Start Up No.1440: Facebook readies limited Libra, Twitter aims for safety, the PC malaise era?, the monolith vanishes, Cummings’s error, and more

Road potholes are a constant source of annoyance – and government funding – in the UK. CC-licensed photo by Darren Moloney 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. Every one counted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a young, queer Asian-American businesswoman is rethinking user safety at Twitter • Protocol

Anna Kramer:


No matter how many times you monitor, report and moderate harmful posts, the reactionary model does little to reverse the damage that’s already been done to the people targeted or to prevent it from happening again, [new head of product for conversational safety at Twitter, Christine] Su said. So instead of putting the spotlight just on the posts causing harm, new functions coming from her team will be all about user control, she explained, giving people a wide range of capabilities to react to situations on the platform. “The point is not to make the entire world a safe space: That’s not possible. The point is to empower people and communities to have the tools to heal harm themselves and to prevent harm to themselves and put them in control,” Su said.

The product team gave some clues about what that user control could look like when they described the upcoming audio hangout function, Spaces, in a press call last week. Spaces will allow users to determine who is allowed in the audio room and who can speak, and the team is rolling out the function to women and people from other marginalized communities first, to test out how effective these safety functions can be in practice.

Su also cited recent election-related interventions as examples of how reimagining Twitter in the long term could work; for example, the function that encourages people to read content before reposting it has remained in place for now while the team assesses its long-term value. “You’ve seen over the last year, a willingness of Twitter to rethink its fundamental mechanisms,” she said.

For Su, implementing transformative justice means building tools that create private pathways for apologies, forgiveness and deescalation (somehow, we’ll get apologies before we get an edit button). While she didn’t describe exactly how private apology tools will work just yet, they are intended to become part of “a set of controls that people can take with them around digital spaces, and be able to use them when and if circumstances warrant,” she said.


Sounds like quite a weird network that Twitter is going to mutate into.
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Facebook’s Libra currency to launch next year in limited format • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:


The long-awaited Facebook-led digital currency Libra is preparing to launch as early as January, according to three people involved in the initiative, but in an even more limited format than its already downgraded vision.

The 27-strong Libra Association said in April that it had planned to launch digital versions of several currencies, plus a “digital composite” of all of its coins. This followed concerns from regulators over its initial plan to create one synthetic coin backed by a basket of currencies.

However, the association would now initially just launch a single coin backed one-for-one by the dollar, one of the people said. The other currencies and the composite would be rolled out at a later point, the person added.

Libra’s exact launch date would depend on when the project receives approval to operate as a payments service from the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, but could come as early as January, the three people said. Finma said it would not comment on Libra’s application, which was initiated in May. 

First launched in June 2019, the scaling down of Libra’s vision comes as it has received a sceptical reception from global regulators, who have warned that it could threaten monetary stability and become a hotbed for money laundering.


Still feel this is dangerous, and that Facebook doesn’t understand quite how dangerous. As it didn’t understand how dangerous using its algorithm to encourage people into Groups would be, or its cultural ignorance about what would work and not work in different countries.
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Welcome to the PC Malaise Era •

Wes Miller reckons that PCs (Windows ones) are in the same rut that American cars were in 1973-1983, known as the “Malaise Era“:


I’ve said before that Windows has never escaped x86. I’m still not sure if it ever can. So the challenges then come down to three things:

A) Can Intel succeed where they’ve failed for the last 5+ years, at building hybrid processors? The next year to two years should answer this question.

B) Can Microsoft succeed at finally getting application developers to write platform-optimized, energy-respectful, halo applications for the PC? I’ve been writing about the Windows Store for a long, long time. A long time. And I’m still not sure how Microsoft can light a fire under Windows application developers when they’ve lost that mindshare.

C) Can Microsoft begin pushing the Surface platform forward again? This one’s completely up to Microsoft. I’ve seen the rumors of the next Surface Pro… and it’s more of the same – evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I guess we will see in the next 3-5 years whether Intel can cross this chasm; if they can’t, then the future likely belongs to ARM, and that future will likely mean less and less to Microsoft, outside of running classic Win32 applications on x64/x86 Windows.


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Meet the Censored: Andre Damon • TK News by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi:


Like many alternative news sites, WSWS [the World Socialist Web Site] noticed a steep decline in traffic in 2016-2017, after Donald Trump was elected and we began to hear calls for more regulation of “fake news.” Determined to search out the reason, the site conducted a series of analyses that proved crucial in helping convince outlets like the New York Times to cover the issue. In its open letter to Google, the WSWS described inexplicable changes to search results in their political bailiwick:


Google searches for “Leon Trotsky” yielded 5,893 impressions (appearances of the WSWS in search results) in May of this year. In July, the same search yielded exactly zero impressions for the WSWS, which is the Internet publication of the international movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938.


The WSWS connected the change to Project Owl, a plan announced by Google in April of 2017 designed to “surface more authoritative content.” When I called Google about a year later for a story on a related subject, they explained the concept of “authority” as an exercise in weighting some credentials over others. So, I was told, an old search for “baseball” might first return a page for your local little league, while a new one would send you to the site for Major League Baseball.

The rub was that Google was now pushing viewers away from alternative sources, such that an article in the New York Times about Trotskyism might be ranked ahead of the world’s leading Trotskyite media organ. Queries had to be right on the nose to call up a whole host of alternative sites, all of which had seen sharp drops in their Google search results.

The WSWS listed many of them: Alternet down 63%, Common Dreams down 37%, Democracy Now! down 36%, , down 25%, etc. Even Wikileaks, in the middle of an international furor over Russiagate, was down 30%.


So Taibbi contacted Andre Damon, who runs WSWS:


TK: When did the WSWS first become interested in the issue of platform censorship, content moderation, or whatever you want to call it? Actually, what do you call it? Is what’s going on with increased content moderation a first amendment/free speech issue?

Damon: It’s censorship, and it absolutely is a First Amendment issue.


Oh good grief. It isn’t censorship (Google isn’t changing what’s on the site, or telling it what to put on the site), and it’s absolutely not a First Amendment issue (the decisions are not made by the government). For the average person, the most relevant, useful, informative site about Trotsky is almost certainly not going to be the WSWS. Failing to understand the principles on which search engines work is like not understanding electricity. (Thanks, Seth, for the link.)
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Visitors track down mystery desert monolith in Utah • The Guardian

Miranda Bryant:


Around 48 hours after news of their finding was made public, pictures appeared on Instagram of people who had managed to find it.

Among them was David Surber, 33, a former US army infantry officer, who drove for six hours through the night to find it after spotting a Reddit post purporting to have found its coordinates.

“Awesome journey out to the monolith today,” he wrote on Instagram, where he also shared its location. “Regardless of who built it or where it came from. It was a positive escape from today’s world. Some for many people to rally behind and enjoy together.”

He said he was alone with the structure, which he described as formed of aluminium and formed of “three pieces riveted together”, for about 10 minutes before others arrived.

“Overall not too crowded you all want to make the journey,” he wrote.

Tim Slane, who shared the coordinates on Reddit, said he worked them out by tracking the flight path of the helicopter.

It is not known what the origins of the object, estimated by Bret Hutchings, the helicopter pilot who discovered it, to be between 10ft and 12ft high (about three metres), are.

But it has been compared to the work of several minimalist sculptors, including the late John McCracken.

A spokesperson for his gallerist, David Zwirner, told the Guardian earlier this week it was not one of McCracken’s works, saying they believed it could be “a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken”.


And now it has disappeared. Unclear whether it was stolen, or reclaimed. Or, you know, returned to its previous time/space coordinates. We all expect them to look like blue police boxes, but why should they?
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Microsoft’s ‘Project Latte’ aims to bring Android apps to Windows 10 • Windows Central

Zac Bowden:


Microsoft is working on a software solution that would allow app developers to bring their Android apps to Windows 10 with little to no code changes by packaging them as an MSIX and allowing developers to submit them to the Microsoft Store. According to sources familiar with the matter, the project is codenamed ‘Latte’ and I’m told it could show up as soon as next year.

The company has toyed with the idea of bringing Android apps to Windows 10 before via a project codenamed Astoria that never saw the light of day. Project Latte aims to deliver a similar product, and is likely powered by the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL.) Microsoft will need to provide its own Android subsystem for Android apps to actually run, however.

Microsoft has announced that WSL will soon get support for GUI Linux applications, as well as GPU acceleration which should aid the performance of apps running through WSL.


Well, it sounds like it might be tricky, and there’s always the question of how you handle touch because a mouse is so much more precise. I wonder if there are any other gotchas that people might have to think about?


It’s unlikely that Project Latte will include support for Play Services, as Google doesn’t allow Play Services to be installed on anything other than native Android devices and Chrome OS. This means that apps which require Play Services APIs will need to be updated to remove those dependencies before they can be submitted on Windows 10.


Oh well, they tried. Nobody’s going to bother to recompile like that; it would make a lot more sense to build a progressive web app (PWA).

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Britain’s big pothole problem • The Economist


Potholes arouse passions in Britain—not surprisingly, since the country’s road quality ranks 37th in the world, between Slovenia and Lithuania. Councils received 700,000 complaints about potholes last year, says the Federation of Small Businesses. The weather, a topic even more popular among the natives than potholes, is mostly to blame. Potholes form when water seeps under the road surface, breaking the tarmac as it expands and contracts. Budget cuts in the wake of the financial crisis did not help. The Local Government Association (lga) says road maintenance budgets fell from £1.1bn in 2009 to £701m in 2017—the equivalent of 8m potholes. The Asphalt Industry Alliance claims there is a road-repair backlog of £11bn.

But there may be relief in sight for the suspension of the British motor car. Politics is one reason. Traditional Tories—who love cars, particularly fast ones, and tend to live in the countryside, so rely on roads—are particularly infuriated by them. Northern “red wall” seats that the Tories won from Labour in the last election tend to be rural places where the roads are bumpier and the weather worse. Nottinghamshire, home to several of those contested seats, is Britain’s pothole capital, with 253,920 reported in 2017-19. Hence the promise in the Tory manifesto of the “biggest-ever pothole-filling programme”, and a promise of £2.5bn over five years.

Covid is also fuelling the drive against potholes. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, needs shovel-ready spending opportunities to justify his claim in the spending review on November 25th that “we’re prioritising jobs”. Potholes are ready and waiting for those shovels—hence his commitment that £1.7bn would be spent this year.


I seem to recall John Major’s government (in 1992-7) promising to do lots on potholes, as did the May government in 2016. It’s a periodic excitment for Tory governments. I’d love to see a graph showing how the number of potholes has changed over time, and compared to the governments in power. Fixing them is actually in the power of local councils (which also keep the numbers; there isn’t a central figure for the number of potholes), but it’s government funding that makes it happen.
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Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge • Politics Home

Sam Freedman worked at the Dept for Education, and got used to the “all caps and punctuation-free email rants to various officials” dubbed “Domograms”:


The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.

There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.

The truly baffling thing about Cummings’ worldview is the refusal to see the contradiction between his technocratic utopia of expert scientists driving paradigmatic change and his own rock-solid conviction that whatever policies he happens to support right now must be implemented at maximum speed.

For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.


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Things I recommend you buy, 2020 edition • Consumer Surplus

Sam Bowman:


Here is a list of products that I get a lot of consumer surplus from. I recommend any and all of these. The list spans cooking and kitchen equipment, through “work from home” products (a new 2020 category), to things I use when I go travelling (in normal times, I travel quite often for both work and pleasure). I usually do a lot of research before making any big purchase and I return things to Amazon that I don’t like, so I think I am a fairly reliable source.

This is the third edition of my “Things I recommend you buy” series, and is comprehensive – anything from old editions that is not included is no longer recommended.


You’ll probably find you’ve got lots of them, though the knife-sharpening stuff could be good (nothing more annoying than a blunt kitchen knife). You might find an idea for a Christmas present or two. (Note to male readers: don’t buy anything for the kitchen for the other half.)
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New UK tech regulator to limit power of Google and Facebook • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


A new tech regulator will work to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other tech platforms, the government has announced, in an effort to ensure a level playing field for smaller competitors and a fair market for consumers.

Under the plans, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will gain a dedicated Digital Markets Unit, empowered to write and enforce a new code of practice on technology companies which will set out the limits of acceptable behaviour.

The code will only affect those companies deemed to have “strategic market status”, though it has not yet been decided what that means, nor what restrictions will be imposed.

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said: “Digital platforms like Google and Facebook make a significant contribution to our economy and play a massive role in our day-to-day lives – whether it’s helping us stay in touch with our loved ones, share creative content or access the latest news.

“But the dominance of just a few big tech companies is leading to less innovation, higher advertising prices and less choice and control for consumers. Our new, pro-competition regime for digital markets will ensure consumers have choice, and mean smaller firms aren’t pushed out.”


Great ideas, and the CMA effectively has the powers to impose them by diktat; they’re many of the things that the US antitrust suit against Google is trying to make happen, but with far less justification given its antitrust frameworks.

In passing, the business secretary Alok Sharma sure does have a weird resemblance to a younger Martin Sorrell.
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Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismisses request from Mike Kelly and Sean Parnell to declare mail-in voting unconstitutional in state, deny results from 2020 election mail-in ballots • CBS Pittsburgh


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dismissed the lawsuit from Congressman Mike Kelly and congressional candidate Sean Parnell to declare universal mail-in voting unconstitutional in the state and deny the votes of the majority of Pennsylvanians who voted by mail in the Nov. 3 election.

The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, threw out the three-day-old order, saying the underlying lawsuit was filed months after the law allowed for challenges to Pennsylvania’s expansive year-old mail-in voting law.

The state’s attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, called the court’s decision “another win for Democracy.”

The week-old lawsuit, led by U.S. Rep. Kelly of Butler, had challenged the state’s mail-in voting law as unconstitutional.

As a remedy, Kelly and the other Republican plaintiffs had sought to either throw out the 2.5 million mail-in ballots submitted under the law — most of them by Democrats — or to wipe out the election results and direct the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to pick Pennsylvania’s presidential electors.


Getting near to losing count, but I think this makes almost 40 lawsuits that the Trump campaign (or grifty associates) has lost in court.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1439: MPs call for right to repair, the perfect way to smarten your home, Parallels plans for Windows on M1 Macs, and more

A crime writer would point out that this shows two potential murder weapons, not one. CC-licensed photo by Ted Kerwin 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 10 links for you. Black! Blaaaack! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon and Apple ‘not playing their part’ in tackling electronic waste • The Guardian

Sandra Laville:


Global giants such as Amazon and Apple should be made responsible for helping to collect, recycle and repair their products to cut the 155,000 tonnes of electronic waste being thrown away each year in the UK, MPs say.

An investigation by the environmental audit committee found the UK is lagging behind other countries and failing to create a circular economy in electronic waste. The UK creates the second highest levels of electronic waste in the world, after Norway. But MPs said the UK was not collecting and treating much of this waste properly.

“A lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility,” the MPs wrote.

About 40% of the UK’s e-waste is sent abroad, according to estimates – something the MPs point out is often done illegally.

The tsunami of electronic waste was throwing away valuable resources vital to a sustainable future, the report published on Thursday said.

Globally, thrown-away computers, smartphones, tablets and other electronic waste have a potential value of $62.5bn each year from the precious metals they contain, including gold, silver, copper, platinum and other critical raw materials such as tungsten and indium.


They say there should be a “right to repair” and lower VAT for repairs enshrined in law, plus producers obliged to collect and recycle used items. Makes sense, though some items are going to be much, much harder to repair by anyone than others.
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Parallels Desktop for Mac with Apple M1 chip • Parallels Blog

Nick Dobrovolskiy is SVP of engineering:


When Apple Silicon Mac was first announced during the keynote at WWDC on June 22 of this year, Apple demoed a Parallels Desktop for Mac prototype running a Linux virtual machine flawlessly on Apple Silicon. Since WWDC, our new version of Parallels Desktop which runs on Mac with Apple M1 chip has made tremendous progress. We switched Parallels Desktop to universal binary and optimized its virtualization code; and the version that we are eager to try on these new MacBook Air, Mac mini and MacBook Pro 13″ looks very promising. Parallels is also amazed by the news from Microsoft about adding support of x64 applications in Windows on ARM.


