Start Up No.1535: the Post Office programming scandal, Twitter geoblocks anti-Modi tweets, gravity batteries!, beat the bookies, and more


Remember Fortnite? Its court case against Apple over whether it can run its own store on iOS without paying tithes begins on Monday. CC-licensed photo by Sergey Galyonkin 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. May the odds be ever with you. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


39 Post Office convictions quashed after Fujitsu evidence about Horizon IT platform called into question • The Register

Gareth Corfield:

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Lord Justice Holroyde said that the one-time state monopoly had, by representing Horizon as reliable, “effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof,” leading to criminal defendants having to prove their innocence instead of the Post Office showing they were guilty. Its lawyers compounded this by withholding evidence from courts and defence lawyers alike – evidence which clearly showed the Post Office and Fujitsu knew Horizon wasn’t generating accurate accounting records.

Each prosecution challenged in the Court of Appeal over the past year relied on data from the Horizon business management platform supplied by Fujitsu. This data, called “ARQ data” by the court, was a “complete and accurate record of all keystrokes made” on Horizon by sub-postmasters and their branch office staff.

Yet ARQ data was not often made available in the Post Office’s Crown Court prosecutions, leading to unjustifiable convictions and coerced guilty pleas.

Wrongly deprived of evidence needed to show that the Post Office’s cases against them were flawed, many sub-postmasters pleaded guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences rather than maintaining their innocence at court. Many also wanted to avoid the wrath of judges who had been told they were unrepentant thieves and false accounters.

Holroyde, giving the Court of Appeal’s judgment today, referred to an earlier civil High Court judgment from Mr Justice Fraser, who savaged the Post Office’s claims that Horizon was sound.

“Fraser J referred to two particular bugs, known as the Callendar Square bug and the Receipts and Payments Mismatch (‘RPM’) bug,” said Lord Justice Holroyde. “In his ‘Common Issues’ judgment at [541], he had described the RPM bug as one of the bugs in respect of which contemporaneous internal documents showed ‘at least to some degree, an awareness of Horizon problems within the Post Office itself over a number of years’.”

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This was the worst, biggest, longest miscarriage of justice ever in the UK. It’s not just dozens; hundreds of people were almost surely wrongly prosecuted for errors in the system. Horizon connected by phone line to central servers, but some transactions were missed. That created mismatches which looked as though the people running the offices were stealing money.

The Post Office’s refusal to accept this went beyond any reasonable behaviour. Really, someone should call in AC-12.
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Fortnite’s mastermind goes to battle with Apple • WSJ

Tim Higgins and Sarah E. Needleman:

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By early 2020, “Fortnite” was showing signs of aging, although popularity for online games can sometimes ebb and flow due to new seasons or features. The privately held company doesn’t disclose financial records but app-analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates global consumer spending within “Fortnite” on Apple devices had fallen in the first quarter of last year to $70m from a peak of almost $180m in the third quarter of 2018. Epic Chief Financial Officer Joe Babcock, who departed the company in early 2020, said it expected the trend to continue, according to a deposition he gave cited by Apple. Mr. Babock couldn’t be reached for comment.

Epic disputes the notion that “Fortnite” was waning in popularity, as the company in May 2020 said it had reached 350 million registered accounts.

Epic hatched a plan, according to court records citing a board presentation, to revive interest in “Fortnite” beyond its seasonal updates and occasional music performances and movie screenings that people experience together in a virtual setting. Epic would turn to third-party developers to create new content for “Fortnite,” essentially turning it into an open platform unto itself.

But for this new plan to work, the company needed to find a way it could afford to compensate its would-be partners. Apple’s 30% share, the presentation concluded, was an “existential issue” for its plan and needed to be cut so Epic could share a majority of the profit with creators.

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The court case, with Epic suing Apple on antitrust and anti-competition, begins today (Monday).
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Twitter censors tweets from MP, MLA, editor criticising pandemic handling • Medianama

Aroon Deep and Aditya Chunduru:

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Twitter has complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. These tweets, which are now inaccessible to Indian users of the social media website, include posts by Revanth Reddy, a sitting Member of Parliament; Moloy Ghatak, a West Bengal state minister; actor Vineet Kumar Singh; and two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das. 

