Start Up No.1570: goodbye camera bumps?, how rightwing firms fooled Facebook, El Salvador’s payment problem, and more


Installing plexiglass was a big business in 2020 – but there’s zero evidence it stops the spread of Covid. CC-licensed photo by International Monetary Fund on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Try to focus. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Not much time left to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Out June 24 and already on sale in some overexcited bookshops (looking at you, Waterstone’s in Cambridge. Other reports of premature bookjaculation welcome.)


Say goodbye to your camera bump: miniaturized optics through new counterpart to lens • Phys.org

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Can you describe the new optical element your team [at the University of Ottowa] developed, the spaceplate?

Orad Reshef: Light naturally “spreads out” when it is traveling, and every optical device we know of relies on this spread; we wouldn’t know how to design cameras without it. For example, in every telescope, there is a large gap between the eyepiece and the objective lens to give light room to spread.

A spaceplate simulates the same spreading that light would experience traveling a large distance in a small device. To light, a spaceplate looks like more space than it occupies. In a way, the spaceplate is a counterpart to the lens, doing things the lens can’t do to shrink down entire imaging systems.

We introduced the idea of a spaceplate in our paper, experimentally demonstrating it and showing it is compatible with broadband light in the visible spectrum that we use to see.

Jeff Lundeen: We considered what would happen if you manipulated light based on the angle rather than the position of a light ray. Lenses act via the position of the ray. Angle is a completely novel domain, and no one had shown that it could be used to make something particularly useful. We identified a useful application, compressing space. And then we showed that we could actually design and experimentally demonstrate plates that do exactly that.

…How could this technology be used? What are the applications of the spaceplate in our daily lives?

Orad Reshef: A spaceplate can be used to miniaturize many optical systems, be it a display or a sensor. For example, an advanced spaceplate can enable paper-thin telescopes or cameras; it could be used to remove the camera bump on the back of your smartphone.

Jeff Lundeen: People lug around large cameras with huge telephoto lenses. If we can sufficiently improve the spaceplate’s performance, I envision the possibility of building smaller, lighter cameras with much better performance. In particular, the spaceplate combined with metalenses would allow us to make the entire back surface of, say, an iPhone Max, into a flat and thin camera. It would have as much as 14 times better resolution and low-light performance than those large and heavy cameras.

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I honestly don’t understand how this works – I think it needs much better explanation. But the potential seems amazing. (Thanks Richard B for the link.)
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Revealed: rightwing firm posed as leftist group on Facebook to divide Democrats •The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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A digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA was responsible for a series of deceptive Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections, the Guardian can reveal.

In an apparent attempt to split the Democratic vote in a number of close races, the ads purported to come from an organization called America Progress Now (APN) and used socialist memes and rhetoric to urge leftwing voters to support Green party candidates.

Facebook was aware of the true identity of the advertiser – the conservative marketing firm Rally Forge – and the deceptive nature of the ads, documents seen by the Guardian show, but the company determined that they did not violate its policies.

Rally Forge would go on to set up a pro-Trump domestic “troll farm” for Turning Point Action, a “sister” organization of Turning Point USA, in 2020, earning a permanent ban from Facebook.

“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.

She added: “The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”

…“These admins are connected to Turning Point USA,” one staffer from the civic integrity team said, according to internal task management documents seen by the Guardian. “This is very inauthentic. I don’t know what the policy here is but this seems very sketchy.”

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A story as old as.. Facebook. And also seems to violate US campaign finance laws.
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Can Bitcoin become a real currency? Here’s what’s wrong with El Salvador’s crypto plan • The Conversation

John Hawkins is a senior lecturer in politics and economics at the University of Canberra:

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having two legal tenders will complicate matters – particularly when one of those currencies is subject to wild swings in its value.

Consider the provision in the new law that “all obligations in money expressed in USD, existing before the effective date of this law, may be paid in bitcoin”.

Even that is complicated. How, and by whom, will the amount of bitcoins necessary to pay a debt be determined? Will it be based on the Bitcoin price at the time the debt was incurred, or when the debt falls due?

The difference of even a few days could be significant.

If the expectation is the price of Bitcoin is going to rise, why would you want to buy things with it? Why not wait? If the expectation is the price is going to fall, why would you want to accept it? For most transactions, using US dollars will still make the most sense.