Being “amazed” by Microsoft doesn’t sound like a good thing for a company that makes its money from being able to run Windows?
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IoT Unravelled Part 4: making it all work for humans • Troy Hunt

Hunt is better known for his HaveIBeenPwned database, but he’s very into IoT too:


My parents aren’t as tech orientated as me and whilst the idea of a connected home appeals greatly to me personally, I doubt they share quite the same level of excitement. That’s fine, I’m not expecting them to geek out at my YAML or get giddy about my Zigbee, but I do want them to be able to use my house.

Light switches are a perfect example of where connected home UX can go down the toilet. My parents are great with light switches, in fact, they have a lot more experience with them than I do. They’re very familiar with the simple premise of flicking a switch to turn a light on and indeed, flicking it again to turn it off. Problem is though, connected lights can create a bit of a conundrum here.

Those lights [in an accompanying tweet] are Atom WiZ Connected RGB LEDs and they talk directly to the Wi-Fi network. They need power to do that and the point Adam is making is that if the light switch on the wall is turned off and the connected light no longer has power, how can you control it digitally? I mean what if you turn it off at the wall then try to ask Alexa to turn it back on? It won’t work as the light is now offline. The workarounds people create for this are, to my mind, sub-optimal.

[Picture of lights with transparent covers over them to stop people turning them off when they need to be “on” all the time to connect to the network.]

If I bring this back to the parents test, how do my mum and dad use these switches? Clearly, they can’t because that’s the whole purpose of the covers, so how do they turn the lights on? I’m not sure how Iain does it, maybe by voice, maybe by motion, maybe by something else altogether. All I know is that from a UX perspective, switch covers are unquestionably an anti-pattern.


His solution is a bit dramatic – Wi-Fi controlled relays! – but certainly avoids the anti-patterns that you inevitably run into with smart homes.
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Daily COVID-19 data is about to get weird • The COVID Tracking Project

Erin Kissane:


Based on what we’ve seen over the last eight months of state-reported COVID-19 data, we think two big, potentially misleading things are about to happen to the testing, case, and death numbers that allow us to track the pandemic in the United States.

First, by Thanksgiving Day and perhaps as early as Wednesday, all three metrics will flatten out or drop, probably for several days. This decrease will make it look like things are getting better at the national level. Then, in the week following the holiday, our test, case, and death numbers will spike, which will look like a confirmation that Thanksgiving is causing outbreaks to worsen. But neither of these expected movements in the data will necessarily mean anything about the state of the pandemic itself. Holidays, like weekends, cause testing and reporting to go down and then, a few days later, to “catch up.” So the data we see early next week will reflect not only actual increases in cases, test, and deaths, but also the potentially very large backlog from the holiday.


So the fall will be misleading, and the rise will be misleading. But a couple of weeks from now will reveal the truth.
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Your move, iPad • Becky Hansmeyer


It’s clear that Apple wants the iPad Pro to be a device that a wide variety of professionals can use to get work done. And since so many people use web apps for their work, the introduction of “desktop” Safari for iPad was an important step toward that goal. The Magic Keyboard and trackpad was another step.

Here are ten more steps I believe Apple could and should take to help nudge the iPad into this exciting next era of computing.

• Give the iPad Pro another port. Two USB 4.0 ports would be lovely.
• Adopt a landscape-first mindset. Rotate the Apple logo on the back and move the iPad’s front-facing camera on the side beneath the Apple Pencil charger to better reflect how most people actually use their iPad Pros.
• Introduce Gatekeeper and app notarization for iOS. The process of side-loading apps should not be as simple as downloading them from the App Store. Bury it in Settings, make it slightly convoluted, whatever: just have an officially-sanctioned way of doing it.
• Ruthlessly purge the App Store Guidelines of anything that prevents the iPad from serving as a development machine. Every kind of development from web to games should be possible on an iPad. And speaking of games—emulators should be allowed, too.
• Release a suite of professional first-party apps at premium prices. If someone can edit 4K videos in Final Cut on their M1 MacBook Air, they should be able to edit 4K videos in Final Cut on their iPad Pro. I refuse to believe that these pro apps can’t be re-imagined and optimized for a touch experience. If Apple leads the way in developing premium software for iPad, others will follow.
• Make it possible to write, release, and install plug-ins (if appropriate) for the aforementioned first party apps.
• Bring App Library to the iPad and allow widgets to be positioned anywhere on the Home Screen. This isn’t groundbreaking, it just annoys the heck out of me.
• Release a new keyboard + trackpad case accessory that allows the iPad to be used in tablet mode without removing it from the case.
• Introduce Time Machine backups for iPadOS.
• 5G, ofc.

In the end, fostering a vibrant community of iPad app developers can only stand to benefit the Mac (and vice-versa).


I’m not sure Apple would want to go this far. And I thought you could already edit 4K video on the iPad? Or at least, video. (Maybe it’s a storage thing?) Trouble is that touch is too inaccurate for such tasks; you need a mouse for the required precision. So much of what the iPad can’t do – or doesn’t do well – is about input precision, because that’s what high-end apps tend to be about.
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The most unusual murder weapons in crime fiction • CrimeReads

Lynne Truss (of Eats Shoots & Leaves fame):


How literal-minded should we be about the word “weapon”? Can I include the bell-pull in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”? The bell-pull itself is harmless enough, but—as we all remember—down it travels the trained Indian swamp adder that makes the victim die of fright in a locked room. If we are counting animals as weapons, the murder at the heart of Doyle’s great racing-stables story “Silver Blaze” is also pretty perfect, when it is revealed that the eponymous horse was itself responsible for striking the fatal blow on a wicked man attempting to nobble him. And I am of course reminded of Florida writer Carl Hiaasen’s delicious habit of letting nature take its own special (and often horrifying) revenge on bad guys. Ravenous Floridian alligators seem always to be circling with their mouths open—but it’s not only local fauna that chomp up villains. Lions and rhinos sometimes get a turn as well.

Researching for this piece, I’ve come across mentions of outlandish fictional murders committed by exploding cow (yes!), poison-tipped corkscrews, trick golf clubs, bullets fashioned from ice, and so on. But somehow these weapons don’t speak to me. On the one hand, they seem a bit over-elaborate, and on the other I would feel awful about revealing them without the author’s permission. Somewhere I stumbled on a reference to The Blissfully Dead by Louise Voss and Mark A. Edwards (2015), which suggested that the weapon making the cuts on the victims’ bodies would come as an interesting surprise to the reader, so last week I read it all the way through, only to find I had misunderstood this helpful pointer.


Yes, of course she covers the “frozen leg of lamb” one, much earlier. And she ranks those she found by oddness.
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The decarbonisation of the EU heating sector through electrification: a parametric analysis • ScienceDirect

A team from the European Commission Joint Research Centre:


we perform a complete description of the EU heating sector compliant with official statistics and decompose the EU power demand in different uses to define and assess different levels of heat electrification. We find that heat electrification is an effective decarbonisation option, which can reduce the total energy related emissions by up to 17%, if paired with simultaneous expansion of low-carbon energy.

Due to the relative sizes of heat and power demands, we find that most national power systems could cope with higher heat-electrification rates. Specifically, an additional heat pump capacity in the order of 1.1–1.6 TWth can be deployed based on the existing firm power capacity, which would correspond to a heat pump share of 29–45% in space heating. Based on their current power capacity, 12 Member States are prepared for even full electrification scenarios, whereas three Member States could get their power system stressed if 40–60% of all fossil-fuelled technologies are substituted.


In other words, gas and oil heating could be replaced with electric heating – though they’re careful to suggest it should be heat pumps (which are very efficient), rather than (if I’m reading it correctly) three-bar heaters.
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Hancock’s former neighbour won Covid test kit work after WhatsApp message • The Guardian

Felicity Lawrence:


An acquaintance and former neighbour of Matt Hancock is supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.

Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency home in Suffolk, said he initially offered his services to the UK health secretary several months ago by sending him a personal WhatsApp message.

Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was at that time producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. It is now supplying about 2m medical grade vials a week to the government via a distributor contracted by the NHS.

Bourne categorically denies he profited from his personal contact with Hancock. However, the case raises questions for the health secretary and is likely to reignite the row over alleged government cronyism during the pandemic.

Contacted last week by the Guardian, Bourne’s lawyers flatly denied that their client had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid-19 supplies.

However, on Monday, after being confronted with further details about his interactions with the health secretary, Bourne backtracked. In a phone call with the Guardian, he conceded that he has in fact exchanged text and email messages with Hancock over several months.


I think the word is “lied”. With Trump on the way out, perhaps now more attention will be paid to the cronyism happening in the UK.
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OpenStreetMap is having a moment: the billion dollar dataset next door • Medium

Joe Morrison on how Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are now among the biggest contributors to OSM, which started wayyy back in 2004:


I wrote earlier this year about the concept of “Commoditizing Your Complement,” in my explanation of why Facebook acquired Mapillary and then gave away all the data they had just purchased for free.

The concept is simple: undermine your competitors’ intellectual property advantage by collaborating with aligned entities to cheapen it with a free and openly licensed alternative.
I would wager that corporate participation in OSM is less about directly monetizing souped-up versions of OSM data provided as modern web services and more about desperately avoiding the existential conflict of having to pay Google for the privilege of accessing their proprietary map data.⁵

Whatever the motivations of these mega-corporations, they’ve succeeded in carving out a niche for themselves within the OSM community whether the hobbyists like it or not. I’d like to highlight a nuance often lost in this discussion — just exactly who are these companies hiring to add data to the map? They are often already-active, enthusiastic contributors to OSM. These are people living the open data fanatic’s dream: getting paid to do a job they find so fulfilling they would otherwise do it for free in their spare time.

… These firms have outgrown your office and your living room. They want to be with you literally every where you go, and constantly seduce you with entertaining and immersive experiences. The more of your attention they can monopolize, the more money they can make from selling chunks of it to advertisers and people developing software on their platforms.

Whether you like their motivations or not, the result is a desire to map the world in higher fidelity and at larger scale than even they can afford to accomplish independently. And that has, for better or worse, brought their interests into alignment with the grassroots OSM community.


Started off as a project which mapped London using GPS trackers on courier motorbikes. A Wikipedia for mapping.
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What would happen if computers never got any faster? • Terence Eden’s Blog

The aforesaid Eden:


My first computer was a BBC Micro. It could do basic graphics at a resolution of 640×256 – with 8 different colours. Not a typo. Eight! The mono speaker produced bleeps and bloops. It was basic, in all senses of the word.

Eventually, talented hackers found a way for it to do simplistic 3D graphics and even speech synthesis.
Recently, people have worked out a way to perform ray-tracing on it!

The next computer our house got was the Sega Megadrive. The first game that console saw was, I think, Alex Kidd. A basic 2D platformer. Sure, it was streets ahead of the Beeb, but the graphics weren’t amazing.

But, over the years, they got better. By the time the MegaDrive stopped getting new games in 1997, the graphics and audio available were utterly transformed. In eight years, we’d gone from a limited pallet 2D screen to stunning music, and liquid smooth 2D graphics with parallax and complex transformations.

Some enterprising hackers managed to get Wolfenstein 3D running on hardware which was originally intended for cheap side-scrollers. And nothing about the console had changed. The tools used to create games had improved. The maths and algorithms had leapt ahead. And the ingenuity of the designers had increased. But the physical hardware was identical.

Once you understand a system – deeply understand – it can do things that its designers never thought possible. You can push hardware beyond its apparent limits.

We’re so spoiled today. Every week a newer, faster processor is released. Hardware gets cheaper and we can just throw more chips at the problem.

What would the world be like if that wasn’t the case? What if our progress in computer speed suddenly came to a stop? I think history shows us that we would be able to work around the restrictions to do things which seem impossible.


I would say that that’s pretty much been the case for some years now. There’s little real difference between the Intel processors of a few years ago and now, as this Anandtech graph shows: Intel performance has improved by less than 50% over six years. (Apple’s A series chips, on the other hand, have improved performance threefold in less than five years, and show no signs of stopping.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1438: a glimpse inside real Facebook feeds, how old is Utah’s mystery obelisk?, suspicion over Amazon Sidewalk, and more

Gentlemen, the walrus has a bone you don’t. You may or may not feel envious when you know where. CC-licensed photo by Polar Cruises 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What Facebook fed the baby boomers • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel got permission to see the Facebook feed of two baby boomers:


I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda. Here’s a sample:
A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Trump group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. Tools like CrowdTangle, which track “engagements” with social media posts, are the best available means to understand what is popular on the platform, though Facebook (which owns the CrowdTangle) argues that CrowdTangle is not a reliable indicator for how many people saw a post.


The other was far more sensible. Now read on..
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How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:


I decided to approach the question in a different way — by peeking directly into people’s Facebook feeds. Between October 1 and 31, 2020, I surveyed the Facebook habits of, and got real News Feed samples from, 306 people aged 18 or older in the United States. I reached them using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, asking them to send me screenshots of the first 10 posts in their Facebook feeds. (I used the images for classification purposes only. No identifying information is referenced in this story.) After cleaning the data and removing entries that were submitted incorrectly, I had data from 173 people — a total sample of 1,730 Facebook posts. (See more in the methodology section at the bottom of this post. You can see my spreadsheet here.)

In doing this project, I built on Nieman Lab research from three years ago, conducted by my then-colleague Shan Wang, who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic. (We miss you, Shan!) At the time, Shan found that people saw surprisingly little news in their Facebook feeds. Three years later, in one of the craziest news months in U.S. history, my findings were similar: People saw surprisingly little news in their Facebook feeds. (I counted news both from publishers and from links shared by friends and family.)

More than half the people in our survey saw no news at all.

October — which kicked off with Donald Trump revealing that he and the First Lady had contracted coronavirus — was a nonstop news month in the most relentless news year in decades. If there were ever a month that you’d expect people to see a lot of news at the top of their Facebook feeds, it would be October 2020.

Nope. Even using a very generous definition of news (“Guy rollerblades with 75-pound dog on his back“), the majority of people in our survey (54%) saw no news within the first 10 posts in their feeds at all. In Shan’s 2017 survey, that figure was 50%.


Pays your money, takes your choice. Facebook argues that this is the difference between “engagement” (what people spend time on) and “reach” (what gets to people).
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You need to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk • Gizmodo

Victoria Songh:


Earlier today, I was one of many people who received an email from Amazon saying that Sidewalk’s launch was “coming to [my] Echo device later this year.” I knew what Sidewalk was, mainly because I’m a gadget reviewer and I recently wrote up the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. Still, the email bugged me. While Amazon was quick to give the general gist of what Sidewalk does, it didn’t spell out what security and privacy precautions Amazon was taking to make sure this secondary network wouldn’t be easily exploited. Instead, it was framed as me, an Echo owner, donating a “small portion” of my internet bandwidth to provide a service to my neighbors. Oh, and in a throwaway sentence near the end, the email said that Amazon Sidewalk would be enabled by default on all supported Echo and Ring devices linked to my account.

On Amazon’s Sidewalk FAQ, there’s a bit more detail, including a comprehensive list of devices that can act as Sidewalk Bridges (but not devices that are Sidewalk-enabled). The FAQ also provides a link to a more detailed whitepaper on the privacy and security used by Sidewalk. TL;DR—Amazon says Sidewalk uses three layers of encryption, and you will never know what other Sidewalk devices are connected to your devices.

You’d forgive some of us for being incredibly skeptical. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that just last year, Gizmodo was able to map Amazon’s home surveillance network, revealing the possible locations of tens of thousands of Ring cameras across 15 U.S. cities via the Neighbors app. Or the fact Vice and Gizmodo both found instances of hackers breaking into Ring cameras, ultimately leading to a class-action lawsuit. Or, the fact that initially, Amazon did not explicitly state in its privacy policy that humans may listen to voice recordings collected by Echo Devices. Maybe it’s remembering that a Portland couple once learned their Echo had recorded a private conversation and sent it to a colleague due to misinterpreted background noise.


US-only, for now, though you’ll expect that Amazon will seek to expand it to other countries.
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Covert Shores • H I Sutton

HI Sutton (no first name given or found) usually writes about covert submarines, but here he is interested by something very much on dry land :


The story goes that a helicopter crew made the chance discovery while counting wild big horn sheep in the Utah desert. The Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau helicopter touched down to investigate.