MediaNama has seen public disclosures of the orders made available by Twitter to the Lumen Database. Lumen Database receives and publishes disclosures from private entities, including social media companies, of legal takedown notices they get from governments and private entities all over the world. MediaNama has previously reported the withholding of Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Sukhram Singh Yadav’s Twitter account based on a Lumen Database disclosure. Such orders are typically sent by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY).

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Twitter says that it geoblocks content if “illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules”. So the tweets are still on the network, but just not visible in Modi’s India, where Covid cases and deaths are skyrocketing.
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Gravity-based batteries try to beat their chemical cousins with winches, weights, and mine shafts • Science

Cathleen O’Grady:

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Alongside the chilly, steel-gray water of the docks here stands what looks like a naked, four-story elevator shaft—except in place of the elevator is a green, 50-ton iron weight, suspended by steel cables. Little by little, electric motors hoist the weight halfway up the shaft; it is now a giant, gravity-powered battery, storing potential energy that can be released when needed. And that moment is now: With a metallic moan, the weight inches back down the shaft. Reversing direction, the motors become electric generators, sending up to 250 kilowatts of power back to the grid. For peak power, the weight can descend in 11 seconds—but for testing purposes, it moves just a few meters at “creep speed,” says Douglas Hitchcock, project engineer at Scottish startup Gravitricity.  

The company announced this week that its small-scale demonstrator is now operational, capable of switching between drawing energy from the grid and sending it back in a matter of seconds. The design offers an alternative to the chemical batteries that dominate the global energy storage market—a market that is growing hand in hand with renewable power, which needs to bank energy when the Sun shines or the wind blows, and release it when the grid faces high demand.

Gravitricity is one of a handful of gravity-based energy storage companies attempting to improve on an old idea: pumped hydroelectric power storage. Engineers would dam up a reservoir on a hill, pump water to it at times of low demand (usually at night), and release it to generate electricity. But the systems require specific terrain, expensive infrastructure, and planning approval that is increasingly hard to come by. These days, banking energy usually means hooking up renewable power to giant batteries.

Gravity-based storage has some distinct advantages, says Oliver Schmidt, a clean energy consultant and visiting researcher at Imperial College London. Lithium-ion batteries, the technology of choice for utility-scale energy storage, can charge and discharge only so many times before losing capacity—usually within a few years. But the components of gravity storage—winches, steel cables, and heavy weights—can hold up well for decades. “It’s mechanical engineering stuff,” Schmidt says. “It’s relatively cheap.”

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Perhaps not very efficient, but dead cheap to build.
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We applied for a job with a ransomware gant online • CyberNews

“Cybernews Team”:

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In June 2020, a user called ‘Unknown’ submitted a rather peculiar post on a popular Russian hacker forum, looking for people to join their ‘affiliate program.’ In the world of crimeware-as-a-service, an ‘affiliate’ is a person who uses malicious tools provided by another threat actor to commit cyberattacks against individuals or organizations of their choice – in return for a cut of the profits.

What made this particular posting stand out from your typical crimeware-as-a-service ads, was the fact that it seemed to be coming from REvil – also known as Sodinokibi – one of the most notorious ransomware groups in the world.

REvil is infamous for being the very first ransomware-as-a-service cartel to use the so-called “double extortion” tactic, whereby the group (or one of their ‘affiliates’) attacks and locks a company out of their own files, and then gives the owners an additional incentive to pay the ransom by threatening to sell or even auction the stolen data off to other cybercriminals.

Interestingly, it was sometime in June 2020 – the time when this story takes place – when REvil first used the double extortion tactic as it began auctioning off data stolen from a Canadian agricultural production company that refused to pay a ransom.

The potentially big name behind the posting wasn’t the only thing that piqued our interest. The terms of the offer seemed rather tempting as well. According to the ad, the affiliate, if accepted, would get up to 70-80% of any successfully paid ransom, while REvil themselves would keep the other 20-30%.

Clearly, the offer was good. Perhaps, even too good to be true. So how could potential partners in crime be sure that the ad was posted by an actual representative of the REvil cartel, and not by a scammer, a security researcher, or an undercover Interpol agent? Well, money talks, and it seems that the author of the post spoke it fluently. To prove that the job posting was legitimate, the recruiters publicly deposited $1 million worth of bitcoin into their forum wallet.

Prior to the massive deposit, the posting had our curiosity. Now, it had our attention.

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City of Albuquerque refers Trump campaign bill to collection agency • KOB 4

Joy Wang:

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The city is seeking approximately $200,000 following the president’s rally in Rio Rancho in 2019.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the bill covers security costs that stem from the former president staying in a downtown Albuquerque hotel overnight. 

The security cost include blocking off parts of downtown, paying police officers overtime and covering the paid time off expenses of city workers who had to stay home.

“We actually treated it like any other debt, and so it goes through a somewhat process where you send a bunch of letters out,” Keller said. “We got no response from those letters. And then automatically, it does go to an agency that helps try and collect debts, and so that’s those annoying phone calls you get that say, you know, you owe money to so-and-so like now, Trump is getting those.”

Most of America found out about the debt when Keller appeared on the Daily Show to talk about the bill.

Despite the newfound attention to the bill, Keller doesn’t expect the collection agency to get money out of Trump.

“Given what else has happened, I mean in terms of, even his own campaign owing money to donors and lots of shady stuff there, so unfortunately I don’t really expect us to get paid,” he said. “But it’s important that we do, and you know, we would do it for anyone else, so he’s no different.”

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You’d have thought that by then people would have learnt to get payment upfront.
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Apple must face lawsuit over iTunes “Buy” button • Hollywood Reporter

Eriq Gardner:

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If possession is nine-tenths of the law, what happens when possession gets slippery?

That’s a question for a federal courtroom in Sacramento, California, where Apple is facing a putative class action over the way consumers can “buy” or “rent” movies, TV shows and other content in the iTunes Store. David Andino, the lead plaintiff in this case, argues the distinction is deceptive. He alleges Apple reserves the right to terminate access to what consumers have “purchased,” and in fact, has done so on numerous occasions.

This week, US District Court Judge John Mendez made clear he isn’t ready to buy into Apple’s view of consumer expectations in the digital marketplace.

“Apple contends that ‘[n]o reasonable consumer would believe’ that purchased content would remain on the iTunes platform indefinitely,” writes Mendez. “But in common usage, the term ‘buy’ means to acquire possession over something. It seems plausible, at least at the motion to dismiss stage, that reasonable consumers would expect their access couldn’t be revoked.”

Apple tried other ways to slip away from claims of false advertising and unfair competition. For example, it tried the time-tested approach of challenging Andino’s “injury” to knock his potential standing as a plaintiff.

“Apple argues that Plaintiff’s alleged injury — which it describes as the possibility that the purchased content may one day disappear — is not concrete but rather speculative,” sums Mendez, responding, “[T]he injury Plaintiff alleges is not, as Apple contends, that he may someday lose access to his purchased content. Rather, the injury is that at the time of purchase, he paid either too much for the product or spent money he would not have but for the misrepresentation. This economic injury is concrete and actual, not speculative as Apple contends, satisfying the injury in fact requirement of Article III.”

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Amazing concept: that “buying” something doesn’t mean you have possession of it.
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Will quantum computing ever live up to its hype? • Scientific American

John Horgan:

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Quantum-computing enthusiasts have declared that the technology will supercharge machine learning. It will revolutionize the simulation of complex phenomena in chemistry, neuroscience, medicine, economics and other fields. It will solve the traveling-salesman problem and other conundrums that resist solution by conventional computers. It’s still not clear whether quantum computing will achieve these goals, [computer scientist Scott] Aaronson says, adding that optimists might be “in for a rude awakening.”

Popular accounts often imply that quantum computers, because superposition and entanglement allow them to carry out multiple computations at the same time, are simply faster versions of conventional computers. Those accounts are misleading, Aaronson says. Compared to conventional computers, quantum computers are “unnatural” devices that might be best suited to a relatively narrow range of applications, notably simulating systems dominated by quantum effects.

