Start Up No.1,162: US and China row over censorship, the bubbly Galaxy Fold, Bitfinex sued for a trillion, Cormac McCarthy’s science papers, and more


Endangered species? Vodafone is closing a thousand shops around Europe. CC-licensed photo by bazzadarambler on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Adobe cancels all user accounts in Venezuela to comply with Trump order • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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Adobe is deactivating all user accounts in Venezuela, saying that the action is necessary to comply with an executive order issued by President Donald Trump. The action affects both free and paid accounts.

In an FAQ titled “Adobe compliance with US Executive Order,” the company explained yesterday why it is canceling its Venezuela-based customers’ subscriptions:

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The US Government issued Executive Order 13884, the practical effect of which is to prohibit almost all transactions and services between US companies, entities, and individuals in Venezuela. To remain compliant with this order, Adobe is deactivating all accounts in Venezuela.

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Adobe appears to be interpreting the executive order more broadly than other companies. Microsoft’s Office 365 and other cloud services are still available in Venezuela, for example. The executive order itself says the US action is targeted at the Venezuelan government and people who provide material support to the regime.

A US government notice states that the order does not affect all commerce between the US and Venezuela. “US persons are not prohibited from engaging in transactions involving the country or people of Venezuela, provided blocked persons or any conduct prohibited by any other Executive order imposing sanctions measures related to the situation in Venezuela, are not involved,” the notice says. (In this context, a “person” is an individual or an entity such as a corporation or other type of organization.)

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Strap in, because we’re in for a bumpy ride of countries v companies in today’s edition.
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The China cultural clash • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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at least as of this afternoon, there is a hint of unrest on the [TikTok] site: while searches for “Hong Kong” show city views and high school students playing along with the latest TikTok meme, searching for Hong Kong in Chinese (香港) brings up a video that shows the protestors as hooligans and vandals (this was the first result as of this afternoon, and the only video relating to the protests):

There appear to be similar efforts in the case of the NBA controversy. Searching for the “Warriors”, “Lakers”, and “Rockets” brings up the sort of content you would expect:

However, searching for the same team names in Chinese (“勇士”, “湖人”, and “火箭”, respectively) shows basketball-related results for the first two and nothing related for the third:

This should raise serious concern in the United States and other Western countries: is it at all acceptable to have a social network that has a demonstrated willingness to censor content under the control of a country that has clearly different views on what constitutes free speech?

There is an established route for undoing this state of affairs: earlier this summer China’s Kunlun Tech Company agreed to divest Grindr under pressure from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); Kunlun Tech had acquired Grindr without undergoing CFIUS review. TikTok similarly acquired Musical.ly without oversight and relaunched it as TikTok for the Western market; it is worth at least considering the possibility of a review given TikTok’s apparent willingness to censor content for Western audiences according to Chinese government wishes.

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The key question though is posed by Thompson slightly later:

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“I am increasingly convinced this is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values?”

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Blizzard subreddit closes after devs suspend Hearthstone player for pro-Hong Kong statements • Kotaku UK

Ian Walker:

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Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai recently made waves when, during an official competition, he voiced support for Hong Kong amidst ongoing protests over Chinese rule. He’s since been suspended from competition by Hearthstone developer Blizzard and stripped of his tournament winnings, a move that has been widely criticised. During all this turmoil, the Blizzard forum on Reddit has chosen to close until further notice.

As was first reported by Eurogamer, moderators at the Blizzard subreddit set the forum to be private this afternoon. Naturally, players and fans continued to voice anger and dissatisfaction with Blizzard elsewhere. For now, the Hearthstone subreddit remains active, with much of the discussion focused on how to request refunds for various Blizzard purchases and some saying they are quitting Hearthstone altogether in protest of Wai’s punishment.

“I’ve played Hearthstone since early 2014,” one Reddit user said. “I’ve spent around £200 in the game and countless of hours. Today was my last day playing Hearthstone. You all know it by now. What Blizzard has done, or rather what they have become, is just a straight up tragedy. Vote with your wallet people, it’s the only language they understand.”

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Didn’t have Hong Kong on the list as “crucially divisive topic of 2019”, but here we are. Bad from Blizzard, though.
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One year after ‘The Big Hack’ • Pixel Envy

Nick Heer on a year sine Bloomberg’s story suggesting that China had infiltrated the motherboards of servers for companies such as Apple and Amazon:

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Michael Riley — who reported the story alongside Jordan Robertson — took to Twitter on October 5 to point out that the physical evidence would make it “hard to keep more [details] from emerging”.

So far, that has not happened.

On October 9, the duo published a followup story claiming that backdoor hardware was found on a Supermicro server belonging to a telecom firm. Their report relied on documents provided by Yossi Appleboum who subsequently argued in an interview with ServeTheHome that Bloomberg’s characterization was incorrect. Appleboum claimed that the problem is broader than Supermicro and the entire supply chain in China was compromised; however, no evidence was provided publicly to support his assertions.

