Start Up No.1464: how Facebook’s numbers create radicals, the virtual CES, DuckDuckGo hits 100m per day, why herd immunity takes jabs, and more


Tesla was the best-selling car brand in the UK in December. Really, it was. CC-licensed photo by rulenumberone2 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. Friday already? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

They used to post selfies. Now they’re trying to reverse the election • The New York Times

Stuart Thompson and Charlie Warzel:

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for years, [Dominick McGee’s] feed was unremarkable — a place to post photos of family and friends, musings about love and motivational advice.

Jan. 9, 2019: Replacing “why is this happening to me” with “what is this trying to teach me” is a better way of thinking. Positivity only..

Most of his posts received just a handful of likes and comments.

That changed after the presidential election, when he began posting about what he believed was suspicious activity around the vote: Nov 8 2020: “Americans have always viewed the media as an enemy of the people until President Trump was elected. We have allowed the media to earn our trust in this nation because the masses would accept anyone who wouldn’t accept Trump. #StopTheSteal🇺🇸”

He saw a sharp rise in engagement — more than 50 comments and nearly a dozen shares.

On Nov. 6, he wrote that he’d “rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” garnering 106 comments and 134 likes.

A post about Democrats supporting slavery in the 1800s received even more attention. Within weeks, he was committing nearly all his time to sharing what he learned from the Stop the Steal movement. He started a Facebook group, Win the Win, with the goal of overturning the election results. Tens of thousands of people joined in just weeks. Mr. McGee, who uses the pseudonym Dom Lucre on Facebook, wrote in the group that a “storm was coming,” a common QAnon reference, getting 440 comments and 1,500 likes.

Suddenly he had followers: “Thank you for helping we the people to wake up and see the truth, and see how we’ve been lied to for way too long,” one commented. “Thank you Dom!”

By the time he drove from Tennessee to Washington to march on the Capitol, his Facebook group had swelled to more than 61,000 members, and he was eager to meet some of them in person.

…He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many Americans into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

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It’s like a weird game. Imagine, though, if there weren’t any numbers associated with posts. Would people do the same things? (I did. You can pre-order my book where I look, among other things, at what happens when you take away those numbers.)
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Look, but don’t touch… the painful shortcomings of a virtual CES • Medium

Barry Collins:

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When in Vegas, I take an almost masochistic pride in largely swerving the major stands and pre-booked appointments, and instead wander the halls trying to find the gems for myself. In particular, I love the Eureka Park that’s normally in the Sand’s Convention Center, where you find hundreds of students and startups from all over the planet, most arriving with prototype landfill that will never make a commercial product, but a few with something genuinely innovative and brilliant. Things such as a beer fridge that restocks itself or a chess board that moves its own pieces. Things that are not just another sodding slab of glass…

It’s not been a total blowout. I enjoyed the Pepcom press event that was held last night. Instead of being thrust into a giant hall with journalists left to scrum it out with exhibitors, Pepcom held a virtual event instead, where you clicked on the exhibitor’s name, were given a short video of their new products and could then dive into Zoom sessions with their staff if you wanted more details.

It was certainly much easier to get through than a hall crammed full of backpack-toting bloggers, many of whom think nothing of chopping into your conversations or chokeslamming you out of the way so they can film their YouTube videos. But it’s harder for the more interesting, niche players to get noticed at an event like that. If you’re just a logo on a screen, how are you going to attract a journalist’s attention? I dived into a couple of Zooms with the smaller exhibitors and they were almost shocked to see me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were their only visitor all night. It was, well, awkward.

Perhaps what’s hardest of all for a journalist is virtual CES makes it impossible to tell which products are generating a buzz. When you can see hundreds of people crammed around a stand or a product on the showfloor, you know there’s something worth investigating there.

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The trouble I always felt with CES was that you’d see a gazillion me-too products, which told you where the centre of gravity of Shenzhen’s thinking (or factories) was; then the few items that looked fascinating but which you felt would vanish without trace. Which they pretty much inevitably did.
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DuckDuckGo traffic

Now past 100 million search queries per day. Google does about 3.5 billion per day. The growth line is exponential, if slow. I started using it somewhere back by the letter A on its graph.
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Twitter shuts down account of Sci-Hub, the pirated-papers website • Science

Jeffrey Brainard:

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Twitter last week permanently suspended the account of Sci-Hub, the website that has posted millions of freely accessible copies of scientific articles pirated from subscription journals. Twitter said Sci-Hub had violated its policy against promoting “counterfeit goods,” according to Sci-Hub’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan.

The notification came shortly after a 6 January court hearing in India about a lawsuit filed by three of the world’s largest journal publishers—Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society—which are seeking to block public access to Sci-Hub in that country because of copyright infringement. Elbakyan says Sci-Hub’s defense to the suit, filed in December 2020, will rely in part on tweets from Indian scientists who have said they support continued access to Sci-Hub because they cannot afford subscriptions to journal content.

The now-suspended Twitter account had included some tweets that linked to Sci-Hub’s website, Elbakyan wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. But the “account was used primarily for discussions around open science issues,” she wrote.

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Well I guess that forestalls any attempt by Donald Trump to get back on Twitter by borrowing Sci-Hub’s account. Not sure meanwhile how Sci-Hub’s defence in India is going to pan out. Lots of people can’t afford (virtual) things they want because the price put on them is inflated, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the price.
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Fitbit joins Google • Fitbit Blog

James Park:

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When Eric [Friedman] and I founded Fitbit 13 years ago, we did so with a simple, but bold idea: to make everyone in the world healthier. Since shipping the original Fitbit tracker in 2009 to now having sold more than 120 million devices in over 100 countries, this mission has never wavered. Instead, millions of you joined that mission, and made Fitbit a movement that transformed lives. In some cases, we heard from our users that we even helped save lives. Together, we’ve taken 275 trillion steps and logged over 15 billion hours of sleep.

This is just the beginning because becoming part of the Google family means we can do even more to inspire and motivate you on your journey to better health. We’ll be able to innovate faster, provide more choices, and make even better products to support your health and wellness needs. On our own, we pushed the bounds of what was possible from the wrist, pioneering step, heart rate, sleep and stress tracking. With access to Google’s incredible resources, knowledge and global platform, the possibilities are truly limitless.

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Well, limitless apart from the restrictions that have been put on the takeover about data sharing. Is Google going to do any better with Fitbit than Fitbit did? Its hardware efforts have been unfocussed for years.
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Fix The Planet: what’s up with electric car sales? • New Scientist

Adam Vaughan:

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The pandemic meant that many countries saw new car sales fall around the world last year. In the UK, they were down a staggering 29%. Yet the UK also saw battery electric car sales increase by 186%. In Norway, electric cars outstripped petrol and diesel car sales for the first time . Volkswagen (VW), the world’s biggest car-maker, saw global battery electric model sales rise by 197% in a year when its overall sales were down by 15%. “2020 was very important for Europe. It is the beginning of the real, irreversible EV revolution,” says Viktor Irle at EV-Volumes, which tracks electric car sales globally. As his graph below shows, this electric boom is largely a European story, but it is also a Chinese one too. The US is lagging.

“This is what a technological transformation feels like,” says Ben Lane at Next Green Car. He points out the growth isn’t just linear, but accelerating. A few factors explain why Europe is leading the charge, says Lane. One is European Union regulation around car emissions, which has been tightening for two decades. A second is the VW emissions scandal that started in 2015 and triggered a decline in diesel car sales. Meanwhile, money has poured into electric car development, and new entrants, including Tesla, have scaled up. In some markets, individual policies helped electric car sales mushroom last year. For example, it’s no coincidence that 68% of 2020’s UK electric car sales were for company cars, the same year that the government changed rules to let them pay no company car tax.

Is this a tipping point?
Yes, says Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, UK. In a paper he co-authored with Simon Sharpe at the UK Cabinet Office this week, he writes: “A small number of countries could make a large contribution to accelerating the activation of this global tipping point.”

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Quentin Stafford-Fraser bought a Tesla – which was the best-selling brand in the UK in December. Really.
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When to trade bitcoin? When Saturn crosses Mercury, of course • Reuters

Anna Irrera and Tom Wilson:

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Bitcoin seems so flighty, some might argue you may as well consult a crystal ball, read the runes or stare at the stars to divine the direction of the capricious cryptocurrency.

Enter Maren Altman, bitcoin investor and astrologer.

The New Yorker has been following the movements of celestial objects to predict bitcoin price fluctuations since last summer. And while many people might mock her methods, she has built up a 1 million-strong social-media following on TikTok.

Last week, the 22-year-old told her followers to watch for a price correction on Jan. 11.

Why? Saturn was going to cross Mercury.

Lo and behold, bitcoin fell as much as 21% on that day, before recovering most of its losses, slamming the brakes on a meteoric rally that saw it double from early December to a record $42,000 last week.

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It’s the “lucky horse” scheme, of course. Send out horse tips to 10,000 people; break them into 10 groups, different tip for each. You’ll get it right with one group, so then you sell them your paid-for newsletter. Choose two-horse races, get half of them right, amp up the cost of the newsletter..

It’s as good a method as any, especially for bitcoin.
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Facebook turned on Trump after warnings that ‘business as usual isn’t working’ • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman:

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As footage of a pro-Trump mob ransacking the US Capitol streamed from Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, Facebook’s data scientists and executives saw warning signs of further trouble.

User reports of violent content jumped more than 10-fold from the morning, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. A tracker for user reports of false news surged to nearly 40,000 reports an hour, about four times recent daily peaks. On Instagram, the company’s popular photo-sharing platform, views skyrocketed for content from authors in “zero trust” countries, reflecting potential efforts at platform manipulation by entities overseas.

Facebook’s platforms were aflame, the documents show. One Instagram presentation, circulated internally and seen by the Journal, was subtitled “Why business as usual isn’t working.”

Company leaders feared a feedback loop, according to people familiar with the matter, in which the incendiary events in Washington riled up already on-edge social-media users—potentially leading to more strife in real life.

…“Hang in there everyone,” wrote chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer in a post reviewed by the Journal, asking for patience while the company figured out how best “to allow for peaceful discussion and organizing but not calls for violence.”

“All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” responded one employee, one of many unhappy responses that together gathered hundreds of likes from colleagues. “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now out of control.”

…Mr. Zuckerberg, who has grown more involved in politics over the last four years, has been personally involved in the decisions, people familiar with the matter say. One person familiar with the discussions said the changes were already being planned but that Wednesday’s events “sped it up by 10x.”

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Just on the headline: Facebook didn’t “turn on” Trump. It banned him.
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Ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the foreign-policy mess Trump is leaving behind • Foreign Policy

Kelly Bjorklund:

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Bjorklund: Was it difficult to get a message through to the president? How did you navigate that when the stakes were so high?

Tillerson: His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.

Trump’s “understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited.”I had to constantly evaluate my last conversations with him—what seemed to resonate, what seemed to get across, what didn’t—and I would try different approaches with him. I used to go into meetings with a list of four to five things I needed to talk to him about, and I quickly learned that if I got to three, it was a home run, and I realized getting two that were meaningful was probably the best objective.

So I began to adjust what I went into a meeting with and what I attempted to explain and describe, and then I started taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better. If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that. Just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work.

…I think the other challenge that I came to realize early on is there were so many people who had access to his ear who were telling him things, most of which were untrue, and then he began to listen to those voices and form a view that had no basis in fact. So then you spent an inordinate amount of time working through why that’s not true, working through why that’s not factual, working through why that’s not the basis on which you want to understand this, you need to set that aside, let’s talk about what’s real. I think that was as big a challenge as anything. 

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His thinking about the biggest problem that’s ahead – over China and Taiwan – is worth reading, and a bit chilling: would the US public have the tolerance for a war with China over a little island?
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Herd immunity by infection is not an option • Science

Devi Sridhar and Deepti Gurdasani:

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Herd immunity is expected to arise when a virus cannot spread readily, because it encounters a population that has a level of immunity that reduces the number of individuals susceptible to infection. On page 288 of this issue, Buss et al. (1) describe the extent of the largely uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil. Their data show the impact on mortality rates of a largely unmitigated outbreak where even with an estimated 76% of the population being infected, herd immunity was not achieved. Manaus provides a cautionary example of unmitigated spread across a population, showing that herd immunity is likely not achieved even at high levels of infection and that it comes with unacceptably high costs.

Buss et al. used data on the occurrence of SARS-CoV-2–specific antibodies (seroprevalence) in blood donors, adjusted for waning antibody responses over time, to calculate an estimated attack rate for COVID-19 of 66% in June, rising to 76% in October, in Manaus. The attack rate is the proportion of at-risk people who develop infection after exposure in a period of time. This attack rate resulted in a factor of 4.5 excess mortality in 2020 relative to previous years.

The infection fatality rate was estimated to be between 0.17% and 0.28%, consistent with the population being predominantly young and at reduced risk of death from COVID-19. Manaus recorded 2642 [1193/million inhabitants (mil)] confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and 3789 (1710/mil) deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome likely to have been caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection. These figures are starkly different from the fatality rates during the same period (until 1 October) in the United Kingdom (620/mil), France (490/mil), and the United States (625/mil), and orders of magnitude higher than in Australia (36/mil), Taiwan (0.3/mil), and New Zealand (5/mil). Despite such a high proportion of the population being infected, transmission in Manaus has continued, even in the presence of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), with the effective reproduction rate (R) near 1.

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That’s quite worrying that even with three-quarters of the population having had it that spread doesn’t stop. Fingers crossed for the vaccine to achieve it.
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Axios wants to help companies write like its reporters—for $10,000 a year, or more • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:

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Punchy news startup Axios is betting that companies will pay big bucks to write like its reporters.

The company next month will launch AxiosHQ, a communications platform that will enable businesses to update their employees—including through internal newsletters—in Axios’s just-the-facts, bullet-point style.

The software tool, which Axios said would cost at least $10,000 a year depending on a customer’s size, is the first paid-subscription product launched by the digital-news startup. Founded in 2017, Axios mostly covers U.S. politics, media and technology, and is known for its short, exclusive stories.

Subscribers to the platform have the option to add a service that allows them to tap a team of editors—separate from Axios’s news division—for writing tips, Axios co-founder and President Roy Schwartz said. One member of that team used to help edit the presidential daily briefing for President Trump, Mr. Schwartz said. AxiosHQ also features a tool that recommends grammar and usage changes based on a database of edits from Axios staff.

The product is part of Axios Chief Executive Jim VandeHei’s desire to build a subscription business, which he stated when the company was founded. Axios, which was profitable last year, doesn’t have a paywall and currently generates most of its revenue through advertising.

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Smart enough, though there’s honestly no special sauce to what Axios does. It’s standard newsform: two most important paragraph at the top, third paragraph is the context, and on you go. Take out the stuff they dress it with in bold (Why It Matters or The Big Picture) and it’s just like any tabloid-style story.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1463: Intel ditches its CEO, Qualcomm buys ex-Apple chip startup, Congress Covid infections show vaccine delay, and more


Apple held talks with electric vehicle maker Canoo last year – but why precisely? CC-licensed photo by Magnus Johansson 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. Double trouble. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Apple held talks with EV startup Canoo in 2020 • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:

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Apple held meetings with California EV startup Canoo in the first half of 2020 as part of the Silicon Valley giant’s secretive effort to advance its own electric vehicle project, three people familiar with the talks have told The Verge. The two companies discussed options ranging from investment to an acquisition, according to two of the people.

Canoo’s scalable electric vehicle platform, or “skateboard,” is largely what drew Apple’s interest, the people said. The platform is different from ones developed by other startups and larger automakers because it integrates more of the car’s electronics, allowing for greater flexibility in cabin design. It also features steer-by-wire technology, which also increases design flexibility and is not yet widely adopted in the industry.

Canoo was more interested in taking on an investment from Apple, two of the people said. Ultimately, the talks fell apart. Canoo has since become a publicly traded company after merging with a blank check fund that was listed on the NASDAQ in late 2020. Apple has made at least one other acquisition in the mobility space in recent years, buying Drive.ai in 2019.

