Start Up No.1380: Apple zaps Epic’s dev account, WFH in… Barbados?, TikTok sale gets more complicated, Facebook’s moderator indifference, and more

What looks tasty? “Menu engineers” can steer you to dishes that make more money. CC-licensed photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr

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A selection of 11 links for you. No, you’re working on a holiday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meet the “menu engineers” helping restaurants retool in the pandemic • The Hustle

Michael Waters:


You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who have thought more about restaurant menus than Michele Benesch.

In 1968, her grandfather, Walter Baker, started Menu Men, Inc., a creative consultancy that specializes in infusing menus with fanciful designs.

At the time, says Benesch, the art of the menu was largely neglected. Sensing some room for disruption, Baker convinced restaurateurs to invest in fully customized designs.

Benesch never expected to enter the family business. But she couldn’t fully escape it, either. When she went out to dinner as a kid in Miami, her father, who ran the company at the time, always pointed out little menu tricks. He’d ask her about the materials used (“Why did this client choose a parchment?”), the fonts, the placement of each item. 

“My whole life, I was being an apprentice for the job I never realized I wanted,” Benesch says. 

By the time Benesch took over the business in 2006, the menu engineering trade had begun to gain wider recognition, with a growing number of hospitality schools funding research into the psychology of menus. 

Consultants like Benesch realized they could use this research to get customers to spend more money.

Today, Benesch blends design, psychology research, and general food knowledge to build a more scientific menu. With a bit of tinkering, she can increase the odds of, say, a diner picking the highest-margin meal on the menu.

Considering how small restaurant profits are (typically 3% to 5%), the right menu can mean the difference between success and failure. 

When a Las Vegas restaurant recently hired Benesch to revamp its menu, she cut their 4-page layout down to a simple 2-page panel, upped the font size, did some dish repositioning, and cut loose some of the dishes that weren’t selling well.

The new menu led to a spending bump equivalent to $9 more per customer.


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Barbados introduces plan to allow visitors to stay for a year to “work from home” • Yahoo Money


Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley announced the “12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp” earlier this month that would allow “persons to come and work from here overseas, digitally so, so that persons don’t need to remain in the countries in which they are,” Mottley said in a press conference.

Mottley noted that working remotely doesn’t mean you have to physically work near your office, making the case that living elsewhere — or even abroad — is possible for some occupations that simply require a reliable internet connection to accomplish work.

She continued: “The government is committed to working with you on the promotion of new concepts like the 12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp, being able to open our borders to persons traveling and making it as hospitable as ever for all of us, and making it available for Barbadians from every walk of life to believe that for special occasions, or just for so, that they can come out and be a part of this wonderful exercise.”


I think she meant “wonderful money-generating exercise”. Getting people from higher-income countries to come and spend their money in Barbados is a great way to help your tourist-dependent economy while there aren’t any tourists.
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Apple terminates Epic Games’ developer account • Mac Rumors

Juli Clover:


Searching for Epic Games in the ‌App Store‌ brings up no apps and on the web, the Epic Games developer account is blank. Though the Epic Games developer account is no longer available, Fortnite continues to work.

Those who have downloaded Fortnite on an iPhone or iPad can continue to play the game, but there’s a catch – none of the new Marvel-themed Season 4 content is available because Fortnite is unable to be updated.

Fortnite has been in violation of the ‌App Store‌ rules since August 13, when it introduced a direct payment option that skirted Apple’s in-app purchase system by allowing payments directly to Epic Games. Shortly after Epic blatantly disregarded ‌App Store‌ policies, Apple pulled the app from the ‌App Store‌, leading to a lawsuit from Epic and a quickly escalating legal fight between the two companies.

Since Epic initiated the dispute with Apple, it has refused to back down from the direct purchase option added to Fortnite, and Apple has refused to allow the app in the ‌App Store‌ while the direct payment option remains. Apple told Epic that it was ready to “welcome Fortnite back onto iOS” if Epic removed the direct payment option and returned to the status quo while the legal battle plays out in court, but Epic has refused.

Last night, Epic sent out emails to Fortnite players blaming the unavailability of the new season on Apple and claming that Apple is “blocking Fortnite” in order to prevent Epic Games from “passing on the savings from direct payments to players.” Apple in turn has taken to featuring Fortnite competitor PUBG in its ‌App Store‌.

Apple originally wanted to terminate the developer accounts of both Epic Games and Epic International, a separate account linked to Epic’s Unreal Engine used by third-party app developers, but a judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing Apple from doing so. The judge declined to stop Apple from terminating the Epic Games account, however, telling Epic that it “created the situation” and made a “strategically and calculated move to breach” ‌App Store‌ terms.


The judge’s reasoning was solid. Now we find out how much Epic needs the cash versus how much Apple needs Epic. I think both can survive without each other pretty well; this could turn into a long standoff.
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Tiktok assets can’t be sold without China’s approval • Bloomberg News


ByteDance Ltd. will be required to seek Chinese government approval to sell the US operations of its short-video TikTok app under new restrictions Beijing imposed on the export of artificial intelligence technologies, according to a person familiar with the matter.

AI interface technologies such as speech and text recognition, and those that analyze data to make personalized content recommendations, were added to a revised list of export-control products published on the Ministry of Commerce’s website late Friday. Government permits will be required for overseas transfers to “safeguard national economic security,” it said.

The new restrictions cover technologies ByteDance uses in TikTok and will require the company to seek government approval for any deal, according to the person, asking not to be identified because the details aren’t public. The new rule is aimed at delaying the sale and is not an outright ban, the person said.

President Donald Trump’s administration has said ByteDance must sell the US operations of its popular video-sharing app because of alleged national security risks. Microsoft and Oracle have submitted rival bids to ByteDance to acquire TikTok’s US business, while Centricus Asset Management and Triller were said to have made a last-minute pitch on Friday to buy TikTok’s operations in several countries for $20bn.


So it must be sold, but it can’t be sold. That’s going to be fun.
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Slack fixes ‘critical’ vulnerability that left desktop app users open to attack • Mashable

Jack Morse:


the exploit allowed for something known as “remote code execution,” which is just as bad as it sounds. Before Slack fixed it, an attacker using the exploit could have done some pretty wild stuff, such as gaining “access to private files, private keys, passwords, secrets, internal network access etc.,” and “access to private conversations, files etc. within Slack.”

What’s more, according to the disclosure, maliciously inclined hackers could have made their attack “wormable.” In other words, if one person in your team got infected, their account would automatically re-share that dangerous payload to all their colleagues. 

It’s worth emphasizing that the security researcher who discovered this vulnerability — a process that takes untold hours of work and is a literal job — decided to do what many would consider the right thing and report it to Slack via HackerOne. For the security researcher, whose HackerOne handle is oskars, this resulted in a bug bounty payment of $1,750. 

Of course, had that person wanted, they could have likely gotten much, much more money by selling it to a third-party exploit broker.


Slack might want to think about the amount it offers. Other hackers will have seen that and decided they could do better selling them. Suddenly, Slack looks like a security risk compared to, say, Microsoft Teams.
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A Kenosha militia facebook event asking attendees to bring weapons was reported 455 times. Moderators said it didn’t violate any rules • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac:


During Facebook’s Thursday all-hands meeting, Zuckerberg said that the images from Wisconsin were “painful and really discouraging,” before acknowledging that the company had made a mistake in not taking the Kenosha Guard page and event down sooner. The page had violated Facebook’s new rules introduced last week that labeled militia and QAnon groups as “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” for their celebrations of violence.

The company did not catch the page despite user reports, Zuckerberg said, because the complaints had been sent to content moderation contractors who were not versed in “how certain militias” operate. “On second review, doing it more sensitively, the team that was responsible for dangerous organizations recognized that this violated the policies and we took it down.”

During the talk, Facebook employees hammered Zuckerberg for continuing to allow the spread of hatred on the platform.

“At what point do we take responsibility for enabling hate filled bile to spread across our services?” wrote one employee. “[A]nti semitism, conspiracy, and white supremacy reeks across our services.”

The internal report seen by BuzzFeed News sheds more light on Facebook’s failure.

“Organizers… advocated for attendees to bring weapons to an event in the event description,” the internal report reads. “There are multiple news articles about our delay in taking down the event.”


At what point, one wonders, will Zuckerberg realise that his creation is utterly beyond his control – that Frankenstein has lost the ability to direct his monster?
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Facebook executive supported india’s Modi and disparaged opposition in internal messages • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Newley Purnell:


A Facebook Inc. executive at the center of a political storm in India made internal postings over several years detailing her support for the now ruling Hindu nationalist party and disparaging its main rival, behavior some staff saw as conflicting with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world.

In one of the messages, Ankhi Das, head of public policy in the country, posted the day before Narendra Modi swept to victory in India’s 2014 national elections: “We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history.”

“It’s taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally,” Ms. Das wrote in a separate post on the defeat of the Indian National Congress party, praising Mr. Modi as the “strongman” who had broken the former ruling party’s hold. Ms. Das called Facebook’s top global elections official, Katie Harbath, her “longest fellow traveler” in the company’s work with his campaign. In a photo, Ms. Das stood, smiling, between Mr. Modi and Ms. Harbath.

Ms. Das’s posts, which were viewed by The Wall Street Journal, haven’t been previously reported. Some Facebook employees said the sentiments and actions described by Ms. Das conflicted with the company’s longstanding neutrality pledge.

The posts cover the years 2012 to 2014 and were made to a Facebook group designed for employees in India, though it was open to anyone in the company globally who wanted to join.


I’m guessing this was leaked by disgruntled Facebook employees. The scale of silent revolt inside Facebook is only going to grow. I can’t see how she can keep her job.
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Picking locks with audio technology • Communications of the ACM

Paul Marks on researchers who say they could recreate a copy of keys used for Yale or Schlage six-pin locks:


Their first task was to work out how to surreptitiously acquire the audio from a key insertion, and the researchers suggest no less than five ways of going about it. First, in a walk-by attack, a spy simply walks behind somebody just as they unlock a door or locker, holding their phone out to furtively record the sound of the key going into the lock. So far, though, they have only done this with the phone an unrealistic 10cm (nearly four inches) from the lock. “We are still working on making this attack realizable,” says Ramesh.

Their second method takes another tack entirely: install malware on a victim’s smartphone (or smartwatch) so it records and transmits key insertion audio via an Internet or 4G backchannel. Such viruses are already known in the wild.

Third, they believe an attacker might hack a product like a domestic Internet of Things (IoT) device that contains a microphone, like a video doorbell, which is next to the lock, and acquire audio over the air. Again, this is a known attack vector.

The fourth trick might involve long-distance microphones, the NUS team suggest, while a fifth might involve installing hidden microphones in a corridor of a set of target offices; over time, they suggest, attackers could quietly harvest door key audio for multiple offices.

Once they have a key-insertion audio file, SpiKey’s inference software gets to work filtering the signal to reveal the strong, metallic clicks as key ridges hit the lock’s pins…


I’ll go with “this is super-unlikely, but might make a neat subplot in a spy film.” (Thanks Steve for the link.)
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Everybody hates digital calendars, so everybody’s trying to build a better one • Protocol

David Pierce:


ReclaimAI has the same long-term goal as that of Clockwise, Woven and others: to turn calendars from a block of hours into a more malleable, relentlessly optimizing thing. Programmers who need 15 hours of deep work each week shouldn’t have to schedule it in advance, these companies think; their calendar should make sure they have space for it. One-on-one meetings that need to happen once a week but not necessarily at a set time should shift to accommodate everyone’s schedule. Martin said Clockwise has 16 different categories of calendar entries, including everything from doctor’s appointments (personal, immovable) to general “catch up on email” holds (important, but easy to move around), each with its own unique characteristics. There are more categories to come. Over time, the more a calendar actually understands what’s on it, the better it can take care of a user’s time.

This kind of thinking has a second benefit: It turns corporate calendars into a powerful analytics tool. If you want to know what your company values, look at how people spend their time. Or, just as often, how their time gets wasted.


The trouble with AI-organised and re-organised calendars is the potential for screwing up your life by surprising you with appointments you’re not prepared for but the machine has given you, surely? It’s a pain, but I wonder whether it’s trying to solve an insoluble problem – a sort of non-travelling salesman’s four-colour theorem.
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Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing • The Correspondent

Jesse Frederik:


It seems that blockchain sounds best in a PowerPoint slide. Most blockchain projects don’t make it past a press release, an inventory by Bloomberg showed. The Honduran land registry was going to use blockchain. That plan has been shelved. The Nasdaq was also going to do something with blockchain. Not happening. The Dutch Central Bank then? Nope. Out of over 86,000 blockchain projects that had been launched, 92% had been abandoned by the end of 2017, according to consultancy firm Deloitte.

Why are they deciding to stop? Enlightened – and thus former – blockchain developer Mark van Cuijk explained: “You could also use a forklift to put a six-pack of beer on your kitchen counter. But it’s just not very efficient.” 

…[But] This is the market for magic, and that market is big.


Blockchain is heading solidly towards the trough of despond in the Hype Cycle (if it wasn’t there already). Bitcoin chunters on as a speculative toy for people with more money than sense (or more sense than other people with money).
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Israeli phone hacking company faces court fight over sales to Hong Kong • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:


Human rights advocates filed a new court petition against the Israeli phone hacking company Cellebrite, urging Israel’s ministry of defense to halt the firm’s exports to Hong Kong, where security forces have been using the technology in crackdowns against dissidents as China takes greater control.

Hong Kong police documents show the use of Cellebrite to hack and unlock phones of demonstrators. Former police officers have confirmed that Cellebrite has long been used by Hong Kong.

In July, police court filings revealed that Cellebrite’s phone hacking technology has been used to break into 4,000 phones of Hong Kong citizens, including prominent pro-democracy politician and activist Joshua Wong. He subsequently launched an online petition to end Cellebrite’s sales to Hong Kong, which gained 35,000 signatures.

“Defense Ministry officials must immediately stop the export of the Cellebrite system which is used for infringement on privacy, deprivation of liberty and freedom of expression, and political incrimination of Hong Kong citizens under the new National Security Law,” Wong wrote in a Facebook post urging Israel to stop Cellebrite’s exports to Hong Kong.


I’ve looked in vain for any statement by the Israeli government on what it thinks about China’s effective legislative annexation of Hong Kong. That would tell us how its ministry of defence would respond to this lawsuit.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start Up No.1379: Apple under news pressure on App Store fees, Adobe zaps Lightroom photos (oops), ML Roman emperors, and more

Las Vegas: a great place to go to catch Covid-19 (but how dangerous is it by age range, exactly?) CC-licensed photo by Mathieu Lebreton on Flickr.

Please note: The Overspill will be on a completely undeserved rest next week, planning to return on Sept August 31st.

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 12 links for you. On a break! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

App stores, trust and anti-trust • Benedict Evans

On the topic of Epic:


Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it. A secure system with a switch to turn off the security might work for Linux and a highly technical user, but when you’ve given smartphones to a few billion people, a secure system with a switch to turn off the security is just a target for malware. That horoscope app can tell you’ll get more accurate results if it has access to some computer gibberish, so please press OK, and guess what? Everyone will press OK. A computer should not ask a question that the user won’t understand, and when you have billions of users that list looks different. This has been Google’s experience with Android: it chose a less restrictive sandbox than iOS and had many more malware problems, and Google has spent the last decade slowly rowing towards Apple’s approach.

…I think Apple is going to have to make fundamental changes to the payment model. Epic only has margin at stake, but Spotify can’t pay at all, it’s a direct competitor, and there’s no user benefit at all to Apple’s policy, just confusion and annoyance. The EU is now pursuing two separate competition policy cases against Apple: one over the App Store, with Spotify a complainant, and the other over Apple Wallet and Apple Pay. This second one is instructive: the EU is taking the view that Apple has a monopoly of payment on the iPhone. Market definition is everything. I-am-not-a-lawyer, but I don’t see how Apple can win on Spotify (or Kindle), and I don’t think it should.

That might mean changes in who and what is covered by payment rules, but it probably also means changes to the 30%. There’s a lot of argument about principle, but there’s also a price: if the rate was, say, 10%, I’m not sure that we would be having the same conversation, and Epic would certainly get less sympathy.

That 30% adds up to real money, incidentally. When the store launched, Steve Jobs said it was aiming to break even – the 30% was to cover the running costs, and it is worth remembering how many huge companies are getting the App Store, the manual review and the file downloads to hundreds of millions of users for nothing more than their $100 a year developer subscription. But the App Store is not running at break even anymore: in 2019 it made somewhere between $10bn and $15bn of commission – 20-30% of the ‘service revenue’ Apple likes to talk about.


Well I’m sure it will all get sorted out very amicably in the week while I’m away.
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iPhones with ‘Fortnite’ are being resold for thousands • Business Insider

Ben Gilbert:


If you were one of the millions of people who downloaded “Fortnite” before it was pulled from Apple’s App Store last week, then you’ve still got it — Apple can’t remove the game from your iPhone. But if you didn’t, perhaps you’d be willing to pay as much as $10,000 for an iPhone with the game preinstalled.