And that was pretty much the last update we heard from Bloomberg’s reporters regarding this important information security scoop. Michael Riley published just one story between October 9, 2018 and August 31, 2019; Jordan Robertson reported nothing for Bloomberg until September 2, 2019. Given an entire year to dig around on this huge story, no other publication has been able to independently verify their claims.

«

Speaking as a journalist, I’d say Riley and Robertson got played by US intelligence acting for the Trump administration who wanted to create an atmosphere of distrust towards China as part both of a security clampdown and as leverage in the trade war. But Bloomberg doesn’t want to admit that. Or, apparently, even investigate it.
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Taiwan flag emoji disappears from latest Apple iPhone keyboard • Hong Kong Free Press

Kris Cheng:

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The Republic of China flag emoji has disappeared from Apple iPhone’s keyboard for Hong Kong and Macau users. The change happened for users who updated their phones to the latest operating system.

Updating iPhones to iOS 13.1.1 or above caused the flag emoji to disappear from the emoji keyboard. The flag, commonly used by users to denote Taiwan, can still be displayed by typing “Taiwan” in English, and choosing the flag in prediction candidates.

The change was spotted by Hong Kong online forum users recently. The iOS 13.1.1 update rolled out at the end of September in order to fix bugs.

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And apparently this persists in the 13.2 beta 1. There’s a point where things start to look craven. When does Apple say “no” on this?
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Vodafone to close 1,000 shops across Europe • Financial Times

Nic Fildes and Jonathan Eley:

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Vodafone is to shut 1,000 shops as part of an overhaul of its retail estate.

The telecoms company operates 7,700 stores across Europe but wants to change its role on the high street to reflect changing consumer behaviour.

Nick Read, chief executive, said it also expected to transform roughly 40% of its stores. That could involve upgrading existing shops to larger formats or downgrading them to kiosk-like “click-and-collect” outlets where consumers can pick up pre-ordered items.

He said 15% of the company’s stores would shut within two years as a result of the overhaul.

“If you believe 40% of your transactions are going to be digital, then how does that impact why someone goes to a store? The journeys and purpose of the stores changes,” he said.

«

I’m a little surprised that so many phone shops have survived so long. We’ve hit saturation; sales are slowing. The shop in my local town (a Carphone Warehouse) is almost always empty. For the staff inside it must either be the best or the worst imaginable job.
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A RoboCop, a park and a fight: how expectations about robots are clashing with reality • CNBC

Katie Flaherty:

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When a fight broke out recently in the parking lot of Salt Lake Park, a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Cogo Guebara did what seemed the most practical thing at the time: she ran over to the park’s police robot to push its emergency alert button.

“I was pushing the button but it said, ‘step out of the way,’” Guebara said. “It just kept ringing and ringing, and I kept pushing and pushing.”

She thought maybe the robot, which stands about 5 feet tall and has “POLICE” emblazoned on its egg-shaped body, wanted a visual of her face, so she crouched down for the camera. It still didn’t work.

Without a response, Rudy Espericuta, who was with Guebara and her children at the time, dialed 911. About 15 minutes later, after the fight had ended, a woman was rolled out on a stretcher and into an ambulance, her head bleeding from a cut suffered during the altercation.

Amid the scene, the robot continued to glide along its pre-programmed route, humming an intergalactic tune that could have been ripped from any low-budget sci-fi film. The almost 400-pound robot followed the park’s winding concrete from the basketball courts to the children’s splash zone, pausing every so often to tell visitors to “please keep the park clean.”

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But the button is connected to someone. See if you can guess who, or what.
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Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper • Nature

Van Savage and Pamela Yeh:

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Van Savage, a theoretical biologist and ecologist, first met McCarthy in 2000, and they overlapped at the Sante Fe Institute (SFI) for about four years while Savage was a graduate student and then a postdoc. Savage has received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy on several science papers published over the past 20 years. While on sabbatical at the SFI during the winter of 2018, Savage had lively weekly lunches with McCarthy. They worked to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points so that it could be shared with everyone. These pieces of advice were combined with thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh and are presented here. McCarthy’s most important tip is to keep it simple while telling a coherent, compelling story. The following are more of McCarthy’s words of wisdom, as told by Savage and Yeh.

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I’d have to say that the authors break McCarthy’s rule about paragraphs in the above paragraph. But in general his rules are solid ones that anyone can benefit from – not just science paper writers.
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Collapse OS — Why? • CollapseOS

Since we mentioned McCarthy (author of The Road), here’s an idea from the Reddit user “z80ftw”:

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I expect our global supply chain to collapse before we reach 2030. With this collapse, we won’t be able to produce most of our electronics because it depends on a very complex supply chain that we won’t be able to achieve again for decades (ever?).

The fast rate of progress we’ve seen since the advent of electronics happened in very specific conditions that won’t be there post-collapse, so we can’t hope to be able to bootstrap new electronic technology as fast we did without a good “starter kit” to help us do so.

