Start Up No.1537: are airplanes Covid-safe?, tracking the most powerful cosmic rays, bitcoin’s real users, Google’s contact mess, and more

The European Commission is about to charge Apple with antitrust violations for its App Store behaviour towards Spotify and others, reports say. CC-licensed photo by Scott Beale 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. Best viewed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

• What differentiates social networks from forums?
• What happens when machine learnings systems are left to themselves?
• What’s the quickest way to reduce harms from social networks?
• Can we do that?


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

EU to charge Apple with anti-competitive behaviour this week • Financial Times

Javier Espinoza:


Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, will later this week issue charges against Apple stating that its App Store rules break EU law, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.

The charges relate to a complaint brought two years ago by Spotify, the music streaming app, that Apple takes 30% commission to distribute apps through its iPhone App Store and forbids apps from directing users to pay for subscriptions elsewhere.

Brussels opened an official competition investigation in June, when Vestager said Apple appeared to be a so-called gatekeeper “when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices”. 

Apple, which has denied any allegations of anti-competitive behaviour, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. At the time of Spotify’s initial complaint, Apple said the music app wanted to “keep all the benefits” of its App Store “without making any contributions to that marketplace”.

The case is one of the most high-profile antitrust cases in Europe against a US tech group. The people familiar with the process warned that the timing could still slip.

Brussels is also investigating Apple for allegedly breaking EU laws when it comes to promoting its own ebooks over rivals on the App Store, and over concerns that it undermines competition in mobile payments by limiting access to the near-field communication chips in iPhones for rivals to Apple Pay.

If Apple is ultimately found guilty of breaking EU rules, after a long period of potential appeals, the company faces a fine of up to 10% of global revenues.


Quite the fun week for Apple, given that the Epic antitrust case is now underway in the US. The App Store turns out to be the blessing – the thing that has persuaded so many people to buy an iPhone, the thing that keeps them tied to it – and, potentially, the curse as well.
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Bitcoin’s most recent adopters are working-class migrants • Rest of World

Andalusia Knoll Soloff:


[Maria] Salgado thought cryptocurrencies were a scam when she first heard about them through colleagues and Facebook ads. But in 2017, she realized that more and more of her friends were getting involved in crypto, and that’s when she became a convert. “I realized we were all fighting for the same thing: to have a better life.”

Salgado is now part of a growing number of Latin Americans using cryptocurrency to transfer money from the United States south of the Rio Grande. They represent a new wave of crypto users who are not tech enthusiasts or white-collar financiers but rather working-class people whose livelihoods depend on a technology that is often seen as experimental.

The savings in commission fees makes crypto remittances a gamble worth taking for low-wage migrants. Before Bitcoin, like most migrants, she would send her money via the international transfer companies Western Union, MoneyGram, or Vigo. They all charged her, on average, $10 for every $200 she sent. Meanwhile, companies like Mexican crypto exchange Bitso charge commissions as low as $1 per $1,000 sent.

Jesús Cervantes González, an economist with the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies (CEMLA), told Rest of World that the pandemic led migrants to search for digital solutions to send money home. Many traditional exchanges closed their doors to the public, even as remittances steadily rose between 2010 and 2020, increasing by 8.3% in 2020. They went down for only two months in 2020, when Covid-19 first started spreading widely in the US and unemployment for Latinos surged — from 4.8% in February 2020 to 18.5% in April 2020.


Notice that this use of bitcoin is completely independent of its “price”. Transferring a balance from one place to the other would just be an entry in the blockchain. But because some people fixate on its “price” (because they’ve discovered a version of the greater fool system to sell them), the blockchain process consumes – wastes – colossal amounts of energy. Bitcoin’s maximum bound on transactions per second (max: 7) is independent of “price” or hashing rate; it depends on the size of each bitcoin block

In other words, all the energy consumption is unnecessary. It can undercut the greedier exchanges easily.
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High energy cosmic ray sources mapped out for the first time • Quanta Magazine

Natalie Wolchover:


A cosmic ray is just an atomic nucleus — a proton or a cluster of protons and neutrons. Yet the rare ones known as “ultrahigh-energy” cosmic rays have as much energy as professionally served tennis balls. They’re millions of times more energetic than the protons that hurtle around the circular tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. In fact, the most energetic cosmic ray ever detected, nicknamed the “Oh-My-God particle,” struck the sky in 1991 going something like 99.99999999999999999999951% of the speed of light, giving it roughly the energy of a bowling ball dropped from shoulder height onto a toe. “You would have to build a collider as large as the orbit of the planet Mercury to accelerate protons to the energies we see,” said Ralph Engel, an astrophysicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and the co-leader of the world’s largest cosmic-ray observatory, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina.

The question is: What’s out there in space doing the accelerating?


Before you move on to the next one, I’d like to point out that this article includes a 3D map of the universe (not just the Milky Way – no half measures here) which you can pan, zoom and rotate. It’s not 1:1 scale, you’ll be relieved to hear.
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Mighty’s master plan to reignite the future of desktop computing • MightyApp

Suhail Doshi:


We’re excited to finally unveil Mighty, a faster browser that is entirely streamed from a powerful computer in the cloud.

After two years of hard work, we’ve created something that’s indistinguishable from a Google Chrome that runs at 4K, 60 frames a second, takes no more than 500 MB of RAM, and often less than 30% CPU even with 50+ tabs open. This is the first step in making a new kind of computer.

If you’re not sure what that means, imagine your browser is a Netflix video but running on cutting-edge server hardware somewhere else.

When you switch to Mighty, it will feel like you went out and bought a new computer with a much faster processor and much more memory. But you don’t have buy a new computer. All you have to do is download a desktop app.


This… makes… no… sense… at… ALL. It’s a browser inside (in effect) a browser? Except it depends on your network connection and.. how fast your computer renders what’s in the app (a bit like.. a browser?) There’s a demo video. I do not understand what they are trying to do. Would it serve as virtualisation? It’s streaming video.. of a browser. Also, I’ve no idea how they think they’ll make money. (Adverts? Selling you data? They don’t say.)

This is the second thing that has been promoted on Paul Graham’s Twitter feed (the other was yesterday’s Prometheus Fuels* – let’s capture carbon from the air and… burn it??) that I’ve noticed in just two days. 🤔

*see correction – not a very big one, but involving chemistry – at end.
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How safe are you from Covid when you fly? • The New York Times

Mika Gröndahl, Tariro Mzezewa, Or Fleisher and Jeremy White:


Air is refreshed roughly every two to three minutes — a higher rate than in grocery stores and other indoor spaces, experts say. It’s one reason, in addition to safety protocols, that there have not been many superspreader events documented on flights.

The high exchange rate on planes forces new and existing cabin air to mix evenly, with the goal of minimizing pockets of air that could become stale or linger for too long.

…To prevent air from circulating throughout the cabin, the ventilation system keeps it contained to a few rows.

…Throughout the flight, cabin air is periodically sucked through two HEPA filters into a manifold under the floor, where fresh and recirculated air are mixed. Each filter has 12 panels of densely pleated fiberglass mesh that catch most microscopic particles.


The picture you get is that you’re pretty safe, unless you have the bad luck to be seated near someone who is infected and sneezing. (I thought coughing was the thing?) But the bigger risks are perhaps in the airport terminal, where air circulation might be less good and you’ll be closer to people not wearing masks.

The animation for the air circulation is lovely – worth viewing for itself.
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Google promised its contact tracing app was completely private—but it wasn’t • The Markup

Alfred Ng:


millions of people have downloaded contact tracing apps developed through Apple’s and Google’s framework: The U.K.’s National Health Services’ app has at least 16 million users, while Canada’s Digital Service COVID Alert app boasted more than six million downloads in January, and Virginia’s Department of Health noted more than two million residents were using its COVIDWISE app.

California governor Gavin Newsom endorsed his state’s version of the app, calling it “100% private & secure” in a tweet last December.

But The Markup has learned that not only does the Android version of the contact tracing tool contain a privacy flaw, but when researchers from the privacy analysis firm AppCensus alerted Google to the problem back in February of this year, Google failed to change it. AppCensus was testing the system as part of a contract with the Department of Homeland Security. The company found no similar issues with the iPhone version of the framework.

“This fix is a one-line thing where you remove a line that logs sensitive information to the system log. It doesn’t impact the program, it doesn’t change how it works, ” said Joel Reardon, co-founder and forensics lead of AppCensus. “It’s such an obvious fix, and I was flabbergasted that it wasn’t seen as that.”

“We were notified of an issue where the Bluetooth identifiers were temporarily accessible to specific system level applications for debugging purposes, and we immediately started rolling out a fix to address this,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in an emailed statement to The Markup.

Serge Egelman, AppCensus’s co-founder and chief technology officer, however, said that Google had repeatedly dismissed the firm’s concerns about the bug until The Markup contacted Google for comment on the issue late last week.


Funny how that keeps happening.
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Tesla turns a record profit despite new Model S and Model X delay • The Verge

Sean O’Kane:


Tesla generated $10.4bn in sales the first quarter, and recorded a $438m profit. That’s basically double the revenue it generated in the first quarter of 2020, when Tesla had to temporarily shut down its factory in China due to the earliest outbreaks of the coronavirus. It’s also the most profit Tesla’s ever made in a quarter.

This is the seventh quarter in a row that Tesla has turned a profit, though the company was once again buoyed by selling emissions credits to other automakers. Tesla said Monday that it sold a record $518m worth of regulatory credits, meaning that it would’ve finished the quarter in the red without them. Tesla presented the growth of regulatory credit sales as a positive in the presentation it published Monday. But many close followers of Tesla have been waiting for the moment when it’s able to turn a profit based on the products it sells. This was not that moment.

Tesla also says it made about $101m on the sale of bitcoin in the first quarter. The company announced in January that it had bought $1.5bn worth of the cryptocurrency and started allowing customers to pay for cars using bitcoin.


Reminds me – a bit – of Apple’s darker days from 1996-01, when it used to boost its operating losses into net profits by selling off shares it owned in a company called ARM. Whatever happened to that, eh.

Question is how long the regulatory credit scheme, which also allows normal vehicle makers to keep pumping out gas guzzlers, will keep going.
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The Linux Foundation’s demands to the University of Minnesota for its bad Linux patches security project • ZDNet

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, following up the story from last week:


To say that Linux kernel developers are livid about a pair of University of Minnesota (UMN) graduate students playing at inserting security vulnerabilities into the Linux kernel for the purposes of a research paper “On the Feasibility of Stealthily Introducing Vulnerabilities in Open-Source Software via Hypocrite Commits” is a gross understatement. 

Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Linux kernel maintainer for the stable branch, well-known for being the most generous and easygoing of the Linux kernel maintainers, exploded and banned UMN developers from working on the Linux kernel. That was because their patches had been “obviously submitted in bad faith with the intent to cause problems.” 

The researchers, Qiushi Wu and Aditya Pakki, and their graduate advisor, Kangjie Lu, an assistant professor in the UMN Computer Science & Engineering Department of the UMN then apologized for their Linux kernel blunders. 

That’s not enough. The Linux kernel developers and the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board via the Linux Foundation have asked UMN to take specific actions before their people will be allowed to contribute to Linux again. We now know what these demands are.


Essentially they’re this:


the name of each targeted [piece of] software, the commit information, purported name of the proposer, email address, date/time, subject, and/or code, so that all software developers can quickly identify such proposals and potentially take remedial action for such experiments.


This is almost a sociological experiment in “how far along the road with a really bad idea can you get?” Putting vulnerabilities into open source code on purpose with the intent of not being found is the sort of thing you might suggest on Twitter after a few drinks. But sobriety should follow too.
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China set to report first population decline in five decades • Financial Times

Sun Yu:


China is set to report its first population decline since the famine that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic policy in the late 1950s that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.

The current fall in population comes despite the relaxation of strict family planning policies, which was meant to reverse the falling birth rate of the world’s most populous country.

The latest Chinese census, which was completed in December but has yet to be made public, is expected to report the total population of the country at less than 1.4bn, according to people familiar with the research. In 2019, China’s population was reported to have exceeded the 1.4bn mark.

The people cautioned, however, that the figure was considered very sensitive and would not be released until multiple government departments had reached a consensus on the data and its implications.

“The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work,” said Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. “They need to be handled very carefully.”

…Analysts said a decline would suggest that China’s population could soon be exceeded by India’s, which is estimated at 1.38bn. A fall in population could exact an extensive toll on Asia’s largest economy, affecting everything from consumption to care for the elderly.

“The pace and scale of China’s demographic crisis are faster and bigger than we imagined,” said Huang. “That could have a disastrous impact on the country.”


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: re Prometheus Fuels yesterday: a litre of petrol only weighs 740g, so doesn’t contain 2.5kg of carbon; it has around 690g of carbon. (When burnt it becomes 2.5kg of carbon dioxide because you add two hefty oxygen atoms.) I don’t think this affects the calculation of how much air has to be processed to produce a litre of fuel. More to the point, removing carbon dioxide in order to burn it again makes as much sense as pulling smoke out of a smoky room and then blowing it back through the keyhole. The “smoke” is the problem here.

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