That’s what resellers on eBay are hoping.

A search of eBay’s US store on Wednesday with the term “iphone fortnite installed” yielded over 100 listings of resellers with various iPhone models. A search for “fortnite iphone” turns up even more.

The $10,000 option above, for instance, comes with the game preinstalled on 2017’s iPhone X.

Notably, “Fortnite” is a free-to-play game that’s available on nearly every gaming platform. Moreover, the game can be played across competing game platforms — whether you’re playing on Nintendo Switch, iPhone, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Android, or Mac, you can play with other “Fortnite” players.


The headline is wrong: iPhones with Fortnite are being *offered* for resale for thousands. Gilbert didn’t find a single completed sale for anywhere like that price, and the story notes that most of the phones on offer haven’t attracted a single bid.

Though if you were Epic, it might make sense to try to amp up the media-perceived value of your product by offering a couple of old phones at absurd prices. I’m not suggesting Epic is doing that, but this certainly doesn’t hurt them at all.
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News publishers join fight against Apple over App Store terms • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:


Major news organizations are joining the growing chorus of companies pushing for more favorable terms on Apple’s App Store, a crucial link to new digital customers.

In a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook on Thursday, a trade body representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publishers said the outlets want to know what it would take for them to get better deal terms—which would allow them to keep more money from digital subscriptions sold through Apple’s app store.

App developers, including news publishers, pay Apple 30% of the revenue from first-time subscriptions made through iOS apps; that commission is reduced to 15% after the subscriber’s first year. Apple says the revenue split is similar to other app marketplaces and allows the company to cover the app store’s operating expenses.

“The terms of Apple’s unique marketplace greatly impact the ability to continue to invest in high-quality, trusted news and entertainment particularly in competition with other larger firms,” said the letter, which is signed by Jason Kint, chief executive of the trade body, Digital Content Next.


The letter basically says “how do we get Amazon’s deal that it gets on Amazon Prime Video?” After all, news apps are “reader” apps. This is going to be neverending for Apple.
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Adobe accidentally deleted people’s photos in latest Lightroom update • The Verge

Monica Chin:


For the past two days, photographers have been posting in a panic across Twitter, Reddit, and the Photoshop feedback forums. They’d downloaded Adobe’s latest update for Lightroom’s iOS app, and suddenly, their photos and presets were gone. Adobe has now confirmed the issue, and it’s also said that the data are gone for good.

“I’ve talked with customer service for 4+ hours over the past 2 days and just a minute ago they told me that the issue has no fix and that these lost photos are unrecoverable,” complained one Reddit user who says they’ve lost over two years’ worth of photo edits. The complaints were spotted by PetaPixel.

“This is literally the worst,” tweeted another customer, who said they lost not only 800 pictures but hundreds of dollars worth of paid presets.

Adobe representative Rikk Flohr acknowledged and apologized for the snafu in a forum post yesterday. Flohr did not address the scope of the problem, though he stated that the issue only impacted assets that were not synced to the Lightroom cloud.


But they can’t be recovered. That’s it. They’re gone. A great way to get users to stick with Lightroom and keep paying that subscription. Oh yeah. See also: Canon’s cloud platform has lost users’ files and can’t restore them. So in one case you’re only safe if you upload, in the other you’re only safe if you don’t.
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Cellphone data shows how Las Vegas is “gambling with lives” across the country • ProPublica

Marshall Allen:


A new analysis of smartphone data, conducted at ProPublica’s request, shows how interconnected the country is with visitors to Las Vegas — which heightens concerns about the limitations of interstate contact tracing. The companies X-Mode and Tectonix analyzed travel to and from Las Vegas during four days, a Friday to Monday, in mid-July. In compliance with privacy laws, X-Mode collects data from smartphone users, mainly those using fitness and weather apps that track their location. The data represents about 5% of the smartphone users in the United States. Tectonix analyzed the data and visualized it on a map.

During the four-day period, about 26,000 devices were identified on the Las Vegas Strip. Some of those same smartphones also showed up in every state on the mainland except Maine in those same four days. About 3,700 of the devices were spotted in Southern California in the same four days; about 2,700 in Arizona, with 740 in Phoenix; around 1,000 in Texas; more than 800 in Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland; and more than 100 in the New York area.

The cellphone analysis highlights a reason the virus keeps spreading, said Oscar Alleyne, an epidemiologist and chief program officer with the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “People have been highly mobile, and as a result, it makes sense why we see the continuation of the surge.”


“Highly mobile”. Righty-ho.
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Why the Facebookening of Oculus VR is bad for users, devs, competition • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:


This is how an Oculus ID works. Without spending a penny or confirming your real-life name, you can make a username, build a friends list, and acquire free-to-play software licenses. If you want to buy software or add-ons, you can either add a credit card or claim a prepaid voucher code. And if you violate any ToS, either within an official Oculus app or in a third-party ecosystem, punitive actions can be taken on both your username and your VR headset’s unique ID. They don’t need your name or life history to do that.

But Facebook’s real-name policy differs largely from the Oculus ID system:


Facebook is a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life. This makes it so that you always know who you’re connecting with. The name on your profile should be the name that your friends call you in everyday life. This name should also appear on an ID or document from our ID list.


We’ve already seen how this policy can result in everything from headaches to security concerns. Victims of harassment and abuse are but one community with a vested interest in establishing alternate online identities. The same goes for members of the LGBTQ community. Weirdly enough, 2014 protests over the real-name policy included pledges from Facebook to expand and clarify its real-name rules for the sake of inclusion and user protection, but the above 2020 language doesn’t reflect such strides in the slightest.

Less-vulnerable users may simply not want their VR activities (gaming, apps, social spaces) attached to a “real-name” Facebook account for a number of reasons. Or they may vote with software by electing to use a third-party app’s account system—especially one that works across other VR ecosystems. Users may have established an identity in the online game Rec Room on an Oculus headset in order to play games and socialize with people on PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, or other headsets. Enforcing a Facebook requirement on top of that will send ripples through established VR communities.

And what happens if Facebook’s history of user manipulation comes to VR? Emotional manipulation within VR operates on greater extremes than on a flat screen, if the horror-gaming genre is any indication, so what kind of “A/B testing” might Facebook-connected Oculus users expect? And what if your actions within VR become attached to your real-life identity for Facebook’s “shadow profile” purposes?


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Uber and Lyft shutdown in California averted as judge grants emergency stay • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:


A California appeals court judge blocked an order requiring Uber and Lyft to classify drivers as employees, averting an expected shutdown of the ride-sharing services in California at midnight tonight. The court granted Uber and Lyft a temporary stay while their appeals process play out.

Lyft had already announced it was planning to temporarily cease operations in the state earlier today, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi had said the same about his company in an interview yesterday.

But the companies won an 11th hour reprieve from the California Court of Appeals hours before the shutdown was expected to go into effect. Uber and Lyft will now have until October to convince the court to throw out the order that it employ its drivers. If they are unsuccessful, the companies will be back where they started, and may again decide to shutdown.

Uber and Lyft are under enormous pressure to fundamentally alter their business models in California, the state where both companies were founded and raised billions of dollars in venture capital. Uber and Lyft say drivers prefer the flexibility of working as freelancers, while labor unions and elected officials contend this deprives them of traditional benefits like health insurance and workers’ compensation.


Hard to think anyone wouldn’t want to get the benefits (in the US particularly) of health insurance and compensation. “Oh no I’d much rather sort those things out myself,” said no freelancer ever.
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Americans misperceive the risks of death from coronavirus, research shows • TheHill

Joseph Guzman:


A joint Franklin Templeton-Gallup research project released late last month found that on average, Americans believed people aged 55 and older made up more than half, 57.7%, of total coronavirus deaths. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 22, those 55 and older made up more than 92% of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. 

Researchers also found that Americans believed people aged 44 and younger made up about 30% of total coronavirus deaths, when the actual figure was less than 3%. 

Americans also thought those aged 65 or older accounted for about 40% of COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure was 80%. 


That’s a pretty substantial clearout at the older end, given there have been more than 170,000 deaths in the US. I certainly would have been among the wrong group in making an estimate.
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Turning stock charts into landscape art • Kottke

Jason Kottke:


Inspired by the charts on Robinhood and Yahoo Finance, Gladys Estolas is turning the charts of notable stocks into landscape artworks, inserting references to the company into the art. The Ford chart at the top has a truck, the Tesla chart features a rocket (a reference to SpaceX), and the Disney one includes the twin suns of Tatooine & a Jawa Sandcrawler.


I recall one a long way back which represented the stock market, and the stocks therein, into fish swimming around a central point. Didn’t mean a lot but sure was pretty.
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Photoreal Roman Emperor project. 54 machine-learning assisted portraits • Medium

Daniel Voshart:


The main technology behind Artbreeder is it’s generative adversarial network (GAN). Some call it Artificial Intelligence but it is more accurately described as Machine Learning.

Artistic interpretations are, by their nature, more art than science but I’ve made an effort to cross-reference their appearance (hair, eyes, ethnicity etc.) to historical texts and coinage. I’ve striven to age them according to the year of death — their appearance prior to any major illness.
My goal was not to romanticize emperors or make them seem heroic. In choosing bust / sculptures, my approach was to favor the bust that was made when the emperor was alive. Otherwise, I favored the bust made with the greatest craftsmanship and where the emperor was stereotypically uglier — my pet theory being that artists were likely trying to flatter their subjects.

Some emperors (latter dynasties, short reigns) did not have surviving busts. For this, I researched multiple coin depictions, family tree and birthplaces. Sometimes I created my own composites.


Useful to be reminded that they were real people after all.
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The ‘We Build The Wall’ huckster is accused of duping donors. Turns out, he planned to sell their data too • Daily Beast

Lachlan Markay:


[Brian] Kolfage [who set up the ‘We Build The Wall’ scam, which allegedly skimmed in Steve Bannon – indicted for same on Thursday] bragged that the voter contact list in his possession was likely the third biggest in Republican politics, surpassed only by those controlled by Trump himself and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). He said it contained names, email addresses, phone numbers, and other data points about donors to his nonprofit who Republican candidates could hit up for cash.

Kolfage proposed a revenue-sharing agreement, whereby he would keep 50% of all the funds raised by the campaigns and groups that used his list.

Kolfage’s pitch to the Republican consultant, who does digital fundraising for Republican candidates, suggests that Kolfage was seeking to rent the list to other vendors that work with political campaigns, rather than to the campaigns directly. That’s a common arrangement for digital fundraising vendors, but it makes it difficult to track down which, or how many, campaigns have rented the We Build The Wall list.

But at least one political candidate appears to have done so. The Daily Beast reported last year that Kris Kobac—the former Kansas Secretary of State, and We Build The Wall general counsel—sent a fundraising email to that list asking for donations to his ultimately failed 2020 Senate campaign. Legal experts told The Daily Beast at the time that that solicitation almost certainly violated federal campaign finance laws, either by failing to disclose that the campaign had paid for its use of the list, or by constituting an illegal in-kind contribution from the nonprofit to the campaign.


There’s probably no bigger mistake you can make in your life than to provide an email address along with a donation to someone in American politics. You’ll never hear the end of it.
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Protect your devices from web-transmitted infections (WTIs).

Picked up some random URL IRL?

Stay safe. Put it in the box, then press the button.


Another one for the bookmarks: effectively, a firewall (or very thick radiation-proof glass) that lets you view the site with tongs. Try it on a site you use already, such as a news site, to get an idea of how it functions.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: earlier attempts to take a five-week holiday have been thwarted by attentive readers.

Start Up No.1378: Facebook the (misinforation) superspreader, Zoom coming to more screens, Instagram pushes endless scrolling, and more

If you liked this experience, a new app can recreate it with your digital music. CC-licensed photo by Steve Cadman 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.

Procedural note: The Overspill will take a week’s break next week.

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

On Facebook, health-misinformation ‘superspreaders’ rack up billions of views • Reuters

Elizabeth Culliford:


Misleading health content has racked up an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook Inc (FB.O) over the past year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy group Avaaz said in a new report on Wednesday.

The report found that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April 2020 as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The social media giant, which has been under pressure to curb misinformation on its platform, has made amplifying credible health information a key element of its response. It also started removing misinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak that it said could cause imminent harm.

“Facebook’s algorithm is a major threat to public health. Mark Zuckerberg promised to provide reliable information during the pandemic, but his algorithm is sabotaging those efforts by driving many of Facebook’s 2.7 billion users to health misinformation-spreading networks,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.


Yeah so tell us something we didn’t know. But: these stories are coming daily now, from outlet after outlet. If you’re paying any attention to news about Facebook, you’ll feel that it’s all bad. That’s quite a change from a few years ago. It is all rolling downhill now.
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QAnon groups removed by Facebook • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:


Facebook said on Wednesday that it had removed 790 QAnon groups from its site and was restricting another 1,950 groups, 440 pages and more than 10,000 Instagram accounts related to the right-wing conspiracy theory, in the social network’s most sweeping action against the fast-growing movement.

Facebook’s takedown followed record growth of QAnon groups on the site, much of it since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Activity on some of the largest QAnon groups on the social network, including likes, comments and shares of posts, rose 200 to 300% in the last six months, according to data gathered by The New York Times.

“We have seen growing movements that, while not directly organizing violence, have celebrated violent acts, shown that they have weapons and suggest they will use them, or have individual followers with patterns of violent behavior,” Facebook said in a statement.

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon with believers who alleged, falsely, that the world was run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who were plotting against President Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. But ahead of the November election, the movement has become increasingly mainstream. Marjorie Taylor Greene, an avowed QAnon supporter from Georgia, recently won a Republican primary and may be elected to the House in November.


Greene could arguably be representing people with mental illness. Not clear why you need to be mentally ill to do that, though. The question is, why didn’t Facebook do this some time back, before it got so big? It was obviously always heading towards physical harm – that’s essentially how it started.

But Facebook is suggesting that it will prevent QAnon nutcases from organising there again. This could get interesting.
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Facebook India executive files criminal complaint against journalist for Facebook post • Committee to Protect Journalists


Facebook regional director Ankhi Das should withdraw her criminal complaint against journalist Awesh Tiwari, and respect citizens’ rights to criticize her, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 16, Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia, filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police, accusing Tiwari and other social media users of threatening her, “making sexually coloured remarks,” and defaming her, according to news website Newslaundry and a copy of the complaint shared on social media.

The complaint cited a Facebook post by Tiwari, Chhattisgarh state bureau chief of news channel Swarajya Express, who frequently posts political commentary on Facebook. The post criticized Das for her and Facebook’s alleged inaction in controlling hate speech by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party against religious minorities, and cited a Wall Street Journal article alleging Das’ fealty to the party. The post does not contain any sexual remarks or explicit threats.

In her complaint to the police, Das asked for an investigation to be opened against Tiwari for sexual harassment, defamation, and criminal intimidation.


The context for this is that Das is the person at Facebook India who blocked the deletion of hate content by the ruling BJP, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Reading the complaint, it doesn’t seem to target Tiwari over sexual harassment or intimidation. It’s all over the place, to be honest.

But there’s delicious irony in a Facebook executive complaining to the courts about a posting by a journalist on Facebook regarding something another journalist wrote about that executive interfering over postings on Facebook.
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Zoom is coming to Google Nest, Amazon Echo, and Facebook Portal smart displays • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:


Zoom is expanding to a variety of new devices later this year, with the company announcing that the Amazon Echo Show, Facebook Portal, and Google Nest Hub Max will support the widely used videoconferencing app later this year.

It’s a big expansion for Zoom, which has recently started to branch out into its own licensed videoconferencing hardware. And smart displays — with their high-quality directional microphones and built-in touchscreens — are practically designed to be good videoconferencing devices.

The new Zoom integration is a big deal for Google, Amazon, and Facebook, too, given that all three of these companies have almost exclusively stuck to their own, in-house video chatting solutions (like Google Meet and Facebook Messenger) on their smart displays. The Portal will be the first to get Zoom, with a rollout planned for this September.


It’s going to be eeeeeeverywhere.
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Instagram rolls out suggested posts to keep you glued to your feed • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Instagram is expanding its feed today with the launch of “suggested posts.” These posts, from accounts you don’t follow, will show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed and give you the option to keep scrolling with Instagram’s suggestions. Up until now, the feed has been entirely determined by users’ preferences and the people they follow.

For the past couple of years, Instagram has shown users a message when they reach the end of their feeds, meaning they’ve seen every post over the past two days from people they follow. With suggested posts, they’ll have the option to keep scrolling past that marker for more content. (That message will still be there along with the option to revisit old posts.)

The suggested posts won’t be the same ones that show up in Explore. They’ll be related to the content that people already follow, whereas Explore aims to point people toward adjacent content, says Julian Gutman, head of product at Instagram Home. He used space content, which he follows and engages with on his feed regularly, as an example. A suggested post might be a new space photo from someone he doesn’t follow, whereas his Explore page might contain posts related to physics more broadly.


