Start Up No.926: the climate change deadline, Facebook gets visual, the GRU’s hasty fumbling, archiving the internet, and more

Google is about to be minus Google Plus. Photo by dolphinsdock on Flickr.

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

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts:


The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Monday say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which they say is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.

The half-degree difference could also prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic, according to the 1.5C study, which was launched after approval at a final plenary of all 195 countries in Incheon in South Korea that saw delegates hugging one another, with some in tears.

“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts. “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”

Policymakers commissioned the report at the Paris climate talks in 2016, but since then the gap between science and politics has widened. Donald Trump has promised to withdraw the US – the world’s biggest source of historical emissions – from the accord. The first round of Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday put Jair Bolsonaro into a strong position to carry out his threat to do the same and also open the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness.

The world is currently 1C warmer than preindustrial levels. Following devastating hurricanes in the US, record droughts in Cape Town and forest fires in the Arctic, the IPCC makes clear that climate change is already happening, upgraded its risk warning from previous reports, and warned that every fraction of additional warming would worsen the impact.


Two things you can do immediately: stop eating meat (means less methane, and less deforestation, and less intensive land use); change to a green energy supplier. Also, insulate your home.
link to this extract

Is Putin’s power wavering? What the GRU spy story says • Medium

Rudolf Van Der Berg:


hacking the OPCW was strategically completely unimportant to Russia. Yes, the Skripal poisoning and the Chemical Warfare in Syria cases were investigated, but all the fingers had already pointed to Russia. Russia knew it had done both things. All they would figure out is that the OPCW is competent at its job and found traces of Russia’s wrong doing. Of course spies want to know everything, for example the (confidential) sources of data. However why this warranted an attack on such short notice, with such great risk is unclear. When you already know the answer to the question of the researchers and the timing of publication is quite clear, why send four guys with haste and diplomatic passports? It is so undiplomatic. To me it shows the clique around Putin is extremely unsure about themselves and their position. They need to know ahead what the outcome of the OPCW research is, otherwise they fear for their position.

The WADA/IOC hacking shows some spy tradecraft and to some extent it is understable, that Russia wants to know which delegates compromised themselves while online at these events. It may help Russia’s case (and it appears it did, as Russia can play again) However, you also have to wonder why this is a case for high ranking hackers from the most serious Russian intelligence agency. I mean, stealing the plans of a new USA missile seems a far better use of military intelligence. Really this is what you spent your time on? Why? It shows the insecurities of Russian leaders.


The comical nature of the GRU’s attempts to hack the OPCW, and the public shaming meted out by the Dutch and British intelligence services, must have hurt. But this is payback for years of interference abroad.
link to this extract

Google exposed user data, feared repercussions of disclosing to public • WSJ

Douglas MacMillan and Robert McMillan:


Google exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users of the Google+ social network and then opted not to disclose the issue this past spring, in part because of fears that doing so would draw regulatory scrutiny and cause reputational damage, according to people briefed on the incident and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

As part of its response to the incident, the Alphabet unit plans to announce a sweeping set of data privacy measures that include permanently shutting down all consumer functionality of Google+, the people said. The move effectively puts the final nail in the coffin of a product that was launched in 2011 to challenge Facebook and is widely seen as one of Google’s biggest failures.

A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident…

…In weighing whether to disclose the incident, the company considered “whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response,” [a Google spokesman] said. “None of these thresholds were met here.”

…The profile data that was exposed included full names, email addresses, birth dates, gender, profile photos, places lived, occupation and relationship status; it didn’t include phone numbers, email messages, timeline posts, direct messages or any other type of communication data, one of the people said.


That is a long time for “potential access”, which was via more than 130 APIs – masquerade as a developer and you’re in. The further one reads into this story the more astonishing it is.

Google subsequently published a blog post about how it’s closing down “consumer Google+” because, apparently, “there are significant challenges in creating and maintaining a successful Google+ product that meets consumers’ expectations.”

And for those of us who said Google+ was a flop, here’s what Google says today: “The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90% of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.” How many of those from people hitting the wrong button in GMail, I wonder?

But Google is still under a 20-year privacy oversight from the FTC, signed in 2011 after its disastrous Google Buzz experiment. The FTC must surely follow this up.
link to this extract

Google Pixel Slate: rumoured specs, features, leaks, price, release date • CNET

Justin Jaffe:


With one day to go until Google’s launch event scheduled for Oct. 9, we’ve heard just about every last detail about the company’s forthcoming Pixel and Pixel XL phones. And the rumors about a new convertible tablet also continue to pile up. 

The rumored Google Pixel Slate is said to include a front-facing and rear-facing camera with advanced camera technology, a fingerprint scanner and a new keyboard cover with a magnetic clasp and kickstand — similar to Microsoft’s Surface Pro, which was itself recently refreshed. 

The reports about the Chrome tablets have been preceded by an abundance of extensive, detailed information about Google’s rumored Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL — including photos and videos published by Russian bloggers and more photos and information gleaned from a Pixel 3 XL that was apparently left in the backseat of a Lyft. Google hasn’t confirmed anything about any of these reports about the phones or tablet.