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Canoo’s vehicles are the ugliest things, judging by the picture on the story. The bigger question is, how do you make an electric vehicle stand out? What elements can you have that others can’t completely copy?
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The bitcoin cryptocurrency dream is dead • Marker

James Surowiecki:

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It’s easy to forget now, but Bitcoin’s promise in those early days was that it would be a new currency, one that could challenge the hegemony of so-called fiat currencies like the dollar (which are issued by governments) by being untraceable money that would allow people to conduct business cheaply and anonymously. And because Bitcoin was designed to have a fixed number of coins — it will have 21 million coins by 2140, and then no more — people could use it without worrying about inflation debasing its value. It was a kind of cyberpunk fantasy that enchanted many. As recently as 2018, Twitter CEO and Square founder Jack Dorsey said, “The world will ultimately have a single currency. I personally believe that it will be Bitcoin.” Even today, you can still find pundits who trumpet Bitcoin’s revolutionary possibilities and point to things like PayPal’s plan to offer its merchants the ability to transact in cryptocurrencies in 2021 as evidence that radical change is afoot.

And yet the reality is that Bitcoin has never really functioned as a currency. Almost from the beginning, only a small percentage of Bitcoin transactions have been for actual goods and services — and of those, many have been for illicit goods and services, like drugs and online gambling. Most Bitcoin transactions have been trades: people simply buying and selling it. The blockchain analysis company Chainalysis, for instance, found that in the first four months of 2019, just 1.3% of total transactions involved merchants. And that trend has only accelerated as the value of Bitcoin has soared.

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As he says, it’s easy to forget that it was once touted as a currency. Where did it go wrong? Too slow and too expensive to process transactions. At some point, the fact you’d get rewarded with a bitcoin for doing the “mining” that was required for the processing distorted incentives: chasing bitcoin became the thing.

There’s more, of course. Surowiecki used to write the business column for the New Yorker (sadly missed; gone due to budget cuts, I think) and sets them out clearly.
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Intel ousts CEO Bob Swan • WSJ

Asa Fitch:

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Intel ousted its chief executive in a surprise move that pivots the semiconductor giant closer to its engineering roots after a period of technology missteps, market-share losses and pressure from a hedge fund.

Intel on Wednesday said CEO Bob Swan would be succeeded by VMware chief Pat Gelsinger effective Feb. 15. Mr. Gelsinger, who was once Intel’s technology chief, has served as CEO of the business-software provider since 2012.

The leadership transition unfolds after Intel last year ceded the title as America’s most valuable semiconductor company to rival Nvidia and fell further behind rivals in churning out the most advanced chips. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is also considering a broader embrace of third-party chip makers rather than relying on its own factories.

“This is incredibly important strategically to what Intel is looking to accomplish and be defined more as a technology innovator and operator,” said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer at the Bahnsen Group, a wealth-management firm that owns a stake in Intel through one of its funds.

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Pressure from the hedge fund Third Point (which owns around $1bn in Intel stock – worth a bit more now) seems to have hit home. But can a new CEO actually improve their technology processes?
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Qualcomm to acquire NUVIA: a CPU magnitude shift • Anandtech

Andrei Frumusanu:

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Qualcomm has announced they will be acquiring NUVIA for $1.4bn – acquiring the start-up company consisting of industry veterans which originally were behind the creation of Apple’s high-performance CPU cores. The transaction has important ramifications for Qualcomm’s future in high-performance computing both in mobile, as well as laptop segment, with a possible re-entry into the server market.

NUVIA was originally founded in February 2019 and coming out of stealth-mode in November of that year. The start-up was founded by industry veterans Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati, having extensive industry experience at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD.

Gerard Williams III in particular was the chief architect for over a decade at Apple, having been the lead architect on all of Apple’s CPU designs up to the Lightning core in the A13 – with the newer Apple A14 and Apple M1 Firestorm cores possibly also having been in the pipeline under his direction.

NUVIA had been able to recruit a lot of top industry talent from various CPU design teams across the industry, and had planned to enter the high-performance computing and enterprise market with a new server SoC with a new CPU core dubbed “Phoenix”.

NUVIA particularly had made aggressive claims about how their design would be able to significantly outperform the competition both in raw performance and power efficiency once it came to market. Usually such claims are to be taken with scepticism. However due to the members of the design team and talent having proven themselves in the form of Apple’s very successful CPU microarchitectures, there’s a lot more weight and credibility to them compared to other start-ups.

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That’s quite a turn-up for the books, and might give Qualcomm a chance to catch up with Apple. So what’s happening at Apple’s chip design team?
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Samsung Galaxy S21 facing challenges ahead of intensifying competition and uncertain 2021 • Counterpoint Research

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Counterpoint Research’s Model Level Quarterly Smartphone Forecast shows the Galaxy S21 performing slightly better than last year’s Galaxy S20, but falling significantly short of the Galaxy S10. The research firm estimates the Galaxy S21 will ship almost 30% fewer units over four quarters than 2019’s Galaxy S10.

Several factors have led to this year’s more muted forecasts including extended replacement cycles, uncertainty around pricing, a more crowded competitive environment and proximity to the iPhone 12 launch.


Source: Counterpoint Research. *Includes forecasted quarters.

Research Analyst Sujeong Lim commented, “Galaxy launch dates over the past two years have crept closer to the iPhone, but prices have not. Last year’s delay from Apple coupled with an accelerated launch from Samsung puts the Galaxy S21 within 12 weeks of the iPhone 12 launch – this is not ideal from a price comparison standpoint.”

Better specifications does put the Galaxy S21 at a higher price point, but Ms. Lim believes Samsung is likely feeling pressure to keep prices as low as possible. “The iPhone 12 is hitting a massive sweet spot with its $749 entry price. Furthermore, we are now in mid-winter, with the impact of COVID-19 only intensifying across key markets. Pricing will need to improve from S20 levels for Samsung to avoid disappointment.”

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Remember when smartphone launches were A Thing?
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Parler users’ video GPS data shows involvement in Capitol attack • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehorotra:

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At least several users of the far-right social network Parler appear to be among the horde of rioters that managed to penetrate deep inside the US Capitol building and into areas normally restricted to the public, according to GPS metadata linked to videos posted to the platform the day of the insurrection in Washington.

The data, obtained by a computer hacker through legal means ahead of Parler’s shutdown on Monday, offers a bird’s eye view of its users swarming the Capitol grounds after receiving encouragement from President Trump — and during a violent breach that sent lawmakers and Capitol Hill visitors scrambling amid gunshots and calls for their death. GPS coordinates taken from 618 Parler videos analyzed by Gizmodo has already been sought after by FBI as part of a sweeping nationwide search for potential suspects, at least 20 of whom are already in custody.

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“At least several” is horribly clumsy – wouldn’t “several” do? What’s emerging is how narrowly some sort of real disaster was avoided. There’s the black officer who appeared to be running scared of the mob, but was instead cleverly leading them away from the just-closed Senate chamber. There’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying she didn’t want to shelter with some of the Republicans because they’re QAnon nuts who might have given away her location. And there’s the congresswoman who found the panic buttons in her room all mysteriously gone.
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Congress coronavirus cases show one vaccine dose might not prevent infection • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino:

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Three members of Congress contracted the coronavirus after sheltering in a crowded room as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, testing positive despite having been vaccinated against the virus.

Those positive tests do not mean the vaccines were faulty, experts said, noting that immune protection takes more than a week to kick in. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are available to Americans require two doses for full protection; a single dose is not as effective as both.

“Early protection against covid-19 may occur from about 12 days after dose one,” said Naor Bar-Zeev, an infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. People “should not really consider themselves protected really until after a week or two following dose two.”

…Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective after two doses, according to the companies. Pfizer’s vaccine consists of two doses, given three weeks apart and Moderna’s contains two doses given 28 days apart.

Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tested positive this week. All three of the lawmakers have said they received the first dose of coronavirus vaccine in the days before the riot.

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Quite a dramatic way to demonstrate that immunity takes some time to develop. If the mob doesn’t kill you, the idiots not using masks and social distancing will.
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Extremists move to secret online channels to plan for Inauguration Day in D.C. • NBC News

Anna Schechter:

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Right-wing extremists are using channels on the encrypted communication app Telegram to call for violence against government officials on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, with some extremists sharing knowledge of how to make, conceal and use homemade guns and bombs.

The messages are being posted in Telegram chatrooms where white supremacist content has been freely shared for months, but chatter on the channels has increased since extremists have been forced off other platforms in the wake of the siege of the US Capitol last week by pro-Trump rioters.

Telegram is a Dubai-based messaging service that does little moderation of its content and has a sizable international user base, particularly in eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In the days since the Capitol attack, for example, an Army field manual and exhortations to “shoot politicians” and “encourage armed struggle” have been posted in a Telegram channel that uses “fascist” in its name.

Chris Sampson, chief of research at the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideologies, a defense research institute, said his group is focused on and concerned about users of the channel and has alerted the FBI about it. (The institute is run by Malcolm Nance, an NBC News terrorism analyst.)

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Maybe it was better when they were all visible on Parler.
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Telegram hits 500 million users after WhatsApp backlash • Business Insider

Natasha Dailey:

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Messaging app Telegram added more than 25 million new users in the last three days, following backlash to a new privacy policy at competitor WhatsApp.

With the surge in new additions, Telegram announced it hit a milestone, surpassing 500 million active users.

The user boost comes after competitor WhatsApp faced widespread backlash following a new privacy policy, in which users will have to let Facebook and its subsidiaries collect WhatsApp data, like phone numbers and locations, before February 8 or lose access to the app. The company has since clarified the change doesn’t affect the privacy of messages with friends and family.

“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook,” WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said on Twitter. “It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”

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Your update is clear as mud, Mister Cathcart. Hence people heading to Telegram.
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A 25-year-old bet comes due: has tech destroyed society? • WIRED

Steven Levy:

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The visit [in 1995] was all business, [author of Luddite-admiring ‘Rebels Against the Future’, Kirkpatrick] Sale recalls. “No eats, no coffee, no particular camaraderie,” he says. Sale had prepped for the interview by reading a few issues of WIRED—he’d never heard of it before [Wired editor Kevin] Kelly contacted him—and he expected a tough interview. He later described it as downright “hostile, no pretense of objective journalism.” (Kelly later called it adversarial, “because he was an adversary, and he probably viewed me the same way.”) They argued about the Amish, whether printing presses denuded forests, and the impact of technology on work. Sale believed it stole decent labor from people. Kelly replied that technology helped us make new things we couldn’t make any other way. “I regard that as trivial,” Sale said.

Sale believed society was on the verge of collapse. That wasn’t entirely bad, he argued. He hoped the few surviving humans would band together in small, tribal-style clusters. They wouldn’t be just off the grid. There would be no grid. Which was dandy, as far as Sale was concerned.

“History is full of civilizations that have collapsed, followed by people who have had other ways of living,” Sale said. “My optimism is based on the certainty that civilization will collapse.”

That was the opening Kelly had been waiting for. In the final pages of his Luddite book, Sale had predicted society would collapse “within not more than a few decades.” Kelly, who saw technology as an enriching force, believed the opposite—that society would flourish. Baiting his trap, Kelly asked just when Sale thought this might happen.

Sale was a bit taken aback—he’d never put a date on it. Finally, he blurted out 2020. It seemed like a good round number.

«

Kelly then pinned him down on precisely how you’d know society had collapsed. After all, opinions might differ. It’s an entertaining piece. And does raise the question: how can you be sure that society hasn’t actually collapsed, and we’re just going through the motions?
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Start Up No.1462: the bitcoin millionaires with no money, the “clean” CES, the trouble with scotch eggs, Uganda bans social media, and more


The Chinese deny Uighurs are imprisoned; one person’s experience demonstrates that’s a lie. CC-licensed photo by futureatlas.com 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. Giri/haji. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs • The Guardian

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, as told to Rozenn Morgat:

»

How even to begin the story of what I went through in Xinjiang? How to tell my loved ones that I lived at the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, because of the status their uniforms gave them, could do as they wished with us, our bodies and souls? Of men and women whose brains had been thoroughly washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously enforcing orders, petty bureaucrats working under a system in which those who do not denounce others are themselves denounced, and those who do not punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we were enemies to be beaten down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.

In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.

«

This is awful. And happening to people now.
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Lost passwords lock millionaires out of their bitcoin fortunes • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper:

»

Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million.

The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin. While the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply on Monday, it is still up more than 50% from just a month ago, when it passed its previous all-time high of around $20,000.

The problem is that Mr. Thomas years ago lost the paper where he wrote down the password for his IronKey, which gives users 10 guesses before it seizes up and encrypts its contents forever. He has since tried eight of his most commonly used password formulations — to no avail.

“I would just lay in bed and think about it,” Mr. Thomas said. “Then I would go to the computer with some new strategy, and it wouldn’t work, and I would be desperate again.”

…as Bitcoin’s value has soared and fallen and he could not get his hands on the money, Mr. Thomas has soured on the idea that people should be their own bank and hold their own money.

“This whole idea of being your own bank — let me put it this way: Do you make your own shoes?” he said. “The reason we have banks is that we don’t want to deal with all those things that banks do.”

«

Or you can leave it to the exchanges, which of course get hacked. About 20% of bitcoin mined so far is reckoned to be lost.
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CES 2021: ‘clean tech’ gadgets dominate this year’s show • WIRED

Boone Ashworth:

»

IN THE BEST of times, CES is disgusting. Previous to this year, when CES was moved online because of an increasingly deadly pandemic, the tentpole event for the consumer technology industry was notorious for being a cesspool of germs. Hundreds of thousands of attendees would congregate in Las Vegas every January to crowd together, cough into the air, and unwittingly smear their excretions across touchscreens, rotating TVs, and robot bartenders.

“We talk about CES as a petri dish,” says Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst and founder of the market research firm The Heart of Tech. “You touch a lot of stuff all the time. Catching the flu at CES is something we always do, every year.”

But this year’s virtual event will be the cleanest of them all, and not just because there aren’t any crowds to sneeze on. With the world still gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the first-ever online CES has become a place for companies to show off new tech meant to make the world more sanitary.

«

Certainly is true that those who attended CES would generally come home with a cold that some other attendees had generously brought to share around. Of course they’ve all jumped on the “disinfectant” bandwagon – I guess it makes a change from tablets, or smart home speakers, or fitness bands, or some other new hotness – though I do wonder whether that will still be a thing people want as the year goes on.
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Inside the Google-Facebook ad deal at the heart of a price-fixing lawsuit • WSJ

Ryan Tracy and Jeff Horwitz:

»

Crucial to the backdrop of the Google-Facebook deal was the advertising industry’s movement toward an ad-sales method called header bidding.

Header bidding helped website publishers circumvent Google’s exchange for buying and selling ads across the web. The exchange auctions ad space to the highest bidder during the split second it takes a webpage to load.

Header bidding allowed the publishers to directly solicit bids from multiple ad exchanges at once, leading to more favorable prices for publishers. By 2016, about 70% of major publishers used the tool, according to the states’ lawsuit. Google worried a big rival might embrace header bidding, such as the Facebook Audience Network ad service, or FAN, cracking Google’s profitable monopoly over ad tools, the states allege. The Facebook service said it paid publishers $1.5bn in 2018, the last time it provided such details on its financial payouts.

“Need to fight off the existential threat posed by header bidding and FAN,” Google advertising executive Chris LaSala wrote in an internal document outlining 2017 priorities, according to the draft complaint.

In March 2017, Facebook publicly endorsed header bidding. Google approached Facebook and in September 2018 reached the digital advertising agreement, the states allege. The draft lawsuit says Google code-named it “Jedi Blue.” In December 2018, Facebook announced it was joining an advertising program, “Open Bidding,” that Google offers as an alternative to header bidding.

