Start Up No.1,068: Trump bans Huawei (in effect), how to change the world peacefully, Salon for sale, can Twitter solve discourse?, and more


Japan’s mobile phone numbers are about to get longer: they’re running out of numberspace. CC-licensed photo by Cocoarmani on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Could be worse. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why I (still) love tech: in defense of a difficult industry • WIRED

Paul Ford, in a sort of love letter/nostra culpa to the industry:

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People—smart, kind, thoughtful people—thought that comment boards and open discussion would heal us, would make sexism and racism negligible and tear down walls of class. We were certain that more communication would make everything better. Arrogantly, we ignored history and learned a lesson that has been in the curriculum since the Tower of Babel, or rather, we made everyone else learn it. We thought we were amplifying individuals in all their wonder and forgot about the cruelty, or at least assumed that good product design could wash that away. We were so hopeful, and we shaved the sides of our heads, and we never expected to take over the world.

I’m watching the ideologies of our industry collapse. Our celebration of disruption of every other industry, our belief that digital platforms must always uphold free speech no matter how vile. Our transhumanist tendencies, that sci-fi faith in the singularity. Our general belief that software will eat the world and that the world is better for being eaten.

It’s been hard to accept, at least for me, that each of our techy ideologies, while containing various merits, don’t really add up to a worldview, because technology is not the world. It’s just another layer in the Big Crappy Human System along with religion, energy, government, sex, and, more than anything else, money.

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Trump signs order to protect US networks from foreign espionage, a move that appears to target China • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Josh Dawsey:

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The order authorizes the commerce secretary to block transactions involving communications technologies built by companies controlled by a foreign adversary that put U.S. security at “unacceptable” risk — or pose a threat of espionage or sabotage to networks that underpin the day-to-day running of vital public services.

Wednesday’s announcement was expected nearly a year ago and comes as neither Washington nor Beijing appears willing to back down in their ongoing economic dispute. The National Economic Council, which had blocked the move for months, dropped its objection as trade talks hit an impasse, one official said.

Trump’s executive order does not immediately exclude any specific companies or countries but certainly will not lessen tensions with Beijing. It is consistent with an increasingly aggressive tack against China in which Trump has used tariffs as economic weapons, a tactic that he believes to be popular with his political base.

The move also boosts the administration’s somewhat uphill effort to persuade allies and partners in Europe to bar Huawei, which officials say is beholden to the Chinese government, from their next-generation 5G wireless networks.

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Of course, this could be seen as just another move in the trade war, but it feels like part of a long-planned policy driven by the US defence establishment.
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Japan plans to create 10 billion 14-digit phone numbers as 5G era nears • The Japan Times

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The communications ministry plans to create for assignment some 10 billion 14-digit phone numbers starting with the code “020.”

With the commercialization of fifth-generation, or 5G, superfast mobile communications fast approaching, 11-digit numbers are expected to run out as early as fiscal 2022.

The plan to introduce the new numbers, by the end of 2021 at the latest, was proposed at a recent meeting of a panel of experts. It was accepted by the three major mobile phone operators — NTT Docomo Inc., KDDI Corp. and SoftBank Corp.

After hearing public comments, the ministry will draw up a report on the matter as early as June and make necessary preparations, including a ministerial ordinance, by the end of this year.

New numbers will be allocated to the major carriers early if they finish work to update their systems ahead of schedule.

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Hmm. Japan has twice the population of the UK, but it does make one wonder how full the UK’s mobile number space (also 11 digits) is doing. The US, meanwhile, has three times Japan’s population, and uses 10-digit numbers. Not sure how long that’s going to last.
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Target of WhatsApp hack says he fears more victims are out there • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

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The lawyer had been advising a legal team representing five Mexican journalists who are suing NSO in Israel after alleging their phones were hijacked with the company’s Pegasus spyware. He says he started receiving strange video calls over WhatsApp around three weeks ago in the early hours of the morning, from a number with Sweden’s +46 country code.

After his suspicions were aroused, he contacted Citizen Lab, an organization based at the University of Toronto that specializes in researching digital traces left by surveillance companies. Citizen Lab investigated and believed it had found traces of NSO Group’s software.