Just when you thought that Instagram was going to encourage people not to spend all their waking hours endlessly scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
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Russiagate was not a hoax • The Atlantic

Franklin Foer:


The [Senate] committee fills in the gaps somewhat. It reports that [Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort and [Russian spy Konstantin] Kilimnik talked almost daily during the campaign. They communicated through encrypted technologies set to automatically erase their correspondence; they spoke using code words and shared access to an email account. It’s worth pausing on these facts: The chairman of the Trump campaign was in daily contact with a Russian agent, constantly sharing confidential information with him. That alone makes for one of the worst scandals in American political history.

The significant revelation of the document is that Kilimnik was likely a participant in the Kremlin scheme to hack and leak Clinton campaign emails. Furthermore, Kilimnik kept in close contact with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort’s. The report also indicates that Deripaska was connected to his government’s hacking efforts. This fact is especially suggestive: Deripaska had accused Manafort of stealing money from him, and Manafort hoped to repair his relationship with the oligarch. Was Manafort passing information to him, through Kilimnik, for the sake of currying favor with an old patron?

As maddeningly elliptical as this section of the report may be—and much of it is redacted—it still makes one wonder why Mueller would cut a deal with an established prevaricator like Manafort before pursuing his investigation of Kilimnik to more concrete conclusions.

When Manafort—with a pardon dangling in front of him—brazenly lied to prosecutors, he helped save Trump from having to confront this damning story. He wasn’t the only Trump associate to obstruct justice. (The committee has referred five Trump aides and supporters to the Justice Department for possibly providing false testimony.)


This won’t make any difference to what people think – those positions will have long since ossified – but the obstruction of justice allegation could linger into next year. There are very serious questions about what a post-Trump administration would do over claims of lying to Congress; that’s part of what got Roger Stone convicted.

Kilimnik also concocted the story of *Ukrainian* interference in the US election. Of course Trump believed that rather than that Russia did. Maybe next year we’ll learn why he’s so in hock to Russia. Meanwhile, he’s revealed in the report as either a liar, a perjurer, a dupe, or all three.
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Inside Google’s feud with GetYourGuide, Trivago, HomeToGo • CNBC

Sam Shead:


Activity booking platform GetYourGuide, hotel finder Trivago, and Airbnb rival HomeToGo have been feuding with the search giant about their unpaid advertising bills since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Online travel companies were particularly exposed to the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak as lockdowns brought worldwide mobility to a near standstill. New bookings dried up and the sites had to refund tens of millions of dollars to customers that were unable to travel.

In a joint letter, a group of German travel start-ups asked Google, which has helped the businesses thrive over the years by promoting their websites in its search results in exchange for a fee, to share the burden.

The letter didn’t work as the companies hoped it would. CNBC has been able to confirm through multiple sources and materials that Google demanded advertising bills were paid in full.

“Google refused to do anything and instead asked us to pay immediately in the midst of the pandemic,” said GetYourGuide Chief Executive Johannes Reck, who persuaded SoftBank to invest $500m in his Berlin-based company last year.


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A TikTok ban is overdue • The New York Times

Timothy Wu:


In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.

The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.

Behind the TikTok controversy is an important struggle between two dueling visions of the internet. The first is an older vision: the idea that the internet should, in a neutral fashion, connect everyone, and that blocking and censorship of sites by nation-states should be rare and justified by more than the will of the ruler. The second and newer vision, of which China has been the leading exponent, is “net nationalism,” which views the country’s internet primarily as a tool of state power. Economic growth, surveillance and thought control, from this perspective, are the internet’s most important functions.


This thinking is going to be prevalent now, whatever the political balance of the US is after November – more accurately, from late January. Huawei, TikTok (if still Chinese-owned, which I guess it won’t be), any other company originating in China: they’re all going to be viewed with suspicion in the US and will have strategy risk in dealing with the US.
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Rice University device channels heat into light • Rice University News

Mike Williams:


Gururaj Naik and Junichiro Kono of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering introduced their technology in ACS Photonics.

Their invention is a hyperbolic thermal emitter that can absorb intense heat that would otherwise be spewed into the atmosphere, squeeze it into a narrow bandwidth and emit it as light that can be turned into electricity.

The discovery rests on another by Kono’s group in 2016 when it found a simple method to make highly aligned, wafer-scale films of closely packed nanotubes.

Discussions with Naik, who joined Rice in 2016, led the pair to see if the films could be used to direct “thermal photons.”

“Thermal photons are just photons emitted from a hot body,” Kono said. “If you look at something hot with an infrared camera, you see it glow. The camera is capturing these thermally excited photons.”

Infrared radiation is a component of sunlight that delivers heat to the planet, but it’s only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Any hot surface emits light as thermal radiation,” Naik said. “The problem is that thermal radiation is broadband, while the conversion of light to electricity is efficient only if the emission is in a narrow band.

…Naik said adding the emitters to standard solar cells could boost their efficiency from the current peak of about 22%. “By squeezing all the wasted thermal energy into a small spectral region, we can turn it into electricity very efficiently,” he said. “The theoretical prediction is that we can get 80% efficiency.”


This isn’t a next-year technology, because it relies on nanotubes, and they’re still hellishly hard to manufacture reliably in volume. (Thanks John for the link.)
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Introducing Longplay • Adrian’s Corner

Adrian Schönig:


Longplay is a music player for anyone who enjoy listening to entire albums start-to-finish. It digs through your Apple Music or iTunes library – that might have grown over the years or decades and is full of a mix of individual songs, partial albums, complete albums and playlists – to identify just those complete albums and gives you quick access to play them.

It provides a beautiful view of all your album artwork, and let’s you explore your albums (or playlists) by various sort options. A unique one is Negligence which combines how highly you’ve ranked an album and when you last listened it, to let you rediscover forgotten favourites. Brightness sorts the albums by their primary colour for an interesting visual take on your albums collection.

You can hide albums or playlists that you don’t want to show up – useful for meditation or kids albums, or smart playlists that you use for doing house keeping.

For users who want to listen on specific AirPlay devices, such as multi-room audio systems or headphones, there’s a “Play on” feature that’s the quickest way to listen on the right device.


He did begin developing it on Spotify, but ran into hassles with the SDK and edge cases. (If it’s a runaway hit, maybe he’ll add Spotify back.) A neat way to re-visualise your music, and also to remind yourself that albums have a track order that people thought about.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1377: Facebook blocks Plandemic 2.. and Myanmar investigation, America’s two-foot trouble, the 30 per cent mystery, and more

Apple designed a secret version of this product for the US government to do… something top secret. CC-licensed photo by Misha Husnain Ali 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 12 links for you. Also available in metric. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The case of the top secret iPod • TidBITS

David Shayer was the second software engineer hired for the iPod project in 2001:


It was a gray day in late 2005. I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”

The next day, the receptionist called to tell me that two men were waiting in the lobby. I went downstairs to meet Paul and Matthew, the engineers who would actually build this custom iPod. I’d love to say they wore dark glasses and trench coats and were glancing in window reflections to make sure they hadn’t been tailed, but they were perfectly normal thirty-something engineers. I signed them in, and we went to a conference room to talk.


This is an amazing story: what they wanted is going to set a whole lot of hares running. The timing is really very interesting when you consider it in the light of this project.
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Facebook blocks users from linking to new Plandemic hoax video • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


Social media sites are trying to stop the spread of Plandemic: Indoctornation, a follow-up to the Plandemic conspiracy video about the novel coronavirus. As NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny noted, Facebook blocks users from reposting a link to the new video, which was uploaded to an external site earlier today. Twitter doesn’t block the video link, but it sends users who click it to a warning screen, saying that the link is “potentially spammy or unsafe.”

Twitter confirmed to The Verge that it’s warning people rather than blocking the link; the company will evaluate any short clips that are directly uploaded on a case-by-case basis and may remove any that it deems dangerous misinformation. Streaming channel London Real, which posted the video, reported that it was suspended by LinkedIn before its premiere. According to CrowdTangle, London Real’s original post linking to the video has about 53,000 interactions on Facebook. A reposted version of the video can be found on YouTube, but it currently has under 200 views.

Initially posted in May, the 26-minute Plandemic documentary was a hit on social media and promoted a number of false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, including the (completely incorrect) assertion that wearing a mask can “activate” the coronavirus.


Warned once, Facebook manages to get it right. Not for long, however…
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How Facebook is failing Myanmar again • Time

Matthew Smith on how Facebook is blocking an international investigation into the origins of the Myanmar genocide of 2016 and 2017:


Specifically, The Gambia is seeking documents and communications from Myanmar military officials as well as information from hundreds of other pages and accounts that Facebook took down and preserved. The Gambia is also seeking documents related to Facebook’s internal investigations into the matter as well as a deposition of a relevant Facebook executive. All of this information could help to prove Myanmar’s genocidal intent.

In May, The Gambia filed a similar application in US court against Twitter. The case disappeared quickly because The Gambia pulled its application shortly after submitting it, presumably because Twitter agreed to cooperate.

Not Facebook. Earlier this month, the company filed its opposition to The Gambia’s application. Facebook said the request is “extraordinarily broad,” as well as “unduly intrusive or burdensome.” Calling on the US District Court for the District of Columbia to reject the application, the social media giant says The Gambia fails to “identify accounts with sufficient specificity.”

The Gambia was actually quite specific, going so far as to name 17 officials, two military units and dozens of pages and accounts.

Facebook also takes issue with the fact that The Gambia is seeking information dating back to 2012, evidently failing to recognize two similar waves of atrocities against Rohingya that year, and that genocidal intent isn’t spontaneous, but builds over time.


Just when you think Facebook can’t possibly get any worse.
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America has two feet. It’s about to lose one of them • The New York Times

Alanna Mitchell:


How big is a foot? In the United States, that depends on which of the two official foot measurements you are talking about. If it comes as a surprise that there are two feet, how about this: One of those feet is about to go away.

The first foot is the old US survey foot from 1893. The second is the newer, shorter and slightly more exact international foot from 1959, used by nearly everybody except surveyors in some states. The two feet differ by about one hundredth of a foot (0.12672 inches) per mile — that’s two feet for every million feet — an amount so small that it only adds up for people who measure over long distances.

Surveyors are such people. For more than six decades, they have been toggling between the two units, depending on what they are measuring and where.

The toggling does not always work. Michael L. Dennis, an Arizona-based surveyor and geodesist with the National Geodetic Survey, has been cataloging mix-ups with the two feet for years and repairing errors. Last year, he had enough.

“I kept running into these problems with different versions of the foot, and I thought it was ridiculous that this thing had gone on this long,” he said. “So I had this secret desire to kill off the US survey foot, and I’d been harboring that for years.”

Most states mandate the use of the old US survey foot for their state coordinate systems, which allow surveyors to take into account Earth’s curvature in their measurements. A few states mandate the use of the new, international foot.


Amazing. Move over to the metric system? Hell no.
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Oracle enters race to buy TikTok’s US operations • Ars Technica (via FT)

James Fontanella-Khan and Miles Kruppa:


Oracle has entered the race to acquire TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned short video app that President Donald Trump has vowed to shut down unless it is taken over by a US company by mid-November, people briefed about the matter have said.

The tech company co-founded by Larry Ellison had held preliminary talks with TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, and was seriously considering purchasing the app’s operations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the people said.

Oracle was working with a group of US investors that already own a stake in ByteDance, including General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, the people added.


Oracle. Oracle? The closest Oracle has ever got to consumer software is MySQL, which is not consumer software. Is Larry Ellison just hoping, finally, to get one over Microsoft?
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Atlas shrugs • Science Magazine Editor’s Blog

H Holden Thorp on the appointment of neurological imaging specialist (but not infectious diseases specialist) Scott Atlas to the advisers to Trump:


as [two scientists] caution in the Science paper [about T-cell immune reaction to coronavirus], “Based on these data, it is plausible to hypothesize that pre-existing cross-reactive human CoV CD4+ T cell memory in some donors could be a contributing factor to variations in COVID-19 patient disease outcomes, but this is at present highly speculative [emphasis added].”  Many questions around this are yet to be settled, and it is most likely that exposure to a large a bolus of SARS-CoV-2 infection would overwhelm these cross-reactive T cells.

Not surprisingly, the hydroxychloroquine peddler (and physician turned investment manager) James Todaro seized on this for a Twitter thread, implying that the pandemic  was now over because if you add the 50% of individuals with cross-reactive T cells to the 10 to 20% now infected, the world will have reached herd immunity.

This is absurd because T cells attack cells that are already infected ([standard textbook] Janeway’s Immunobiology, page 13). It’s no shock that a digital charlatan like Todaro would push this.  But what is far more frightening is that Atlas told Rush Limbaugh the same thing:  “Some people who have come down with a cold over the course of the summer,” says Limbaugh, “miraculously end up less likely to get COVID-19, according to Scott Atlas.” Hilariously, Limbaugh’s blog post has the picture of Fauci holding up the Cell paper showing that the cross-reactive T cells are active against cells that already are infected with COVID-19.  Shane Crotty put together a long Twitter thread lucidly explaining the danger of these false declarations.

This episode represents a sad turning point in the saga of how the Trump administration continues to mishandle the pandemic.


This is a turning point? The Trump handling of the pandemic has had endless “oh this must FINALLY be it”. It’s the clown car that never runs out of clowns.
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Scammers conned diners at The Ritz so they could buy stuff at Argos • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:


Thanks to a data breach, con artists got hold of the booking details for people who’d made reservations at The Ritz’s restaurants. Then they phoned them up and asked them to “confirm” their credit card details.

Understandably none the wiser, the fancypants diners gave their details, which were then used to attempt thousands of pounds’ worth of purchases at, of all places, Argos.

One woman called by the scammers said they’d even spoofed the hotel’s real phone number (sadly not difficult to do), and had the exact time and restaurant details of her booking for afternoon tea. They told her that her card had been declined, which you can imagine is pretty embarrassing when booking somewhere fancy – especially if you’re not the type of person who usually gets to go there. So, unsurprisingly, she gave details of a second card and the scammers tried to make several transactions of over a grand at Argos.

But here’s the really evil part: they then called the same woman from her bank’s phone number, told her that her card had been used by scammers, and that she’d need to give them a code to cancel it. Of course, the code was the transaction authorisation the bank had sent her to approve the purchase.

Another person targeted said she’d (ingeniously) realised something was wrong when the scammers couldn’t answer her questions about facilities at the hotel. If only we all had such presence of mind in a dodgy situation.


That’s quite a scam. Though the text messages I get say “the code to authorise your transaction is…” Why would you believe that’s a code to cancel? I guess it’s all about how persuasive the scammers are – “oh, our systems haven’t been updated for that, they say that for cancellation codes too.”
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Miami Police used facial recognition technology in protester’s arrest • NBC 6 South Florida

Connie Fossi and Phil Prazan:


Police body cameras and tower camera video show some of what happened on May 30 as protesters squared off with Miami officers forming a line outside of their downtown headquarters.

The videos, exclusively obtained by NBC 6 Investigators, captured heated moments as objects were thrown at officers and they popped tear gas to retake control of patrol cars.

Police say Oriana Albornoz, 25, threw two rocks at an officer hitting him once and injuring his leg. The department provided a video that shows her throwing something at officers standing across the street but it is difficult to discern what it is.

NBC 6 Investigators found a facial recognition program was used to identify a woman accused of throwing rocks at Miami Police officers during a protest on May 30. NBC 6’s Phil Prazan reports.
The incident report also states the officer’s body camera captured the moment, but the department didn’t provide that video to NBC 6. 

A month later, Albornoz was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer. She has pleaded not guilty. The NBC 6 Investigators found police used the facial recognition program Clearview AI to find her.

A recent NBC 6 investigation found police departments across South Florida, including Miami, are using the technology, which identifies people through publicly available photos including social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Albornoz’s attorney Mike Gottlieb did not know police used the technology to identify his client and questioned how it was used. “It looks like they’ve just done a regular photographic line up and had it not been for the vigilance of your news agency, I would not have known this,” Gottlieb said. 

Police make no mention of the technology in the arrest report – only writing Albornoz was “identified through investigative means.”


That could make for quite a court case: how will the police prove her presence? Clearview doesn’t do that. It just suggests that someone strongly resembles a few pixels in a picture.
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House GOP candidate known for QAnon support was ‘correspondent’ for conspiracy website

Brandy Zarodny:


Before running for office, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote dozens of articles as a “correspondent” for a conspiracy news website, according to archived web pages uncovered by NBC News.

In posts published on the now-defunct “American Truth Seekers” website in 2017, Greene wrote favuorably of the QAnon conspiracy theory, suggested that Hillary Clinton murdered her political enemies, and ruminated on whether mass shootings were orchestrated to dismantle the Second Amendment.

…Greene has deleted the offending posts from most of her pre-candidate social media, but in a 2017 interview with a conservative activist on Facebook, Greene told viewers where to find her.

“AmericanTruthSeekers. So follow that page. They publish my articles and you’ll see me there,” she said in the interview.

In some 59 posts for the website, according to her author bio page, Greene commented on news of the day in blogs that built on articles from far-right outlets like Breitbart and fake news websites including YourNewsWire. The American TruthSeekers website is now inactive, but Greene’s posts were found by NBC News through the Internet Archive’s WayBack machine.