But the company has invited media to an event in New York City on Oct. 9. In addition to introducing new tablets, new phones and perhaps other devices, Google is expected show off a new wireless charging stand and the latest version of its Android operating system, known as Android Pie, which features new AR capabilities and upgrades to its voice assistant. 


Well, zero days to go until the event. I’m also fairly confident Apple will release invitations to its October event for whatever, just to annoy Google a little. Unless it wants Google to stew in the Google+ fiasco just a little longer.

Nice timing on that one, Google, by the way.
link to this extract

High Court blocks Google iPhone privacy lawsuit • Computer Weekly

Lis Evenstad:


The lawsuit accused Google of unlawfully collecting personal information for profiling purposes for advertising by bypassing the default privacy settings that block user tracking on the iPhone’s Safari browser between August 2011 and February 2012, which contravenes data protection laws by taking personal information without consent, and sought compensation for up to £3.2bn.  

During the court hearing in May, lawyers for Google You Owe Us told the court that information collected by Google included race, physical and mental health, political leanings, sexuality, social class, financial, shopping habits, and location data

However, Justice Warby, who presided over the case, said today (8 October) in the judgment document, that he would not let the claim proceed because Lloyd, who led the claim, could not prove that himself “or any of those whom he represents have suffered “damage” within the meaning of the Data Protection Act”.

However, he added in a press summary that there was “no dispute that it is arguable that Google’s alleged role in the collection, collation and use of data obtained via the Safari Workaround was wrongful, and a breach of duty”.


This doesn’t quite make sense. In a previous incarnation of this case, about exactly the same infringement, we got this:


One of the issues was whether the breach of confidence and misuse of private information claims were “torts”. Tugendhat J said this of the approach: “Judges commonly adopt one or both of two approaches to resolving issues as to the meaning of a legal term, in this case the word “tort”. One approach is to look back to the history or evolution of the disputed term. The other is to look forward to the legislative purpose of the rule in which the disputed word appears”. Having looked to the history, he observed that “history does not determine identity. The fact that dogs evolved from wolves does not mean that dogs are wolves”.

The outcome (paragraphs 68-71): misuse of private information is a tort (and the oft-cited proposition that “the tort of invasion of privacy is unknown in English law” needs revisiting) but breach of confidence is not (given Kitetechnology BV v Unicor GmbH Plastmaschinen [1995] FSR 765).


The difference seems to be that the earlier case (which was resolved out of court before it went to the Supreme Court; plaintiffs prevailed in the High Court) wasn’t under the DPA. This one is.
link to this extract

Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349 • Techcrunch

Josh Constine:


Today Facebook launches pre-sales of the $199 10in screen Portal, and $349 15.6in swiveling screen with hi-fi audio Portal , minus $100 if you buy any two. They’ve got “Hey Portal” voice navigation, Facebook Messenger for video calls with family, Spotify and Pandora for Bluetooth and voice-activated music, Facebook Watch and soon more video content providers, augmented reality Story Time for kids, a third-party app platform, and it becomes a smart photo/video frame when idle.

Knowing buyers might be creeped out, Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo tells me “We had to build all the stacks — hardware, software, and AI from scratch — and it allowed us to build privacy into each one of these layers”. There’s no facial recognition and instead just a technology called 2D pose that runs locally on the device to track your position so the camera can follow you if you move around. A separate chip for local detection only activates Portal when it hears its wake word, it doesn’t save recordings, and the data connection is encrypted. And with a tap you can electronically disable the camera and mic, or slide the plastic privacy shield over the lens to blind it while keeping voice controls active.


“Knowing people might be creeped out” they built it for privacy. But then they connected it to Facebook. 🤔

Also: those are big screens (or the bigger one is). Clearly aimed at the kitchen.

My instinct: not going to be a hit.
link to this extract

The internet’s keepers? “some call us hoarders—I like to say we’re archivists” • Ars Technica

Nathan Mattise:


the Internet Archive offers much more than text these days. Its broadcast-news collection covers more than 1.6 million news programs with tools such as the ability to search for words in chyrons and access to recent news (broadcasts are embargoed for 24 hours and then delivered to visitors in searchable two-minute chunks). The growing audio and music portion of the Internet Archive covers radio news, podcasting, and physical media (like a collection of 200,000 78s recently donated by the Boston Library). And as Ars has written about, the organization boasts an extensive classic video game collection that anyone can boot up in a browser-based emulator for research or leisure. Officially, that section involves 300,000-plus overall software titles, “so you can actually play Oregon Trail on an old Apple C computer through a browser right now—no advertising, no tracking users,” [Wayback Machine director for the Internet Archive, Mark] Graham says.

“Some might call us hoarders,” he says. “I like to say we’re archivists.”

In total, Graham says the Internet Archive adds four petabytes of information per year (that’s four million gigabytes, for context). The organization’s current data totals 22 petabytes—but the Internet Archive actually holds on to 44 petabytes worth. “Because we’re paranoid,” Graham says. “Machines can go down, and we have a reputation.” That NASA-ish ethos helped the non-profit once survive nearly $600,000 worth of fire damage—all without any archived data loss.


Search words in chyrons (the text that flows along the bottom of screens). Now there’s a thing. What if we just tried to tell the story of the world in chyrons? How would a day look?
link to this extract

Physics holds the key to performing the flipping water bottle trick • Ars Technica

Jennifer Ouellette:


Think of how ice skaters extend their arms and legs to slow down rotation coming out of jumps or spins. It’s the same principle: conservation of angular momentum. Once the bottle is set in motion, its angular momentum remains constant. But shifting how the mass inside (the water) is distributed increases the bottle’s rotational inertia (how much force is required to start or keep it moving). This slows down the bottle’s rotational speed.

Physicists from the University of Twente in the Netherlands decided to analyze the underlying physics [of flipping a half-full bottle of water so it lands upright] more thoroughly in a series of rigorous experiments and develop a theoretical model. For the first version of the experiment, they used a partially filled water bottle. For the second version, they reduced the variables from the large number of water molecules in the bottle to just two tennis balls in a cylindrical container.

Video stills showing the motion of two tennis balls in a can being flipped.
P.J. Dekker et al.

In both cases, their measurements clearly showed the dramatic decrease of the container’s rotational speed, resulting in a nearly vertical descent, so the bottle landed neatly and upright. Tracking the sloshing of the liquid and the changing positions of the tennis balls demonstrated the redistribution of mass, shifting the moment of inertia.


link to this extract

Viral “manspreading” video is staged Kremlin propaganda • EU vs Disinfo


The St. Petersburg-based online magazine Bumaga found and interviewed one of the men appearing in the recording, who said that he was paid for acting as a victim.

So, if the video is fiction, and if In The Now even openly states this – what is then the purpose of promoting the story to international audiences? What is in it for a Russian state media outlet?

The key to a possible answer is found in the reactions the video has been able to spur.

In the comments section on Facebook, users express outrage against the alleged feminist activist, often in strongly misogynic language, with this comment as the most popular, gathering by now more than 14,000 likes: “Robin Stedman: This is not a protest, it’s assault. Maybe someone should pour bleach water on her for sticking her breasts out. Same thing.”

In other words, the video stages extreme feminist activism and manages to provoke extreme anti-feminist reactions.

A central element in the modus operandi of the famous “troll factory” in St. Petersburg has been to promote not just one, but different and opposing extreme views.

During the American Presidential election campaign in 2016, the goal of the operation was to sow discord in the political system, and address divisive issues via groups and pages falsely claiming to represent US activists. Messaging was e.g. not only pro-Trump, but also protesting against Trump, all to drive in wedges.

An investigation from 2017 by the independent Russian news outlet RBC found that “Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues”.


Russia is so much better at information warfare than the west, principally because the west (particularly in the US) makes a habit of standing around looking for fights to pick. Men v women? Democrats v Republicans? Star Wars done by George Lucas v Star Wars done post-George Lucas? All hills worth dying on, apparently.
link to this extract

Falsehoods programmers believe about time and time zones • Creative Deletion



• Every day has 24 hours
Counterexample: Because of daylight saving time (DST) some days could have 23 hours and some could have 25 hours. Or some other amount of hours – whole or not.

• OK, but every day without DST changes is 86400 (60 * 60 * 24) seconds long
Sometimes the UTC offset for a time zone is changed.

• … at least in UTC
Leap seconds cause some days to have an extra second. And theoretically there could be negative leap seconds. Although negative leap seconds have not happened yet because the rotation of the earth so far has been slower than UTC, as it were, and not faster.

• Week one of a year starts in January every year
January 1st is not always a Monday so some days of an ISO week will be in different years. Example: 2014 December 28th belongs to week 1 of 2015.

• If I know what time zone someone is in and they just tell me the date and local time, I can always use software to find out what time that is in UTC
If they are in the middle of changing from summertime to wintertime, the clock will be set back one hour. This means that an hour exists twice, so to speak. If the clock is set back to 2:00 and someone tells you that the local time was 2:17 for instance, you do not know if he is talking about 2:17 before the clocks were set back or 2:17 after the clocks were set back.


And many more. (Thanks @stormyparis for the link.)
link to this extract

Geospatial Commission earmarks first investments • UK Authority


The Geospatial Commission has announced its first investments with plans to pump £5m into unlocking data held by the British Geological Survey, Coal Authority, HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office and the Valuation Office Agency.

The recently created organisation indicated it will provide £80m over the next two years to support the development of new products that can propel “British companies onto a global market”. 

The six to receive the first round of investments are the partner bodies of the commission, set up by the chancellor a year ago to exploit location information, or geospatial data.

Using this publicly held data more productively could be worth up to £11bn to the economy every year, the Government believes.

The data has been produced from delivering public services and enforcing laws – such as navigating public transport or tracking supply chains – but will now be analysed by private firms for new services.

David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, said: “This Government is committed to providing more opportunities for tech businesses – including small firms – to thrive, as well as access public procurement opportunities.”


That’s good – considering it took four years of lobbying, starting back in 2006, to get the government even to countenance making OS and UKHO data open, this is a continuation down a long road.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.