Start Up No.1543: Facebook Oversight indecision, Peleton recalls treadmills, Antarctic ice melt worsens, Dell security hole, and more

Don’t stick your head into a photon beam in a particle accelerator. One man did, and lived – but with strange aftereffects. CC-licensed photo by Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Don’t look now. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Good riddance, Donald Trump? • The New York Times

Kara Swisher:


In general, I have considered the case of Mr. Trump to be much less complex than people seem to think. And it has been made to appear highly complicated by big tech companies like Facebook because they want to exhaust us all in a noisy and intractable debate.

Mr. Trump should be seen as an outlier — a lone, longtime rule breaker who was coddled and protected on social media platforms until he wandered into seditious territory. He’s an unrepentant gamer of Facebook’s badly enforced rules who will never change. He got away with it for years and spread myriad self-serving lies far and wide.

So why should Mr. Trump stop now?

One way to answer that would be to ask why so many Republicans believe the Big Lie that President Biden was not elected fairly. Or why do so many of the same people resist Covid-19 vaccinations?

It’s all because of the inexhaustible Trump digital army, which is both organized and scattered, and has been enabled by social media companies.

The Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman called the behavior of these pro-Trump forces “malicious compliance” — which means totally noncompliant — in an interview with me earlier this year. And that’s the reason he finally and correctly threw some Trumpets off his platform.

For a long time, Reddit was one of the most vehement defenders of any and all speech on tech platforms. That is, until it was clear that Reddit was being played for idiots by trolls.

And Facebook has been played, too.

Mr. Trump (and his acolytes) spent years crossing lines in the digital sand. He’s good at it — and now he’s paying the price for his social media success by being rendered silent (at least as silent as a loudmouth can be).


I found the decision hilarious: the FOB punted the decision back to Facebook, telling it to come up with a proper policy for why it banned Trump so there can be a complaint about it which can be referred to the FOB which will dither about it for a while. But the truth of it is that Trump doesn’t care about Facebook – he wants to be back on Twitter. But Twitter will never let him back on.
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Twitter begins to show prompts before people send ‘mean’ replies • NBC News

David Ingram:


Nasty replies on Twitter will require a little more thought to send.

The tech company said Wednesday it was releasing a feature that automatically detects “mean” replies on its service and prompts people to review the replies before sending them.

“Want to review this before Tweeting?” the prompt asks in a sample provided by the San Francisco-based company.

Twitter users will have three options in response: tweet as is, edit or delete.

The prompts are part of wider efforts at Twitter and other social media companies to rethink how their products are designed and what incentives they may have built in to encourage anger, harassment, jealousy or other bad behavior. Facebook-owned Instagram is testing ways to hide like counts on its service.


Now, you might say that the existence of the “tweet as is” option makes this redundant, but adding just that bit of friction makes it more difficult, a bit slower for people who want to incite trouble.

The question though is how good this will be at detecting actual “mean” content, and how much it will mistake sarcastic or ironic content for actual harassment. Though you could argue that sarcasm and irony fall into the category.
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The man struck by a particle accelerator beam • Predict

Ella Alderson:


[In the late 1970s Soviet Union] Anatoli Bugorski was checking up on some malfunctioning equipment on the accelerator when the accident took place. Operators in the control room did not remove the beam despite knowing that Anatoli was going to be entering the chamber to perform his inspection. Neither was the door to the chamber locked nor a warning sign illuminated to alert Anatoli that there was still an active beam inside. So it was that he entered the room, leaned down in the space where the beam passes from one section of the accelerator tube to the next, and was promptly struck by a beam of protons traveling at nearly the speed of light. The moment of impact brought a flash of light that Anatoli later described as “brighter than a thousand suns”.

As it was entering the cavern of Anatoli’s head the particle beam was around 200,000 rads. Because of collisions that took place between the particles and Anatoli’s matter, the beam measured 300,000 rads upon exiting his skull. At a level of 400 rads, radiation can kill half the people it touches. At 1,000 rads and above, the radiation will kill almost anyone. Anatoli had received a dose of radiation 300 times the fatal amount. Despite this, there was no pain. As a particle physicist Anatoli understood what had happened even if he couldn’t be sure of the exact gravity of the situation. He collected himself, finished his work in the chamber, and went home without telling anyone what had happened.