…A second reason given by Bukele is that Bitcoin “will have 10 million potential new users” and is “the fastest growing way to transfer 6 billion dollars a year in remittances”.

This apparently refers to both the population of El Salvador (about 6.5 million) and Salvadorans living abroad, many of whom send money home to help their families. In 2020 these remittances totalled US$5.9 billion, or 23% of El Salvador’s GDP.

While any cryptocurrency can well facilitate more efficient transfers (without the charges banks impose), the significance of remittances to the Salvadoran economy points to another issue. El Salvador is a poor country, with one of the lowest rates of internet use in the Americas – 33% in 2017, according to World Bank data.

How many vendors, street hawkers or farmers are equipped to handle cryptocurrency transactions? US dollars will more than likely remain the default currency.

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I want to know: 1) what are the criteria by which we should measure success or failure of this experiment? 2) How long should we allow before making that decision? Nobody yet seems to have set this out.
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I now own the Coinhive domain. Here’s how i’m fighting cryptojacking and doing good things with content security policies • Troy Hunt

Hunt of course runs Have I Been Pwned, but this is about a cryptomining ad called Coinhive:

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in Feb 2018 I wrote about The JavaScript Supply Chain Paradox: SRI, CSP and Trust in Third Party Libraries wherein someone had compromised a JS file on the Browsealoud service and injected the Coinhive script into it. In that blog post I included the code Scott Helme had de-obfuscated which showed a very simple bit of JavaScript, really just the inclusion of a .js file from coinhive.com and the setting of a 32-byte key. And that’s all an attacker needed to do – include the Coinhive JS, add their key and if they wished, toggle a few configurations. That’s it, job done, instant crypto!

And then Coinhive was gone [in March 2019]. (Also – “the company was making in an estimated $250,000 per month” – crikey!) The site disappeared and the domain stopped resolving. Every site that had Coinhive running on it, either by the design of the site owner or at the whim of a cryptojacker, stopped mining Monero. However, it was still making requests to the domain but without the name resolving anywhere, the only signs of Coinhive being gone were errors in the browser’s developer tools.

In May 2020, I obtained both the primary coinhive.com domain and a few other ancillary ones related to the service, for example cnhv.co which was used for their link shortener (which also caused browsers to mine Monero). I’m not sure how much the person who made these available to me wants to share so the only thing I’ll say for now is that they were provided to me for free to do something useful with. 2020 got kinda busy and it was only very recently that I was finally able to come back to Coinhive. I stood up a website and just logged requests. Every request resulted in a 404, but every request also went into a standard Azure App Service log. And that’s where things got a lot more interesting.

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Millions of compromised machines out there, and Russia and China are key suspects for the source.
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Plexiglass is everywhere, with no proof it keeps Covid at bay • Bloomberg

Carey Goldberg:

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Sales of plexiglass tripled to roughly $750 million in the U.S. after the pandemic hit, as offices, schools, restaurants and retail stores sought protection from the droplets that health authorities suspected were spreading the coronavirus.

There was just one hitch. Not a single study has shown that the clear plastic barriers actually control the virus, said Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We spent a lot of time and money focused on hygiene theater,” said Allen, an indoor-air researcher. “The danger is that we didn’t deploy the resources to address the real threat, which was airborne transmission — both real dollars, but also time and attention.”

“The tide has turned,” he said. “The problem is, it took a year.”

For the first months of Covid-19, top health authorities pointed to larger droplets as the key transmission culprits, despite a chorus of protests from researchers like Allen. Tinier floating droplets can also spread the virus, they warned, meaning plastic shields can’t stop them. Not until last month did the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fully affirm airborne transmission.

That meant plastic shielding had created “a false sense of security,” said building scientist Marwa Zaatari, a pandemic task force member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

“Especially when we use it in offices or in schools specifically, plexiglass does not help,” Zaatari said. “If you have plexiglass, you’re still breathing the same shared air of another person.”

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So blindingly obvious if anyone thought about it. The irony is that so many other NPIs – non-pharmaceutical interventions – were taken, and yet improving ventilation by opening windows wasn’t.
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Fresh Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia disrupt global shipping, chip supply chain • WSJ

Stella Yifan Xie in Hong Kong, Costas Paris in New York and Stephanie Yang in Taipei:

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An outbreak at one of the world’s busiest ports in southern China has led to global shipping delays, while infections at key points in the semiconductor supply chain in Taiwan and Malaysia are worsening a global chip shortage that has hindered production in the auto and technology industries.

The new headaches add to inflation concerns, after China and the U.S. this week recorded their biggest annual jumps in factory-gate prices and consumer prices, respectively, in more than a decade. If such problems continue—and get worse—they could weigh on global growth.

For much of last year, China, Taiwan and many other parts of Asia kept the pandemic in check better than the U.S. and Europe and limited some of the economic damage. But as vaccination rates have risen in the West, governments have started rolling back restrictions and economies are revving up.

Immunization efforts in Asia, meanwhile, have lagged behind and authorities have largely kept in place tougher border controls to keep the virus out. Still, Covid-19 has spread. Thailand has been battered over the past two months by its worst ever surge of new cases, while Vietnam—an increasingly popular manufacturing hub that largely avoided earlier infection waves—has also suffered.

Low vaccination rates across Asia could keep in place social distancing rules and travel bans, which would disrupt manufacturing and suppress consumer spending.

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Don’t fall for these three lab-leak logical traps • The Atlantic

Daniel Engber on “ways to think (and not think) about the possible scenarios”:

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The lab-leak theory isn’t singular; rather, it’s a catchall for a continuum of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the diabolical. At one end, a researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have gone out to sample bat guano, become infected with a novel pathogen while in the field, and then seeded it back home in a crowded city. Or maybe researchers brought a specimen of a wild-bat virus back into the lab without becoming infected, only to set it free via someone’s clothes or through a leaky sewage pipe.

The microbiologists Michael Imperiale and David Relman, both former members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me several weeks ago that lab-leak scenarios of this rather more innocent variety—involving the collection and accidental release of a naturally occuring pathogen—were the most probable of all the non-natural possibilities. Yet the most prominent opinionating on this topic has clustered at the other end of the continuum, at first around the dark-side theory of a bioweapon gone awry, and then around the idea that a harmless virus had been deliberately transformed into SARS-CoV-2 (and released by accident) after a reckless series of tabletop experiments.

That’s another pitfall in this debate: a tendency to focus only on the most disturbing and improbable versions of the lab-leak hypothesis, and to downplay the rest. The mad-scientist trap sprays a mist across the facts by presuming scientific motivations; it posits that researchers could have caused the pandemic only if they’d been trying to create infectious pathogens.

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I’m not sure I’d call it a “lab leak” if a researcher goes to Yunnan and catches it and brings it back in a zoonotic infection – how is that a “leak”? We don’t call it a “farm leak” and call for an end to farming when people catch avian flu or swine flu, despite their proven roles in causing pandemics.

There’s also former US State Dept assistant secretary Christopher Ford, who’s pretty annoyed at the discourse and the lack of evidence around it. We’re no closer to any answers, but maybe we’ll get better questions.
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How an Alzheimer’s ‘cabal’ thwarted progress toward a cure • STAT

Sharon Begley:

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Ruth Itzhaki often felt like she was in a house of mirrors. A molecular neurobiologist at England’s University of Manchester, in 1991 she discovered pathogens — herpes simplex virus type 1 — in the brains of elderly people who had died with Alzheimer’s and carried the most common gene for the disease. It was the first indication that infectious agents might play a role in Alzheimer’s, raising the possibility that eliminating them (and the resulting immune response, including inflammation) might stop or even reverse it.

Nearly half a dozen journals rejected Itzhaki’s paper before it was accepted by the Journal of Medical Virology, not a bad journal but not a leading one. A frequent reason top journals declined to publish her papers, as they did those of other amyloid skeptics, was previous rejections. As one peer reviewer wrote about a funding proposal Itzhaki submitted in 2010, “very few [of your] papers have appeared in the most highly regarded journals.”

“And here I thought research should be judged on its own merits,” Itzhaki said.

Like other doubters, Itzhaki wasn’t dismissing the idea that amyloid has a role in Alzheimer’s; she was questioning whether it was the cause, and therefore a good drug target. She saw it as a consequence of the true cause — making amyloid the gravestones of brain neurons killed by something else and not their assassins. In that case, targeting amyloid would no more revive dead neurons than removing headstones would resurrect bodies in a cemetery.

