Start Up No.1564: Twitter offers subscription, US equates ransomware with terrorism, 16in MacBook Pro at WWDC?, and more


Groovy, baby – Concorde’s coming back, but from United Airlines and promising to cross the Pacific.. with a refuelling stop. CC-licensed photo by Mark R Percival on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Oh, I thought you pressed Record. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book; also available as a complete audiobook.


The Twitter Blue subscription service starts rolling out Thursday • The Verge

Jon Porter and Jay Peters:

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Twitter has officially announced Twitter Blue, a paid subscription service that offers access to new features like undoing tweets and viewing threads in an easier to digest “Reader Mode.” Starting Thursday, it will roll out first in Canada and Australia, where the subscription will cost $3.49 CAD or $4.49 AUD per month, respectively. We already had a good idea of what features to expect from Twitter Blue thanks to sleuthing from app researcher Jane Manchun Wong, but now Twitter has detailed everything the service includes.

A new undo send feature gives you the option of retracting your tweets before they actually go live, and you can set a timer for undoing your tweets that can last up to 30 seconds. A Bookmark Folders feature lets you group saved tweets to make them easier to find later. “Reader Mode” lets you keep up with threads by “turning them into easy-to-read text” and mashing together tweets into one page. Other Twitter Blue features are purely aesthetic: it adds new color theme options as well as the ability to change the colour of Twitter’s app icon.

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Change the colour of the icon! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

Even so, the idea of adding a paid tier to what has always been a free service can have a ratchet effect if the financial people get too excited by the money.

(Undo is like Google’s don’t send; it’s also a sort-of Edit button, in effect.) I really don’t know who’s going to want this. I’m still happy with a paid-for third-party app which costs rather less. (The latest version of Tweetbot costs $1 per month and has access to the newer Twitter API.)
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US to give ransomware hacks similar priority as terrorism, official says • Reuters

Christopher Bing:

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The US Department of Justice is elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority as terrorism in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline hack and mounting damage caused by cyber criminals, a senior department official told Reuters.

Internal guidance sent on Thursday to US attorney’s offices across the country said information about ransomware investigations in the field should be centrally coordinated with a recently created task force in Washington.

“It’s a specialised process to ensure we track all ransomware cases regardless of where it may be referred in this country, so you can make the connections between actors and work your way up to disrupt the whole chain,” said John Carlin, acting deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.

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It’s a bit hard to see how this is going to change anything, unless it blocks American companies from paying ransoms (especially in cryptocurrency), which might have some impact – they’ll buy a lot more backup systems. Regulation of crypto exchanges so they can’t deal with more than a ceiling of transaction value might be a better solution.
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United Airlines bets on supersonic future with $3bn Boom jet order • Bloomberg

Justin Bachman:

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Boom [the company from which United is ordering the aircraft] is trying to surmount the aeronautical and financial challenges needed to bring back supersonic commercial flights for the first time since the demise of Europe’s Concorde in 2003. It’s still an uphill climb. Boom has raised more than $250m so far, and development costs to make the Overture’s first flight a reality are projected to be as high as $8bn, Scholl said.

The company, based in suburban Denver, announced the landmark deal with United less than a month since the collapse of Aerion Corp., which had amassed $11 billion in orders for a planned supersonic business jet. Aerion said May 21 it was unable to secure adequate funding to continue.

For Boom, the United pact marks the first time a customer has made a cash deposit for the carbon-fiber Overture. Japan Airlines Co. and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group have placed “pre-orders” for the aircraft, which essentially give them options to acquire the jet, Boom said.

United is confident in Boom’s path in getting “from point A to point B to point C” in the Overture’s development, Leskinen said. The Chicago-based airline declined to discuss financial details of the order.

The market for new supersonic aircraft could be $160bn by 2040, according to a December report by UBS Group AG analyst Myles Walton. The extra speed would be most alluring for business customers, but prices could be too high for some, Walton said.

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Or if could be zero. Concorde was never profitable, and having more planes won’t suddenly make the service profitable. Supersonic only over oceans (because sonic booms are very unwelcome on the ground), doing London-NY and San Francisco-Tokyo supersonic, though with a refuelling stop in Alaska on the latter because the journey is 200 miles (out of 4,500) too far for a single hop.
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LGBT+ conversion therapy: banned on Facebook, but thriving in Arabic • OPENLY

Avi Asher-Schapiro and Maya Gebeily :

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In many Arab countries, homosexuality is not strictly illegal, but activists say police often persecute LGBT+ citizens using other laws, such as those covering public indecency. In Egypt, medical professionals offering conversion therapy services are part of the mental health care system, local LGBT+ groups say.

Following its ban on content promoting conversion therapy, Facebook took action against several English-language conversion promoters. But Arabic-language conversion content still thrives on Facebook, where practitioners post to millions of followers through verified accounts.

Not only do pre-ban posts advocating conversion therapy remain visible, but new posts continue to flood the site, and conversion therapists appear to promote their services freely. “From our experience, these posts are almost never taken down, no matter what the rules say,” said the executive director of one Egypt-based LGBT+ rights group, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of its work.

A Facebook spokeswoman said in emailed comments that “content that explicitly provides or offers to provide products or services that aim to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity is against our Community Standards and is not allowed on our platform”.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation provided Facebook with more than a dozen examples of conversion therapy promotion still on the platform, including a post by Wasfy promoting a Zoom event on “curing” homosexuality. Facebook subsequently removed most of the posts, including one by Wasfy promoting a Zoom event on “curing” homosexuality.

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The now-familiar two-step: Facebook is bad at dealing with posts in non-English languages, and moderation is outsourced to journalists.
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The lab-leak theory: inside the fight to uncover COVID-19’s origins • Vanity Fair

Katherine Eban:

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Having connected online, Demaneuf and de Maistre began assembling a comprehensive list of research laboratories in China. As they posted their findings on Twitter, they were soon joined by others around the world. Some were cutting-edge scientists at prestigious research institutes. Others were science enthusiasts. Together, they formed a group called DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated objective was to solve the riddle of COVID-19’s origin.

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Oh, this is wearying. Eban was very proud of this, retweeting the praise for it on Twitter, but not responding to my own queries (almost as soon as she tweeted) about the many disparities and elisions in the article. In fact, the article is mostly retreads of stuff you will (if you take any interest in the topic) have seen before.

There were a couple of useful bits, so praise is due there. The first was the NIH official who pointed out that “If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology”; every other article has implied that GOF is unusual rather than commonplace in virological research.

The second was a memo by Chris Ford, a “China hawk” and then under-secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security, who convened a meeting of those most convinced Covid came from a “lab leak”, and put them up against a panel of experts – who ripped their evidence to shreds.

Ford’s memo is four pages long and provides the best summation of the current state of knowledge about Covid’s origins that we have. Skim the feature, absorb the memo.
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The WHO is acting like it wants to be defunded – so what are we waiting for? • CapX

Christopher Snowdon:

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If the World Health Organization wanted to prove beyond doubt that it is no longer fit for purpose, it couldn’t have done a better job than to make the announcements it has made this week. 

On Monday, the WHO celebrated World No Tobacco Day by giving its Special Director-General Award to India’s Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan. What life-saving work has Dr Vardhan done to merit such a prestigious gong? One thing stood out, as WHO boss Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained on Twitter: ‘His leadership was instrumental in the 2019 national legislation to ban E-cigarettes & heated tobacco products. Thank you, Minister!’

India has 120 million smokers. Thanks to Dr Vardhan, they no longer have the option of switching to a vastly safer substitute. The main beneficiary of the ban on e-cigarettes has been the India Tobacco Company, which is part owned by the Indian government. This should merit international condemnation. Instead, the WHO has slapped the Indian government on the back.

India is by no means the worst country to be honoured by the WHO. A few days earlier, the WHO gave Syria a seat on its executive board. Lest we forget, the Assad regime has been responsible for bombing hundreds of hospitals and has tortured, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people during what the WHO coyly describes as a “protracted political and socio-economic crisis”.

Belarus was also quietly appointed to the WHO’s executive board at the weekend despite recently forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk to facilitate the capture, arrest and likely torture of a political dissident.

…Nobody’s perfect, but the WHO is almost a parody of corruption and incompetence. While it embraces regimes which slaughter doctors and congratulates politicians for protecting the cigarette industry, it focuses on policing language like a snowflake student union. It is almost as if it wants to be defunded and replaced with something better. So what are we waiting for?

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The big, big, big, big problem is that the WHO can’t exclude countries based on their politics, because diseases don’t care about politics. It has to keep everyone, even murderous regimes, onside so that they will take part in vaccination programs and information-sharing programs. The WHO’s leader has one of the most ticklish diplomatic jobs in the world. The WHO is far from perfect – but that’s because humans are.
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Big music needs to be broken up to save the industry • WIRED

Ron Knox:

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Apple, Google, and Amazon are able to bankroll their music offerings through monopoly profits elsewhere. Spotify boasts 150 million subscribers, more than twice that of Apple, and its stock value has doubled during the pandemic. The stock market values the company at more than $50bn.

While streaming has helped most survive, it’s helped the major labels get even richer. In 2019, research group MBW figured the three major labels each made around $1m an hour from streaming; only the biggest independent labels clear that much in a year. The top seven artists on Spotify each earn around half a million dollars per year from streaming on the service, while Spotify royalties pay the bottom 99% of artists an average of $25 annually.

Per-stream revenues are often microscopic among all streaming services. YouTube pays the least: To earn its monthly minimum wage ($1,472), an artist needs more than 2 million streams. Spotify doesn’t pay much more; according to the Trichordist, an average midsize independent label can expect to make around a third of a penny per Spotify stream.

Streaming today accounts for 80% of all industry income. As much as the streaming services need the majors, the majors rely on streaming revenue even more.

That dominance means services like Spotify can charge exorbitant fees to labels big and small for the right to reach audiences. In the pre-streaming world, a record label would typically get 70% of every album sale, while the rest went to pay all of the labor-intensive services required to make, distribute, and sell a record. Today, that rate is about the same. Except the other 30% goes entirely to Spotify.