It wasn’t until the next day when he began to show worrying symptoms that he was taken to the hospital. The left side of his face was swollen and unrecognizable, with the skin beginning to blister and his hair falling out where the beam had struck. These effects were temporary and inconsequential compared to what would follow. Everyone involved expected Anatoli to die. The doctors and nurses carefully oversaw his treatment, though it’s likely no one expected him to survive past three weeks at most. And that’s exactly the most bizarre part of the entire incident: Anatoli did not die.


Though to the regret of comic book authors, nor did he acquire the ability to fly, pass through walls, manipulate objects at a distance or transmute elements. But there was one peculiar, if limited, effect which in its way would make most people envious.

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Peloton treadmills recalled after Tread+ child death: what owners do next • SlashGear

Chris Davies:


Peloton will recall all of its treadmill models, after concerns about child safety around the fitness equipment and at least one reported death. The voluntary recall impacts both the Tread+ and Tread models, with Peloton and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) advising owners to cease using them immediately.

It’s an unexpected turnaround from the popular fitness equipment company, which had strongly pushed back against calls for a recall earlier in the year. As recently as April 17, Peloton refuted the CPSC claims, branding them “inaccurate and misleading,” and arguing that “there is no reason to stop using the Tread+, as long as all warnings and safety instructions are followed,”

In a stark change of approach today, Peloton CEO John Foley apologized for that attitude, and for delaying the recall.

“The decision to recall both products was the right thing to do for Peloton’s Members and their families,” Foley said in a statement. “I want to be clear, Peloton made a mistake in our initial response to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s request that we recall the Tread+. We should have engaged more productively with them from the outset. For that, I apologize. Today’s announcement reflects our recognition that, by working closely with the CPSC, we can increase safety awareness for our Members”.


This was completely predicted by Ed Zitron, a PR of some experience, who explained on April 20 why this was inevitable.

The next thing it has to deal with: “Peloton’s leaky API let anyone grab riders’ private account data“. Reported to the company on January 20, and which fixed it right… no, it didn’t.

Related: “This is your brain on Peloton“, an NYT piece about how absorbing the Peloton experience is. (I haven’t tried it. Apple’s Fitness+ is inclusive, but not real-time interactive in that way.)
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Global heating pace risks ‘unstoppable’ sea level rise as Antarctic ice sheet melts • The Guardian

Oliver Milman:


The current pace of global heating risks unleashing “rapid and unstoppable” sea level rise from the melting of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet, a new research paper has warned.

Unless planet-heating emissions are swiftly reduced to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the world faces a situation where there is an “abrupt jump” in the pace of Antarctic ice loss around 2060, the study states, fueling sea level rise and placing coastal cities in greater peril.

“If the world warms up at a rate dictated by current policies we will see the Antarctic system start to get away from us around 2060,” said Robert DeConto, an expert in polar climate change at the University of Massachusetts and lead author of the study. “Once you put enough heat into the climate system, you are going to lose those ice shelves, and once that is set in motion you can’t reverse it.”

DeConto added: “The oceans would have to cool back down before the ice sheet could heal, which would take a very long time. On a societal timescale it would essentially be a permanent change.”

This tipping point for Antarctica could be triggered by a global temperature rise of 3C (5.4F) above the preindustrial era, which many researchers say is feasible by 2100 under governments’ current policies.

The new research, published in Nature, finds that ice loss from Antarctica would be “irreversible on multi-century timescales” should this happen, helping raise the world’s oceans by 17cm to 21cm (6.69in to 8.27in) by the end of the century.


There is no good news on this.
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Clean energy demand for critical minerals set to soar as the world pursues net zero goals • International Energy Agency


The special report, part of the IEA’s flagship World Energy Outlook series, underscores that the mineral requirements of an energy system powered by clean energy technologies differ profoundly from one that runs on fossil fuels. A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.

Demand outlooks and supply vulnerabilities vary widely by mineral, but the energy sector’s overall needs for critical minerals could increase by as much as six times by 2040, depending on how rapidly governments act to reduce emissions. Not only is this a massive increase in absolute terms, but as the costs of technologies fall, mineral inputs will account for an increasingly important part of the value of key components, making their overall costs more vulnerable to potential mineral price swings.