What they found was a metal monolith about 10-12 feet high. The purpose of the object is not known. We do know where it is however.

It has been geolocated (by others, this person for example (reddit), but I find it very impressive) at 38.343080°, -109.666190°. The techniques used may have included analysis of the area (from the video), and the direction of the sun. But it must have been an incredibly tedious process. So like most OSINT (Open Source intelligence), such as pinpointing radar transmitters by how they disturb satellite images. Or finding submarines at sea.

The site is miles from the nearest road.

It is visible in the most recent Google Earth imagery which is from October 2016. It was not present in the earlier 2015 imagery however. So it has been there between 4-5 years, seemingly unreported.


I’m really hoping for “peculiar art installation” though of course “time machine” and “alien spacecraft” remain available.
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Male walruses have giant ones, but human men not at all: how we lost the penis bone • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino:


The baculum, also called the os penis or penis bone, is a puzzling thing. It sits in the tip of the organ, not connected to any larger skeletal structure. Your pet cat has one if it is a he, as does your male dog. Many male mammals do — chimpanzees, gorillas, weasels and bears. The walrus has a particularly impressive baculum, up to 22 inches in length. The bone was even larger in the past. A fossilized, 4.5-foot os penis of an extinct walrus species fetched $8,000 at auction in 2007.

But humans, curiously, do not have penis bones. One reading of Genesis offered an explanation for the disappearing bone by way of creation myth. It was the penis bone, not a rib bone, a pair of biblical scholars argued in 2015, that God removed to fashion Eve from Adam. (This interpretation went over about as well as one might expect.)

As to why humans lack the bones, a study published on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B offered a possible explanation. By the standards of primate reproduction, humans do not need to do the deed for a long enough time to warrant an os penis. Plus, our breeding habits are, in the context of our great ape cousins, fairly low-pressure.


News you can use. Well, maybe not. But you’ll wonder about it all day.
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The AstraZeneca Covid vaccine data isn’t up to snuff • WIRED

Hilda Bastian:


The problems start with the fact that Monday’s announcement did not present results from a single, large-scale, Phase 3 clinical trial, as was the case for earlier bulletins about the BNT-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Instead, Oxford-AstraZeneca’s data came out of two separate studies: one in the UK that began in May, and another in Brazil, which got started at the end of June. These two studies were substantially different from one another: They didn’t have standardized dosing schemes across the trials, for one thing, nor did they provide the same “control” injections to volunteers who were not getting the experimental Covid vaccine. The fact that they may have had to combine data from two trials in order to get a strong enough result raises the first red flag.

Consider that leading vaccine makers—including AstraZeneca—issued a scientific-rigor-and-integrity pledge back in September, in which they promised to submit their products for approval or emergency use authorization only “after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.” Note the wording here: These companies did not suggest that they might claim to have demonstrated efficacy through multiple, distinct clinical studies, combined together to get enough data. They said they would use a Phase 3 study—as in, one big one. Yet AstraZeneca has already applied on the basis of this data for approval in Canada, and has plans to do the same in Britain, Europe and Brazil. The company also says it will use the data to apply for emergency use authorization in the US.

The Food and Drug Administration’s guidance for Covid-19 vaccines does allow for emergency use authorization based on interim analyses, but the same document says this must be supported by a minimum level of vaccine efficacy “for a placebo-controlled efficacy trial.” Again: it refers to a trial.


Disappointing, but that’s the way that science and medicine progress: facts, analysis, rigour.

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Compare: Apple’s M1 MacBook Air kills the iPad Pro for the rest of us • ZDNet

Robin Harris:


Now that Apple offers Apple Silicon in the MacBook Air, the vast gulf between iPad and Mac performance and battery life has almost disappeared. I’ve been happily using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro for more than a year. I’ve been even happier using the Magic Keyboard, the pricy but excellent add-on keyboard.

But the new MacBook Air has me doubting my life choices. Would I be better served by a MacBook Air? Comparing the two, here’s what I found.

Price: for the same price as a Wi-Fi 1TB iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard – $1,849 – you can get a MacBook Air with a 2TB SSD and 8GB of DRAM. Or save $400 and get the 1TB MacBook Air. That’s a substantial difference.

The difference is more substantial at the entry-level MacBook Air at $999. The equivalent 256GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro costs $1,099 + $349 for the Magic Keyboard. That’s a 45% increment for the additional iPad Pro features.

CPU: the heaviest load I’ve put on my iPad Pro is editing multiple streams of 4k video, which it handled flawlessly. I can’t imagine overloading the even more powerful M1, even with the lowest spec 7 GPU units and 8GB of DRAM. Both CPUs are more than I need, so that’s a wash.


And so it goes on, through weight, battery life (better on the MacBook Air!), display, I/O and particularly external video support. About the only place where the iPad is clearly ahead is the webcam.

Which makes it feel as though Apple has… killed its top-end iPad?
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Kuo: redesigned MacBooks with Apple Silicon to launch in second half of 2021 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


Apple plans to release additional MacBook models with Apple Silicon in the second half of 2021, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, as part of the company’s two-year transition away from Intel processors across its Mac lineup.

In a research note today, obtained by MacRumors, Kuo said that these MacBook models will feature a new design. Kuo did not specify which models these will be, but he previously claimed that redesigned 14in and 16in MacBook Pro models with Apple Silicon would launch in the late second quarter or third quarter of 2021.

Other rumored Apple Silicon Macs include a redesigned 24in iMac and a smaller version of the Mac Pro tower.

Apple’s first Macs with its custom M1 chip, including the new MacBook Air, lower-end 13in MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, began arriving to customers last week. Models that continue to use Intel processors for the time being include the 13in MacBook Pro with four Thunderbolt ports, 16in MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac Pro.

Kuo added that demand for the new iPad Air has been better than expected. Looking ahead to 2021, he expects that the iPad’s growth momentum will come from the adoption of new technologies such as Mini-LED backlighting and 5G support. Kuo expects a new low-priced iPad to launch in the second half of 2021 — presumably the ninth-generation iPad.


Summer of next year (at earliest?) for a 16in M1* MacBook Pro feels like a long time to wait. Apple’s challenge is that the Intel models of the 13in MacBook Pro offer more memory than the M1. (We don’t know if that’s a limitation of the M1 system. I’d guess it’s about chip fabrication, and tempering expectations.) So does it clean up the Intel products at the bottom before it starts offering higher-end laptops? Or does it just quietly drop the Intel models of the lower-end products?
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Samsung will flood the market with foldable phones next year • Phandroid

Tyler Lee:


According to a report from Korea, it appears that Samsung is expected to launch as many as five foldable phones next year. We can sort of guess what at least two of them will be – the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, which is rumored to replace the Note series, and the Galaxy Z Flip 2, the successor to its foldable clamshell smartphone that the company launched this year.

It is unclear what the remaining three models will be, but if the report is accurate, Samsung is being very aggressive with its launch. Hopefully with so many alleged models in the works that Samsung has figured out a way to bring costs down, or at the very least include a model that comes with a lower price tag.

It is interesting that Samsung could be going almost all-in with its foldable phones in 2021, which means that the only “normal” flagship phone will be the Galaxy S21 which last we heard, could be announced in January 2021. We’re not sure if such an forceful strategy will work, but given that Samsung is one of the biggest smartphone makers in the world, perhaps they can leverage some of their customer base to help make foldable phones more mainstream.


Oh yes, foldable phones. Basically, the idea that achieved the precise opposite in 2020 of the name recognition achieved by Zoom.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1437: new Honor phones to struggle for chips, UK government accused of blocking FOI, Covid’s smart mutation, and more

Facebook can tweak its algorithm so that better-quality news becomes more prominent. Yet won’t make it permanent. CC-licensed photo by vhines200 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 10 links for you. Why are there concession stands and concession speeches? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook struggles to balance civility and growth • The New York Times

Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel:


[In the days following the US election, as Trump falsely claimed widespread electoral fraud] the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasizing the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or N.E.Q., a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism.

Typically, N.E.Q. scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.

It was a vision of what a calmer, less divisive Facebook might look like. Some employees argued the change should become permanent, even if it was unclear how that might affect the amount of time people spent on Facebook. In an employee meeting the week after the election, workers asked whether the “nicer news feed” could stay, said two people who attended.

…The trade-offs came into focus this month, when Facebook engineers and data scientists posted the results of a series of experiments called “P(Bad for the World).”

The company had surveyed users about whether certain posts they had seen were “good for the world” or “bad for the world.” They found that high-reach posts — posts seen by many users — were more likely to be considered “bad for the world,” a finding that some employees said alarmed them.

So the team trained a machine-learning algorithm to predict posts that users would consider “bad for the world” and demote them in news feeds. In early tests, the new algorithm successfully reduced the visibility of objectionable content. But it also lowered the number of times users opened Facebook, an internal metric known as “sessions” that executives monitor closely.


At this point it’s becoming trivial to say that Facebook is utterly toxic, but it truly is. My forthcoming book will go into more detail. (The cover there is a placeholder, and the publication date might – will? – come forward. The topic is what it’s all about, though.)
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New Honor expected to capture 2% smartphone market share in 2021 due to limited foundry capacity • TrendForce


Despite the change of ownership [sold by Huawei to a Shenzhen company], however, “new Honor” still has to cope with the shortage of foundry capacity in 2021, leading to a forecasted market share of 2%, while Huawei’s market share is expected to reach 4%. It should be pointed out that Apple is expected to capture some demand that was previously aimed at Huawei’s high-end smartphones. At the same time, Huawei’s Chinese competitors Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo are expected to ramp up device production. Hence, the volume of new smartphones coming from these sources will exceed the estimated market share gap left by Huawei. Also, if the smartphone market does not have sufficient demand to accommodate the overly inflated production plans in 2021, then brands may have to readjust their production targets.

Huawei had been adopting a coopetition strategy with Honor, which comprised of resource sharing and independent operation, and the latter is expected to return swiftly to the smartphone market through cooperation with channels under its preexisting model of independent operation. However, US sanctions remain as the most pressing concern for new Honor, as they affect its component procurement, R&D, product design, and GMS (Google Mobile Services) integration. Whether new Honor will be free to undertake these activities due to its split from Huawei remains to be seen.


A great deal now hinges on what Joe Biden’s administration does in January. Reverse the sanctions on Huawei as an olive branch? Or hold them as a bargaining chip against China for who knows what in return?
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This Week in Apps: Apple slashes commissions, Twitter launches Fleets, warnings about Parler • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:


According to App Annie data, around 98% of all iOS developers in 2019 (meaning, unique publisher accounts) fell under the $1m annual consumer spend threshold. This supports Apple’s claims that the “vast majority” of developers would benefit. This group of developers accounts for 567,000 unique apps, or 93% of all apps generating revenue through in-app purchases.

Combined, their revenues represented just under 8% of the overall App Store revenue share — in other words, it’s money Apple could stand to lose.

App Annie also found that the group of mid-range developers who are “nearing” that $1 million threshold is really small. The data indicates roughly 0.5% of developers are making between $800,000 and $1 million. And just over 1% are in the $500,000-$800,000 range.

Most developers have much smaller revenue streams, with 87.7% making less than $100,000 in 2019.


Useful for understanding that Apple decision to cut commissions (for developers who apply) to 15% from 30% if they have revenues of less than $1m. It sounds like app revenue is extremely bimodal – most of it under $100,000 and then a significant number of really big companies doing well over $1m. Apple will have known this for absolutely ages, meaning it could pick its time to introduce this. It could probably announce a fresh “under $500k” lower-commission tier at some future point without doing much harm to revenues, and gaining the PR benefit again.
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UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information • openDemocracy

Peter Geoghegan, Jenna Corderoy and Lucas Amin:


The British government has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit in Michael Gove’s office that instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Experts warn that the practice could be breaking the law – and openDemocracy is now working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force Gove’s Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how its secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit operates. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting”.

This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments “to protect sensitive information”, and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and many more, as well as researchers from Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and elsewhere.

The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments – effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public.


They could always use the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow site, which lets you file FOI claims; though they’re all publicly visible, there are so many that you could effectively hide. And would the Cabinet Office know that they were coming from a journalist? Again, you could adopt an identity. If you’re going to fight Orwellian methods, you have to fight fire with fire.
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Parler is growing but conservatives are not ready to leave Twitter • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman:


“Stop the Digital Inquisition! JOIN PARLER,” tweeted Dan Bongino, a Parler investor and right-wing star who consistently ranks among Facebook’s top-performing link posts nationwide, on Nov. 11, one of his 90 tweets that day — the same day he posted on Parler 51 times.

Madison Gesiotto, a pro-Trump commentator who tweeted to her 190,000 followers that she was “sick of big tech censorship,” has posted five times to Parler but 95 times to Twitter since declaring (in a tweet) that social media is “worse than ever before!”

Perhaps that’s understandable. Conservative provocateurs have mastered the art of getting attention and amplifying opinions on the very social networks they so roundly criticize. But Parler’s rise highlights how the polarized national debate could even further splinter the American Internet, in the same way that news sources and digital social circles have split into parallel partisan realities.

…Parler and Gab now average about 5 million views a month, which makes them, in social media terms, microscopic. Their combined traffic worldwide last month was 0.05% of Facebook’s and 0.22% of Twitter’s, SimilarWeb data show. But Andrew Torba, Gab’s chief executive, said Parler’s growth further validates the “alt-tech ecosystem.”


The numbers underplay the effect of those networks being small. Metcalfe’s Law says that the effect of a network grows proportionally to the square of the number of users. On Twitter, you can have colossal effect; on Parler, barely any. Smaller social networks have less impact. Simple as that.
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Right-wing social media had to divorce from reality • The Atlantic

Renée DiResta:


The president himself, while tweeting about how the election was being stolen, amplified accounts that touted OANN and Newsmax as places to find accurate reporting on the truth about his election victory.

And on Parler, the conspiracy-mongering has grown only more frenzied as Trump makes state-by-state fraud allegations. In addition to concerns about Sharpies, the social network abounds with rumors of CIA supercomputers with secret programs to change votes, allegations of massive numbers of dead people voting, claims of backdated ballots, and assorted other speculations that users attempt to coalesce into a grand unified theory of election theft.

How far these ideas spread depends in part on whether mainstream social-media outlets keep moderating content as closely as they did during this election season. For most of Trump’s term, Facebook and others had been loath to crack down on even baseless conspiracy theories, including those repeated by the president himself.

Freedom of expression, the argument went, covers the right to think and say even floridly false things, which were best addressed through corrections and counter-speech. Yet the major platforms concluded that misleading theories about the election were a distinct class of misinformation because of their potential to cause significant harm to the body politic. As the split between reality-based information outlets and those catering to pro-Trump bitter-enders has widened, the distribution of their content is becoming significantly siloed.

This could have two major effects: It may limit the spread of conspiracy theories and reduce the possibility that Facebook and YouTube recommendation algorithms will draw casual users into the world of QAnon. But the bifurcation also raises the possibility that, among those who gravitate to niche platforms like Parler, the discussion may grow even more extreme.


As above, I think that if there is a move away from the big social networks to smaller ones, then that will actually be a good thing: less fertile space, and though the echo might be intense, it won’t reach anyone who hasn’t already bought into the nonsense.
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We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it • Tim Harford


We all have a tendency to think with our hearts rather than our heads, and that tendency is sharpened, not dulled, by a vociferous argument. Wishful thinking, tribal loyalty, and tortured logic are ever-present pitfalls, but the pits yawn wider and deeper once a few alpha chimps are yelling at each other about “covidiots” and “face-nappies.”

A disheartening autumn provides us with an interesting case in point. At the end of August, the virus seemed to be in retreat. The prevalence survey published by the Office for National Statistics on 4th September, covering late August, suggested that infections had fallen to 36 per million people per day in England. Even for the highly vulnerable, the risk of taking a day out was looking small. But then each new week showed a large increase, and by 25th September, the estimate of infections was up to 175 per million people per day—mostly in the under-35s, and mostly in London and the north of England.

