Start Up No.1565: Apple staff resist office return, the Tories’ NHS data grab, Nigeria bans Twitter, El Salvador to allow bitcoin, and more


Reworking Minesweeper so it wouldn’t mention mines provoked a conundrum from Microsoft: what should replace the mines? CC-licensed photo by yum9me on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not banned in Nigeria (yet). I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple employees push back against returning to the office in internal letter • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:

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Apple employees are pushing back against a new policy that would require them to return to the office three days a week starting in early September. Staff members say they want a flexible approach where those who want to work remote can do so, according to an internal letter obtained by The Verge.

“We would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues,” the letter says. “That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”

The move comes just two days after Tim Cook sent out a note to Apple employees saying they would need return to the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays starting in the fall. Most employees can work remotely twice a week. They can also be remote for up to two weeks a year, pending manager approval.

It’s an easing of restrictions compared to Apple’s previous company culture, which famously discouraged employees from working from home prior to the pandemic. Yet it’s still more conservative compared to other tech giants. Both Twitter and Facebook have told employees they can work from home forever, even after the pandemic ends.

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The letter from the employees (which is embedded in the article) is a terrible example of corporate garblespeak. It’s 1,368 turgid words, which make it feel a lot longer. Compare it to Steve Jobs’s famous Thoughts On Flash, which is 1,671 words long, yet because it’s written in a style that talks to the reader, feels much shorter.

Most of all, though, the letter talks as though it’s in a culture apart from Apple. If the corporate culture starts to break down, that becomes a problem.
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The Tories have worked out how to pull off an NHS data grab: do it during a pandemic • The Guardian

Marina Hyde:

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Hand on heart, it’s difficult to summon anything other than deep suspicion, born of bitter experience, about the fact that NHS Digital has barely informed GPs, waiting till the last minute to order them to submit the records of every patient under their care, where they will become a permanent and irreversible part of the new database. Neither the British Medical Association nor the Royal College of GPs have endorsed this process. Patients have until 23 June to opt out, and most don’t even know about it.

Once again, a ragtag band of privacy campaigners, concerned doctors and David Davis MP are mounting a rearguard action, with legal threats sent to the government today.

Why are experts so worried, then, when Matt Hancock and friends only want to heal the world? Before we even answer that, do be aware that there is ALREADY a safe, secure way for researchers to access genuinely anonymised data on Covid – the Trusted Research Environment.

The data NHS Digital will store is pseudonymised, and it says it’ll only be shared with commercial third parties for “research and planning purposes”. But it would be relatively simple to re-identify that data – particularly for those with cross-referencing access to other databases, to say nothing of the risk of the third-party breaches it opens up. According to the very much un-promoted page on the NHS website, the NHS will be able to unlock the pseudonymisation codes “in certain circumstances, and where there is a valid legal reason”. (You might assume they’ve called the new data grab Honestlywhat’stheworstthatcouldhappen.data, but instead they’ve gone with GPDPR.)

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Hyde usually satirises the idiocies of ministers, but this time she’s pointing out the underhanded sneakiness.
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Nigeria bans Twitter after company deletes President Buhari’s tweet • CNN

Nimi Princewill and Stephanie Busari:

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The Nigerian government says it has “indefinitely suspended” Twitter’s operations in the country, the Ministry of Information and Culture announced in a statement on Friday.

“The Federal Government has suspended, indefinitely, the operations of the microblogging and social networking service, Twitter, in Nigeria,” it read.

The statement, which was posted on the ministry’s official Twitter handle on Friday evening, accused the American social media company of allowing its platform to be used “for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

Some pointed out the irony of announcing the ban on Twitter, with one person replying: “You’re using Twitter to suspend Twitter? Are you not mad?”

The suspension comes two days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that was widely perceived as offensive.

In that tweet on Tuesday, the Nigerian leader threatened to deal with people in the country’s southeast, who he blames for the recurring attacks on public infrastructure in the region.