The ability of a quantum computer to surpass the fastest conventional machine is known as “quantum supremacy,” a phrase coined by physicist John Preskill in 2012. Demonstrating quantum supremacy is extremely difficult. Even in conventional computing, proving that your algorithm beats mine isn’t straightforward. You must pick a task that represents a fair test and choose valid methods of measuring speed and accuracy. The outcomes of tests are also prone to misinterpretation and confirmation bias. Testing “creates an enormous space for mischief,” Aaronson says.

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I’ve been writing about quantum computing for around 30 years, and it’s still really unclear what application it could have apart from cracking encryption. Horgan’s attempt (later in the article) to get clarity from a proponent of quantum computers leaves me as puzzled – and sceptical – as ever.
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Why Minnesota faces $800m in extra gas bills from Texas’s freeze in February • The Washington Post

Will Englund:

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When that big freeze hit Texas in February, the Lone Star State couldn’t help but share its pain.

With its ill-equipped natural gas systems clocked by the cold, Texas’s exports across the Rio Grande froze up and 4.7 million customers in northern Mexico went without electricity — more than in Texas itself. The spot price of gas jumped 30-fold as far west as Southern California. And all the way up by the Canadian border, gas utilities in Minnesota that turned to the daily spot market to meet demand say they had to pay about $800m more than planned over the course of just five days as the Texas freeze-up pinched off supplies.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, said in an interview. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The Texas market is so large — second only to California’s — and its natural gas industry is so predominant that when things go wrong there, the impacts can be felt across the country. And in a state that eschews regulation, driving energy producers to cut costs as deeply as they can to remain competitive, things went spectacularly wrong the week of Valentine’s Day.

Minnesota’s biggest gas companies are putting forward plans to recoup their expenses by adding a surcharge to customers’ bills, which the state utility commission would first have to approve. Normally, such adjustments to account for winter prices go into effect in September, but Minnesota’s biggest gas utility, Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, says the financial pinch is so great it wants to start billing customers next month — and charging them nearly 9% interest until the extraordinary costs are paid off.

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Carbon Intensity

Lyndon Ruff and Alasdair Bruce:

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National Grid ESO, in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund Europe, University of Oxford Department of Computer Science and WWF, have developed the world’s first Carbon Intensity forecast with a regional breakdown.

The Carbon Intensity API uses state-of-the-art machine learning and sophisticated power system modelling to forecast the carbon intensity and generation mix 96+ hours ahead for each region in Great Britain.

Our OpenAPI allows consumers and smart devices to schedule and minimise CO2 emissions at a local level.

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Nice – and I particularly like the provision of an API. (Some people have built LED systems that change colour according to the “carbon intensity” of the grid at any moment.) Not clear quite whose ML systems they’re using, or if they just built their own.
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The secret betting strategy that beats online bookmakers • MIT Technology Review

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If you’ve ever been tempted by a flutter, you’ll know how bookmakers and casinos stack the odds against you. The clearest example is roulette, where there are 36 red and black numbers plus the green numbers 0 and (in the U.S.) 00. So that’s 38 possibilities in total. When betting on red or black, the odds of choosing correctly are 18/38, and a fair payout for a $1 stake is $2.111. However, the house pays only $2 and keeps the difference. In that way, it guarantees itself a profit.

A similar bias occurs in bookmakers’ odds on horse races, soccer, and every other sporting event. The bookies always ensure that the odds are in their favor. But setting these odds is harder than those for roulette because the calculations are trickier.

And that raises a tantalizing possibility. Is it possible to come up with a better way to calculate the odds, and thus beat the bookies?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Lisandro Kaunitz at the University of Tokyo and a few pals, who have found a way to consistently make money from the online betting market for soccer.

But their work comes with a serious caveat. Kaunitz and co say that as soon as the bookies became aware of this success, they prevented the researchers from betting further.

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How they did it is fascinating – first mining historical data, then trying it with computers on real-world data (but not placing the bets), then actually placing real bets with a human. And then the bookies noticed. At least the consequences weren’t like being spotted in Casino.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1535: the Post Office programming scandal, Twitter geoblocks anti-Modi tweets, gravity batteries!, beat the bookies, and more

  1. The Apple discussion is about movies, but if you read the Kindle agreement carefully you’re not buying a book, you’re buying a license to ‘hold’ it. i.e. Technically you don’t own that either. As far as I recall I don’t remember a court case that changed that at all?

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