Those are the facts. But the facts were not of much interest: cabinet ministers blamed the public, lockdown sceptics blamed false positives, and newspaper columnists mocked the government for reversing its stance from “get back to the office” to “actually, stay at home.”

Everyone got their zingers in, but an ordinary citizen, trying to weigh up the health risks she faces, her responsibility to keep others safe, and the threats to her livelihood, is none the wiser. The personal risk remains low for most people, but the fact that cases have risen so rapidly suggests that we have a real challenge on our hands.

The truth, it turns out, is complicated. But complicated is no way to win a shouting match. If we want to understand the virus—and, for that matter, anything else in a complex world—we must first give up on the illusion that what passes for public “debate” is about anything more than scoring cheap points, which inevitably come at the cost of the whole truth.


Harford is arguably the UK’s Zeynep Tufekci, and I say that as a marker of great respect. (He’s got a new book out: How To Make The World Add Up. It might make a good Christmas present for a friend.)
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Why Newsmax supports Trump’s false voter-fraud claims • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner interviews Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, the deluded media outlet which reckons it’s good policy to pretend Trump hasn’t lost the election:


Chotiner: I think we know that America’s voting systems are not pristine and shouldn’t be unquestioned. I think the problem is just saying that it was fraudulent, and that the election was stolen. I think that’s the main problem.

Ruddy: I think in very close elections, you might be able to make that claim, if it’s not properly done.

IC: But you’re the head of a news organization, and so if you want to just send reporters to investigate this and prove this, fine, but the Trump Administration in court is not actually showing any of these things. They’re just making the claims, and then not producing any evidence.

CR: Well, I think, for instance, they’ve been showing that there were issues with the mail-in ballots, the process by which they were counted. There was a story that indicated the rejection rates on absentee ballots and mail-in ballots was a lot lower in this election, in many of these swing states. That’s unusual. Now, is that indicative of fraud? I would say it’s not a direct indication, but it’s suggestive. And it’s something that we should look at. [A Times story on the low rejection rates suggested that there were multiple factors, including simplified voting requirements and greater enthusiasm and attentiveness among voters.]

IC: But that’s something that journalists could investigate, rather than making broad claims about it.

CR: Yeah. Well, I think before we even make the claim, we should say, “Hey, look at this anomaly. Why is this the case?” And we start asking about it. But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s great for news. The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.


Basically: claiming fraud is great for clicks! Who cares if it’s a lie and we don’t actually bother to investigate it? Essentially, a form of free riding on Trump’s delusional nonsense. Useful to know what democracy is up against, though.
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Early coronavirus mutation made it harder to stop, evidence suggests • The New York Times

James Glanz, Benedict Carey and Hannah Beech:


one mutation near the beginning of the pandemic did make a difference, multiple new findings suggest, helping the virus spread more easily from person to person and making the pandemic harder to stop.

The mutation, known as 614G, was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City. Within months, the variant took over much of the world, displacing other variants.

For months, scientists have been fiercely debating why. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory argued in May that the variant had probably evolved the ability to infect people more efficiently. Many were skeptical, arguing that the variant may have been simply lucky, appearing more often by chance in large epidemics, like Northern Italy’s, that seeded outbreaks elsewhere.
But a host of new research — including close genetic analysis of outbreaks and lab work with hamsters and human lung tissue — has supported the view that the mutated virus did in fact have a distinct advantage, infecting people more easily than the original variant detected in Wuhan, China.


Outbreaks grew faster, infections happened more quickly. That might, partially, explain why China was less affected if it managed an efficient lockdown. (Though I thought the mutation was called D614G – the replacement at locus 614 of glycine where previously there was aspartic acid residue; it’s on the spike. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Thread by @BethanyAllenEbr on Thread Reader App • Thread Reader App

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a reporter for Axios:


According to sources I have spoken to with knowledge of the matter, this Washington Post story does not accurately characterize Apple’s position on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

It is not accurate to say that Apple’s aim is to water down key provisions of the bill, and it is not accurate to characterize Apple as lobbying against the bill.

(And no, the sources I am citing are not a strident email from Apple’s PR department).


You’ll recall that I was a bit dubious about that article: it seemed to accuse Apple of things that it said it was diametrically opposed to, and it wasn’t named in the Act, unlike a number of other companies. (Thread Reader App lets you create a single page from a Twitter thread: to get it to happen, respond to any of the tweets in the thread you want “unrolled” with “@threadreaderapp unroll please” and it will respond so that your off-Twitter friends, or those who just want a simpler life, can read it in one gulp.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1436: the misinformation superspreaders, an infinite quilt, GM quits Trump, Snapchat tries to TikTok, and more

Having this many books – especially if you haven’t read them – is a good, not bad, thing. CC-licensed photo by Geoff Coupe 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. Certified. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How misinformation ‘superspreaders’ seed false election theories • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:


New research from Avaaz, a global human rights group, the Elections Integrity Partnership and The New York Times shows how a small group of people — mostly right-wing personalities with outsized influence on social media — helped spread the false voter-fraud narrative that led to those rallies.

That group, like the guests of a large wedding held during the pandemic, were “superspreaders” of misinformation around voter fraud, seeding falsehoods that include the claims that dead people voted, voting machines had technical glitches, and mail-in ballots were not correctly counted.
“Because of how Facebook’s algorithm functions, these superspreaders are capable of priming a discourse,” said Fadi Quran, a director at Avaaz. “There is often this assumption that misinformation or rumors just catch on. These superspreaders show that there is an intentional effort to redefine the public narrative.”

Across Facebook, there were roughly 3.5 million interactions — including likes, comments and shares — on public posts referencing “Stop the Steal” during the week of Nov. 3, according to the research. Of those, the profiles of Eric Trump, Diamond and Silk and Mr. Straka accounted for a disproportionate share — roughly 6%, or 200,000, of those interactions.

…In order to find the superspreaders, Avaaz compiled a list of 95,546 Facebook posts that included narratives about voter fraud. Those posts were liked, shared or commented on nearly 60 million times by people on Facebook.

Avaaz found that just 33 of the 95,546 posts were responsible for over 13 million of those interactions. Those 33 posts had created a narrative that would go on to shape what millions of people thought about the legitimacy of the U.S. elections.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company had added labels to posts that misrepresented the election process and was directing people to a voting information center.


Very much what we always suspect: a tiny number of idiots direct a larger number of idiots.

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GM flips to California’s side in pollution fight with Trump • Associated Press

Tom Krisher:


General Motors is switching sides in the legal fight against California’s right to set its own clean-air standards, abandoning the Trump administration as the president’s term nears its close.

CEO Mary Barra said in a letter Monday to environmental groups that GM will no longer support the Trump administration in its defense against a lawsuit over its efforts against California’s standards. And GM is urging other automakers to do the same.

The move is a sign that GM and other automakers are anticipating big changes when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Already at least one other large automaker, Toyota, said it may join GM in switching to California’s team.

In her letter, Barra wrote that the company agrees with Biden’s plan to expand electric vehicle use. Last week, GM said it is testing a new battery chemistry that will bring down electric vehicle costs to those of gas-powered vehicles within five years.


So subtly and completely indicative that they see the power draining away from Trump by the minute.
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Snapchat officially launches in-app TikTok competitor called Spotlight • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Snap is finally ready to compete with TikTok and will pay creators to post on the platform. The company is officially announcing a new section of Snapchat today called Spotlight that’ll surface vertical video content from users that’s more meme-like and jokey instead of the day-in-the-life content Snap previously encouraged. Imagine, basically, TikTok but in Snapchat.

To entice people to post snaps regularly, the company says it’ll divvy up $1 million between the most popular creators on the app per day through the end of 2020. This means if someone has a particularly viral video, they might earn a large chunk of the $1 million pot. It doesn’t matter whether that person has a massive number of subscribers; the amount people receive is primarily based on unique views compared to other snaps that day. Users can continue to earn from their video if it’s popular for multiple days at a time.

Spotlight, which will have its own dedicated tab in the app, is launching in 11 countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Australia. The videos you’ll see in the section can be up to 60 seconds long and, as of right now, cannot be watermarked. That means people can’t just download their (or others’) viral TikToks and upload them to Snapchat.


First Instagram, now Snapchat. I don’t think either is going to emulate TikTok’s success; you can’t achieve what it has by half measures. You have to commit completely to the algorithmic function driving what people are shown. Neither Instagram nor Snapchat is willing to do that because their basic product isn’t like that.
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The value of owning more books than you can read • Big Think

Kevin Dickinson:


I love books. If I go to the bookstore to check a price, I walk out with three books I probably didn’t know existed beforehand. I buy second-hand books by the bagful at the Friends of the Library sale, while explaining to my wife that it’s for a good cause. Even the smell of books grips me, that faint aroma of earthy vanilla that wafts up at you when you flip a page.

The problem is that my book-buying habit outpaces my ability to read them. This leads to FOMO and occasional pangs of guilt over the unread volumes spilling across my shelves. Sound familiar?

But it’s possible this guilt is entirely misplaced. According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.

Taleb laid out the concept of the antilibrary in his best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He starts with a discussion of the prolific author and scholar Umberto Eco, whose personal library housed a staggering 30,000 books.

When Eco hosted visitors, many would marvel at the size of his library and assumed it represented the host’s knowledge — which, make no mistake, was expansive. But a few savvy visitors realized the truth: Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.

Eco stated as much. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, he found he could only read about 25,200 books if he read one book a day, every day, between the ages of ten and eighty. A “trifle,” he laments, compared to the million books available at any good library.

Drawing from Eco’s example, Taleb deduces: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” [Emphasis original]


So can we treat those open browser tabs that we’re going to get round to some time soon, honest, as the electronic equivalent? I’ve got a few hundred somewhere.
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I created my own YouTube algorithm (to stop me wasting time) • Towards Data Science

Chris Lovejoy:


I love watching YouTube videos that improve my life in some tangible way. Unfortunately, the YouTube algorithm doesn’t agree. It likes to feed me clickbait and other garbage.

This isn’t all that surprising. The algorithm prioritises clicks and watch time.

So I set out on a mission: could I write code that would automatically find me valuable videos, eliminating my dependence on the YouTube algorithm?

Here’s how it went.


Essentially, he created a straight algorithm version of the neural network(s) that YouTube uses to come up with its “Watch Next” system. Except he felt his was better.
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An infinitely zooming image. Try it if you don’t believe me. There’s also a live wallpaper for Android if you want.
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How close is humanity to the edge? • The New Yorker

Corinne Purtill:


[Toby] Ord places the risk of our extinction during the 21st century at one in six—the odds of an unlucky shot in Russian roulette. Should we manage to avoid a tumble off the precipice, he thinks, it will be our era’s defining achievement. The book catalogues many possible catastrophes. There are the natural risks we’ve always lived with, such as asteroids, super-volcanic eruptions, and stellar explosions. “None of them keep me awake at night,” Ord writes.

Then there are the large-scale threats we have created for ourselves: nuclear war, climate change, pandemics (which are made more likely by our way of life), and other novel methods of man-made destruction still to come. Ord is most concerned about two possibilities: empowered artificial intelligence unaligned with human values (he gives it a one-in-ten chance of ending humanity within the next hundred years) and engineered pandemics (he thinks they have a one-in-thirty chance of bringing down the curtain).

The pandemic we are currently experiencing is the sort of event that Ord describes as a “warning shot”—a smaller-scale catastrophe that, though frightening, tragic, and disruptive, might also spur attempts to prevent disasters of greater magnitude in the future.

Unlike doomsday preppers who seem, on some level, to relish the idea of social breakdown, Ord believes in humanity’s potential for greatness.


I’m not sure I do, but let’s hum along as though he’s correct.
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A simple theory of why Trump did well • The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie:


At the risk of committing the same sin as other observers and getting ahead of the data, I want to propose an alternative explanation for the election results, one that accounts for the president’s relative improvement as well as that of the entire Republican Party.

It’s the money, stupid.

At the end of March, President Trump signed the Cares Act, which distributed more than half a trillion dollars in direct aid to more than 150 million Americans, from stimulus checks ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households below a certain income threshold) to $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits. These programs were not perfect — the supplement unemployment insurance, in particular, depended on ramshackle state systems, forcing many applicants to wait weeks or even months before they received assistance — but they made an impact regardless. Personal income went up and poverty went down, even as the United States reported its steepest ever quarterly drop in economic output.

Now, the reason this many Americans received as much assistance as they did is that Democrats fought for it over the opposition of Republicans who believed any help beyond the minimum would degrade the will to work for whatever wage employers were willing to pay. “The moment we go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say, ‘I don’t need to go back to work because I can do better someplace else,’ ” Senator Rick Scott of Florida argued on the floor of the Senate.

But voters, and especially the low-propensity voters who flooded the electorate in support of Trump, aren’t attuned to the ins and outs of congressional debate. They did not know — and Democrats didn’t do a good enough job of telling them — that the president and his party opposed more generous benefits. All they knew is that Trump signed the bill (and the checks), giving them the kind of government assistance usually reserved for the nation’s ownership class.


Makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. Ironic: the coronavirus that everyone thought would sink him for certain instead made a lot of people think they were doing great.
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I should have loved biology • jsomers

James Somers:


In his “Mathematician’s Lament,” Paul Lockhart describes how school cheapens mathematics by robbing us of the questions. We’re not just asked, hey, how much of the triangle takes up the box?

That’s a puzzle we might delight in. (If you drop a vertical from the top of the triangle, you end up with two rectangles cut in half; you discover that the area inside the triangle is equal to the area outside.) Instead, we’re told that if you ever find yourself wanting the area of a triangle, here’s the procedure:

Biology is like that, but worse because it’s a messier subject. The facts seem extra arbitrary. We’re told to distinguish “lipid bilayers” from “endoplasmic reticula” without understanding why we care about either in the first place.

Enormous subjects are best approached in thin, deep slices. I discovered this when first learning how to program. The textbooks never worked; it all only started to click when I started to do little projects for myself. The project wasn’t just motivation but an organizing principle, a magnet to arrange the random iron filings I picked up along the way. I’d care to learn about some abstract concept, like “memoization,” because I needed it to solve my problem; and these concepts would lose their abstractness in the light of my example.

Biology is no different. Learning begins with questions. How do embryos differentiate? Why are my eyes blue? How does a hamster turn cheese into muscle? Why does the coronavirus make some people much sicker than others?


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1435: a plethora of fakes, America’s stupid coup, Apple explains more about the M1, Twitter to pass @POTUS to Biden, and more

Could the Apple Watch be responsible for Apple’s slowly falling hardware margins? CC-licensed photo by Dave Winer 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 10 links for you. Quorate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This X Does Not Exist

Kashish Hora:


Using generative adversarial networks (GAN), we can learn how to create realistic-looking fake versions of almost anything, as shown by this collection of sites that have sprung up in the past month.


Remember “This Face Does Not Exist”, with its GAN-generated human face of no human that had ever lived? This does it for cars, Stack Exchange questions, My Little Ponies, MPs, satire (?), words… and many more. These imagined worlds are well-populated. How soon before we can’t tell the difference?
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I lived through a stupid coup. America is having one now • Medium

Indi Samarajiva:


As one recovering coup victim [in Sri Lanka] to another, let me tell you this. The first step is simply accepting that you’ve been coup’d. This is hard and your media or Wikipedia may never figure this out (WTF does constitutional crisis mean? Is murder a legal crisis?), but it’s nonetheless true. The US system is weird, but people voted for a change of power. One person is refusing to accept the people’s will. He’s taking power that doesn’t belong to him. That’s a coup.

Americans are so caught up with the idea that this can’t be happening to them that they’re missing the very obvious fact that it is.

What else do you call Donald Trump refusing to leave, consolidating control of the military, and spreading lies across the media? That, my friends, is just a coup. You take the power, you take the guns, and you lie about it. American commentators say “we’re like the third world now” as if our very existence is a pejorative. Ha ha, you assholes, stop calling us that. You’re no better than us. The third world from the Sun is Earth. You live here too.

America, in fact, is worse than us. America’s democracy is a lightly modified enslavement system that black people only wrested universal franchise from in 1965. It’s frankly a terrible democracy, built on voter suppression of 94% of the population, full of racist booby traps and prone to absurd randomness. For example, your dumbass founders left enough time [for the new President] to get to Washington by horse. Four months where a loser could hold power, later reduced to two. This is a built-in coup.