«

Lots of detail, specifically from the full lawsuit. But adtech is confusing as hell if you’re not steeped in it.
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Scott Atlas, controversial former Trump adviser, deletes Twitter account • Stat News

Matthew Herper and Lev Facher:

»

Scott Atlas, the radiologist who served for much of 2020 as President Trump’s most controversial coronavirus adviser, deleted his Twitter account this week, he confirmed to STAT, apparently in response to the social media site’s removal of many accounts following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“In my view, Twitter has become a destructive place that mainly inflames extreme thinking and disseminates distortions, rather than elucidating factual information and respectful, civilized discussion,” Atlas said in an email.

Atlas deleted his account amid Twitter’s purge of users it says spread misinformation following the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

…On Nov. 15, Atlas used his Twitter account to encourage a citizen uprising in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had imposed a new set of Covid-19 restrictions, dubbed a “lockdown,” in light of a wave of new cases there.

“The only way this stops is if people rise up,” he wrote. “You get what you accept.”

His remarks drew instant criticism for appearing to incite violence, though he later argued he had only advocated that “people peacefully protest.”

«

Really not going to miss him and his lack of expertise and useful knowledge. The Augean stables are gradually being cleaned.

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Stop the Scotch Egging and focus on the big picture • CapX

John Ashmore:

»

Back in the autumn barrister John McMillan outlined on these pages just how preposterously inconsistent the rules are, and how difficult it is to stay onside. But it was his overriding argument, that the law is a blunt, unhelpful tool for changing behaviour in a crisis, that we ought to keep in mind.

There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship here between journalists, social media rabble-rousers and politicians: the former know that clicky stories and tweets will reel in the punters, the latter that they can waste time on case of individual rule-breaking, rather than explaining why it took over nine months to demand travellers have a negative Covid test before entering the country, or why quarantine was barely enforced, or why our public health messaging still focuses on hand-washing when we should be banging on relentlessly about ventilation and aerosol transmission.

The scotch egg affair is a good example of this, insofar as we should have been debating the merits of gathering inside at all, rather than splitting hairs over precisely what people would be eating while they were spending hours sitting down near people from other households.

«

Hence “Scotch Egging”: arguing about the wrong thing. Now entering the lexicon.
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Uganda bans social media ahead of presidential election • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

»

Uganda banned social media and beefed up security in the capital on Tuesday, two days ahead of a presidential election pitting Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, against opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, a popular singer.

Campaigning ahead of the vote has been marred by brutal crackdowns on opposition rallies that have left scores dead and the repeated intimidation and arrest of some opposition candidates, their supporters and campaign staff.

Videos posted on social media on Tuesday showed a convoy of armoured military vehicles heading towards Kampala and then moving slowly through various streets in the heart of the capital, which typically votes against Museveni.

In a television address on Tuesday evening, the 76-year-old leader who took power in 1986, said he had met with the security forces and they were ready to defend any Ugandans worried about coming out to vote because of intimidation by the opposition.

…Museveni apologised for the inconvenience caused by the ban on social media and messaging apps but he said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts which backed his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

“If you want to take sides against the NRM, then that group should not operate in Uganda,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”

«

That phrasing has a familiar ring.
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An absurdly basic bug let anyone grab all of Parler’s data • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

»

By Monday, rumors were circulating on Reddit and across social media that the mass disemboweling of Parler’s data had been carried out by exploiting a security vulnerability in the site’s two-factor authentication that allowed hackers to create “millions of accounts” with administrator privileges. The truth was far simpler: Parler lacked the most basic security measures that would have prevented the automated scraping of the site’s data. It even ordered its posts by number in the site’s URLs, so that anyone could have easily, programmatically downloaded the site’s millions of posts.

Parler’s cardinal security sin is known as an insecure direct object reference, says Kenneth White, codirector of the Open Crypto Audit Project, who looked at the code of the download tool @donk_enby posted online. An IDOR occurs when a hacker can simply guess the pattern an application uses to refer to its stored data. In this case, the posts on Parler were simply listed in chronological order: Increase a value in a Parler post url by one, and you’d get the next post that appeared on the site. Parler also doesn’t require authentication to view public posts and doesn’t use any sort of “rate limiting” that would cut off anyone accessing too many posts too quickly. Together with the IDOR issue, that meant that any hacker could write a simple script to reach out to Parler’s web server and enumerate and download every message, photo, and video in the order they were posted.

“It’s just a straight sequence, which is mind-numbing to me,” says White. “This is like a Computer Science 101 bad homework assignment, the kind of stuff that you would do when you’re first learning how web servers work. I wouldn’t even call it a rookie mistake because, as a professional, you would never write something like this.”

«

Honestly, it was so insecure that it’s astonishing this hadn’t been done before. I guess it wasn’t considered relevant enough to go after until recently when Twitter began getting serious about killing QAnon and other accounts. If they were operating in Europe, they’d be getting dunked under GDPR.
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Stripped of Twitter, Trump faces a new challenge: how to command attention • The New York Times

Maggie Haberman:

»

while his presidency has often been compared to a reality television show, Mr. Trump has personally moved away from relying first and foremost on the medium that built him into the celebrity he was before running for office and propelled him to the White House.

…Yet by not using the tools available to a president, including public appearances or interviews for most of the past two months, Mr. Trump has in some ways chosen to muzzle himself.

Over the years of his presidency, as controversies and investigations of his conduct began to grow, television became a less reliable safe space. Broadcast networks, pressured to be more aggressive in their approach to him and his aides, asked tougher questions. With the exception of Fox News, cable networks that had rushed to put him on air throughout 2016 and the early stages of his presidency clamped down, cutting back on broadcasting his live appearances in particular.

And his adventures in the White House briefing room generally did not go well and revealed the limits of his grasp of policy or current events. One Trump adviser was blunt, saying that the president did not like most aspects of his job, and that included being asked questions for which he did not know the answers.

…Twitter became a stage he could manage more tightly.

It was telling that throughout his time in office, Mr. Trump chose as his primary Twitter channel his @realdonaldtrump account and not his official @Potus account. He understood the power of building his personal brand and keeping it separate from his official duties as president. Twitter gave him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.

He would scroll his own Twitter feed, looking at the replies for new topics to throw out. He studied the Twitter trending lists as signals of where the discourse was headed.

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets. The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

«

Twitter without Trump is a lot quieter, I feel.
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Yes, it was a coup. Here’s why • POLITICO

Fiona Hill was deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Oh, which president? Er.. Trump:

»

Trump’s goal was to keep himself in power, and his actions were taken over a period of months and in slow motion.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coup attempt. Trump disguised what he was doing by operating in plain sight, talking openly about his intent. He normalized his actions so people would accept them. I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for three decades, and I know the signs of a coup when I see them.
Technically, what Trump attempted is what’s known as a “self-coup” and Trump isn’t the first leader to try it. Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the first Napoleon) pulled one off in France in December 1851 to stay in power beyond his term. Then he declared himself Emperor, Napoleon III. More recently, Nicolas Maduro perpetrated a self-coup in Venezuela after losing the 2017 elections.

The storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode. Trump declared “election fraud” immediately on November 4 even while the votes were still being counted. He sought to recount and rerun the November 2020 presidential election so that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, was the winner. In Turkey, in 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully did the same thing; he had called elections to strengthen his presidency, but his party lost its majority in the parliament. He challenged the results in the courts, marginalized the opposition, and forced what he blatantly called a “re-run election.” He tried again in the Istanbul mayoral election in 2019 but was thwarted.

«

The best comment I’ve seen on “was it a coup, though?” is this tweet. Which reads “It’s only a coup if it comes from the Coup D’état region of France. Otherwise it’s just sparkling white nationalism.”
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Start Up No.1461: India’s digital goldrush, Sony gets drone-y, Parler hacked, Parler sues Amazon, why Twitter was right to zap Trump, and more


These empty shelves were caused by panic buying, but Brexit is causing them too now. CC-licensed photo by Sheep”R”Us 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. Uninserrectionable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK supermarkets short of fruit and veg amid Brexit and Covid chaos • Daily Mail Online

Sean Poulter:

»

Gaps are appearing on supermarket fruit and veg shelves amid warnings that supplies are being squeezed by Brexit red tape at ports and staff shortages at food producers due to Covid.

Lettuce, cauliflower packs, oranges, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are listed as ‘out of stock’ in some areas on Tesco’s website while prepared carrots, cauliflower and broccoli were among the fruit and veg listed as being unavailable on Ocado’s.

The problem at food production plants of staff going sick or needing to shield or self-isolate is an issue for the entire food industry, particularly chicken and red meat processors.

Meanwhile, food industry experts and the Cabinet minister with responsibility for Brexit, Michael Gove, have warned that problems at the ports are likely to escalate from today as the number of trucks going through Dover and the Channel Tunnel rises to normal levels after a New Year lull as the French step up enforcement of post-Brexit paperwork.

Freight expert John Shirley said: ‘The chaos has begun. Organising even the simplest load to Europe has become an almost impossible task due to the mountain of red tape brought in on January 1.’

«

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of our actions. This was predicted and predictable, but I highlight it here because this is just the first wave – these are the FMCGs, fast-moving consumer goods, where supply chains are most immediately vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be other industries which will be affected in spotty, unpredictable ways, because that’s the complexity of the supply chains we rely on now: they’re essentially chaotically, and any pertubation to them can throw things wildly off. This is just the start.
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Inside India’s digital gold rush • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:

»

n early August, Peter Johnson watched as the price of gold soared to more than $2,000 an ounce, the highest it had been in more than a decade. He was ecstatic: The sharp increase meant his wife’s jewelry was now worth almost twice as much as when he pawned it last year. Johnson, a 43-year-old father living in southern India, has never earned enough to support his family of four. For the past 15 years, pawning gold heirlooms has kept him afloat, allowing him to do everything from pay rent to put his children through school. Whenever he needed cash, Johnson would simply find a bank or pawnbroker. “You name a place, I would have gone there,” he said. 

But in the middle of a global pandemic — when visiting pawnshops posed a health risk — Johnson instead turned Rupeek. The startup, which raised $60 million from investors earlier this year, promises gold loans delivered right to your doorstep. Rupeek is part of a wave of Indian companies that are digitizing the centuries-old practice of borrowing against gold. The trend could ultimately help millions of unbanked Indians enter the formal credit market, jump-starting economic growth. And during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent financial downturn, business is booming.

«

India has been quite inventive for centuries in the use of money transfer without using actual goods or money through the hawala system – effectively, promissory notes carried from one place to another which evade exchange regulations (back when those were a thing).
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This is Sony’s Airpeak drone • The Verge

Chaim Gertenberg:

»

Sony is getting into the drone business, with the company showing off a brief first look at its new Airpeak drone at CES 2021. The new drone is said to be the smallest drone capable of carrying an Alpha camera and is designed for video content creation and professional photography.

There are very few concrete details about the new drone system right now, although Sony mentioned that it’s been exploring using the drones to film landscape and city shots. It showcased the Airpeak working as a chase camera for footage of its Vision-S concept car from last CES. The model shown off at CES 2021 is a quadcopter design and features two landing gear extensions that retract upward during flight (so as not to spoil your footage).

While Sony hasn’t dabbled in drones before, its cameras are among the best in the industry — so much so that market leader DJI already offers camera mounts for Sony Alpha products. And the idea of Sony bringing that expertise to bear with bespoke drone-focused products is certainly an intriguing one.

«

I guess drones was the one space where Sony might as well try to get its cameras used. But it’s a market that has burnt a lot of money; only DJI has managed to hang in there. Focussing on the pro side rather than consumers is wise. Small market but high margin.
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70TB of Parler users’ data leaked by security researchers • CyberNews

Vilius Petkauskas:

»

Parler, a social network used to plan the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week, has been hit by a massive data scrape. Security researchers collected swaths of user data before the network went dark Monday morning after Amazon, Google, and Apple booted the platform. 

The scrape includes user profile data, user information, and which users had administration rights for specific groups within the social network. Twitter user @donk_enby, who first announced about the scrape, claims that over a million video URLs, some deleted and private, were taken. 

“These are original, unprocessed, raw files as uploaded to Parler with all associated metadata,” claims one of the authors. 

Security researchers claim that the scrapped posts are linked to accounts that posted them, and some of the video and image data have geolocation information. That is said also to include data from Parler’s “Verified Citizens,” users of the network who verified their identity by uploading photographs of government-issued IDs, such as a driver’s license. 

The data might prove valuable to law enforcement since many who participated in the riots deleted their posts and videos afterward. The data scrape includes deleted posts, meaning that Parler stored user data after users deleted it.

«

Based on WordPress code, Parler was vulnerable to an exploit in a plugin; this was used to create a ton of administrator accounts which were able to access the databases. A historical artefact of sorts.
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Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election • CNN

Brian Fung:

»

Facebook will begin removing all content that mentions the phrase “stop the steal,” a full 69 days after Election Day.

The social media giant said in a blog post that it will ramp up enforcement against the phrase because it was used by those who participated in last week’s riots at the US Capitol.

“With continued attempts to organize events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence, and use of the term by those involved in Wednesday’s violence in DC, we’re taking this additional step in the lead up to the inauguration,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of integrity, wrote in a post about the company’s preparation for Inauguration Day.

On Election Day, the slogan “stop the steal” quickly became a rallying cry among President Donald Trump’s supporters, many of whom were egged on by Trump himself and his allies with false claims of election fraud. As a hashtag, its origins date back years, according to Facebook’s CrowdTangle analysis tool, but it became wildly popular in recent months as a gathering place for conspiracy theories about the election outcome.

«

Not sure what happened to “move fast and break things”. There’s not a lot of moving fast going on around there – and people doing idle searches were still finding huge Groups with the same phrase, bringing into question Facebook’s capability to do anything effectively.
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Not easy, not unreasonable, not censorship: the decision to ban Trump from Twitter • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

»

they’re making the rules up as they go along, but the problem with this framing is that it assumes that there are some magical rules you can put in place and then objectively apply them always. That’s never ever been the case. The problem with so much of the content moderation debate is that all sides assume these things. They assume that it’s easy to set up rules and easy to enforce them. Neither is true. Radiolab did a great episode a few years ago, detailing the process by which Facebook made and changed its rules. And it highlights some really important things including that almost every case is different, that it’s tough to apply rules to every case, and that context is always changing. And that also means the rules must always keep changing.

A few years back, we took a room full of content moderation experts and asked them to make content moderation decisions on eight cases — none of which I’d argue are anywhere near as difficult as deciding what to do with the President of the United States. And we couldn’t get these experts to agree on anything. On every case, we had at least one person choose each of the four options we gave them, and to defend that position. The platforms have rules because it gives them a framework to think about things, and those rules are useful in identifying both principles for moderation and some bright lines.
But every case is different.

And no matter what you think of Trump, his case was different.

«

You may think you’ve read all the posts about this, but this is the one to read if you’ve had enough of them.
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Parler sues Amazon after tech giant kicks site off its servers • WSJ

Keach Hagey:

»

In a complaint filed Monday in Seattle federal court, Parler alleged that Amazon Web Services kicked the company off its cloud servers for political and anti-competitive reasons. The conservative social network founded in 2018 exploded in popularity among supporters of President Trump after the November U.S. election.

“AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus. It is also apparently designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter, ” according to the complaint, which also accused Amazon of breaching a contract between the parties.

Amazon said Saturday that it would cut off Parler because it wasn’t confident in its ability to sufficiently police content on its platform that incites violence. The company said while it would no longer provide web services to Parler after Sunday at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time, it would preserve the platform’s data and help it migrate to different servers.

In its complaint, Parler also accused Amazon of applying a double standard than with other platforms, noting that Twitter had recently signed a multi-year web-hosting deal with the company.

An AWS spokesman said the claims had no merit and it respected Parler’s right to determine what content it allows.

“However, it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service,” the AWS spokesman said.

«

The complaint is pretty much a grumble about Twitter having a contract and Parler not having one. Though it does say that its code is written for AWS, and “To have to switch to a different service provider would require rewriting that code, meaning Parler will be offline for a financially devastating period.” See also Dave Troy, who thinks Parler is simply going to vanish.
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Global PC market ends 2020 on a high with 25% growth in Q4 • Canalys Newsroom

»

Ongoing strong demand in the holiday season led to a third consecutive quarter of sequential growth, with shipments in Q4 up 13% sequentially over what was a stellar performance in Q3. On the back of this remarkable recovery after a supply-constrained Q1, total PC shipments in 2020 grew 11% to reach 297.0 million units.