Good to see reporters using the Internet Archive to good effect. Now let’s see if Greene’s absurd stupidity can be used effectively against her.
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What can America learn from Europe about regulating big tech? • The New Yorker

Nick Romeo interviews former Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake:


When I met Schaake for lunch one day, at Stanford’s Business School, a month after she had moved to California, she was incredulous about the level of economic inequality. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “These are among the richest Zip Codes in the world, but there’s no infrastructure—no street lights, no sidewalks, no real public transport investment—and so many people are homeless. If you talk to the rideshare drivers, they work multiple jobs and have these enormously long commutes. The inequality is heart-wrenching. Every day, I try to remind myself not to get used to it. I don’t want to become desensitized. If this is a petri dish of the high-tech society,” she concluded, “it has extraordinary downsides.”

Schaake often finds herself confronting two distinct visions for how the citizens of such a society should relate to their tech companies. The first sees companies and consumers as engaged in a virtuous circle of responsible, market-driven self-regulation. People support companies that offer useful services and protect their privacy; companies, who want to keep their users happy, try to strike a balance between those values when they conflict. It’s hoped that even firms that depend on advertising will eventually respond to consumer pressures and self-regulate accordingly. Government may have a limited regulatory role, but it’s really all about likes and dislikes.

The second model is more cynical about large companies and governments. It sees technology as a solution to the problems of surveillance and oppression, and regulation as either a malign constraint on freedom or a well-intentioned mistake.

…Many people who work in Silicon Valley see themselves as championing democracy and empowering individuals. But Schaake differs from the Silicon Valley consensus in her idea of what constitutes democratic power. Unregulated information technology is often presented as a bulwark against authoritarianism, and yet, in her view, technology that is beyond the reach of laws—and, therefore, voters—is anti-democratic.


She’s pretty astringent about the people she meets in Silicon Valley altogether.
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Thirty per cent • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden has Noticed Something:


A decade ago, I was invited to the UK launch of Windows Phone 7. It was Microsoft’s attempt to compete with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Sure, Microsoft could make a brilliant OS and had excellent hardware partners – but could they convince developers to use yet another system?

At the time, I wrote:


The revenue share is 70/30. I really think MS have missed a trick here. It’s an “industry standard” price point because no one wants to get in to a price war. Increasing the share that goes to the developer would be an excellent way to convince wavering developers to adopt the platform.


Back in 2010, BlackBerry charged developers 30% as did Nokia Ovi, and HP’s WebOS, app stores from Opera and Samsung charged the same amount, even the Amazon app store charged 30%. None have shifted their pricing in the last decade.

That’s curious, isn’t it? Surely a new entrant into the market – or one struggling to retain market share – would have picked a different revenue split?

What a coincidence that they all, independently, came to the conclusion that 30% was a fair and reasonable amount to charge developers.

…I doubt anyone has said “My favourite app is £1 cheaper on Android, time to ditch my iPhone and buy a Samsung!” But we know from the game console market that exclusive games drive purchases. Recently, Apple forced the removal of the popular “Dark Sky” app from Android – presumably because they wanted users to switch. Attracting developers and convincing them to concentrate on your platform doesn’t rely on increased revenue share – but it sure can’t hurt.


I’d love to know if there’s a known economic phenomenon where retailers nominally in competition with each other are able to charge exactly the same markup on goods where the wholesaler has independent pricing power.
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Panasonic’s new home cubicle is a disheartening glimpse at our work-from-home future • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:


The modern office cubicle is almost synonymous with the drudgery of a soul-crushing office job. But if for some reason you’ve found yourself missing the not-quite-solid not-quite-walls of your regular office, Panasonic is working to bring the magic of cubicles to your work-from-home life with its new 88,000 yen (around $835) Komoru home cubicle.

The Komoru is actually a bit more handsome-looking than a traditional office cubicle, and it’s made of wooden pegboards (to easily hang things) with a matching, integrated desk. It’s designed to blend in with your existing living room or apartment setup.

The idea is that the Komoru will give you about one square meter (around 10 square feet) of portioned-off space to set aside as a specific work zone, instead of having your work life bleed into the rest of your living setup. The walls are only about four feet high, meaning it’ll be enough to give you some privacy while sitting at your desk, but it won’t help much if you’re trying to create a quiet zone for Zoom calls.


It really is soul-sucking. It’s the Dementor of office-at-home designs (a reference for the Harry Potter fans, and parents of same).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1376: Epic v Apple battle intensifies, Facebook’s African push, Google’s Aussie disinformation, Huawei under pressure, and more

Fortnite’s iOS stats could look a lot worse if Apple revokes its developer licences in, uh, a fortnight. CC-licensed photo by Veselin Rogelov 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 12 links for you. Last one standing? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Epic Games asks court to stop Apple pulling its developer tools next week • Engadget

Nicole Lee:


Epic Games has filed yet another lawsuit against Apple. The Fortnite developer is now suing the Cupertino-based company for allegedly retaliating against it for its other lawsuit last week. Apple has not only removed the game from the App Store but has told Epic that it will “terminate” all its developer accounts and “cut Epic off from iOS and Mac development tools” on August 28th.

According to the filing, Epic claims that Fortnite’s removal from the App Store in conjunction with the termination of the developer accounts will likely result in “irreparable harm” to Epic. The company adds that cutting off access to development tools also affects software like Unreal Engine Epic, which it offers to third-party developers and which Apple itself has never claimed to have violated any policy. Without them, the company states that it can’t develop future versions of Unreal Engine for iOS or macOS.

“Not content simply to remove Fortnite from the App Store, Apple is attacking Epic’s entire business in unrelated areas,” the lawsuit states. “Left unchecked, Apple’s actions will irreparably damage Epic’s reputation among Fortnite users and be catastrophic for the future of the separate Unreal Engine business.” The company says that the preliminary injunctive relief is necessary to prevent Epic’s business from being crushed before the case even goes to judgement.


Apple’s response, in part: “Epic agreed to the App Store terms and guidelines freely”. And the Apple Developer Guidelines include the deathless phrase “Apple may terminate or suspend you as a registered Apple Developer at any time in Apple’s sole discretion. If Apple terminates you as a registered Apple Developer, Apple reserves the right to deny your reapplication at any time in Apple’s sole discretion.” Squeaky bum time for Epic.

While Epic might have gamed out that Apple would eject Fortnite from the App Store for offering its own payment system, it pretty clearly didn’t expect this nuclear response. Hard to see why a court would grant Epic an injunction for prima facie breaking Apple’s App Store guidelines. (Also: Apple’s kicking Fortnite’s devs out in a fortnight, so it’s the last one standing? Emblematic, at least.)
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Epic’s Fortnite standoff is putting Apple’s cash cow at risk • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:


The 30% “Apple tax” is the beating heart for Apple’s services business, which it has emphasized as growth as the iPhone business starts to slow. That line of revenue has become a critical part of Apple’s business, the bright star executives have been able to point to on earnings reports in recent quarters.

Labeling the revenue line as “services” lets Apple obscure where the money is really coming from — and onstage, Apple executives tend to talk about the prestige products like Apple Music, Apple TV Plus, Apple News Plus, or Apple Arcade. But the money from those services is dwarfed by Apple’s cut of the money flowing through its App Store and its power to force major players like Adobe, Spotify, and even Epic to pay the toll. So when Apple squares off over Fortnite, it’s not just fighting over one app or one policy. It’s protecting one of the key sources of revenue in the years to come — a source it could lose permanently if Epic comes out on top.

The App Store may have started out small, but today, it makes Apple a staggering amount of money. In 2019 alone, Apple’s percentage taken on digital content sold through the App Store accounted for an estimated $18.3bn, or nearly 40% of Apple’s total service revenue. (To reach that number, Apple says that $61bn of digital content was sold through the App Store in 2019, of which it took an estimated $18.3bn cut, compared to the $46.3bn Apple reported in services revenue on its collected 2019 quarterly earnings.)


Just so we know what’s at stake.
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Toxic trade-offs at Facebook • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:


Beginning in 2017, Facebook started a revamp to emphasize personal posts and interactions and to steer us away from aimlessly scrolling past news articles and puppy videos in the news feed. Among the changes was pushing people to Facebook Groups, or online forums of like-minded people.

For many people, groups can be a wonderful resource and social outlet. But they also have become places for people to wallow in fake health treatments, plot violence or spread false theories like QAnon.

Groups that post frequently and have a lot of avid back-and-forth — and that often applies to discussions of fringe ideas — tend to get circulated more in the Facebook news feed, which funnels more people into those groups. [eg Holocaust denial or QAnon or domestic terror groups.]

…Facebook now wants to become a place for us to have more private and meaningful conversations — a continuing evolution from a global public message board to the more cloistered space that Zuckerberg started to emphasize in 2017. I worry that this may create Facebook’s next unintended consequence.

Part of this privacy plan is a march to encrypt, or scramble, all activity so that there are no digital trails of what we post or say. There are good reasons for this. Facebook wouldn’t be able to peer into our private messages, and authoritarian rulers couldn’t demand that Facebook identify the person behind an account critical of the government.

But the potential pitfalls terrify me. Encrypting Facebook apps including Instagram and Messenger will make it difficult or impossible for Facebook to help law enforcement figure out who is selling drugs on Instagram or calling for violence in its groups. It will be harder to trace a propaganda campaign to a foreign government. Facebook will be able to say, truthfully, that it can’t see behind its own curtain.


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Inside Facebook’s new power grab • WIRED UK

James Ball on Facebook’s latest push, into Africa:


The scale of Facebook’s programmes, and their reach across dozens of countries, is for some, alarming. While it might seem odd to complain about free or cheap internet, concerns range from fears on misinformation, to worries that Facebook’s intervention could stifle potential local challengers, to suspicions about what the company might do with browsing data – something on which Facebook has hardly earned a glowing reputation.

“In my opinion, the ongoing expansion of the project has not received the scrutiny it deserves,” says Nothias. “Increasing connectivity, in general, benefits Facebook’s products. Facebook is pretty transparent about this.”

“Most importantly, for Free Basics users, Facebook becomes the homepage of the Internet. Free Basics builds brand loyalty among users. It contributes to Facebook’s dominant position in emerging markets with tremendous demographic growth.”

“Facebook is adamant that Free Basics is not a data extraction exercise – on the basis that information is aggregated or de-identified. But aggregated data is still valuable.”

Back in 2016, similar concerns were enough to trigger protests in India, and mobilise civil society groups around the world. So, what’s happened since for the outcry to be so muted? There’s several things going on, says Dr Anri van der Spuy, a senior associate at Research ICT Africa, a policy and regulation think-tank.

“In a lot of these contexts, people have to decide between buying a loaf of bread for their children or meal a day, and buying data,” she says. “Yes, [Facebook’s programme] is not perfect internet – [but] you can’t be highbrow about this. If people want to go on social media, they want to go on social media.”


Here’s the reality: in countries that use Free Basics, levels of disinformation and misinformation and (for want of a better phrase) “fake news” are worse than in those which don’t. WhatsApp and Facebook become “the internet”, they don’t prevent the spread of lies and outrage, and the effects are malevolent.
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Google lobbies Australian users against plans to make it pay for news • The Verge

Jon Porter:


Google has published an open letter about a newly proposed government regulation that would compel it to pay media outlets for news content. Australians visiting their local Google homepage are presented with an ominous pop-up which warns that “the way Aussies use Google is at risk” and “their search experience will be hurt by new regulation.” It’s a bold lobbying move that puts Google’s arguments against the change in front of millions of Australians.

Australia’s consumer watchdog pushed back, saying the letter “contains misinformation,” adding that “a healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.”

Australia’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code law, which is currently in draft and targets Facebook alongside Google, follows a 2019 inquiry in Australia that found the tech giant to be taking a disproportionately large share of online advertising revenue, even though much of their content came from media organizations.


Google is really over-egging it by claiming peoples’ search experience will be hurt. The consumer watchdog letter says, in part,


Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube, unless it chooses to do so.

Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so. The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services.


Essentially, it’s the copyright fight that has been brewing ever since Google was first created on a PC at Stanford University by copying the whole web – a much simpler tasks then.

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U.S. tightening restrictions on Huawei access to technology, chips • Reuters

David Shepardson:


The Trump administration announced on Monday it will further tighten restrictions on Huawei Technologies, aimed at cracking down on its access to commercially available chips.

The US Commerce Department actions will expand restrictions announced in May aimed at preventing the Chinese telecommunications giant from obtaining semiconductors without a special license – including chips made by foreign firms that have been developed or produced with US software or technology.

The administration will also add 38 Huawei affiliates in 21 countries to the US government’s economic blacklist, the sources said, raising the total to 152 affiliates since Huawei was first added in May 2019.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business the restrictions on Huawei-designed chips imposed in May “led them to do some evasive measures. They were going through third parties,” Ross said. “The new rule makes it clear that any use of American software or American fabrication equipment is banned and requires a license.”


That’s a noose tightening – although it will also push Huawei (and all of China) to develop chips in its own right.
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Secret Service bought phone location data from apps, contract confirms • Vice

Joseph Cox:


The Secret Service paid for a product that gives the agency access to location data generated by ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones, an internal Secret Service document confirms.

The sale highlights the issue of law enforcement agencies buying information, and in particular location data, that they would ordinarily need a warrant or court order to obtain. This contract relates to the sale of Locate X, a product from a company called Babel Street.

In March, tech publication Protocol reported that multiple government agencies signed millions of dollars worth of deals with Babel Street after the company launched its Locate X product. Multiple sources told the site that Locate X tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data harvested by popular apps installed on peoples’ phones.

Protocol found public records showed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased Locate X. One former Babel Street employee told the publication that the Secret Service used the technology. Now, the document obtained by Motherboard corroborates that finding.


Lax protections lead to abuses. Or do European and British intelligence agencies just have carve-outs that let them grab this data without reference? (Thanks G for the link.)
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Covid-19 is creating a wave of heart disease • The New York Times

Dr Haider Warraich (who is a cardiologist):


An intriguing new study from Germany offers a glimpse into how SARS-CoV-2 affects the heart. Researchers studied 100 individuals, with a median age of just 49, who had recovered from Covid-19. Most were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

An average of two months after they received the diagnosis, the researchers performed M.R.I. scans of their hearts and made some alarming discoveries: nearly 80% had persistent abnormalities and 60% had evidence of myocarditis. The degree of myocarditis was not explained by the severity of the initial illness.

Though the study has some flaws, and the generalizability and significance of its findings not fully known, it makes clear that in young patients who had seemingly overcome SARS-CoV-2 it’s fairly common for the heart to be affected. We may be seeing only the beginning of the damage.

Researchers are still figuring out how SARS-CoV-2 causes myocarditis — whether it’s through the virus directly injuring the heart or whether it’s from the virulent immune reaction that it stimulates. It’s possible that part of the success of immunosuppressant medications such as the steroid dexamethasone in treating sick Covid-19 patients comes from their preventing inflammatory damage to the heart. Such steroids are commonly used to treat cases of myocarditis. Despite treatment, more severe forms of Covid-19-associated myocarditis can lead to permanent damage of the heart — which, in turn, can lead to heart failure.

But myocarditis is not the only way Covid-19 can cause more people to die of heart disease.


It’s all so jolly.

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Why did a small Pennsylvania town keep winning T-Mobile’s promotional contests? • CNBC

Megan Graham:


Earlier this summer, players of a T-Mobile Tuesdays giveaway contest took to Reddit to discuss a strange discovery: the company in certain weeks gave away tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in gift cards, prizes and cash to winners. In one of the contests, nearly a third of the publicly listed winners came from a Pennsylvania town with a population of less than 4,000.

Players wondered: What was in the water in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania? 

The theories began to blossom in threads as others posted publicly on social media asking T-Mobile for answers. Some surmised it could be the result of accidental coding. Maybe entries that were missing zip codes appeared to be from the town. Others suspected someone had figured out where, geographically speaking, someone could enter the contest to have a slight time advantage and set their server location as such. Some drew similarities to “McMillions,” an HBO series and podcast following a 2018 Daily Beast story titled “How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions.” 

The promotional app and contest, a ploy to foster goodwill with customers from a carrier known for such perks, offer occasional giveaways like tablets, Chromebooks, tickets to a “James Bond Fan Event,” a trip for two to Spanish-language awards show Premio lo Nuestro and more.


If I tell you that you could enter via a web form, you’ll probably get there, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.
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Level of cryptocurrency scams ‘unprecedented in modern markets’ • Yahoo Finance

Oscar Williams-Grut:


Researchers found 355 incidents of price manipulation across several cryptocurrency exchanges over a period of just seven months. $350m (£267m) of suspicious trading activity was linked to “pump and dump” scams that reaped an estimated profit of $6m for organisers.

While names like bitcoin and ethereum dominate coverage of the cryptocurrency space, price manipulation occurs with smaller coins. There are over 6,000 cryptocurrencies in circulation, according to, with huge variations in market capitalisation and liquidity.

“You have a large number of coins that you can essentially play trading games with,” Dhawan said.

