Start Up No.1566: FBI recovers Pipeline ransom bitcoin, writing celebrity apologies, why software’s so noisy, US drought, and more


soon, Jeff Bezos will take off in a Blue Origin rocket. But at what point will he be “in space” rather than “on Earth”? And where’s the dividing line, exactly? CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. I don’t know what you’re personally in orbit around. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Ransomware: US recovers millions in cryptocurrency paid to Colonial Pipeline hackers • CNN Politics

Evan Perez, Zachary Cohen and Alex Marquardt:

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US investigators have recovered millions of dollars in cryptocurrency paid in ransom to hackers whose attack prompted the shutdown of the key East Coast pipeline last month, according to people briefed on the matter.

The Justice Department on Monday is expected to announce details of the operation led by the FBI with the cooperation of the Colonial Pipeline operator, the people briefed on the matter said.
The ransom recovery is a rare outcome for a company that has fallen victim to a debilitating cyberattack in the booming criminal business of ransomware.

Colonial Pipeline Co. CEO Joseph Blount told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published last month that the company complied with the $4.4m ransom demand because officials didn’t know the extent of the intrusion by hackers and how long it would take to restore operations.

But behind the scenes, the company had taken early steps to notify the FBI and followed instructions that helped investigators track the payment to a cryptocurrency wallet used by the hackers, believed to be based in Russia. US officials have linked the Colonial attack to a criminal hacking group known as Darkside that is said to share its malware tools with other criminal hackers.

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The 64 bitcoin (out of 75 paid) that they recovered is now worth about $2.3m, so someone (a crypto exchange?) has done quite nicely on the arbitrage here. The big puzzle is how the FBI got the private key for the wallet(s) into which the bitcoin were being moved – something which the Dept of Justice press release and the affidavit happily swerves away from answering.

Something of a turnaround for the criminals though.
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The science suggests a Wuhan lab leak • WSJ

Steven Quay and Richard Muller:

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In gain-of-function research, a microbiologist can increase the lethality of a coronavirus enormously by splicing a special sequence into its genome at a prime location. Doing this leaves no trace of manipulation. But it alters the virus spike protein, rendering it easier for the virus to inject genetic material into the victim cell. Since 1992 there have been at least 11 separate experiments adding a special sequence to the same location. The end result has always been supercharged viruses.

…In the case of the gain-of-function supercharge, other sequences could have been spliced into this same site. Instead of a CGG-CGG (known as “double CGG”) that tells the protein factory to make two arginine amino acids in a row, you’ll obtain equal lethality by splicing any one of 35 of the other two-word combinations for double arginine. If the insertion takes place naturally, say through recombination, then one of those 35 other sequences is far more likely to appear; CGG is rarely used in the class of coronaviruses that can recombine with CoV-2.

In fact, in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes CoV-2, the CGG-CGG combination has never been found naturally. That means the common method of viruses picking up new skills, called recombination, cannot operate here. A virus simply cannot pick up a sequence from another virus if that sequence isn’t present in any other virus.

Although the double CGG is suppressed naturally, the opposite is true in laboratory work. The insertion sequence of choice is the double CGG. That’s because it is readily available and convenient, and scientists have a great deal of experience inserting it. An additional advantage of the double CGG sequence compared with the other 35 possible choices: It creates a useful beacon that permits the scientists to track the insertion in the laboratory.

Now the damning fact. It was this exact sequence that appears in CoV-2. Proponents of zoonotic origin must explain why the novel coronavirus, when it mutated or recombined, happened to pick its least favorite combination, the double CGG. Why did it replicate the choice the lab’s gain-of-function researchers would have made?

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I spend a long time on Monday trying to assess this claim. It took me down a very, very deep rabbit hole. A few of the claims are simply wrong, such as “a virus cannot pick up a sequence from another virus if that sequence isn’t present in any other virus”: that’s what mutation is, and how new sequences appear. (The SARS-Cov-2 variants are mutations, which then get selected preferentially.)