This represents the highest full-year growth since 2010 and the highest shipment volume since 2014. Worldwide PC market growth in 2020 was singlehandedly driven by notebooks and mobile workstations. Shipments of these devices increased 44% from 2019 to reach 235.1 million units. Conversely, desktop and desktop workstation shipments fell 20% from last year to reach 61.9 million units in 2020.

«

Not surprising, of course: everyone’s still Out Of Office. Apple introduced its M1 models and, according to Canalys (though of course we don’t have official figures any more) saw a 45% increase in sales in Q4 compared to the year before. That gave it an 8% share – higher than many, many years. Lenovo, HP and Dell still dominate, of course, and all grew.
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“An Extremely Online Riot” • BIG by Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller on the death of Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot as she tried to climb through a broken window in the Capitol towards lawmakers (and who is profiled in this NYT article):

»

There’s no moral or practical equivalence between these pro-Trump rioters and those who protested against police brutality; anger against racism in America is grounded and legitimate, while QAnon paranoia is not. And the pro-Trump protesters are not a group of sad sack victims taking out legitimate grievances by attempting to attack the counting of electoral votes. What Babbitt did was obviously wrong, and she did not have to do it. Most in her situation do not.

But still, environments nudge us in different directions. And Babbitt was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.

I don’t know that a different set of life experiences would have led Babbitt to a different place, but it’s not hard to see why someone like this would start to imagine a giant secret conspiracy was controlling her life. It’s more likely that people will distrust political institutions if those political institutions have repeatedly failed them. After all, Babbitt didn’t send herself to war; George W. Bush, as much as he might condemn her actions at the Capitol, did that.

Again, I’m not justifying, but I am trying to understand, because anti-democratic rage, which we tend to center around specific political leaders, is deep-rooted.

«

America’s advantage is it’s so big that companies can really scale. America’s disadvantage is it’s so big that when companies scale, they crush the little people. Babbitt’s death was a stupid waste: she clearly didn’t know she was in danger. It was her final bad decision.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1460: what the Trump ban means, the madness of the radicalised, why vaccination doesn’t prevent onward infection, and more


Mornings (without Trump on Twitter) are arriving more quickly than before. CC-licensed photo by Ivan 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon is suspending Parler from Amazon Web Services • Buzzfeed News

John Paczkowski and Ryan Mac:

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Amazon notified Parler that it would be cutting off the social network favored by conservatives and extremists from its cloud hosting service Amazon Web Services, according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. The suspension, which will go into effect on Sunday just before midnight, means that Parler will be unable to operate and will go offline unless it can find another hosting service.

People on Parler used the social network to stoke fear, spread hate, and coordinate the insurrection at the Capitol building on Wednesday. The app has recently been overrun with death threats, celebrations of violence, and posts encouraging “Patriots” to march on Washington, DC, with weapons on Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

In an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, an AWS Trust and Safety team told Parler Chief Policy Officer Amy Peikoff that the calls for violence propagating across the social network violated its terms of service. Amazon said it was unconvinced that the service’s plan to use volunteers to moderate calls for violence and hate speech would be effective.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” the email reads. “It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service.”

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Well, there’s a lot to round up here. Of course Trump got permanently booted off Twitter. Here’s a list of where he’s banned. And here’s a list explaining how people are misinterpreting the words “free speech” about the ban. (Plenty of other politicians have been ejected, just not American presidents.) The funniest one is “this is communism!!” where it’s actually capitalism red in tooth and claw. Also, and possibly not on the list, Stripe on Sunday said it would stop processing payments on Trump’s website.

And, since we’re here, here’s a long thread on how AWS got started: because it shifted from Sun servers to much cheaper Linux ones.
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The American abyss • New York Times

Timothy Snyder is a historian of fascism:

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Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth. His use of the term “fake news” echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (“lying press”); like the Nazis, he referred to reporters as “enemies of the people.” Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating; the financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones. The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter.

Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

…In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures.

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A terrific essay with the sweep both of history and the present. Though it’s chilling too how close America came, once more, to fascism. (The last time was before the Second World War, when “America First” initially raised its ugly head. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” – the book, not the TV series – shows the boiling-frog way it would have happened then.)
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A truth reckoning: why we’re holding those who lied for Trump accountable • Forbes

Randall Lane is editor of Forbes Magazine and its chief content officer:

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Trump’s lawyers lie gleefully to the press and public, but those lies, magically, almost never made it into briefs and arguments – contempt, perjury and disbarment keep the professional standards high.

So what’s the parallel in the dark arts of communication? Simple: Don’t let the chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty. Press secretaries like Joe Lockhart, Ari Fleischer and Jay Carney, who left the White House with their reputations in various stages of intact, made millions taking their skills — and credibility — to corporate America. Trump’s liars don’t merit that same golden parachute. Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.

[It’s not political.] …It’s just a realization that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, in a thriving democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Our national reset starts there.

«

Good. Though I would point out that the reputation of Fleischer (George W Bush’s press secretary) is hardly solid gold. Carney (ditto for Obama) is accused of lies too, though since many of the accusations revolve around (sigh) Benghazi, on which the GOP hasn’t had a good-faith argument literally ever, that’s harder to judge. To be a presidential press secretary is to bend the truth in some peoples’ view. But the Trump team absolutely lied, and deserve to be shunned. They reaped, and now they can sow.
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The silence of the damned • NY Mag

Olivia Nuzzi:

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During his early days on Twitter, in 2011, Trump relied on an aide to tweet for him. Justin McConney, a former Trump Organization employee, once told me how he’d print out Trump’s mentions to show him in analog what was happening online, and Trump would manually select what to respond to. But by 2012, when he replaced the flip phone with an Android, Trump began tweeting himself.

Even the tweets that seemed like they had to have been sent in a fit of rage with no forethought whatsoever sometimes were actually the result of careful planning and workshopping with advisers. For instance, when Trump accused Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough of murdering his constituent services director while serving in Congress, a senior member of the White House staff told me they were upset with the president not over what he said, but that he’d fucked up the delivery. The version of the tweet he’d worked on with staff had been much funnier, according to the staffer.

Upon Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Trump’s account, and other social-media platforms doing the same, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the new uselessness of his phone. “cannot even imagine how mad he is rn [right now],” joked the New York Times’ Mike Isaac, “my mans phone is a paperweight.”

And it’s kind of true. He might use it to call into Fox & Friends, or to otherwise contact the outside world from within the bunker of the White House, sure…

…When his daughter Ivanka posted a selfie with him last week, on the way to the Georgia rally where he campaigned for two Republican candidates who then lost, she smiled and looked at the camera. Trump, in the background, stared down at his phone, his face set aglow from the screen.

«

The idea that Trump and staff workshopped a tweet insinuating that Scarborough murdered someone is just debased. Nobody thought to say “is this really appropriate to this office?” Both petty and scummy. A companion piece: “How @realDonaldTrump changed politics – and America” at Politico.
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What Happened? • kieranhealy.org

Kieran Healy with his idea about what people planned, and didn’t plan, that day last week:

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In summary, the theory is that these are not the brightest guys, and things got out of hand. Trump and the White House et al knew there were genuinely dangerous people in their MAGA/Q mob. The MAGA people they were in communication with (as per Acosta’s tweet) were likely more on the leading edge of the rank and file, rather than the true loons. They thought things would go as protests outside the Capitol usually go, and as their rallies usually go. The crowd would serve as a loud prop. The really dangerous people would be diluted by the rank and file and kept out by the Capitol Police in any case. There would be a great deal of immediate drama and a great deal immediately at stake. Trump loves his crowd, but he has no tolerance at all for the individuals who make it up. As soon as they got inside the building and resolved once more into identifiable individuals, Trump was reportedly and unsurprisingly grossed out by all the “low class” stuff he was seeing. What he envisioned, I think, was a mass of adoring supporters at the very gates of the Capitol, expressing their love and loyalty for him, and together, they would make Congress capitulate to their will.

This is all just speculation on my part. There are many other plausible scenarios. People who know much more about American history than me have argued that some subset of people in the Administration and the GOP really did want protestors to get inside the Senate chamber and gum up the works such that an 1877-style “compromise” would be the wise way for cooler heads to prevail. There’s a lot to be said for this view.

…After the fact, the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events.

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The journey of Ashli Babbitt • bellingcat

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Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, was shot and killed by Capitol Police while attempting to enter the Speaker’s Lobby on the second floor of the US Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. Babbitt was part of a thousands-strong mob that stormed the building after the conclusion of the #StopTheSteal rally at the Washington Monument earlier in the day.

At that event, President Donald Trump had encouraged rally goers to head to the Capitol to protest the certification of the 2020 presidential election. His comments came after weeks of false and inflammatory statements to the effect that he had won the election, and that his enemies had rigged it against him.

Babbitt’s shooting was captured on several videos that were recorded and shared by people in the crowd. Her own social media history also reveals her movements on the morning and afternoon of January 6. But looking back further shows an ideological journey that saw her travel from stating she had backed President Barack Obama to engaging in damaging right-wing conspiracy theories.

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Babbitt’s Twitter account was only set up in October 2016, ie just before the previous election. I’m guessing bellingcat couldn’t get access to her Facebook account. But her Twitter account is a mess of conspiracist nonsense. Mental health is an insufficiently discussed topic in the US.
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The Earth has been spinning faster lately • Phys.org

Bob Yirka:

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Several decades ago, the development of atomic clocks began allowing scientists to record the passage of time in incredibly small increments, in turn, allowing for measuring the length of a given day down to the millisecond. And that has led to the discovery that the spin of the planet is actually far more variable than once thought. Since such measurements began, scientists have also found that the Earth was slowing its spin very gradually (compensated by the insertion of a leap second now and then)—until this past year, when it began spinning faster—so much so that some in the field have begun to wonder if a negative leap negative second might be needed this year, an unprecedented suggestion. Scientists also noted that this past summer, on July 19, the shortest day ever was recorded—it was 1.4602 milliseconds shorter than the standard.

Planetary scientists are not concerned about the new finding; they have learned that there are many factors that have an impact on planetary spin—including the moon’s pull, snowfall levels and mountain erosion. They also have begun wondering if global warming might push the Earth to spin faster as the snow caps and high-altitude snows begin disappearing. Computer scientists, on the other hand, are somewhat concerned about the shifting spin speed—so much of modern technology is based on what they describe as “true time.” Adding a negative leap second could lead to problems, so some have suggested shifting the world’s clocks from solar time to atomic time.

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Probably explains why the news cycle has speeded up, right?
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Coronavirus: few vaccines prevent infection – here’s why that’s not a problem • The Conversation

Sarah Caddy is a clinical research fellow in Viral Immunology at the University of Cambridge:

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not all vaccines provide the same level of protection. Some vaccines stop you getting symptomatic disease, but others stop you getting infected too. The latter is known as “sterilising immunity”. With sterilising immunity, the virus can’t even gain a toehold in the body because the immune system stops the virus entering cells and replicating.

There is a subtle yet important difference between preventing disease and preventing infection. A vaccine that “just” prevents disease might not stop you from transmitting the disease to others – even if you feel fine. But a vaccine that provides sterilising immunity stops the virus in its tracks.

In an ideal world, all vaccines would induce sterilising immunity. In reality, it is actually extremely difficult to produce vaccines that stop virus infection altogether. Most vaccines that are in routine use today do not achieve this…

…The first SARS-CoV-2 vaccines to be licensed have been shown to be highly effective at reducing disease. Despite this, we don’t yet know whether these vaccines can induce sterilising immunity. It is expected that data addressing this question will be available from the ongoing vaccine clinical trials soon. Although even if sterilising immunity is induced initially, this may change over time as immune responses wane and viral evolution occurs.

…It is generally understood that a particular type of antibody known as a “neutralising antibody” is needed for sterilising immunity. These antibodies block virus entry into cells and prevent all replication. However, the infecting virus may have to be identical to the vaccine virus in order to induce the perfect antibody.

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This answers a question I’ve been asking for ages: if someone’s been immunised, how could they pose any risk of passing Covid on? What’s the biological mechanism? Now you (or I) know.
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Quibi’s $1.75bn experiment ends with Roku acquisition for “less than $100m” • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:

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Quibi, the curious “TV on your phone” service that lasted for roughly six months last year, will soon live on—as a free-with-ads channel on Roku.

After rumors began circulating earlier this week, Quibi and Roku confirmed on Friday that the two companies had reached terms for an acquisition, putting most of Quibi’s hours of original programming into Roku’s hands. Most of the Quibi service involved scripted series, along with documentary and reality-TV content, and Roku will host these series on a dedicated Roku “channel” later this year, while Quibi’s previous “daily” news episodes will not be part of the deal.

Surprisingly, it’s not just a deal for last year’s content. Whatever had been previously cranking as part of the Quibi portfolio of talent and producers appears to be back on the table, with Roku telling users to expect “more than a dozen new programs” that hadn’t previously debuted on the Quibi app in 2020. Roku didn’t use today’s announcements to clarify what the programming is, but Variety pegs many of the shows as documentary miniseries, along with a horror series written by Steven Spielberg that would have originally only been available for streaming during nighttime hours.

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Like the sub-headline on this one: “Roku has yet to tell viewers whether they’ll need to turn their TVs sideways.” Though there was always a landscape option, so Roku can go with that. Anyway, at least this terrible drought of streaming services is at an end.
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The tiny satellites that will connect cows, cars and shipping containers to the internet • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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The smartphone industry has miniaturized all electronics, benefiting everything from cars to drones. Then there are falling launch costs, due to companies like SpaceX, active national space programs like India’s, and an array of new launch technologies, from reusable boosters to 3-D-printed engines.

Just as important, there’s the rollout and adoption of new long-distance, low-power wireless communication standards that can work just as well in outer space as they do on the ground.

Like so many innovations in their early days, from the internet to the smartphone, no one is quite sure what low-cost, low-power data relays from space will enable—or whether there will be enough demand to sustain the many companies jostling to provide it. In the next year, hundreds of satellites from more than a dozen companies are set to launch.

These startups aren’t going head-to-head with more expensive and ambitious efforts from the likes of Amazon and SpaceX, which aim to deliver high-speed internet to households and businesses. Those “megaconstellations” of hundreds or even thousands of relatively large satellites cost billions of dollars; networks of up to 100 nanosats can cost in the tens of millions, say their operators.

The truly global “Internet of Things” these tiny satellites can enable would have been much more difficult to achieve even 24 months ago, says Alasdair Davies, director of the Arribada Initiative, which designs and builds satellite tracking and connectivity systems for researchers, including the penguin-watching ones.

For the penguin project, Mr. Davies created low-cost cameras that can withstand the harsh Antarctic conditions. While the images they grab are stored on SD cards and must be physically collected once a year, the cameras can report their status—low battery, covered in ice, tipped over, etc.—to their keepers in London via tiny satellites.

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You’re probably wondering if they won’t just turn into space junk, but they can be propelled to fall to Earth when their time is up.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1459: what’s Trump without big social media?, Boeing pays $2.5bn to settle 737 Max charge, Apple Car running slow, and more


The US politician Matt Gaetz will tell you this is definitely someone from antifa, because it’s… antifa/cial recognition? CC-licensed photo by EFF Photos 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. Another week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Trump is losing his social media platforms • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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For years, being able to use Facebook and Twitter as his personal battering rams has been one of Mr. Trump’s biggest political assets. He is an inveterate poster who uses these apps to pick fights, settle scores, promote conspiracy theories and disseminate disinformation, and who has faced remarkably few consequences for doing so. He has more than 100 million combined followers on the platforms, and his posts routinely generate more engagement than those of any other public figure.

Mr. Trump would still find ways to reach his followers without Facebook and Twitter, of course. There would still be Fox News, Newsmax, OANN and legions of pro-Trump partisans willing to repost his messages. Newspapers and cable news stations, which have long treated anything a president said as inherently newsworthy, might not be able to resist giving Mr. Trump airtime and attention even when he is a private citizen. And he has expressed interest in starting his own digital media empire, where he could set his own rules.

The most obvious short-term move for Mr. Trump, after a Twitter and Facebook ban, would be to move to one of the “alt-platforms” such as Parler and Gab, where many of his most ardent followers have flocked after being kicked off more mainstream apps. (On Wednesday night, Gab’s chief executive, Andrew Torba, said he was “in the process of connecting with President Trump’s team” about setting up the president’s account.)

But these apps are small and culturally insular, and wouldn’t likely satisfy the president’s desire for a mass audience.

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What Trump does is a process I call “social warming” (book available for preorder!) – driving polarisation and outrage, denying truth, aided by social media and its algorithms. But once you shrink his reach (or the networks’ reach), you dramatically lessen the impact. At least, that’s my hypothesis.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz’s antifa-detecting facial recognition story is complete nonsense • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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In a speech during the process of certifying President-elect Joe Biden, Gaetz claimed there was “some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company” that some Capitol rioters were actually “members of the violent terrorist group antifa.” (Antifa is not a single defined group, does not have an official membership, and has not been designated a terrorist organization, although President Donald Trump has described it as one.)

Gaetz attributed this claim to a short Washington Times article published yesterday. That article, in turn, cited a “retired military officer.” The officer asserted that a company called XRVision “used its software to do facial recognition of protesters and matched two Philadelphia antifa members to two men inside the Senate.” The Times said it had been given a copy of the photo match, but it didn’t publish the picture.

There is no evidence to support the Times’ article, however. An XRVision spokesperson linked The Verge to a blog post by CTO Yaacov Apelbaum, denying its claims and calling the story “outright false, misleading, and defamatory.” (Speech delivered during congressional debate, such as Gaetz’s, is protected from defamation claims.) The Times article was apparently deleted a few hours after Apelbaum’s post.

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There’s some truly incredible wishful thinking going on there. Deluded too. Surely it would be antifa-cial recognition, though?
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DC live updates: New Capitol fence in place; D.C. police identify three who died during riots • The Washington Post

Julie Zauzmer:

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The secretary of the Army and the chief of D.C.’s police force acknowledged Thursday that they did not expect President Trump’s supporters to try to enter the Capitol building, despite extensive online conversations in which far-right groups publicly discussed their plans to do just that.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said a breach of the Capitol was not in his “wildest imagination.”
D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said, “There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol.”

When that breach did occur, the Capitol Police called D.C. police to help, and eventually the D.C. National Guard moved in to help. But Bowser pointed out Thursday that her hands were tied in calling in the National Guard — unlike the governors of states, Bowser cannot summon the Guard on her own but must seek the approval of the Pentagon.

If D.C. became a state or if Congress approved a bill giving the mayor less restricted powers, Bowser said, “We wouldn’t have to clear a deployment plan with the secretary of the Army. We could be nimble in how we change it.”

McCarthy said the increased Guard presence and the new fencing around the Capitol will last past the inauguration, and Bowser warned that violence might continue even longer.

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To which everyone on all of social media said “you were able to infiltrate all sorts of underground organisations and yet this one which was getting T-shirts printed and for which the president and his cronies laid out a timetable, you couldn’t see coming?”

Truly shows the gap between old thinking and new thinking which includes the online space.
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Boeing charged with 737 Max fraud conspiracy and agrees to pay over $2.5bn • Department of Justice

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The Boeing Company (Boeing) has entered into an agreement with the Department of Justice to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group (FAA AEG) in connection with the FAA AEG’s evaluation of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplane.

Boeing, a US-based multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells commercial airplanes to airlines worldwide, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) in connection with a criminal information filed today in the Northern District of Texas. The criminal information charges the company with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Under the terms of the DPA, Boeing will pay a total criminal monetary amount of over $2.5bn, composed of a criminal monetary penalty of $243.6m, compensation payments to Boeing’s 737 MAX airline customers of $1.77bn, and the establishment of a $500m crash-victim beneficiaries fund to compensate the heirs, relatives, and legal beneficiaries of the 346 passengers who died in the Boeing 737 MAX crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

“The tragic crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 exposed fraudulent and deceptive conduct by employees of one of the world’s leading commercial airplane manufacturers,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General David P. Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

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Bear in mind that this is essentially all down to software:

»

As Boeing admitted in court documents, Boeing—through two of its 737 MAX Flight Technical Pilots—deceived the FAA AEG about an important aircraft part called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that impacted the flight control system of the Boeing 737 MAX. Because of their deception, a key document published by the FAA AEG lacked information about MCAS, and in turn, airplane manuals and pilot-training materials for U.S.-based airlines lacked information about MCAS.

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Biggest ever fine for what is essentially a software bug?
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Apple’s Tesla killer won’t ship for at least half a decade • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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The Cupertino, California-based technology giant has a small team of hardware engineers developing drive systems, vehicle interior and external car body designs with the goal of eventually shipping a vehicle. That’s a more ambitious goal than in previous years when the project mostly focused on creating an underlying self-driving system. The company has also added more ex-Tesla Inc. executives to the project.

Still, some Apple engineers on the project believe the company could release a product in five to seven years if Apple goes ahead with its plans. The car is nowhere near production stage, the people said, though they did warn timelines could change. They asked not to be identified discussing sensitive, internal work. The majority of the team is currently either working from home or at the office for limited time, slowing the company’s ability to develop a full vehicle. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

…A key differentiator would be Apple’s ability to integrate its self-driving system, a pricey initiative that has spurred the company to develop its own software, sensor hardware and chip technologies. The goal is to let a user to input their destination and be driven there with little or no other engagement, according to the people familiar with the project.

…Apple has continued to investigate building its self-driving car system for a third-party car partner rather than its own vehicle, the people said, and it could ultimately again abandon its own car efforts in favor of this approach.

The company first set out to build an electric car in 2014, hiring hundreds of hardware engineers for the effort before rapidly paring it back around 2016 to focus on the self-driving car system. From 2016 through 2019, Apple cut hundreds of workers from the team. However, it kept some hardware engineers with expertise in car components who either stayed on the car project or worked on other initiatives.

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The label “Tesla killer” is just absurd. This sounds like a concept, but what’s Apple really going to bring to the party that multiple others can’t?
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Leaked documents show how China’s army of paid internet trolls helped censor the coronavirus • ProPublica

Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Aaron Krolik, and Jeff Kao:

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In the early hours of Feb. 7, China’s powerful internet censors experienced an unfamiliar and deeply unsettling sensation. They felt they were losing control.

The news was spreading quickly that Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak only to be threatened by the police and accused of peddling rumors, had died of COVID-19. Grief and fury coursed through social media. To people at home and abroad, Li’s death showed the terrible cost of the Chinese government’s instinct to suppress inconvenient information.

Yet China’s censors decided to double down. Warning of the “unprecedented challenge” Li’s passing had posed and the “butterfly effect” it may have set off, officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets.

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

The orders were among thousands of secret government directives and other documents that were reviewed by The New York Times and ProPublica. They lay bare in extraordinary detail the systems that helped the Chinese authorities shape online opinion during the pandemic.

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Long and detailed. Though China faces new problems: it’s locked down a city in northern Hebei province (Shijiazhuang, about 300km from Beijing) after recording 63 cases of Covid. That sucker ain’t going away.
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The Big Thaw: how Russia could dominate a warming world • ProPublica

Abrahm Lustgarten:

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A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

Around the world, climate change is becoming an epochal crisis, a nightmare of drought, desertification, flooding and unbearable heat, threatening to make vast regions less habitable and drive the greatest migration of refugees in history. But for a few nations, climate change will present an unparalleled opportunity, as the planet’s coldest regions become more temperate. There is plenty of reason to think that those places will also receive an extraordinary influx of people displaced from the hottest parts of the world as the climate warms. Human migration, historically, has been driven by the pursuit of prosperity even more so than it has by environmental strife. With climate change, prosperity and habitability — haven and economic opportunity — will soon become one and the same.

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Swings and roundabouts, winners and losers. How weird if Russia is able to transform from a giant supplier of fossil fuels to a giant supplier of food – over which it will of course wield its power. (Via John Naughton.)
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In India, smartphones and cheap data are giving women a voice • WIRED

Yasaswini Sampathkumar:

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Mallika, like 200 million other women in India, is illiterate. In the past few years though, millions of Indian women have gone online thanks to cheaper smartphones and mobile data, and apps that let them communicate using sounds and images. Anecdotal evidence suggests the phones are empowering many women to access information, build networks, and participate in markets.

For Mallika, the ability to use smartphones visually and orally has been a game changer. The internet is no longer sealed off with written words. She uses photographs and audio memos to communicate with friends and family, and voice commands to look for videos.

“I can tap on the picture of Annan (what she calls Thanaraj) and send him an audio message,” she says. Before getting the phone, she had to travel by foot over mountains to enter Madurai and interact with Thanaraj—her single point of contact with the outside world. “The phone connects her directly to the people who can help her,” says Thanaraj. “I am no longer the only person she speaks to.”

Mallika is part of a WhatsApp group where she shares videos and photographs of the forest with local journalists. Illegal logging is a persistent problem. “Sometimes teak or sandalwood trees go missing,” she says. “I take pictures and compare them to older photographs.” She shares the photos with rangers and forest officials. In case of a confrontation, “my husband videotapes the skirmish to protect me. We send the video along with a voice message to the journalists’ group.” She also watches videos of activists in other parts of India.

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People were astonished a few years ago when Apple added the ability to include short voice messages in iMessage. But it turned out that was in high demand in China. Similarly in India: voice is hugely important as a command mechanism. And not only for women.
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Giuliani to senator: ‘try to just slow it down’ • The Dispatch

Steve Hayes:

»

At approximately 7 p.m., Giuliani called newly sworn-in Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a staunch Trump ally, imploring him to stall the process. “I want to discuss with you how they’re trying to rush this hearing and how we need you, our Republican friends, to try to just slow it down so we can get these legislatures to get more information to you,” Giuliani said in a voicemail. “And I know they’re reconvening at 8 tonight, but it … the only strategy we can follow is to object to numerous states and raise issues so that we get ourselves into tomorrow—ideally until the end of tomorrow. I know McConnell is doing everything he can to rush it, which is kind of a kick in the head because it’s one thing to oppose us, it’s another thing not to give us a fair opportunity to contest it.”

Giuliani tells Tuberville that McConnell wants to narrow the objections to just three states and explains that the Trump team wants to object to 10. “So if you could object to every state and, along with a congressman, get a hearing for every state, I know we would delay you a lot, but it would give us the opportunity to get the legislators who are very, very close to pulling their vote, particularly after what McConnell did today.”

The problem for Giuliani? He left his message on the voicemail of another senator, who shared it with The Dispatch. 

It’s not clear whether Giuliani—who opens the call by referring to himself as “the president’s lawyer”—was directed to call Tuberville by President Trump. Requests for comment to Giuliani’s cell phone and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows went unanswered. One longtime Trump adviser still talking to top White House officials says Trump is in constant communication with Giuliani. Asked if such a call is something Trump would know about, he said: “Oh, yeah, 100 percent.” 

«

You know, I have a sneaking suspicion about how that whole Four Seasons Total Landscaping thing came about, and who was responsible.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1458: London faces Covid ICU crisis, Facebook’s WhatsApp data grab, Apple’s long plan for the M1, do targeted ads work?, and more


It was 20 years ago today (more or less)… remember how Microsoft came to games? 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 10 links for you. Collegiate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: London will be overwhelmed by Covid in a fortnight, says leaked NHS England briefing • Health Service Journal

Alastair McLellan:

»

London’s hospitals are less than two weeks from being overwhelmed by covid even under the “best” case scenario, according to an official briefing given to the capital’s most senior doctors this afternoon.

NHS England London medical director Vin Diwakar set out the stark analysis to the medical directors of London’s hospital trusts on a Zoom call.

The NHS England presentation, seen by HSJ (see slides below story), showed that even if the number of covid patients grew at the lowest rate considered likely, and measures to manage demand and increase capacity, including open the capital’s Nightingale hospital, were successful, the NHS in London would be short of nearly 2,000 general and acute and intensive care beds by 19 January.

The briefing forecasts demand for both G&A [general and acute] and intensive care beds, for both covid and non-covid patients, against capacity. It accounts for the impact of planned measures to mitigate demand and increase capacity.

For both G&A and intensive care, three scenarios are detailed: “Best”, which projects 4% daily growth; “average” which plots 5% daily growth; and “worse” which forecasts 6% daily growth.

The briefing says that growth on 5 January was 3.5% for G&A beds, 4.8% for ICU beds.

«

As has been clear since this outbreak began, exponential growth flummoxes humans: we’re so unused to seeing it that we struggle terribly to cope when confronted with it.
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WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: share data with Facebook or stop using the app • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messenger that claims to have privacy coded into its DNA, is giving its 2 billion plus users an ultimatum: agree to share their personal data with the social network or delete their accounts.

The requirement is being delivered through an in-app alert directing users to agree to sweeping changes in the WhatsApp terms of service. Those who don’t accept the revamped privacy policy by February 8 will no longer be able to use the app.

Shortly after Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, its developers built state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption into the messaging app. The move was seen as a victory for privacy advocates because it used the Signal Protocol, an open source encryption scheme whose source code has been reviewed and audited by scores of independent security experts.

In 2016, WhatsApp gave users a one-time ability to opt out of having account data turned over to Facebook. Now, an updated privacy policy is changing that. Come next month, users will no longer have that choice. Some of the data that WhatsApp collects includes:

• User phone numbers
• Other people’s phone numbers stored in address books
• Profile names
• Profile pictures
• Status message including when a user was last online
• Diagnostic data collected from app logs

Under the new terms, Facebook reserves the right to share collected data with its family of companies.

«

Other versions of this report say that it won’t be requiring this in the EU because of GDPR, and the fact that Facebook promised the EU as a condition of its acquisition that it wouldn’t merge data. (Please let me know, EU readers.) Unclear: what happens in the UK, which isn’t part of the EU, but does still have lots of its regulations.
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“down so bad im 3rd wheeling an e-couple 🤦‍♂️” – Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick:

»

Last month, I wrote about “the main characterification of Twitter.” TL;DR — I believe that Twitter is a dying website and that it has entered a period of deep insularity and cultural decline and is now virtually unintelligible to outsiders. Put simply, 2021 Twitter is 2015 Tumblr, 2016 Reddit, or 2013 4chan. The only difference is that its hopelessly-addicted user base is made up of journalists, politicians, celebrities, and academics. So we’re forced, as a society, to take Twitter’s inane message board drama more seriously than we would if we were talking about a Something Awful goon building a wildly unsafe house. Toxic Twitter power users have filled vacuums where community moderation should be and now they police the site like warlords, serving up public vigilante justice for their restless and angry followers.

Which is how we end up with Bean Dad.

«

Ohhh, Bean Dad. If you missed Bean Dad over the weekend… lucky you. But here it is, so you can’t miss it! And as Broderick points out, Bean Dad

»

decided to make the worst possible choice you can make when you’re at the center of a Twitter storm. He engaged.

«

(Bean Dad deleted his account as a result.)

Broderick’s conclusion, in part:

»

in my opinion, Bean Dad is very simple. It means one thing — your website is poorly run. That’s it. It means that context collapse has gotten so bad and the scale of your trending algorithms are so completely out of whack that a total moron tweeting about beans can create the same level of discussion within your community as the Trump Georgia call [criminally seeking to change the outcome of an election].

«

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Where tech workers are moving: new LinkedIn data vs. the narrative • OneZero

Alex Kantrowitz:

»

There’s a narrative that the tech industry’s future lies in Texas and Florida. That tech workers and executives — sick of California’s oppressive policies and sky-high real estate costs — are moving en masse to Miami and Austin this year. That these cities are building dominant talent foundations that will persist for years due to the pandemic. That narrative is wrong.

The story crumbles when placed next to new LinkedIn data showing where tech workers are actually moving in 2020. The key beneficiaries of this year’s tech migration are less buzzy cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Richmond, Virginia; and Sacramento, California. These places don’t get much play in the news, but they’re attracting tech talent at significantly higher rates than they were last year. Austin, conversely, is gaining tech workers more slowly.

The new LinkedIn data, which Big Technology is first publishing here, examines several hundred thousand tech workers in the US. It breaks down the ratio at which they’re moving into a city vs. moving out, something LinkedIn calls the inflow/outflow ratio. The data ranges from April to October, comparing 2020 with 2019. It encompasses the core months people left their cities due to the pandemic.

«

New York and San Francisco losing workers, though. Not rapidly, for the latter – for every 100 that leave, 96 come. But still, notable.
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Former Apple engineer details how the magic of M1 Mac performance began 10 years ago • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:

»

a former Apple engineer has shared interesting details on what key ARM advancements Apple made starting around 10 years ago that led to the magic of M1 Mac performance that we have today. And notably, Apple’s work really pushed the rest of the industry as it forged the leading edge with ARM.

Shac Ron, a former Apple kernel engineer shared some fascinating details about Apple’s work on its ARM chips over the years and gave some perspective on why the M1 chip is so powerful

«

It’s very technical, but essentially boils down to Apple having had a plan back in 2010, three years before its first 64-bit (ARM) chip appeared. “low clocks[peed], highly OoO [out of order execution of instructions], highly speculative”. And it designed ARM 64 around that.

They sure are fast, though.
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Facebook managers trash their own ad targeting in unsealed remarks • The Intercept

Sam Biddle:

»

The [unsealed court] documents feature internal Facebook communications in which managers appear to admit to major flaws in ad targeting capabilities, including that ads reached the intended audience less than half of the time and that data behind a targeting criterion was “all crap.” Facebook says the material is presented out of context.

The documents emerged from a suit currently seeking class-action certification in federal court. The suit was filed by the owner of Investor Village, a small business that operates a message board on financial topics. Investor Village said in court filings that it decided to buy narrowly targeted Facebook ads because it hoped to reach “highly compensated and educated investors” but “had limited resources to spend on advertising.” But nearly 40% of the people who saw Investor Village’s ad either lacked a college degree, did not make $250,000 per year, or both, the company claims. In fact, not a single Facebook user it surveyed met all the targeting criteria it had set for Facebook ads, it says.

The complaint features Facebook documents indicating that the company knew its advertising capabilities were overhyped and underperformed.

A “February 2016 internal memorandum” sent from an unnamed Facebook manager to Andrew Bosworth, a Zuckerberg confidant and powerful company executive who oversaw ad efforts at the time, reads, “[I]nterest precision in the US is only 41%—that means that more than half the time we’re showing ads to someone other than the advertisers’ intended audience. And it is even worse internationally. … We don’t feel we’re meeting advertisers’ interest accuracy expectations today.”

«

OK, so it was 2016, but there’s still a question about how effective targeted advertising is.
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Facebook smart glasses coming ‘sooner than later’, without AR • Bloomberg

Kurt Wagner and Sarah Frier:

»

Facebook Inc.’s planned smart glasses will arrive “sooner than later” in 2021, but won’t feature the kind of digital overlay technology that is associated with augmented reality, according to hardware chief Andrew Bosworth.

The glasses, which are being built in partnership with Ray-Ban and parent Luxottica Group SpA, will connect to a device – though users won’t be able to overlay digital objects onto their real-world view, a foundational element of AR.

“These are certainly connected glasses, they are certainly providing a lot of functionality, [but] we’re being quite coy about which functionality precisely we are providing,” Bosworth said. “We’re excited about it but we don’t want to over-hype it. We’re not even calling it augmented reality, we’re just calling it ‘smart glasses,’” he added.

Facebook first announced plans for AR glasses in 2017 and has since built a handful of camera features that allow people to project digital images onto the physical world, like face-distorting photo filters. The company has invested substantial resources into hardware development in recent years, acquiring virtual-reality startup Oculus and launching an in-home video device called Portal. Facebook’s VR, AR and hardware teams account for more than 6,000 employees, according to a person familiar with its staffing. That’s a larger group than Facebook has working on billion-user apps Instagram and WhatsApp.

«

Smart glasses without visual overlays – isn’t that just a rerun Google Glass, which crashed and burned in the consumer space so thoroughly a decade or so ago? No wonder Bosworth is being coy.
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Xbox 20 Year Anniversary: how an American video game empire was born • Bloomberg

Dina Bass:

»

The project got its spark, as things often do inside big companies, at an executive retreat. The next two years brought competing visions, infighting, numerous focus groups and near-cancellation of the product, until a team of 2,000 delivered something Bill Gates could unveil onstage, standing beside a famous pro wrestler, to a bemused audience in Las Vegas.

“We needed to penetrate the living room,” said Steve Ballmer, then the chief executive officer of Microsoft. His former boss, the co-founder Bill Gates, said: “Xbox might seem like an unlikely success story to other people, but it wasn’t a stretch for me to believe in this project and the people who were bringing it to life.”

“I was very cognizant of Microsoft’s market power. Look, they may have all been the world’s nicest guys,” said John Riccitiello, then the president and chief operating officer at video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. “But they’re also the guys that shut down Netscape.”

In the original team’s own words, here is the story of how an ungainly, over-budget project spawned a gaming powerhouse.

…Rick Thompson (who became the first head of XBox): “By June, it might’ve been July, there’s a big meeting, a dozen VPs, 50 people in the room. And the DirectX guys are saying, “We want to go off and start working on this thing.” One of them was this guy, Nat Brown. Brown was not in the room. He’s on a squawk box, and the last thing he says on this several-hour phone call after they pretty much get the go-ahead is, “We want Rick Thompson to lead it.” I turned bright red and said, “I’m not big enough for this job.” The next day, Ballmer showed up in my office with a baseball bat in his hand, literally, and told me that this is what I was going to do.”

«

Bass then asks Ballmer about that. His answer’s priceless. (A reminder – if you don’t have a Bloomberg subscription, you can probably find the article by plugging the headline into a search engine.)
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Minecraft Earth coming to an end • Minecraft

»

Minecraft Earth was designed around free movement and collaborative play – two things that have become near impossible in the current global situation. As a result, we have made the difficult decision to re-allocate our resources to other areas that provide value to the Minecraft community and to end support for Minecraft Earth in June 2021.

That said, we still have one update left. Today we are releasing the final build of the game, containing some changes to make your time in Minecraft Earth as fun as possible. We hope these adjustments will allow you to explore, craft, and build more – while staying safe indoors.

«

Two years after it launched, because it turns out that augmented reality games that rely on your going outdoors don’t handle pandemics involving lockdowns too well.
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Ticketmaster admits it hacked rival company before it went out of business • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

Ticketmaster has agreed to pay a $10m criminal fine after admitting its employees repeatedly used stolen passwords and other means to hack a rival ticket sales company.

The fine, which is part of a deferred prosecution agreement Ticketmaster entered with federal prosecutors, resolves criminal charges filed last week in federal court in the eastern district of New York. Charges include violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, computer intrusion for commercial advantage or private financial gain, computer intrusion in furtherance of fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and wire fraud.

In the settlement, Ticketmaster admitted that an employee who used to work for a rival company emailed the login credentials for multiple accounts the rival used to manage presale ticket sales. At a San Francisco meeting attended by at least 14 employees of Ticketmaster or its parent company Live Nation, the employee used one set of credentials to log in to an account to demonstrate how it worked.

The employee, who wasn’t identified in court documents, later provided Ticketmaster executives with internal and confidential financial documents he had retained from his previous employer. The employee was later promoted to director of client relations and given a raise. Court documents didn’t identify the rival company, but Variety reported it was Songkick, which in 2017 filed a lawsuit accusing Ticketmaster of hacking its database. A few months later, Songkick went out of business.

The charges against Ticketmaster come 26 months after Zeeshan Zaidi, the former head of Ticketmaster’s artist services division, pled guilty in a related case to conspiring to hack the rival company and engage in wired fraud.

«

Far too tempting to hack the rival, isn’t it. Though of course the winners write history.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1457: Facebook’s Georgia ad problem, App Store app privacy examined, how police will interrogate your car, and more


Mini by name and apparently by sales too: US data suggests iPhone 12 mini sales lagged bigger iPhones. CC-licensed photo by K%u0101rlis Dambr%u0101ns 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

In Georgia, Facebook’s changes brought back a partisan news feed • The Markup

Corin Faife:

»

As Georgians head to the polls to vote on their two US Senators—and effectively, partisan control of Congress—on Tuesday, voters face an online landscape far different from what they saw in the weeks surrounding November’s general election.

In the fall, Facebook—by far the most popular social network—clamped down on sponsored posts about politics in order to ensure that misinformation would not spread the way that it had during the 2016 presidential election. But a few weeks before the Georgia race, Facebook turned off this safeguard in Georgia. The Markup decided to take a look behind the curtain to see if we could determine the impact on Georgia voters’ news feeds. We recruited a panel of 58 Facebook users in the state and paid them to allow us to monitor their feeds, starting in late November, using custom software we built for our Citizen Browser project. The Citizen Browser project is a data-driven initiative to examine what content social media companies choose to amplify to their users.

While Facebook’s controls were in place, we found that links to traditional news sites were present in almost all election-related posts that appeared on our Georgia panelists’ feeds. After Dec. 16, however, when Facebook flipped the switch to turn on political advertising for the Georgia election, we noticed that partisan content quickly elbowed out news sites, replacing a significant proportion of mentions of the election in our users’ feeds.

«

Andy Stone, a PR for Facebook, snarkily critiqued this article on the basis that it was only 58 people. (“I’m pretty sure the plural of anecdote isn’t data.”) Eli Pariser (of “filter bubble” fame) pointed out that Facebook must have the data to demonstrate what’s actually going on, so why not share it? Stone hasn’t got back on that.

The Washington Post also has a similar piece, about how much disinformation and misinformation is being sown in Georgia on Facebook through political ads. Seems 2021 might not be that different from 2020, or previous years. At least we have a vaccine for Covid. What is there for Facebook?
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Ten predictions for the display industry in 2021 • Display Supply Chain Consultants

Bob O’Brien has a number of offerings, but this caught my eye:

»

We expect that 2021 will be a break-out year for MiniLED technology as it is introduced in multiple applications and goes head-to-head against OLED technology.

MiniLED consists of many tiny LED chips that generally range from 50 to 300µm in size, although an industry definition of MiniLED has not yet been established. MiniLEDs replace conventional LEDs in backlights and are used in a local dimming rather than edge lighting configuration.

TCL has been a pioneer in MiniLED TVs. TCL shipped the world’s first LCDs with MiniLED backlight, 8-Series, in 2019, and expanded their range with a lower-priced 6-Series in 2020, along with introducing its Vidrian MiniLED backlight TV with an active matrix backplane in their 8-Series. Sales of this product have been sluggish, as TCL has not established a high-end brand image, but in 2021 we will see the technology adopted by the rest of the leading TV brands. Samsung has established a sales target of 2 million for MiniLED TVs in 2021, and LG will introduce its first MiniLED TV at the CES Show in January (see separate story this issue).

In the IT domain, Apple won a 2020 Display of the Year Award from SID for its 32” Pro Display XDR monitor; while Apple does not use the term MiniLED, the product fits within our definition. Although the XDR, priced at $4999, does not sell in high volumes, in early 2021 Apple is expected to release a 12.9″ iPad Pro with a MiniLED backlight with 10,384 LED chips. Additional IT products from Asus, Dell and Samsung will drive higher volumes of this technology.

«

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iPhone 12 mini sales likely ‘disappointed’ Apple – 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

»

A new report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) today seen by 9to5Mac highlights the continued success of the iPhone 12 lineup. The CIRP data indicates that the iPhone 12 models accounted for 76% of new iPhone sales during the October through November period following their releases.

Of the new iPhone 12 models, the standard 6.1-inch iPhone 12 took the largest share of new iPhone sales in the United States, coming in at 27%. The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max both accounted for right around 20% of new iPhone sales in the US during the October and November launch months.

During the launch period of the iPhone 11 lineup last year, the new iPhone 11 devices accounted for 69% of sales. This means that the iPhone 12 lineup was more successful in terms of US iPhone sales in the period after their launch, but year-over-year comparisons are challenging because Apple launched the iPhone 12 in two separate waves.

…The CIRP report also touches on the iPhone 12 mini, saying that the 5.4-inch device only garnered 6% of total iPhone sales during October and November. Analyst Mike Levin speculates that this is because the iPhone XR is priced at $499 and the iPhone 11 is priced at $599, both of which could be more enticing for certain buyers.

«

The 12 mini came out later than the 12 and 12 Pro, but the same time as the Max. If the Max did 20% and the mini just 6%, especially given the huge price delta, I think the market has spoken.
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An analysis of privacy on the App Store • Hugo Tunius

Tunius scraped the iOS App Store for the new privacy data about what data is collected by apps:

»

most apps collect no data outside of that which supports the app’s functionality. To get a better view of the apps that do collect data, let’s remove the majority of apps that don’t.

Still the amount of data collected is fairly low, but there’s a curious set of outliers somewhere around 120 data types collected. All of those outliers have something in common, see if you can figure it out before I reveal the answer later in the post.

«

The quick takeaways are that free apps do collect more data than paid ones. And Facebook/Instagram snarfs a shedload of data. Honourable mention to The (Daily) Telegraph, which collects 55 types of data, only half as many as Facebook. LinkedIn and a pregnancy tracker also make a surprise appearance.
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Danes get 20-year 0% mortgages • Bloomberg Quint

Frances Schwartzkopff:

»

The country with the longest history of negative central bank rates is offering homeowners 20-year loans at a fixed interest rate of zero.

Customers at the Danish home-finance unit of Nordea Bank Abp can, as of Tuesday, get the mortgages, which will carry a lower coupon than benchmark US 10-year Treasuries. At least two other banks have since said they’ll do the same.

Denmark stands out in a global context as the country to have lived with negative central bank rates longer than any other. Back in 2012, policy makers drove their main rate below zero to defend the krone’s peg to the euro. Since then, Danish homeowners have enjoyed continuous slides in borrowing costs.

The once unthinkable notion of borrowing for two decades without paying interest comes as central bankers across the globe shy away from rate hikes. No major western central bank is likely to raise rates this year, according to Bloomberg’s quarterly review of monetary policy.

As rates have continued to sink, other banks in Denmark – home to the world’s biggest mortgage-backed covered-bond market – are joining Nordea.

…Demand is there, Lisa Bergmann, chief housing economist at Nordea Kredit, said in a note. The bonds backing the mortgages are likely to price close to a record high, she said.

«

I’m really puzzled by what sort of bond you can have with a coupon of zero percent. Great deal for Danish homebuyers, though: Danish inflation is about 0.5%. Over 20 years, even without house price rises, an amazing deal.
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Microsoft is building a new Outlook app for Windows and Mac powered by the web • Windows Central

Zac Bowden:

»

Project Monarch is the end-goal for Microsoft’s “One Outlook” vision, which aims to build a single Outlook client that works across PC, Mac, and the Web. Right now, Microsoft has a number of different Outlook clients for desktop, including Outlook Web, Outlook (Win32) for Windows, Outlook for Mac, and Mail & Calendar on Windows 10.

Microsoft wants to replace the existing desktop clients with one app built with web technologies. The project will deliver Outlook as a single product, with the same user experience and codebase whether that be on Windows or Mac. It’ll also have a much smaller footprint and be accessible to all users whether they’re free Outlook consumers or commercial business customers.

«

This guarantees that it’s going to be unsatisfying on every platform – the Windows version too webby, the Mac version too Windows-y, the web version unsatisfying to users of either platform. It also seems like a retreat from Windows as the One True Platform.
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After spending over $57m on Facebook ads, they kicked me and my pages off without warning or explanation • Medium

Jordan Nabigon:

»

From 2006 to 2020, the group of businesses that I co-own and operate have spent a total of $57,263,553 CAD on Facebook ads. We have spent money on other platforms, but Facebook has remained our main one. We believed Facebook when they said they cared about small businesses.

Freebies has been plagued by recent ad violations suggesting they are not following policy for dating ads. Freebies has never run a dating site, nor has it advertised for dating sites on Facebook. The CEO of Freebies, Mike Debutte, tried in vain to reach out to Facebook for help in appealing the supposed violations that are causing major disruptions and loss of revenue to our business. It was frustrating and handicapped the business, but it had become the cost of doing business on Facebook, so we just kept doing the best we could to continue to grow the business.

On Oct 26, 2020 my phone lit up with notifications that any business owner reliant on Facebook never wants to see: a number of my pages from both businesses had been unpublished. At first, it was smaller pages with between a few thousand and a few million fans each.

An hour later, our main Shared page, with more than 13 million fans was unpublished and my personal Facebook account was disabled. My business partner, James Walker, and our ex-media buyer, who had started a new business together, also had their personal accounts disabled.

«

Giant platform, giant reach. And giant indifference – or at least, you’re just one of many millions. (Unless, that is, you’re one of the right-wing organisations favoured by Joel Kaplan, the No.3 in the business and former Bush staffer.
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Conspiracy theorists mistake guitar pedal diagram for “5G Chip”, alleging it’s in COVID-19 vaccine • MusicTech

Daniel Seah:

»

Conspiracy theorists in Italy are warning the public about a ‘5G Chip’ they claim has been planted in COVID-19 vaccines. However, the widely circulated image of the chip in question has been outed as a reworked schematic for the Boss Metal Zone pedal.

The image shows a diagram for the alleged ‘COVID 5G Chip’ – which has a section labelled 5G Frequency, amongst others such as Bass, Mid and Treble.

Mario Fusco, a senior software engineer at Redhat, tweeted to flag the misinformative image being sent out by those who bought into a widely debunked conspiracy about a vaccine with broadband capabilities.

«

I guess it would at least explain if you felt your thinking was fuzzy after the injection. This isn’t quite as good as the people who bought Faraday cages for their routers (the linked page will give hours of hilarity), but it’s pretty close. (I mean: if you’re worried about Wi-Fi “emissions” coming from your router, why not just turn it off?)
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My green home: $90,000 in clean tech upgrades, $20,000 in tax breaks • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

A few years ago I started writing regularly about electric cars and the batteries that power them—technologies that are helping humanity transition away from reliance on fossil fuels. And as bad news continued to pile up about the harms caused by climate change, I started to think harder about my own carbon footprint.

So last year, my wife and I got solar panels for our roof. Then we replaced our air conditioner, getting a model with a heat pump capability. Shortly after that, our boiler sprang a leak and we got a new high-efficiency boiler. Then we purchased a battery electric car.

We haven’t yet achieved a carbon-free lifestyle. The new boiler burns natural gas, and we’re keeping our old gasoline-powered car. We also have an oven and fireplace that run on natural gas. Still, our carbon emissions in 2021 will be far lower than they were in 2019. And we’re on a path to radically reduce our carbon emissions over the next decade.

Government policies were a big help here. The federal government offers generous incentives for the purchase of solar panels and electric vehicles. The District of Columbia, where we live, offers additional incentives for both. Not only did these directly reduce our out-of-pocket costs, they have also helped manufacturers achieve economies of scale that made these technologies affordable in the first place.

So I thought walking through the experience might inform—and perhaps inspire—others who might be considering taking a similar leap.

«

That’s quite a hefty outlay. The heat pump in particular is impressive – it’s an overlooked technology (essentially a fridge in reverse). And the electric car means that the electricity bills are more than zero.
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Insecure wheels: police turn to car data to destroy suspects’ alibis • NBC News

Olivia Solon:

»

In recent years, investigators have realized that automobiles — particularly newer models — can be treasure troves of digital evidence. Their onboard computers generate and store data that can be used to reconstruct where a vehicle has been and what its passengers were doing. They reveal everything from location, speed and acceleration to when doors were opened and closed, whether texts and calls were made while the cellphone was plugged into the infotainment system, as well as voice commands and web histories.

But that boon for forensic investigators creates fear for privacy activists, who warn that the lack of information security baked into vehicles’ computers poses a risk to consumers and who call for safeguards to be put in place.

“I hear a lot of analogies of cars being smartphones on wheels. But that’s vastly reductive,” said Andrea Amico, founder of Privacy4Cars, which makes a free app that helps people delete their data from automobiles and makes its money by offering the service to rental companies and dealerships. “If you think about the amount of sensors in a car, the smartphone is a toy. A car has GPS, an accelerometer, a camera. A car will know how much you weigh. Most people don’t realize this is happening.”

Law enforcement agencies have been focusing their investigative efforts on two main information sources: the telematics system — which is like the “black box” — and the infotainment system. The telematics system stores a vehicle’s turn-by-turn navigation, speed, acceleration and deceleration information, as well as more granular clues, such as when and where the lights were switched on, the doors were opened, seat belts were put on and airbags were deployed.

The infotainment system records recent destinations, call logs, contact lists, text messages, emails, pictures, videos, web histories, voice commands and social media feeds. It can also keep track of the phones that have been connected to the vehicle via USB cable or Bluetooth, as well as all the apps installed on the device.

«

Some companies collect this: in 2013 Tesla wrote a long riposte to a New York Times article that Elon Musk felt didn’t paint an accurate picture. It turned out they’d got data about almost everything the car had done. And that was seven years ago.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1456: 2020’s energy shifts, how ARM won the world, Singapore betrays Covid promises, kill those remote batteries!, and more


New lockdown, new monitor? We’ve got recommendations for quality monitors to go with your PC or Mac. CC-licensed photo by Matt Hamm 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. Uncontested. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ten charts that tell the weird story of oil and energy in 2020 • Bloomberg

Nathaniel Bullard:

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Not all electric vehicles are cars
In May, BloombergNEF analysis found that the electric vehicles currently on the road are already avoiding a million barrels per day of the world’s would-be oil consumption. There are now millions of personal electric vehicles on the road and hundreds of thousands of electric buses, not to mention commercial electric vehicles. Yet none of those categories is the main part of avoided oil consumption today. For that we can thank the tiny electrics with two or three wheels — they’re responsible for more than half of that vanished demand for oil. There are almost a quarter-billion such electric vehicles on the road today. China buys more than 18 million electric two-wheelers a year; by 2040, BNEF expects the world to buy 70 million.

Electric vehicle sales are outperforming
Global automobile sales plunged in the first two quarters of 2020 to levels not seen since the financial crisis. Electric vehicles, though, fell less. That’s thanks to Europe, which had the largest fall in internal combustion sales (down almost 56% year on year) and a similarly humongous increase in EV sales (up more than 45%). Expect the electric vehicle market to grow in 2020.

BP calls the top on oil demand
The big takeaway from BP Plc’s annual energy outlook: Oil demand will peak this decade. That’s not because of aggressive policies aimed at reaching net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, nor as a result of carbon prices or other interventions aimed at limiting global temperature rise. BP says that even if energy policy keeps evolving at pretty much the pace it is today, oil demand will still start declining.

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One other one: oil now has a lower return on equity than renewables. And while the “million barrels per day” number sounds good, current consumption is about 100 million per day. So there’s a long way to go.

(A new year hint: if you want to read a Bloomberg story but don’t have a subscription, try plugging the headline of the story into a search engine. You’ll almost always find a site which republishes it without a paywall, with permission.)
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How an obscure British PC maker invented ARM and changed the world • Ars Technica

Jason Torchinsky:

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The ARM processor, the bit of silicon that controls over 130 billion devices all over the world and without which modernity would effectively come to a crashing halt, has a really strange origin story. Its journey is peppered with bits of seemingly bad luck that ended up providing crucial opportunities, unexpected technical benefits that would prove absolutely pivotal, and a start in some devices that would be considered abject failures.

But everything truly did sort of get set in motion by a TV show—a 1982 BBC program called The Computer Programme. This was an attempt by the BBC to educate Britons about just what the hell all these new fancy machines that looked like crappy typewriters connected to your telly were all about.

The show was part of a larger Computer Literacy Project started by the British government and the BBC as a response to fears that the UK was deeply and alarmingly unprepared for the new revolution in personal computing that was happening in America. Unlike most TV shows, the BBC wanted to feature a computer on the show that would be used to explain fundamental computing concepts and teach a bit of BASIC programming. The concepts included graphics and sound, the ability to connect to teletext networks, speech synthesis, and even some rudimentary AI. As a result, the computer needed for the show would have to be pretty good—in fact, the producers’ demands were initially so high that nothing on the market really satisfied the BBC’s aspirations.

So, the BBC put out a call to the UK’s young computer industry, which was then dominated by Sinclair, a company that made its fortune in calculators and tiny televisions. Ultimately, it was a much smaller upstart company that ended up getting the lucrative contract: Acorn Computers.

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If you don’t know this story, then it’s a rewarding read. Apple supported it at the start, and then income from selling ARM shares supported Apple in its darkest days when it was making an operational loss.
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Haven, the Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan venture to disrupt health care, is disbanding after three years • CNBC

Hugh Son:

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Haven, the joint venture formed by three of America’s most powerful companies to lower costs and improve outcomes in health care, is disbanding after three years, CNBC has learned exclusively.

The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on health-care projects, the people said.

The announcement three years ago that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase had teamed up to tackle one of the biggest problems facing corporate America – high and rising costs for employee health care  – sent shock waves throughout the world of medicine. Shares of health-care companies tumbled on fears about how the combined might of leaders in technology and finance could wring costs out of the system.

The move to shutter Haven may be a sign of how difficult it is to radically improve American health care, a complicated and entrenched system of doctors, insurers, drugmakers and middlemen that costs the country $3.5 trillion every year.

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Guess it’s over to the politicians again then. Only Barack Obama has been able to make a significant change to it in the past 12 years.
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Singapore police can access COVID-19 contact tracing data for criminal investigations • ZDNet

Eileen Yu:

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Singapore has confirmed its law enforcers will be able to access the country’s COVID-19 contact tracing data to aid in their criminal investigations. To date, more than 4.2 million residents or 78% of the local population have adopted the TraceTogether contact tracing app and wearable token, which is one of the world’s highest penetration rates.

This figure is double that of the adoption rate just three months ago in September, when TraceTogether had clocked 2.4 million downloads or about 40% of the population. A recent spike likely was fuelled by the government’s announcement that use of the app or token would be mandatory for entry into public venues in early-2021, when it was able to distribute the token to anyone who wanted one. 

Introduced last March, TraceTogether taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices – within 2 metres of each other for more than 30 minutes – to allow them to identify those who have been in close contact when needed.

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It’s a complete reversal of what they said. Incredibly dangerous: people will never trust what the Singaporean government tells them again. (If they did in the first place.)
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More streaming remotes need to be battery-free • Gizmodo

Catie Keck:

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We’re talking most of the major streaming devices available right now. Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast with Google TV, Nvidia Shield TV, Tivo Stream 4K, and others all require a pair of batteries that will most likely eventually wind up in the trash. Apple TV’s remote is a rare outlier; it charges via a Lightning port.

I’m not giving Apple a free pass here on its dumb proprietary charging protocol. Device- or maker-specific charging cables are a huge pain in the butt, an environmental nightmare in their own right, and an avoidable problem that might be solved with a universal charging standard like USB-C. In my perfect world, the next-generation Apple TV would phase out its hell port in favor of something that plays nice with other charging cables and devices—though based on its recent product launches, I’m not holding my breath.

But Apple still has the best solution for reducing battery waste than most other major streamers. A single charge on my Apple TV remote can last months without me having to plug it in again, while some Roku users, for example, have reported that their remotes chew through batteries like wild. Of course, rechargeable batteries are an option here, but how many users are really going out of their way to equip their clickers with these to avoid waste? And most streaming devices I’ve unboxed ship with a standard pair of AAA batteries anyway.

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Apple’s solution is certainly the better one. Rechargeables would be good, but then you’d need the recharger too. It must be a price thing: including a rechargeable Li-ion battery and cable (and charger!) would be much more expensive than a gap and a couple of disposables.
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The ultimate MacBook+PC monitor showdown • So long, and thanks for all the bits

James Jones:

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Like many folks finding their way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve recently accepted a job working permanently remote. So for the foreseeable future my workstation will be pulling double-duty for macOS-based software development with a MacBook Pro and Windows-based gaming on a PC.

Modern monitors come with a lot of interesting features. Did you know you can connect a MacBook to a monitor using a single USB-C cable and transmit USB, power, audio and video?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as knowing whether a monitor supports USB-C. Many monitors support USB-C but don’t have any sort of way to pipe the audio out from the monitor (for example, to a sound bar). And some monitors have USB-C and audio out, but only provide 15W of power.

So I set out to identify a monitor that meets all of my criteria. Specifically:

• Has a built-in KVM switch that lets me easily switch between my PC and MacBook.
• Provides at least 60W power over USB-C (the bare minimum to power a 16-inch MacBook Pro).
• Some sort of audio output (almost always analog).
• Upstream USB-B Port so that I can plug my keyboard and mouse into the monitor and pipe PC audio through the monitor to the sound bar.
• VESA mountable.
• IPS panel. The viewing angles on my TN panel are so bad it interferes with my work so IPS is a must.
• 27” or 34” ultrawide @ 1440p. Good for gaming and happens to be the ideal non-retina DPI for macOS. Full retina @ 5k instead of 1440p would be nice, but unfortunately I couldn’t find such a monitor that meets all the minimum criteria. Awkward DPIs are a deal-breaker due to scaling and “shimmering” effects mentioned in the linked post.

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Just in case you’re contemplating, say, a six-week lockdown, and want to get a really good monitor. He has a list which, if you’re prepared to let some things go, should provide at least one or two good candidates. And they’re applicable for either Windows or Mac or both, don’t forget.
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Adobe Flash rides off into the sunset • The Verge

TC Sottek:

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While Adobe won’t start blocking Flash content until January 12th, major browsers shut it all down on January 1st and Microsoft will block it in most versions of Windows. It’s over.

Flash enjoyed huge cultural relevance and looms large in web history, which might be why its funeral procession has lasted for years. Browsers started showing Flash the door early in the last decade, and in 2015 Adobe asked developers to move on to HTML5. Things became official in 2017, when Adobe announced it would end support.

While Adobe is finally (mercifully) letting Flash go, it will live on in many historical artifacts. The Internet Archive is preserving Flash games and animations, including well-known hits like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”

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Two things really killed Flash: its woeful performance on mobile, and its calamitous security problems. Steve Jobs hammered a big nail into its coffin with his “Thoughts on Flash” in April 2010 [the original is long gone from Apple’s pages], and then Adobe read the writing on the wall at the end of 2011, and now here we are. At one point it was the most widely distributed third-party plugin on desktop browsers; it made a lot of criminals rich.
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Hundreds of Google employees unionize, culminating years of activism • The New York Times

Kate Conger:

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More than 225 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group revealed on Monday, capping years of growing activism at one of the world’s largest companies and presenting a rare beachhead for labor organizers in staunchly anti-union Silicon Valley.

The union’s creation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its largely white-collar work force. It follows increasing demands by employees at Google for policy overhauls on pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top leadership.

The new union, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was organized in secret for the better part of a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada.

But unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer come to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, said the union was a necessary tool to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues.

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But the workplace issues aren’t (just) things like pay. This is going to be something of a watershed for Google. Will it lance the anger that’s been building up, or is it going to be some sort of battering ram on management?
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URGENT: SECURITY: New maintainer is probably malicious · Issue #1263 • The Great Suspender

The Great Suspender is a Chrome extension that stops tabs sitting in the background from running. Some time last year it gained a new “owner”, origin obscure, and now people have become concerned about changes that have been made to the code:

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On November 6th, @lucasdf discovered a smoking gun that the new maintainer is malicious. Although OpenWebAnalytics is a real software, it does not provide the files executed by the extension. Those are hosted on the unrelated site owebanalytics.com, which turns out to be immensely suspicious. That site is one month old, and is clearly designed to appear innocent, being hosted on a public webhost, and being given a seemingly innocent homepage from the CentOS project. However, the site contains no real information other than the tracking scripts, and is only found in the context of this extension. Most importantly, the minified javascript differs significantly from that distributed by the OWA project.

While there does exist an innocent explanation for this, I can no longer say that it is the most likely. Using the chrome web store version of this extension, without disabling tracking, will execute code from an untrusted third-party on your computer, with the power to modify any and all websites that you see. The fact that disabling tracking still works is irrelevant given the fact that most of the 2 million users of this extension have no idea that that option even exists. The fact that the code is not obvious malware is meaningless in light of the fact that it can be changed without notice, and that it is minified (human-unreadable).

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As you might expect, the “issues” page for the project is suddenly alive with queries and questions. They’re not being answered.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1455: SolarWinds hack worse than thought, hedge fund prods Intel, is the Turing Test dead?, Xiaomi’s charger chat bites it, and more


Farmville is dead, as of 31 December; but its legacy lives on. CC-licensed photo by Mahmut 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. Vaccinated New Year! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As understanding of Russian hacking grows, so does alarm • The New York Times

David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth and Julian E. Barnes:

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Interviews with key players investigating what intelligence agencies believe to be an operation by Russia’s S.V.R. intelligence service revealed these points:

• The breach is far broader than first believed. Initial estimates were that Russia sent its probes only into a few dozen of the 18,000 government and private networks they gained access to when they inserted code into network management software made by a Texas company named SolarWinds. But as businesses like Amazon and Microsoft that provide cloud services dig deeper for evidence, it now appears Russia exploited multiple layers of the supply chain to gain access to as many as 250 networks.

• The hackers managed their intrusion from servers inside the United States, exploiting legal prohibitions on the National Security Agency from engaging in domestic surveillance and eluding cyberdefenses deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.

• “Early warning” sensors placed by Cyber Command and the National Security Agency deep inside foreign networks to detect brewing attacks clearly failed. There is also no indication yet that any human intelligence alerted the United States to the hacking.

• The government’s emphasis on election defense, while critical in 2020, may have diverted resources and attention from long-brewing problems like protecting the “supply chain” of software. In the private sector, too, companies that were focused on election security, like FireEye and Microsoft, are now revealing that they were breached as part of the larger supply chain attack.

•SolarWinds, the company that the hackers used as a conduit for their attacks, had a history of lacklustre security for its products, making it an easy target, according to current and former employees and government investigators. Its chief executive, Kevin B. Thompson, who is leaving his job after 11 years, has sidestepped the question of whether his company should have detected the intrusion.

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That’s a lot of hacking. You might wonder about the root cause. The last point in that hints at it; below, Matthew Stoller has a more specific look at what that might be. (Remember when the worst America had to worry about from a hack was all of its credit records? Come back 2017.)
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How to get rich sabotaging nuclear weapons facilities • BIG by Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller on the SolarWinds hack:

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cybersecurity risk is akin to pollution, a cost that the business itself doesn’t fully bear, but that the rest of society does. The private role in cybersecurity is now brushing up against the libertarian assumptions of much of the policymaking world; national security in a world where private software companies handle national defense simply cannot long co-exist with our monopoly and financier-dominated corporate apparatus.

All of which brings me to what I think is the most compelling part of this story. The point of entry for this major hack was not Microsoft, but a private equity-owned IT software firm called SolarWinds. This company’s products are dominant in their niche; 425 out of the Fortune 500 use SolarWinds. As Reuters reported about the last investor call in October, the CEO told analysts that “there was not a database or an IT deployment model out there to which [they] did not provide some level of monitoring or management.” While there is competition in this market, SolarWinds does have market power. IT systems are hard to migrate from, and this lock-in effect means that customers will tolerate price hikes or quality degradation rather than change providers. And it does have a large market share; as the CEO put it, “We manage everyone’s network gear.”

…it’s not that the [SolarWinds] CEO is stupid. Far from it. “Employees say that under Mr. Thompson,” the Times continued, “an accountant by training and a former chief financial officer, every part of the business was examined for cost savings and common security practices were eschewed because of their expense.” The company’s profit tripled from 2010 to 2019. Thompson calculated that his business could run more profitably if it chose to open its clients to hacking risk, and he was right.

And yet, not every software firm operates like SolarWinds. Most seek to make money, but few do so with such a combination of malevolence, greed, and idiocy. What makes SolarWinds different? The answer is the specific financial model that has invaded the software industry over the last fifteen years, a particularly virulent strain of recklessness typically called private equity.

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You might be able to guess where this goes. We’ve heard the same story in toys, retail malls, manufacturing, and so many others.
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Exclusive: Hedge fund Third Point urges Intel to explore deal options • Reuters

Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Stephen Nellis:

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Were it to gain traction, Third Point’s push for changes could lead to a major shakeup at Intel, which has been slow to respond to investor calls to outsource more of its manufacturing capacity. It could also lead to the unwinding of some of its acquisitions, such as the $16.7bn purchase of programmable chip maker Altera in 2015.

Third Point chief executive Daniel Loeb wrote to Intel chairman Omar Ishrak calling for immediate action to boost the company’s position as a major provider of processor chips for PCs and data centers. The New York-based fund has amassed a nearly $1bn stake in Intel, according to people familiar with the matter.

…Loeb asked Intel to retain an investment adviser to evaluate strategic alternatives, including whether it should remain an integrated device manufacturer and the potential divestment of failed acquisitions, according to the letter. Third Point believes that Intel should consider separating its chip design from its semiconductor fabrication plant manufacturing operations, according to the sources. This could include a joint venture in manufacturing, according to sources.

Intel customers, such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are developing their own in-house silicon solutions and sending those designs to be manufactured in East Asia, Loeb wrote. He suggested Intel must offer new solutions to retain these customers rather than have them send their manufacturing away.

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There’s no way that Apple is ever coming back to Intel, unless Intel sets up a fab which makes chips at 5nm or less as TSMC can. True, it’s not a big customer. But Microsoft and Amazon (and in time Google?) are going to start shifting from x86 to ARM for servers too. We’re just on the verge of that happening. If Intel hasn’t got a plan for that, it’s already dead; it just hasn’t realised it.

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FarmVille once took over Facebook. Now everything is FarmVille • The New York Times

Daniel Victor:

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At its peak, the game had 32 million daily active users and nearly 85 million players over all. It helped transform Facebook from a place you went to check in on updates — mostly in text form — from friends and family into a time-eating destination itself.

“We thought of it as this new dimension in your social, not just a way to get games to people,” said Mark Pincus, who was chief executive of Zynga at the time and is now chairman of its board of directors. “I thought: ‘People are just hanging out on these social networks like Facebook, and I want to give them something to do together.’”

That was accomplished partly by drawing players into loops that were hard to pull themselves from. If you didn’t check in every day, your crops would wither and die; some players would set alarms so they wouldn’t forget. If you needed help, you could spend real money or send requests to your Facebook friends — a source of annoyance for nonplayers who were besieged with notifications and updates in their news feeds.

Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, said the behaviours FarmVille normalised had made it a pace car for the internet economy of the 2010s.

He did not mean that as praise.

The game encouraged people to draw in friends as resources to both themselves and the service they were using, Mr. Bogost said. It gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.

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Farmville finally shut down on New Year’s Eve. Oh, the virtual humanity! There’s also this Twitter thread (gathered on Thread Reader as a single page) by Pincus about what Farmville did and meant. You might not be surprised to hear that he thinks of it more positively than Bogost.
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The world is trapped in America’s culture war • The Atlantic

Helen Lewis:

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Sharing the internet with America is like sharing your living room with a rhinoceros. It’s huge, it’s right there, and whatever it’s doing now, you sure as hell know about it.

This month, Twitter announced that it would restrict retweets for a few weeks, and prompt its users to reconsider sharing content that has been flagged as misinformation. The reason for this change, of course, is the U.S. presidential election. The restricted features will be restored when its result is clear.

Anything that makes Twitter fractionally less hellish is welcome, as is the recent crackdown by Facebook and YouTube on QAnon conspiracy groups and Holocaust denial. But from anywhere outside the borders of the U.S., it is hard not to feel faintly aggrieved when reading this news. Hey guys! We have elections too!

…In the UK., provocateurs such as Piers Morgan seek out the most eye-catching opinions of not only British activists to denounce, but American ones too. Morgan’s new book, Wake Up, is a jeremiad against “the woke world view.” It expresses fury at the British government’s handling of COVID-19 and the failed police investigation into the disappearance of a British toddler, but also about Google removing the egg from its salad emoji, Rose McGowan’s tweet apologizing to Iran for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the use of the N-word in rap music, and the opinion writer Bari Weiss’s resignation from The New York Times.

The wall-to-wall coverage of the Adele story and of other apparent outrages reflects a simple demographic and economic truth: There are six times as many Americans as Britons, so English-language publishers around the world are keen to serve the U.S. market. Going viral on the British corner of the internet is less rewarding, in terms of web traffic and advertising revenue, than “breaking America.”

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British rock bands always aspired (still do) to break America. Now media companies are just the same.
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The Turing Test is obsolete. AI needs a new benchmark • Fast Company

Rohit Prasad is chief scientist for Amazon’s Alexa system:

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To make AI more useful today, these systems need to accomplish our everyday tasks efficiently. If you’re asking your AI assistant to turn off your garage lights, you aren’t looking to have a dialogue. Instead, you’d want it to fulfill that request and notify you with a simple acknowledgment, “ok” or “done.” Even when you engage in an extensive dialogue with an AI assistant on a trending topic or have a story read to your child, you’d still like to know it is an AI and not a human. In fact, “fooling” users by pretending to be human poses a real risk. Imagine the dystopian possibilities, as we’ve already begun to see with bots seeding misinformation and the emergence of deep fakes.

Instead of obsessing about making AIs indistinguishable from humans, our ambition should be building AIs that augment human intelligence and improve our daily lives in a way that is equitable and inclusive. A worthy underlying goal is for AIs to exhibit human-like attributes of intelligence—including common sense, self-supervision, and language proficiency—and combine machine-like efficiency such as fast searches, memory recall, and accomplishing tasks on your behalf. The end result is learning and completing a variety of tasks and adapting to novel situations, far beyond what a regular person can do.

…While these AI services depend on human-like conversational skills to complete both simple transactions (e.g. setting an alarm) and complex tasks (e.g. planning a weekend), to maximize utility they are going beyond conversational AI to “Ambient AI”–where the AI answers your requests when you need it, anticipates your needs, and fades into the background when you don’t.

For example, Alexa can detect the sound of glass breaking, and alert you to take action. If you set an alarm while going to bed, it suggests turning off a connected light downstairs that’s been left on. Another aspect of such AIs is that they need to be an expert in a large, ever-increasing number of tasks, which is only possible with more generalized learning capability instead of task-specific intelligence. Therefore, for the next decade and beyond, the utility of AI services, with their conversational and proactive assistance abilities on ambient devices, are a worthy test.

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Xiaomi’s Mi 11 won’t come with charger after it mocked Apple for not including a charger • The Verge

Kim Lyons:

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Lei Jun, the CEO of Chinese phone maker Xiaomi, has confirmed that its upcoming Mi 11 phone will not come with a charger, citing environmental concerns. While that’s a legitimate argument against providing yet another hunk of plastic that resembles all the other chargers people already have, Xiaomi joined other phone makers who poked fun at Apple a few short months ago for not including chargers with the iPhone 12.

Jun made the remarks on Chinese social media site Weibo, saying people have many chargers which creates an environmental burden, and therefore the company was canceling the charger for the Mi 11.

…Shortly after the iPhone 12 launch, Xiaomi tweeted that it “didn’t leave anything out of the box” for its Mi 10T Pro, adding a short video clip that shows a Mi 10T box with a charger inside. Perhaps the takeaway here is that companies should keep the marketing team in the loop about future product decisions?

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The other question is whether Xiaomi will lower the price by an amount concomitant with the price of the charger. Heavily betting that it won’t. Still, good that there won’t be extra chargers in the world. Which company do we think will be first to offer a trade-in program?
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How my record player helped me feel the music • WIRED

Julian Chokkattu:

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Before the pandemic began, I had one record. It sat atop my red Ikea bookshelf, collecting dust. The Great Ray Charles. I picked it up at an event I attended a little more than a year ago, in the Before Times. I figured I’d find a way to play it at some point. But then, in mid-August, a turntable arrived at my doorstep.

My colleague and WIRED audio nerd extraordinaire, Parker Hall, recoiling after hearing I use a pair of decade-old, $30 computer speakers for my TV’s audio output, loaned me a pair of Klipsch speakers and a Fluance turntable. And just like that, four months later, my once pathetic record collection has swiftly grown to 16 pieces.

I don’t think I can forget the day I finally peeled the shrink-wrap from the Ray Charles album, choking from the mist of dust that sloughed off it. I had just finished setting up the Fluance RT80, which, by the way, was very easy. That surprised me. I always had this idea that turntables had a complicated and involved setup process, but I had it up and running in 10 minutes.

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If you’re old enough, as dammit I am, to have used a record player back when they were the principal way of reproducing music, this will have caused a suppressed giggle. You could spend 10 minutes setting up your record player – getting the stylus pressure right, checking for bias (pulling towards/away from the centre) – or you could spend just about zero.

But the points Chokkattu makes about the intimacy of watching an object create the sounds you’re hearing – that the turntable is in effect an instrument – are completely true, and much forgotten.
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The relentless 2020 news cycle in one chart • Axios

Stef W. Kight:

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From a pandemic to multi-city protests to contested elections, 2020 has been one unprecedented crisis after another. “We have never seen a year like this in Google Trends history,” Simon Rogers, a Google data editor, told Axios.”These were huge stories that changed how we search.”

Because of the overwhelming volume of search interest in the broad topics of “coronavirus” and “elections,” Axios left those terms out of our list.

We opted instead to include more specific, related topics like “masks,” “Anthony Fauci,” “absentee ballots” and “Joe Biden.”

The chart again reveals how short Americans’ attention span can be, with surges in Google searches often lasting only a week for a given topic.

You can see this with 2020 topics like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up President Trump’s State of the Union speech, Kobe Bryant’s death and the Beirut explosion.

But several big topics saw multiple weeks of increased interest this year, such as masks, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s exit from the royal family, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the record-breaking use of absentee ballots because of the pandemic, and the various investigations and conspiracy theories involving Hunter Biden.

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I think the accusation of “short attention span” is a little unfair, actually. What if people search for stuff, and then they’ve found out, and that’s it? Nobody is going to search for “Tiger King” all year long. Notable that the biggest spike in search was for “absentee ballot”.
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‘Peak hype’: why the driverless car revolution has stalled • The Observer

Gwyn Topham:

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Prof Nick Reed, a transport consultant who ran UK self-driving trials, says: “The perspectives have changed since 2015, when it was probably peak hype. Reality is setting in about the challenges and complexity.”

Automated driving, says Reed, could still happen in the next five years on highways with clearly marked lanes, limited to motorised vehicles all going in the same direction. Widespread use in cities remains some way further out, he says: “But the benefits are still there.”

The most touted benefit is safety, with human error blamed for more than 90% of road accidents. Proponents also say autonomous cars would be more efficient and reduce congestion.

Looking back, Reed says “the technology worked … people had the sense, it does the right thing most of the time, we are 90% of the way there. But it is that last bit which is the toughest. Being able reliably to do the right thing every single time, whether it’s raining, snowing, fog, is a bigger challenge than anticipated.”

Waymo, the Google spin-off that has led the field, could be a case in point: having quickly wowed the world with footage of self-driving cars, the subsequent steps appear small.

In October last year it announced the public could hail fully driverless taxis; yet only a fraction of journeys will not have a safety driver in the car – and the range remains limited to the sunny suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, whose every centimetre has been mapped by Waymo computers.

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The problem is always in that 10%: plus the fact that it isn’t evenly distributed. You might abruptly need to take control of the wheel or brake on a motorway if a car careens in front of you (been there), just as much as on rural roads with grassy verges and long-gone centre lines. The next 10% will take 90% of the effort.
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