15% of all the nearly 200 cryptocurrencies Dhawan and his co-author Tālis J. Putniņš looked at were manipulated at least once during the seven month period they observed.


The researchers write: “Puzzlingly, people join in despite negative expected returns. In a simple framework, we demonstrate how overconfidence and gambling preferences can explain participation in these schemes, and find strong empirical support for both mechanisms. Pumps generate extreme price distortions of 65% on average, abnormal trading volumes in the millions of dollars, and large wealth transfers between participants. These manipulation schemes are likely to persist as long as regulators and exchanges turn a blind eye.”

Regulators? Exchanges? Zero chance that exchanges will lift a finger, and regulators might decide they have easier targets than people on crypto who can hide behind hard-to-trace accounts. All of which confirms to me that the crypto space is just a gaggle of greater fools.
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5G smartphones could crush your home Wi-Fi. So where’s the 5G? • WSJ

Joanna Stern went back, a year on, to see where 5G has got to. The answer hasn’t changed:


When I asked executives at each of the big carriers where I’d really experience the 5G speed on a smartphone, they all said variations of the same thing: 5G will unlock the technology of the future, but for now…hefty downloads!

David Christopher, executive vice president and general manager of AT&T Mobility, talked about downloading the entire Harry Potter movie collection in 2 minutes. Verizon’s Ms. Hemmer mentioned downloading “Stranger Things” and HD video calling. And Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile vice president of radio network technology and strategy? Video and game downloads!

Even so, how often do any of us even download movies anymore? Maybe before a flight? But…where are you flying these days?

I found 5G to be far faster than the nationwide average home-internet speed, 86 Mbps, reported by Ookla. As you’ll see in my video, I moved 15 of my home gadgets into an RV—laptops, tablets, a 32-inch TV, an Xbox One, a Ring doorbell, etc.—to see if the connections could handle it. The only real bottlenecks were the 5G phones themselves, which aren’t meant to serve as hotspots for so many devices at a time and don’t have the range of a wireless router.


So basically it’s great for anyone living in an RV, as they’re called in the US (caravans, as they’re called more sensibly in the UK).
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What’s in a hedcut? Depends how it’s made • WSJ

Francesco Marconi, Carrie Reynolds and Emily Anderson:


The hedcut is a drawing created largely out of dots and hatched lines. It stems from a centuries-old tradition that is also used around the world to illustrate currency. At the Journal, we typically use hedcuts to depict notable subjects in our stories and our journalists who write them. We also use this stippled style of drawing to illustrate our daily feature known as the A-Hed.

Hedcuts first appeared on the front page of the Journal in 1979. Their classical feel suited the paper’s formal, famously text-heavy style at the time. Even as the Journal embraced more visuals across all our platforms in the decades since, the hedcut has persisted—becoming something of a status symbol for politicians, celebrities and reporters alike.

“The hand-drawn hedcut portraits are highly coveted,” said the Journal’s chief art director John Nichols. “They are the mark that you’ve made it at the Journal.”

Mr. Nichols oversees a team of five artists who create these drawings each day, typically spending four to five hours per image.

Not far from some of the illustrators is the Journal’s 21-month-old R&D Lab. These data scientists and machine-learning experts aim to bring science into the art of storytelling. In the case of the Journal’s hedcuts, this meant figuring out the best technical methods to mimic the stippling (dots) and hatching (lines) that give hedcuts their classic feel.

One initial challenge was deciding whether to use artificial intelligence at all. A simple way to create automated hedcuts could have been to use the light-contrast technology available in Adobe Photoshop to mimic the dark and light parts of a photograph in a stipple style.

…Wall Street Journal artists will continue to create the hedcut drawings you see on our stories each day. But our new AI-driven tool offers WSJ members a chance to partake in the tradition by creating their own here.


You have to have a WSJ account to get the portrait. Having tried it, I’d say it’s nice, but you’d need a certain sort of vanity to use it if you don’t work for the WSJ (but if you do, that’s totally appropriate).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1375: Facebook ignores Indian politician’s hate speech, Google saves Mozilla, GPT-3 blogs, solar panel breakthrough, and more

Facebook’s algorithm is suggesting Holocaust denial groups when people search on the term. CC-licensed photo by Daniel_Sadono 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. Reboot! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook algorithm found to ‘actively promote’ Holocaust denial • The Guardian

Mark Townsend:


Facebook’s algorithm “actively promotes” Holocaust denial content according to an analysis that will increase pressure on the social media giant to remove antisemitic content relating to the Nazi genocide.

An investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based counter-extremist organisation, found that typing “holocaust” in the Facebook search function brought up suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommended links to publishers which sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.

The findings coincide with mounting international demands from Holocaust survivors to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to remove such material from the site.

Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that ISD describe as a “conceptual blind spot”.

The ISD also discovered at least 36 Facebook groups with a combined 366,068 followers which are specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or which host such content. Researchers found that when they followed public Facebook pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook recommended further similar content.


Recommending “similar” content has led to people literally being recruited to terrorist groups. No surprise that this would happen with Holocaust denial. That’s the content about which Mark Zuckerberg said in 2018 “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
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Facebook’s hate-speech rules collide with Indian politics • WSJ

Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz:


In Facebook posts and public appearances, Indian politician T. Raja Singh has said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques.

Facebook Inc. employees charged with policing the platform were watching. By March of this year, they concluded Mr. Singh not only had violated the company’s hate-speech rules but qualified as dangerous, a designation that takes into account a person’s off-platform activities, according to current and former Facebook employees familiar with the matter.

Given India’s history of communal violence and recent religious tensions, they argued, his rhetoric could lead to real-world violence, and he should be permanently banned from the company’s platforms world-wide, according to the current and former employees, a punishment that in the U.S. has been doled out to radio host Alex Jones, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and numerous white supremacist organizations.

Yet Mr. Singh, a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, is still active on Facebook and Instagram, where he has hundreds of thousands of followers. The company’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to Mr. Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, said the current and former employees.


Yes, Facebook put its thumb on the scale because of politics. Literally scores of people have died in India due to content posted on Facebook’s apps (including WhatsApp). And then it does nothing when it knows someone is rabble-rousing?
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Mozilla signs fresh Google search deal worth mega-millions as 25% staff cut hits Servo, MDN, security teams • The Register

Katyanna Quach:


Mozilla has renewed its lucrative nine-figure deal with Google to ensure its search engine is the default in Firefox in the US and other parts of the world.

Within hours of the browser maker laying off a quarter of its staff this week, a well-placed source told The Register Moz had signed a three-year agreement with Google. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Mozilla confirmed the partnership had been renewed though declined to go into specific detail on the contract duration and sums of money involved.

However, our source told us Moz will likely pocket $400m to $450m a year between now and 2023 from the arrangement, citing internal discussions held earlier this year.


Saved by the bell. Even so, that’s three more years of charity during which it needs to figure out what it’s for. Google is surely overpaying for this, relative to Firefox’s absolute share (combined desktop and mobile). Though it might have some use in warding off antitrust complaints as Chrome becomes more and more dominant. (That’s the argument here, which I discovered after this.)
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A college kid created a fake, AI-generated blog. It reached #1 on Hacker News • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


At the start of the week, Liam Porr had only heard of GPT-3. By the end, the college student had used the AI model to produce an entirely fake blog under a fake name.

It was meant as a fun experiment. But then one of his posts reached the number-one spot on Hacker News. Few people noticed that his blog was completely AI-generated. Some even hit “Subscribe.”

While many have speculated about how GPT-3, the most powerful language-generating AI tool to date, could affect content production, this is one of the only known cases to illustrate the potential. What stood out most about the experience, says Porr, who studies computer science at the University of California, Berkeley: “It was super easy, actually, which was the scary part.”

GPT-3 is OpenAI’s latest and largest language AI model, which the San Francisco–based research lab  began drip-feeding out in mid-July. In February of last year, OpenAI made headlines with GPT-2, an earlier version of the algorithm, which it announced it would withhold for fear it would be abused. The decision immediately sparked a backlash, as researchers accused the lab of pulling a stunt. By November, the lab had reversed position and released the model, saying it had detected “no strong evidence of misuse so far.”

…The trick to generating content without the need for much editing was understanding GPT-3’s strengths and weaknesses. “It’s quite good at making pretty language, and it’s not very good at being logical and rational,” says Porr. So he picked a popular blog category that doesn’t require rigorous logic: productivity and self-help.


Says as much about Hacker News (and the productivity and self-help category) as it does GPT-3.
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Sources: Google plans to eventually replace Duo with Meet • 9to5Google

Abner Li:


With classic Hangouts on the way out, Google today has two video calling apps. However, that is one too many for the company, and sources familiar with the matter tell us that Google Duo will eventually be replaced by Meet.

This decision is the result of Google placing its consumer communication services — Duo, Messages, and Android’s Phone app — under the leadership of G Suite head Javier Soltero. After the unified team was made public in May, Soltero announced to employees that it does not make sense for Duo and Meet to coexist. 

Following the rise of work from home and remote learning, Google has moved aggressively to make Meet a Zoom competitor. Like Duo, it’s now “free for everyone” to use and going after the same market.

With all the focus on Meet, the new messaging chief opted to have the service become Google’s one video calling service for both regular and enterprise customers. Internally, this is being described as a merger of the two services that is codenamed “Duet” — a portmanteau of Duo and Meet.

We’re told by sources that this new direction and the reduced interest in building a dedicated consumer service came as a surprise to the Duo team.


Oh man. Nothing should come as a surprise to people working on any of Google’s messaging apps. Any time there are more than two (video and text) there’s a risk of one getting wiped out.
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UK firm’s solar power breakthrough could make world’s most efficient panels by 2021 • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:


An Oxford-based solar technology firm hopes by the end of the year to begin manufacturing the world’s most efficient solar panels, and become the first to sell them to the public within the next year.

Oxford PV claims that the next-generation solar panels will be able to generate almost a third more electricity than traditional silicon-based solar panels by coating the panels with a thin layer of a crystal material called perovskite.

The breakthrough would offer the first major step-change in solar power generation since the technology emerged in the 1950s, and could play a major role in helping to tackle the climate crisis by increasing clean energy.

By coating a traditional solar power cell with perovskite a solar panel can increase its power generation, and lower the overall costs of the clean electricity, because the crystal is able to absorb different parts of the solar spectrum than traditional silicon.

Typically a silicon solar cell is able to convert up to about 22% of the available solar energy into electricity. But in June 2018, Oxford PV’s perovskite-on-silicon solar cell surpassed the best performing silicon-only solar cell by reaching a new world record of 27.3%.


That’s a 24% improvement. Substantial. And usually these things are “five years from now…” This is a lot quicker than that. Although there do seem to be questions about the longevity of the perovskite layer.

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We won’t remember much of what we did in the pandemic • Financial Times

Tim Harford (with a non-paywalled article):


Instead of storing each frame separately, video compression algorithms will start with the first frame of a scene and then store a series of “diffs” — changes from one frame to the next. A slow, contemplative movie with long scenes and fixed cameras can be compressed more than a fast-moving action flick.

Similarly, a week full of new experiences will seem longer in retrospect. A month of repeating the same routine might seem endless, but will be barely a blip in the memory: the “diffs” are not significant enough for the brain to bother with.

After months of working from home, I now realise that there was something incomplete about this account. New experiences are indeed important for planting a rich crop of memories. But, by itself, that is not enough. A new physical space seems to be important if our brains are to pay attention.

The Covid-19 lockdown, after all, was full of new experiences. Some were grim: I lost a friend to the disease; I smashed my face up in an accident; we had to wear masks and avoid physical contact and worry about where the next roll of toilet paper was coming from. Some were more positive: the discovery of new pleasures, the honing of new skills, the overcoming of new challenges.

But I doubt I am alone in finding that my memory of the lockdown months is rather thin. No matter how many new people or old friends you talk to on Zoom or Skype, they all start to smear together because the physical context is monotonous: the conversations take place while one sits in the same chair, in the same room, staring at the same computer screen.


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‘Canary in the coal mine’: Greenland ice has shrunk beyond return, study finds • Reuters

Cassandra Garrison:


Greenland’s ice sheet may have shrunk past the point of return, with the ice likely to melt away no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions, new research suggests.

Scientists studied data on 234 glaciers across the Arctic territory spanning 34 years through 2018 and found that annual snowfall was no longer enough to replenish glaciers of the snow and ice being lost to summertime melting.

That melting is already causing global seas to rise about a millimeter on average per year. If all of Greenland’s ice goes, the water released would push sea levels up by an average of 6 meters — enough to swamp many coastal cities around the world. This process, however, would take decades.

“Greenland is going to be the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is already pretty much dead at this point,” said glaciologist Ian Howat at Ohio State University. He and his colleagues published the study Thursday in the Nature Communications Earth & Environment journal.

The Arctic has been warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world for the last 30 years, an observation referred to as Arctic amplification. The polar sea ice hit its lowest extent for July in 40 years.


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How suffering farmers may determine Trump’s fate • The New Yorker

Dan Kaufman:


In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”

For [dairy farmer and 2016 Trump voter, after two terms voting for Obama] Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants.

The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry.

Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”


That essay isn’t linked in the piece, but it seems to be here. This is a lovely, elegaic article by Kaufman; elegies, of course, being a lament for the dead.
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Epic’s battle for “open platforms” ignores consoles’ massive closed market • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:


when Fortnite was predictably removed from both [Apple’s and Google’s mobile] platforms, Epic filed lawsuits against both companies, alleging “anti-competitive restraints and monopolistic practices” in the mobile app marketplace. That move came alongside a heavy-handed PR blitz, including a video asking players to “join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming ‘1984.’”

But through this entire public fight for “open mobile platforms,” as Epic puts it, there is one major set of closed platforms that the company seems happy to continue doing business with. We’re speaking, of course, about video game consoles.

Most if not all of the complaints Epic makes against Apple and Google seem to apply to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in the console space as well. All three console makers also take a 30% cut of all microtransaction sales on their platforms, for example.

This DLC fee represents a big chunk of those console makers’ revenues, too. “Add-on content” was a full 41% of Sony’s Game and Network revenue in the latest completed fiscal quarter. Microsoft saw a 39-percent increase in gaming revenue the quarter after Fortnite was released, too, coyly attributing the bump to “third-party title strength.” And the Switch saw similar post-Fortnite digital revenue increases after Nintendo announced that fully half of all Switch owners had downloaded Fortnite.

On mobile platforms, Epic is calling the same kind of 30% fee “exorbitant” and says it wants to offer a more direct payment solution so it can “pass along the savings to players.” On consoles, though, Epic happily introduced a permanent 20% discount on all microtransaction purchases, despite there being no sign that the console makers have changed their fee structure.

The major console makers also all exercise full control over what games and apps can appear in their own walled gardens. When it comes to iOS, Epic says that “by blocking consumer choice in software installation, Apple has created a problem so they can profit from the solution.” When it comes to consoles, Epic is silent about the same state of affairs.


Epic is being terribly hypocritical here, though as Orland points out, it’s a bit odd how it’s silent when the companies have investments in it. Epic’s CEO says that the 30% is permissible on games consoles because they’re sold below cost and there are “tremendous marketing campaigns”. Hmm.
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Research report on coronavirus fake news gets misreported by media • Mark Pak

Mark was suspicious about the BBC report last week on thousands of people dying from social media dis/misinformation about Covid-19:


Here is the relevant part of that article:


A popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world. Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus.


That 5,876 figure is the origin of the 5,800 figure in the news reports. But note, it’s only the death toll from the one very specific piece of fake news: drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus. Nor is it a figure about social media specifically. It’s a hospitalisation total for that myth, however it spread. Social media almost certainly played a big part in it spreading, but there’s no attempt to isolate its impact from other sources of spreading.

What’s more, go to the footnotes for this figure and they are all sources that refer to Iran. It looks like the figure is specifically for the one country, not a global one. For example, one of the cited sources is this Al Jazeera story: “Iran: Over 700 dead after drinking alcohol to cure coronavirus”.

So we have a figure for hospitalisations due to one myth in one country that has ended up being reported as a global figure for myths on social media specifically.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1374: Apple kicks Epic off App Store, US nabs terrorists’ crypto, Intel promises again to get faster, killed by Covid misinfo?, and more

Higher than Everest’s North Base Camp, this was the world’s highest ski resort. Then climate change hit. CC-licensed photo by Elias Rovielo on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Stormy weather. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple bans Fortnite from its App Store • The New York Times

Kellen Browning, Jack Nicas and Erin Griffith:


Apple’s spat with app developers over its cut of their revenues exploded into a high-stakes clash on Thursday when Apple kicked the wildly popular game Fortnite off iPhones and Fortnite’s maker hit back with a lawsuit.

The fight began on Thursday morning with a clear provocation. Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, started encouraging users of the Fortnite iPhone app to pay it directly, rather than through Apple. The iPhone maker requires that it handle all such app payments, so it can collect a 30% commission, a policy that has been at the center of antitrust complaints against the company.

Hours later, Apple responded, removing the Fortnite app from its App Store.

“Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines,” Apple said in a statement. “We will make every effort to work with Epic to resolve these violations so they can return Fortnite to the App Store.”

Epic followed with its own response: It said it was suing Apple.

“Apple’s removal of Fortnite is yet another example of Apple flexing its enormous power in order to impose unreasonable restraints and unlawfully maintain its 100% monopoly over the” market for in-app payments on iPhones, Epic said in a 62-page lawsuit unveiled just moments after Apple removed the Fortnite app.


The Epic lawsuit is pretty desperate stuff. As Ben Thompson has pointed out at Stratechery, just because an action is anti-competitive doesn’t mean it’s unlawful. Apple doesn’t have a monopoly of any relevant market. Sure, as Epic says, it has a monopoly of the iOS market. That’s as redundant as saying it has a monopoly of the iPhone. Epic wants to introduce a games app store on iOS. Apple won’t be forced to make that happen unless the law changes.

Meanwhile, people who already have Fortnite will still have it. The app just won’t be updated.
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The age of the office is over – the future lies in Britain’s commuter towns • The Guardian

Simon Jenkins:


In his classic biography of the Cambridgeshire village of Foxton, The Common Stream, Rowland Parker described its many traumas. They included invading Saxons, the Black Death and, most recently, the arrival of combine harvesters in the 1920s. The machines slashed the need for farm labour. The village emptied. Rural vitality was devastated.

Since then Foxton has recovered as a dormitory suburb for office workers in Cambridge and even London. But does it now face another change, that of home-working? Across Britain there must be many people wondering if they really want to fight their way to a city office block when their home can be their office. Morgan Stanley reports a mere 18% of European office workers wanting to return to an office five days a week. Fulltime home working is estimated to raise productivity by more than 16 days over a full year.

The media is awash in studies declaring that offices are good for us after all. They promote social diversity and informal contacts, offering relief from relationship claustrophobia in “getting out of the house”. Management ideology has long identified “the company” with its headquarters, its physical presence and hierarchy. The New Scientist reports the boss of Microsoft worrying that unmonitored home working will eat into the “social capital” built up in an office environment. Zoom cannot replace the gossip of “those two minutes before and after” a meeting. We know that from TV’s The Office.

None the less, office workers seem certain to vote with their feet.


This, more than anything, feels like an inevitable aftereffect of the coronavirus. Even once we can all “go back to work” (ie go back to offices), will we need to? Will we want to? It becomes “why do I need to?” rather than “what reason is there not to?” The cost of commuting, both in money and time, is going to weigh very heavily the longer this goes on – at least for those whose jobs offer that flexibility.
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Microsoft’s dual-screen Duo is here. The timing’s not great • WIRED

Lauren Goode:


When the Duo was first revealed to WIRED last October, [chief product officer Panos] Panay insisted that it helps him stay “in the flow”—his productivity zone—so many times that I wondered if an internal quota had been set for the phrase. The Duo, like the foldable phones from Samsung and Motorola, was pitched as a product for people on the go. You wouldn’t need to carry a phone and a tablet with you on the train or plane; with a foldable, you have both. And the dual-screened OS? No prob: You could run Outlook and PowerPoint, side by side, because work work work work work.

Now Microsoft is trying to sell an ultraportable two-in-one at a time when many of us are going exactly nowhere. For the digital employee, work has officially been redefined as WFH, and our days are structured by whatever screen we have to use at any given hour. The move from a 6-inch screen to a 13-inch one, and later in the evening to a 50-inch screen or 10-inch one, is the delineator between work and leisure. Now, Microsoft wants to wedge its way into your living room and onto your couch, instead of your train ride and your office.

“The context of these kinds of devices has changed,” says Ben Arnold, consumer technology analyst at the NPD Group, which tracks US sales of electronics. “It’s not the one-handed emailer on the subway anymore. It’s the uber-productive work-from-home worker, and there are some different dimensions to that.”


That’s the problem right there. The context has completely changed. Foldables might once have seemed like a worthwhile idea. That’s questionable now.
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US seized cryptocurrency from three terrorist groups • Bloomberg via MSN

Chris Strohm:


The U.S. seized about $2m and more than 300 cryptocurrency accounts used by al-Qaeda, the al-Qassam Brigades – Hamas’s military wing – and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – widely known as ISIS – in what the Justice Department said was “the government’s largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency in the terrorism context.”

The action indicates the government can identify and infiltrate terrorist or criminal groups that think they’re cloaked by the anonymity offered by Bitcoin and other digital currencies.

“This case is really historic and unprecedented for several reasons,” Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, told reporters on a press call. “We’re looking at three different entities that were targeted by the government to prevent financing going to these very dangerous terrorist organizations.”

The operations tied to Islamic State sought to exploit the coronavirus pandemic by offering to sell millions of dollars in what was actually fake personal protective gear to U.S. hospitals, nursing homes and first responders, according to the Justice Department.


Disgraceful! They should leave that sort of thing to Jared’s friends, who have never worked in PPE manufacture either. The DOJ press release actually has a lot more useful information; and it’s proof that bitcoin is pseudonymous, not anonymous.
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Intel says new transistor technology could boost chip performance 20% • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:


Intel sought to buck the notion that the single-number names given to each generation of chip process node tell the entire story by disclosing improvements on its existing 10-nanonmeter process node. It announced a new way of making what it now calls “SuperFin” transistors, which, along with a new material being used to improve the capacitors on chips, is expected to boost the performance of Intel’s forthcoming processors, despite their still being made on 10-nanonmeter manufacturing lines.

“It is 20%, the largest intra-node jump ever in our history,” Raja Koduri, Intel’s chief architect, said of the performance gain in an interview with Reuters. “It’s actually same as what you would get with one full Moore’s Law node of performance.”

It will not be possible to test those claims in the real world until Intel’s new chips come out, but its “Tiger Lake” laptop chips slated for release this fall will use the chips.


Convenient announcement to tempt any OEMs that were thinking of defecting. As the story says, no way to confirm it until the chips are actually in peoples’ hands.
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‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 misinformation • BBC News

Alistair Coleman:


At least 800 people may have died around the world because of coronavirus-related misinformation in the first three months of this year, researchers say.

A study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene also estimates that about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media.

Many died from drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products.

They wrongly believed the products to be a cure for the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously said that the “infodemic” surrounding Covid-19 spread just as quickly as the virus itself, with conspiracy theories, rumours and cultural stigma all contributing to deaths and injuries.

Many of the victims had followed advice resembling credible medical information – such as eating large amounts of garlic or ingesting large quantities of vitamins – as a way of preventing infection, the study’s authors say. Others drank substances such as cow urine. These actions all had “potentially serious implications” on their health, the researchers say.


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Corporate America worries WeChat ban could be bad for business • WSJ

John D. McKinnon and Lingling Wei:


U.S. companies whose fortunes are linked to China are pushing back against the Trump administration’s plans to restrict business transactions involving the WeChat app from Tencent Holdings, saying it could undermine their competitiveness in the world’s second-biggest economy.

More than a dozen major U.S. multinational companies raised concerns in a call with White House officials Tuesday about the potentially broad scope and impact of Mr. Trump’s executive order targeting WeChat, set to take effect late next month.

Apple, Ford Motor Co., Walmart and Walt Disney were among those participating in the call, according to people familiar with the situation.

“For those who don’t live in China, they don’t understand how vast the implications are if American companies aren’t allowed to use it,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “They are going to be held at a severe disadvantage to every competitor,” he added.

Other participants in the call Tuesday included Procter & Gamble Co., Intel Corp., MetLife Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, United Parcel Service Inc., Merck & Co. Inc. and Cargill Inc., according to the people.

…One aim of the call was to seek clarity on the precise meaning of the executive order signed by Mr. Trump last week, according to the people familiar with the matter. That order barred “any transaction that is related to WeChat” by Americans but left details of what is actually banned to the Commerce Department to be worked out.

Companies are hoping the administration will narrow the order as it is implemented over the coming weeks, according to the people familiar.


The WeChat ban is wild, poorly defined and potentially ruinous. Who knows which dolts at the State Department thought it was clever. As usual, they’re wrong.
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The ski resort that lost its glacier • Atlas Obscura

Tony Dunnell:


The Chacaltaya ski resort WAS once the only ski resort in Bolivia. The popular resort also had the honor of being both the highest ski resort in the world and home to the world’s highest restaurant. But when the mountain’s glacier melted, it was all but abandoned.

The ski resort was opened in the late-1930s, and soon middle- and upper-class residents of nearby La Paz were flocking to its slopes. For seven or eight months of the year, people came to ski and go sledding down the Chacaltaya Glacier, at least until the cold and extreme altitude made them return to lower ground.

At 17,519 feet above sea level, the Chacaltaya Ski Resort was higher than the North Base Camp of Mount Everest. For decades it held the record as the world’s highest ski resort, and the resort’s restaurant is still recognized by Guinness as the highest restaurant in the world.

But in the 1990s, scientists at the Mount Chacaltaya Laboratory began to make some stark predictions. By 2015, they warned, the Chacaltaya Glacier would be gone. As it turned out, they were being optimistic. By 2009, the 18,000-year-old glacier was completely gone.

With the ice and snow melted, the skiers naturally stopped coming. The resort was soon shut down and abandoned, and its ski lifts shut down. Since then, the resort has sat like a freezing ghost town on the bare rocky slopes of Chacaltaya.


AO seems to be a sort of tourist community. The “Been Here?” tag has 45 people, and the “Want To Visit” has 275. That’s quite an altitude, though. Altitude sickness must be a risk.
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We tested Instagram Reels, the TikTok clone. What a dud • The New York Times

Brian Chen and Taylor Lorenz:


I invited Taylor Lorenz, our internet culture writer and resident TikTok expert, to share her thoughts about how Facebook’s clone worked versus the real thing. With her experience and my novice knowledge, we could assess how both the never-TikTokers and the TikTok die-hards might feel about Reels.

The verdict? For her, it was: Not good. For me, it was: Confused.

Let’s start with what was copied. Both TikTok, a stand-alone app, and Reels, a feature inside Instagram, are free to use. With Reels, Instagram mimicked TikTok’s signature ability to create short video montages, which are overlaid with copyrighted music and embellished with effects like emojis and sped-up motion.

The similarities pretty much ended there — and not in a positive way for Instagram.

On Instagram, the videos are published to a feed known as the Explore tab, a mishmash of photos, sponsored posts and long-form videos. On TikTok, videos are surfaced through For You, a feed algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit your interests. Reels also lacks TikTok’s editing features, like song recommendations and automatic clip trimming, that use artificial intelligence to speed up the process of video creation.

Taylor and I each tested Reels for five days and then talked about what we had found. We didn’t hold back.

TAYLOR: I can definitively say Reels is the worst feature I’ve ever used.


And it goes downhill from there. What TikTok has, Facebook can’t necessarily copy: it’s algorithms, it’s huge amounts of content, it’s people dedicated to making the algorithm better and better every minute. Not a stuck-on feature on a different product. Watch the two super-short just-throw-in-and-see-what-it-makes videos comparing them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1373: Facebook’s ongoing Boogaloo problem, QAnon eats into the GOP, retailers quit Manhattan, Mozilla’s money trouble, and more

New Zealand is investigating the possibility that coronavirus was transmitted via imported frozen food packaging. CC-licensed photo by Victor Wong on Flickr.

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

The Boogaloo Bois are all over Facebook • Vice

Tess Owen:


The anti-government Boogaloo movement is thriving on Facebook under an array of code names, where followers are circulating links to Google Drives containing manuals on bomb making, how to be a getaway driver, and how to murder people with your bare hands, an investigation by the Tech Transparency Project found.

The group, which tracks extremist movements on social media, identified 110 Boogaloo groups that were created since Facebook designated it a “dangerous organization” and banned it from the platform on June 30. At least 18 of them were created on a single day.

Some of those groups have already amassed thousands of members, and are distributing documents including “Al Qaeda kidnapping manual” and the “Army Sniper Manual,” as well as reports on bombings such as the 2005 attack on London’s transport system, which left 56 dead.

…In some cases, the presence of the Boogaloo movement may be even more troubling than it was before. The distribution of entire folders containing instructions for violent acts is an escalation even compared to just a few months ago, when members were just pasting recipes for Molotov cocktails directly into Facebook groups.

“The biggest concern is the ability to reach such a large number of people,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project. “That increases the number of people who may be unstable. One person could take these manuals, find them useful, and carry out a lone-wolf attack.”


Just the other day Faebook was congratulating itself for the amount of terrorist content it had taken down. Does this count?
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Marjorie Taylor Greene, candidate who supports QAnon, wins Republican primary runoff in Georgia • The Washington Post

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Rachael Bade:


Greene, who owns a construction company jointly with her husband, defeated John Cowan, a neurosurgeon. She will face Democrat Kevin Van Ausdal, an IT specialist, in November. [She’s likely to win unless Van Ausdal can overturn a double-digit poll difference generally in Georgia.]

GOP leaders, whose standard-bearer rose to political prominence on the basis of a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace, have watched her ascent with some unease. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House Republican whip, endorsed her primary opponent. Republican members of Georgia’s delegation privately urged the party’s House leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, to do more to intervene in the race, according to multiple GOP aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the conversations.

“There are a lot of members livid at McCarthy for sitting back and doing nothing to stop this woman from being elected while the entire Georgia delegation, Scalise and some moderates tried” to help her opponent, said one House Republican aide closely monitoring the race.


Also: Max Boot (formerly very Republican, post-Trump very much not) on how the Republican party is being dragged to the right by these loons, while the Democratic party has its left wing (AOC, Ilhan Omar etc) under control.
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A Bible burning, a Russian news agency and a story too good to check • The New York Times

Matthew Rosenberg and Julian E. Barnes:


The story was a near-perfect fit for a central Trump campaign talking point — that with liberals and Democrats comes godless disorder — and it went viral among Republicans within hours of appearing earlier this month. The New York Post wrote about it, as did The Federalist, saying that the protesters had shown “their true colors.” Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, said of the protesters, “This is who they are.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted that antifa had moved to “the book burning phase.”

The truth was far more mundane. A few protesters among the many thousands appear to have burned a single Bible — and possibly a second — for kindling to start a bigger fire. None of the other protesters seemed to notice or care.

Yet in the rush to paint all the protesters as Bible-burning zealots, few of the politicians or commentators who weighed in on the incident took the time to look into the story’s veracity, or to figure out that it had originated with a Kremlin-backed video news agency. And now, days later, the Portland Bible burnings appear to be one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign.

With Election Day drawing closer, the Russian efforts to influence the vote appear to be well underway.


Nicest line: “the tweet [pushing the nonsense] was picked up by a Malaysian named Ian Miles Cheong who has amassed a large Twitter following by playing a right-wing American raconteur on social media.”
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Retail chains abandon Manhattan: ‘it’s unsustainable’ • The New York Times

Matthew Haag and Patrick McGeehan:


In the heart of Manhattan, national chains including J.C. Penney, Kate Spade, Subway and Le Pain Quotidien have shuttered branches for good. Many other large brands, like Victoria’s Secret and the Gap, have kept their high-profile locations closed in Manhattan, while reopening in other states.

Michael Weinstein, the chief executive of Ark Restaurants, who owns Bryant Park Grill & Cafe and 19 other restaurants, said he will never open another restaurant in New York.

Of Ark Restaurants’ five Manhattan restaurants, only two have reopened, while its properties in Florida — where the virus is far worse — have expanded outdoor seating with tents and tables into their parking lots, serving almost as many guests as they had indoors.

“There’s no reason to do business in New York,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I can do the same volume in Florida in the same square feet as I would have in New York, with my expenses being much less. The idea was that branding and locations were important, but the expense of being in this city has overtaken the marketing group that says you have to be there.”

Even as the city has contained the virus and slowly reopens, there are ominous signs that some national brands are starting to abandon New York. The city is home to many flagship stores, chains and high-profile restaurants that tolerated astronomical rents and other costs because of New York’s global cachet and the reliable onslaught of tourists and commuters.

But New York today looks nothing like it did just a few months ago.

In Manhattan’s major retail corridors, from SoHo to Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, once packed sidewalks are now nearly empty. A fraction of the usual army of office workers goes into work every day, and many wealthy residents have left the city for second homes.


The latter group will come back, but the former might well not.
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New Zealand considers freight as possible source of new coronavirus cluster • Reuters

Praveen Menon:


New Zealand officials are investigating the possibility that its first COVID-19 cases in more than three months were imported by freight, as the country’s biggest city plunged back into lockdown on Wednesday.

The discovery of four infected family members in Auckland led Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to swiftly reimpose tight restrictions in the city and social distancing measures across the entire country.

The source of the outbreak has baffled health officials, who said they were confident there was no local transmission of the virus in New Zealand for 102 days.

“We are working hard to put together pieces of the puzzle on how this family got infected,” said Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

Investigations were zeroing in on the potential the virus was imported by freight. Bloomfield said surface testing was underway at an Auckland cool store where a man from the infected family worked.

“We know the virus can survive within refrigerated environments for quite some time,” Bloomfield said during a televised media conference.

…China has reported several instances of the coronavirus being detected on the packaging of imported frozen seafood in recent weeks.


