Start Up No.1491: how TikTok inspires creativity, Arizona’s bug-ridden prisons, Apple blocks new malware, living on an alien world, and more


a ransomware attack on Hyundai has blocked app and other access to its cars. CC-licensed photo by Michael on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Buying a calendar. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

American Idle • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei:

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By network effects of creativity, I mean that every additional user on TikTok makes every other user more creative.

This exists in a weak form on every social network and on the internet at large. The connected age means we are exposed to so much from so many more people than at any point in human history. That can’t help but compound creativity.

Various memes and trends pass around on networks like Instagram and Twitter. But there, you still have to create your own version of a meme from scratch, even if, on Twitter, it’s as simple as copying and pasting.

But TikTok has a strong form of this type of network effect. They explicitly lower the barrier to the literal remixing of everyone else’s content. In their app, they have a wealth of features that make it dead simple to grab any element from another TikTok and incorporate it into a new TikTok.

The barrier to entry in editing video is really high as anyone who has used a non-linear editor like Premiere or compositing software like After Effects can attest. TikTok abstracted a lot of formerly complex video editing processes into effects and filters that even an amateur can use.

Instagram launched one-click photo filters (after Hipstamatic, of course, though Hipstamatic lacked the feed which is like the spine of modern social apps), and later Instagram added additional features for editing Stories, and even some separate apps like Boomerang that were later re-incorporated back into Instagram as features.

Snapchat has a gazillion video filters, too, though many are what I think of as simple facial cosmetic FX.

YouTube has launched almost no creator tools of note ever. WTF.

TikTok launches seemingly a new video effect or filter every week. I regularly log in and see creators using some filter I’ve never heard of, and some of them are just flat out bonkers. What creators can accomplish with some of these filters I can’t even fathom how I’d replicate in something like the Adobe Creative Suite.

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Wei doesn’t write many blogposts. But when he does, there’s a worthwhile observation in pretty much every line. (That one about YouTube: what a killer point.) Give this one your time.
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Whistleblowers: software bug keeping hundreds of inmates in prisons beyond release dates • KJZZ

Jimmy Jenkins:

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According to Arizona Department of Corrections whistleblowers, hundreds of incarcerated people who should be eligible for release are being held in prison because the inmate management software cannot interpret current sentencing laws.

KJZZ is not naming the whistleblowers because they fear retaliation. The employees said they have been raising the issue internally for more than a year, but prison administrators have not acted to fix the software bug. The sources said Chief Information Officer Holly Greene and Deputy Director Joe Profiri have been aware of the problem since 2019.

The Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed there is a problem with the software.

As of 2019, the department had spent more than $24m contracting with IT company Business & Decision, North America to build and maintain the software program, known as ACIS, that is used to manage the inmate population in state prisons.

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More than a year. America specialises in bizarre forms of cruelty to its incarcerated, who have even less power than normal citizens.
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Apple acts to prevent further spread of Silver Sparrow Mac malware • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

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Apple says that it has taken steps to prevent further spread of the Mac malware known as Silver Sparrow. The malware was notable for the fact that it runs natively on the M1 chip. [It also runs natively on Intel Macs. – CA]

Apple says that it has revoked the security certificates of the developer accounts used to sign the packages, which will prevent it being installed on any further Macs…

As we reported over the weekend, this piece of malware has proven to be perplexing to security researchers for a handful of reasons. Silver Sparrow forces infected Macs to check a control server once per hour, and it includes a self-destruct mechanism, but researchers have yet to actually observe its malicious intent.

Apple has reportedly told MacRumors that it is taking several steps to prevent further spread of the Silver Sparrow malware. The company has revoked the certificates of the developer accounts used to sign the packages, which prevents the attackers from infecting any additional Mac users.

Apple also reiterated that Silver Sparrow has yet to deliver a malicious payload yet and that all software downloaded outside of the Mac App Store offers “industry-leading” protection for users. For instance, Apple requires all software to be notarized, whether downloaded from the App Store or elsewhere.

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Very mysterious; had infected about 30,000 machines worldwide, would contact a command server, but didn’t have any payload, and nobody knows what event it was awaiting before acting. Apple will have a clear idea, though, based on the developer certificates it’s now revoked.
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What would it take to actually settle an alien world? • WIRED

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David Gerrold is the author of dozens of science fiction books, including The Martian Child and The Man Who Folded Himself. His new novel Hella, about a low-gravity planet inhabited by dinosaur-like aliens, was inspired by the 2011 TV series Terra Nova.

“The worldbuilding that they did was very interesting, very exciting, but because I was frustrated that they didn’t go in the direction I wanted to go, I was thinking, ‘Let me do a story where I can actually tackle the worldbuilding problems,’” Gerrold says in Episode 454 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Hella goes into enormous detail about the logistics of settling an alien world, and grapples with questions like: Would it be safe for us to eat alien proteins? Would it be safe for us to breathe alien germs? What effect would plants and animals from Earth have on an alien ecology? It’s a far cry from many science fiction stories which assume that alien planets would be pretty much like Earth. “My theory is that there are no Earthlike planets, there’s just lazy writers,” Gerrold says.

Hella is told from the point of view of Kyle Martin, a neurodivergent young man who struggles with social niceties but possesses a wide-ranging curiosity for technical details. Gerrold says that telling the story from Kyle’s point of view meant making the worldbuilding in Hella especially rich.

“I think it’s a synergistic phenomenon,” Gerrold says. “I wanted to explore the world, Kyle was the right character to explore it, and the more I got into Kyle’s head, the more I wanted to explore the world from his point of view. There are whole chapters about how the predators stalk the herds of megafauna simply because Kyle was interested in that.”

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Huawei turns to pig farming as smartphone sales fall • BBC News

Justin Harper:

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China has the world’s biggest pig farming industry and is home to half the world’s live hogs.

Technology is helping to modernise pig farms with AI being introduced to detect diseases and track pigs.

Facial recognition technology can identify individual pigs, while other technology monitors their weight, diet and exercise.

Huawei has already been developing facial recognition tech and faced criticism last month for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

Other Chinese tech giants, including JD.com and Alibaba, are already working with pig farmers in China to bring new technologies.

“The pig farming is yet another example of how we try to revitalise some traditional industries with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) technologies to create more value for the industries in the 5G era,” the Huawei spokesman added.

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Hell of a pigot. Sorry, pivot.
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Tesla’s data advantage: can Apple, or others, keep up? • Scobleizer

Robert Scoble has a VERY long post in which he raves about how much data Tesla is collecting from the cameras in its cars:

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When I talk with people, even techies in Silicon Valley, most have no clue just how advanced Tesla is and how fast it’s moving. Wall Street Analysts are even worse. I’ve listened to EVERY analyst and NONE except for [Cathie] Wood’s talks about the data the car is collecting. None have figured out that Tesla is building its own maps, or, if they have, haven’t explained what that means. (I met part of the Tesla programming team building these features and they admitted to me that they are building their own maps, more on that later for the nerds who want to get into why this matters).

She says that the data leads Tesla to doing Robotaxis, which will be highly profitable. She’s right, but that’s only one possible business that Tesla can build off of this new real-time data. Others include augmented reality worlds, GIS data to sell to businesses and cities, and new utilities that will run far ahead of Apple and Google’s abilities. More on that in a bit. These are all multi-billion-dollar businesses and is why tens of billions of dollars are being invested in autonomous technologies, including at GM, with its Cruise division (worth already about one-third of GM’s total market value), and Apple has leaked that it’s going to be entering the space in 2024 with an effort that will cost many billions too.

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Scoble is hugely excited (but he gets hugely excited by many things). The data is useful, but humans (inside cars) are unpredictable things. I’d love to know how Scoble thinks “full self-driving” is going to handle a roundabout – a road construct that is very common throughout Europe (I don’t know about Asia), but which even humans struggle with quite a lot. (Via Quentin Scott-Fraser.)
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February 2002: Citibank overhauls overseas systems • Computerworld

Lucas Mearian, in February 2002:

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In what analysts are estimating to be a $100m-plus project, Citibank is replacing a decades-old set of back-office corporate banking systems in all of its overseas corporate offices with a single platform, which will allow it to create a cross-border set of standard user interfaces and business processes.

The New York-based bank has already completed changeover projects in the Asia-Pacific region, Western and Eastern Europe and Latin America, using a software suite it purchased from an India-based technology vendor spun off by the bank three years ago.

The changeover, which began in early 2000, is expected to continue through 2004. There are still rollouts to be completed in more than 100 countries. Citibank formally disclosed its work on the project late last month.

…Developed in-house in the 1970s, the old system has morphed into 58 disparate software applications, said Jeff Berg, executive director of program management at Citibank’s parent, New York-based Citigroup Inc.

“In the ’70s, we were growing rapidly in countries around the world. To get up and running quickly, we’d use this system called Cosmos [Consolidated Online Modulated Operating System],” Berg said. “As the bank grew, we did make a mistake in that we released the source code to each of the countries, and they changed it.”

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People reckon that this is the rewrite that led to the Flexcube interface – so confusing it caused a Citibank contractor to make a $900m data entry mistake, as we heard last week. (Thanks Mark Cathcart for the link.)
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Hackers expose Hyundai logistics data after apparent ransomware attack • FreightWaves

Nate Tabak:

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Hackers leaked data related to Hyundai Motor America’s logistics operations on Monday and claimed responsibility for an apparent ransomware attack targeting the automaker and subsidiary Kia Motors America. 

Files posted by the DoppelPaymer ransomware gang contain information about Hyundai Glovis, the automaker’s global logistics firm, as well as documents related to a trucking partner, in addition to other data.   

Hyundai Motor America acknowledged that it had experienced an “IT outage,” but would not confirm that it had been targeted in a ransomware attack.

“Last week, Hyundai Motor America experienced an IT outage affecting a limited number of customer-facing systems and the majority of those systems are now back online,” the company said in a statement. “We would like to thank our customers for their continued patience. At this time, we can confirm that we have no evidence of Hyundai Motor America or its data being subject to a ransomware attack.”

The data leak came in the aftermath of an IT disruption that hit Kia Motors America more than a week ago. Bleeping Computer reported that Kia had been targeted by a ransomware attack by DoppelPaymer and was seeking $20m in payment. 

Brett Callow, a threat analyst with the security software firm Emsisoft, said the attack on Hyundai America could have led to attempts by DoppelPaymer to target any business partnerships.

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Hyundai drivers can’t use their apps to control their cars (perhaps not a huge loss). This does show though the risks inherent in vehicles that are over-reliant on a company in the middle to route data for them. Not just the cars, but the companies too become targets.
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WhatsApp details what will happen to users who don’t agree to privacy changes • TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

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WhatsApp said earlier this week that it will allow users to review its planned privacy update at “their own pace” and will display a banner to better explain the changes in its terms. But what happens to its users who do not accept the terms by the May 15 deadline?

In an email to one of its merchant partners, reviewed by TechCrunch, Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it will “slowly ask” such users to comply with the new terms “in order to have full functionality of WhatsApp” starting May 15.

If they still don’t accept the terms, “for a short time, these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app,” the company added in the note. The company confirmed to TechCrunch that the note accurately characterizes its plan.

The “short time” will span a few weeks. In the note, WhatsApp linked to a newly created FAQ page that says its policy related to inactive users will apply after May 15.

WhatsApp’s policy for inactive users states that accounts are “generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.”

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A sort of slow strangulation of those who don’t accede to its wishes. Facebook must really like controversy.
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Worldwide smartphone sales declined 5% in fourth quarter of 2020 • Gartner

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Global sales of smartphones to end users declined 5.4% in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Gartner, Inc. Smartphone sales declined 12.5% in full year 2020.

“The sales of more 5G smartphones and lower-to-mid-tier smartphones minimized the market decline in the fourth quarter of 2020,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner. “Even as consumers remained cautious in their spending and held off on some discretionary purchases, 5G smartphones and pro-camera features encouraged some end users to purchase new smartphones or upgrade their current smartphones in the quarter.”

The launch of the 5G iPhone 12 series helped Apple record double-digit growth in the fourth quarter of 2020. Apple surpassed Samsung to retake the No. 1 global smartphone vendor spot (see Table 1). The last time Apple was the top smartphone vendor was in the fourth quarter for 2016.

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Samsung top for the year, of course, but during 2020 Huawei shrank by 24%, in a market that shrank by 12.5%. Apple and Xiaomi were the only companies in the top five to show growth.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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