Funders did not beat a path to her laboratory door. When Itzhaki was an advisor on a proposed clinical trial of an antiviral drug for Alzheimer’s, one scientist who assessed it for a private foundation wrote, “The novelty of this approach appears to be quite lacking,” according to documents she shared with STAT. To which Itzhaki wondered, the thousands of clinical trials based on eliminating amyloid, which keep getting funded, are novel?

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It may be time to rethink the “amyloid plaques are the cause rather than the effect” model of Alzheimer’s. This article seems to show that modern science struggles to turn the supertanker on such topics.
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Why I’m not worried about GB News • Odds and Ends of History

James O’Malley:

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When the channel [GB News] launches on June 13th, it will inevitably attract a huge amount of attention. It will be the top trending topic, and everyone will be watching.

Except, in reality, everyone won’t be. It’ll feel that way on Politics and Media Twitter, and we’ll no doubt see viral clips of hosts railing against pulling down statues or woke mobs or whatever. But the reality is that the vast majority of people will not notice a new channel appearing listed on the bottom of the programme guide.

I think it’s completely plausible to imagine that when the viewing figures come in they are roughly in line with those of Russia Today or Al Jazeera. Some shows might have so few people watching that they will register as “zero” viewers with BARB, the agency that collates the figures. Then we’d see negative stories and the high profile initial talent jumping ship after their contracts run out, leading to the funders getting cold feet about the whole endeavour. A few months in, the channel could be starved of cash and enthusiasm, before the plug is unceremoniously pulled.

But on the other hand, what about Fox News? Doesn’t its success in the US, and the fact that GBN reportedly has a £60m war chest to launch with suggest that it is going to be a hit? I think the problem with this comparison is that the economics of television in this country are very different.

For example, unlike in the US, where Fox News and CNN are paid by cable companies to carry them, in this country the deal tends to work the other way around. Here, broadcasters pay hefty fees to get listed in the Sky Guide, and on Freesat’s EPG, and so on. This is important as one of the reasons Fox News has continued to survive despite losing stacks of major advertisers is because it can always rely on the carriage fees. GB News won’t have this and will need to find advertisers if it wants to be self-sustainable.

Similarly when it comes to bringing in cash, the channel will be limited by regulation. In the US, news programmes are often sponsored. The hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have Starbucks cups displayed prominently on their desk. This isn’t allowed on news programming by Ofcom in the UK. So GBN will instead have to rely on the largesse of the manufacturers of walk-in baths, funeral insurance and whatever other companies like to advertise on obscure channels on daytime television.

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Let’s regroup in a year and see what we think. Commercial breakfast TV wasn’t given much chance, and commercial TV news hardly washes its face, yet they survive. It might pull through.
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Rupert Murdoch writes down value of The Sun to zero • Financial Times

Alex Barker:

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The bleak year left News Group Newspapers, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s NewsCorp that operates The Sun and The Sun on Sunday, nursing a pre-tax loss of £201m, even after slashing its costs and marketing. 

The grim medium-term outlook for the print revenues, which carried the business through its heyday, forced the company to write down the asset by £84m, an impairment that left The Sun brand with zero carrying value. 

The estimate of The Sun’s asset value was based on the assumption that the titles, according to management estimates in the accounts, would not return to positive growth.

Other one-off charges included £80m of legal costs relating to the phone hacking scandal, including £52m of fees and damages paid to civil claimants. Total legal charges amounted to £54m in 2019. 

The accounts mark one of the worst years in the history of The Sun, which under Murdoch became Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper, with formidable political sway and a circulation that peaked at close to 5m in the mid-1990s. 

After 42 years as the UK’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun lost its title to the Daily Mail last year, with its circulation — which is no longer made public — falling below 1m daily copies on average. NewsUK said The Sun’s brands reached 36.5m adults in the UK via its print titles and website.

The Sun has experimented with various digital business models to try to make up for the decline of its core business, including an online paywall that it introduced for two years and then dropped in 2015. NewsUK, the operating company for Murdoch’s UK businesses, has tried to expand The Sun brand into audio, betting and gaming.

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Does anyone actually believe that print revenues will ever rise? Hard to believe that The Sun will ever actually die. There’s sure to be a megalomaniac billionaire here or there who will buy it and try to “restore it to its former glory”, which will of course fail (looks significantly at Newsweek).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1570: goodbye camera bumps?, how rightwing firms fooled Facebook, El Salvador’s payment problem, and more

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