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Knox is “a senior research and writer at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance”. I’m linking to it because it seems typical of the barely coherent articles that get written about the music business. He complains that three labels have control of 80% of the “physical record business”: hmm, OK, and how big is that compared to streaming. And who else should get the 30%, if not Spotify? It’s doing what retail stores used to. There are far better critiques to be written than this, but this one got into Wired somehow.
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Apple bolsters AirTags privacy measures, to offer Android detector app later this year • CNET

Ian Sherr:

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Apple said it’s adjusting its approach to its AirTags sensors, changing the time they play an alert when separated from their owner, and also creating new ways to warn people an unexpected AirTag or Find My network-enabled device is nearby.

The tech giant said Thursday it’s begun sending out updates to its AirTags, changing the window of time they’ll make noises when potentially being used to track another person. Initially, the Apple device would play in three days. Now it’ll begin to play at a random time inside a window that lasts between 8 and 24 hours.

To further reassure people about its AirTags, Apple said it’s developing an app for Android devices that will help people “detect” an AirTag or Find My network-enabled device that may also be unsuspectedly “traveling” with them. Apple iPhones already have a similar alert system built into their devices. The Android app will be released later this year.

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Question is, why not announce the Android app when they were announced? Perhaps Apple felt it would take away from the Apple-ness of the event where it first showed them off. Not sure one can read anything about early success into this Android app announcement: it surely would have been planned quite some time before. (But Android users wouldn’t be able to set AirTags up, or search for them, because that involves the W1 chip for close location.)
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Next-generation 16in MacBook Pro seemingly filed in regulatory database ahead of WWDC • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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Apple is widely rumoured to be planning new 14in and 16in MacBook Pro models, each with a mini-LED display and an improved iteration of the M1 chip. The notebooks are expected to feature a new design with a flatter top and bottom and more ports, including the return of an HDMI port, SD card slot, and a magnetic power cable. Rumors also suggest the Touch Bar will be retired in favour of physical Fn keys.

Lending further credence to these plans, MacRumors has potentially discovered the next-generation 16in MacBook Pro in a Chinese regulatory database. The listing, filed on April 14 by Apple supplier Sunwoda Electronic, is for a battery with an Apple-like model identifier A2527 rated at 8,693 mAh/11.45V. This is similar to the current 16in MacBook Pro’s battery, which is rated at 8,790 mAh/11.36V, according to iFixit.

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There’s also an entry for a 14in MacBook Pro. So everything seems to be falling into place for them to be announced next week, as Apple gets further into shifting its lineup onto its ARM chips.
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Trump deplatforms himself • Platformer

Casey Newton:

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It’s true that Trump never would have attained the reach he got through Twitter were it not also the case that the entire Western media has the app open all day, often using the controversies found there as a de facto assigning editor. As with every platform story, social networks are not the only relevant actors here. A unified press corps that took Trump seriously as a mortal threat to democracy from the start, rather than as a clownish sideshow that was good for ratings, may have given him less airtime.

But after four blissful months of Trump-free Twitter, the platform’s value to him has never been more clear. Tweets are simply more powerful than posts on a website. They can be re-shared to a global audience with a single click; they can attract new followers by the millions; and they can set the agenda for many of the world’s most prominent journalists. Trump’s rapid retreat from blogging highlights the degree to which he depended on free reach — not free speech — to advance his malign agenda.

For platforms, there could hardly be a more powerful story about the significance of their amplification mechanics. By now, many of the platform executives I know are tired of the constant drumbeat of stories about how their networks spread misinformation, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and other harmful content. But the Trump story illustrates vividly why they matter. For the worst actors on their platforms, free reach is almost the entire appeal of using them.

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This is absolutely how social warming works: outrage, amplified, riles people.
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Using fake reviews to find dangerous extensions • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

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After hearing from a reader about a phony Microsoft Authenticator extension that appeared on the Google Chrome Store, KrebsOnSecurity began looking at the profile of the account that created it. There were a total of five reviews on the extension before it was removed: Three Google users gave it one star, warning people to stay far away from it; but two of the reviewers awarded it between three and four stars.

“It’s great!,” the Google account Theresa Duncan enthused, improbably. “I’ve only had very occasional issues with it.”

“Very convenient and handing,” assessed Anna Jones, incomprehensibly.

Google’s Chrome Store said the email address tied to the account that published the knockoff Microsoft extension also was responsible for one called “iArtbook Digital Painting.” Before it was removed from the Chrome Store, iArtbook had garnered just 22 users and three reviews. As with the knockoff Microsoft extension, all three reviews were positive, and all were authored by accounts with first and last names, like Megan Vance, Olivia Knox, and Alison Graham.

Google’s Chrome Store doesn’t make it easy to search by reviewer. For that I turned to Hao Nguyen, the developer behind chrome-stats.com, which indexes and makes searchable a broad array of attributes about extensions available from Google.

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John Gruber shakes his weary head about the presence of all these fake reviews, which literally mean you can barely trust anything, but I found Krebs’s piece rather encouraging: it suggests that there’s a web of these things which you can disentangle, and thus identify the fakes and scams.

Though as ever, the work of finding the scams seems to be outsourced to us, the users.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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