The commercial importance of these minerals also grow rapidly: today’s revenue from coal production is ten times larger than from energy transition minerals. However, in climate-driven scenarios, these positions are reversed well before 2040.


This feels like a lot of wars in the offing.
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Does Amazon know what it sells? • Benedict Evans


Of Amazon’s top 50 best-sellers in “Children’s Vaccination & Immunisation”, close to 20 are by anti-vaccine polemicists, and 5 are novels about fictional pandemics. This poses two questions. First, how much content moderation should a universal bookshop do? Second, does Amazon really know what it sells?

The content moderation questions here are closely related to those that applied when Facebook and Twitter banned the US president. A single newspaper or a bookshop has no obligation to give you a platform, but there are other newspapers and other bookshops – what does it mean if there are only three newspapers (or only three with significant reach) and they all ban you? Should they allow you to be on the platform, but not ‘amplify’ you either with an ‘algorithm’ or something as mechanical as a best-seller list (and of course being in the list will increase your sales, so that’s also a moderation choice). What books, exactly, do we want Amazon to ban, or to ‘down-rank’? Who decides? What if Amazon put those books in ‘conspiracy theories’ instead? I don’t think we have a settled consensus.

More interesting to me in this case, though, is the fact that five of the top 50 are not about “Children’s Vaccination & Immunisation” at all – they’re novels! This is a much more general problem, that I think that reflects a pretty fundamental aspect of Amazon as a retailer – it does not, in important ways, actually know what it sells, and that has always been inherent to the model.

There’s an old cliché that ecommerce has infinite shelf space, but that’s not quite true for Amazon. It would be more useful to say that it has one shelf that’s infinitely long. Everything it sells has to fit on the same shelf and be treated in the same way – it has to fit into the same retailing model and the same logistics model.


It is a huge problem: it requires Amazon to understand what’s inside the book, not just what the metadata attached to it says.
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If you have a Dell computer, there’s a big security flaw you need to patch now • Yahoo

Jacob Siegal:


On Tuesday, security research firm SentinelLabs reported on a vulnerability in Dell’s firmware update driver impacting hundreds of the brand’s devices, from desktops to laptops to tablets. As the firm explains, the flaw can be exploited to allow anyone using the computer to escalate their privileges and run code in kernel mode.

Dell has since issued a security advisory on its website for the vulnerability with a list of nearly 400 devices that have been impacted. The list includes dozens of Inspiron and Latitude laptops, as well as recent XPS 13, XPS 15, and XPS 17 models. There is a separate list of older devices that no longer receive service but are also impacted. If you spot a device that you own on the list, here are the steps that you need to take.

First and foremost, you need to remove the vulnerable dbutil_2_3.sys driver from your system.


Oh, the hours of fun you’ll have. Slightly embarrassing for Dell, whose founder Michael Dell was celebrating the company’s (first) 37 years on the precise day that the security advisory was issued.
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A comparison of reverse image searching platforms • Security Research


Sometimes when trying to conduct a reverse image search, it can be useful to alter the original image in some way in order to find the best results. For example, sometimes an image may be posted and claim to be an original, but is actually just a flipped/reversed version of an existing photo. By flipping the photo and then searching for it, you may be able to find additional results that might not have been returned from searching only one photo. Careful cropping may also yield much better results, as other objects in photos may cause the search engine to focus on the wrong subject.


This dates from September 2019, but still useful.
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“This is definitely the most bizarre question I have ever seen on a job application” • Boing Boing

Mark Frauenfelder:


Twitter user @beeta was asked this unusual question on a job application: “You’ve been given an elephant. You can’t give it away or sell it. What would you do with the elephant?”

Employers ask this kind of question because they want to see how you think.

Here are some of the replies to @beeta’s tweet:

• I took a class on how to respond to job interview questions once and they used this exact one as an example. The answer they’re looking for is “Open a business where you hire the elephant out for events like birthday parties.”


There are plenty of others, but that’s the one that’s obviously best. (Taking it to a zoo or wildlife refuge surely counts as “giving it away”, unless you then also take a job at the zoo/refuge.)

Anyway, food for thought for anyone who might be hiring people at the moment.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

You could probably do worse than to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book – out June 24.

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