WHO says 🤷. That’s a pretty remarkable vector for transmission, though.
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Mozilla lays off 250 employees while it refocuses on commercial products • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


Going forward, [Mozilla CEO Mitchell] Baker said Mozilla will also be re-thinking its core business model and put more focus on financially viable products.

“Recognizing that the old model where everything was free has consequences, means we must explore a range of different business opportunities and alternate value exchanges,” Baker said.

“We must learn and expand different ways to support ourselves and build a business that isn’t what we see today.”

This most likely includes a bigger focus on Mozilla’s VPN offering, which Mozilla formally launched last month. Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps are one of today’s biggest money-makers in tech, and Mozilla, despite arriving late to the party, is set to become one of the biggest players on the market, primarily due to its reputation as a privacy-first organization and civil and privacy rights advocate.

Furthermore, Mozilla’s contract with Google to include Google as the default search provider inside Firefox is set to expire later this year, and the contract has not been renewed. The Google deal has historically accounted for around 90% of all of Mozilla’s revenue, and without it experts see a dim future for Mozilla past 2021.


Well spotted, “experts”. Not mentioned in this is that Mozilla laid off 70 people back in January. Its 2018 financial statement showed $133m in the bank at the start of 2019, so that’s a number to watch for whenever the financials drop – which on past form seems to be roughly 12 months after the relevant year-end.

Baker burbled that the “pre-COVID plan is no longer workable”, but I don’t think it was workable before either. Mozilla needs a significant revenue source that isn’t Google, and VPNs could be it. Or paid-for dev tools. The expertise is there. The era of free seems, as she says, to be over.
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The cult of the free must die • QuirksBlog

Peter Paul Koch:


Isn’t it time Mozilla distances itself from the cult of the free? I know it’s deep in their DNA, but that hasn’t prevented it from hitting a very rough spot. Maybe the model is not as viable as we all thought.

So allow me to make a modest proposal: build in a donations function in Firefox itself — for instance by adding a simple “Please support us” message to the update page you get to see whenever you update the browser, and by adding a Donations item to the main menu.

Oh, and don’t bother with perks for paying members. It’s not about perks, it’s about supporting the software you’re using. The software is the perk.

I’m not saying Mozilla should erect a paywall around Firefox. That would far worse than the problem it’s supposed to solve. (The fact that it would be such a terribly bad move is part of the problem, though. If people had just learned to pay for the good stuff …)

I’m also not saying this will solve Mozilla’s financial problems — in fact, I’m quite certain that it won’t. Still, it would be one step in the direction of a better web where consumers slowly get used to the idea of paying. Also, it might help Mozilla itself veer away from the cult of the free towards a more sustainable model, mostly by putting psychological pressure on the organisation as a whole.


Strange how Koch, who in 2016 (the link above) wrote that “offering stuff for free is the web’s original sin” can’t see that the strategy of “offering stuff for pay” is its solution. There is then the problem of how you reach those who can’t afford, which brings in advertising, which then means stuff is offered for free, but then the ads can’t support it… and so the cycle continues.
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Google adds AR chemistry models to Search • Android Police

Manuel Vonau:


Last year during Google I/O (it feels so long ago), Google introduced AR animal models you can put into your home, available right through Google Search without requiring extra software. Over the following year, the company has added many more 3D models to its library, including skeletons, planets and other celestial bodies, NASA equipment, anatomic models, cell structures, and many more. Now Google has expanded the list of supported 3D models with chemistry terms.

To view the new chemistry models, make sure your phone is on the list of supported models and search the Google app or Chrome for the terms you want to see.


Neat (and probably useful for GCSE or A-level students in particular). Here’s the full Google blogpost.
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Google beats song lyric scraping lawsuit • Hollywood Reporter

Eriq Gardner:


Genius Media Group was pretty clever when it used digital watermarks to show that Google had been using its huge collection of song lyrics. One of those watermarks spelled “redhanded” in Morse code. That Google was caught with another site’s song lyric transcriptions made international news — and even merited a mention during Congress’ Big Tech hearing late last month. But was there anything unlawful about Google’s alleged scraping (direct or indirect)? On Monday, a New York federal judge dismissed claims by Genius.

Genius doesn’t own copyrights to the song lyrics. Those rights belong to publishers and songwriters. Genius does have a license to the song lyrics in question. Additionally, Genius spends a lot of time and millions of dollars facilitating collaborative lyric transcription. Can’t it protect its sweat? Genius believed so.


I honestly can’t understand this judgment: I don’t get why Google isn’t an accessory to copyright infringement.
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China hires over 100 TSMC engineers in push for chip leadership • Nikkei Asian Review

Cheng Ting-Fang:


Two Chinese government-backed chip projects have together hired more than 100 veteran engineers and managers from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s leading chipmaker, since last year, multiple sources have told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The hirings are aimed at helping Beijing achieve its goal of fostering a domestic chip industry in order to cut China’s reliance on foreign suppliers, the sources said.

Quanxin Integrated Circuit Manufacturing (Jinan), better known as QXIC, and Wuhan Hongxin Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., or HSMC, along with their various associate and affiliate companies, are little-known outside the industry. But in addition to employing more than 50 former TSMC employees each, both are also led by ex-TSMC executives with established reputations in the chip world. The two projects are aiming to develop 14-nanometer and 12-nanometer chip process technologies, which are two to three generations behind TSMC but still the most cutting-edge in China.

Hongxin and QXIC, founded in 2017 and 2019, respectively, are part of a recent boom in China’s semiconductor industry as Beijing prioritizes self-sufficiency in key tech areas impacted by tensions with Washington.


And is America’s government doing the same, given its determination to ramp up tensions with China? (Although this will be a question for the next administration, given the time it takes to create a new fab.)
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Microsoft’s Surface Duo arrives on September 10th for $1,399 • The Verge

Tom Warren:


MicrosoftMicrosoft is launching its Surface Duo dual-screen Android phone on September 10th, priced from $1,399. After months of Microsoft executives teasing the device on Twitter, the company is now allowing anyone to preorder the Surface Duo today in the US. Preorders will be available at AT&T, Microsoft’s online store, and Best Buy.

While Microsoft had revealed the design of the Surface Duo back in October, the company has kept the specs relatively secret. The device includes two separate 5.6-inch OLED displays (1800 x 1350) with a 4:3 aspect ratio that connect together to form a 8.1-inch overall workspace (2700 x 1800) with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Unlike foldables like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, the Surface Duo is using real Gorilla Glass, and the displays are designed to work in a similar way to multiple monitors on a Windows PC.


Nothing on the outside – no screen. So if you get a phone call (it does happen), how will you know who it’s from? If there’s a message ping, you’ll have to take it out of your pocket or wherever, and open it – this isn’t a “glance” device.

Sure to be more robust than the Galaxy Fold, pretty sure to sell fewer once people discover its limitations.
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‘A shady move’: Apple News+ Safari change automatically redirecting traffic to itself infuriates publishers • Digiday

Max Willens and Lucinda Southern:


The operating system changes arrive [CA: will arrive; this is in the public beta, due September or so] at a rare moment when publishers were seeing good signs emanating from Apple News+. Sources at four different publishers said reader revenue from Apple News+ has been up over the spring (due to a lag in reporting time, publishers do not yet know how much money they made from Apple News+ in June or July).

It is unclear whether that spike is the result of Apple adding subscribers or subscribers consuming more content; Apple distributes 50% of Apple News+’s subscriber revenue to publishers based on subscribers’ dwell time on content within the app, and keeps the remaining 50% for itself. It also does not tell publishers how many subscribers it has.

Data from Apple News’ ad-supported side suggests more consumption may be responsible. Several sources said they were seeing record views from Apple News this spring, much like the record-breaking traffic their own sites got at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

But that increased consumption did little to improve Apple News’s long-standing issues with monetization. Two sources said that the effective CPMs on Apple News ads have fallen close to 20% since the fourth quarter of 2019, and the fill rates — which have been described as “atrocious” in the past — have never climbed above 50% at any point this year, one source said.

Two sources said they believe the CPM drops are more the result of this spring’s broader economic turbulence than any specific change Apple or NBCUniversal, which handles ad sales for Apple News, made.


From the noise people are trying to drum up, you’d think publishers didn’t have any option but to be in the paid-for News+. Actually, they aren’t obliged to be there. If it’s so bad, why not just pull out?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1372: how TikTok circumvented Android to track users, remote workers v spyware, how Facebook keeps QAnon alive, and more

Quake! But Android users will get an early warning. CC-licensed photo by Ant %26 Carrie Coleman 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. Unshaken, unstirred. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Android is now the world’s largest earthquake detection network • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Back in 2016, Ars reported on an interesting use for the bundle of sensors we carry around every day in our smartphones—earthquake detection. The accelerometers in your phone make a passable-enough seismometer, and together with location data and enough users, you could detect earthquakes and warn users as the shocks roll across the landscape. The University of California-Berkeley, along with funding from the state of California, built an app called “MyShake” and a cheap, effective earthquake detection network was born, at least, it was born for people who installed the app.

What if you didn’t need to install the app? What if earthquake detection was just built in to the operating system? That’s the question Google is going to answer, with today’s announcement of the “Android Earthquake Alerts System.” Google is going to build what it calls “the world’s largest earthquake detection network” by rolling earthquake detection out to nearly every Google Play Android phone. Here’s the meat of the announcement:


All smartphones come with tiny accelerometers that can sense earthquakes. They’re even sensitive enough to detect the P-wave, which is the first wave that comes out of an earthquake and is typically much less damaging than the S-wave which comes afterward. If the phone detects something that it thinks may be an earthquake, it sends a signal to our earthquake detection server, along with a coarse location of where the shaking occurred. The server then combines information from many phones to figure out if an earthquake is happening. We’re essentially racing the speed of light (which is roughly the speed at which signals from a phone travel) against the speed of an earthquake. And lucky for us, the speed of light is much faster!


That “race” often works out to only a minute or so of warning, but that’s usually enough to duck and cover if you catch the notification.


This is very much in line with what I recall Marissa Mayer describing wayyy back when I interviewed her in July 2009:


Q: Things like the sensors in the phones that say “here we are” and buildings that can say “this is my temperature” – how do you think it will start integrating into search?

Mayer: I think that some of the smartphones of today are doing a lot of the work for us: by having cameras, they already have eyes; by having GPS, they know where they are; by having things like accelerometers, they know how you’re holding them.


This is a (very big, potentially lifesaving) extension of that idea.
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TikTok tracked user data using tactic banned by Google • WSJ

Kevin Poulsen and Robert McMillan:


TikTok skirted a privacy safeguard in Google’s Android operating system to collect unique identifiers from millions of mobile devices, data that allows the app to track users online without allowing them to opt out, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found.

The tactic, which experts in mobile-phone security said was concealed through an unusual added layer of encryption, appears to have violated Google policies limiting how apps track people and wasn’t disclosed to TikTok users. TikTok ended the practice in November, the Journal’s testing showed.

The findings come at a time when TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is under pressure from the White House over concerns that data collected by the app could be used to help the Chinese government track U.S. government employees or contractors. TikTok has said it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government and wouldn’t do so if asked.

The identifiers collected by TikTok, called MAC addresses, are most commonly used for advertising purposes. The White House has said it is worried that users’ data could be obtained by the Chinese government and used to build detailed dossiers on individuals for blackmail or espionage.

…The security hole is widely known, if seldom used, [cofounder of AppCensus, Joel] Reardon said. He filed a formal bug report about the issue with Google last June after discovering the latest version of Android still didn’t close the loophole. “I was shocked that it was still exploitable,” he said.

Mr. Reardon’s report was about the loophole in general, not specific to TikTok. He said that when he filed his bug report, the company told him it already had a similar report on file. Google declined to comment.

TikTok collected MAC addresses for at least 15 months, ending with an update released Nov. 18 of last year, as ByteDance was falling under intense scrutiny in Washington, the Journal’s testing showed.


Blackmail? Via data on TikTok? Whaaaat?
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Trump advisers Mnuchin and Navarro fought over the fate of TikTok inside the Oval Office • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Jeff Stein and Jay Greene:


Last week, as leaders in Silicon Valley, China and Washington raced to seal the fate of one of the world’s fastest-growing social media companies, a shouting match broke out in the Oval Office between two of President Trump’s top advisers.

In front of Trump, trade adviser Peter Navarro and other aides late last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin began arguing that the Chinese-owned video-sharing service TikTok should be sold to a U.S. company. Mnuchin had talked several times to Microsoft’s senior leaders and was confident that he had rallied support within the administration for a sale to the tech giant on national security grounds.

Navarro pushed back, demanding an outright ban of TikTok, while accusing Mnuchin of being soft on China, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions freely. The treasury secretary appeared taken aback, they said.

The ensuing argument — which was described by one of the people as a “knockdown, drag-out” brawl — was preceded by months of backroom dealings among investors, lobbyists and executives. Many of these stakeholders long understood the critical nature of establishing close connections with key figures in the Trump administration.

But over the past few weeks, they also were reminded of the unpredictable and precarious nature of business dealings under a Trump-led government — and how the winner of a heated debate in front of the president could help decide the fate of a multibillion-dollar deal that may reshape the technology business landscape for years to come.


I doubt the Oval Office hasn’t heard some knock-down dragged-out rows before. The article is a long read (which could do with a lot of cutting down) but boils down to: Navarro, who has been wrong on pretty much everything, wanted TikTok banned; Mnuchin wanted it sold. Trump didn’t know. He just watched.
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Bosses started spying on remote workers. Now they’re fighting back • WIRED UK

Alex Christian:


As working from home has flourished, so too has employee monitoring software. Programs such as Time Doctor, ActivTrak, Teramind and the dystopian-sounding StaffCop have all seen huge upticks in demand. Remote teams are now watched through their webcams via always-on video services like Sneek. In the office-free world, bosses can now clandestinely scan screenshots, login times and keystrokes at will to ensure their workforce is keeping its focus and productivity.

But some remote workers are fighting back against the tide of company scrutiny. “My employer sent me a laptop running with all their corporate spyware on it,” says one Florida-based programmer. “Right next to it is my own computer for all my personal stuff. Can they detect when I haven’t touched the laptop for an hour? Possibly. But I’m not being paid by the hour.”

Methods of avoiding employers’ prying eyes range from the sublime to the ridiculous. With surveillance software hard to evade (employers will likely notice if it’s been switched off), the tech-minded are downloading virtual machines. That means they can ring-fence offending programs – and their work – from the rest of their computer. “If you have a hefty enough PC, you can work in one window and game in another without them ever knowing,” explains the programmer.

Anti-surveillance software is experiencing a boom, too: Presence Scheduler, which can set your Slack status as permanently active, doubled in sales and traffic in the first two months of lockdown – until Slack clamped down and closed the coding loophole. “I believe my site caused the policy changes,” says developer Wesley Henshall. “But there was a further spike in interest once I emailed users that we’d adapted to the changes.”


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QAnon groups have millions of members on Facebook, documents show • NBC News

Ari Sen and Brandy Zadrozny:


An internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to internal company documents reviewed by NBC News.

The investigation’s preliminary results, which were provided to NBC News by a Facebook employee, shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on Facebook, a scale previously undisclosed by Facebook and unreported by the news media, because most of the groups are private.

The top 10 groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. It is not clear how much overlap there is among the groups.

The investigation will likely inform what, if any, action Facebook decides to take against its QAnon community, according to the documents and two current Facebook employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The company is considering an option similar to its handling of anti-vaccination content, which is to reject advertising and exclude QAnon groups and pages from search results and recommendations, an action that would reduce the community’s visibility.


Given the support by a number of wingnut Republicans for this particular strain of idiocy, how long before we get a report about Joel Kaplan interfering in any move to restrain this bunch?



There are tens of millions of active groups, a Facebook spokesperson told NBC News in 2019, a number that has probably grown since the company began serving up group posts in users’ main feeds.


Facebook’s News Feed: one of the most effective recruiting mechanisms that extremist groups of all sorts have ever discovered.
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News+ privacy on Big Sur • Lapcat Software

Jeff Johnson looked into claims that Apple’s paid-for News Plus subscription service is somehow calling Apple when you click on a link in Safari (or some other apps) to see whether to open it in Safari, or News Plus (terrible name):


From a privacy perspective, it would be very disturbing if Apple’s operating system were “phoning home” to Cupertino when you opened a URL to a non-Apple web site. Fortunately, this is not the case, at least on macOS Big Sur. (I haven’t installed or tested the iOS 14 beta, but I would assume it behaves the same as Big Sur in this respect.) This is easy to test yourself, if you think about it. Today I signed up for a free 1 month trial of Apple News+ (note to self: cancel in 4 weeks). Then I got the URL of an article from The Wall Street Journal, a publisher who participates in News+. I disconnected my internet by turning off my MacBook Pro’s Wi-Fi. Finally, I opened the Terminal app and entered the following command:

open ""

Sure enough, it opened the News app. Of course the article failed to open in News, since my internet was off, and then as a fallback the News app opened Safari, which failed to load the article for the same reason. As a further test, I also tried a fake, nonexistent article URL:

open ""

Same result, opens the News app! So I think we can say with confidence that Big Sur is checking an offline list of URL domains rather than checking online with Apple. Your privacy is still protected here.