Think about it. Your system gives the loser all the power and guns for two whole months. Almost every modern democracy changes power the next day, to avoid the very situation you’re in.

America constitutionally coups itself every election and it only doesn’t go bad by custom. America is a shitty and immature democracy, saved only by the fact that they didn’t elect equally shitty and immature Presidents. Until now.


Powerful piece, and he’s absolutely right: the US system is designed to fail, and it’s only good manners that has kept it from collapsing this long.
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Apple’s missing profits – the usual suspects • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Greenberg tries to figure out why Apple’s gross hardware margins have been declining since 2015:


Apple launched Apple Watch in 2015 and Airpods in late 2016 (in Apple’s 2017 Fiscal Year). When Airpods first came out, it was hard to buy them, with multi-month wait times. At the time, many ascribed the delay to the popularity of the devices, and they were very popular. However, a more likely reason for the delay was that Apple was having a hard time manufacturing them. Something about production, maybe the perfectly rounded case or maybe the miniaturization of circuitry in the earbuds, was driving up defect rates. Another way to spell manufacturing problems is increased cost of goods sold. If 10% or 20% of devices are defective, that can often be enough to wreck the profitability of a device, and our guess is that Apple’s initial manufacturing rates were worse than that. Apple Watch seems to have less problems in manufacturing, but we suspect these also had poor gross margins to start out.

We believe these devices are now manufacturing at good yields. But there is the possibility that the margins on these products are poorer than the average iPhone or Mac. And as they have grown strongly, it is possible that they are weighing down margins. And this leads to our next suspect – mix shift.

Mix shift refers to the blended gross margin. If you are selling high margin products and then start selling lower margin devices, the average price of your devices falls . No discounts or price reductions involved, but prices, and thus gross margins, fall when everything is averaged out. As noted above, part of this is the growth of possibly lower-margin Wearables. But there is more to the story.

The graph below shows revenue growth by geography, again the base year is 2013. The standout feature of this chart is China. A combination of Trade War patriotism and resurgent strength among Chinese brands drove a reduction in Apple’s growth in China. This is important as we believe Apple’s iPhone sales in China skew heavily towards higher priced devices. So declines in China also likely brought down blended gross margins.


All makes sense. Meanwhile, Services revenues (and especially profits) are moving things along nicely.
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“We are giddy”—interviewing Apple about its Mac silicon revolution • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:


What Apple needed was a chip that took the lessons learned from years of refining mobile systems-on-a-chip for iPhones, iPads, and other products then added on all sorts of additional functionality in order to address the expanded needs of a laptop or desktop computer.

“During the pre-silicon, when we even designed the architecture or defined the features,” Srouji recalled, “Craig and I sit in the same room and we say, ‘OK, here’s what we want to design. Here are the things that matter.'”

When Apple first announced its plans to launch the first Apple Silicon Mac this year, onlookers speculated that the iPad Pro’s A12X or A12Z chips were a blueprint and that the new Mac chip would be something like an A14X—a beefed-up variant of the chips that shipped in the iPhone 12 this year.

Not exactly so, said Federighi: “The M1 is essentially a superset, if you want to think of it relative to A14. Because as we set out to build a Mac chip, there were many differences from what we otherwise would have had in a corresponding, say, A14X or something.

“We had done lots of analysis of Mac application workloads, the kinds of graphic/GPU capabilities that were required to run a typical Mac workload, the kinds of texture formats that were required, support for different kinds of GPU compute and things that were available on the Mac… just even the number of cores, the ability to drive Mac-sized displays, support for virtualization and Thunderbolt.

“There are many, many capabilities we engineered into M1 that were requirements for the Mac, but those are all superset capabilities relative to what an app that was compiled for the iPhone would expect.”


There’s also a terrific explanation of why the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA), which lumps all the RAM for the CPU and the GPU in one place on the SoC, is more effective than the split form you get with discrete components. This may be partly responsible for the huge leap in performance even with what spec-hungry people think is small amounts of RAM.

Oh, and on The Windows Question, Federighi says: “that’s really up to Microsoft. We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.”
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Post-lockdown SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening in nearly ten million residents of Wuhan, China • Nature Communications

Chuanzhu Lv, Fujian Song, Xiaoxv Yin, Zuxun Lu and others:


Here, we describe a city-wide SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid screening programme between May 14 and June 1, 2020 in Wuhan. All city residents aged six years or older were eligible and 9,899,828 (92.9%) participated.

No new symptomatic cases and 300 asymptomatic cases (detection rate 0.303/10,000, 95% CI 0.270–0.339/10,000) were identified.

There were no positive tests amongst 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic cases. 107 of 34,424 previously recovered COVID-19 patients tested positive again (re-positive rate 0.31%, 95% CI 0.423–0.574%). The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Wuhan was therefore very low five to eight weeks after the end of lockdown.


First: that’s an amazing testing program: nearly 10 million tests in two weeks, or more than 700,000 per day. The UK at that time was managing about 150,000 tests, though there was substantial double-counting (fewer than 150,000 people were tested).

Second: nobody tested positive from asymptomatic cases.

Third: the reinfection rate is tiny – 3 in a thousand.
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Are you a seal? • Benedict Evans


There is a theory that when a shark bites a surfer, this is because they look like a seal, especially from 50 feet underwater. The shark circles, comes close, and sometimes it takes a bite out of a leg, and sometimes it takes a bite out of the surfboard and gets a mouthful of fibreglass. Generally, it realises the mistake and leaves, though this may or may not be any consolation to the surfer. 

I think about this theory a fair bit when I talk to big companies worried that Amazon or Google seem to circling around them, getting closer, and bumping into their legs. Maybe you look like a seal. And of course, maybe you are a seal. 

What does it mean to look like a ‘seal’, in this analogy, or indeed to be one? Well, a trillion dollar company with tens of thousands of engineers runs lots of projects and experiments, and there are lots of things that theoretically they could do, and that they might explore. But you have to ask not ‘would it be a problem for me if they got into my industry?’ but rather ‘would it make any sense for them to get into my industry?’ 

How do you tell if it would make sense for them? I’d suggest a few overlapping questions.


His thesis is that just because big companies *could* do all the things that some small companies do, that doesn’t mean they *will*:


if Google can turn your business into a trivial part of Google, it will try. If it would have to recreate your entire company inside Google, it probably won’t.


A useful way to think about how and whether startups might get acquired, or not.
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Is Apple Silicon ready ?

A list of apps people use, and whether they’ve been updated to run ARM-native. Long list, and updated frequently.

Also useful: Does it ARM? which does the same thing, but a bit less elegantly.
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Twitter to give @POTUS account to Biden on Inauguration Day whether or not Trump concedes • National Review

Brittany Bernstein:


President-elect Joe Biden will receive the @POTUS Twitter account on Inauguration Day, even if President Trump refuses to concede, the social-media platform announced Friday.

“Twitter is actively preparing to support the transition of White House institutional Twitter accounts on Jan. 20, 2021,” a spokesman for the company said.

Those accounts include @POTUS, which has more than 32 million followers, as well as @whitehouse, @VP, @FLOTUS, and other official handles.

“As we did for the presidential transition in 2017, this process is being done in close consultation with the National Archives and Records Administration,” the spokesman added.

The agency will archive existing tweets from the Trump administration and the account will be reset to zero tweets. However, Trump has relied much more upon his personal Twitter account, which has 89 million followers, during his time in the White House.


The wheels grind slow but they grind very fine.
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Apple lobbies against Uighur forced labor bill • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:


Apple lobbyists are trying to weaken a bill aimed at preventing forced labor in China, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter, highlighting the clash between its business imperatives and its official stance on human rights.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would require US companies to guarantee they do not use imprisoned or coerced workers from the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, where academic researchers estimate the Chinese government has placed more than 1 million people into internment camps. Apple is heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturing, and human rights reports have identified instances in which alleged forced Uighur labor has been used in Apple’s supply chain.

The staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many US companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

“What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, which has supported the bill. “They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability.”


The proposed Act sounds like a good idea. I just wonder slightly about the framing of this story. Apple was one of “many” US companies which oppose it? Others seem to include Patagonia (surprisingly), Coca-Cola and Costco, all named in the Act, while Apple isn’t. Apple said “We abhor forced labor and support the goals of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We share the committee’s goal of eradicating forced labor and strengthening US law”.

As to “human rights reports have identified instances”, the only reference I can find is a July story about a company called O-Film, which was accused by Washington of using forced labour; Apple says it checked it and found nothing. Strange how it’s popped up in this story.
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Why the DOJ has a strong case against Google • The Federalist Society

Rachel Bovard:


While consumers can change their search functions from the default, Google observed in a 2018 strategy document that once the default setting is in place, particularly on their phones, “people are much less likely” to swap out Google for something else.

Every major antitrust investigation into Google, from the United Kingdom, to Australia, to the European Union, has emphasized the importance of defaults in creating monopolies. In Russia, of all places, the search market is finally becoming competitive after the country’s Federal Antimonopoly Service removed Google’s ability to prevent Android phone manufacturers from changing the default search engine to anything but Google.

Google has secured its exclusivity as a default setting in the computer-browser market. As the complaint notes, “with the exception of Microsoft, most browser developers have agreed with Google to preset its search engine as the default search provider.”

The company has a dominant grip on licensing and distribution agreements with manufacturers and carriers of mobile devices that have search functionality. According to the complaint, “roughly 60% of all search queries are covered by Google’s exclusionary agreements.”

On mobile devices, it’s more than 80%. This is due to Google’s exclusive deal with Apple to be the default search option on its mobile devices, and a deal with other mobile distributors which offered its Android operating system for “free”—but with a series of interlocking agreements ensuring Google remains dominant in the massive Android ecosystem.

…[to claim] that it’s not Google’s fault that its search product is everywhere—that it’s merely the device manufacturers and web browsers choosing, without incentive, to do it—is counterfactual. Google has negotiated exclusionary agreements to ensure it is the default setting on the majority of devices and browsers sold in the United States, and in a manner that precludes competitors from challenging Google, or even developing in the first place.


I’m still dubious about the merits – as argued – of this case. Google developed Android; it gets to reap the benefits. On Apple’s platform, others could bid to be the default. (On Firefox, Yahoo did, successfully, under Marissa Mayer.) Which other search providers are actually trying to challenge Google? This case is about 15 years too late.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the writer Dominic Brown got in touch about the proposal on solar power stations in space, and my comment that you wouldn’t want to get in the way of the down-power beam. He emailed to say: “Back in the 1970s, when this was originally proposed, the suggestion was to float the receiving antenna offshore, or on a lake. Aircraft can fly through it safely, for the same reason lightning strikes are not terribly dangerous—an aluminum tube is an excellent Faraday cage. With a little care it should be possible to keep boats, swimmers, etc. out of the beam landing zone. Then you have the orbital transmitter cut out if it ceases to receive feedback from the rectenna—if the beam wanders for some reason, it turns off. What you then do with the energy being generated by your solar cells, I’m not too sure, but you can probably just turn it into heat resistively—net heating can’t be any greater just having the panels sitting in space absorbing sunlight.

“I imagine the remaining problem would be birds flying into the beam. You don’t need a ton of those receivers, though, and you want them in geostationary orbits, which means equatorial—and there’s no shortage of substantially bird-free deserts quite near the equator.

“To be honest, though, I think the big problem here is getting the cost of launch down far enough. Ultimately it has to be cheaper than just building nuclear power plants to do the same job—those may be costly, especially if you want to site them far from the users of the power in uninhabited places, but at the moment they’re not as costly as putting everything in orbit.”

Many thanks for that

Start Up No.1434: Facebook says it catches more hate speech, Stadia has a birthday, solar power from space?, BuzzFeed buys HuffPo, and more

Noooo! Your one-word emails are polluting the atmosphere, according to some bonkers analysis. CC-licensed photo by Martin Sharman 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 10 links for you. Counted and certified. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook AI catches 95% of hate speech; company still wants mods back in office • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:


About 95% of hate speech on Facebook gets caught by algorithms before anyone can report it, Facebook said in its latest community-standards enforcement report. The remaining 5% of the roughly 22 million flagged posts in the past quarter were reported by users.

That report is also tracking a new hate-speech metric: prevalence. Basically, to measure prevalence, Facebook takes a sample of content and then looks for how often the thing they’re measuring—in this case, hate speech—gets seen as a percentage of viewed content. Between July and September of this year, the figure was between 0.10% and 0.11%, or about 10-11 views of every 10,000.

Facebook also stressed—in both its news release and in a call with press—that while its in-house AI is making strides in several categories of content enforcement, COVID-19 is having a continued effect on its ability to moderate content.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our content-review workforce, we are seeing some enforcement metrics return to pre-pandemic levels,” the company said. “Even with a reduced review capacity, we still prioritize the most sensitive content for people to review, which includes areas like suicide and self-injury and child nudity.”

The reviewers are critical, Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen told press in a call. “People are an important part of the equation for content enforcement,” he said. “These are incredibly important workers who do an incredibly important part of the job.”

Full-time Facebook employees who are employed by the company itself are being told to work from home until July 2021 or perhaps even permanently.

In the call with reporters, Rosen stressed that Facebook employees who are required to come in to work physically, such as those who manage essential functions in data centers, are being brought in with strict safety precautions and personal protective equipment, such as hand sanitizer, made available.

Moderation, Rosen said, is one of those jobs that can’t always be done at home. Some content is simply too sensitive to review outside of a dedicated workspace where other family members might see it, he explained, saying that some Facebook content moderators are being brought back into offices “to ensure we can have that balance of people and AI working on those areas” that need human judgement applied.


And yet there’s still plenty that people might call hate speech left there. The problem is always that the standards applied are essentially American; it’s a sort of cyber-monoculture, a cyber-imperialism, where when you go on Facebook you’re living in Facebookland, which applies its own culture – borrowed heavily from the US.
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Stadia is a year old today — and it’s still not a viable alternative to console and PC gaming • Android Police

Taylor Kerns:


With strong fundamentals from the start, I’d assumed Stadia would be a breakout hit by now. Next-gen home consoles have landed, and they are not cheap: the top-of-the-line new PlayStation and Xbox are both 500 bucks. By contrast, the barrier to entry for Stadia is extremely low. If you have an adequate internet connection, it’s practically nonexistent: Destiny 2 is now completely free on Stadia, no subscription required, and you can play it on just about any hardware you have laying around. Google’s been more keen to discount controller/Chromecast bundles lately, too, and it even gave them away for free to YouTube Premium subscribers all over the world — a generous and smart move that surely increased the platform’s brand awareness.

But unless you can’t afford a PlayStation or an Xbox (which, to be clear, is not a possibility I’m discounting —  they’re expensive), there’s very little reason to choose Stadia over either of those consoles. PlayStation 5 has Spider-Man: Miles Morales (with optional ray tracing!) and a new Ratchet & Clank; Xbox Series X has Halo Infinite and Forza. Stadia has… Gylt and a version of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that’s locked at 30 frames per second.


It’s always about the content, isn’t it. That’s how disruption can work: being able to do what you want on something cheaper.
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Solar power stations in space could be the answer to our energy needs • The Conversation

Amanda Jane Hughes and Stefania Soldini are lecturers in engineering at the University of Liverpool:


A space-based solar power station could orbit to face the Sun 24 hours a day. The Earth’s atmosphere also absorbs and reflects some of the Sun’s light, so solar cells above the atmosphere will receive more sunlight and produce more energy.

But one of the key challenges to overcome is how to assemble, launch and deploy such large structures. A single solar power station may have to be as much as 10 kilometres squared in area – equivalent to 1,400 football pitches. Using lightweight materials will also be critical, as the biggest expense will be the cost of launching the station into space on a rocket.

One proposed solution is to develop a swarm of thousands of smaller satellites that will come together and configure to form a single, large solar generator. In 2017, researchers at the California Institute of Technology outlined designs for a modular power station, consisting of thousands of ultralight solar cell tiles. They also demonstrated a prototype tile weighing just 280 grams per square metre, similar to the weight of card.

