Start Up No.1561: Amazon gets meshy outdoors, Winslet on Instagram, US laws restrict police DNA trawls, cloning WordStar, and more


Pretty soon you’ll be able to get a Raspberry Pi to emulate all your guitar pedals. But will that be as satisfying as a big pedalboard? CC-licensed photo by ArtBrom on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Testing, 1-2. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Still some time to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Also available as an audiobook – only the first 100 pages so far, though.


Amazon devices will soon automatically share your Internet with neighbours • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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If you use Alexa, Echo, or any other Amazon device, you have only 10 days to opt out of an experiment that leaves your personal privacy and security hanging in the balance.

On June 8, the merchant, Web host, and entertainment behemoth will automatically enroll the devices in Amazon Sidewalk. The new wireless mesh service will share a small slice of your Internet bandwidth with nearby neighbors who don’t have connectivity and help you to their bandwidth when you don’t have a connection.

By default, Amazon devices including Alexa, Echo, Ring, security cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers will enroll in the system. And since only a tiny fraction of people take the time to change default settings, that means millions of people will be co-opted into the program whether they know anything about it or not. The Amazon webpage linked above says Sidewalk “is currently only available in the US.”

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The maximum bandwidth that it will “share” is 80kbps, to a maximum of 500MB per month. From briefly reading the white paper from Amazon, this looks like a scheme where only Amazon devices will have access to these connections, and they’ll essentially be used to keep devices connected that might be just outside Wi-Fi connectivity, or where it might fall off and you want those surveillance devices to stay active. This isn’t really a privacy concern – unless you’re worried about those surveillance devices, which is a different question.
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Maureen Dowd talks ‘Mare of Easttown’ with Kate Winslet • The New York Times

If you haven’t seen the series (which just concluded), you’ve got a treat in store. No spoilers in this article. But I was struck by this remark by Winslet, 43:

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Ms. Winslet has been known to warn young actors on a set not to confuse social media fame with the hard work of acting.

“I have certainly heard, twice, of certain actors being cast in roles because they have more followers,” she said. “I’ve actually heard people say, ‘She’s not who we wanted to cast, but she has more followers.’ I almost don’t know what to say. It’s so sad and so extraordinarily wrong. I think the danger is not just for young actors but younger people in general now. I think it makes you less present in your real life. Everyone is constantly taking photographs of their food and photographing themselves with filters.”

She leans her face close to the camera, and noted her lack of filters, with an expletive.

“What worries me is that faces are beautiful. Faces that change, that move, are beautiful faces, but we’ve stopped learning how to love those faces because we keep covering them up with filters now because of social media and anyone can photoshop themselves, and airbrush themselves, and so they do. In general, I would say I feel for this generation because I don’t see it stopping, I don’t see or feel it changing, and that just makes me sad because I hope that they aren’t missing out on being present in real life and not reaching for unattainable ideals.”

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Two new laws restrict police use of DNA search method • The New York Times

Virginia Hughes:

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Beginning on Oct. 1, investigators working on Maryland cases will need a judge’s signoff before using the method, in which a “profile” of thousands of DNA markers from a crime scene is uploaded to genealogy websites to find relatives of the culprit. The new law, sponsored by Democratic lawmakers, also dictates that the technique be used only for serious crimes, such as murder and sexual assault. And it states that investigators may only use websites with strict policies around user consent.

Montana’s new law, sponsored by a Republican, is narrower, requiring that government investigators obtain a search warrant before using a consumer DNA database, unless the consumer has waived the right to privacy.

The laws “demonstrate that people across the political spectrum find law enforcement use of consumer genetic data chilling, concerning and privacy-invasive,” said Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland who championed the Maryland law. “I hope to see more states embrace robust regulation of this law enforcement technique in the future.”

Privacy advocates like Ms. Ram have been worried about genetic genealogy since 2018, when it was used to great fanfare to reveal the identity of the Golden State Killer, who murdered 13 people and raped dozens of women in the 1970s and ’80s. After matching the killer’s DNA to entries in two large genealogy databases, GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, investigators in California identified some of the culprit’s cousins, and then spent months building his family tree to deduce his name — Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — and arrest him.

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Instagram giveaways promise cash and cars, but who wins? • Vox

Allie Jones:

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In 1851, the inventor and entrepreneur Benjamin T. Babbitt began traveling around the United States in a wagon, offering consumers free lithographic prints with the purchase of baking soda. According to historian Wendy A. Woloson, this new mode of marketing inspired enterprising salesmen to launch their own prize giveaways, many of which ended up being scams. We can trace the history of the giveaway from the 1850s right up through March 23, 2021, when Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian family known fondly for working harder than Satan, posted a photograph of herself on her Instagram page sitting on a grand staircase surrounded by thousands of dollars’ worth of Louis Vuitton luggage.

“Who wants a 20k USD preloaded credit card + the luxury purses pictured here with me,” she asked, adding a credit card emoji, four exclamation points, and two notices that the post was an #ad. (An ad for what, exactly? It’s complicated.) All entrants had to do, said Jenner, was follow a few dozen other Instagram accounts and comment on Jenner’s post.

Peering at the display, I wondered: Who wins these things? The answer has been difficult to ascertain.

I started paying attention to Instagram giveaways such as Jenner’s last year, when I was spending [redacted] hours per day on my couch, scrolling through Instagram. All of the Kardashians, save for Rob, have participated in one at some time or another, tempting their followers with Saint Laurent handbags, luxury baby strollers, and credit cards “preloaded” with thousands of dollars. (“Girl this looks like a scam,” said one commenter on a Kylie Jenner giveaway post from November 2020. “No one ever wins these,” said another.)

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The lack of documented winners is always suspicious.
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How bad is Google Photos’ compression anyway? • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Google Photos has long offered one of the best deals in all of photo storage: it’ll back up your entire library for free, so long as it can compress the images a bit. But as of today, June 1st, that deal goes away, and you’re now eating through Google storage (which you may have to pay for) whether your images are compressed or not.

With the change looming, I’ve been wondering how bad Google’s compression actually is. Does the compression leave my photos in “High Quality,” as Google has claimed for years? Or does the compression degrade my photos enough to make it worth using more storage by switching over to “Original Quality” backups?

I ran some quick tests this morning to find out. I took some photos and videos from my Pixel 5 (one of a few phones that will continue to get free compressed storage) and a photo from my Fuji X-T30 and uploaded them to two separate Google Photos accounts, one with compression turned on and one that maintained original quality.

The results were mixed. For photos, the compressed versions were often indistinguishable from their uncompressed counterparts. But once you’re losing resolution, the compression really starts to show.

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Have to admit.. I really couldn’t see the difference on my retina screen. I expect the difference is there but somehow hasn’t been transmitted.
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Space debris has hit and damaged the International Space Station • Science Alert

Michelle Starr:

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The inevitable has occurred. A piece of space debris too small to be tracked has hit and damaged part of the International Space Station – namely, the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The instrument is still operational, but the object punctured the thermal blanket and damaged the boom beneath. It’s a sobering reminder that the low-Earth orbit’s space junk problem is a ticking time bomb.

Obviously space agencies around the world are aware of the space debris problem. Over 23,000 pieces are being tracked in low-Earth orbit to help satellites and the ISS avoid collisions – but they’re all about the size of a softball or larger.

Anything below that size is too small to track, but travelling at orbital velocities can still do some significant damage, including punching right through metal plates.

Canadarm2 – formally known as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), designed by the Canadian Space Agency – has been a fixture on the space station for 20 years. It’s a multi-jointed titanium robotic arm that can assist with maneuvering objects outside the ISS, including cargo shuttles, and performing station maintenance.

It’s unclear exactly when the impact occurred. The damage was first noticed on 12 May, during a routine inspection.

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Not quite the opening sequence of Gravity, but worrying nonetheless.
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Neural networks emulate any guitar pedal for $120 • Hackaday

Adam Zeloof:

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It’s a well-established fact that a guitarist’s acumen can be accurately gauged by the size of their pedal board- the more stompboxes, the better the player. Why have one box that can do everything when you can have many that do just a few things?

Jokes aside, the idea of replacing an entire pedal collection with a single box is nothing new. Your standard, old-school stompbox is an analog affair, using a combination of filters and amplifiers to achieve a certain sound. Some modern multi-effects processors use software models of older pedals to replicate their sound. These digital pedals have been around since the 90s, but none have been quite like the NeuralPi project. Just released by GuitarML, the NeuralPi takes about $120 of hardware (including — you guessed it — a Raspberry Pi) and transforms it into the perfect pedal.

The key here, of course, is neural networks. The LSTM at the core of NeuralPi can be trained on any pedal you’ve got laying around to accurately reproduce its sound, and it can even do so with incredibly low latency thanks to Elk Audio OS (which even powers Matt Bellamy’s synth guitar, as used in Muse‘s Simulation Theory World Tour). The result of a trained model is a VST3 plugin, a popular format for describing audio effects.

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Possibly only a saving if your time has no value, but the Elk Audio OS seems interesting. If you want a faintly breathless (and largely incomprehensible if you’re not acquainted with guitar synth tech; have a search tab at hand) account of how Matt Bellamy’s guitars got their own OS, that’s on this Elk page.
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China allows three children in major policy shift • BBC News

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The latest move was approved by President Xi Jinping at a meeting of top Communist Party officials.

It will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population and maintaining the advantage, endowment of human resources”, according to Xinhua news agency.

But human rights organisation Amnesty International said the policy, like its predecessors, was still a violation of sexual and reproductive rights.

“Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. Rather than ‘optimising’ its birth policy, China should instead respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over people’s family planning decisions,” said the group’s China team head, Joshua Rosenzweig.

“If relaxing the birth policy was effective, the current two-child policy should have proven to be effective too,” Hao Zhou, a senior economist at Commerzbank, told Reuters news agency.

“But who wants to have three kids? Young people could have two kids at most. The fundamental issue is living costs are too high and life pressures are too huge.”

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After the census last month showing India catching up, the problem of the one-child policy has come home to bite China. But there’s a generation which now thinks you need to spend so much on education to get your child ahead that they won’t countenance having two, and surely not three. China may have put itself into a demographic trap.
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WordTsar: a Wordstar clone

Now it’s possible that you may be too young to remember (or have ever seen) WordStar, in which case congratulations. It’s also possible that you actually used it to create documents, and remember it a little fondly (especially because you’d reached the level where you didn’t need any of the permanent onscreen menus).

If you’re in the latter, and want to remind yourself why you gave up WordStar, you can get a cross-platform download from this site.

Alternatively, if you want to read a really quite old but still entertaining piece by a writer about why he keeps on using WordStar, your wish is fulfilled.

Old software never dies, it just gets emulated or rewritten in open-source form.
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We’re not the good guys: Osaka shows up problems of press conferences • The Guardian

Jonathan Liew:

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On Monday night, after being fined and threatened with expulsion, [four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi] Osaka quit the tournament altogether. Meanwhile her stance has been universally scorned by the print media, who as we know have traditionally been the best people to judge standards of behaviour. An “uppity princess”, one newspaper columnist wrote. Others have more soberly pointed out that for any athlete, facing the media is simply part of the job, and that by seceding from the process entirely Osaka is setting a “dangerous precedent”.

At this point, it’s worth considering exactly what this “danger” consists of. All over the world, the free press is already under unprecedented assault from authoritarian governments, tech giants and online disinformation. In many countries journalists are literally being killed for doing their job. Meanwhile in Paris, tennis journalists are facing the prospect of having to construct an article entirely from their own words. One of these things is not like the others.

The real problem here, it strikes me, is not Osaka or even the impressive self-importance of the written media. Rather, it’s the press conference itself, which when you think about it is quite a weird idea, and one that essentially fails at its central function. The great conceit of the press conference is that it is basically a direct line from the athlete to the public at large, that we humble scribes are but the people’s faithful eyes and ears in the land of the gods.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this hasn’t really been true for a while. Athletes now have their own direct line to the public, and spoiler: it’s not us. Hard as it is to believe, Osaka’s function as an entertainer and corporate billboard is contingent on her playing tennis at an appointed hour, rather than being forced to sit in a windowless room explaining herself to a roomful of middle-aged men.

And so the modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest‑common‑denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting, in front of an array of strangers and backed by a piece of sponsored cardboard.

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I used to cover tennis, a long time ago, and I can tell Liew that it’s not just the modern press conference that fits that description. It’s been that was for at least 40 years. The amount of pointless media question answering that players have to do, though, has risen substantially.
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All those pub apps you’ve downloaded are a privacy nightmare • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:

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It’s been a long 15 months and now people are heading back out into the world. Lots of people are understandably ready for a drink. Pub spending is up seven% compared to the equivalent week in 2019, according to data from Barclaycard. But the pub experience is a little different now. 

Rather than sidle up to the bar, you’re cemented to your seat. Table service is the new normal, at least until lockdown restrictions lift further. And small talk with the bar staff has been replaced with ordering through an app. Each pub, or chain, seems to have its own app that you need to download to book a table or make an order – and each of these collects information about you.

“When hospitality started to have an obligation to take contact details last year, there was no obvious privacy-preserving tool to do this with,” says Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulations at University College London. “In many hospitality venues, they are still using the technology from the earlier part of the pandemic last year to fulfil orders and table service, which collect unnecessary information.”

So which apps collect what – and should you be worried?

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The essential problem, as always, is that these companies don’t let you delete your accounts. It’s well-nigh impossible with any company these days: surprisingly it’s the big tech companies that make it (relatively) easy. All the others? Bah.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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