steering wheel to simulate the pressure of the driver’s hands, two Consumer Reports researchers were able to use the steering wheel dial on a Tesla Model Y to accelerate from a full stop, and then “drive” around on a closed-course test track for several miles — all while sitting in the passenger seat and backseat. They stopped the vehicle by again using the dial to bring the speed back down to zero.

Tricking the Tesla to operate without someone behind the wheel was as simple as keeping the driver’s seatbelt buckled, not opening the driver’s side door during the test, and using the weight to simulate hands on the steering wheel.

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If Tesla moves to weight detection on the driver’s seat, people will put weights on it (though that starts to get complicated..). What’s next, face detection? Tesla isn’t liable, of course, for what people stupidly do. But the trouble with foolproof systems is that they keep making better fools.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1533: ransomware leaks new Apple Macbook design, App Store hacks get worse, the influencer life, Signal bites back, and more


How often do coders visiting Stack Overflow hit the copy keys? We can reveal. CC-licensed photo by wiredforlego 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. Pay up, or.. don’t. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why did Facebook create business profiles for terrorists?
• Why are so many people on social media so angry?
• Are algorithm-free social networks like WhatsApp free of misinformation?
• What did Covid change about social networks’ approach to truth?
• How much do Facebook, Twitter and Google coordinate on taking accounts down?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


Apple targeted in $50 million ransomware hack of supplier Quanta • Bloomberg

Kartikay Mehrotra:

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The ransomware group REvil, also known as Sodinokibi, published a blog on its darkweb site early on Tuesday in which it claimed to have infiltrated the computer network of Quanta Computer Inc. The Taiwan-based company is a key supplier to Apple, manufacturing mostly Macbooks. It similarly produces goods for the likes of HP Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

REvil’s public face on the darkweb, a user on the cyber-crime forum XSS who goes by the name ‘Unknown’, announced Sunday that the ransomware group was on the cusp of declaring its “largest attack ever,” in a post reviewed by Bloomberg News. The post was made in Russian on a channel where the REvil group recruits new affiliates, according to a person familiar with Unknown’s history on the XSS forum who sought anonymity for fear of retaliation.

By early on April 20, REvil’s ‘Happy Blog’ — a site where the cartel publicly names and shames victims in hopes of coaxing ransom payment — declared Quanta its latest victim. In their post, also reviewed by Bloomberg, the hackers claim they’d waited to disclose the Quanta compromise until the date of Apple’s latest big reveal, contending the parts supplier had expressed no interest in paying to recover the stolen data. Quanta acknowledged an attack without explaining if or how much of its data was stolen.

…By the time Apple’s product launch was over, REvil had posted schematics for a new laptop, including 15 images detailing the guts of what appears to be a Macbook designed as recently as March 2021, according to the documents reviewed by Bloomberg.

REvil is now attempting to shake-down Apple in its effort to profit off the stolen data. They’ve asked Apple to pay their ransom by May 1, as was first reported by Bleeping Computer. Until then, the hackers will continue to post new files every day, REvil said on its blog.

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Not much use posting them on the dark web, is it? They’re assembly schematics (as you’d expect for an assembly company) which Apple Insider, among others, has published. (At least, the picture was up when I looked.) MacBook Pro: no Touch Bar, HDMI connector, SD card slot. Rejoice.
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Apple’s $64 billion-a-year App Store isn’t catching the most egregious scams • The Verge

Sean Hollister:

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Recently, I reached out to the most profitable company in the world to ask a series of basic questions. I wanted to understand: how is a single man making the entire Apple App Store review team look silly? Particularly now that Apple’s in the fight of its life, both in the courts and in Congress later today, to prove its App Store is a well-run system that keeps users safe instead of a monopoly that needs to be broken up.

That man’s name is Kosta Eleftheriou, and over the past few months, he’s made a convincing case that Apple is either uninterested or incompetent at stopping multimillion-dollar scams in its own App Store. He’s repeatedly found scam apps that prey on ordinary iPhone and iPad owners by luring them into a “free trial” of an app with seemingly thousands of fake 5-star reviews, only to charge them outrageous sums of money for a recurring subscription that many don’t understand how to cancel. “It’s a situation that most communities are blind to because of how Apple is essentially brainwashing people into believing the App Store is a trusted place,” he tells The Verge.

There’s a lot to unpack there: fake free trials, fake reviews, subscription awareness. We could write an entire story about each. Today, I’d like to focus on how one guy could find what Apple’s $64-billion-a-year App Store apparently cannot, because the answer is remarkable.

You simply look at the apps that are making the most money. Then, you find ones where the user reviews are suspicious and look for ridiculously high subscription prices.

That’s it. There’s no step four. Eleftheriou tells us this is how he started finding these scams, but you don’t need to be a coder to figure it out.

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This continues to be a ridiculous embarrassment for Apple. Fake reviews and scummy apps with tricksy headfakes that drag people into pricey subscriptions. It has begun picking up on some apps, but nothing like as many as there are. To some extent, this is “cutting the grass”: new scams will appear as each one is removed. But that’s the point about curating an app store: you have to keep at it, and there is a lot of grass cutting.
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“Fake Famous” and the tedium of influencer culture • The New Yorker

Naomi Fry:

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Working a menial job is hard, but “Fake Famous” demonstrates that being an influencer, too, can be a tedious kind of labor. In one amusing sequence, Bilton takes us behind the scenes of a photo shoot in which Dominique and Wylie are shown partaking in one-per-cent-like activities such as sipping champagne and eating chocolates poolside at the Four Seasons, relaxing blissfully on an international flight, and receiving a luxurious spa treatment. All of this, however, is smoke and mirrors: in the pictures, which are shot in quick succession at a single location, a toilet seat held aloft mimics a plane’s window, the champagne is apple juice, the chocolates are pats of butter dipped in cocoa powder, and the rose-petal-infused spa basin is a plastic kiddie pool.

There is a kind of D.I.Y. creativity about all of this, a spirit of making do, which allows the plucky influencer some agency. “Remember, you’re the Lulu girl!” Dominique’s mom reminds her daughter, early in the film, when Dominique expresses doubts about her ability to make nice at her retail job—and, in her attempts to become an influencer, Dominique’s fealty to Lululemon is exchanged for a commitment to the new version of herself that she has decided to sell online. Dominique wants to brand her own self rather than work for someone else’s, and on the face of it, one might wonder what could be wrong with this strategy, in which, instead of allowing a corporation to harvest the surplus value of an employee’s personality, the employee is able to harvest it for herself. (Slay, kween!) Depressingly, though, as Dominique’s popularity grows—she even starts getting more auditions and acting gigs, thanks to her burgeoning Instagram profile—her success seems to depend not on any surplus of personality but, rather, on a lack thereof. She develops an audience by posting videos of herself unboxing products that she has been sent for free by other brands: a blender, energy bars, slippers, a CBD vibrator. Dominique “is like a piece of Play-Doh,” Chris says to Bilton. Like the pink wall on Melrose, she is eye-catching, but still blank enough.

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*crosses “influencer” off list of jobs to apply for*. This isn’t even “famous for being famous”. It’s “not particularly famous for being not particularly famous”.
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Herd immunity in US likely impossible, but vaccines can control Covid • USA Today

Elizabeth Weise:

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, doesn’t want to talk about herd immunity anymore. 

“Rather than concentrating on an elusive number, let’s get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can,” he said at a White House briefing last week, a sentiment he’s since repeated.

What Fauci doesn’t explicitly state, but others do, is that with about a quarter of Americans saying they might not want to be immunized, herd immunity is simply not an attainable goal.

“It’s theoretically possible but we as a society have rejected that,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “There is no eradication at this point, it’s off the table. The only thing we can talk about is control.”

After initially aiming for the kind of protection provided by the measles vaccine, officials are now focused on containment similar to the flu: acknowledging there will be regular outbreaks but hoping to limit them as much as possible. 