The Canadian organization then passed on the information to WhatsApp, which investigated and patched the vulnerability on Friday. “WhatsApp noticed on their own that the app itself was crashing at an abnormal level—they noticed irregularities,” the lawyer said.

WhatsApp told Forbes it was already investigating the vulnerability before Citizen Lab reached out, having discovered an issue while carrying out security improvements. It noticed “abnormal behavior” impacting a small number of users. Indeed, WhatsApp has received praise for contacting human rights groups to warn about the attack. “WhatsApp took a really good, proactive stance on this one. They contacted human rights groups in advance, and they closed it down first with a filter and then a patch,” said Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton.

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It’s staringly obvious that there are more contacts out there. The question is who they are (and whether Jamal Kashoggi might have been one of them). That WhatsApp could see an increased number of crashes suggests that the NSO Group isn’t quite as clever as it thought.
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The ‘3.5% rule’: how a small minority can change the world • BBC Future

David Robson:

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In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.  

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.
Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Chenoweth’s influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her findings. So just how did she come to these conclusions?

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3.5% of the UK’s 63m population would be 2.2m people; of the US’s 330m would be 11.55m, though if you’re only talking adults, then it’s smaller: 1.8m and 8m. Which leads us on to the next link…
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How do we go on? • ANU Science

Tabitha Carvan on how to deal with climate despair – the feeling that nothing you can do will make a difference:

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“The neoliberal economic system we’ve bought into is completely at odds with how the Earth works,” Professor Will Steffen continues. “We have to change this value system that we operate under. We need a social tipping point that flips our thinking, before we reach a tipping point in the climate system.

“I think Greta Thunberg could turn out to be that tipping element.”

But Greta, the sixteen year-old Swedish activist, hasn’t made a dent on the problem, I say.

“Not yet,” Steffen says. “The thing about a complex system, like our societies, is they are hard to predict because they’re highly non-linear. It’s not simple cause and effect. The state of the system – that is, the neoliberal economic system and our use of fossil fuels – seems so set, so stable, so tough, that nothing’s going to affect it. But it’s getting eroded from underneath – by the students, by legal battles, by increasing extreme weather events.

“Where you have a lot of people waking up and saying, ‘Something isn’t right’, that could be the kind of fundamental thing we need to reach the tipping point. It’s not just the students. I think more people are beginning to sense that too. For the first time, I’m seeing old white men in the bush saying something is changing there too.

“I’m not saying we’re now going to solve climate change but I’m saying we are getting to a point where reaching that kind of social tipping point is our only hope. The solutions are already there. It’s the system that’s preventing it.”

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Salon Media in talks for $5M fire sale in last-ditch effort • NY Post

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Salon Media Group, a one-time digital darling, has fallen on hard times. It lost its CEO of the past three years last week and appears to be on the brink of a deal to sell itself for a fire sale price of $5m.

The struggling company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on May 8 that it reached a deal to sell itself to a company called Salon.com LLC.

The filing contained no further info on the mystery buyer or buyers but said the deal would only require a $550,000 payment at closing. It said $100,000 would go to an escrow account and $500,000 was already paid as a deposit.

The remaining $3.85m would be a promissory note payable in two installments over two years.

Even with those favorable terms, Salon issued a dire warning in the filing: “There can be no guarantee that the asset sale will be completed and, if not completed, we may have to file for bankruptcy and liquidation.”

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Founded in 1995, went public in 1999 for $107m, permanent money-loser. Online media is tough.
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Microsoft patches zero-day bug under active attack • Threatpost

Tom Spring:

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Microsoft has released a patch for an elevation-of-privileges vulnerability rated important, which is being exploited in the wild.

The bug fix is part of Microsoft’s May Patch Tuesday Security Bulletin. It’s tied to the Windows Error Reporting feature and is being abused by attackers who have gained local access to affected PCs. They are able to trigger arbitrary code-execution in kernel mode — resulting in a complete system compromise.

“They would need to first gain access to run code on a target system, but malware often uses elevations like this one to go from ‘user’ to ‘admin’ code execution,” wrote Dustin Childs, communications manager for Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, in a blog post on Tuesday. “While details about the use of the exploit are not available, it is likely being used in limited attacks against specific targets.”