Electronics yield enormous power, a power that will give significant advantages to communities that manage to continue mastering it. This will usher a new age of scavenger electronics: parts can’t be manufactured any more, but we have billions of parts lying around. Those who can manage to create new designs from those parts with low-tech tools will be very powerful.

Among these scavenged parts are microcontrollers, which are especially powerful but need complex tools (often computers) to program them. Computers, after a couple of decades, will break down beyond repair and we won’t be able to program microcontrollers any more.

To avoid this fate, we need to have a system that can be designed from scavenged parts and program microcontrollers.

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Well, I guess that counts as optimism? Of a sort? That things will collapse but only far enough that we have to scavenge microcontrollers, rather than scavenging each other. (The Zilog Z80, by the way, is an 8-bit processor.)
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Bitfinex and Tether Ltd sued for allegedly printing $2.8bn of ‘fake’ Tether (USDT) and causing the crypto market bubble of 2017-2018 • Crypto.IQ

Zachary Mashiach:

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A class-action lawsuit has been initiated against Bitfinex, the largest USD to crypto exchange in the world, and Tether Limited, the operators of the most popular stablecoin with a circulation in excess of $4bn, in the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York. The class-action lawsuit is on behalf of all people who held cryptocurrencies after Oct. 6, 2014, and the Plaintiffs expect damages to surpass $1.4trn. 

Notably, Bitfinex and Tether Limited were already under investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) before this class action lawsuit was initiated. This new lawsuit actually sheds a significant amount of light on the purported illegal activities for which the government is investigating Bitfinex and Tether Limited.

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I’ve been suspicious about Tether for a very long time, since if it was linked to money coming into the cryptocurrency market, it didn’t follow the way that interest in the cryptocurrency market flowed.
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Screen Size Map

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An interactive map of screen sizes for responsive and adaptive design.

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The neat thing is that as you look at each screen size, it shows you what percentage of people have that size. Though for pretty much all the sizes, it says “under 2%”.
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The Samsung Galaxy Fold is great… if you live in a bubble • WSJ

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Samsung’s relaunched foldable phone fixes some of the first issues but now comes with a long list of warnings about handling the phone carefully. WSJ’s Joanna Stern retreats to a sealed dome in the woods to review the innovative device.

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Another video review, which has Stern’s signature blend of laconic, sardonic, and yes-but-in-the-real-world observation. Unparalleled. She brings out all the Fold’s good points – and then points out the bad ones. Perfectly done.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,162: US and China row over censorship, the bubbly Galaxy Fold, Bitfinex sued for a trillion, Cormac McCarthy’s science papers, and more

  1. Re. Politics and business. That’s why you need a) fat apps not cloud apps and b) the ability to download them around censorship (which starts commercial and ends up political because politics has a major impact on commercial interests).

    One can discuss ethics and pretend companies have any in spite of that being basically illegal if in contradiction to shareholders’ interest. But let’s discuss wisdom instead: we know censorship always gets perverted. So let’s just accept a little bit of freedom and chaos instead of order and censorship. There’s only so much Tim Cook / Google / MS/ … sucking up to Trump and Xi like mad can achieve, especially with users being a second priority to business. At least governments are elected (well, about half of them, some of those even by actual popular vote), companies aren’t and users shouldn’t accept surrendering to them what they can do with their devices. Especially when, as in the case of Apple and Blizzard and the sports monopolies, their track record is worse than iffy.

  2. That’s sad: https://lifehacker.com/no-one-knows-about-two-factor-authentication-and-privat-1838913065

    I’m still not pushing 2FA to regular Joes and Janes because it’s too complicated to use and people can’t even master passwords… Whenever I’ve got to upgrade someone’s phone or PC, the ONLY thing I ask for is that they locate their passwords beforehand. Logins are still by far the most time-consuming part of any home-IT work. Out of 10ish people I helped last year, one ( ONE !) knew all her passwords. Well, had them written down somewhere ^^ Half aren’t even aware when their recovery is linked to disused email addresses.

    I’m not even pushing Firefox + uBlock + Privacy Badger that much (let alone a VPN, that costs money), because by the time I’m done hunting passwords I’m fed up and things work and I don’t want to break them.

    As for me, I’m on 2FA and FFox+uBlock+PB though not a VPN… I’m waiting for Rev2 of the Raspberry Pi 4 to build myself a Pihole+VPN+Torrentbox. I do feel bad for not enlightening the rest of the world ^^

  3. Google is ever-so-slightly pressuring OEMs to behave: https://www.xda-developers.com/google-require-android-10-new-devices-approved-january-31/
    1- the window to launch a device on an out-of-date version of Android is being tightened a bit, cutoff date in now Jan 1 2020, all devices after that must have 10, so 1.5yrs instead of the previous 2.
    2- Device should (must ?) support USB-Power Delivery on top of proprietary tech.
    3- The must include the screentime-limiting stuff.

    I’m still mostly interested on how much OEMs will be allowed to / will in practice mess up with 10’s Project Mainline out -of-band security updates. Preciously little info on that. Then again, preciously little info on OS update and security patches availability.

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