“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” Buhari wrote in the now-deleted tweet, referring to the brutal two-year Nigeria-Biafra war, which killed an estimated one to three million people, mostly from the Igbo tribe in the eastern part of the country between 1967-1970.

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The president’s tweet is arguably threatening imminent violence. Maybe he should have said that when the looting starts the shooting starts. That would be OK, apparently?
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The UI design minefield – er… flower field?? • Shell Blog (archived at the Wayback Machine)

David Vronay worked on a Windows upgrade, and one key piece of work was on that old favourite Minesweeper (one of the original games in Windows 95 to get people used to the mouse – then an unfamiliar user interface method for many):

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There have always been a small but persistent group of users who disliked minesweeper as a concept because they felt it trivialized the problem of land mines. For those of us living in North America, land mines are an abstract entity that you really only see in a movie, but in many parts of the world people are killed or maimed by mines on a daily basis. Over the years, these users have repeatedly asked us to either remove minesweeper or change the concept from landmines to something a little less obnoxious.

One of the realities of making something with the reach of Windows is that it is almost impossible not to offend someone somewhere with anything you do. (you would not believe how difficult it is to create default user tiles or desktop background images that are inoffensive to EVERYONE ON EARTH.) We do our best, but we also accept that we can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In the minesweeper case, since we were doing a rewrite anyway, we thought it would a good time to address these concerns. We added a preference that allows users to change it from looking for mines in a minefield to looking for flowers in a flower field. Now, personally I am not a fan of using flowers here – I mean, you WANT to find flowers, right? – but this was an established alternative in the market and none of the other ideas we had (dog poo? penguins?) could pass the legal/geopolitcs/trademark/etc. hurdles.

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Here is the fact that will blow your mind. Ready? You could never lose Minesweeper on your first click. You could never click on a mine first go, because the computer first noted where you clicked and then laid out the mines.
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US arrests Latvian woman who worked on Trickbot malware source code • The Record

Catalin Cimpanu:

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The US Department of Justice has arraigned in court today a Latvian woman who was part of the Trickbot malware crew, where she served as a programmer and wrote code for controlling the malware and deploying ransomware on infected computers.

Alla Witte, 55, of Latvia, but who resided in Paramaribo, Suriname, was arrested on February 6 in Miami, Florida, the DOJ said in a press release today.

US officials said that Witte, who went online as “Max,” has been working with the Trickbot malware gang since the group formed in November 2015, when remnants of the Dyre malware gang assembled to create and distribute a revamped version of the Dyre trojan that was subsequently named Trickbot.

According to court documents, Witte was identified as one of 17 suspects behind the Trickbot malware, which is believed to have infected millions of computers across the world since 2015.

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Have to say, my guess of what the programmer behind successful malware did not really include a 55-year-old Latvian woman sometimes resident in Suriname. Truly, a pursuit for all ages.
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El Salvador president wants Bitcoin as legal tender • The Washington Post

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The US dollar is El Salvador’s official currency. About one quarter of El Salvador’s citizens live in the United States and last year, despite the pandemic, they sent home more than $6bn in remittances.

[President Nayib] Bukele’s New Ideas party holds a supermajority in the new congress seated May 1, giving any legislative proposal from the president a strong likelihood of passage.

Additional details of the plan were not released. But Bukele in subsequent messages on Twitter noted that Bitcoin could be “the fastest growing way to transfer 6 billion dollars a year in remittances.” He said that a big chunk of those money transfers were currently lost to intermediaries and with Bitcoin more than a million low-income families could benefit.

He also said 70% of El Salvador’s population does not have a bank account and works in the informal economy. Bitcoin could improve financial inclusion, he said.

Riding his high popularity and his party’s dominance performance in Feb. 28 elections, Bukele has concentrated power. His party’s supermajority in congress ousted the justices of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court May 1. They then replaced the attorney general.

They had been critical of some of Bukele’s more drastic measures during the pandemic, including a mandatory stay-at-home order and containment centers where those caught violating the policy were detained.