Recently, developments in manufacturing, such as 3D printing, are also being looked at for this application. At the University of Liverpool, we are exploring new manufacturing techniques for printing ultralight solar cells on to solar sails. A solar sail is a foldable, lightweight and highly reflective membrane capable of harnessing the effect of the Sun’s radiation pressure to propel a spacecraft forward without fuel. We are exploring how to embed solar cells on solar sail structures to create large, fuel-free solar power stations.

…Another major challenge will be getting the power transmitted back to Earth. The plan is to convert electricity from the solar cells into energy waves and use electromagnetic fields to transfer them down to an antenna on the Earth’s surface. The antenna would then convert the waves back into electricity. Researchers led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have already developed designs and demonstrated an orbiter system which should be able to do this.


Nice idea. Wouldn’t want to get in the way of the energy beam.
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BuzzFeed to acquire HuffPost in stock deal with Verizon Media • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey:


BuzzFeed Inc. has agreed to acquire Verizon Media’s HuffPost in a stock deal, the companies said Thursday, uniting two of the larger players in digital media as companies across the sector search for ways to jump-start growth.

The acquisition is part of a larger deal between BuzzFeed and Verizon Media, a unit of Verizon Communications. Under the pact, the companies will syndicate content on each other’s platforms and look to jointly explore advertising opportunities. Verizon Media will get a minority stake in BuzzFeed as a result of the tieup, the companies said.

Verizon Media is also making an undisclosed cash investment in BuzzFeed in addition to the stock deal for HuffPost, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder and chief executive, will run the combined company. BuzzFeed will lead the search for a new editor in chief of HuffPost.

In a joint statement, the companies said BuzzFeed and HuffPost have complementary audiences and will benefit from greater scale. Financial terms for the deal weren’t disclosed, including the valuation for HuffPost.


Peretti was one of the founders of HuffPo (along of course with Arianna Huffington, who exploited the get-people-to-write-for-free model so popular in 2005 for all she was worth). Now, tougher questions get asked about how sites will wash their faces. It’s still a challenge for Buzzfeed, and it’s hard to know how HuffPo will manage: it’s become commoditised beyond redemption.
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Italian police use Lamborghini to transport donor kidney 300 miles in two hours • Jalopnik

Elizabeth Blackstock:


In what may be one of the most Italian things that has ever happened, the Italian State Police rushed a donor kidney from Padua to Rome for a transplant in a Lamborghini Huracan. Last week’s journey is around 300 miles, but with the help of a specially-outfitted supercar, the police made it happen in just about two hours at an average speed of 143 mph—and that’s a journey that normally takes around six.

The police posted a video of the Lambo after the completed journey, and it is just delightful.

Yes, the Italian Police own a Lamborghini and use it as a regular ol’ patrol vehicle most of the time. It’s outfitted with lights, a police computer, and other equipment for traffic stops and arrests. That said, though, the machine isn’t exactly ideal for the day-to-day (where, exactly, do you intend to put someone that you’ve arrested?). It’s still cool as hell for these more extreme circumstances, though.

But for this specific instance, the frunk came in handy. The police force turned it into a refrigerated compartment for organ transport or the delivery of other temperature-sensitive medical supplies.


Not seized from drug dealers; they actually buy Lambos for the police force from time to time.
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Thanks for polluting the planet: emails blamed for climate change • Financial Times

George Parker, Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan and Leslie Hook:


British officials working on plans to tackle climate change have alighted on a new threat to the planet: millions of unnecessary emails sent every day, including those that say nothing more than “thanks”.

The UK, which is hosting the UN COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow next year, is looking at innovative ways to cut carbon emissions — and the footprint left by web users has drawn its attention.

Officials have been particularly taken by research suggesting that more than 64m unnecessary emails are sent by Britons every day, pumping thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere owing to the power they consume.

“We’ve been looking at research suggesting that if you reduced those emails by just one a day, you would save a lot of carbon,” said one person involved in COP26 preparations.

The issue of unnecessary emails was raised in a recent paper from the National Cyber Security Centre, a London-based agency charged with making the country’s online life secure. The NCSC declined to comment.

…One piece of open source information referred to by officials relates to research commissioned by Ovo Energy last November, which suggested that if each person in the UK sent one fewer email a day it could cut carbon output by more than 16,000 tonnes a year.


Absolutely flipping barking mad. This would only be true if people were powering their machines on and off in order to send those emails. In reality, the machines were on anyway. The emails are a marginal load. Just now, Apple Mail is using 0.0% of the CPU on my eight-year-old machine. But the machine’s using energy.

If this is the quality of analysis in the runup to COP26, we’re all toast.
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Sign up • Logic School


We welcome all tech workers — whether you’re a project manager, warehouse worker, software engineer, or ride share driver. Applicants must not be full time K-12 or university students. 

When is Logic School?

Logic School runs for twelve (12) weeks, from March 8 through May 31st, 2021. 

What will I learn by the end of 12 weeks?

• Be comfortable discussing structural inequities, and if/when tech has deepened structural inequities with your community, co-workers and the broader public.
• Gain hands-on experience in advocating for change in tech through working towards a Logic School final project.
• Have reflected on your theory of change, and who your community is.
• Feel confident in advocating and articulating (through writing or other forms) inequities in tech.
• Be familiar and knowledgeable about a range of writing and research on tech and the tech industry, especially from the fields of critical race theory, economics and sociology.
• Be part of a supportive network and community in the tech industry who you can seek advice and encouragement from in the future, especially in discussing race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality/nationality/class across the industry’s internal and external practices.
• Be part of strengthening and building forms of collective action that will solidify into new practices and infrastructures throughout the industry.


Free, thanks to the Omidyar Network. Can someone sign Mark Zuckerberg up for it? (Or you could join if you’ve got the time..)
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Google RCS global, Messages testing end-to-end encryption • 9to5Google

Abner Li:


In mid-2019, Google decided to take over and speed up the launch of RCS. A little over 17 months later, Google announced today that it has completed a global rollout of RCS, while Messages will start testing end-to-end encryption.

RCS, or Rich Communication Services, allows for advanced messaging features like typing indicators, read receipts, higher-resolution photos and videos, larger group conversations, and interactive experiences with businesses.

Since carriers were taking quite some time to implement this big upgrade over SMS/MMS, Google last year stepped in by offering its cross-compatible RCS implementation directly to Messages users around the world. It started in the UK and France, with a major expansion to the US that November.

Google today has completed a global rollout of RCS for all Android phones. As such, those with carriers lacking support can download the Google Messages app from the Play Store. That said, availability “in some cases” depends on device and service providers. You’ll see an in-app prompt to enable or can visit Settings – Chat features.

To mark that occasion, Google is addressing one of the biggest criticisms about the standard its consumer messaging strategy is relying on. Google Messages will soon start testing end-to-end encryption in one-to-one conversations.


Of course, you’ll both need to have encryption capability enabled on your phones. This comes as the British government is wittering on again about “terrorists” and “paedophiles” using encryption. Pretty soon, if this is enabled (query: will Apple include it?) everyone will be using encrypted messaging all the time, though don’t expect those confirmation texts you get to use it anytime soon. (Google’s using the Signal encryption protocol.) At Android Police, they complain that “Since Apple won’t bring iMessage to Android, and since RCS and the Universal Profile are open standards Apple could implement at any time, either way, it’s on Apple to plug the gap here, as its lack of action on either front widens the messaging gap between the closed iOS bubble and the rest of the world.” Now, in case you’re wondering why you might want a default encryption system for phone messages, read on…
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Messaging app Go SMS Pro exposed millions of users’ private photos and files • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:


Security researchers at Trustwave discovered the flaw in August and contacted the app maker with a 90-day deadline to fix the issue, as is standard practice in vulnerability disclosure to allow enough time for a fix. But after the deadline elapsed without hearing back, the researchers went public.

Trustwave shared its findings with TechCrunch this week.

When a Go SMS Pro user sends a photo, video or other file to someone who doesn’t have the app installed, the app uploads the file to its servers, and lets the user share a web address by text message so the recipient can see the file without installing the app. But the researchers found that these web addresses were sequential. In fact, any time a file was shared — even between app users — a web address would be generated regardless. That meant anyone who knew about the predictable web address could have cycled through millions of different web addresses to users’ files.

Go SMS Pro has more than 100 million installs, according to its listing in Google Play.

TechCrunch verified the researcher’s findings. In viewing just a few dozen links, we found a person’s phone number, a screenshot of a bank transfer, an order confirmation including someone’s home address, an arrest record, and far more explicit photos than we were expecting, to be quite honest.

Karl Sigler, senior security research manager at Trustwave, said while it wasn’t possible to target any specific user, any file sent using the app is vulnerable to public access. “An attacker can create scripts that could throw a wide net across all the media files stored in the cloud instance,” he said.


Why So Many Pictures Of Genitals, Traumatised Security Researchers Ask God. Still, now you see why RCS might be useful.
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YouTube will run ads on some creator videos, but it won’t give them any of the revenue • The Verge

Julie Alexander:


Starting today, YouTube will begin running ads on some creators’ videos, but it won’t give them a portion of the ad revenue because they’re not big enough to be enrolled in its Partner Program.

When advertisements run on YouTube videos, those creators typically receive a portion of the revenue through their role in YouTube’s Partner Program. With the new monetization rules, a creator who is not in the partner program “may see ads on some of your videos,” according to an update to the platform’s Terms of Service.

Prior to the update, YouTube says these videos only received ads in limited circumstances, like if they were monetized by a record label as part of a copyright claim. The update will mostly affect smaller creators without a huge viewership; YouTube’s Partner Program requires creators to have accrued 4,000 total hours of watch time over the last 12 months and have more than 1,000 subscribers.


Shorter version: YouTube’s keeping more of its ad revenue for itself.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1433: how Finland and Norway beat Covid, Google Pay relaunches (again?), why is sand soft?, Chrome speeds up, and more

Oil companies fuelled vehicles; now they want your money to take carbon out of the atmosphere. CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic 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 10 links for you. If you can handle them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Finland and Norway avoid Covid-19 lockdowns but keep the virus at bay • WSJ

Bojan Pancevski:


In the north of Europe, Finland and Norway boast the West’s lowest rates of mortality linked to Covid-19 and a low incidence of coronavirus infections even though they have kept their economies and societies largely open while lockdowns returned to the continent.

While Sweden has captured global attention with its refusal to adopt mandatory restrictions—a policy now being reversed in the face of spiraling infections and deaths—its two northern neighbors now stand out as the closest Western equivalents to Asian nations that have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

Their recipe: a brief, targeted lockdown in March, followed by tight border controls with mandatory testing and quarantine for all travelers.

Elsewhere in Europe, strict lockdowns in the spring helped bring infections down, but as most of the continent reopened borders, summer travelers turned into incubators for a new and bigger wave of infections, according to epidemiologists and policy makers. Even as governments reimpose draconian restrictions, borders across Europe remain largely open.

The Nordic policy mix could offer lessons for Western governments that are scrambling to bridge the gap until vaccines become widely available and whose latest lockdowns are causing public frustration and exacting a rising economic toll.

“Life is much closer to normal here than in most countries,” said Katja Kähkönen, a theater director from Tampere in Finland. Ms. Kähkönen’s new piece premiered on Saturday in front of a reduced audience under distancing rules that have roughly halved the number of people allowed to attend concerts and dine at restaurants.

After the show, she and her colleagues visited an Italian restaurant while a rock concert was taking place in a nearby bar—a scene now unimaginable in most European countries.


Something about the fable of the tortoise and the hare, maybe.
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Google Pay’s massive relaunch makes it an all-encompassing money app • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


Google Pay for both Android and iOS is relaunching with a giant array of new features. It turns the app from something that most people think of as a tap-to-pay card repository or peer-to-peer payment system into a much more ambitious service. The new app begins rolling out across the United States today.

The new version of the app will have three new tabs: “Pay,” which includes peer-to-peer payments as well as your transaction history using tap-to-pay; “Explore,” which will be a place where Google will offer deals and discounts; and finally, “Insights,” which will allow you to connect your bank accounts to get a searchable overview of your finances.

You will even be given the option to allow Google Pay to crawl your Gmail inbox and your Google Photos account to look for receipts. Google will use OCR technology to auto-scan them and integrate them into your finance tracking.

In 2021, Google will partner with some banks to directly offer fully online checking and savings accounts inside Google Pay — a service Google is calling “Plex.”

Not all of these services are strictly new for Google, but this will mark the first time they’re unified into a single app. In doing so, Google Pay is now arguably a direct competitor to a wide array of other apps and services, including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash, Intuit’s Mint, Simplifi, Truebill, Shop, and also online banks like Ally. That is a lot of companies that will have to contend with Google making a high-profile push into their market.


Isn’t trying to compete with so many things overreach? And that’s quite a lot of delving into your personal accounts that you have to allow.
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Oil companies want to get even richer sucking their own emissions out of the air • Vice

Jennifer Johnson:


Last week, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports sounded the apocalypse alarm, claiming the planet may have already passed a “point of no return” for global heating.

To stop the “self sustaining” melting of permafrost, its authors contend that humanity must now build 33,000 plants to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air. The paper was rapidly rebuked by climate scientists, who claimed that the model it’s based on is overly simplistic.

What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that CO2 must be drawn out of the atmosphere to keep temperatures within manageable limits. Most climate change mitigation pathways that warn warming must be limited to 1.5C or 2C include some form of carbon dioxide removal, be it via a mass reforestation programme or a more futuristic scheme.

Technologies which might help us don’t exist on a large scale yet, but there are a number of organisations developing them today. Ironically, a lot of our would-be saviours are fossil fuel producers – the companies that put so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.

In late October, a consortium of six energy firms – including Shell, BP and French oil giant Total – announced intentions to develop a huge carbon capture and storage (CCS) project off of England’s east coast. The initiative will see the companies siphon off the CO2 emissions from industrial facilities at Teesside and Humberside, and pipe them into a saline aquifer beneath the bed of the North Sea. Theoretically, they would stay locked away there forever, instead of being released into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect.

If successful, the consortium says it could eventually sequester almost half of the UK’s industrial emissions beneath the North Sea. The project is meant to be up and running by 2026. With only around 20 CCS facilities in operation around the world, it could constitute a major step forward for the technology. However, questions about the true environmental credentials of CCS remain.


Often forgotten that it’s not enough to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere; you need to remove them too in order to ameliorate warming.
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What makes sand soft? • The New York Times

Randall Munroe (who writes the XKCD strip):


No one understands how sand works.

That may sound absurd, but it’s sort of true. Understanding the flow of granular materials like sand is a major unsolved problem in physics.

If you build an hourglass and fill it with sand grains with a known range of sizes and shapes, there is no formula to reliably predict how long the sand will take to flow through the hourglass, or whether it will flow at all. You have to just try it.

Karen Daniels, a physicist at North Carolina State University who studies sand and other granular materials — a field actually called “soft matter” — told me that sand is challenging in part because the grains have so many different properties, like size, shape, roughness and more: “One reason we don’t have a general theory is that all of these properties matter.”

But understanding individual grains is only the start. “You have to care not just about the properties of the particles, but how they’re organized,” Dr. Daniels said. Loosely packed grains might feel soft because they have room to flow around your hand, but when the same grains are packed together tightly, they don’t have room to rearrange themselves to accommodate your hand, making them feel firm. This is part of why the surface layers of beach sand feel softer than the layers underneath: the grains in the deeper layers are pressed closer together.

Our failure to find a general theory of sand isn’t for lack of trying. For everything from agricultural processing to landslide prediction, understanding the flow of granular materials is extremely important, and we just aren’t very good at it.

“People who work in particulate handling in chemical engineering factories can tell you that those machines spend a lot of time broken,” Dr. Daniels said. “Anyone who’s tried to fix an automatic coffee grinder knows they get stuck all the time. These are things that don’t work very well.”

Luckily, we’re not totally in the dark, and can say a few things about what makes sand softer or harder.


Absorbing read. All the things we have learned during lockdown.
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Google’s latest Chrome update delivers ‘largest performance gain in years’ • The Verge

Chris Welch:


Google is wrapping up 2020 with what it claims are major performance enhancements to the company’s Google Chrome browser. “This month’s update represents the largest gain in Chrome performance in years,” Matt Waddell, Chrome’s director of product, wrote in a blog post. Sounds pretty exciting on the surface, no? Waddell says a slew of under-the-hood changes and optimizations have led to boosts to Chrome on several fronts.