Americans can go through their entire lives without worrying about getting the measles because of a long-lasting effective vaccine given to more than 90% of children. Although small pockets of infection occur when vaccination rates drop, even people who can’t get the vaccine or are immunocompromised remain mostly protected.

With COVID-19, where vaccines are effective but won’t last a lifetime, vaccine hesitancy makes that kind of widespread protection unlikely, experts say.

That means people who can’t get vaccinated or whose immune systems are dampened by medication or disease will remain vulnerable. There will probably always be enough unvaccinated people to allow COVID-19 to spread once it arrives in a community. And even people who are vaccinated won’t be 100% protected in the face of such a contagious illness.

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Perhaps it was inevitable that such a big country would fail in this way. But it is a monumental failure.

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How often do people actually copy and paste from Stack Overflow? Now we know • Stack Overflow Blog

Ben Popper and David Gibson, after an April Fool’s joke that Stack Overflow (beloved by coders seeking a solution to a problem) was going to make a hardware keyboard that would simply copy and paste, they got to wondering how often people actually do Cmd-C Cmd-V:

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One out of every four users who visits a Stack Overflow question copies something within five minutes of hitting the page. That adds up to 40,623,987 copies across 7,305,042 posts and comments between March 26th and April 9th. People copy from answers about ten times as often as they do from questions and about 35 times as often as they do from comments. People copy from code blocks more than ten times as often as they do from the surrounding text, and surprisingly, we see more copies being made on questions without accepted answers than we do on questions which are accepted. 

So, if you’ve ever felt bad about copying code from our site instead of writing it from scratch, forgive yourself! Why recreate the wheel when someone else has done the hard work? We call this knowledge reuse – you’re reusing what others have already learned, created, and proven. Knowledge reuse isn’t a bad thing – it helps you learn, get working code faster, and reduces your frustration. Our whole site runs on knowledge reuse – it’s the altruistic mentorship that makes Stack Overflow such a powerful community. 

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Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app’s perspective • Signal

Moxie Marlinspike (who, if you don’t know, is a hacker extraordinaire) got hold of a Cellebrite analyser, as used by law enforcement and others to break into phones seized from people:

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Anyone familiar with software security will immediately recognize that the primary task of Cellebrite’s software is to parse “untrusted” data from a wide variety of formats as used by many different apps. That is to say, the data Cellebrite’s software needs to extract and display is ultimately generated and controlled by the apps on the device, not a “trusted” source, so Cellebrite can’t make any assumptions about the “correctness” of the formatted data it is receiving. This is the space in which virtually all security vulnerabilities originate.

Since almost all of Cellebrite’s code exists to parse untrusted input that could be formatted in an unexpected way to exploit memory corruption or other vulnerabilities in the parsing software, one might expect Cellebrite to have been extremely cautious. Looking at both UFED and Physical Analyzer, though, we were surprised to find that very little care seems to have been given to Cellebrite’s own software security.

…Given the number of opportunities present, we found that it’s possible to execute arbitrary code on a Cellebrite machine simply by including a specially formatted but otherwise innocuous file in any app on a device that is subsequently plugged into Cellebrite and scanned. There are virtually no limits on the code that can be executed.

For example, by including a specially formatted but otherwise innocuous file in an app on a device that is then scanned by Cellebrite, it’s possible to execute code that modifies not just the Cellebrite report being created in that scan, but also all previous and future generated Cellebrite reports from all previously scanned devices and all future scanned devices in any arbitrary way (inserting or removing text, email, photos, contacts, files, or any other data), with no detectable timestamp changes or checksum failures.

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Something something hoist petard. Now Cellebrite has to worry about whether any phone its equipment is used to hack into might have a (kinda, sorta) malicious version of Signal.
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Lina Khan, a progressive trustbuster, displays get-tough approach to tech in confirmation hearing • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang:

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At the Senate Commerce committee hearing, Ms. Khan, 32, said she was “seeing whole range of potential risks. One that comes up across board is that the ability to dominate one market gives companies, in some instances, the ability to expand into adjacent markets.”

She also focused on the online advertising market and how the consumer data mining that fuels it poses potential harms for consumers. The business model, she said, incentivizes more and more data collection.

“In some cases, companies may think it’s worth the cost of doing business to risk violating privacy laws,” she said.

Ms. Khan is part of a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has pushed for antitrust legal reform and the breakup of companies like Facebook and Google. In a 2017 Yale Law Journal article titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” she questioned the bias of antitrust experts toward consumer prices as the key metric for antitrust violation. Even though Amazon offers consumers lower prices in many cases, she argued the company could harm competition by squeezing out small-business rivals who rely on its marketplace.

President Biden’s nomination of Ms. Khan to one of three Democratic seats at the FTC has been taken as a sign of how the White House plans to be tough on tech. Tim Wu, a progressive critic of Facebook and other big tech companies, was also recently named to a role in the White House.

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Can’t imagine who she’s thinking about with the “privacy laws” stuff.
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Chill Kevin Bacon vibes only today • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick’s newsletter (which is great) looks, briefly, at what Facebook’s new Clubhouse rival is likely to do:

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Readers of Garbage Day already know that I am extremely bearish about Clubhouse. Mainly for its increasingly toxic user base, but also I think live audio for live audio’s sake is a fad. That’s not to say that some people haven’t figured out how to do some great stuff with the medium, but I don’t see conference calls with LinkedIn dark enlightenment wizards as The Next Big Thing In Tech. I assume we’ll look back on it as a weird COVID fad. And, more worryingly, I fear that Clubhouse’s ultimate legacy will be that any app can grow a massively over-inflated valuation simply because it convinced 1000 extremely rich people in Silicon Valley to use it first. The app is already seeing a 72% drop in downloads [from 9.6m installs in February to 2.4m in March, according to Sensor Tower]. So I’m not exactly optimistic about Facebook’s foray into the space.

As for short-form audio and long-form audio, I suspect it will go exactly like all other content types supported by Facebook. At first, the algorithm will over-promote it. Because of the scale of the site and economic value of Facebook virality, this will create an audio gold rush on the platform. More than a few media companies will almost certainly get involved. If audio doesn’t stick with Facebook users, which I think is likely, the dial on audio will be turned down, any media companies that staffed up for the push will have layoffs, and there will be like a couple dozen random people who are suddenly massive podcast names with millions of listeners that you’ll probably never hear about until they come out as anti-vaxxers or something.

If audio on Facebook does work, what will happen will most likely be a subtle shifting of the medium. Content that works on Facebook and Instagram tends to slowly morph over time into content that only works on those platforms.

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The fine print: What Apple didn’t talk about • Six Colors

Dan Moren:

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Like Apple’s other digital stores, its new podcast marketplace allows users to pay creators directly. And, like those other stores, it has similar terms: there’s a $19.99 annual charge for the Apple Podcasters Program, which is available starting today. Subscriptions are monthly by default, with an annual option as well. And according to my brief look at the terms, Apple will take a 30% commission on the first year of a subscription, with a drop to 15% if auto-renew is enabled.

Ads and sponsorships can still be used in paid podcasts, and Apple doesn’t get a cut of those. And, from what I can tell, the deal with Apple isn’t exclusive, meaning that you can still run a membership program elsewhere as well.

Also an interesting thing that I caught: one of the rights granted to Apple by putting your podcast up is the ability for Apple to create and make available transcripts (though it looks like creators can opt out). From an accessibility point, that would be a great feature of the podcast offering, since many podcasts don’t have the resources or wherewithal to provide one currently.

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I don’t know quite how complicated the systems for creating subscriptions used by Dithering and Accidental Tech Podcast are, but they seem feasible enough for anyone with some expertise. Plus the Podmasters team (Oh God What Now, The Bunker) manage it and use Patreon. I expect the real challenge is dealing with (in order) wrongly entered details, fraud attempts and expiring cards. Apple will do all that. Is that worth the 30% (then 15%) deduction on what might be not a huge amount of money?

Still, it indicates that Apple is getting serious – after a long, long time – about podcasts. All part of the Services narrative.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified