Start Up No.1542: inside Basecamp’s Friday fallout, a subscription for life, monitoring blood bloodlessly, Trump starts blog, and more


A drought in Taiwan is drying up reservoirs – and if it continues, could hit chip manufacture by summer. CC-licensed photo by http://www.dantw.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 9 links for you. Safe journey. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Too much time thinking about Trump? Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and distract yourself.


🚨 How Basecamp blew up • Platformer

Casey Newton, following up on his piece last week about how Basecamp got into a tangle. This feels explosive because of the implications around Ryan Singer, who was the CTO, and who has deleted a ton of tweets – and apparently kept posting Breitbart content approvingly in the company Slack:

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On Friday, employees had their chance to address these issues directly with Fried and his co-founder. What followed was a wrenching discussion that left several employees I spoke with in tears. Thirty minutes after the meeting ended, Fried announced that Basecamp’s longtime head of strategy, Ryan Singer, had been suspended and placed under investigation after he questioned the existence of white supremacy at the company. Over the weekend, Singer — who worked for the company for nearly 18 years, and authored a book about product management for Basecamp called Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters — resigned.

Within a few hours of the meeting, at least 20 people — more than one-third of Basecamp’s 57 employees — had announced their intention to accept buyouts from the company. And while many of them had been leaning toward resigning in the aftermath of Fried’s original post, the meeting itself pushed several to accelerate their decisions, employees said. The response overwhelmed the founders, who extended the deadline to accept buyouts indefinitely amid an unexpected surge of interest.

This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees.

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Newton is doing terrific work; one of the best around in terms of the contacts and context.
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This motorcycle airbag vest will stop working if you miss a payment • Vice

Aaron Gordon:

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Airbag vests are pretty much exactly what they sound like, garments worn by people who undertake exceedingly dangerous personal hobbies in order to slightly reduce the risk of severe bodily harm or death. For example, in 2018 the motorcycle racing circuit MotoGP made airbag vests mandatory.

Since then airbag vests have become steadily cheaper and therefore more popular among recreational riders. One motorcycle apparel company named Klim, for example, sells an airbag vest called the Ai-1 for $400. In the promotional video launching the product, product line manager Jayson Plummer called the vest “a whole new era of a platform where analog meets digital and results in a superior protection story.” Which is an interesting way of framing the fact that the vest includes an additional subscription-based payment option that will block the vest from inflating if the payments don’t go through.

This is possible because the vest includes two components: the vest itself made by Klim and the airbag system including a small black box made by a French company called In&Motion called the “In&Box detection module.” The module has the sensors and computer components that detect a crash and make the bags inflate.

The customer buys the vest for $400 which comes with the module, but then they must download an app and choose how to unlock the module so the vest actually works: either plonk down another $400 to own the whole shebang outright—bringing the total vest cost to $800—or, as Plummer put it in the video, opt for the “subscription-based model” of $12 per month or $120 per year.

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I guess it figures out when you start your ride whether you’re paid up or not. Not clear whether it tells you, though.

Quite a method for extracting money from people. The always-connected, always-paying economy.
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Timepieces that tell you how you are • Gazettabyte

Roy Rubenstein with some info about how the glucose monitoring from Rockley Photonics (mentioned yesterday) might work:

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The technique underpinning smartwatch monitoring has the long title of non-invasive diffuse reflective spectroscopy.

Light at different wavelengths penetrates the skin and is scattered by blood vessels and cells and the interstitial fluid in between. The reflected light is analysed using spectroscopy to glean medical insights.

The smartwatch uses a green LED since blood haemoglobin has a good light absorption at that wavelength. “Effectively, what is being measured is the expansion and contraction of the blood vessels,” says [Rockley Photonics CEO Andrew] Rickman. “It is measuring the amount of light that is absorbed by the change of the volume of blood.”

It doesn’t stop there. Using a red LED and extending it into the infrared range, the blood oxygenation level is measured using the ratio of oxygenated (bright red) and unoxygenated (darker red) haemoglobin. “The ratio of the two wavelengths that you get back is proportional to the blood oxygen level,” says Rickman.

The visible range can also detect bilirubin, a yellow-orange bile pigment associated with jaundice. “But that is pretty much it,” says Rickman. “All the other thousands of constituents, if they have absorption peaks, are swamped in the visual range by haemoglobin.”

What Rockley has done is extend the light’s spectral to measure absorption peaks that otherwise are dwarfed by water and haemoglobin. “We are addressing the visible range and extending it into the infrared range, getting much more accuracy using laser technology compared to LEDs which opens up a whole range of things,” says Rickman.

To do this, Rockley has used its silicon photonics expertise to shrink a benchtop spectrometer to the size of a chip.

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Related: magistrates can now get people to wear “alcohol tags” in sentencing for offenders whose crimes were “influenced by alcohol”. (Thanks Adewale Adetugbo for the Rockley link, Joel D for the tagging link.)
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Taiwan drought may worsen global component shortage • Counterpoint Research

Brady Wang:

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A stable and quality source of water is essential for semiconductor production. However, Taiwan is currently suffering from its worst drought in 56 years due to less than usual rainfall during the past year. The main sources of water in Taiwan are (1) the plum rains that occur in spring and summer when hot and cold air meet, (2) the heavy rainfall from typhoons in summer, and (3) the light rainfall in the mountains from the northeast monsoon in fall and winter. The proportions here are about 12%, 39% and 6% respectively.

Taiwan usually receives 7-9 typhoons every year. However, only one typhoon landed in Taiwan in 2020. To make matters worse, last winter and spring’s rainfall was heavily deficient, causing a shortage of water in Taiwan. The country is topographically divided by the 3,000-metre-high Central Mountain Range, which separates Taiwan’s eastern and western parts. The rains brought by the northeast monsoon in autumn and winter are mostly concentrated in the eastern and northern catchment areas, which means abundant rainfall for Draco, though it is of limited help to the Central and Tainan science parks. Therefore, water shortage becomes a serious problem for Taiwan’s technology industry in 2021. It may also have a serious impact on the global supply chain.

The Taiwanese government has taken many measures to address the water shortage problem, including transferring water between reservoirs, stopping water supply for agriculture, reducing water supply for households, drilling groundwater wells, and desalinating seawater. Besides, industrial users, including semiconductor manufacturers, have been asked to reduce their water consumption. TSMC, for example, has significantly increased the water recycling rate. The water level in the northern reservoirs has reached a multi-year low, though still sufficient for the continued use by Hsinchu Science Park (HSP).

However, the average effective water storage of the reservoirs supplying the Central Taiwan Science Park (CTSP) and Southern Taiwan Science Park (STSP) on April 30 was only 8.9% and 14.3% respectively (Exhibit 2). According to Counterpoint estimates, if there is no heavy rainfall or the rainfall does not fall in the catchment area, CTSP will face a water outage in July and STSP around August.

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Apple is holding the web back with ‘uniquely underpowered’ iOS browsers, says Google engineer • WCCFTech

Furqan Shahid:

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In a blog post, [Google Chrome engineer] Alex [Russel] talks about how the WebKit and iOS browsers are “Uniquely Underpowered” compared to the other modern browsers. He claims that Apple “consistently” delays new features for its browsers that “hold the key to unlocking whole categories of experiences on the web.”

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Apple’s iOS browser (Safari) and engine (WebKit) are uniquely under-powered. Consistent delays in the delivery of important features ensure the web can never be a credible alternative to its proprietary tools and App Store.

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Alex has cited an example of this by mentioning Stadia along with other cloud gaming services. Apple did not allow those services to be available on the App Store and pushed them to use the web instead, which required Apple to allow gamepad APIs so controllers can be used with these new web apps. That is a function that other browsers have offered for a long time except on iOS. But Apple still held back:

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Suppose Apple had implemented WebRTC and the Gamepad API in a timely way. Who can say if the game streaming revolution now taking place might have happened sooner? It’s possible that Amazon Luna, NVIDIA GeForce NOW, Google Stadia, and Microsoft xCloud could have been built years earlier.

It’s also possible that APIs delivered on every other platform, but not yet available on any iOS browser (because Apple), may hold the key to unlocking whole categories of experiences on the web.

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Russel’s post is quite complicated, and does accept that there’s little to choose between the browsers that have any significant share. He also allows that Chrome lacks some of the things that Safari has.
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Don’t buy into Facebook’s ad-tracking pressure on iOS 14.5 • WIRED

Brian Barrett on why you can ignore Facebook’s weepy popups suggesting that letting it track you keeps the site “free of charge”:

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“There are some types of ads, mostly retargeting, that will be harder to display, since now Facebook wouldn’t know who visited an app, put an item in the shopping cart, etc.,” says Ron Berman, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He notes that Facebook will also have a harder time demonstrating that product sales were tied to specific ads, given the limitations on what information can now flow across sites and apps.

But you need not look much further than Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings report, released last week, to see that iOS 14.5 seems unlikely to push the company toward any kind of precipice. The company took in over $26bn of revenue in the first three months of 2021, and its net income of $9.5bn nearly doubled that of the same period a year ago. It has over $64bn of cash and equivalents on hand. It’s doing just fine. Even if every single iOS 14.5 user opts out of tracking, Facebook will still have Android devices aplenty from which to squeeze profits.

It’s also not as if tracking prevention makes ads go away entirely. It arguably makes them less relevant. People may not click on them as often, which makes them less valuable, and outside analysts have predicted that Apple’s new policy will show up in Facebook’s bottom line. “We’ve seen estimates ranging from about a 2% to a 7% impairment of Facebook’s ad revenues this year and that range seems plausible to us, especially at the low end,” says Nicole Perrin, a principal analyst at eMarketer.

However, she adds, the company is expected to increase its ad revenue overall despite App Tracking Transparency. As WIRED’s Gilad Edelman has noted before, when third-party data disappears, companies that hold more first-party data have an edge. That’s Google, and that’s Facebook.

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Trump launches new communications platform months after Twitter, Facebook ban • Fox News

Brooke Singman:

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Former President Trump on Tuesday launched a communications platform, which will eventually give him the ability to communicate directly with his followers, after months of being banned from sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The platform, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” appears on http://www.DonaldJTrump.com/desk.

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2003 called, and would like to point out that the “new communications platform” is known as a “blog”. (Meanwhile, at 1030 EST/ 1530 BST, the Facebook Oversight Board will announce its decision on whether Trump should be allowed back on Facebook. The broad expectation I’m seeing is that the FOB will say he should be. Divisive and polarising, algorithmically fuelled: social warming in action.)
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Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link – BBC News

Zoe Kleinman:

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There remains “little association” between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.

The Oxford Internet Institute compared TV viewing, social-media and device use with feelings of depression, suicidal tendencies and behavioural problems. It found a small drop in association between depression and social-media use and TV viewing, from 1991 to 2019. There was a small rise in that between emotional issues and social-media use.

“We couldn’t tell the difference between social-media impact and mental health in 2010 and 2019,” study co-author Prof Andrew Przybylski. said. “We’re not saying that fewer happy people use more social media.
“We’re saying that the connection is not getting stronger.”

And this was a warning to regulators and lawmakers focusing on commonly held beliefs about the harmful effects of technology on young people’s mental health. Participants, in the US and UK, graded their own feelings using set questions with sliding scale responses. And they were asked about the duration of social-media or device activity but not more specifically how they had spent that time.

The paper is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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I read a lot of these sorts of papers in preparing my book, and they’re very contradictory. I also spoke to Przybylski, who is generally dubious about studies that have suggested these links – there have been quite a few, and some books, strongly pushing the idea. One common problem these studies run up against is that kids use different devices: boys usually play video games (which makes them happy) while girls use social networks (and don’t seem to be happier).
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The loneliness of the modern office team member • Financial Times

Pilita Clark:

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Every other week or so, a number emerges somewhere in the world that I find both understandable and troubling.

It is the percentage of people who consistently say they don’t want to go back to working full-time in the office. Nearly 60% of British workers said this was how they felt back in September last year and also in March this year, even though more than a third of the UK population had had at least one Covid jab by then.

In the US, the share of workers who would prefer to keep working remotely as much as possible went from 35% in September to 44% in January. More recent European research found 97% of people who have been at home would prefer to stay there for at least part of the week once their offices reopen.

Since I am one of the millions thrilled to be liberated from a rushed commute and the tedium of presenteeism, these findings seem utterly rational. But they are also worrying because there is a gloomier reason that even well-paid, valued people in lofty jobs may be in no rush to go back to the office: long before the outbreak, they were lonely.

Their relationships with people in the office felt shallow. Worse, their sense of isolation may have had less to do with their personal lives than the way their work in teams was organised.

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The heavy implication of course being that you’re doing a job that can be done from home. What about delivery drivers? Warehouse workers? People who answer telephones on switchboards? Perhaps I haven’t looked, but I’d like to know what proportion of jobs can and cannot be done remotely. It seems relevant.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1541: Apple v Epic opens, Sweden’s failed Covid strategy, ripoff ads still plague Google, Trump’s Facebook day nears, and more


You’ll probably not be surprised to learn that Yahoo(!) has been sold again, this time to a private equity company. CC-licensed photo by Ippei Ogiwara 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. Just breathe into your watch. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


At a loose end? Why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?


Here are Apple’s and Epic’s full slideshows arguing why they should win at trial • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Both Apple and Epic have released their opening presentations on why they feel they should win this week’s trial, which is set to determine the future of the App Store. In the documents, which you can look through below, each company lays out its case.

The lawsuit started when Apple removed Epic Games’ Fortnite from the App Store after Epic bypassed Apple’s system for in-app purchases. But it’s turned into a much deeper examination of Apple’s walled-garden approach to technology, and whether some of the walls the company puts up might violate antitrust law.

We took a deeper look at the companies’ legal strategies in advance of the trial, but you can see the same arguments play out in these presentations. Epic uses metaphors of brick walls and gas stations to argue that Apple’s control over what can and cannot be installed on the iPhone is unfair, and that allowing other methods of installing apps wouldn’t harm iOS’s security. Apple’s pushes back saying that Epic getting the openness that it wants would harm not just the App Store but other stores from Sony and Nintendo.

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There’s a Zoom link so you can watch proceedings (Pacific Time 0830-1330, or 1130-1630 Mon-Thu). Password: 715 550. According to Gizmodo, the remote court experience has been pretty terrible already.

Plenty of tasty emails emerging, such as Phil Schiller in 2011 suggesting that once the App Store hit $1bn in annual profit they could look at reducing the 70-30 split in case rival methods (web apps!) become more attractive.
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Did Sweden get Covid wrong? • UnHerd

Freddie Sayers speaks to Johan Giesecke, who was very against lockdowns in Sweden:

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When I remind him of his prediction that countries would end up with similar results after a year, he readily concedes he was mistaken. “One of the things I got wrong a year ago is the rate of spread of this disease. I thought it would spread quicker. And I also thought it would be more similar in different countries. We can see now that there are big differences in the rates of spread in between countries. It may have to do with lockdown, it may have to do with cultural things in these countries. But there is a big difference between countries.”

The difference that is most commonly cited in the ‘case for the prosecution’ against the Swedish strategy is the following chart showing Sweden’s deaths per million dramatically exceeding its neighbouring Scandinavian countries. This is generally considered solid proof that the Swedish strategy failed.

Johan Giesecke disagrees: “The differences between Sweden and its neighbours are much bigger than people realise from the outside — different systems, different cultural traditions…If you compare Sweden to other European countries [such as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium] it’s the other way round. On the ranking of excess mortality, Sweden is somewhere in the middle or below the middle of European countries. So I think it’s really Norway and Finland that are the outliers more than Sweden.”

Explaining what he means by cultural differences, he mentions among other factors that “they’re more sparsely populated. There are less people per square kilometre in these two countries. There are also much fewer people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries.”

So, crucially, if Sweden had instituted a hard lockdown and shut the border earlier, would its death rate have been closer to its Nordic neighbours? “Maybe not,” he says, “I think we would still have more deaths than they have.”

He is also fairly dismissive of charts currently showing that Sweden has the highest level of infection in Europe:

“I don’t think you should compare countries now, while we are still in the pandemic. You should wait until the pandemic has receded before we start comparing countries. If you did that chart a month ago it would be very different. And a month from now? I don’t know but it would be very different. These snapshots may not show the whole truth.”

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Quite what Giesecke is implying is important about “people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries” isn’t followed up, which seems a gigantic lacuna. And aside from the point about children not going to school (which I think we’ll realise was a big error), Giesecke just seems to be Mr Wrong About It All – from levels of prevalence to IFR.
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The hardest puzzle you’ll ever see—and the secret you need to solve it • Nautilus

Brian Gallagher:

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Over his near century of life, [Raymond] Smullyan, 96, became an accomplished pianist and magician, made fundamental contributions to modern logic, and wrote about Taoist philosophy and chess. “He is the undisputed master of logical puzzles,” Bruce Horowitz, one of his former Ph.D. students, has said.

One mark of Smullyan’s legacy is the interest philosophers and logicians still have in his most difficult puzzle, known as the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. The title was given by a philosopher of logic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a colleague of Smullyan’s named George Boolos, who—no slouch himself—adored logical challenges of any sort. He once tested himself by giving a lecture on Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, “one of the most important results in modern logic,” using only single syllable words.

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever goes like this:

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Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for “yes” and “no” are “da” and “ja,” in some order. You do not know which word means which.

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Always up for a challenge, I sat down on my couch, pen and paper in hand, confident I could conquer the puzzle in two hours tops.

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Nope. The answer takes you through some mindbending logic (lots of reliance on “if and only if”), but the explanation is done well.
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Why can’t Google get a grip on ripoff ads? • BBC News

Chris Fox:

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In October 2018, the BBC brought several adverts to Google’s attention that broke its rules. A month later, Google told the BBC it had developed a machine learning system that could prevent the adverts appearing again.

At the time, it only banned adverts for third-party services that charged more than the official government website. However, in May 2020 it changed its policy to ban “adverts for documents and/or services that can be obtained directly from a government or a delegated provider” including “offers of assistance to obtain these products or services”.

Since that change, the BBC has repeated the same set of Google searches on seven separate occasions over a 12-month period. Every time, there were adverts for expensive third-party services when searching for:

Esta; US Esta; apply for Esta; US visa; Canada ETA (a travel document for Canada); apply for Canada ETA; apply for Canada visa; apply for Australia visa; apply driving licence; renew driving licence; driving licence change address.

Some of the websites continued to appear in the adverts even after they were flagged to Google with its reporting tools.

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Verizon sells Yahoo and AOL businesses to Apollo for $5bn • CNBC

Steve Kovach:

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Verizon will sell its media group to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $5bn, the companies announced Monday. The sale allows Verizon to offload properties from the former internet empires of AOL and Yahoo.

Verizon will keep a 10% stake in the company and it will be rebranded to just Yahoo.

The sale will see online media brands under the former Yahoo and AOL umbrellas like TechCrunch, Yahoo Finance and Engadget go to Apollo at much lower valuations than they commanded just a few years ago. Verizon bought AOL for $4.4bn in 2015 and Yahoo two years later for $4.5bn.

Verizon will get $4.25bn in cash from the sale along with its 10% stake in the company. Verizon and Apollo said they expect the transaction to close in the second half of 2021.

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Amazing decline in the perceived value of those properties. Remember February 2008, when Microsoft bid $44.6bn for Yahoo? (And the exchange rate: then, $44.6bn = £22.4bn. Now it would be £32.2bn: a 43% decline.) The list of companies that Yahoo acquired and, for the most part, ruined, is long and includes names like Flickr, Delicious, Geocities and Tumblr. At least that’s (probably) over.
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Whatever the ruling, Facebook’s Oversight Board is a smokescreen • The Real Facebook Oversight Board

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Facebook’s Oversight Board will announce on Wednesday [at 1530 BST, 1030 EST] its decision on a permanent ban of Donald Trump. Obviously Donald Trump has violated Facebook’s terms of service repeatedly, incited hate, spread disinformation, fomented violence and been used as a model for other authoritarian leaders to abuse Facebook. He should be banned forever.

But do not let Facebook’s Oversight Board distract from the need to ensure real accountability for hate speech, election lies, disinformation and other harmful content.

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Anyhow, set your calendars.
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Facebook and the normalisation of deviance • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern (where “normalisation of deviance” refers to just accepting and ignoring how your system allows bad outcomes; it was what led to the Challenger explosion):

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On April 19th, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice-president of content policy, announced that, in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the company would remove hate speech, calls to violence, and misinformation relating to that trial. That accommodation was a tacit acknowledgement of the power that users of the platform have to incite violence and spread dangerous information, and it was reminiscent of the company’s decision, after the November election, to tweak its newsfeed algorithm in order to suppress partisan outlets, such as Breitbart.

By mid-December, the original algorithm was restored, prompting several employees to tell the Times’ Kevin Roose that Facebook executives had reduced or vetoed past efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech on the platform, “either because they hurt Facebook’s usage numbers or because executives feared they would disproportionately harm right-wing publishers.” According to the Tech Transparency Project, right-wing extremists spent months on Facebook organizing their storming of the Capitol, on January 6th. Last week, an internal Facebook report obtained by Buzzfeed News confirmed the company’s failure to stop coördinated “Stop the Steal” efforts on the platform. Soon afterward, Facebook removed the report from its employee message board.

…[The Trump reinstatement/permaban] decision will not be a referendum on Trump’s disastrous presidency, or on his promotion of Stop the Steal. Rather, it will answer a single, discrete question: Did Trump violate Facebook’s policies about what is allowed on its platform? This narrow brief is codified in the Oversight Board’s charter, which says that “the board will review content enforcement decisions and determine whether they were consistent with Facebook’s content policies and values.”

As events of the past few months have again demonstrated, Facebook’s policies and values have normalized the kind of deviance that enables a disregard for regions and populations who are not “big on people’s minds.” They are not democratic or humanistic but, rather, corporate. Whichever way the Trump decision—or any decision made by the Oversight Board—goes, this will still be true.

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Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced on Monday it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

…Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

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Can’t see Clubhouse surviving, then. I’d love to see the usage figures now that lockdown is easing.
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Google’s foldable Pixel phone was just confirmed by a top leaker • BGR

Chris Smith:

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A report about Samsung Display providing foldable OLED panels to various smartphone vendors casually mentioned Google a few days ago. Sources from Korea detailed the various foldable handsets in the works at Oppo and Xiaomi, revealing that these two Chinese smartphone vendors are working on new form factors that resemble Samsung’s foldable phones. The report didn’t say which design the foldable Pixel might employ, but it did reveal that the handset will have a 7.6-inch inward-folding panel from Samsung. All these devices are expected to launch sometime this year.

Google has already been working on adapting the Android experience for foldable devices, so making its own “Pixel Fold” handset makes plenty of sense. The best way to demo new features intended for foldable phones is by using its own hardware. And it looks like the Pixel Fold, or whatever Google ends up calling the handset, is real.

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The Pixel range is already a minority sport; the proportion of Pixel buyers who would want a foldable one might be higher than the general market, but I can’t see it turning the range into top sellers. Again, one has to ask what Google’s purpose is with this. It can’t be making any money from it, and it’s hard to see that the lessons from manufacturing have any applicability elsewhere in the company.
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Apple Watch could add blood sugar and alcohol readings after deal with UK tech company • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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Apple is exploring advanced smartwatch technology that monitors wearers’ blood pressure, glucose and alcohol levels under a deal with a British electronics start-up.

The US tech giant has been revealed as the largest customer of Rockley Photonics, which says its next-generation sensors could be in gadgets next year.

The British company has developed ultra-accurate sensors that read multiple blood signals that are typically only detectable using medical equipment, by beaming infrared light through skin from a module on the back of a smartwatch.

The more limited modules in today’s devices are able to detect measures such as heart rate but the ability to track variables such as blood glucose, which could detect diabetes, has been a long-term goal for wearable technology makers.

Rockley, which has offices in Oxford, Wales and Silicon Valley, revealed its relationship with Apple in listing documents as it prepares to go public in New York. 

The filings said that Apple accounted for the majority of its revenue in the last two years and that it has an ongoing “supply and development agreement” with the company under which it expects to continue to rely on Apple for most of its income.

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It seems surprising that you could capture sufficient data to record that sort of data at all accurately. But if it can measure glucose at all accurately, that will make it an automatic purchase for diabetics. And alcohol level, well, useful for drivers…
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1540: Apple’s antitrust cases double up, a geolocation tour de force, AirTag teardowns, Basecamp implodes, and more


Although Coleridge never finished Kubla Khan, we can train the AI system GPT-3 to do it, really quite successfully. What next? CC-licensed photo by Granpic 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. Not H. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• Little reminder:
Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.

EU says Apple’s 30% cut from rival music providers violates competition law • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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The EC sent a Statement of Objections to Apple reflecting its preliminary conclusion that Apple violated European Union competition law. This kicks off a legal process in which Apple will be able to respond in writing and request an oral hearing before a final judgment is made. The EC took today’s action in response to a complaint from Spotify.

“If the case is pursued, the EU could demand concessions and potentially impose a fine of up to 10% of Apple’s global turnover—as much as $27bn, although it rarely levies the maximum penalty,” according to Reuters.

The European regulatory body said it “takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store” and with Apple-imposed “restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

The commission said it found that “Apple has a dominant position in the market for the distribution of music streaming apps through its App Store” and that it abused its dominant position by imposing rules on music streaming apps that compete against the Apple Music service.

“Our concern is that Apple distorts competition in the music streaming market to the benefit of Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music,” said EC Executive VP Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of competition policy. Vestager said that “Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices” by “charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding [third-party app developers] from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

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In Apple versus Epic Games, courtroom battle is only half the fight • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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Epic Games faces an uphill legal battle against Apple Inc in an antitrust trial starting Monday, and a defeat for the maker of “Fortnite” could make it harder for U.S. government regulators to pursue a similar case against the iPhone maker, legal experts said.

But win or lose at the trial, Epic, which has pursued an aggressive public relations campaign against Apple alongside its court pleadings, may have already accomplished a major goal: Drawing Apple squarely into the global debate over whether and how massive technology companies should be regulated.

Apple has mostly succeeded in staying out of the regulatory crosshairs by arguing that the iPhone is a niche product in a smartphone world dominated by Google’s Android operating system. But that argument has become harder to sustain with the number of iPhone users now exceeding 1 billion.

Epic alleges Apple has such a strong lock on those customers that the app store constitutes a distinct market for software developers over which Apple has monopoly power. Apple is abusing that power, Epic argues, by forcing developers to use Apple’s in-app payment systems – which charge commissions of up to 30% – and to submit to app-review guidelines the gaming company says discriminate against products that compete with Apple’s own.

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Epic claims that the App Store generates an operating profit margin (ie after costs are taken out) of 78%. Apple says that’s “simply wrong” and looks forward to refuting it in court. Should be fun.
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John Doe 29: image from FBI child exploitation case geolocated to Turkey • bellingcat

Carlos Gonzales:

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In 2020, a new set of photos linked to the case were published in an FBI poster. Images from this set labelled BB001 and BB002 are shown below.

After careful analysis, we were able to geolocate the poolside seating area in one of the images to a hotel near to the town of Side in Turkey (coordinates: 36.810011, 31.346188). Again, and to be clear, no person or commercial establishments, directly or indirectly referenced in this article, is suspected of being involved in the abuse of children.

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Put like this, it sounds a bit blah. There was a photo! They geolocated it! Big deal!

Then you go and look at the photos, and you begin to think: how in the world could you pinpoint a place – and an approximate time, as well – based on so little information? It makes “enhance, enhance” in Blade Runner look pretty tame.
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The computers are getting better at writing, thanks to artificial intelligence • The New Yorker

Stephen Marche:

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GPT-3 is a tool. It does not think or feel. It performs instructions in language. The OpenAI people imagine it for “generating news articles, translation, answering questions.” But these are the businessman’s pedantic and vaguely optimistic approaches to the world’s language needs.

For those who choose to use artificial intelligence, it will alter the task of writing. “The writer’s job becomes as an editor almost,” Gupta said. “Your role starts to become deciding what’s good and executing on your taste, not as much the low-level work of pumping out word by word by word. You’re still editing lines and copy and making those words beautiful, but, as you move up in that chain, and you’re executing your taste, you have the potential to do a lot more.” The artist wants to do something with language. The machines will enact it. The intention will be the art, the craft of language an afterthought.

For writers who don’t like writing—which, in my experience, is nearly all of us—Sudowrite may well be a salvation. Just pop in what you have, whatever scraps of notes, and let the machine give you options. There are other, more obvious applications. Sudowrite was relatively effective when I asked it to continue Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” I assume it will be used by publishers to complete unfinished works like Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” or P. G. Wodehouse’s “Sunset at Blandings.” With a competent technician and an editor-writer you could compose them now, rapidly, with the technology that’s available. There must be a market for a new Austen or Wodehouse. I could do either in a weekend.

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Marche includes a couple of examples of work kinda-sorta written by GPT-3: a continuation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – the latter famously unfinished.
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Renew and Refill Bob Cassette for a fraction of the cost! • dekuNukem on Github

“dekuNukem”:

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With shipping and VAT added, it costs a whopping £43 ($60) for 90 washes! That is 48p (67c) per wash. It might not sound like much, but it quickly adds up.

Over a year of daily washes, it would have cost £174 ($242) in Bob cassettes alone! Imagine paying that much recurring cost for a dishwasher! And remember its internet connectivity? Yep, the whole reason is that it can reorder more cassettes automatically when it runs low, just like those wretched HP inkjet printers.

It is clear that Daan Tech are banking on the convenience of subscription models. Now I’m sure a lot of people would have no problem with that, but personally, I can think of a few better uses of my £174 than on dishwasher detergents.

Another point to consider is what happens if they went bust? No more cassettes, and now you have a fancy paperweight, like so many unnecessarily-smart appliances before it.

Credit where credit’s due, Daan Tech didn’t completely lock down the machine with Bob cassettes. Once empty, you can leave it there and add detergents manually. However, they strongly suggest against this, quoting a few drawbacks:

• It’s a chore to measure and add them manually at each wash.
• Dosing can be tricky, as most tablets, pods, and liquids are for full-size dishwashers.
• Multi-stage dosing impossible, can’t add rinse aid after main wash.
• Limescale might develop over time and damage the machine.

It is clear that this dishwasher was designed with Bob cassettes in mind, and I do enjoy their set-and-forget simplicity. That’s why I made it a priority to investigate how it works.

Looking at the cassette, we can see it has a small circuit board in the middle, with 4 contacts on each side. At the receptacle, we can see the connector for the PCB, as well as two hoses to pump out the detergent during a wash…there are only 4 wires going into the machine. Coupled with the fact that Bob needs to read the cassette to determine how many washes are left, and write to update it after a wash, I had a pretty good guess of what that mystery PCB contains.

The answer is an I2C EEPROM, a popular type of non-volatile memory. EEPROMs retain whatever’s inside even after losing power, and are very cheap, making them perfect at holding small configuration data in embedded systems.

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So of course he looked at the code inside it, and hacked it so he could refill the cassette as he liked.
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AirTag teardown part one: yeah, this tracks • iFixit

Sam Goldheart:

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Unlike the keychain-ready competition, the AirTag’s perfectly round exterior provides no place for you to thread a keyring—at least not easily. The official method to attach one of these to your keys is (wait for it): purchase accessories. But if you can hold a drill steady—and are willing to take a $29 risk—we’ve got a DIY hack for you.

After some reconnaissance inside our first AirTag, we grabbed a 1/16” drill bit and carefully punched a hole through the second tracker in our four-pack—after removing the battery, of course. We miraculously managed to avoid all chips, boards, and antennas, only drilling through plastic and glue. The best part? The AirTag survived the operation like a champ and works as if nothing happened. 

Amazingly, the sound profile didn’t seem to change much: measuring the decibel level  at one iPhone-Mini-length away from the AirTag, the Hole-y One™ was within a +/- 1 dB margin of error from a brand new ‘Tag (about 78-80 dB). Considering Apple is using the plastic dome itself as the speaker diaphragm, this comes as a pleasant surprise.

One last warning before we share our drilling secrets: attempt this at your own risk! Drilling in the wrong place can cause serious damage, so don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to potentially turn your tracker into a very light paperweight. With that out of the way, here’s a hastily-masked video demonstration of the “safe zones” as we see them.

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You’d have to be brave. But no doubt quite a few people are going to try this, with all sorts of mixed outcomes. But the teardown shows that these are really, really compact devices, especially compared with rivals (though those do have.. somewhere to thread into).
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A third of Basecamp’s workers resign after a ban on talking politics • The New York Times

Sarah Kessler:

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About a third of Basecamp’s employees have said they are resigning after the company, which makes productivity software, announced new policies banning workplace conversations about politics.

Jason Fried, Basecamp’s chief executive, detailed the policies in a blog post on Monday, calling “societal and political discussions” on company messaging tools “a major distraction.” He wrote that the company would also ban committees, cut benefits such as a fitness allowance (with employees receiving the equivalent cash value) and stop “lingering and dwelling on past decisions.”

Basecamp had 57 employees, including Mr. Fried, when the announcement was made, according to a staff list on its website. Since then, at least 20 of them have posted publicly that they intend to resign or have already resigned, according to a tally by The New York Times. Basecamp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Fried and David Hansson, two of Basecamp’s founders, have published several books about workplace culture, and news of their latest management philosophy was met with a mix of applause and criticism on social media.

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The past week was the most amazing shot/chaser sequence, starting with Fried’s “hey, no more politics at work!” blogpost through to mass resignations on Friday evening. I guess that’s one way to evaluate management technique.

The resignations included the entire iOS app team for Hey, the email product, so it’s going to be fun to watch how that progresses over the next few months. I suspect we’ll discover that developers are fungible, but Basecamp’s/Hey’s reputation is always going to be marked by this event.
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Crypto miners are killing free CI • Layer CI

Colin Chartier:

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At LayerCI, we help developers build full-stack websites by creating per-branch preview environments and running end-to-end tests for them automatically. This is called CI (Continuous Integration.)

Because developers can run arbitrary code on our servers, they often violate our terms of service to run cryptocurrency miners as a “build step” for their websites. You can learn more in our docs.

“testronan” is an avid Flask user. Every hour they make a commit to their only GitHub repository: “testronan/MyFirstRepository-Flask”

The prolific programmer is certainly making sure that their contributions are well tested. Their repository contains configurations for five different CI providers: TravisCI, CircleCI, GitHub Actions, Wercker, and LayerCI.

Seemingly quite proficient at shell scripting, their CI tasks run “listen.sh”: A shell script that combines a complicated NodeJS script with some seemingly random numbers:

(sleep 10; echo 4; sleep 2; echo “tex.webd”;sleep 2; echo 7; sleep 1; echo 1; sleep 1; echo “exit”; sleep 2) | stdbuf -oL npm run commands

MyFirstRepository-Flask has nothing to do with Flask or webservers. It hosts cryptocurrency mining scripts that send WebDollars to an anonymous address. The numbers correspond to installation options for the NodeJS implementation of WebDollar.

…At WebDollar’s April peak price of $.0005, the repository was making $77USD per month – a considerable sum in many countries, especially given that the only tools required are a laptop and an internet connection.

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Perhaps crypto is best thought of as a parasite, consuming every computing resource that it possibly can? In which case, what’s the cure?
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He tried to cash in on the NFT craze by auctioning a house. It didn’t work • CNN

Anna Bahney, CNN Business:

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For months, Shane Dulgeroff had watched NFTs – or non-fungible tokens – for pieces of digital art, baseball cards and other collectibles sell for mind-boggling amounts.

Then, the 27-year-old California real estate broker had an idea. What if he commissioned a digital rendering of a home that he owned and auctioned it off as an NFT, along with the real world property?

Within weeks, he had a technicolor work of digital art by Kii Arens, a contemporary, pop artist and graphic designer. Dulgeroff bundled it with his two-unit duplex in Thousand Oaks, California, which he advertised as bringing in an annual rental income of $60,000. The offering was put up for auction at OpenSea, an online marketplace for digital assets that are backed by a blockchain, like Ethereum.

“This is going down in history,” Dulgeroff said before the auction opened on April 9th. “Not only is it the world’s first property to be sold this way, but once this sale closes, it will open up people’s eyes to a new way to sell real estate.”

When Dulgeroff first put the NFT up for auction, it wasn’t immediately clear how much the house and artwork might go for. But given the booming market for NFTs and the established and reliable rental returns on the investment property — along with the bragging rights of having bought a property through an NFT — he envisioned it could bring in a huge number.

“I keep seeing this number: $20 million,” he said at the time. “It could be in that ballpark.”

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He got zero bids. Why?

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While Dulgeroff said he had heard from interested buyers from the real estate world, they had questions about how the title would transfer, whether it had to be an all-cash payment and how to get their money onto the platform.

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Oh, so fussy! Wanting to know if they’d actually own it!
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Joshua Wolf Shenk resigns as editor of the Believer magazine • Los Angeles Times

Dorany Pineda:

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In a farewell letter shared with the staff, Shenk said his resignation followed “a dumb, reckless choice to disregard appropriate setting and attire for a Zoom meeting. I crossed a line that I can’t walk back over. I sorely regret the harm to you — and, by extension, to the people we serve. I’m sorry.”

The incident occurred during a video meeting in early February with about a dozen staff members of the Believer and BMI, according to three sources who were in the meeting.

According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk’s advisor, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.

He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk’s computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.

In a statement to The Times, Shenk apologized for the pain the incident caused to the BMI staff, who he called “the most talented, devoted and creative people I’ve ever worked with.

“After my lapse in judgment, I decided to resign so that BMI’s work — sparking culture in Southern Nevada, publishing The Believer, and hosting writers persecuted in their home countries — could best continue in their exceptionally capable hands,” Shenk said.

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Please, if you’re going to use Zoom (or other video calling systems) this week, don’t try to outdo this. And don’t try to do this.
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Shipping containers are falling overboard at a rapid rate • SupplyChainBrain

Ann Koh:

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The shipping industry is seeing the biggest spike in lost containers in seven years. More than 3,000 boxes dropped into the sea last year, and more than 1,000 have fallen overboard so far in 2021. The accidents are disrupting supply chains for hundreds of U.S. retailers and manufacturers such as Amazon and Tesla.

There are a host of reasons for the sudden rise in accidents. Weather is getting more unpredictable, while ships are growing bigger, allowing for containers to be stacked higher than ever before. But greatly exacerbating the situation is a surge in e-commerce after consumer demand exploded during the pandemic, increasing the urgency for shipping lines to deliver products as quickly as possible.

“The increased movement of containers means that these very large containerships are much closer to full capacity than in the past,” said Clive Reed, founder of Reed Marine Maritime Casualty Management Consultancy. “There is commercial pressure on the ships to arrive on time and consequently make more voyages.”

After gale-force winds and large waves buffeted the 364-meter One Apus in November, causing the loss of more than 1,800 containers, footage showed thousands of steel boxes strewn like Lego pieces onboard, some torn to metal shreds. The incident was the worst since 2013, when the MOL Comfort broke in two and sank with its entire cargo of 4,293 containers into the Indian Ocean.

In January, the Maersk Essen lost about 750 boxes while sailing from Xiamen, China, to Los Angeles. A month later, 260 containers fell off the Maersk Eindhoven when it lost power in heavy seas.

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Of course it’s our fault. Damn consumers, wanting things, forcing ships to overturn.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified