Start Up No.1592: the trouble with hygiene theatre, tracking ransomware demands, how gas generators gouged Texas, and more


The film of Starship Troopers typified the modern celebration of honed bodies – with absolutely zero sex. What happened to the lust of previous years? CC-licensed photo by Chris on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Sorry, we can’t get OS/2 to run on your iPad. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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Social Warming, my latest book. Outrage, amplification and indifference: the dangerous loop of social warming on social media.


Hygiene theatre: how excessive cleaning gives us a false sense of Covid security • The Guardian

Sirin Kale:

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Even at the government press conference announcing the relaxation of restrictions on 5 July, the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, talked about handwashing, but not ventilation. “One of the problems we had from the beginning, that was critical at the time and actually still is critical, is senior people did not understand well enough the problem of … it being airborne,” said the former government aide Dominic Cummings in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it excerpt from his marathon select committee appearance in May.

How to explain this continued misapprehension? “Shakespeare puts it well,” says Dr Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers. “What is done cannot be undone. There was a great preoccupation with fomite [surface] transmission at the beginning of the pandemic. And that stuck.” Goldman was a leading voice challenging hygiene theatre throughout the pandemic. In July 2020, he wrote a sharp commentary for the Lancet Infectious Diseases, calling into question the then-received wisdom that Covid-19 could be transmitted by infected surfaces. “When the pandemic started,” he says, “my mother-in-law, who lives with us, was saying that we needed to wash the groceries and disinfect the mail. As a scientist, it seemed extreme, so I decided to look at the literature. And when I did, I was horrified to see that the basis for those interventions was very weak.”

Since then, Goldman has campaigned for an end to hygiene theatre, publishing in medical journals and reviewing the academic literature on fomite transmission. “The battle continues,” he says, telling me that the WHO continues to overemphasise the risk of Covid-19 transmission from contaminated surfaces. In the UK, a similar role has been played by the “fresh air” campaign, run by a group of frontline NHS workers arguing for greater recognition of the dangers of airborne Covid transmission in hospital settings, and better masks for NHS staff.

Many would argue that hygiene theatre is benign. Public toilets are cleaner than they have ever been. “One legacy of the pandemic is that general hygiene levels will increase,” says Dr Eilir Hughes of the NHS fresh air campaign. “I don’t like security theatre when it’s expensive,” says Schneier, “and the government is making the taxpayer pay for it. But if it’s someone wiping down their groceries because it makes them feel better, go to town.”

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Trouble is, as Kale makes clear, everyone obsesses over “clean” and doesn’t thing about “aired”.
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Gas sellers reaped $11bn windfall during Texas freeze • Bloomberg

Kevin Crowley, Naureen S Malik, and Mark Chediak:

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The US has the most interconnected gas network in the world. Interstate pipelines are federally regulated, have transparent pricing and customers can view physical flows at multiple points. By contrast, intrastate pipelines have long been a black box to customers in Texas. They have no public price disclosures, and are only lightly regulated by Craddick’s Railroad Commission.

Usually, given how cheap gas is, this isn’t a problem. But during the Texas freeze, the market went haywire. One power executive described finding gas at a major hub trading at about $50 per million British thermal units. But once marketers charged delivery costs through the intrastate pipeline, the total price ended up six times higher. Another executive described how gas put into storage at $2 to $3 per million British thermal units was being offered for sale in the $200 to $300 range.

Furthermore, intrastate pipeline operators are not required to publish physical flows, putting customers at a massive disadvantage when it came to setting prices.

“If you’re producing half as much gas as normal but selling at 70 to 100 times the price, then that math is working for you,” said one executive who declined to be named. “You just had the greatest week in the history of the gas market.”

CPS Energy, the biggest utility in San Antonio, was blunt in its assessment.

“Egregious natural price gouging,” CEO Paula Gold-Williams said of Energy Transfer, the biggest winner to date. CPS claims the pipeline operator generated two years’ worth of profits in the first quarter of 2021 and is suing to reclaim some of the $1bn it lost during the storm.

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They pulled the gas supplies offline ahead of the storm – then began making them available at hugely inflated prices, reaping $11bn. Yet the Texas governor Greg Abbott still thinks the people who need incentives are the gas generators (and nuclear generators – at least there’s some sense). We’re now at the stage where the US’s rickety structures are starting to create havoc again and again.
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Digital Inception: here’s how to run Android, Chrome OS, and Windows on your Mac • 9to5Mac

Parker Ortolani:

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Lots of folks like to think of the Mac as just another product in Apple’s precious walled garden, but many don’t know that you can actually run virtually any operating system on a Mac with a little bit of work. It’s fairly easy to get the three biggest platforms that aren’t made by Apple up and running on a Mac, even at the same time. Here’s how to do it.

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Provided as a followup for all those who have put Windows 3.1 on their iPads. (And, if you’re stymied doing that by lack of floppy disks, David Gerard points out that you can get the files from the Internet Archive. Of course!)
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Ransomwhere

Jack Cable:

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Why track ransomware payments?
Transparency is crucially needed in assessing the spread of ransomware and the efficacy of mitigations. Fortunately, due to the transparent nature of Bitcoin, it’s easy to track payments with knowledge of receipt addresses. By crowdsourcing ransomware payment addresses, we hope to provide an open resource for the security community and the public.

How complete is the data?
As Ransomwhere is new, we are still working on building out our dataset. Reports have placed total ransomware revenue in 2020 at up to $350 million.

Can’t someone fake a report?
While it’s impossible to verify with complete certainty that a report is accurate, we aim to utilize the wisdom of the crowds to prevent abuse. All reports are required to include a screenshot of the ransomware payment demand, and will be reviewed before being displayed. Addresses with more than one report from different sources will be given priority, and all elements of all reports will be publicly available. We will remove reports if we believe they are untruthful.

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The data feels like it’s probably not comprehensive; for the past week, the amount demanded is miniscule. The idea of at least gathering the addresses of the bitcoin wallets in one place is a good one, though.
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Everyone is beautiful and no one is horny • Blood Knife

Raquel Benedict:

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When Paul Verhoeven adapted Starship Troopers in the late 1990s, did he know he was predicting the future? The endless desert war, the ubiquity of military propaganda, a cheerful face shouting victory as more and more bodies pile up?

But the scene that left perhaps the greatest impact on the minds of Nineties kids—and the scene that anticipated our current cinematic age the best—does not feature bugs or guns. It is, of course, the shower scene, in which our heroic servicemen and -women enjoy a communal grooming ritual.

On the surface, it is idyllic: racial harmony, gender equality, unity behind a common goal—and firm, perky asses and tits.

And then the characters speak. The topic of conversation? Military service, of course. One joined for the sake of her political career. Another joined in the hopes of receiving her breeding license. Another talks about how badly he wants to kill the enemy. No one looks at each other. No one flirts.

A room full of beautiful, bare bodies, and everyone is only horny for war.

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This is an amazing essay. Nothing to do with technology at all. Unless we include the steroids that actors bulking up for, um, superhero films use.
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What to know about the drought in California and the western half of US • The New York Times

Henry Fountain:

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How bad is the current drought in the West?

It’s very bad, both in terms of the size of the affected area and the severity. The latest map from the drought monitor shows that 90% of what it considers the West — California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana — is in drought. Conditions are “severe” or “exceptional” in about half of the region. Colorado, Wyoming, Southwestern Texas and North and South Dakota are also affected.

But maps tell only part of the story. The drought is having enormous effects throughout the West, where the demand for water has increased greatly over decades as the population has grown.

In New Mexico, farmers along the Rio Grande were urged not to plant this year. Crop failures have been reported in Colorado and other farming areas. The level of Lake Mead, the huge reservoir on the Colorado River, is so low that Arizona, Nevada and other states will likely face cutbacks in supplies. In North Dakota, ranchers are trucking water and supplemental feed for their livestock because the rangelands are so dry and the vegetation is stunted.

Conditions are especially dire in California. Reservoirs in the state hold about half as much water as usual for this time of year. The federal government has cut water allocations from its huge Central Valley Project to California cities and farmers by 75%. And on the Oregon border, there is not enough water for both endangered fish and farmers.

Wildfires of a size normally seen in summers have already occurred in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Experts are concerned that this summer’s wildfires will be severe and widespread.

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Yes, the writer on this topic of drastic drought really is called Henry Fountain. He’s a specialist in climate change and its impacts.
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A single sign-on and digital identity solution for government • Government Digital Service

Martyn Taylor is director of digital identity at the UK Government Digital Service:

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There is now a clear consensus – with strong Ministerial support across government – that it’s time services are offered a better solution, and people enjoy an easier, more joined-up experience. In March, Minister Lopez set out a vision for “one login for government” and a key action from the recent ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ policy paper was to “launch a single sign-on for online government services”. Meanwhile, the GDS strategy sets out our intention to “create a single sign-on” and “a simple digital identity solution that works for everyone”.

We’re now working with colleagues across government to develop one simple, secure way for people to sign in and prove who they are. We are focused on reusing the deep expertise we have in government today, not on re-inventing the wheel. We’re also working with colleagues across government on a roadmap for migrating existing systems to the new solutions.

Building a solution flexible enough to meet the needs of different services and their users requires a cross-government effort. So, we have adopted a collaborative approach and are already working with and learning from experts from more than 30 service teams within central departments – but we’d like to work with more.

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The GDS did try a single sign-on (SSO) back in 2014, with its Verify project, so this really is reinventing the wheel. Or perhaps giving it a better axle, or spokes, or whatever. Verify was very clunky, requiring credit reference agency support, and didn’t feel like it would scale. Better luck this time, perhaps.
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PC market growth slows amid global chip shortages • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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The PC market is showing early signs of its growth slowing down, after an impressive run of shipments throughout 2020. Both IDC and Gartner conclude that growth in the second quarter of PC shipments has slowed this year. Demand for new PCs is still above what we saw before the pandemic hit, but a mixture of softer demand and the effects of the global chip shortage mean it’s not growing as quickly.

“The market faces mixed signals as far as demand is concerned,” says Neha Mahajan, a senior research analyst at IDC. “With businesses opening back up, demand potential in the commercial segment appears promising. However, there are also early indicators of consumer demand slowing down as people shift spending priorities after nearly a year of aggressive PC buying.”

IDC says more than 83 million PCs were shipped in the second quarter of 2021, while Gartner’s own figure is more than 71 million. Gartner does not include Chromebook shipments in its results, but the research firm says “Chromebook shipments were once again strong in the second quarter of 2021.” Either way, both firms agree that year-over-year growth in this latest quarter wasn’t as strong as 2020’s sudden growth.

That doesn’t mean PC sales are about to suddenly plummet, but the first big growth we saw in a decade could be starting to wane.

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Then again, Windows 11 is on the way later this year, and tons of machines can’t run it. (They can still run Windows 10, of course, so you might wonder about the necessity of upgrading.)
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Humanoid robot keeps getting fired from his jobs • WSJ

Miho Inada:

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Having a robot read scripture to mourners seemed like a cost-effective idea to the people at Nissei Eco Co., a plastics manufacturer with a sideline in the funeral business.

The company hired child-sized robot Pepper, clothed it in the vestments of Buddhist clergy and programmed it to chant several sutras, or Buddhist scriptures, depending on the sect of the deceased.

Alas, the robot, made by SoftBank Group Corp., kept breaking down during practice runs. “What if it refused to operate in the middle of a ceremony?” said funeral-business manager Osamu Funaki. “It would be such a disaster.”

Pepper was fired. The company ended its lease of the robot and sent it back to the manufacturer. After a rash of similar mishaps across Japan, in which Pepper botched its job at a nursing home and gave baseball fans a creepy feeling, some people are saying the humanoid itself will need a funeral soon.

“Because it has the shape of a person, people expect the intelligence of a human,” said Takayuki Furuta, head of the Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology, which wasn’t involved in Pepper’s development. “The level of the technology completely falls short of that. It’s like the difference between a toy car and an actual car.”

…In 2016, a Tokyo-area nursing-home operator called Ittokai introduced three units of Pepper, each at a cost of around $900 a month, to lead singing and exercises for elderly people at the home.

“Users got excited to have it early on because of its novelty,” said Masataka Iida, an executive at the company. “But they lost interest sooner than expected.” Mr. Iida said Pepper’s repertoire of exercise moves was limited and, owing to mechanical errors, it sometimes took unplanned breaks in the middle of its shift. After three years, the company pulled the plug.

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Some vague hope for humans, then?
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Social media restricted in Cuba amid widening anti-government protests • NetBlocks

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Network data from NetBlocks confirm partial disruption to social media and messaging platforms in Cuba from 12 July 2021. The targeted restrictions are likely to limit the flow of information from Cuba following widespread protests on Sunday as thousands rallied against the socialist government and rising protests. The restrictions are ongoing as of Tuesday the 13th midmorning local time.

NetBlocks metrics show that communications platforms WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and as well as some Telegram servers are disrupted on government-owned ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. / AS27725) including Cubacel, the cellular network operated by Cuba’s sole telecommunications company. Findings corroborate user reports of disruptions to the services.

NetBlocks internet performance metrics from 50 observation points from 12 July 2021 confirm that the listed online platform backend and frontend servers have become partially or fully unavailable on fixed and cellular lines in Cuba, corroborating widespread user reports.

VPN services, which can work around internet censorship, remain effective for many users at the time of writing.

Work is ongoing to to review the nature of legal frameworks relating to the targeted restriction of service during the time in question. NetBlocks identified a similar pattern of social media restrictions during the San Isidro protests for artistic freedom in Havana in November 2020.

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We saw this before in the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, and that didn’t end well for those in charge. But Cuba may be different.
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Apple’s digital car key feature will soon work with your iPhone in your pocket • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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The Car Connectivity Consortium today announced that its Digital Key 3.0 specification with support for Ultra Wideband and Bluetooth LE connectivity is finalized and now available to members, including Apple.

In 2020, Apple introduced a digital car key feature that allows users to unlock and start a compatible vehicle by holding an iPhone or Apple Watch near the driver-side door. The feature is powered by the NFC-based Digital Key 2.0 specification, and once Apple moves to Digital Key 3.0, users will be able to unlock and start a compatible vehicle without needing to take their iPhone out of their pocket or bag.

The improved Ultra Wideband version of Apple’s car key feature would require devices with the U1 chip like iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models.

Digital Key 3.0 also improves security, as Ultra Wideband’s precise location awareness is said to prevent relay attacks, where the radio signal between the iPhone and vehicle is jammed or intercepted by another party. NFC support is maintained to ensure backward compatibility and, in Apple’s case, the ability to use the car key feature to unlock a vehicle for up to five hours after an iPhone has run out of battery power.

Similar to credit cards and boarding passes, digital car keys are stored in the Wallet app on an iPhone or Apple Watch running iOS 13.6 or watchOS 6.2.8 or newer. So far, the feature is only compatible with select BMW models manufactured since July 2020, but a Korean report claimed that Hyundai plans to start offering the feature later this year.

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I did see a criticism of this which said: “Now all you need to do is mug someone for their iPhone and you can steal their car!” But of course if you mug them and steal their car keys, same difference.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: if you don’t have access to Windows 3.1 disks, see the item above about installing Android on your Mac.

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