For those who are interested in more technical details, it’s the LaunchServices framework, located on disk at /System/Library/Frameworks/CoreServices.framework/Frameworks/LaunchServices.framework, which determines which app should open any given URL.


Once again for those at the back: this only happens if you choose to sign up with News Plus AND you click on a link to something in that service in Apple’s NOT yet released OSs.
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New conversation settings, coming to a Tweet near you • Twitter blog


Here’s how it works. Before you Tweet, choose who can reply with three options: 1) everyone (standard Twitter, and the default setting), 2) only people you follow, or 3) only people you mention. Tweets with the latter two settings will be labeled and the reply icon will be grayed out for people who can’t reply. People who can’t reply will still be able to view, Retweet, Retweet with Comment, share, and like these Tweets.

Since we started testing this in May, people have used it to host interviews and panels, share what’s on their mind, and make announcements. We’ve learned a lot from usage, feedback interviews, and surveys. These settings help some people feel safer and could lead to more meaningful conversations, while still allowing people to see different points of view. Here’s more on what people shared with us. ⬇️
These settings help some people feel safer.

People tell us they feel more comfortable Tweeting and more protected from spam and abuse.

Problematic repliers aren’t finding another way – these settings prevented an average of three potentially abusive replies while only adding one potentially abusive Retweet with Comment. And, we didn’t see any uptick in unwanted Direct Messages.

People who face abuse find these settings helpful – those who have submitted abuse reports are 3x more likely to use these settings.

It’s a new method to block out noise – 60% of people who used this during the test didn’t use Mute or Block.

The change could lead to more meaningful conversations on Twitter.


Although it’s also a bit more mental load. Usually companies don’t try to increase the cognitive load associated with using their products.
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Sea life around Mauritius dying as Japanese ship oil spill spreads • Reuters

Duncan Miriri:


Mauritian volunteers fished dead eels from oily waters on Tuesday as they tried to clean up damage to the Indian Ocean island’s most pristine beaches after a Japanese bulk carrier leaked an estimated 1,000 tonnes of oil.

The ship, MV Wakashio, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, struck a coral reef on Mauritius’ southeast coast on July 25 and began leaking oil last week, raising fears of a major ecological crisis.

Activists told Reuters that dead eels were floating in the water and dead starfish were marked by the sticky black liquid. Crabs and seabirds are also dying.

“We don’t know what may happen further with the boat, it may crack more,” said clean up volunteer Yvan Luckhun.

The MV Wakashio is still holding some 2,000 tonnes of oil and it is expected to eventually break up, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said late on Monday, warning that the country must brace for the worst.

Tourism is a leading part of the Mauritius economy. The government, which declared an emergency on Friday due to the spill, is working with former colonial ruler France to try to remove the oil.


But the shipowners are liable, right? They have to pay some gigantic whack of a penalty, surely? Mauritius is such a beautiful place; this sort of damage can be repaired but there must be reparation.
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Qualcomm lobbies US to sell chips for Huawei 5G phones • WSJ

Asa Fitch and Kate O’Keeffe:


The American chip company Qualcomm is lobbying the Trump administration to roll back restrictions on the sale of advanced components to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, wading into the intensifying technology battle between the US and China.

Qualcomm is telling US policy makers their export ban won’t stop Huawei from obtaining necessary components and just risks handing billions of dollars of Huawei sales to the US firm’s overseas competitors, according to a presentation reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that the San Diego-based company has been circulating around Washington.

Qualcomm is lobbying to sell chips to Huawei that the Chinese company would include in its 5G phones, which use the new standard for superfast telecommunications. US chip makers need a license from the Commerce Department to ship many such components to Huawei after the federal government placed the company on an export blacklist and imposed other limits.

With those restrictions, the US has handed Qualcomm’s foreign competitors a market worth as much as $8bn annually, the company said in the presentation.


Those competitors mostly being Samsung and MediaTek of Taiwan.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1371: who will want a vaccine?, sells for $4.7bn, why Facebook hackers use Isis flags, Genoa rebridged, and more

Would breaking up “big tech” be as easy as this – and as unpredictable? CC-licensed photo by khalid KHALIL 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. Foofarah. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Would breaking up ‘big tech’ work? What would? • Benedict Evans


the UK’s competition authority, the CMA, analyses Google and Facebook’s dominant positions, and doesn’t focus on breaking them up. Instead, it proposes a long list of highly specific internal, mechanical interventions. For example:

• “The power to require Google to provide click and query data to third-party search engines to allow them to improve their search algorithms”

• “The power to restrict Google’s ability to secure default positions, to restrict the monetisation of default positions on devices [i.e. Apple selling the default search engine slot to Google] and to introduce choice screens”

• “ Facebook should offer a defined find contacts service to users of a third-party platform, but rival platforms should not be required to reciprocate”

There’s lots to argue about in specific proposals like this (including how much of it will be enacted), but that’s not really the point – rather, one should ask which problems you can resolve by splitting the company apart, or by fining people, and which by getting right inside the operations and writing rules. As I pointed out [in a previous post], we didn’t make cars safer by breaking up GM or Ford, but by writing rules about how you can make a car.


The problem of lawmaking moving too slowly to deal with the speed at which technology changes is well known. The examples all date back decades.
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When a vaccine arrives, people will ignore the anti-vaxxers • The Atlantic

Yascha Mounk:


the risks posed by the coronavirus are very much on the mind of most Americans. Far from being a virtually extinct disease whose dangers are only chronicled in medical textbooks, COVID-19 has seriously sickened or killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the past few months.

All these reasons help explain why the experts I consulted are optimistic that most Americans will ultimately choose to immunize themselves. As Beyrer, the Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University, told me, “The whole country, and the whole world, is invested in getting a vaccine.”

Polio, rather than measles, may be the best historical precedent for predicting what will happen once a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available. “Older Americans still have a memory” of polio, Beyrer said. “The vaccine allowed them to go back to having a childhood, and not having to be afraid of mixing with other children.” In that sense, the immense suffering of the past few months may offer a bitterly ironic silver lining, he said: “This disease has touched almost everyone. Tragically, that is a reason why there will be a very different take-up to this vaccine.”

But will enough people get it? What happens if, as the CBS poll suggests, one in five Americans refuses to cooperate?


I really think that poll isn’t going to reflect what people will do. And measles vaccination rates are actually very high (via CDC data), even if they dip low in a very few, very localised areas.
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How pro-Trump forces work the refs in Silicon Valley • The New York Times

Ben Smith:


One of the oddest moments during last month’s tech hearings on Capitol Hill came when a Florida congressman darkly hinted that Google was making it difficult for him to find a website he was looking for, The Gateway Pundit.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, wearing a dark suit and the forced solemnity of an undertaker, promised the congressman he’d look into the issue.

Mr. Pichai could have said something else: that Google doesn’t showcase links to Gateway Pundit because the site is notorious for regularly crossing the line from wild hyperpartisan spin into outright falsehoods, from a phony sexual assault allegation against Robert Mueller to a recent report amplifying false claims that Anthony Fauci is “due to make millions” on a coronavirus vaccine. Mr. Pichai could have said that he wouldn’t let nitwits lobby him to pollute Google with lies.

But while it was a quintessentially 2020 exchange, the gripe voiced by Representative Greg Steube was also a classic example of a politician “working the refs” — that is, complaining vocally about a referee’s decision in the hopes of getting a better call next time. It’s a tactic the Trump movement has revived and deftly employed against the powerful, befuddled new referees of public debate, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve been thinking about conservatives’ long and persistent campaign to influence the referees since the historian Rick Perlstein emailed me recently to offer me a scoop, if a somewhat dusty one.


Ah, Gateway Pundit, home of Jim Hoft, aka “the stupidest man on the internet”. The trouble is, this purposeful disinformation distorts politics calamitously.
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Blackstone to acquire for $4.7bn • Reuters

Chibuike Oguh:


Blackstone Group said on Wednesday it agreed to acquire genealogy provider Inc from private equity rivals for $4.7bn, including debt, placing a big bet on family-tree chasing as well as personalized medicine. is the world’s largest provider of DNA services, allowing customers to trace their genealogy and identify genetic health risks with tests sent to their home.

Blackstone is hoping that more consumers staying at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic will turn to for its services.

“We believe Ancestry has significant runway for further growth as people of all ages and backgrounds become increasingly interested in learning more about their family histories and themselves,” David Kestnbaum, a Blackstone senior managing director, said in a statement.

… has more than 3 million paying customers in about 30 countries, and earns more than $1bn in annual revenue. Launched in 1996 as a family history website, it harnessed advances in DNA testing and mobile phone apps in the following two decades to expand its offerings.


Not sure how happy I’d feel if my DNA (or my relatives’) were on there.
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China is now blocking all encrypted HTTPS traffic that uses TLS 1.3 and ESNI • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


The Chinese government has deployed an update to its national censorship tool, known as the Great Firewall (GFW), to block encrypted HTTPS connections that are being set up using modern, interception-proof protocols and technologies.

The ban has been in place for at least a week, since the end of July, according to a joint report published this week by three organizations tracking Chinese censorship – iYouPort, the University of Maryland, and the Great Firewall Report.

Through the new GFW update, Chinese officials are only targeting HTTPS traffic that is being set up with new technologies like TLS 1.3 and ESNI (Encrypted Server Name Indication).

Other HTTPS traffic is still allowed through the Great Firewall, if it uses older versions of the same protocols – such as TLS 1.1 or 1.2, or SNI (Server Name Indication).

For HTTPS connections set up via these older protocols, Chinese censors can infer to what domain a user is trying to connect. This is done by looking at the (plaintext) SNI field in the early stages of an HTTPS connections.

…ZDNet also confirmed the report’s findings with two additional sources – namely members of a US telecommunications provider and an internet exchange point (IXP) – using instructions provided in this mailing list.


Wonder whether those who are trying to connect from China know that this is now in place, and when they can be traced.
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Facebook hackers use ISIS propaganda to target ABC host Julia Baird • News Australia

Jack Gramenz:


Over the weekend, ABC host and Nine newspaper columnist Julia Baird had her Facebook account compromised, which the hackers then edited to feature the flag of the Islamic State terrorist group as its profile picture and background.

This is apparently not the first time this has happened.

Melbourne pilot Jake Barden told Nine News last month the same thing had happened to him. “It was quite creepy. I was starting to get worried but I thought it has to be a hack, someone is hacking in to my account,” he said after noticing his profile had also been changed to the ISIS flag.

His Facebook account and his linked Instagram account then disappeared after the hackers violated the social media platform’s community standards. Similar to Ms Baird’s case, the hackers soon turned their attention to the aviation business where Mr Barden worked, using his compromised account to delete all the other administrators before purchasing a few hundred dollars worth of Facebook ads for an Asian clothing company.

In October last year Nine also reported a Gold Coast woman who conducted her business using the Instagram platform Facebook owns lost access in a similar attack, which netted the hackers a similarly paltry sum of a little over $400. Mr Stewart said he had a client in a similar boat. “Someone has hacked their personal Facebook and uploaded the ISIS flag to their profile photo and background, which has then triggered Facebook to deactivate the account,” he said.

“That seems to be the M.O. of the hackers, I have no idea what the ultimate goal is but the consequences are really real.”


Simple MO: find a linked personal account able to run ads, get in, get it disabled for “terror”, hoik over to the corporate site, bin the other admins, buy ads. Ultimate goal: get Facebook ads for free.
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Weeknotes 039 • Dan Catt

The Reverend notes:


I have a theory that the engineers in Silicon Valley are ageing at the same rate as me (no surprise there) and in a life-stage staggered a few years behind my own, as features get put into products roughly 4-5 years after I need them. The theory is that they are discovering the same need I had—case in point…

With things like Kindle or Spotify it started with; here is your account, buy books listen to music. But at some point, I wanted to purchase books for the kids so they could read them, and let them discover music for themselves. So we all logged into the same account, which was a pain in the ass.

Sometime later, we started to get family sharing features. And I’m assuming that’s because the engineers had begun having their own kids and were running into the same problems I was having.

The problem I now have is how to migrate family members as they grow up, my eldest Modesty turned 18 earlier this year. At some point we’ll need to remove her from the “family” because she’ll a) want to do her own thing, and b) may well start her own family.

Things are generally orientated around, “you’re kids are starting to read, and you don’t want your library clogged up with YA novels” or some such, and adding young kids to the family account.

I’m going to have to wait another five years for those Valley engineers to get to the point where their kids are growing up and leaving home to get workable, what I’m calling “flying the nest migration”, systems, removing old kids from the family account.


I worked with Dan at The Guardian, on and off. Always a source of wisdom and humour. And he’s absolutely right – how does one handle the problem of children growing up beyond the Family account so they can retain their apps yet have their independence?
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How Covid-19 signals the end of the American era • Rolling Stone

Wade Davis in excoriating form:


For many years, those on the conservative right in the United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color. In truth, at least in economic terms, the country of the 1950s resembled Denmark as much as the America of today. Marginal tax rates for the wealthy were 90 percent. The salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees.

Today, the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400 times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more in stock options and perks. The elite one% of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. The three richest Americans have more money than the poorest 160 million of their countrymen. Fully a fifth of American households have zero or negative net worth, a figure that rises to 37% for black families. The median wealth of black households is a tenth that of whites. The vast majority of Americans — white, black, and brown — are two paychecks removed from bankruptcy. Though living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall.

With the COVID crisis, 40 million Americans lost their jobs, and 3.3 million businesses shut down, including 41% of all black-owned enterprises. Black Americans, who significantly outnumber whites in federal prisons despite being but 13% of the population, are suffering shockingly high rates of morbidity and mortality, dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. The cardinal rule of American social policy — don’t let any ethnic group get below the blacks, or allow anyone to suffer more indignities — rang true even in a pandemic, as if the virus was taking its cues from American history.


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New Genoa bridge inauguration is bittersweet • The New York Times

Gaia Pianigiani:


Since the dramatic and deadly collapse of the Morandi bridge over the Italian port of Genoa two years ago, builders have worked around the clock, through a judicial investigation and the coronavirus pandemic, so a new bridge could open on time.

Designed by a native son of the city, the architect Renzo Piano, and built in a record 15 months, the new Genoa San Giorgio bridge, whose inauguration is Monday, has become a matter of pride for Genoa and all of Italy, a symbol of their can-do spirit.

Yet residents and business owners say the accomplishment will hardly cure the pains of the city, which was shrinking — economically, demographically and culturally — even before the collapse, which killed 43 people on Aug. 14, 2018.

The loss of one of the city’s main arteries and its fastest east-west connection compounded all those problems, devastating businesses and paralyzing life. Today many in Genoa are still suffering and lament that the new bridge will not be enough to overcome the absence of a broad, long-term vision to revive their city.
Though the government and the company that manages the bridge, Autostrade per l’Italia, or Highways for Italy, gave aid to dozens of businesses in the area to help them stay afloat, many had to relocate or remained cut off from the rest of Genoa.


The bridge is a kilometre long, and all of the original was demolished. Although the reason that it had to be built is hardly good – the collapse came after signs of serious deterioration were overlooked – the fact that the whole thing was built at such speed gives the lie to any griping about Italian productivity. (And through the pandemic, too.) Puts Trump’s never-fulfilled trillion-dollar infrastructure plan (promised on his campaign in 2016, in 2017, again in 2018, and 2019, and just for luck once more in 2020) into perspective.
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No, China didn’t ban time travel movies • Uproxx

Caleb Reading:


Recently a story circulated including a rough translation of a ruling by China’s General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television saying that movies and TV programs based on time travel or on the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature should not “be encouraged anymore”. The part about time travel was mistranslated, however. China hasn’t banned time travel movies. In fairness, they’re just getting the Ashton Kutcher magnum opus Butterfly Effect over there, so even if this were a correct translation we would understand.

The true purpose of the ruling seems to be to discourage the misrepresentation of historical figures in films and TV shows, including in time travel movies. As for limiting the adaptation of the Four Great Classical Novels, that may be out of respect (no crappy adaptations of revered source material) or, more likely, it’s about controlling dissent: adaptations of the Novels are often used to subversively criticize those in power. Hopefully this won’t affect Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Journey To The West.


Turns out that the article yesterday, and this one, are from 2011. (I missed that.) But what if they were put there by time-travellers? Meanwhile, Journey To The West seems to have vanished into one of Hollywood’s black holes. (Thanks Seth for pointing it out.)
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dorking, or “how to find anything on the Internet” – FYI

Alec Barrett-Wilsdon:


Software engineers have long joked about how much of their job is simply Googling things.

Now you can do the same, but for free.

Below, I’ll cover dorking, the use of search engines to find very specific data:

For each example, you can paste it directly into Google to see the result.

table of contents:

• webpages
• emails
• files
• coupons!
• secrets
• operator review


These are all useful and the page is definitely worth bookmarking. They work on non-Google search engines too, because those use the same operators.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: see the item on China and time travel.