The pro-lab-leak group has been insisting for a long time that the way the coronavirus spike protein works is new, and hence engineered. Biologists, however, say that simply isn’t true. (There are examples of the CGGCGG sequence in other coronaviruses.) Also, when the WIV team wanted to have a beacon, they used a literal one – the insertion of the “luciferase” gene, which makes copies of the virus glow, and thus easier to measure growth. (SARS-Cov-2 doesn’t have it.)

Here’s a thread (on a single page) by Amy Maxmen, who has a PhD in evolutionary biology. To say that she isn’t convinced is putting it mildly.
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The making of a perfect celebrity apology • Vice

Hunter Harris spoke to a PR person who has worked multiple times on celebrity apologies:

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There are a lot of drafts. The ones I’ve done have probably seen at least ten drafts in a 48-hour span. Doing that many edits in 48 hours is really a lot of work. I have the client write completely authentically from their heart first, so that I know on paper how they’re feeling. Looking at that, we can work through if there are places where they’re still defensive, or seeing it wrong, or if we need to have more internal conversations about where their heart is. Taking the talent’s words that they’ve sent to you and then editing them for public consumption is always hard. You’re challenging very specific words: Why did you pick that word versus this word? Do you understand if you say this word versus that word, it means two different things? It becomes your full day.

It takes a while to get to that place where [the statement] is as straightforward, authentic, and impactful as it needs to be. We all know that when you put an apology up on Instagram and you have to scroll sideways a couple of times through the slides, you lose people as you’re scrolling. Not everyone’s going to keep reading. So it’s about getting it as short as it can be, but still saying everything you need to. If it needs to be longer, how do you arrange what you’re saying so the apology itself isn’t buried? Sometimes a draft will come in where the “I’m sorry” is in the last paragraph, as opposed to in the first paragraph. Then the question is how do we reframe the whole thing so that if we get people to read two sentences, and that’s all they read, how do they at least see that you are saying sorry for this specific thing and owning it up front?

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But drafting the apology isn’t all of it, as the publicist explains: there’s then the aftermath once you’ve actually made it public.
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What happened when Trump was banned on Facebook and Twitter • The New York Times

Davey Alba, Ella Koeze and Jacob Silver:

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One topic from Mr. Trump that has not spread far: claims of widespread election fraud.

The Times analysis looked at the 10 most popular posts with election misinformation — judged by likes and shares — from Mr. Trump before the social media bans, and compared them with his 10 most popular written statements containing election misinformation after the ban. All the posts included falsehoods about the election – that the process had been “rigged,” for instance, or that there had been extensive voter fraud.

Before the ban, Mr. Trump’s posts garnered 22.1 million likes and shares; after the ban, his posts earned 1.3 million likes and shares across Twitter and Facebook.

Disinformation researchers say the difference points to the enormous power the social media companies have in curbing political misinformation, if they choose to wield it. Facebook and Twitter curb the spread of false statements about the November election, though Twitter has loosened its enforcement since March to dedicate more resources to fact-checking in other parts of the world.

“As the Trump case shows, deplatforming doesn’t ‘solve’ disinformation, but it does disrupt harmful networks and blunt the influence of harmful individuals,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation.

Mr. Trump’s statements that got the most engagement after his ban included topics like his commentary on the culture wars (as when he urged his followers to boycott baseball), praise for particular individuals (like for the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who recently died) and attacks on President Biden’s policies on issues like the border crisis and taxes.

Now that Mr. Trump has lost both the Oval Office and his Twitter account, he has become a kind of digital leader-in-exile, Mr. Brooking said.

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Says it all, really. Running your own site, even if you have a name everyone has heard of, avails you nothing.
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Sound design for software: why software makes noise and how it’s made • CNBC

Jordan Novet:

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The coronavirus pandemic brought new attention to the sound of software.

During the online meetings we’ve been holding and the television interviews we’ve been watching, sounds from other people are spilling over into our ears. Sometimes, that’s by design.

Imagine that a start-up is trying to sell its software to a bank. People from both sides on a briefing call will hear the start-up CEO’s phone playing a melody every few minutes to signify that an email has come in. To the start-up’s salesperson on the call alongside the CEO, the sounds are nothing unusual. But the chief information officer from the bank might perceive that the start-up CEO has considerable inbound communication, and that could assure the person that the start-up’s wares are in demand.

“It makes audible your network,” said Meredith Ward, director of film and media studies at Johns Hopkins University.

For Ward, reminders of events starting soon have become more important than ever. No longer is she seeing visual cues of what to do next because she’s no longer visiting different places on campus. Everything happens in front of a screen now, and sounds are the symbols of transition.

But the sounds can also blend together and become confusing. That can even apply to a single app, such as the communication app Discord. Users can participate in text and voice chats in a variety of groups, known as servers, and the “boop-beep” sound of a new message doesn’t tell them if it’s coming from a relative on one private server or a stranger in a server where thousands gather to discuss a game.

Sounds can also distract people, even for just a few seconds. As the pandemic continues, Day at Microsoft said he’s been thinking about the role that sound plays during meetings. “I want to be a really good active listener, and I want other people to practice that as well,” he said.

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This got me thinking that it would be a good idea to turn off all the sound and, perhaps, visual notifications (the latter is slightly harder) on my laptop. That is a noticeable difference about working on an iPad: far fewer interruptions from apps that aren’t in focus.
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“Mega-drought” takes dramatic toll on Colorado River system that provides water to 40 million people • CBS News

Ben Tracy:

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Since 2000, Lake Mead has dropped 130 feet, about the height of a 13-story building. Islands in the lake that used to be completely submerged are now visible.

Back in 2014 CBS News had visited the dam, and asked Mulroy about water levels at Lake Mead, which she described as being at “a pretty critical point.”

Today, with the water level 30 feet lower, “We’re at a tipping point,” said Mulroy. “It’s an existential issue for Arizona, for California, for Nevada. It is just that simple.”

For the first time ever, the federal government is expected to declare a water shortage on the lower Colorado River later this summer. That will force automatic cuts to the water supply for Nevada and Arizona starting in 2022. Homeowners have higher priority and, at first, won’t feel the pain as badly as farmers.

Dan Thelander is a second-generation family farmer in Arizona’s Pinal County. The water to grow his corn and alfalfa fields comes from Lake Mead. “If we don’t have irrigation water, we can’t farm,” he said. “So, next year we are going to get about 25% less water, means we’re going to have to fallow or not plant 25% of our land.”

In 2023 Thelander and other farmers in this part of Arizona are expected to lose nearly all of their water from Lake Mead, so they are rushing to dig wells to pump groundwater to try to save their farms.

“The future here is, honestly I hate to say it, pretty cloudy,” Thelander said.

Back at Hoover Dam, facility manager Mark Cook has his own concerns. Lake Mead has dropped so much that it has cut the dam’s hydropower output by nearly 25%.

Cook wanted to show Tracy the brand-new turbine blades they just installed, designed to keep power flowing efficiently at rapidly-dropping lake levels. At some point, the dam could stop producing electricity altogether.

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The US southwest is suffering a gigantic drought this year; climate change is thought to be the cause.
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Facebook will show creators how much money Apple and Google take from them – The Verge

Jay Peters:

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Less than two hours before Apple’s big Worldwide Developers Conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be launching a new interface for creators that shows how different fees affect their earnings on the platform. The announcement comes as Apple is under intense scrutiny for its App Store fees.

Here’s a preview of what the new interface will look like. This example breaks down exactly how taxes and fees are taken away from a creator’s event revenue:

Zuckerberg wasn’t clear as to when the new interface would be launching beyond saying that there’d be “more to come soon.”

Zuckerberg also says the company will keep paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges, and “our upcoming independent news products” free for creators until 2023. This is an extension of a policy announced in August. When Facebook introduced the events feature last year, it had promised that it wouldn’t collect fees until “at least” 2021.

The company eventually plans to introduce a revenue share, Zuckerberg says — but when it does, it will be “less than the 30% that Apple and others take.”

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This could be portrayed as the Cold War between Facebook and the others (including Google) getting nastier, but you can’t fault transparency.
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Flu virus became less diverse, simplifying task of making flu shots • STAT

Helen Branswell:

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The greater the genetic distance between the clades, the bigger the cost of making the wrong choice. Vaccine that protects reasonably well against one might perform poorly if the other turned out to be the dominant strain in a given winter. In fact, that’s precisely what happened in the 2017-18 season, when the flu shot failed to protect three-quarters of vaccinated people in the U.S. against the H3N2 strain in circulation.

But an unexpected upside of the Covid-19 pandemic may have solved this problem for us — or at least made flu’s diversity more manageable.

With Covid suppression measures like mask wearing, school closures, and travel restrictions driving flu transmission rates to historically low levels around the world, it appears that one of the H3N2 clades may have disappeared — gone extinct. The same phenomenon may also have occurred with one of the two lineages of influenza B viruses, known as B/Yamagata.

Neither has been spotted in over a year. In fact, March of 2020 was the last time viral sequences from B/Yamagata or the H3N2 clade known as 3c3.A were uploaded into the international databases used to monitor flu virus evolution, Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told STAT.

If the global pool of flu viruses has truly shrunk to this degree, it would be a welcome outcome, flu experts say, making the twice-a-year selection of viruses to be included in flu vaccines for the Northern and Southern hemispheres much easier work.

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The numbers of deaths from actual flu in the past year has been amazingly low. Eliminating one of its lineages would, at least, be a faint silver lining among the many clouds.
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Fall of Huawei: what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

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Without fail, the two annual major Huawei smartphones — the P series and Mate series — have ended up being some of the best of the year. Whether it’s the top-end specs, the incredible design prowess, or the stellar photography experience, a Huawei flagship has traditionally been easy to recommend for any smartphone buyer. Now, though, we’d be remiss to recommend anyone outside of China buy a Huawei phone. It’s a damn shame.

That loss will have a ripple effect across the entire industry. Without Huawei pushing other companies — most specifically Samsung — to innovate, it’s likely we’ll see less boundary-pushing and more incremental iteration from the big players. Granted, Samsung still needs to contend with Apple and the litany of Chinese manufacturers, so it can’t exactly rest on its laurels. But for the past five years, Huawei was its biggest competitor in the Android world. Now that competition is gone.

…there is a gnawing feeling that what the industry really needs is a Huawei. For the time being, Samsung and Apple don’t need to worry about a third company sitting at their table. While Huawei’s lack of a footprint in the US prevented it from ever truly being on the same level in the premium space as Samsung and Apple, at least there was a threat that that day could come. In fact, that was a threat that was very real just a year prior to the trade ban, when Huawei was preparing to enter the market in partnership with AT&T. Now a different company making that day reality is years off — if it ever comes at all.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: what happened to Huawei wasn’t fair play. It’s not like Huawei failed to innovate or made too many fumbles like LG. It’s not like it botched its own long-term development like Motorola. Huawei is no longer in the game because the United States government decided that’s what needed to happen.

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That the Biden administration hasn’t been minded to help, and the Xi administration doesn’t seem particularly bothered about pushing Huawei up the agenda, is telling. Possibly they’re using it on agendas in discussion we don’t know about, a bargaining chip of undisclosed value.
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Jeff Bezos to go into space on first crewed flight of New Shepard rocket • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Jeff Bezos will no longer be the richest person on Earth on 20 July because the Amazon founder will be blasting off into space on the first crewed flight of his New Shepard rocket ship.

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It’s a terrific intro (as we call it in the news trade), with the most perfect unexpected hook to make it stick in your mind. (I do hope that the Morning Star, Britain’s communist newspaper, will write about it, ideally with the headline “Billionaire fired into space, hopefully first of many”.)

The result, of course, was a long discussion on Twitter about whether Bezos would be “on Earth”, and if not at which point he would stop being “on Earth” and instead “in space”, and what part of “space” isn’t “Earth”, and vice-versa. (Definitionally, most people – that is, most people who think about the topic, which is not most people – delineate it by the Kármán line.
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Why not preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book?

 


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Minesweeper was introduced in Windows 3.1, not Windows 95. (Read more!) Thanks, Peter Lee.

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