The first has to do with tabs. Chrome now will prioritize your active tab over the others in the background, “reducing CPU usage by up to 5x and extending battery life by up to 1.25 hours (based on our internal benchmarks).” Google goes into greater detail on just what it’s doing to keep tabs in check (hint: it involves throttling JavaScript) at the Chromium blog. “We’ve done this without sacrificing the background features that users care about, like playing music and getting notifications.”

But even opening Chrome should feel faster. The browser now launches 25% faster — hopefully to where you’ll notice the difference. It loads pages up to 7% faster, “and does all of this using less power and RAM than before.”


Or, you know, buy an M1 Mac and see it load faster and use less CPU. But how many people honestly notice how quickly a browser launches? Who launches it more than once a month?
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Google yanks Apple Silicon Chrome port after browser is found to ‘crash unexpectedly’ • The Register

Matthew Hughes:


Google’s attempt to launch its Arm port of Chrome for Apple Silicon Macs got off to a rocky start after it was forced to pull the browser over stability concerns.

“Earlier today we updated our Chrome download page to include a new version of Chrome optimized for new macOS devices featuring an Apple processor,” Googler Craig wrote on the Chrome support pages. “We’ve discovered that the version of Chrome made available for download today may crash unexpectedly.”

At the time of writing, the macOS ARM64 port of the browser remains unavailable. Folks now face two options: use the standard x86_64 version, which will run happily on their Arm Mac via the Rosetta 2 emulation layer, or if they managed to download the Apple Silicon port, use a workaround that involves giving Chrome access to the Mac’s Bluetooth radio.

The emulated version shouldn’t prove unbearably slow. Benchmarks of Apple’s latest in binary translation tech shows Rosetta2 is roughly 20% slower than the native equivalents. Given this is a fairly brisk chip to begin with, performance is roughly comparable to what you’d get with a well-specced last-generation Mac.


Very weird that they wouldn’t have spotted this much earlier. Didn’t they have M1 Macs to test it on? Did they just do it on the DTKs (Mac minis with A14 iPad chips) and hope that would suffice? But there’s been a revised build which, it says, will do the job.
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Apple will reduce App Store cut to 15% for most developers starting January 1st • The Verge

Nick Statt:


Apple on Wednesday announced a reduction to its longstanding App Store commission rate — one of the most substantial changes to how iOS developers earn money in the history of the iPhone maker’s digital app marketplace — as part of a new program for small businesses.

The new App Store Small Business Program, as it’s called, will allow any developer who earns less than $1m in annual sales per year from all of their apps to qualify for a reduced App Store cut of 15%, half of Apple’s standard 30% fee, on all paid app revenue and in-app purchases.

The company says the “vast majority” of iOS app developers should be able to access the program, but Apple declined to say what percentage of its more than 28 million registered app makers would qualify. Apple also declined to specify how much of its App Store revenue would be affected by the reduced commission.


Strange how they haven’t gone for a marginal (tax) rate where you’d pay 15% on the first $1m and then 30% after that – it would remove the incentive to simply take your app off the Store when you hit $999,999.

Even so, it’s inching down towards 15%, doing it in stages (the second year of subscriptions is now at that level since 2016) – a sort of unboiling the frog.
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Climate deniers are claiming EVs are bad for the environment — again. Here’s why they’re wrong • DeSmog

Dana Drugmand:


scientists recently warned that if the country has any hope of reaching the Paris climate targets of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), 90% of all light-duty cars on the road must be electric by 2050.

But the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a longtime disseminator of disinformation on climate science and supported by petroleum funding sources including the oil giant ExxonMobil and petrochemical billionaire Koch foundations — dismisses this imperative and instead tries to portray electrified transport as environmentally problematic in a paper titled, “Would More Electric Vehicles Be Good for the Environment?

“This is a grab bag of old and misleading claims about EVs [electric vehicles],” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you want to answer this question [posed by the report’s title], you have to also look at the question of what are the impacts of the current gasoline and diesel transport system, and this report just ignores that.”

The CEI report is authored by Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the institute who has a long track record of casting doubt on the science of climate change and the severity of climate risk. He subtly expresses this dismissal of the climate threat in the introduction of his paper, writing: “Niche status for EVs is not good enough for those who consider climate change an existential threat, especially since transportation contributes nearly one-third of American emissions of carbon dioxide.”

According to David Pomerantz, executive director of the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, Lieberman and CEI are not credible authorities on matters of climate policy, like increasing electric vehicle adoption, given their embrace of anti-science ideology.

“If someone has spent much of their career denying climate change is a problem, and now that person writes an opinion piece masquerading as a white paper essentially saying ‘EVs are bad because they don’t do enough to address climate change’ — and that person is writing on behalf of an entity funded by oil companies — perhaps we ought not take their arguments, all of which have been made and debunked before, in good faith,” Pomerantz told DeSmog via email.

Reichmuth agreed that Lieberman’s paper doesn’t appear to be written in good faith. “This is designed to try to create a both-sides, ‘I’m just asking questions’ narrative to slow the transition to electric vehicles down,” he said. “This isn’t a real assessment.”


Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where right-wing Americans are all in favour of improving the environment. It would be nice to visit.
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Amid Utah’s COVID-19 surge, conspiracy theorists who don’t believe the increase in cases tried to enter a Utah ICU • Yahoo News

Azmi Haroun:


With Utah posting record hospitalizations, according to the Utah Department of Health, conspiracy theorists tried to enter a hospital to prove the recent COVID-19 case surge was a hoax.

Utah is recruiting medical professionals from out of state and has reported that 85% of its intensive-care-unit beds are being used, with almost half related to COVID-19.

According to the statement from Intermountain Healthcare, “although these situations are few and isolated, stopping attempts to gain inappropriate access and responding to fake conspiracy theories diverts attention from providing lifesaving care provided at the hospitals.”

Conspiracy theorists have been attempting to sneak into the intensive-care unit at a hospital in Provo, Utah, according to the local news station KSL.

At a Provo City Council meeting last week, the Utah Valley Hospital administrator Kyle Hansen was providing an update on the hospital’s COVID-19 response and said roughly five people attempted to sneak into the hospital, questioning whether the ICUs were full, KSL reported.


It would be a fabulous irony if they then caught it and found themselves inside there, wouldn’t it. Do Americans latch onto conspiracy theories more tightly than other people?
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Marissa Mayer is back and she wants to fix your address book • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on Wednesday announced the launch of Sunshine, a consumer software start-up that is debuting with an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence.

Sunshine is Mayer’s first venture and return to the spotlight since stepping down from her role as Yahoo chief executive after the company’s $4.48bn sale to Verizon in 2017.

At launch, Mayer’s start-up is rolling out Sunshine Contacts, an address book app that relies on artificial intelligence to find and merge duplicate contacts, fill out incomplete information and continually keep that data up to date. The app integrates with the iOS Contacts app as well as Gmail and will be free to all iOS users with an invitation.

“The idea is that Sunshine Contacts basically becomes the brain that operates your contacts,” Mayer told CNBC. “Contacts, in our view, should be a living, changing thing.”

The app is also designed to make it easy to share your contact information with others, or keep that data updated for others. One feature, for example, allows users to change their contact info within the app and push it as an update to others who have their information and use Sunshine Contacts.

“As I’ve been working on contacts, some days I just get really upset and concerned that there are thousands of people out there who still have my Google email address or Yahoo email address,” said Mayer, before demonstrating the feature.


Sigh. Not now, Marissa.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1432: Facebook labels don’t stop Trump’s lies spreading, when will Twitter ban him?, Apple’s M1 machines benchmarked, and more

Unable to cope with being cut off from manufacturers and vendors, Huawei has sold its Honor low-cost smartphone business to a Shenzhen company. CC-licensed photo by Marco Verch 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. Not laughed out of court. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook labels on Trump’s lies do little to stop spread • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac:


The labels Facebook has been putting on false election posts from President Donald Trump have failed to slow their spread across the platform, according to internal data seen by BuzzFeed News.

In the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election, Trump has repeatedly spread false information questioning President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — and been rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook. The company has attempted to temper this by adding labels to the false claims directing people to accurate information about the election and its results.

But this has done little to prevent Trump’s false claims from going viral on Facebook, according to discussions on internal company discussion boards. After an employee asked last week whether Facebook has any data about the effectiveness of the labels, a data scientist revealed that the labels — referred to as “informs” internally — do very little to reduce them from being shared.

”We have evidence that applying these informs to posts decreases their reshares by ~8%,” the data scientists said. “However given that Trump has SO many shares on any given post, the decrease is not going to change shares by orders of magnitude.”

The data scientist noted that adding the labels was not expected to reduce the spread of false content. Instead, they are used “to provide factual information in context to the post.”

“Ahead of this election we developed informational labels, which we applied to candidate posts with a goal of connecting people with reliable sources about the election,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement, adding that labels were “just one piece of our larger election integrity efforts.”


Letting destabilising lies spread effectively unchecked: it’s hard to portray Facebook’s effect positively, really.
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Statement • Huawei


Huawei’s consumer business has been under tremendous pressure as of late. This has been due to a persistent unavailability of technical elements needed for our mobile phone business. Huawei Investment & Holding Co., Ltd. has thus decided to sell all of its Honor business assets to Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology Co., Ltd. This sale will help Honor’s channel sellers and suppliers make it through this difficult time.

Once the sale is complete, Huawei will not hold any shares or be involved in any business management or decision-making activities in the new Honor company.

This move has been made by Honor’s industry chain to ensure its own survival. Over 30 agents and dealers of the Honor brand first proposed this acquisition.

Since its creation in 2013, the Honor brand has focused on the youth market by offering phones in the low- to mid-end price range. During these past seven years, Honor has developed into a smartphone brand that ships over 70 million units annually.


No price put on this. In theory, Huawei’s smartphone business should be worth billions and billions, but I wonder if the Chinese government encouraged a bank to help Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology with a friendly-terms loan. (There’s still the high-end smartphone business which it appears to have retained.)

And whether, if Joe Biden’s administration makes some sort of deal with China, whether Huawei will take its business back just as abruptly.
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Will Twitter ban Trump? • The Atlantic

Kaitlyn Tiffany:


This year, Twitter did start moderating the president—and misinformation in general—meaningfully for the first time. In the spring, when Trump spread blatant disinformation about the coronavirus, the company slapped warning labels on his tweets. (It also briefly suspended his son Donald Trump Jr. for sharing a video that claims hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19.) Throughout the summer and fall, President Trump’s lies about mail-in voting and election fraud have been appended with notes about the disputed claims and links to real information. Since November 4, the president has tweeted (or retweeted himself) more than 120 times. So far, about 40 of these tweets come with a warning label. (This is not counting the claims of election fraud he has retweeted from other people.)

Now he is two months away from losing exemption from Twitter’s rules—theoretically going back to the same treatment as anyone else. “[The world-leader] policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions,” a Twitter spokesperson confirmed in a statement. Twitter has spent the past year putting checks on the president’s speech, adding friction to the process by which conspiracy theories spread, and labeling false information for what it is. But it hasn’t yet gone nuclear. The company is in a bind: Banning Trump after he leaves office would be interpreted as an aggressive political act by much of the right. It might drive him and his followers to other, more insular parts of the internet, where delusions and lies would go unchecked by the mainstream. But allowing him to keep spreading dangerous misinformation would be hypocritical, and, frankly, bad for the company’s image.


It’s only a matter of time. It will happen gradually – there will be a limited suspension for a tweet that must be deleted, and eventually something will tip it over. Yet Trump won’t want to lose his bully pulpit, so he might try to be careful. Twitter though is going to be aching for some reason to end the embarrassment.
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Facebook didn’t fully enforce call to arms rule for events • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:


In August, following a Facebook event at which two protesters were shot and killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mark Zuckerberg called the company’s failure to take down the event page asking militant attendees to bring weapons “an operational mistake.” There had been a new policy established earlier that month “to restrict” the ability of right-wing militants to post or organize in groups, Facebook’s CEO said, and under that rule, the event page should have been removed.

BuzzFeed News has learned, however, that Facebook also failed to enforce a separate year-old call to arms policy that specifically prohibited event pages from encouraging people to bring weapons to intimidate and harass vulnerable individuals. Three sources familiar with the company’s content moderation practices told BuzzFeed News that Facebook had not instructed third-party content moderators to enforce a part of its call to arms policy that was first established in June 2019.

“What we learned after Kenosha is that Facebook’s call to arms policy didn’t just fail,” said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization that pressured Facebook to create the rule. “It was never designed to function properly in the first place.”


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Primary energy vs final energy: why replacing fossil fuels won’t be so hard • Bloomberg

Akshat Rathi:


The average efficiency of coal power plants globally is about 33%, according to the World Coal Association. That is, only a third of the energy stored in the black lumps is converted to electricity. Many modern internal combustion engine cars have an efficiency of about 20%, transforming only a fifth of gasoline’s energy into motion.

Why should something as dry and technical as energy-measurement warrant attention? Because misunderstanding it dramatically overplays the difficulty of meeting global clean-energy goals.

Let’s first define the terms. “Primary energy” is the measure of energy as found in nature, say blocks of coal or crude oil. “Final energy” is what’s available for us to use in the form of gasoline or electricity. And “useful energy” is the fraction that’s converted to, for example, move a car or light up a room.

Even though fossil fuels meet roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy demand, they are responsible for only 60% of its useful energy, according to BNEF. Put another way, 20% of the world’s primary energy demand today is met by non-fossil sources—and those sources are responsible for 40% of the world’s useful energy.

…As the world consumes more energy from renewables in the form of electricity, it manages similar economic output while consuming less primary energy. Generating electricity from solar and wind is highly efficient, and motors inside electric vehicles convert more than 80% of the energy stored in batteries into motion.


The maths seems reassuring, yet we never seem to be any closer to changing things.
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Yeah, Apple’s M1 MacBook Pro is powerful, but it’s the battery life that will blow you away • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:


The M1 MacBook Pro runs smoothly, launching apps so quickly that they’re often open before your cursor leaves your dock. 

Video editing and rendering is super performant, only falling behind older machines when it leverages the GPU heavily. And even then only with powerful dedicated cards like the 5500M or VEGA II. 

Compiling projects like WebKit produce better build times than nearly any machine (hell the M1 Mac Mini beats the Mac Pro by a few seconds). And it does it while using a fraction of the power. 

This thing works like an iPad. That’s the best way I can describe it succinctly. One illustration I have been using to describe what this will feel like to a user of current MacBooks is that of chronic pain. If you’ve ever dealt with ongoing pain from a condition or injury, and then had it be alleviated by medication, therapy or surgery, you know how the sudden relief feels. You’ve been carrying the load so long you didn’t know how heavy it was. That’s what moving to this M1 MacBook feels like after using other Macs. 

Every click is more responsive. Every interaction is immediate. It feels like an iOS device in all the best ways. 


He says the battery life is a minimum of two to three times that of previous Mac portables. And they were pretty good.
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1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions – study • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


Frequent-flying “‘super emitters” who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to a study.

Airlines produced a billion tonnes of CO2 and benefited from a $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage they caused, the researchers estimated. The analysis draws together data to give the clearest global picture of the impact of frequent fliers.

Only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018 and 4% flew abroad. US air passengers have by far the biggest carbon footprint among rich countries. Its aviation emissions are bigger than the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany and Australia, the study reports.

The researchers said the study showed that an elite group enjoying frequent flights had a big impact on the climate crisis that affected everyone.

They said the 50% drop in passenger numbers in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic should be an opportunity to make the aviation industry fairer and more sustainable. This could be done by putting green conditions on the huge bailouts governments were giving the industry, as had happened in France.


These frequent flyers aren’t called “pilots” by any chance, are they? I mean, they’re the source of the trouble.
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The rise and fall of Getting Things Done • The New Yorker

Cal Newport:


the productivity pr0n movement continued to thrive because the overload culture that had inspired it continued to worsen. G.T.D. was joined by numerous other attempts to tame excessive work obligations, from the bullet-journal method, to the explosion in smartphone-based productivity apps, to my own contribution to the movement, a call to emphasize “deep” work over “shallow.” But none of these responses solved the underlying problem.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable.