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Lots of ramifications from this, if it goes through. Bitcoin isn’t the best to use as a currency; Monero or others are. (Bitcoin has long ceased to work as a currency.) The US might respond by introducing regulation on cryptocurrencies, because of the potential for money to transfer in a different country directly into dollars. And in the short term, lots of people will lose money as their unfamiliar cryptowallets get hacked.
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China reconsiders its central role in bitcoin mining • WSJ

James T. Areddy:

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Chinese bitcoin production is reminiscent of the nation’s sway in other high-technology realms, from production of rare-earth mineral materials to video-surveillance equipment—with one main difference: Beijing’s distrust of cryptocurrencies.

On May 21, China’s government vowed to “crack down on bitcoin mining and trading behavior,” a statement widely interpreted as a warning that the cryptocurrency’s multibillion-dollar supply chain’s days are numbered.

In response, electricity producers are ejecting miners from grids and Chinese dealers are unloading computers designed to create bitcoin onto the secondhand market at huge discounts.

None of this means the world will run out of bitcoin. Instead, mining is likely to slow in China and accelerate elsewhere. Miners in other nations had already cut into China’s production dominance in the past 18 months or so, according to University of Cambridge figures, which estimated the U.S. share has been growing and accounted for around 7% last year.

But even amid some industry expectations that the U.S. share could expand to perhaps 40% in the next few years, the bitcoin community had believed China would retain nearly half of mining.

“In China, it’s always been the thinking that the government will crack down,” said Nishant Sharma, founding partner at Beijing advisory firm BlocksBridge Consulting Ltd.

Still, he said: “I’m seeing so much panic.”

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Perhaps they could shift production to El Salvador?
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Why the COVID lab-leak hypothesis is quackery • Los Angeles Times

Michael Hiltzik:

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What remains of the lab-leak theory is half-truths, misrepresentations, and tendentious conjecture.

Consider one trigger of heightened speculation, a May 23 article in the Wall Street Journal reporting that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the community where the first major outbreak was identified, became sick enough in the fall of 2019 to seek hospital treatment. That was months before the start of the pandemic.

Yet the report offered no evidence linking the patients’ illness to COVID-19 research at the Wuhan lab. The report said the researchers had “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” Well, yes: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that the symptoms of COVID and seasonal flu resemble each other.

There’s no evidence that the three researchers had contracted COVID-19 as opposed to flu or any other virus. Nor is there information about the clinical outcome of these three cases, which might tell us more.

Virologists point out, moreover, that it would be unlikely for COVID to affect only three people seriously enough to warrant hospital care without infecting hundreds of others in the lab or their households. The other victims might have had milder symptoms, but an outbreak of that magnitude would have been difficult to keep under wraps.

As for the letter in Science, some of its 18 signatories have taken pains to emphasize that they are not endorsing the lab-leak theory; some are highly skeptical of the hypothesis.

The organizer of the letter, David Relman of Stanford, told Nature’s Amy Maxmen, “I am not saying I believe the virus came from a laboratory.” Another signatory, Ralph S. Baric of the University of North Carolina, told the New Yorker, “The genetic sequence for SARS-CoV-2 really points to a natural-origin event from wildlife.”

Their goal in signing the letter, they said, was not to point fingers at the Wuhan lab, but to urge WHO to devote more effort to determining the origin, whatever it might be, before expressing a categorical opinion.

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The head of the WIV said, in a series of responses to Science magazine last summer, that all of the WIV staff had tested negative to antibodies: “Recently we tested the sera from all staff and students in the lab and nobody is infected by either bat SARSr-CoV or SARS-CoV-2. To date, there is ‘zero infection’ of all staff and students in our institute.”

She might have been lying, of course. But it would be almost certain to leak (oops) out if so. (If you have trouble accessing the LA Times page for the full article, turning Javascript off works quite well.)
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Apple’s tightly controlled App Store is teeming with scams • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti and Chris Alcantara:

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Of the highest 1,000 grossing apps on the App Store, nearly 2% are scams, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. And those apps have bilked consumers out of an estimated $48m during the time they’ve been on the App Store, according to market research firm Appfigures. The scale of the problem has never before been reported.