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It’s been quite the week for exploits – WhatsApp, Intel CPUs, now this.
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US births fall to lowest level since 1980s • WSJ

Anthony DeBarros and Janet Adamy:

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The number of babies born in the US last year fell to a 32-year low, deepening a fertility slump that is reshaping America’s future workforce.

About 3.79 million babies were born in the US in 2018, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. That was a 2% decline from the previous year and marked the fourth year in a row that the number fell. The general fertility rate—the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44—fell to 59.0, the lowest since the start of federal record-keeping.

With the latest decline, births in the US have fallen in 10 of the last 11 years since peaking in 2007, just before the recession. Many demographers believed that births would rebound as the economy recovered, but that trend hasn’t materialized.

Instead, experts say the continuing declines appear to be rooted in several trends, including teenagers and unmarried women having fewer babies, lower Hispanic fertility rates and the rise in women obtaining college degrees.

The decline has important implications for the US economy and workforce. The total fertility rate—an estimate of the number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime—has generally remained below the “replacement” level of 2.1 since 1971. A fertility rate falling farther below replacement level means that, without enough immigrants, the U.S. could see population declines and a workforce too small to support a growing segment of retirees.

Last year it fell to 1.7, a record low.

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The US also has the highest infant mortality of the G20 – 5.8 per thousand in 2017.

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Behind Twitter’s plan to get people to stop yelling at each other • Buzzfeed News

Nicole Nguyen:

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There are many challenges with fixing Twitter, but the primary issue has to do with the form of Twitter itself. It’s an extremely complex product: Every reply is itself a tweet, and every tweet can be infinitely replied to. Conversations can be hard to read, let alone understand, and that misunderstanding contributes to a lot of the repetitive first responses to tweets, reply dogpiling, and knee-jerk reactions — like the kind that flooded Stone’s mentions — that fuel the platform’s outrage cycle.

One user, @matthewreid, replying to Stone, summed up the issues facing Twitter nicely: “A quick scroll through many of these replies illustrates what made this place I love so toxic. Bullying. Mob mentality. Insufferable knowitalls.” Twitter CEO Dorsey has admitted the same himself: “I also don’t feel good about how Twitter tends to incentivize outrage, fast takes, short term thinking, echo chambers, and fragmented conversation and consideration.”

“Like, imagine being in a room and talking to a billion people. It’s chaos.”
“Having conversations that anyone can see and anyone can participate in is a really awesome super power that needs to feel really simple despite its complexity behind the scenes,” Twitter product lead and Periscope cofounder Kayvon Beykpour told BuzzFeed News. “Like, imagine being in a room and talking to a billion people. It’s chaos.“

To reduce the chaos, the twttr prototype is reimagining what Twitter could look like. “What are the mechanics that we allow you to do right at the surface versus one tap away? We are essentially rethinking paradigms that have been the case for 13-plus years,” Beykpour explained.

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In response, Sarah Jeong (of the NYT) suggested some ways to make it better: “An option to prevent new accounts from replying to you. Or an option to auto block those accounts if they try. Option to auto block accounts with under 10 followers. IDK, maybe like, all the stuff blocktogether did before Twitter nuked its API.”
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A report from the AMP advisory committee meeting • Terence Eden’s blog

Terence Eden doesn’t like Google’s AMP. So, obviously, he joined its advisory committee:

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My top recommendations:

Publish all user research
Don’t allow new components to be created without a clear user story and research to support them.
• Accessibly audit:
Don’t validate pages which can’t pass an automated a11y test
• Stop the forced bundling: Let users opt out of seeing AMP pages
• Don’t require AMP for prominent placement
• Stop discriminating against non-Google browsers
• Reconsider AMP4Email – lots of concerns from smaller email providers; security and archiving concerns
• Work with the ecosystem rather than imposing

Conclusions
The meeting was good natured. While there were some robust discussions, the AC seemed fairly unified that Google had to seriously rework parts of the AMP project.

As I said in the meeting – if it were up to me, I’d say “Well, AMP was an interesting experiment. Now it is time to shut it down and take the lessons learned back through a proper standards process.”

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As always, a force for good and good sense.
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