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.

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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.

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

  1. The light rail project being built across from my house is now 2.5 years behind schedule, was supposed to cost $2 billion, and is now $750 million over budget (so the contractors have pulled out and the state is suing them and used a judge to keep the contractors working). It’s supposed to be finished in 2022, but we’re assuming we’ll be lucky by 2029 at this rate (plus no one wanted it except developers, and now probably the lawyers making a lot of money from this). Sort of amazing they used to be able to build a ship in 4.5 days.

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