What’s more, Apple profits from these apps because it takes a cut of up to a 30% of all revenue generated through the App Store. Even more common, according to The Post’s analysis, are “fleeceware” apps that use inauthentic customer reviews to move up in the App Store rankings and give apps a sense of legitimacy to convince customers to pay higher prices for a service usually offered elsewhere with higher legitimate customer reviews.

Two-thirds of the 18 apps The Post flagged to Apple were removed from the App Store.

…Apple has long maintained that its exclusive control of the App Store is essential to protecting customers, and it only lets the best apps on its system. But Apple’s monopoly over how consumers access apps on iPhones can actually create an environment that gives customers a false sense of safety, according to experts. Because Apple doesn’t face any major competition and so many consumers are locked into using the App Store on iPhones, there’s little incentive for Apple to spend money on improving it, experts say.

“If consumers were to have access to alternative app stores or other methods of distributing software, Apple would be a lot more likely to take this problem more seriously,” said Stan Miles, an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada.

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It’s the fact that these apps are so visible that makes it galling. But I don’t see that other app stores are going to have the resources to get it all right either. Google has the same problem. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Distancing from the vaccinated: viral anti-vaccine infertility misinfo reaches new extremes • NBC News

April Glaser and Brandy Zadrozny:

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Yehuda Goldberg, owner of Brothers Butcher Shoppe in Ontario, updated the Covid-19 guidelines for people visiting his meat shop this month. He posted on Instagram that he would ask vaccinated people not to come in to protect his female customers.

“We have decided that since the majority of our customers are women and since women are most at risk for these side effects, we ask that if you’ve been vaccinated to please order for curbside pickup or delivery for 28 days after being vaccinated,” the post reads.

The reason, Goldberg said, is that evidence is surfacing that people who have been vaccinated are “shedding spike proteins,” which appears to be affecting women’s menstrual cycles. While medical experts say that isn’t true, Goldberg said that what he’s reading shows that just being around someone who has been vaccinated can cause reproductive health issues for women and that he doesn’t want to endanger any of his female customers.

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What a load of crappe in the shoppe. The pandemic really is showing the limitations of science education in so many countries.
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Five quick thoughts on Facebook’s Trump decision • Galaxy Brain

Charlie Warzel on the two-year ban handed out of course on Friday, the “take out the garbage” day:

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“If conditions permit” is the weird, load bearing phrase in this announcement. Facebook suggests that Trump’s posts, in the run-up and aftermath of January 6th, helped or exacerbated what the company is calling “times of civil unrest and ongoing violence.” Donald Trump will be up for Facebook parole (lol) in January 2023 and at that moment the company says it plans to “assess whether the risk to public safety has receded.”

This logic strikes me as either weird or impossible or both. If Donald Trump’s posts and general rhetoric helped create the conditions for civil unrest or violence and removing him deescalates that threat, how exactly does one evaluate the risk to public safety in the moments before reinstating him? Put another way: if Donald Trump posting is the risk to public safety, how do you evaluate the risk to public safety in an environment you’ve removed him from?

Game theory aside, Facebook is unclear as to how it will assess public safety risk. It will rely on experts, but we don’t know which experts. And Facebook’s criteria seems, honestly, a bit narrow. The company said it will “evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.”

…A two year time-out that expires right before an election season where he might run for president does not feel like a punishment that fits the crime, tbh.

…If you play it out, the rationale behind of Facebook’s decision is that Donald Trump is not a danger posting on Facebook unless the country is in an elevated state of civil, political, and cultural unrest/tension. This, of course, leaves out the fact that Donald Trump has historically proven himself to be a major factor for elevating civil, political, and cultural tension in the United States of America.

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It’s ridiculous. “Well, he might become more moderate after being banned for that long.” I suspect the strategy is really just to punt this over the horizon and see whether he still poses any sort of threat in January 2023; he might have simply become such an irrelevance that it doesn’t matter. Secretly, I think that might be what Zuckerberg is hoping for.

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Less time than ever to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, out 24 June.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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