There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped [Merlin] Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.


I often tell people that your email inbox is a to-do list written by someone else, and that you should treat it with the disdain that that implies. (But there’s an ever-burgeoning market for to-do list apps.)
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Apple hits back at European activist complaints against tracking tool • Reuters

Kirsti Knolle:


Noyb’s complaints were brought against Apple’s use of a tracking code, known as the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), that is automatically generated on every iPhone when it is set up.

The code, stored on the device, makes it possible to track a user’s online behaviour and consumption preferences – vital in allowing companies to send targeted adverts.

“Apple places codes that are comparable to a cookie in its phones without any consent by the user. This is a clear breach of European Union privacy laws,” Noyb lawyer Stefano Rossetti said.

Rossetti referred to the EU’s e-Privacy Directive, which requires a user’s consent before installation and using such information.

Apple said in response that it “does not access or use the IDFA on a user’s device for any purpose”.

It said its aim was to protect the privacy of its users and that the latest release of its iOS 14 operating system gave users greater control over whether apps could link with third parties for the purposes of targeted advertising.

The Californian tech giant said in September it would delay plans to launch iOS 14 [with IDFA blocking] until early next year.

Apple accounts for one in every four smartphones sold in Europe, according to Counterpoint Research.


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Mark Zuckerberg said banning Steve Bannon from the platform for advocating for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray is ‘not what our policies would suggest’ • Yahoo


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated during Tuesday’s virtual congressional hearing that the firm will not suspend Steve Bannon’s account following his call for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be beheaded in a November 5 video.

In the hearing, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the video did violate Facebook’s policies, which is why the firm took the video down. But when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked if Facebook would suspend the former Trump advisor’s account, Zuckerberg said the company would not.

“Senator, no, that’s not what our policies would suggest that we should do in this case,” Zuckerberg said in Tuesday’s hearing.

Bannon went after Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray in a video of his podcast on November 5, which he recirculated on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and YouTube. He slammed the two for disagreeing with President Donald Trump and said “I’d put their heads on pikes” outside of the White House to warn other federal officials.

Facebook removed the video, but Zuckerberg then reportedly told employees in an all-hands meeting [last week] that Bannon hadn’t violated enough of the company’s policies to be booted from the platform. 


Three strikes and you’re.. not out. Four. OK, five. Well, look, there’s definitely a line and don’t cross it, OK? We’ll tell you when you do. (Twitter banned Bannon permanently for the same comments.)
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A court ruling in Austria could censor the internet worldwide • Slate

Jennifer Daskal:


A little more than a year ago, I wrote with concern about the risk that a single EU court within single EU member state would become the censor for the world. That fear has now become reality. In a ruling in September, first reported on Thursday, the Austrian Supreme Court ordered, pursuant to local defamation rules, that Facebook remove a post insulting a former Green Party leader, keep equivalent posts off its site, and do so on a global scale.*

The case started with an April 2016 Facebook post, in which a user shared an article featuring a photo of Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, then-chair of Austria’s Green Party, along with commentary labeling her a “lousy traitor,” “corrupt oaf,” and member of a “fascist party,” apparently in response to her immigration policies. This is core, protected speech in the United States. But it was deemed defamation under Austrian law. And in a series of rulings, Austrian courts ordered that Facebook take down and keep off any such post, and do so around the world.

Facebook complied, but only in part.  Employing what is known as geoblocking, it made the particular post that had been identified inaccessible to users within Austria. But it objected both to the global reach of the order and to the obligation to look for and keep other, equivalent posts off their site. And it argued that the order violated the applicable EU’s e-Commerce Directive, which prohibits EU member states from imposing general monitoring obligations on tech companies like Facebook.

In an October 2019 ruling, the European Court of Justice sided with Austria—concluding that the e-Commerce Directive did not stand in the Austrian court’s way (a ruling that is hard to reconcile with the text of the directive, for reasons I won’t rehash now). The CJEU ruling set two limits, albeit minimal, on EU member state courts. First, the obligation to look for and take down equivalent content must be issued with sufficient specificity to eliminate the need for independent provider assessment of that content—a criteria that, as I and others have argued previously is premised on a largely misguided assessment of the ability and precision of filtering tools. Second, any worldwide injunction must comport with “relevant international law.”


International law is getting very, very confusing but the emerging reality is that the only options are not to operate in certain countries, or comply with what they demand. Facebook’s success bites it again.
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FCPX performance on M1 chip • MacRumors Forums


This is from a photographer in Australia. He got the device today and posted this on Weibo in Chinese. I guess I’ll translate a bit.

Exporting H.264 Sony 10 bit 422 footage with just one rec709 lut takes:

– 11 minutes and 30 seconds on his iMac Pro with Vega 56 and 128gigs of ram.
– 10 minutes and 20 seconds on the new MacBook Pro with 8gigs of ram took. Wow.


(FCPX = Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, used by video editors all the time.) There is more discussion and more benchmarks in the thread, but this suggests that even with minimal RAM the M1 can leave Intel chips in the dust. If word gets around fast enough (and among pro users it surely will), Apple might have trouble selling its Intel-based high-end machines because people will see that the lower-end ones smoke them already, and will hold out for the M*-based versions. The M* Mac Pro will be quite something, on this basis.

There’s also this Twitter thread comparing a compiler run on a M1 MacBook Air to a 16in (Intel) MacBook Pro. Developers are going to want to have their tools running on it, but might be happy with x86 emulation.

Meanwhile Anandtech have looked at the M1 Mac mini and conclude that Apple “hit it out of the park”, as it now beats Intel and is level with AMD’s best.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yes, the former president of the US is actually Barack Obama, not Barack Obaba. Thanks to all those who pointed out the error.

Start Up No.1431: Obama frets for US democracy, US military buys app data, Apple faces Facebook’s nemesis, M1 emulation outpaces Intel Macs, and more

Strava has added about 2 million users during lockdown – many probably unaware how it shares their workouts. CC-licensed photo by Lee Simpson 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. No, really. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Obama fears for our democracy • The Atlantic

Jeffrey Goldberg:


Trump, Obama noted, is not exactly an exemplar of traditional American manhood. “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”

…He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. It was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, he said, who helped unleash the populist wave: “The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”

The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”

He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”


There’s also a Q+A which is a reminder of what a coherent president sounds like. And will sound like after January.
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How the US military buys location data from ordinary apps • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:


The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.

Through public records, interviews with developers, and technical analysis, Motherboard uncovered two separate, parallel data streams that the U.S. military uses, or has used, to obtain location data. One relies on a company called Babel Street, which creates a product called Locate X. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a branch of the military tasked with counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and special reconnaissance, bought access to Locate X to assist on overseas special forces operations. The other stream is through a company called X-Mode, which obtains location data directly from apps, then sells that data to contractors, and by extension, the military.


Always useful for targeting people with drone strikes.
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Apple addresses privacy concerns surrounding app authentication in macOS • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:


security researcher Jeffrey Paul shared a blog post titled “Your Computer Isn’t Yours,” in which he raised privacy and security concerns related to Macs “phoning home” to Apple’s OCSP server. In short, Paul said that the OCSP traffic that macOS generates is not encrypted and could potentially be seen by ISPs or even the U.S. military.

Apple has since responded to the matter by updating its “Safely open apps on your Mac” support document with new information, as noted by iPhoneinCanada. Here’s the new “Privacy protections” section of the support document in full:


macOS has been designed to keep users and their data safe while respecting their privacy.

Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked. We have never combined data from these checks with information about Apple users or their devices. We do not use data from these checks to learn what individual users are launching or running on their devices.

Notarization checks if the app contains known malware using an encrypted connection that is resilient to server failures.

These security checks have never included the user’s Apple ID or the identity of their device. To further protect privacy, we have stopped logging IP addresses associated with Developer ID certificate checks, and we will ensure that any collected IP addresses are removed from logs.



Quite a thing for Apple to be pressured into making this announcement. Since Catalina its app oversight has become a lot more intrusive (Catalina would send a hash of anything – even terminal commands – to Apple to see whether it was malware). Does iOS do the same? Because nobody seems to have noticed it if so.
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Apple targeted by privacy campaigner who took on Facebook • Bloomberg

Aoife White and Stephanie Bodoni:


Apple’s ad tracking is the target of two complaints to Spanish and German authorities by a privacy advocate whose earlier legal battles are forcing Facebook to change the way it transfers data.

Noyb, a group founded by privacy activist Max Schrems, is accusing Apple of unlawfully installing so-called identification for advertisers on its devices. The service helps Apple and apps track users’ behavior and their consumption preferences without their consent, the group said.

“With our complaints we want to enforce a simple principle: trackers are illegal, unless a user freely consents,” Noyb lawyer Stefano Rossetti said in a statement on Monday. “Smartphones are the most intimate device for most people and they must be tracker-free by default.”

Schrems made a name for himself as a law student by taking on Facebook over the safety of people’s data when it was shipped to the US. He won a landmark European Union court ruling in 2015 and his complaints led to a second key judgment in July that has forced regulators on both sides of Atlantic to rethink data transfer rules. The EU’s revamped data protection rules in 2018 opened the door to mass lawsuits, which led to the creation of Noyb and a promise by Schrems to “look for the bigger cases” with the biggest impact.


Schrems tends to pick cases that he can win, and he’s determined as hell. Apple might want to start thinking about how it’s going to handle a loss here.
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Apple Silicon M1 emulating x86 is still faster than every other Mac in single core benchmark • MacRumors

Frank McShan:


The first native benchmarks of Apple’s M1 chip appeared on the Geekbench site last week showing impressive native performance. Today, new benchmarks have begun showing up for the M1 chip emulating x86 under Rosetta 2.

Single Core Mac benchmarks

The new Rosetta 2 Geekbench results uploaded show that the M1 chip running on a MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM has single-core and multi-core scores of 1,313 and 5,888 respectively. Since this version of Geekbench is running through Apple’s translation layer Rosetta 2, an impact on performance is to be expected. Rosetta 2 running x86 code appears to be achieving 78%-79% of the performance of native Apple Silicon code.

Despite the impact on performance, the single-core Rosetta 2 score results still outperforms any other Intel Mac, including the 2020 27-inch iMac with Intel Core i9-10910 @ 3.6GHz.

Initial benchmarks for the MacBook Air running M1 natively featured a single-core score of 1,687 and multi-core score of 7,433. Additional benchmarks with M1 have since surfaced and are available on Geekbench.


Not usually a fan of benchmarks but these are at least – uh – Apples to Apple comparisons.
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Sweden bans public events of more than eight people • The Local


Sweden on Monday announced a ban on public events of more than eight people at a press conference where ministers urged the population to “do the right thing”.
The new limit is part of the Public Order Act and therefore is a law, not a recommendation like many of Sweden’s coronavirus measures. People who violate the ban by organising larger events could face fines or even imprisonment of up to six months.

The law change will come into effect on November 24th and will initially apply for four weeks.

“It’s going to get worse. Do your duty and take responsibility to stop the spread of infection. I’ll say it again. It’s going to get worse. Do your duty and take responsibility to stop the spread of infection,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the press conference on Monday.

Sweden’s limit on attendees at public events was reduced to 50 in March, and was raised to 300 in late October for certain types of seated events only — although several regions chose to keep the lower limit of 50.

The ban applies to public events such as concerts, performances, and sports matches, but not to places like schools or workplaces or to private gatherings. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said “we can’t regulate every social gathering” but urged people to follow the new limit at all kinds of events. 

“There should not be social situations with more than eight people even if they are not formally affected by the law. This is the new norm for the whole society, for all of Sweden. Don’t go to the gym. Don’t go to the library. Don’t have dinners. Don’t have parties. Cancel,” he said.


Sweden bends to the inevitable. Its strategy, held up by many as the ideal way forward, has actually been pretty disastrous. Even its economy hasn’t done well compared to its neighbours.
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Strava raises $110m, touts growth rate of two million new users per month in 2020 • TechCrunch

Darrell Etherington:


Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added over 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.

Strava has 70 million members already according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities – all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.

The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity – though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.


Another sign that people don’t notice the privacy invasion much.
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Can history predict the future? • The Atlantic

Graeme Wood:


[Jared] Diamond and [Yuval] Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. [Peter] Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping— is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”— the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: more and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.


Anyway, how’s your day shaping up?
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Twitter names famed hacker ‘Mudge’ as head of security • Reuters

Joseph Menn:


Social media giant Twitter TWTR.N Inc, under increased threat of regulation and plagued by serious security breaches, is appointing one of the world’s best-regarded hackers to tackle everything from engineering missteps to misinformation.

The company on Monday named Peiter Zatko, widely known by his hacker handle Mudge, to the new position of head of security, giving him a broad mandate to recommend changes in structure and practices. Zatko answers to CEO Jack Dorsey and is expected to take over management of key security functions after a 45- to 60-day review.

In an exclusive interview, Zatko said he will examine “information security, site integrity, physical security, platform integrity – which starts to touch on abuse and manipulation of the platform – and engineering.”

Zatko most recently oversaw security at the electronic payments unicorn Stripe. Before that, he worked on special projects at Google and oversaw handing out grants for projects on cybersecurity at the Pentagon’s famed Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA).


That’s a storied CV, but the problem will be to instil a culture, not to be a famous figurehead. Twitter’s security problems are much more about the sloppy culture that has been there for years and which led to the colossal hack of a few months ago.
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New lawsuit: why do Android phones mysteriously exchange 260Mb a month with Google via cellular data when they’re not even in use? • The Register

Thomas Claburn:


Google on Thursday was sued for allegedly stealing Android users’ cellular data allowances though unapproved, undisclosed transmissions to the web giant’s servers.

The lawsuit, Taylor et al v. Google [PDF], was filed in a US federal district court in San Jose on behalf of four plaintiffs based in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the hope the case will be certified by a judge as a class action.

The complaint contends that Google is using Android users’ limited cellular data allowances without permission to transmit information about those individuals that’s unrelated to their use of Google services.

Data sent over Wi-Fi is not at issue, nor is data sent over a cellular connection in the absence of Wi-Fi when an Android user has chosen to use a network-connected application. What concerns the plaintiffs is data sent to Google’s servers that isn’t the result of deliberate interaction with a mobile device – we’re talking passive or background data transfers via cell network, here.

“Google designed and implemented its Android operating system and apps to extract and transmit large volumes of information between Plaintiffs’ cellular devices and Google using Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances,” the complaint claims. “Google’s misappropriation of Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances through passive transfers occurs in the background, does not result from Plaintiffs’ direct engagement with Google’s apps and properties on their devices, and happens without Plaintiffs’ consent.”


Like you, I thought “it’ll be in the EULA”, but the plaintiffs say not. There’s a lot of data quietly pinging around there.
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Electric-truck pilot in Sweden slashes carbon footprint • Trucking Info

HDT staff:


Oatly started using the battery-electric trucks to move Oatly’s products from its production facilities in Sweden, to destinations within the local market.

Sweden-based Einride may have attracted the most attention for its electric, autonomous cargo Pods, but it’s also developing regular electric trucks. Oatly is one of the first companies in the world to operate a full fleet of Einride electric trucks daily, on-site. 

During the first month of operation, the trucks have driven over 8,600 electric km (about 5,344 miles) and as a result have saved over 10,500 kg, or 23,149 pounds, of CO2 compared to diesel. 

The collaboration between the two sustainability-minded companies was first announced in May 2020 and took less than six months to come to fruition. It currently runs around the clock at Oatly’s Swedish facilities, and is coordinated by the Einride intelligent freight mobility platform for maximum efficiency and emissions reduction.

“This partnership debunks the myth that electric trucks cannot handle heavy loads,” said Robert Falck, CEO and founder of Einride. “When supported by intelligent software, heavy loads and long distances are entirely possible, and our freight mobility platform has proven this already with its ability to coordinate all details of the Oatly vehicle transport in real-time. We measure minute-by-minute, everything from drivers, pallets, loading bays, route choices, and loading points to make electric trucks both smart and profitable for our partners.”


Since I wondered about electric artics yesterday. (Thanks David Joffe for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified