Start Up No.1616: the American failure, GOP scrubs Trump’s Afghan deal, Yik Yak returns, Sonos beats Google, ‘Nestflix’, and more


Water levels in the Colorado river have dropped so far that farmers face mandatory cuts in use – and that could become permanent. CC-licensed photo by John Morton on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Impactful. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


We are no longer a serious people • The Pull Request

Antonio García Martínez thinks about Afghanistan; in the line above he quotes someone who describes himself as a “MAGA leftist” (🤔) saying “Has anyone thought to cancel the Taliban takeover by digging up all its old tweets?”:

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This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony [of the tweet] highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.

And all we can do in the wake of it, with our brains melted like butter in a microwave by four years of Trump and Twitter and everything else, is to once again try and understand in our terms a hyper-violent insurgency of fanatics, guilty of every manner of cultural barbarism, now running a country with the population of Texas.

What we should have been asking ourselves through four presidents’ worth of Afghanistan involvement, and 2,400 American lives (and God knows how many maimed and traumatized), and almost a trillion dollars, is this: what is our role there? What was the plan, if there ever was one? More specifically, how much are we willing to pay, in American lives and tax money, to impose (for imposing is what we’ll have to do) something vaguely resembling a liberal order in a country more than a few milestones behind us in the real-world Civilization game we’re all playing.

These are the questions a serious people, armed with all the wealth and power of global empire, ask themselves as they administer their dominion. But those are the questions we are not asking, for we are no longer a serious people.

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The US can break, but it can’t build. (You can also see how Garciá Martinez might not have quite been a great culture fit for Apple.)
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GOP scrubs webpage touting Trump’s ‘historic’ Taliban deal • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

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In the wake of the Taliban’s recent capture of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, it looks like the Republican Party is quietly scrubbing traces of the former president’s deals with the militant Islamist group.

The GOP has pulled a webpage praising Donald Trump over his administration’s “historic peace agreement with the Taliban.” The page, which has been archived here, was first instated in the midst of last year’s presidential election.

“Trump has continued to take the lead in peace talks as he signed a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which would end America’s longest war,” the now-deleted page read. It also noted that while the now ex-president has “championed peace,” Joe Biden had pushed “endless wars.” Elsewhere on the page, the GOP noted that Trump had “taken action to defeat ISIS and eliminate dangerous leaders.”

It’s worth noting here that Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban in Afghanistan and went on to become the organization’s top-ranking political chief, was released from Pakistani jail at the US’s request while Trump was in office.

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We have never been at war with Eastasia.
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Sonos win booms for small tech • Reuters

Lauren Silva Laughlin:

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A patent ruling in favor of Sonos is being heard by investors. Shares of the wireless-speaker company opened up more than 10% on Monday after a US trade judge said in a preliminary ruling that Alphabet’s Google infringed its patents. Such fights are background noise for US technology firms, but they can help smaller players keep up.

Sonos uses voice technology from Google, and the giant says the $5bn speaker firm sought its help. Meanwhile, with its move into connected devices, it’s no surprise Google encroached on Sonos’ turf.

The stakes are disproportionate. The roughly $500m in equity value Sonos gained early on Monday equates to an irrelevant 0.03% of Alphabet’s market capitalization.

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Originally began in January 2020 – ah, innocent times – when Sonos sued.
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Find out which groups get big tech funding • Tech Transparency Project

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Google, Facebook, and Amazon have built massive influence operations, in part by funding an array of third-party groups. A new tool from TTP shows where the tech money is going.

Big Tech companies are spending record sums on lobbying as they face growing regulatory scrutiny in Washington and the states. But the companies have also engaged in a more subtle form of influence building, funding everything from think tanks to advocacy groups to local chambers of commerce—which are involved in key policy debates and often serve to amplify the tech giants’ views.

It’s not always clear which groups get tech funding, making it difficult to see the hidden hand of companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Now, a new tool from the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) is shedding light on Big Tech’s extensive reach with these groups. This searchable database gives a quick readout on whether organizations have received funding from the tech companies since 2015.

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The alphabet soup of think tanks around tech that need funding is remarkable. Though it would be more helpful if the “more detail” links actually provided more detail. They don’t – they just link to the companies’ disclosure pages, which are hefty. What would really be helpful would be knowing what proportion of the think tanks’ funding comes from those sources.
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Local and anonymous social media app Yik Yak is back • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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The new app resembles the original version of Yik Yak from 2014: users can post and comment on short text posts that are only able to be viewed within a five-mile radius. Like Reddit, posts can be upvoted and downvoted, and a separate “hot” feed compiles the top post from the past 24 hours.

Originally launched in late 2013, the app was a flash-in-the-pan success (particularly at college campuses) for most of 2014, when it was valued at $400m by investors. But while the anonymity made it popular for college students, Yik Yak also was rife with bullying and harassment. In early 2016, in an effort to get things back on track, Yik Yak added optional social media handles, which were made mandatory in August of that year, effectively removing what had made the service unique. The original incarnation of Yik Yak ended up shutting down in early 2017, when it was sold for $1 million to Square for its engineering talent and IP.

The new Yik Yak looks to be taking a serious stance on bullying and harassment on its platform, though — something that the original incarnation of the app failed to do. The new owners have posted an extensive list of its “community guardrails,” which include prohibiting sharing of personal information, “anything that could be construed as bullying, abuse, defamation, harassment, stalking, or targeted hate or public humiliation,” and more.

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And you can get kicked off for breaking those rules. American schools are already back, so let’s see how big their moderation team is forced to get (or how big the backlog gets) before the stories start breaking through about people being, yes, bullied on YikYak. (Or maybe they’ll just stay on Snapchat and TikTok, which have risen to prominence in the meantime.)
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Niantic CEO: the metaverse could be a ‘dystopian nightmare’ • Fast Company

Mark Sullivan interviews John Hanke, CEO of the company that created the augmented reality game Pokemon Go:

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There’s this concept of an avatar, or a digital twin, representing you within a digital space. How does that figure into Niantic’s vision for the metaverse?

JH: It’s not as big of a part because when you meet other people in the game you are physically standing in front of them. In some of our games, like Pokémon Go, there is an avatar and you can see your own avatar. We don’t actually even show you other people’s avatars in the game unless somebody has taken over a Pokémon Go gym, and then there’s a version of their avatar that’s standing there, like Marcus Aurelius or something, like the champion of the gym. So you would get to know people a bit through that.

It’s the same for chat. Chat is such a huge part of most of these [virtual] experiences, and by chat I mean online text chat. And it’s never really been a big part of our games because it’s so much easier when people are playing together just to talk to the person next to you. It’s faster and higher bandwidth.

And that’s where the enhanced-vs.-replacement idea comes in. So just making the normal biological stuff better—enhancing or augmenting it. So I sure hope we can affect the industry and get it really fully headed in that direction. I feel like it’s inevitable, like it’s just a better, more natural way to use tech.

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Hanke doesn’t suggest it’s going to be dystopian at all, to my reading.
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Here it is, the plug for Social Warming, my latest book, about why social media drives everyone a little mad – even if they don’t use it.


The underrated material: concrete • Thread Reader App

Ed Conway, a Sky News correspondent, wrote a substantial thread on Twitter:

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What’s the most underrated material in the modern world?

How about CONCRETE?

Often dismissed as boring, ugly & inert.

Concrete is actually surprising, dynamic & incredibly complex.

With that in mind here are a few reasons why we need to start talking about concrete

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We do indeed. It’s a terrific thread (this is on a single page, with photos, no login required). You might know some of the details about concrete, but I’m fairly sure there’ll be something here that surprises you – even if it’s only the scale of the people standing beside the pipe that must be kept turning because if it stops then the heat of the materials inside will melt it.
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California’s dry season is turning into a permanent state of being • Phys.org

David Baker, Brian Sullivan and Josh Saul:

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Drought across the Western US has forced California to ration water to farms. Hydroelectric dams barely work. The smallest spark—from a lawnmower or even a flat tire—can explode into a wildfire.

While this region has always had dry summers, they’re supposed to follow a pattern that leads to relief with the arrival of the annual rainy season in November. But a break is no longer guaranteed.

In fact, there are now both short- and long-term factors drying out the Western U.S. Under the influence of fast-warming temperatures, as documented in detail by this week’s report from the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the region may be entering a drier state. Drought season might be giving way to a drought era.

Here are three forces desiccating the region.

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Sea currents (La Niña), warmer air drying the ground, and dry air being driven downwards. Telling quote:

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“Modern society really developed in the Western U.S. in the 1900s—that’s when all the infrastructure was built—and we’re experiencing conditions it wasn’t built to handle,” [UCLA climate scientist Park] Williams said. “In the 1900s, society was able to really evolve in a period of ignorant bliss.”

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No more ignorance, no more bliss.
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Colorado river woes: first water supply cuts to hammer Arizona farmers • Sentinel Colorado

Felicia Fonseca:

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A harvester rumbles through the fields in the early morning light, mowing down rows of corn and chopping up ears, husks and stalks into mulch for feed at a local dairy.

The cows won’t get their salad next year, at least not from this farm. There won’t be enough water to plant the corn crop.

Climate change, drought and high demand are expected to force the first-ever mandatory cuts to a water supply that 40 million people across the American West depend on — the Colorado River. The US Bureau of Reclamation’s projection next week will spare cities and tribes but hit Arizona farmers hard.

They knew this was coming. They have left fields unplanted, laser leveled the land, lined canals, installed drip irrigation, experimented with drought-resistant crops and found other ways to use water more efficiently.

Still, the cutbacks in Colorado River supply next year will be a blow for agriculture in Pinal County, Arizona’s top producer of cotton, barley and livestock. Dairies largely rely on local farms for feed and will have to search farther out for supply, and the local economy will take a hit.

The cuts are coming earlier than expected as a drought has intensified and reservoirs dipped to historic lows across the West. Scientists blame climate change for the warmer, more arid conditions over the past 30 years.

Standing next to a dry field, his boots kicking up dust, farmer Will Thelander said “more and more of the farm is going to look like this next year because we won’t have the water to keep things growing everywhere we want.”

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Big oil is vulnerable to climate change. Literally • WSJ

Jinjoo Lee:

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Alaska seems like one of the last places on the planet that could use extra cooling. That is exactly what it will soon need, though, to prevent one of the world’s largest oil pipeline systems from sinking into melting permafrost.

Recent wildfires, floods and droughts across the world are bringing the spotlight once again to the contribution that the oil-and-gas industry has made to climate change. Less talked about is how exposed the industry is itself to unusual and extreme weather. It doesn’t quite threaten the industry’s existence and could even benefit some producers. Shareholders and consumers could be left with the tab, though.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System received permission earlier this year to construct a cooling system to keep permafrost on parts of its pipeline frozen, according to a report from Inside Climate News. Billions of dollars of oil and gas infrastructure has been built on frozen ground. In Russia, roughly 23% of technical failures and almost a third of loss in fossil-fuel extraction are caused by melting permafrost, Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov said at a conference earlier this year, according to a report from the Moscow Times. All told, the Russian economy could lose more than $67bn by 2050 due to permafrost damage on infrastructure, according to the report.

…There is no shortage of ways in which the oil-and-gas industry is impacted by climate change. Floods can disrupt fossil-fuel transportation by barge and rail. A drought can impact oil production too. Reduced water availability can affect fracking and refining operations, both of which require a lot of it.

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Did they ever think of just not doing it? Good grief. Turns out the fossil fuel industry also produces more irony than can possibly be absorbed by the planet.
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Nestflix

Lynn Fisher:

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Welcome to Nestflix: the platform for your favourite nested films and shows.

Fictional movies within movies? Got ‘em. Fake shows within shows? You bet. Browse our selection of over 400 stories within stories.

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It’s a neat idea – you see something flash up on the screen or a billboard in a film or TV programme, usually as a smart little joke. I particularly liked this one. Each one says where it is referenced. (Via Ryan Broderick.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1615: why consumption stalls climate action, how Likes make us outraged, when Google bought Android, and more


WhatsApp’s rise has transformed politics, but also presents a challenge for those looking to archive how politicians communicate. CC-licensed photo by Фотобанк Moscow-Live on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Do not overheat. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.


Why nobody’s ever going to do anything about the planet dying • Eudaimonia and Co

Umair Haque:

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Why is China the world’s largest carbon emitter?

It’s not because all those people in China are consuming stuff of their own. China’s level of consumption is about 30% of its economy. That’s a remarkably low figure. For comparison — and these are points we’re going to revisit — in Europe, it’s a moderate 50%, while consumption is 80% of the American economy, which is an astonishingly high figure.

Why is China’s level of consumption so low? Well, first let me point out that it is so low that economists have repeatedly warned it’s too low. They’re right — but in the wrong way. They mean that China should be encouraging people to live like Americans — overfed, undernourished, materialistic, and indifferent. They’re right to note the anomaly — but wrong to say that becoming American is the wrong answer.

China’s level of consumption is so low for a very simple reason. China is the rich world’s factory. America’s in particular. All those Chinese people aren’t working so hard to consume stuff themselves — they don’t and can’t. They’re working away to make stuff for Americans, mostly, to consume. Other rich countries, too, but mostly Americans — remember how America’s consumption is 80%, and Europe’s is 50%?

Now think of America. Think of Americans, selfish, greedy, gorging themselves on stuff. Where does all that stuff come from? Well, it comes from China, mostly.

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OK, this isn’t the most uplifting piece you’ll read this week. But it rings brutally, uncompromisingly true. (There are people who say Haque is “the master of catastrophe“, but I think it’s useful in trying to address global heating to know what we’re up against at the extreme.)
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‘Likes’ and ‘shares’ teach people to express more outrage online • YaleNews

Bill Hathaway:

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Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter argue that they merely provide a neutral platform for conversations that would otherwise happen elsewhere. But many have speculated that social media amplifies outrage. Hard evidence for this claim was missing, however, because measuring complex social expressions like moral outrage with precision poses a technical challenge, the researchers said.

To compile that evidence, [Bill] Brady and [Molly] Crockett assembled a team which built machine learning software capable of tracking moral outrage in Twitter posts. In observational studies of 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users, they used the software to test whether users expressed more outrage over time, and if so, why.

The team found that the incentives of social media platforms like Twitter really do change how people post. Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. To back up these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.

The results also suggest a troubling link to current debates on social media’s role in political polarization. Brady and his colleagues found that members of politically extreme networks expressed more outrage than members of politically moderate networks. However, members of politically moderate networks were actually more influenced by social rewards.

“Our studies find that people with politically moderate friends and followers are more sensitive to social feedback that reinforces their outrage expressions,” Crockett said. “This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time — the rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”

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Crockett’s work in particular was a fundamental discovery for me in writing Social Warming. And Bill Brady was a very helpful interviewee. This new paper confirms, scientifically, a lot of what was anecdotally obvious. Likes and shares condition us around outrage. There’s the feedback loop.
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WhatsApp with that? How communications in Whitehall and Westminster is changing • Medium

Gavin Freeguard used to work in British politics, pre-WhatsApp:

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What is the intent, incentive, context behind every seemingly throwaway message (‘speech act’ if you want to be technical)? They may be very different for all those group chat participants (one wants a conversation, the other wants a screenshot leaked). Look at some of the Cummings/Johnson exchanges: the former seems keen to discuss (and document) detail (and as much of it as possible), the latter to move on. Advisers can advise at length; politicians have decisions to make.

Two participants having very different intentions in and impressions of the same private conversation, which is then shared more widely, feels like a particular form of context collapse. This is where the new audiences may fail to appreciate the original context, having no idea what else was going on at the time or what the different participants were thinking. The internet is flat. But it is simultaneously very hilly, sheltering niche and expert groups ready to pore over each and every political detail. They may see deeper meaning in the disposable, intent in the incidental, cause in the casual. Something that appears black and white may actually be many shades of grey.

The above is a mass of contradictions and tensions. Platforms like WhatsApp are private and used to avoid accountability — but can sometimes end up being very public. Fleeting, but fixed, in how they formalise informal groups; instant, but indelible, turning throwaway remarks into tablets of stone. With endless messages but no official record, there is both a deluge of information and a drought.

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In Social Warming, I do show how WhatsApp (which invaded British politics from 2015 onwards) has radically changed the form and nature of intra-political discourse. Freeguard’s piece is about the question of archiving: how do we capture those discussions between ministers and others?
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Excerpt: How Google bought Android—according to folks in the room • Ars Technica

Chet Haase has written a book about the events of 2005, including the time when Android was just a scrappy startup pitching to VCs:

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The final part of the pitch (and the most important part, for the VCs they were pitching to) was how Android was going to make money. The open source platform described in the slides is essentially what the Android team eventually built and shipped. But if that was all there was, the company would not have been worth funding for VCs. Developing and giving away an open source platform sounds great from a save-the-world standpoint, but where’s the payoff? Where’s the upside for investors? That is, how did Android plan to make money off of a product that they planned to simply give away? Venture capitalists fund companies that they hope will make more (far more) than their investment back.

The path to revenue was clear for the other platform companies in the game. Microsoft made money by licensing its platform to Windows Phone partners; every phone sold contributed a per-device cost back to Microsoft. RIM made money both on the handsets they sold as well as the lucrative service contracts that their loyal enterprise customers signed up for. Nokia and the other Symbian adopters made money by selling the phones that they manufactured with variations of that operating system. Similarly, all of the other handset manufacturers funded their own software development through the revenue generated by the phones they sold.

So what was Android’s play that would fund the development of this awesome platform that they had yet to build and which they would give away free to other manufacturers to build their own devices?

Carrier services.

Carriers would provide applications, contacts, and other cloud-based data services to their customers for Android-based handsets. The carriers would pay Android for providing these services. Swetland explained: “Rather than running and hosting the services [like Danger did for its Hiptop phones], we would build the services and sell them to the carriers.”

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Imagine what things would have been like if Google hadn’t had the foresight to buy it. You’d have the iPhone ignoring the carriers, and then you’d have Nokia and Microsoft, and carrier-versioned Android handsets. The internet landscape would be nothing like it is now. Sometimes history works out OK.
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Why the Afghan military collapsed so quickly • The New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan:

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It began with individual outposts in rural areas where starving and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totalled around just one-sixth of that, according to US officials — were apparent. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Officials often turned a blind eye to what was happening, knowing full well that the Afghan forces’ real manpower count was far lower than what was on the books, skewed by corruption and secrecy that they quietly accepted.

And when the Taliban started building momentum after the United States’ announcement of withdrawal, it only increased the belief that fighting in the security forces — fighting for President Ashraf Ghani’s government — wasn’t worth dying for. In interview after interview, soldiers and police officers described moments of despair and feelings of abandonment.

On one frontline in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar last week, the Afghan security forces’ seeming inability to fend off the Taliban’s devastating offensive came down to potatoes.

After weeks of fighting, one cardboard box full of slimy potatoes was supposed to pass as a police unit’s daily rations. They hadn’t received anything other than spuds in various forms in several days, and their hunger and fatigue were wearing them down.

“These French fries are not going to hold these front lines!” a police officer yelled, disgusted by the lack of support they were receiving in the country’s second-largest city.

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The “Afghan military” has been a lie all along, propped up by the west. A mixture of corruption, tribalism (including loyalty to local warlords) and, finally, abandonment gave the Taliban all they needed.
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‘Easy money’: how international scam artists pulled off an epic theft of US Covid benefits • NBC News

Ken Dilanian, Kit Ramgopal and Chloe Atkins:

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Last June, the FBI got a warrant to hunt through the Google accounts of Abedemi Rufai, a Nigerian state government official.

What they found, they said in a sworn affidavit, was all the ingredients for a “massive” cyber fraud on U.S. government benefits: Stolen bank, credit card and tax information on Americans. Money transfers. And emails showing dozens of false unemployment claims in seven states that paid out $350,000.

Rufai was arrested in May at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport as he prepared to fly first class back to Nigeria, according to court records. He is being held without bail in Washington state, where he has pleaded not guilty to five counts of wire fraud.

Rufai’s case offers a small window into what law enforcement officials and private experts are calling the biggest fraud ever perpetrated against the United States, a significant portion of it carried out by foreigners.

Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers and Nigerian scammers have used stolen identities to plunder tens of billions of dollars in COVID benefits, spiriting the money overseas in a massive transfer of wealth from American taxpayers, officials and experts say. And they say it’s still happening.

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Oh, just somewhere between $87bn and $400bn.
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Kuo: redesigned MacBook Air with mini-LED display and several colour options to launch in mid 2022 • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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Apple plans to launch a new MacBook Air with a mini-LED display and several colour options around mid 2022, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a research note obtained by MacRumors. These details line up with previous rumours about the new MacBook Air from sources like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and YouTube tech personality Jon Prosser.

Kuo said the new MacBook Air will feature an “all-new design” with a similar form factor as the next MacBook Pro models, which are also expected to feature a mini-LED display and flatter top and bottom edges. Previous rumours have suggested the new MacBook Air will also feature a faster Apple silicon chip and a MagSafe-branded magnetic power cable.

Kuo said it is not yet certain whether the existing M1 MacBook Air will be discontinued after the mini-LED model enters mass production, and this could have an effect on pricing. If the M1 MacBook Air is discontinued, Kuo said the mini-LED model will probably start at the same $999 price. If the M1 MacBook Air does remain available for purchase alongside the mini-LED model, Kuo believes it could receive a price cut.

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Having the range of colours would fit in with the new iMac scheme, and the timing – giving the current version plenty of time to amortise any costs from shifting to the M1 chip – makes sense too. Only question is whether the forthcoming MacBook Pro will come in colours. If not, why not?
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Apple executive defends tools to fight child abuse material, acknowledges privacy backlash • WSJ

Joanna Stern and Tim Higgins:

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“If and only if you meet a threshold of something on the order of 30 known child pornographic images matching, only then does Apple know anything about your account and know anything about those images, and at that point, only knows about those images, not about any of your other images,” Mr. Federighi said. “This isn’t doing some analysis for, did you have a picture of your child in the bathtub? Or, for that matter, did you have a picture of some pornography of any other sort? This is literally only matching on the exact fingerprints of specific known child pornographic images.”

Beyond creating a system that isn’t scanning through all of a user’s photos in the cloud, Mr. Federighi pointed to another benefit of placing the matching process on the phone directly. “Because it’s on the [phone], security researchers are constantly able to introspect what’s happening in Apple’s [phone] software,” he said. “So if any changes were made that were to expand the scope of this in some way—in a way that we had committed to not doing—there’s verifiability, they can spot that that’s happening.”

Critics have said the database of images could be corrupted, such as political material being inserted. Apple has pushed back against that idea. During the interview, Mr. Federighi said the database of images is constructed through the intersection of images from multiple child-safety organizations—not just the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He added that at least two “are in distinct jurisdictions.” Such groups and an independent auditor will be able to verify that the database consists only of images provided by those entities, he said.

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First time Apple has put a figure on the approximate number that will trip its detection systems. (How the figure is arrived at is explained in the Threat Security Model, below the next link.) The point about separate jurisdictions is also new. Although quite who is going to have the insight into what’s running on the phone is new to me; who are these “researchers”?
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Decrypting Apple’s plan to scan photos on your phone • Revue

Julia Angwin talks to former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos (who has been *very* busy in the past week) about, yes, that:

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Angwin: The [privacy] advocates are calling it a backdoor. Others have said it’s hypocritical because, in the San Bernardino case, they refused to comply with a court order to bypass the phone’s four-digit login. They said at that time that this order would be like creating a master key to open all iPhones. Is this a backdoor? 

Stamos: I would not call this a backdoor, but I do believe that the way Apple has rolled out device-side scanning has created the possibility of a new type of surveillance becoming popular globally. Most of my concerns are actually outside the United States. If you look at the existing child safety framework in the U.S., the jurisprudence has actually been going against it. 

But elsewhere in the world, there are already bills requiring preemptive scanning for illegality, so this might be part of the EU Digital Services Act, the U.K. Online Harms bill, and a variety of bills in India, for example. 

So while I wouldn’t call this itself a backdoor, my biggest concern is that Apple has effectively opened the door to a type of searching on devices. 

Angwin: Could you flesh out what it would look like if, for instance, India were to start using this capability? 

Stamos: In India, the Hindu nationalist government. Narendra Modi, the head of the BJP and the prime minister, is currently in a big fight with Silicon Valley trying to suppress the speech of his political enemies and to push rules that are seen as oppressive of the Muslim minority. 

India has incredibly broad laws that make speech illegal, such as laws around blasphemy that we don’t have. They have already been creating bills that would require the filtering of speech that is considered illegal in India. 

One of my concerns would be that those bills will now include that phones that are sold in India have the ability to filter out that content [deemed illegal] by the government in the same way NCMEC provides child safety fingerprints to Apple.

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Well, except that Apple posted a “Security Threat Model” paper on Friday which says that it will only include hashes of photos that are in the databases of two separate jurisdictions. So the Indian model won’t work. India could mandate that Apple includes NSO’s Pegasus monitoring software. Apple could tell India to go whistle, and publicise its refusal. The Indian government might face a problem if its citizens really thought it was monitoring them.
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These people who work from home have a secret: they have two jobs • WSJ

Rachel Feintzeig:

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They were bored. Or worried about layoffs. Or tired of working hard for a meager raise every year. They got another job offer.

Now they have a secret.

A small, dedicated group of white-collar workers, in industries from tech to banking to insurance, say they have found a way to double their pay: Work two full-time remote jobs, don’t tell anyone and, for the most part, don’t do too much work, either.

Alone in their home offices, they toggle between two laptops. They play “Tetris” with their calendars, trying to dodge endless meetings. Sometimes they log on to two meetings at once. They use paid time off—in some cases, unlimited—to juggle the occasional big project or ramp up at a new gig. Many say they don’t work more than 40 hours a week for both jobs combined. They don’t apologize for taking advantage of a system they feel has taken advantage of them.

“It’s two jobs for one,” says a 29-year-old software engineer who has been working simultaneously for a media company and an events company since June. He estimates he was logging three to 10 hours of actual work a week back when he held down one job. “The rest of it is just attending meetings and pretending to look busy.”

He was emboldened by a new website called Overemployed. Started by two tech workers this spring, it aims to rally workers around the concept of stealthily holding multiple jobs, framing it as a way to wrest back control after decades of stalled wages for some and a pandemic that led to unpredictable layoffs.

Gig work and outsourcing have been on the rise for years. Inflation is now ticking up, chipping away at spending power. Some employees in white-collar fields wonder why they should bother spending time building a career.

“The harder that you work, it seems like the less you get,” one of the workers with two jobs says. “People depend on you more. My paycheck is the same.”

«

White-collar people working two jobs in the US is just an extension of what lots of blue-collar workers in the US have to do. So it’s a sort of equality at work.
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Possibly there have been enough boosts, but here’s another one for Social Warming, my latest book.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1614: what crypto really enables, China hushed lab leak talk, how VPNs spy on you, the challenge of climate politics, and more


Virtual reality doesn’t photograph well, and doesn’t sell well. So why are we still talking about the ‘rich white kid’ of technology? CC-licensed photo by Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas%2C University of Texas at Austin on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Still hot. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The way the Senate melted down over crypto is very revealing • The New York Times

Ezra Klein:

»

Think about it this way: The internet we have allows for the easy transfer of information. We costlessly swap copies of news articles, music files, video games, pornography, GIFs, tweets and much more. The internet is, famously, good at making information nearly free. But for precisely that reason, it is terrible at making information expensive, which it sometimes needs to be. What the internet is missing, in particular, are ways to verify identity, ownership and authenticity — the exact things that make it possible for creators to get paid for their work (for more on this, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s article “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble”).

That’s one reason the riches of the web haven’t been more widely shared: You get rich selling access to the internet or by building companies that add convenience and features to the internet. So Facebook got rich by building a proprietary infrastructure for identity, and Spotify created a service in which artists could eke out payment from works that were otherwise just being pirated. The actual creators who make the internet worth visiting are forced to accept the exploitative, ever-changing terms of digital middlemen.

This is the problem that the technology behind crypto solves, at least in theory: If the original internet let you easily copy information, the next internet will let you easily trade ownership of digital goods. Crypto lets you make digital goods scarce, which increases their value; it lets you prove ownership, which allows you to buy and sell them; and it makes digital identities verifiable, as that’s merely information you own.

«

Which strengthens my theory that crypto (generally) is seen by Gen Z as the way of getting in on the ground floor of “property” that older generations “don’t get”. Two benefits immediately flow: just like property, its value seems to keep going up (look at bitcoin!); and it creates the tribal effect of the in-group/out-group.
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In new documentary, WHO scientist says Chinese officials pressured investigation to drop lab-leak hypothesis • Washington Post

Adam Taylor, Emily Rauhala and Martin Selsoe Sorensen:

»

A discussion of whether to include the lab-leak theory at all lasted until 48 hours before the conclusion of the mission, Ben Embarek told the Danish reporters. In the end, Ben Embarek’s Chinese counterpart eventually agreed to discuss the lab-leak theory in the report “on the condition we didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis.”

Asked in the documentary whether the report’s “extremely unlikely” wording about the lab-leak theory was a Chinese requirement, Ben Embarek said “it was the category we chose to put it in at the end, yes.” But he added that this meant it was not impossible, just not likely.

Ben Embarek said one similar scenario, in which a lab employee inadvertently could have brought the virus to Wuhan after collecting samples in the field, could be considered both a lab-leak theory and a hypothesis of direct infection from a bat, which was described as “likely” in the report.

“A lab employee infected in the field while collecting samples in a bat cave — such a scenario belongs both as a lab-leak hypothesis and as our first hypothesis of direct infection from bat to human. We’ve seen that hypothesis as a likely hypothesis,” Ben Embarek said.

In further comments during the interview that were not included in the documentary but were incorporated in an account by the Danish channel TV2 on its website, Ben Embarek suggested that there could have been “human error” but that the Chinese political system does not allow authorities to acknowledge that.

“It probably means there’s a human error behind such an event, and they’re not very happy to admit that,” Ben Embarek was quoted as saying. “The whole system focuses a lot on being infallible, and everything must be perfect,” he added. “Somebody could also wish to hide something. Who knows?”

«

Who knows indeed, though there’s no doubt China would want to be as controlling as possible. Though the idea that a worker getting infected by collecting samples in a cave would count as a “lab leak” suggests a bit of mission creep on that hypothesis.
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Virtual reality is the rich white kid of technology • WIRED

David Karpf:

»

The technology [of VR and AR] is always about to turn a corner, about to be more than just a gaming device, about to revolutionize fields like architecture, defense, and medicine. The future of work, entertainment, travel, and society is always on the verge of a huge virtual upgrade. VR is a bit like a rich white kid with famous parents: it never stops failing upward, forever graded on a generous curve, always judged based on its “potential” rather than its results.

One reason that VR has been offered such an endless string of second chances (VR’s proverbial lineage, if you will) is that it has played an outsized role in the popular science fiction that our collective image of the future is built around. William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 book Neuromancer. The term later became synonymous with the World Wide Web, but Gibson’s initial rendering was of a virtual realm that “console cowboys” could enter and exit. Gibson and his cyberpunk peers heavily shaped the culture of 1980s tech—before the dotcom boom, before the tech bros.

When Lanier unveiled his bulky head-mounted display and dataglove in 1987, he was inviting tech hobbyists to be the first inhabitants of the virtual future they had glimpsed in cyberpunk novels. Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash and Ernest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One later were massive science fiction hits whose stories unfolded in a future where VR is a fixture.

When Zuckerberg says that he has been “thinking about some of this stuff since [he] was in middle school and just starting to code,” it isn’t hard to guess what books he was reading at the time. For the Gen X and Millennial tech entrepreneurs who dominate Silicon Valley today, the science fiction stories of their youth have always treated VR as an ambient part of the future technological landscape.

«

I’ve been hearing about (and writing about) VR since 1995, and it hasn’t become any more generally convincing in all that time. Always a niche game thing, never a “grandma wants to try it out” thing.
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You found the link! It’s Social Warming, my latest book.


How private is my VPN? • The Markup

Alfred Ng:

»

while VPNs say they do not log people’s activity—meaning their browsing, who they call, which TV shows they watch—that does not mean they’re not siphoning data from their users and even their prospective customers. 

To get a sense of exactly what sorts of information VPNs are grabbing, The Markup examined the privacy policies of 14 popular VPN companies. We also ran their websites through Blacklight, our tool for detecting third-party trackers. And we searched through our Citizen Browser data for VPN Facebook advertisements to see not only how VPNs are marketing themselves on Facebook but also how they’re making use of that platform’s personal-data-driven advertising machine.

Overall, we found a fair bit of hypocrisy: While the VPNs’ homepages and blog posts highlight their privacy benefits, some of their privacy policies tell a different story.

Surfshark’s homepage, for instance, boasts that it can “protect your privacy with the fastest VPN,” while its privacy policy notes that the company collects user devices’ advertising identifiers for marketing purposes.

“We do collect aggregated data for marketing purposes as it is crucial in making business decisions for customer acquisition and competing in an extremely competitive VPN industry,” Dom Dimas, a spokesperson for the company said.

«

Of the 14 they tested, 10 included trackers. Some of those trackers are feeding back directly to Facebook and Google. But don’t worry, it means the bad guys can’t magically hack into your emails in the café!
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Facebook plans ads revamp in response to privacy concerns • The Verge

Alex Heath:

»

“We definitely see that [ads] personalization will evolve very meaningfully over the course of the next five years,” said Mudd, Facebook’s VP of product marketing for ads, in an exclusive interview with The Verge. “And that investing well ahead of that will benefit all of our customers and enable us to help shape that future state of the ads ecosystem.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Facebook to get this right. Apple recently introduced a prompt to iPhones that makes developers ask for permission to track users across other apps for targeting ads. Facebook has said the prompt will likely hurt its revenue growth. Google is planning something similar for Android phones. The European Union is considering a ban on microtargeted ads as part of a sweeping legislative proposal called the Digital Services Act, and the Biden administration recently signaled interest in policing the “surveillance of users” by “dominant Internet platforms.”

Facebook’s new rhetoric about making advertising more privacy-conscious is also, in a sense, admitting defeat. Last year, it mounted a loud PR campaign in objection to Apple’s ad tracking prompt, arguing that Apple was acting anti-competitively and harming small businesses that relied on ads to reach customers. But the campaign ultimately fell flat, and now Facebook is working on some of the same privacy-conscious approaches to data collection that Apple uses.

«

A welcome little bit of analysis thrown in at the end there. So Apple and Facebook and Google are all introducing systems that will process specific elements of your content on your device.
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‘Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge • The Guardian

Oliver Milman:

»

Oregon was supposed to be a tranquil haven for Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, who moved to the state in 2017 after witnessing his home in Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, menaced by typhoons made increasingly powerful by the warming ocean and atmosphere.

But when the heatwave struck, Johnson, his partner and their dog had to flee their Corvallis apartment, which does not have air conditioning, to stay on the Oregon coast in an attempt to cool down. The surging heat, which followed wildfires that raged nearby last year, has forced Johnson to revise his previous assumptions.

“I always thought this was a comfortable place, that it could even be a host state for climate migrants,” said Johnson, a biologist. “But there has been this big wake-up that things are moving faster than anticipated. It was shocking how hot it got, and how long it took to cool down.”

“In just a few days you’ve seen this big change in how people are thinking about adapting,” he said. “It has changed my view of Oregon. It’s hammered home to me that climate change is inescapable – no matter where you are or when you go there, you have to think about it. Nowhere is safe, nowhere is truly a refuge.”

«

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Hot air • The Critic Magazine

Christopher Snowdon:

»

The government says decarbonising the UK will cost one trillion pounds, but then it also said HS2 would cost £36bn. Since HS2’s budget is now three times higher, the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s estimate of Net Zero costing more than three trillion pounds may be more realistic. And this is in addition to our contribution to $100bn of “climate finance” the rich world has promised to give developing countries every year.

It will not be long before 25 million households are told to rip out their gas boilers and pay £20,000 for a less efficient electric heat pump and insulation. The government will soon stop asking people to eat less meat and take fewer flights and find ways of forcing them. Will the public put up with it?

In France, months of violent protests by the gilets jaunes were caused by the government putting 6p on a litre of diesel. Macron swiftly froze the carbon tax, froze gas and electricity prices and postponed tougher vehicle emission rules. In Britain, the fuel tax protests of September 2000 were the only time Labour lost its lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls between 1993 and 2005. Gordon Brown responded by cutting and freezing petrol duty. The Conservatives learned the lesson and by 2018 George Osborne was boasting of freezing fuel duty for the sixth year in a row because, he said, the Conservatives were “the party for working people”.

This is reality of ‘climate action’ in a democracy. It’s all fun and games until the public gets involved.

«

Can’t argue with any of that inasmuch as he’s right: we are terrible at taking actions today for the long term. (Oh, except you? How’s your pension looking?) But, equally, it’s not going to be hard to persuade people not to take flights to countries suffering droughts, 50ºC heatwaves, floods or tidal submergence. The question is always what the carrot looks like. Nature’s stick is rather ugly.
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Helping actor Val Kilmer reclaim his voice • Sonantic

»

Last year, we were contacted with an exciting question: Could Sonantic build a custom AI voice model for acclaimed actor Val Kilmer? 

Kilmer, whose Hollywood career has spanned nearly four decades, has starred in scores of films, including blockbusters such as Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, Batman Forever, and Heat. But after undergoing a tracheotomy in 2014 as part of his treatment for throat cancer, Kilmer no longer has a voice that would be easily recognisable to fans. 

The actor has been reflecting on his career recently for the production of his autobiographical documentary, Val. But despite this recent focus on the past, Kilmer never stops moving forward. He and his team knew that building a custom voice model would help him explore new ways to communicate, connect, and create in the future.

From the beginning, our aim was to make a voice model that Val would be proud of. We were eager to give him his voice back, providing a new tool for whatever creative projects are ahead.

«

You can hear the result on YouTube. (It’s also embedded in the linked post.) See, deepfakes can have good uses too.
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Mass mask-wearing notably reduces COVID-19 transmission • medRxiv

A big team from the University of Bristol and elsewhere:

»

Mask-wearing has been a controversial measure to control the COVID-19 pandemic. While masks are known to substantially reduce disease transmission in healthcare settings, studies in community settings report inconsistent results.

Investigating the inconsistency within epidemiological studies, we find that a commonly used proxy, government mask mandates, does not correlate with large increases in mask-wearing in our window of analysis. We thus analyse the effect of mask-wearing on transmission instead, drawing on several datasets covering 92 regions on 6 continents, including the largest survey of individual-level wearing behaviour (n=20 million). Using a hierarchical Bayesian model, we estimate the effect of both mask-wearing and mask-mandates on transmission by linking wearing levels (or mandates) to reported cases in each region, adjusting for mobility and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

We assess the robustness of our results in 123 experiments spanning 22 sensitivity analyses. Across these analyses, we find that an entire population wearing masks in public leads to a median reduction in the reproduction number R of 25.8%, with 95% of the medians between 22.2% and 30.9%. In our window of analysis, the median reduction in R associated with the wearing level observed in each region was 20.4% [2.0%, 23.3%]. We do not find evidence that mandating mask-wearing reduces transmission. Our results suggest that mask-wearing is strongly affected by factors other than mandates.

«

Not yet peer-reviewed, note. But certainly the idea that mask mandates mean people will wear masks, particularly in the US, isn’t that reliable.
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Future Tense: I will defend Microsoft Word to the death • Slate

Torie Bosch:

»

I am deeply committed to Microsoft Word. I see the ascendence of Google Docs—which has been around in various forms since 2006 but has become an unstoppable force over the past several years—as a personal affront. Word is clunky and expensive and all those things, but it’s also wonderful in a lot of ways: The track changes function is superb (even if it takes a little getting used to), it’s customizable, and, frankly, it’s familiar. I know its quirks and its features, I can troubleshoot it, and the mere act of staring at a Word document tells my brain: OK, time to get to work.

I’m not saying Google Docs is completely useless, just mostly so. There are some good use cases—in particular, planning documents. I use it for grocery lists, packing lists, to track expenses. But when it comes to the thing I most need a word processor for—editing articles for Slate—Google Docs utterly fails. It’s the little things: If I delete a bunch of text, then start writing over top of it, Google Docs marks the new words as deleted text. Why? Why would I type in text only for Google Docs to delete it? It often adds a hyperlink to the space before a word, which is hideous. The way it puts all of the changes in bubbles on the side, instead of in-line, takes up far too much space and means that you rarely see the change and the changed text on the same latitude of the page. It’s hard to rapidly accept a bunch of changes—I get stuck doing them one. At. A. Time. Like. A. Sucker.

And, worst of all: the collaboration that allows multiple people to work in a document at once, the very feature most championed by Google Docs partisans. Once a writer sends a Google Doc to me and I start editing, by default, Google lets them know. Then I see their initial pop up in the upper right-hand corner of the document, and I know they are watching me. I can’t edit in front of an audience! I need to move things around, to try different phrases out. But sometimes writers actually start responding to my edits in real time. What the hell! Leave me alone! One person in a document at a time! I want clear iterations, not various versions that bleed into one another.

«

Totally agree (though for me, the app that says “quit email and your Twitter app and knuckle down” is the ever-excellent Scrivener, available for macOS, Windows and iOS.
unique link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1613: how Facebook failed on football, how the giant DeFi hack was done, Taliban besiege Clubhouse (yup), and more


The Goodreads site is being used for bad things (specifically, extortion) against some unlucky authors, in another moderation challenge. CC-licensed photo by Dav Yaginuma on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. It’s a good number. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How Facebook failed to stem racist abuse of England’s soccer players • The New York Times

Ryan Mac and Tariq Panja:

»

In May 2019, Facebook asked the organizing bodies of English soccer to its London offices off Regent’s Park. On the agenda: what to do about the growing racist abuse on the social network against Black soccer players.

At the meeting, Facebook gave representatives from four of England’s main soccer organizations — the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association — what they felt was a brushoff, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. Company executives told the group that they had many issues to deal with, including content about terrorism and child sex abuse.

A few months later, Facebook provided soccer representatives with an athlete safety guide, including directions on how players could shield themselves from bigotry using its tools. The message was clear: It was up to the players and the clubs to protect themselves online.

The interactions were the start of what became a more than two-year campaign by English soccer to pressure Facebook and other social media companies to rein in online hate speech against their players.

«

The piece is good inasmuch as it details what happened. Yet Twitter’s blogpost about the racist abuse on its platform after the 2021 Euros event gives a much clearer meta-view:

1: “the UK was – by far – the largest country of origin for the abusive Tweets we removed on the night of the Final and in the days that followed.”
2: “our data suggests that ID verification would have been unlikely to prevent the abuse from happening – as the accounts we suspended themselves were not anonymous. Of the permanently suspended accounts from the Tournament, 99% of account owners were identifiable.”
3: “only 2% of the Tweets we removed following the Final generated more than 1000 Impressions (Impressions are the number of views a Tweet receives before being removed).”

The NYT story treats the abuse as more like weather – raining racist abuse again, it’s such a mystery! – when we really need to understand why the climate is like it is.
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Poly Network recovers over $258m of stolen funds in largest DeFi hack • FX Street

Ekta Mourya:

»

Poly Network expects to recover stolen funds after writing a letter asking the hacker to return the funds. Currently, less than 1% of the funds have been recovered. 

On August 10, a hacker drained the cross-chain protocol Poly Network of hundreds of millions of dollars. Over $600m in several cryptocurrencies, Ethereum, Binance smart chain tokens, and stablecoins were stolen.  

The heist included $273m in Ethereum tokens, $253m in tokens on Binance Smart Chain, and $85m in USD coin (USDC). In the aftermath of the attack, Poly Network reached out to exchanges and miners on its Twitter handle and requested them to blacklist the stolen funds. 

Tether was the swiftest to blacklist the stolen USDT, worth $33m. Binance, OKEx and other exchanges extended support to Poly Network in the hours following the hack. Among exchanges and protocols coming out in support of the cross-chain protocol, SlowMist stood out since the blockchain security firm claimed to have the hacker’s identity (ID) information. 

SlowMist’s initial investigation revealed that the hacker used Hoo, a less popular Chinese cryptocurrency exchange, to gather funds for the attack. From Hoo, the blockchain security firm was able to obtain details of their digital footprint. 

Poly Network then reached out to the hacker through an open letter on Twitter, describing the magnitude of the hack and asking them to establish communication and work together to return the stolen funds. 

The team behind the Poly Network prepared a multi-sig address controlled by a known Poly address and identified three addresses where the attacker could return funds.

«

DeFi = decentralised finance. That is, doing all the transactions with “smart contracts” – essentially, little chunks of code triggered by certain conditions. Problem is, the interaction of all those bits of code can be unpredictable, and lead to hacks through a form of impersonation (in this case). Many other flaws exist; they just haven’t been found yet.
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Goodreads’ problem with extortion scams and review bombing • Time

Megan McCluskey:

»

few months after posting a message on Goodreads about the imminent release of a new book, Indie author Beth Black woke up to an all-caps ransom email from an anonymous server, demanding that she either pay for good reviews or have her books inundated with negative ones: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” the email, shared with TIME, read. “PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.”

Black, who has self-published both a romance novel and a collection of short stories in the past year, didn’t pay the ransom. “I reported it to Goodreads and then a couple hours later, I started noticing the stars dropping on my books as I started getting all these 1-star reviews,” she says. “It was quite threatening.”

Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.

Black says she had posted about the upcoming book in a Goodreads community group, and had sent PDF copies to self-proclaimed reviewers. According to Black, the pressure to rack up reviews on Goodreads and Amazon led to her becoming the target of a cyber-extortion attack.

«

We’re so far into the internet, and moderation – dealing with the humans – rather than trying to get machines and technology turns out to be the real problem again and again.
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Samsung Galaxy Watch4: the last chance for Wear OS • Forbes

Barry Collins:

»

The awkward union of Samsung and Google feels like the last throw of the dice for Wear OS. If Samsung can’t make a success of it, who else will? But is there enough in the Samsung Galaxy Watch4 (yes, they’ve dropped the space between ‘Watch’ and ‘4’) to deliver an upswing in Wear OS’s fortunes?

The official press release for the Galaxy Watch4 describes the operating system as “the new Wear OS Powered by Samsung, built jointly with Google”, which tells you something about the backstage politics, if nothing else. Samsung wants you to know it’s not just putting up the hardware.

What evidence is there of Samsung’s involvement in software design? Well, the Galaxy Watch4 is tightening the integration between Samsung smartphone and watch.

For instance, a new feature called One UI Watch automatically installs the Wear OS version of an app on your watch if it’s installed on your Samsung phone, which saves fiddling around with the Google Play Store on the watch.

Other settings, such as do-not-disturb hours and blocked callers, are automatically synced with the watch, so you shouldn’t be woken by the Galaxy Watch4 in the small hours. An Auto Switch feature also lets Samsung earbuds toggle between audio from your Samsung phone and earbuds.

The message here is clear: Samsung is trying to deliver the same joined-up experience you get with an Apple iPhone/Watch/AirPod combo.

Samsung is also making heavy play of its own services, sitting alongside those of Google.

«

If Samsung can’t make this happen, then indeed, that party’s over.
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Ah, so this is where I hid the advert for Social Warming, my latest book.


Why Instagram’s creatives are angry about its move to video • The Guardian

Amelia Tait:

»

In late July, hobbyist photographer and self-proclaimed “sunrise hunter” Sam Binding conducted an experiment. After visiting Somerset Lavender Farm to catch the sun peeking over the purple blossoms, the 40-year-old from Bristol uploaded the results to both Instagram and Twitter. Two days later, he used the apps’ built-in analytics tools to assess the impact of his shots. On Instagram, a total of 5,595 people saw his post – just over half of his 11,000 followers. On Twitter, his post was seen by 5,611 people, despite the fact he has just 333 followers on the site.

This confirmed Binding’s hunch that although most people believe that Instagram is a place to share photos and Twitter is a place to share words, that may no longer be the case. When it launched in 2010, Instagram courted the artistic community, inviting respected designers to be among its initial users and naming its very first filter X-Pro II, after an analogue photo-developing technique. In her 2020 book No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, technology reporter Sarah Frier documents how Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom wanted Instagram to be an outlet for artists (in a high-school essay, Systrom wrote that he liked how photography could “inspire others to look at the world in a new way”).

But Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. Systrom departed as CEO in 2018. And three weeks before Binding uploaded his lavender pics, the new head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, posted a video to his personal social media accounts. “I want to start by saying we’re no longer a photo-sharing app.”

«

And that is being proved over and over. One thing about Instagram that’s crucially different from just about every other social network, I noticed when writing Social Warming, is that it doesn’t have any method for content to go viral. That has its benefits – you don’t get ideologues building up huge follower numbers through the algorithm – but equally when the algorithm demotes you, for reasons you can’t understand, then there’s no recourse. You’re swinging in the dark.
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Taliban members are reportedly running Clubhouse chatrooms • NY Post

Theo Wayt:

»

As the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, some members of the Islamist terrorist group are apparently making time to log on to Clubhouse, a trendy audio-based social media app. 

Taliban spokespeople are running chatrooms within the app where they discuss religion and their plans for the future of Afghanistan, which is rapidly falling into the extremist group’s control amid the withdrawal of American troops, Agence France-Presse reported. 

“The Taliban called me rude and cut my mic after I spoke the truth about them,” Haanya Saheba Malik, an Afghan Clubhouse user who joined a Taliban room, told AFP. “They openly declared those of us calling for human rights infidels and deserving of death.”

Clubhouse’s terms of service forbid “immoral, racist, or discriminatory” behavior based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or serious disease.” 

But the app — which is backed by A-list investors like Andreessen Horowitz and Tiger Global Management, as well as celebrity entrepreneur Audrey Gelman — appears to have allowed the group to operate on the platform for at least two weeks.

«

They can have Lashnagard, but not Clubhouse! For a slightly more nuanced version (can you do nuance with the Taliban?) which suggests that Afghans are tuning in to ask what the Taliban intend to bring to the country, here’s the AFP story (hosted on Spacedaily).

Not sure it’s going to help Clubhouse’s valuation to be big in Afghanistan, though.
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Pay cut: Google employees who work from home could lose money • Reuters

Danielle Kaye:

»

Google employees based in the same office before the pandemic could see different changes in pay if they switch to working from home permanently, with long commuters hit harder, according to a company pay calculator seen by Reuters.

It is an experiment taking place across Silicon Valley, which often sets trends for other large employers.

Facebook and Twitter also cut pay for remote employees who move to less expensive areas, while smaller companies including Reddit and Zillow (ZG.O) have shifted to location-agnostic pay models, citing advantages when it comes to hiring, retention and diversity.

Alphabet’s Google stands out in offering employees a calculator that allows them to see the effects of a move. But in practice, some remote employees, especially those who commute from long distances, could experience pay cuts without changing their address.

“Our compensation packages have always been determined by location, and we always pay at the top of the local market based on where an employee works from,” a Google spokesperson said, adding that pay will differ from city to city and state to state.

«

Nothing is going to be quite the same.
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Wagner: scale of Russian mercenary mission in Libya exposed • BBC News

Ilya Barabanov & Nader Ibrahim:

»

A BBC investigation has revealed the scale of operations by a shadowy Russian mercenary group in Libya’s civil war, which includes links to war crimes and the Russian military.

A Samsung tablet left by a fighter for the Wagner group exposes its key role – as well as traceable fighter codenames.

…The tablet was left behind by an unknown Wagner fighter after the group’s fighters retreated from areas south of Tripoli in spring 2020.

Its contents include maps in Russian of the frontline, giving confirmation of Wagner’s significant presence and an unprecedented insight into the group’s operations. There is drone footage and codenames of Wagner fighters, at least one of whom the BBC believes it has identified. The tablet is now in a secure location.

A comprehensive list of weapons and military equipment is included in a 10-page document dated 19 January 2020, given to the BBC by a Libyan intelligence source and probably recovered from a Wagner location.

The document indicates who may be funding and backing the operation. It lists materiel needed for the “completion of military objectives” – including four tanks, hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles and a state-of-the-art radar system.

«

Logical, when you think about it: easier to read than a phone, more portable than a laptop. Though it also shows that things have moved on. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad, part of the haul included a PC. But that was 2011.
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The same post-truth politics of Brexit and Covid now threaten Britain’s climate change response • The i

Ian Dunt:

»

Climate change policy has become a key area of opposition for the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Sweden Democrats and Alternative for Germany. 

You can see the same process happening here. In his new slot on GB News this week, Nigel Farage branded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report climate “alarmism” and said he “questioned the obsession with carbon dioxide and its direct link to global warming”. 

This message fits easily into the fake binary opposition established by Brexit, of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite versus the authentic people of the country. The Tory MPs on WhatsApp on Tuesday were busy sharing private polling which showed that 47% of petrol drivers supported the Conservatives, while around 70% of electric car drivers backed Labour.  

It also highlights a psychological tendency on the Conservative backbenches which seeks to deny long-term casual effects and present a simplified fairy story in place of complex real-world dynamics. We saw this during the Brexit debates, when prominent Leavers rubbished the idea that customs borders involved bureaucracy and delays, only to now see them brought disastrously to life in UK exports to Europe and trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.  

We then saw it during the Covid emergency, when many of the same figures railed against lockdowns, only to then watch cases spiral out of control due to the ensuing delay to government action. 

We’re now in danger of the precise same thing happening again. The European Research Group of Tory MPs acted as a vanguard of Brexit missionary zeal during the break from Europe. The Covid Recovery Group did the same against the second lockdown. Now a new group is being formed – presumably entitled something suitably Orwellian like the Environmental Research Group – to challenge the goal of net-zero carbon emissions. 

«

Very likely the complaint will be that China’s “doing nothing” or the US is “doing nothing” or Germany is “doing nothing”, so why should we? There are lots of countries that can be accused of “doing nothing”.
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Vodafone latest UK carrier to reintroduce roaming charges in Europe after Brexit • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Vodafone has announced it will reintroduce roaming charges in Europe for UK mobile customers from January next year. It’s the latest UK carrier to reintroduce the fees after the country’s departure from the European Union, and it follows a similar U-turn from EE in June. All major carriers in the country previously said they had no plans to introduce roaming fees in Europe after the Brexit vote.

The fees will apply to any Vodafone customers who sign up to or change their contract from August 11th, 2021, with the fees applying from January 6th, 2022. Costs are dependent on the specific plan, but most customers will pay £2 ($2.77) a day to use their UK allowance of calls, texts, and data in Europe, or £1 a day if access is bought in eight- or 15-day bundles.

Roaming charges were abolished in the European Union on June 15th, 2017, but after the UK voted to leave the EU, it had to renegotiate its trade agreements with the bloc. These did not include free mobile roaming, allowing UK carriers to reintroduce fees if they wished.

«

Sunlit uplands. Well, for the mobile carriers, anyway.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1612: Facebook v White House on vaccines, a map of climate pledges (and heat), tech’s illustration loop, Apple on CSAM, and more


Why would a science paper talk about “counterfeit consciousness” rather than “artificial intelligence”? Because it’s trying to hide plagiarism, researchers suggest. CC-licensed photo by deepak pal on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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


Inside the White House-Facebook rift over vaccine misinformation • The New York Times

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Cecilia Kang:

»

In March, Andy Slavitt, then a top pandemic adviser for President Biden, called Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, and delivered an ominous warning.

For many weeks, Mr. Slavitt and other White House officials had been meeting with Facebook to urge the company to stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the shots could lead to infertility, stillborn babies and autism. Mr. Slavitt and other officials felt that executives were deflecting blame and resisting requests for information.

“In eight weeks’ time,” Mr. Slavitt told Mr. Clegg, “Facebook will be the No. 1 story of the pandemic.”

Mr. Slavitt’s prediction was not far off. Roughly three months later, with cases from the Delta variant surging, Mr. Biden said Facebook was “killing people” — a comment that put the social network in the center of the public discussion about the virus.

Mr. Biden’s comment, which he later walked back slightly, was the culmination of increasingly combative meetings with the company about the spread of misinformation. Interviews with administration officials, Facebook employees and other people with knowledge of the internal discussions revealed new details about who took part in the talks and the issues that fed the frustrations between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan.

«

A long read. Note this: “When Mr. Patil [for the White House] asked for data on how often misinformation was viewed and spread, the company said it couldn’t provide that kind of data.”

Just like I said. Facebook doesn’t know the extent of the problem.
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A new Plandemic-like misinformation video has earned tens of millions Facebook engagements via streaming platforms • Media Matters for America

Alex Kaplan and Kayla Gogarty:

»

Facebook has claimed it would remove content from its platform that pushes false claims about vaccines, and YouTube prohibits content “about COVID-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm” or “contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.” Given the speed at which this latest video has racked up engagements, it appears that neither platform has learned any lessons from allowing conspiracy theory videos like Plandemic and Planet Lockdown to go viral, nor are these policies being consistently enforced to fight medical misinformation. 

The new video features a man named Dan Stock speaking in front of an Indiana city’s school board. Calling himself a “functional family medicine physician,” Stock falsely suggested that coronavirus vaccines were not effective, saying, “Why is a vaccine that is supposedly so effective having a breakout in the middle of the summer when respiratory viral syndromes don’t do that?” He also falsely claimed, “People who have recovered from COVID-19 infection actually get no benefit from vaccination at all,” and inaccurately alleged that masks do not work, saying that “coronavirus and all other respiratory viruses … are spread by aerosol particles, which are small enough to go through every mask.” And rather than vaccines, Stock suggested people use the drug ivermectin to treat COVID-19 — which the FDA has specifically advised against.

According to the tracking tool BuzzSumo, uploads of the video from streaming platforms have earned more than 90 million total Facebook engagements. Most of those come from YouTube — in particular, from three versions of the video that have since been removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines.

«

Just so you don’t think that misinformation is all down to Facebook.
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Why is tech illustration stuck on repeat? • Protocol

Hirsh Chitkara:

»

You may not have heard of “corporate memphis,” but you’ve almost certainly seen it. The illustration style can be found in the trendiest direct-to-consumer subway ads, within the app you use to split restaurant tabs or on the 404 page that attempts to counter your frustration with cutesiness. In fact, corporate memphis has become so synonymous with tech marketing that some illustrators simply know it as the “tech aesthetic.”

But corporate memphis has also become a victim of its own success. The once-whimsical, fresh style now feels safe and antiseptic. More conspicuous iterations of it get roasted online, if they get noticed at all; one popular tweet asks, “Why does every website landing page look like this now?” Illustrators are just as often tired of corporate memphis, but tech companies continue to commission it.

So why can’t tech wean itself off of corporate memphis? Part of it has to do with the practical aesthetic considerations that gave rise to the style. But corporate memphis has primarily stuck around because tech executives continue to overlook the value of illustration, according to several of the illustrators interviewed for this story. Illustration work is increasingly awarded to the lowest bidder on gig platforms, using tools designed to standardize output. For the few companies that recognize the value of illustration, however, investing in creative talent has paid considerable dividends — just not in ways that are easily measured.

«

Turns out we should blame a company whose name starts with “F” and ends with “acebook”. But this is a genuinely clever story; it may have been prompted by the tweet linked above, but you still have to go out and find the people doing the work, and discover there’s such a thing as “corporate memphis”. (And then use it six times in the first three paragraphs. Work it, baby.)
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When hope kills: Social media’s false promises to cancer patients • Healthy Debate

Anne Borden King:

»

“You have to die a little to live,” my friend’s husband told me as I began chemo last summer. He’d had Stage 2 cancer, like me, and was preparing me for how difficult the treatments would be. And he was right: In fact, it was hard to get my feet to walk through the hospital doors for my treatments. I knew that this was my best shot but on some visceral level I really wished I didn’t have to do it.

I shared updates about my cancer treatments with my friends on Facebook and it helped to get encouragement. But something else also happened on my timeline: Facebook’s advertising algorithms began targeting me for cancer ads from scammers selling phony treatments. These companies promised that I could cure my cancer “naturally without toxic chemotherapy or surgery” using vitamin IV therapy that allegedly had “the same mechanism as chemotherapy.” A page called Breast Cancer Conqueror offered a host of custom supplements and another clinic in Mexico offered beachside IV cocktails that would defeat cancer with “antioxidant properties.” It all sounded good – too good to be true.

I reported the ads to Facebook in the hope the platform would remove them (it didn’t). I also wrote about it, joining the legion of voices raising the alarm about mis- and disinformation on social media.

A year later, not much has changed on Facebook.

«

I spoke to Borden King in writing Social Warming: the way that Facebook overlooks so much misinformation about stuff that can kill you is incredible.
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Paris Equity Check • Pledged Warming Map

Yann Robiou du Pont:

»

The Pledged Warming Map provides an assessment of global warming when all countries follow the ambition of a given one. This warming assessment assumes a self-interested approach of equity where each country follows the least stringent of three equity concepts (historical responsibility, capacity to pay and equality). This warming assessment reconciles the bottom-up architecture of the Paris Agreement with its top-down warming threshold.

With the Paris Agreement, countries committed to collectively limit global warming to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels. However, there is currently no commonly agreed effort-sharing mechanism to determine the contribution of each country. Measuring the ambition of the climate pledges, the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), requires considerations of effort-sharing driven by equity concepts and countries are requested to provide in their NDC a description of how their contribution is ‘fair and ambitious’ (these are provided under the country graphs).

«

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good news to be found on this map. Among the most gigantic what-ifs are what if Al Gore had been installed as president in 2000 (given that he was elected, right?) and what if Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, had been president in 2016. We might be in a better place – though a lot would depend on China.
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Pricing vs rules: the EU’s balancing act • Internationale Politik Quarterly

Noah Gordon:

»

Finding the right balance between pricing and rules [on greenhouse emissions] is so difficult because the two policy approaches tend to irritate (or invigorate) different interest groups.

Take road transport, where the EU is planning both new rules and new taxes. The proposal to put a carbon price on transport fuels has come under heavy fire in Brussels. Pascal Canfin, the French MEP from the centrist, liberal Renew Europe group who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee, has warned that this would be “politically suicidal.” “Do not make the mistake … we saw in France; it gave us the yellow vests.”

As the economic historian Adam Tooze has argued, the Macron administration’s announcement that it would continue to periodically raise the carbon tax on fuels was far from the only cause of the Gilet Jaunes protests—and there are many ways to recycle carbon tax revenue to low-income Europeans. (European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did say Brussels would establish a social climate fund worth €144 billion to “compensate vulnerable groups” for higher costs.) Yet it is the perception that matters, and there has indeed been an ugly backlash against carbon pricing in places like Australia or the US state of Oregon.

In any case, it is not only the French who have concerns. Polish state secretary for climate Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertynski has said “The commission seems to be making the choice of taxing poorer households,” which he called a mistake. Danish Climate Minister Dan Jorgensen has admitted that it is “difficult for me to just point to a big number of other countries that support [the ETS for transport].” Germany is one of the few supporters, but the proposal has reportedly split the commission.

Interestingly, the skepticism about pricing comes from across the political spectrum, in Brussels and in national capitals alike.

«

I try very hard not to whisper “we’re so screwed” when I read anything like this, but I do increasingly think we’re so screwed.
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‘Tortured phrases’ give away fabricated research papers • Nature

Holly Else:

»

In April 2021, a series of strange phrases in journal articles piqued the interest of a group of computer scientists. The researchers could not understand why researchers would use the terms ‘counterfeit consciousness’, ‘profound neural organization’ and ‘colossal information’ in place of the more widely recognized terms ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘deep neural network’ and ‘big data’.

Further investigation revealed that these strange terms — which they dub “tortured phrases” — are probably the result of automated translation or software that attempts to disguise plagiarism. And they seem to be rife in computer-science papers.

Research-integrity sleuths say that Cabanac and his colleagues have uncovered a new type of fabricated research paper, and that their work, posted in a preprint on arXiv on 12 July1, might expose only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the literature affected.

To get a sense of how many papers are affected, the researchers ran a search for several tortured phrases in journal articles indexed in the citation database Dimensions. They found more than 860 publications that included at least one of the phrases, 31 of which were published in a single journal: Microprocessors and Microsystems.

“It harms science. You cannot trust these papers, so we need to find them and retract them,” says Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse, France, who worked on the study.

«

Also frequently seen in blogs that scrape originals and then throw them through thesaurus-style systems. The effects are very, very strange.
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Interview: Apple’s Head of Privacy details child abuse detection and Messages safety features • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino interviews Erik Neuenschwander:

»

One of the bigger queries about this system is that Apple has said that it will just refuse action if it is asked by a government or other agency to compromise by adding things that are not CSAM to the database to check for them on-device. There are some examples where Apple has had to comply with local law at the highest levels if it wants to operate there, China being an example. So how do we trust that Apple is going to hew to this rejection of interference If pressured or asked by a government to compromise the system?

Well first, that is launching only for US, iCloud accounts, and so the hypotheticals seem to bring up generic countries or other countries that aren’t the US when they speak in that way, and the therefore it seems to be the case that people agree US law doesn’t offer these kinds of capabilities to our government. 

But even in the case where we’re talking about some attempt to change the system, it has a number of protections built in that make it not very useful for trying to identify individuals holding specifically objectionable images. The hash list is built into the operating system, we have one global operating system and don’t have the ability to target updates to individual users and so hash lists will be shared by all users when the system is enabled. And secondly, the system requires the threshold of images to be exceeded so trying to seek out even a single image from a person’s device or set of people’s devices won’t work because the system simply does not provide any knowledge to Apple for single photos stored in our service. And then, thirdly, the system has built into it a stage of manual review where, if an account is flagged with a collection of illegal CSAM material, an Apple team will review that to make sure that it is a correct match of illegal CSAM material prior to making any referral to any external entity.

«

Neuenschwander might have guessed that things would get a little heated, though I doubt he realised quite how heated. Apple’s giving absolutely no ground on this, though. And he emphasises that if you turn iCloud Photos off, then no scanning at all takes place.
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Google didn’t want sideloading for Fortnite on Android • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

»

According to the [newly released court] documents, Google tried to dissuade Epic from allowing sideloads of Fortnite for Android. First, it offered Epic a “special deal” to bring Fortnite to the Google Play Store. Presumably, this deal would have cut down Google’s 30% commission on app sales, which is the main reason Epic didn’t want Fortnite on the Play Store.

Google also allegedly tried to paint sideloading as an “awful” and “abysmal” experience for users. A Google representative said that its takes “15+ steps” to sideload an app (sideloading is when you install an Android app outside of the Play Store).

Ironically, Google trying to dissuade Epic from allowing sideloads of Fortnite for Android is a huge boon to Epic’s case. Epic is trying to argue in court that the Play Store (and, in a different suit, the Apple App Store) is a de facto monopoly. Epic argues that Google purposefully makes it difficult for publishers to succeed outside the Play Store, even if it is possible to do. As such, Google trying to paint sideloading as a poor experience only bolster’s Epic’s argument.

«

Google wasn’t wrong, though. The sideloading experience also brought malware opportunism, which screwed up people’s phones.
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Why do consumer apps get worse? • ongoing

Tim Bray (who used to work at Google and Amazon):

»

Why does this happen? · It’s obvious. Every high-tech company has people called “Product Managers” (PMs) whose job it is to work with customers and management and engineers to define what products should do. No PM in history has ever said “This seems to be working pretty well, let’s leave it the way it is.” Because that’s not bold. That’s not visionary. That doesn’t get you promoted.

It is the dream of every PM to come up with a bold UX innovation that gets praise, and many believe the gospel that the software is better at figuring out what the customer wants than the customer is. And you get extra points these days for using ML.

Also, any time you make any change to a popular product, you’ve imposed a retraining cost on its users. Unfortunately, in their evaluations, PMs consider the cost of customer retraining time to be zero.
How to fix this? Well, in my days at Amazon Web Services, I saw exactly zero instances of major service releases that, in the opinion of customers, crippled or broke the product. I’m not going to claim that our UX was generally excellent because it wasn’t; the fact that most users were geeks let us somewhat off the hook.

Why no breakage? Because these were Enterprise products, so the number of customers was orders of magnitude smaller than iAnything, so the PM could go talk to them and bounce improvement ideas off them. Customers are pretty good at spotting UX goofs in the making.

The evidence suggests that for mass-market products used by on the order of 107 people, it’s really difficult to predict which changes will be experienced as stupid, broken, and insulting.

«

(Unrelated: Bray left Amazon on a matter of principle over its firing of whistleblowers last year.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my latest book – now published in the US – and find answers, and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “ECU” stands for “electronic control unit” not “engine control unit”.

Start Up No.1611: Apple responds on CSAM scanning concerns, Time Turning with RFID (sorta), the UK’s Theranos, and more


Modern fuel cars have up to 150 engine control units (ECUs) – so they’re now struggling for parts. (EVs need fewer. Just saying.) CC-licensed photo by 3ndymion on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Told you it was warm. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Global warming? But what about Social Warming, my latest book?


Why the latest IPCC report is my climate tipping point • The Atlantic

Helen Lewis:

»

I no longer feel like the dog in the cartoon, insisting that “this is fine.” This isn’t fine. We have messed up quite badly, for some noble reasons, such as lifting people out of poverty, and some less noble ones, such as enriching the shareholders of fossil-fuel companies. But the same ingenuity that got humanity here, the ingenuity that created the internal-combustion engine and the airplane and the power station and the megafarm, is what can save us.

The impulse to procrastinate is understandable. Anyone who has written a book or cleaned out a garage will know the feeling: Simply by beginning such a project, you have committed yourself to an enormous amount of time and labor, so it’s easier not to start at all. That’s where politicians come in. Individual changes are no substitute for political action. Through subsidies and taxes, governments need to make the greenest option also the easiest one to take. Again, the surprise of the pandemic has been the high levels of compliance with shutdowns and mask mandates, despite isolated instances of rebellion making the news. The coronavirus didn’t cause looting. Society didn’t break down. In the face of existential threats, most of us are cooperative, kind, and resilient. Those qualities are what propelled a bunch of apes through an evolutionary journey that led to humans reaching the moon, splitting the atom, and creating RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The first thing to do is let the fear in, without letting it paralyze us.

«

Though, equally, at the individual level we have effectively no power; it requires those in charge to make decisions that change the game. Back nuclear power. Make coal-powered power stations financially calamitous to their owners. Fund carbon capture/removal technologies at every scale. (Trees are good, but we need something much more dramatic.)
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Latest climate change report just heartfelt farewell letter telling humanity to remember the good times • The Onion

»

Cautioning readers to avoid dwelling on the negative, the latest report published Monday by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was just a heartfelt letter telling humanity to remember the good times.

“Look, regardless of what happens next, it’s been a great 300,000 years for our species,” read the assessment in part, adding that it would be a shame if the prospect of continual cataclysmic storms and unbreathable air overshadowed Homo sapiens’ many high points, such as the development of spoken language, stone tools, and agriculture.

“After studying all the data on ozone levels and the rate of melting permafrost, we found that you shouldn’t harp on that and instead focus on stuff like the Renaissance and the invention of irrigation or ice cream, you know, the halcyon times. Despite what our projections state, humanity will always be alive as long as we keep it in our hearts.”

The report concluded by imploring global citizens to take immediate action by sharing one fond memory from our epoch.

«

Like a stiletto slipped in between the third and fourth rib.
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Apple’s mistake • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

»

I am not anti-encryption, and am in fact very much against mandated backdoors. Every user should have the capability to lock down their devices and their communications; bad actors surely will. At the same time, it’s fair to argue about defaults and the easiest path for users: I think the iPhone being fundamentally secure and iCloud backups being subject to the law is a reasonable compromise.

Apple’s choices in this case, though, go in the opposite direction: instead of adding CSAM-scanning to iCloud Photos in the cloud that they own and operate, Apple is compromising the phone that you and I own-and-operate, without any of us having a say in the matter. Yes, you can turn off iCloud Photos to disable Apple’s scanning, but that is a policy decision; the capability to reach into a user’s phone now exists, and there is nothing an iPhone user can do to get rid of it.

A far better solution to the “Flickr problem” I started with [that Apple is underrepresented in reports of people holding or sending child sex abuse material] is to recognize that the proper point of comparison is not the iPhone and Facebook, but rather Facebook and iCloud.

One’s device ought be one’s property, with all of the expectations of ownership and privacy that entails; cloud services, meanwhile, are the property of their owners as well, with all of the expectations of societal responsibility and law-abiding which that entails. It’s truly disappointing that Apple got so hung up on its particular vision of privacy that it ended up betraying the fulcrum of user control: being able to trust that your device is truly yours.

«

I disagree, but he makes the best case possible. The reality is that the phone and the backup are effectively inseparable – the phone is the vessel for the backup – unless you limit yourself to local iTunes backups (in which case you’re not using iCloud Photo Library, which case the scanning doesn’t affect you).
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Expanded protections for children: Frequently Asked Questions • Apple

»

Can the CSAM detection system in iCloud Photos be used to detect things other than CSAM?

Our process is designed to prevent that from happening. CSAM detection for iCloud Photos is built so that the system only works with CSAM image hashes provided by NCMEC and other child safety organizations. This set of image hashes is based on images acquired and validated to be CSAM by child safety organizations. There is no automated reporting to law enforcement, and Apple conducts human review before making a report to NCMEC. As a result, the system is only designed to report photos that are known CSAM in iCloud Photos. In most countries, including the United States, simply possessing these images is a crime and Apple is obligated to report any instances we learn of to the appropriate authorities.

Could governments force Apple to add non-CSAM images to the hash list?

Apple will refuse any such demands. Apple’s CSAM detection capability is built solely to detect known CSAM images stored in iCloud Photos that have been identified by experts at NCMEC and other child safety groups. We have faced demands to build and deploy government-mandated changes that degrade the privacy of users before, and have steadfastly refused those demands. We will continue to refuse them in the future. Let us be clear, this technology is limited to detecting CSAM stored in iCloud and we will not accede to any government’s request to expand it. Furthermore, Apple conducts human review before making a report to NCMEC. In a case where the system flags photos that do not match known CSAM images, the account would not be disabled and no report would be filed to NCMEC.

Can non-CSAM images be “injected” into the system to flag accounts for things other than CSAM?

Our process is designed to prevent that from happening. The set of image hashes used for matching are from known, existing images of CSAM that have been acquired and validated by child safety organizations. Apple does not add to the set of known CSAM image hashes.

«

Emphasis added in the second answer. (I think it might be a reference to the FBI/San Bernadino kerfuffle.) Apple clearly sees this as a bit of an antenna-gate, but not quite big enough to actually brief humans about it.

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#DEFCON: Hacking RFID attendance systems with a Time Turner • Infosecurity Magazine

Sean Michael Kerner :

»

If a computer science student has a scheduling conflict and wants to attend two different classes that occur at the same time, what should that student do?

In a session at the DEF CON 29 conference on August 7, Ph.D. student Vivek Nair outlined a scenario where a hack of the attendance system could, in fact, enable him, or anyone else, to be in two places at the same time. Nair explained that many schools use an RFID-based attendance system known as an iClicker to track whether or not a student is present. The system includes a base station for each classroom or lecture hall, and then each student is required to carry a device, which can also be used to answer multiple-choice questions.

Nair noted that in the popular Harry Potter fiction series there is a magical device known as a Time Turner, which is used to help enable a student to be in two classes at the same time, via time travel.

“Without the luxury of magic, what is the next best thing?” Nair asked. “It is, of course, hacking.”

«

Well, hacking is after all a sort of magic.
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How software is eating the car • IEEE Spectrum

Robert Charette:

»

“Once, software was a part of the car. Now, software determines the value of a car,” notes Manfred Broy, emeritus professor of informatics at Technical University, Munich and a leading expert on software in automobiles. “The success of a car depends on its software much more than the mechanical side.” Nearly all vehicle innovations by auto manufacturers, or original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as they are called by industry insiders, are now tied to software, he says.

Ten years ago, only premium cars contained 100 microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) networked throughout the body of a car, executing 100 million lines of code or more. Today, high-end cars like the BMW 7-series with advanced technology like advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) may contain 150 ECUs or more, while pick-up trucks like Ford’s F-150 top 150 million lines of code. Even low-end vehicles are quickly approaching 100 ECUs and 100 million of lines of code as more features that were once considered luxury options, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, are becoming standard.

Additional safety features that have been mandated since 2010 like electronic stability control,backup cameras, and automatic emergency calling (eCall) in the EU, as well as more stringent emission standards that ICE vehicles can only meet using yet more innovative electronics and software, have further driven ECU and software proliferation.

Consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited estimates that as of 2017, some 40% of the cost of a new car can be attributed to semiconductor-based electronic systems, a cost doubling since 2007.

«

150 ECUs is a lot of ECUs, isn’t it. Apparently EVs use about one-third as many as internal combustion engines – providing another incentive, you’d think, for carmakers to shift.
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Doximity, social network for doctors, full of antivax disinformation • CNBC

Ari Levy:

»

Doximity, which has long described itself as LinkedIn for doctors, held its stock market debut in June and rocketed up to a $10 billion market cap. In its IPO prospectus, the company said it had 1.8 million members, including 80% of physicians across the U.S. They use the site to connect with one another, share research, stay informed on industry trends and securely communicate with patients.

Malarik, who worked in psychiatry for over two decades, said it’s baffling to peruse Doximity’s site and find the type of misinformation that he expects to see on Facebook and YouTube, where conspiracy theories run rampant.

Malarik read directly from several comments posted by people with the initials M.D. or D.O., which indicates doctor of osteopathic medicine, after their names. There’s no anonymity on the site, so everyone is identified. In the posts, they refer to the vaccines as experimental, unproven or deadly and occasionally write “Fauxi” when talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical advisor.

Some commenters say that antibodies from contracting Covid are more effective than the messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines, which instruct human cells to make specific proteins that produce an immune response to the disease.

«

So little knowledge, so much internet.
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Bad blood: a cautionary tale of the start-up that promised too much • The Sunday Times Magazine

Sara McCorquodale:

»

TLT had developed a futuristic Apple Watch-style device that claimed to measure “beat to beat” blood pressure in real time. It didn’t need to know your gender, your weight or your medical history. It just strapped on and gave you an instant, accurate flow of Fitbit-like data to an app on your phone. Two years of setbacks, delays and bust-ups with Sandeep and Nita Shah, the company’s founders, did not change the fact that this was the holy grail of healthcare.

The market size was enormous and the potential impact profound. Hypertension — the bane of 1.13 billion people globally — would lose its chilling nickname, “the silent killer” and it was all thanks to the Shahs’ revolutionary, closely guarded algorithm. Many companies with astronomical budgets had tried to measure blood pressure non-invasively in real time and failed. The idea that a couple from Hertfordshire had managed to crack it with a clever algorithm made their story all the more compelling and Pearce was not the only one to be convinced. The government had endorsed the company, putting Sandeep in front of potential investors at the British Business Embassy, and the device had won awards for innovation. Since Pearce had joined the company there had been meetings with tech giants, including Apple in London and Palo Alto.

…The Department for International Trade — then known as UK Trade and Investment — invited Sandeep to present TLT at the British Business Embassy as part of the celebrations around the London Olympics. During his talk, Sandeep claimed that the Sapphire was a “cuffless system” that could take a blood pressure reading anywhere on the body and that it would enter the market within the next 12 months. Watching from Minneapolis, Borgos was rolling his eyes. “There’s no way the sensor we had could have morphed into that,” he says. “I spent some time investigating non-invasive blood pressure, but it always involves the artery because that’s the pressure you’re measuring.”

«

The UK’s own little Theranos – though with a sadder ending: Sandeep Shah was found dead at his home last September.
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Google considered buying ‘some or all’ of Epic during Fortnite clash, court documents say • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

»

Google considered buying Epic Games as the companies sparred over Epic’s Fortnite Android app, according to newly unsealed court filings. Last night, Google lifted some of its redactions in Epic’s antitrust complaint against Google, which Epic amended and refiled last month. The complaint still omits many details about Google’s dealings with specific companies, but the new details reflect internal Google communications about competition on the Android platform.

Epic claims Google was threatened by its plans to sidestep Google’s official Play Store commission by distributing Fortnite through other channels, and in an unredacted segment, it quotes an internal Google document calling Epic’s plans a “contagion” threatening Google. Here’s Epic’s description of the situation:

Google has gone so far as to share its monopoly profits with business partners to secure their agreement to fence out competition, has developed a series of internal projects to address the “contagion” it perceived from efforts by Epic and others to offer consumers and developers competitive alternatives, and has even contemplated buying some or all of Epic to squelch this threat.

The internal messages discussing that possibility remain secret, and the complaint doesn’t indicate that Google ever reached out to Epic with these plans. It also doesn’t give a timeframe for the discussion — although it presumably happened after Epic started its plans to launch Fortnite on Android in 2018. In a tweet after this article’s publication, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said the plan “was unbeknownst to us at the time.”

«

Buying Epic could have been a good move in its own right, though. If Google could have kept up sufficient interest in the company, and if Epic had been able to retain its cohesion.
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Divergent Association Task

»

The Divergent Association Task measures verbal creativity in under 4 minutes.

It involves thinking of unrelated ideas. People who are more creative tend to think of ideas with greater “distances” between them.

We recommend that you take the test before you learn more about it. You can also read our open-access manuscript in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

«

And here’s where you take the test.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1610: Apple CSAM system redux, Amazon’s sellers hunt the negs, Huawei slumps, FTC slaps Facebook, bulk up!, and more


The slog of identifying items in Google’s captchas is an insight into the awful inner world of an AI. Grim, isn’t it? CC-licensed photo by Seth Stoll on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. That warm, huh? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple’s new ‘child safety’ initiatives, and the slippery slope • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:

»

For obvious reasons, this feature is not optional. If you use iCloud Photo Library, the images in your library will go through this fingerprinting. (This includes the images already in your iCloud Photo Library, not just newly-uploaded images after the feature ships later this year.) To opt out of this fingerprint matching, you’ll need to disable iCloud Photo Library.

A big source of confusion seems to be what fingerprinting entails. Fingerprinting is not content analysis. It’s not determining what is in a photo. It’s just a way of assigning unique identifiers — essentially long numbers — to photos, in a way that will generate the same fingerprint identifier if the same image is cropped, resized, or even changed from color to grayscale. It’s not a way of determining whether two photos (the user’s local photo, and an image in the CSAM [child sexual abuse material] database from NCMEC) are of the same subject — it’s a way of determining whether they are two versions of the same image. If I take a photo of, say, my car, and you take a photo of my car, the images should not produce the same fingerprint even though they’re photos of the same car in the same location. And, in the same way that real-world fingerprints can’t be backwards engineered to determine what the person they belong to looks like, these fingerprints cannot be backwards engineered to determine anything at all about the subject matter of the photographs.

The Messages features for children in iCloud family accounts is doing content analysis to try to identify sexually explicit photos, but is not checking image fingerprint hashes against the database of CSAM fingerprints.

«

Three days on, loads of people are still commenting on this without having read the proposals in detail. There’s a fair discussion on Lobsters. As one correspondent noted, “I suspect a key driving aspect is about violating people’s psychological expectations of property.”

But it’s scanning images *only if* they’re going to be uploaded to iCloud Photo Library. It’s like the difference between being frisked for illegal drugs (say) when you step outside your front door onto the garden path to the road, and being frisked for those drugs when you step through the gate onto the pavement. You’re going to the same place, and the purpose of the frisking is the same. And all the cloud services do the same frisking.

In fact, you don’t know if the cloud services are “frisking” for things other than the known CSAM. Apple at least is being clear about just using the NCMEC database.

More to the point, I’m increasingly sure that Apple delayed its implementation of iCloud backup encryption (which the FBI objected to) in 2018 so it could do this instead.

After this, though, it can roll out encrypted backups while being sure it isn’t harbouring CSAM. That could actually be a benefit to people in countries with repressive regimes which demand access to iCloud backups: Apple might not be able to grant that.
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In internal memo, Apple addresses concerns around new Photo scanning features, doubles down on the need to protect children • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:

»

In an internal memo distributed to the teams that worked on this project and obtained by 9to5Mac, Apple acknowledges the “misunderstandings” around the new features, but doubles down on its belief that these features are part of an “important mission” for keeping children safe.

Apple has faced a significant amount of pushback for these features, including from notable sources such as Edward Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The criticism centers primarily on Apple’s plans to scan iCloud Photos to check against a database of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) for matches and the potential implications of such a feature.

The memo, which was distributed late last night and obtained by 9to5Mac, was written by Sebastien Marineau-Mes, a software VP at Apple. Marineau-Mes says that Apple will continue to “explain and detail the features” included in this suite of Expanded Protections for Children.

Marineau-Mes writes that while Apple has seen “many positive responses” to these new features, it is aware that “some people have misunderstandings” about how the features will work, and “more than a few are worried about the implications.” Nonetheless, Marineau-Mes doubles down on Apple’s belief that these are necessary features to “protect children” while also maintaining Apple’s “deep commitment to user privacy.”

«

Note that the memo says they’ve been working on this for “years” – some people (on Twitter) have been responding as though Apple built it in a week and never considered the possibility of government influence or interference, and how to counteract that. The NCMEC (US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) also praises it.
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When Amazon customers leave negative reviews, some sellers hunt them down • WSJ

Nicole Nguyen:

»

In March, New Yorker Katherine Scott picked out an oil spray bottle for cooking, based on nearly 1,000 glowing Amazon reviews of the product, which had a 4.5-star rating average. When the $10 sprayer arrived, she found the item didn’t work as advertised: Instead of a mist, it produced a stream of oil, she said. “It was like a Super Soaker gun instead of a spray-paint can, which defeats the purpose of the product,” she said. She left a negative review.

A week later, Ms. Scott received an email from someone claiming to be from the customer-service team of the oil sprayer’s brand, Auxtun—correspondence which I have reviewed.

“We are willing to refund in full,” the representative wrote. “We hope you can reconsider deleting comments at your convenience okay?” The message concluded, “When we do not receive a response, we will assume that you did not see it, and will continue to send emails.”

The seller shouldn’t have had her email address. Sellers who fulfill orders themselves do receive customer names and mailing addresses. But for orders that Amazon itself fulfills, customer data is supposed to be shielded from sellers and brands.

Sellers are permitted to communicate with buyers through Amazon’s built-in messaging platform, which hides the customer’s email address. Amazon’s terms of service also prohibit sellers from requesting that a customer remove a negative review or post a positive one.

“We do not share customer email addresses with third-party sellers,” an Amazon spokesman told me.

Meanwhile, brands, which can be distinct from sellers, may reach out to unsatisfied customers through Amazon’s messaging service, but they also aren’t allowed to ask customers to remove negative reviews.

Ms. Scott asked for a refund but didn’t want to delete her review. Another representative reached out the next day and declined to issue her refund. “A bad review is a fatal blow to us,” read the email. “Could you help me delete the review? If you can, I want to refund $20 to you to express my gratitude.” (This was twice what Ms. Scott paid.) A few hours later, she received another plea from the same email address.

«

The principal question – how they got the email address – really isn’t satisfactorily answered. Doesn’t seem to be an Amazon leak. But we are starting to think that reviews really aren’t a good metric for anything, aren’t we.
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China’s Huawei reports 38% revenue drop as US sanctions bite • WSJ

Dan Strumpf:

»

China’s Huawei Technologies reported a 38% fall in quarterly revenue Friday, as the damage U.S. sanctions have done to its sales of smartphones and telecommunications equipment worsened.

The drop marks the third straight decline in quarterly revenue for Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and formerly one of the world’s biggest smartphone sellers, and the declines have accelerated since the end of 2020.

Huawei’s smartphone sales, once a top revenue driver for the company, have fallen dramatically since the Trump administration imposed restrictions last year blocking the company from buying most advanced semiconductors. Revenue from telecommunications equipment sales have also dropped, although less dramatically, amid a U.S. campaign pressuring allied countries to drop the Chinese company as a supplier of 5G equipment.

Second-quarter revenue fell to 168.2bn yuan, about $26bn, from 271.8bn yuan in the same quarter a year ago, according to calculations based on figures disclosed by the Shenzhen-based company Friday. The decline marked a sharp acceleration from the 16.5% revenue drop in the first quarter and an 11.2% drop in the fourth quarter of 2020.

«

Hard to see that anything is going to pull Huawei out of this dive unless the US abruptly rescinds the Trump sanctions. Biden shows no sign of doing that. Possibly it’s being used as a bargaining chip, but there doesn’t seem to be any bargaining underway. Don’t forget, by the way, that a Huawei executive is still fighting extradition from Canada to the US, and China has a Canadian executive in jail, effectively in reprisal.
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Why stores send you so many emails • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

»

Email is one of the few ways companies can reach their customers directly. In fact, people overwhelmingly say that the way they want to hear from brands is by email, Chad S. White, the head of research for Oracle Marketing Consulting, told me. That’s why the mailbox software started suppressing messages—to protect people from companies’ temptation to send too many emails. In response, email marketers obsess over “deliverability,” or how the content and frequency of their emails might help those messages actually hit your inbox in the first place. But that process has created new and weird feedback loops, in which some companies and certain messages might be able to reach your inbox more readily than before, while others get junked—condemned to spam, deleted, or the like—before you see them.

As a result, your personal inbox gradually has become less like a mailbox and more like a wormhole into every business relationship you maintain: your bank; your utility provider; your supermarket; your favorite boutiques, restaurants, housewares providers, and all the rest. It’s your own digital commercial district: Opening up email is akin to visiting a little mall in your browser or on your phone, where every shop is right next to every other. A few years ago, Gmail made that metaphor concrete by introducing the promotions folder, recasting spam as marketing. When you’re in the mood to shop, just drop into promotions and see what’s on offer (or search for a favorite brand to see the latest wares).

«

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Letter to Facebook • Federal Trade Commission

Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine writes:

»

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

I write concerning Facebook’s recent insinuation that its actions against an academic research project conducted by NYU’s Ad Observatory were required by the company’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. As the company has since acknowledged, this is inaccurate. The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.

While I appreciate that Facebook has now corrected the record, I am disappointed by how your company has conducted itself in this matter. Only last week, Facebook’s General Counsel, Jennifer Newstead, committed the company to “timely, transparent communication to BCP staff about significant developments.” Yet the FTC received no notice that Facebook would be publicly invoking our consent decree to justify terminating academic research earlier this week.

Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest. Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising.

«

I’d say that’s pretty unambiguous.
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Why CAPTCHA pictures are so unbearably depressing • Medium

Clive Thompson:

»

I hate doing Google’s CAPTCHAs.

Part of it is the sheer hassle of repeatedly identifying objects — traffic lights, staircases, palm trees and buses — just so I can finish a web search. I also don’t like being forced to donate free labor to AI companies to help train their visual-recognition systems.

But a while ago, while numbly clicking on grainy images of fire hydrants, I was struck by another reason:
The images are deeply, overwhelmingly depressing.

…Each cube here [in a Captcha picture] is a tone poem in melancholia. Looking at these leaden vistas of America makes you, slightly but noticeably, feel worse than you did before.

Why are these photos so depressing? What is it about their composition that is so enervating? I’ve been musing on this for a few months now, and had some terrific exchanges about it with Todd Pruzan and Emily Gordon, two friends of mine, on Twitter.

I think I’ve figured it out, and so now I present — The Six Reasons CAPTCHA Pictures Make You Feel Like Crap.

«

They’re compelling, and surprising, reasons. They also feel very true. Obviously, don’t read it if you don’t want to feel like crap, because there are a few of those Captcha captures in the article.
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The economics of OnlyFans • xsrus.com

Thomas Hollands scraped OnlyFans for some revenue data:

»

The revenue of content creators follows a classic power law distribution. The top accounts make something like $100,000 a month (these aren’t in my sample). The median account makes $180 a month.

The top 1% of accounts make 33% of all the money. The top 10% of accounts make 73% of all the money. This isn’t the 80:20 rule; it’s the 80:14 rule.

The standard way to measure inequality of an economy is with a Gini Index. An index of 0 implies a communist utopia, a value of 1 implies a single greedy capitalist owns all the wealth. The Gini index of OnlyFans is 0.83. The most unequal society in the world, South Africa, has a Gini index of 0.68. OnlyFans is less equal than an ex-apartheid state.

OnlyFans is so unequal because chancers make accounts with zero fans, while big Instagram stars take their following with them. A large proportion of accounts have no fans at all, and the lion’s share of fans are shared by the top accounts.

Being an independent explicit online content creator is by many accounts exhausting. Your “fans” are not merely fans, they’re paying customers. To keep that sweet money flowing into their bank accounts, content creators often have to work harder and harder to satisfy their patrons.

Most accounts take home less than $145 per month (after commission). The modal revenue is $0.00, and the next most common is $4.99.

Creators put hours into each post, and on top of that, they interact one-on-one, with fans who can message them at any time. To break even on an OnlyFans account, creators need to earn more per month than the cost of hours spent engaging. The median take-home revenue is $136 per month. If you value a creator’s time at a $15 minimum wage, the median creator needs to be spending less than 9 hours per month on her OnlyFans to break even. This is less than 20 minutes a day.

Fans expect regular, prompt engagement, and many creators compare OnlyFans to running a business. It seems unlikely that you could satisfy all your fans demands in less time than it takes to make and eat breakfast.

Relative to effort, it looks like most accounts lose money.

«

The internet is fractal: it’s always a power law.
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August 8-14, 1921 • Reading the Roaring (19)20s

“Tate” is summarising the FT and WSJ from 100 years ago, once a week in the period leading up to the crash of 1929. (That takes a certain confidence in the continued existence of Substack, Tate and indeed the civilised world):

»

Executive Summary:

Writers at the FT ponder how to spend their day while equity and commodity markets vacillate listlessly. Random ideas captures the very moment of boredom. Even the Financial Times has temporarily shrunk: 6 pages per day this week down from the classic 12 pages. Summer has arrived.

August 11, 1921 – Financial Times
Wrangling over German reparations continues. Over the past year, it has become clear to Britain and France that Germany cannot pay in full. Instead of default, talks open on August 10, 1921 regarding three core issues: German payments to British and French soldiers currently occupying German regions, in kind (steel, coal, timber) transfers in lieu of German gold marks, and assumption of war debt of smaller European countries.

«

Might build to a great crescendo, or might reveal that nobody knows anything when they’re in the midst of it.
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How to lose body fat without it ruining your life • Vice

Casey Johnston:

»

A study published in April 2018 indicated that body composition—that is, the ratio of muscle mass to body fat—played a crucial role in how long subjects lived, and was a better indicator than the tyrannical body-mass index (which is just a weight and height ratio). Muscle mass also helps maintain our metabolism, and stave off diabetes and osteoporosis. People who work to maintain or build the muscle they have by strength training and making sure to eat their protein are protecting their overall health. 

Furthermore, if they are trying to lose body fat, taking care of their muscles means their metabolisms won’t suffer as much from modestly restricting their calories. Without taking care of lean muscle mass, aggressive dieting loses body fat and muscle, and then the inevitable rebound is gained back as body fat. Therefore, chronic or yo-yo dieting without muscle care becomes, effectively, just trading off more and more muscle for body fat. That makes it harder to lose body fat in subsequent attempts, and each time more and more muscle, and its associated benefits, are lost. This sounds scary, I imagine, but hopefully reveals what a scam diet programs are; aside from their extremely regressive “be smaller and smaller forever!” goals, they are essentially designed to create an increasingly desperate failure situation. Fuck them and fuck that.

So given all this, where should you start? While a lot of people I think would say dieting, and dieting certainly seems like the “easiest” way, for the reasons I’ve laid out here, it’s a fool’s errand.

«

A doctor (off-duty) recently said to me that it’s important to maintain muscle mass, which is lost at about 1% per year past the age of 40, because that’s what burns calories. Otherwise you’ll inevitably put on weight from eating what has always seemed like a “normal” amount, and the avoirdupois won’t be muscle.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Preorder Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Last week’s article about articles becoming more depressive might just be a factor of a changing corpus in Google Books, according to this Twitter thread (off Twitter, on a single page). So hey, maybe things are looking up! (Thanks Seth for the link.)

Start Up No.1609: row over Apple’s CSAM scanning, Mozilla slaps Facebook, Gulf Stream warning, will UK block ARM sale?, and more


Why haven’t all the people who lay bricks been replaced with machines, since it looks like a repetitive task they’re suited to? It’s complex. CC-licensed photo by Aquistbe on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 8 links for you. That’s a wrap. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


More than ever we need to understand the dynamics of social networks, and how they suck people in (and affect even those who don’t use them). Read
Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.


Apple reveals new efforts to fight child abuse imagery • The Verge

Russell Brandom and Richard Lawler:

»

In a briefing on Thursday afternoon, Apple confirmed previously reported plans to deploy new technology within iOS, macOS, watchOS, and iMessage that will detect potential child abuse imagery, but clarified crucial details from the ongoing project. For devices in the US, new versions of iOS and iPadOS rolling out this fall have “new applications of cryptography to help limit the spread of CSAM [child sexual abuse material] online, while designing for user privacy.”

The project is also detailed in a new “Child Safety” page on Apple’s website. The most invasive and potentially controversial implementation is the system that performs on-device scanning before an image is backed up in iCloud. From the description, scanning does not occur until a file is getting backed up to iCloud, and Apple only receives data about a match if the cryptographic vouchers (uploaded to iCloud along with the image) for a particular account meet a threshold of matching known CSAM.

For years, Apple has used hash systems to scan for child abuse imagery sent over email, in line with similar systems at Gmail and other cloud email providers. The program announced today will apply the same scans to user images stored in iCloud Photos, even if the images are never sent to another user or otherwise shared.

«

There’s a ton of explanation in this story (though not in the very overheated FT one) about what Apple is and isn’t doing, and the pains it has taken to get cryptographers to look over its plans to see if they’re robust.

But no, people are Losing. Their. §hit. about it. Apparently Apple is now invading their privacy (by checking for hashes of known CSAM?). What’s overlooked is that Microsoft, Google (2008), Facebook (2011) and Twitter (2013) have been doing this sort of thing to email and cloud storage for ages. Yes, that’s a story I wrote in 2013. Nobody knew about it; everyone thought Apple was the first company to scan for CSAM, because there’s a certain tech bro mentality that only things Apple does are worth noticing.

Apparently though evil governments will break into the database, upload hashes of photos they want to find, and get journalists or dissidents arrested. This is the scenario laid out by at least one noisy cryptographer on Twitter, who apparently hasn’t noticed that authoritarian governments don’t need a pretext to arrest someone – they just do it – and hasn’t figured out that to know what the photo in question is, they’d need to have seen on the target’s phone already. It’s just idiotic.
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Why Facebook’s claims about the Ad Observer are wrong • Mozilla blog

Marshall Erwin is chief security officer at Mozilla (which makes Firefox), and weighs in on Facebook banning researchers collecting data about ads that users were being shown:

»

We decided to recommend Ad Observer because our reviews assured us that it respects user privacy and supports transparency. It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads. It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers. The extension also allows you to see what data has been collected by visiting the “My Archive” tab. It gives you the choice to opt in to sharing additional demographic information to aid research into how specific groups are being targeted, but even that is off by default.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Ad Observer is open source, so anybody can see the code and  confirm it is designed properly and doing what it purports to do.

Of course, companies like Facebook need to be proactive about third-parties that might be collecting data on their platform and putting their users at risk. Figuring out what third-parties to allow under what circumstances is certainly not an easy task. But in this case, the application of its policy is counterproductive.

…The truth is that major platforms continue to be a safe haven for disinformation and extremism — wreaking havoc on people, our elections and society.

…We need tools like Ad Observer to help us shine a light on the darkest corners of the web. And rather than standing in the way of efforts to hold platforms accountable, we all need to work together to support and improve these tools.

«

Facebook is going to brazen this out, though. It’s restricting access to CrowdTangle, which gave other insights into what sort of content is popular on the network.
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Climate crisis: scientists spot warning signs of Gulf Stream collapse • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

»

The research found “an almost complete loss of stability over the last century” of the currents that researchers call the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). The currents are already at their slowest point in at least 1,600 years, but the new analysis shows they may be nearing a shutdown.

Such an event would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting the rains that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level in the eastern North America. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

The complexity of the AMOC system and uncertainty over levels of future global heating make it impossible to forecast the date of any collapse for now. It could be within a decade or two, or several centuries away. But the colossal impact it would have means it must never be allowed to happen, the scientists said.

“The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary,” said Niklas Boers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who did the research. “It’s something you just can’t [allow to] happen.”

It is not known what level of CO2 would trigger an AMOC collapse, he said. “So the only thing to do is keep emissions as low as possible. The likelihood of this extremely high-impact event happening increases with every gram of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere”.

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Better get that ticket to New Zealand booked, folks, because I can’t honestly see emissions staying “as low as possible”.
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Electric vehicle sales outpace diesel again • BBC News

»

More electric vehicles were registered than diesel cars for the second month in a row in July, according to car industry figures. It is the third time battery electric vehicles have overtaken diesel in the past two years.

…In July, battery electric vehicle registrations again overtook diesel cars, but registrations of petrol vehicles far outstripped both.

Cars can be registered when they are sold, but dealers can also register cars before they go on sale on the forecourt.

People are starting to buy electric vehicles more as the UK tries to move towards a lower carbon future.
The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and hybrids by 2035.

That should mean that most cars on the road in 2050 are either electric, use hydrogen fuel cells, or some other non-fossil fuel technology.

In July there was “bumper growth” in the sale of plug-in cars, the SMMT said, with battery electric vehicles taking 9% of sales. Plug-in hybrids reached 8% of sales, and hybrid electric vehicles were at almost 12%.
This is compared with a 7.1% market share for diesel, which saw 8,783 registrations.

«

Sales fell by nearly 30%, though. The new car market is incredibly liable to fluctuation (try taking the view out to “max”, which goes back to the 1960s), but the past two years are below the long-term trend.
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UK considers blocking Nvidia takeover of Arm over security • Bloomberg (via Yahoo)

Kitty Donaldson and Giles Turner:

»

Nvidia, the biggest US chip company by market capitalisation, announced in September a $40bn deal to acquire Arm from Japan’s SoftBank Group, as part of a push to spread its reach in the surging market for semiconductors. SoftBank has been selling assets to raise cash for buybacks and fresh investments in startups.

In April, UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to prepare a report on whether the deal could be deemed anti-competitive, along with a summary of any national security concerns raised by third parties.

The assessment, delivered in late July, contains worrying implications for national security and the UK is currently inclined to reject the takeover, a person familiar with government discussions said. The UK is likely to conduct a deeper review into the merger due to national security issues, a separate person said.

No final decision has been taken, and the UK could still approve the deal alongside certain conditions, the people added. Dowden is set to decide on whether the merger needs further examination by the UK’s competition authorities.

«

What would the national security issues be that didn’t arise when Softbank bought it in July 2016? Why is an American company more of a risk than a Japanese one? Looking forward to hearing these answered.
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YouTube’s Neal Mohan on the algorithm, monetization, and the future for creators • The Verge

Transcript for the chief product officer’s interview with The Verge’s editor Nilay Patel:

»

NP: Your connection to the early days of YouTube and how you’d make “My Day at the Zoo” now, I buy it. I have a more cynical version of the story though, and I want you to clarify it for me.

The more cynical version is: Snapchat launched Stories, and then Instagram launched Stories, and then WhatsApp launched Stories, and then YouTube launched Stories, and then LinkedIn launched Stories, and now there’s Stories everywhere.

And then TikTok came out, and TikTok is a cultural phenomenon. And now there’s something that looks exactly like TikTok in Instagram, and there is Shorts, which looks exactly like TikTok in YouTube.

That feels like maybe an unfairly cynical reading, but it’s also definitely the correct timeline. Do you think of Shorts as a direct competitor to TikTok?

NM: I’ll put it in context from my perspective. Thinking about things from a creator standpoint — you’re a video creator or you’re a creator that’s looking to build an audience — personally, I believe that it’s really great that there’s lots of platforms, lots of choices, lots of different ways that you can build an audience. I would argue that all of these platforms, while they might seem similar in many ways, are fundamentally very, very different, but I actually think that’s great for creators because it gives them a diversity of options. That’s what I would say first and foremost.

I would just say that we look at the Shorts product through the lens of “simple, fast, easy, but powerful mobile creation.” Ten years ago, you would have a camera, you’d have a tripod, you’d set it up in your family room or in your backyard or in your bedroom, and you would start vlogging. I really think the world is very different [now]. And, as you know, many parts of the world are leapfrogging that generation completely with the prevalence of mobile phones and the power on those devices. I really do look at what we’re doing with Shorts through that lens, and I think the roadmap that we have will also prove out that we’re thinking about those pieces.

«

Translation: yup, TikTok is killing us for attention and we need something to compete.
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Scammers will ban anyone from Instagram for $60 • Vice

Joseph Cox:

»

Scammers are abusing Instagram’s protections against suicide, self-harm, and impersonation to purposefully target and ban Instagram accounts at will, with some people even advertising professionalized ban-as-a-service offerings so anyone can harass or censor others, according to screenshots, interviews, and other material reviewed by Motherboard.

It appears that in some cases, the same scammers who offer ban-as-a-service also offer or are at least connected to services to restore accounts for users who were unfairly banned from Instagram, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

“Me (and my friend’s) currently have the best ban service on-site/in the world,” one advertisement for a ban service on the underground forum OG Users reads. “We have been professionally banning since 2020 and have top-tier experience. We may not have the cheapest prices, but trust me you are getting what you are paying for.”

War, the pseudonymous user offering the ban service, told Motherboard in a Telegram message that banning “is pretty much a full time job lol.” They claimed to have made over five-figures from selling Instagram bans in under a month. War charges $60 per ban, according to their listing.

«

I’m always wary of claims about being able to ban and/or reinstate accounts, because there are tons of scammers around social networks who will claim to be able to do this or that, when in fact they can’t. Cox did show someone who was banned, and the claims to have got them banned by the people quoted. Even so, I’d be cautious of networks of people acting in concert to make it seem like they can do something.
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Where are the robotic bricklayers? • Construction Physics

Brian Potter:

»

Masonry seemed like the perfect candidate for mechanization, but a hundred years of limited success suggests there’s some aspect to it that prevents a machine from easily doing it. This makes it an interesting case study, as it helps define exactly where mechanization becomes difficult – what makes laying a brick so different than, say, hammering a nail, such that the latter is almost completely mechanized and the former is almost completely manual?

There seems to be a few factors at work. One is the fact that a brick or block isn’t simply set down on a solid surface, but is set on top of a thin layer of mortar, which is a mixture of water, sand, and cementitious material. Mortar has sort of complex physical properties – it’s a non-newtonian fluid, and it’s viscosity increases when it’s moved or shaken. This makes it difficult to apply in a purely mechanical, deterministic way (and also probably makes it difficult for masons to explain what they’re doing – watching them place it you can see lots of complex little motions, and the mortar behaving in sort of strange not-quite-liquid but not-quite-solid ways). And since mortar is a jobsite-mixed material, there will be variation in it’s properties from batch to batch.

Masonry machines have constantly struggled with the mortar aspect of masonry; many of them simply ignored the aspect of the problem. The academic studies of the late 80s and early 90s were often based on using mortarless walls, wall systems that don’t require mortar joints (such as surface bonded masonry), or mortar alternatives that behaved a little more predictably (which is what Hadrian ended up using). In his 1996 paper, Pritschow comes right out and says that trying to solve the problem of handling mortar is too difficult.

«

I had honestly been wondering about the robotic bricklayers (I vaguely think it was suggested by the Oxford team who predicted doooooom for middle managers a few years ago). But humans are more flexible, more easily replaced and easier to teach new tasks.
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Start Up No.1608: Facebook blocks ad disinfo researchers, Cuba v the internet, our gloomy writing, Google v Daily Mail readers, and more


Where should you go after civilisation collapses? A new report has some suggestions that might surprise (but reassure) you. CC-licensed photo by Harry McGregor on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Got too many books? You need another:
Social Warming, my latest book, is out now.


NYU researchers speak out after Facebook disables their accounts • Protocol

Issie Lapowsky:

»

On Tuesday, Facebook suspended the accounts, apps and pages of several New York University researchers who have been using scraping tools to better understand political ads and disinformation on Facebook.

…Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, explained the company’s stance in a blog post, saying the company took these actions in fulfillment of its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, which requires stricter monitoring of third-party apps. “We made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year,” he wrote, “that we take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our platform. While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated.”

The tool in question is a browser extension called Ad Observer, which Facebook users can download if they want to send information about the Facebook ads they see to the researchers. Ad Observer scrapes the information those users see when they click “Why am I seeing this ad?” — a workaround that’s necessary because Facebook does not share information on who advertisers targeted in its public-facing ad archive. In the blog post, Clark accused the team of using the extension to collect data “about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection.”

It’s an accusation that evokes the worst of the Cambridge Analytica scraping scandal, but one that leaves out key details that Protocol revealed earlier this year in a story about Facebook’s dispute with the NYU researchers and the fraught relationship between platforms and researchers generally. The users who had data collected without their consent aren’t private users: They’re advertisers, whose ads are by definition already public, and whose information Facebook stores itself in an ad archive.

«

As someone pointed out, it didn’t seem to act with much alacrity when Clearview AI was scraping that data. And that it has decided that the bad press it might get from shutting this down was preferable to the bad press from what the researchers find out.
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Leaked document says Google fired dozens of employees for data misuse • Vice

Joseph Cox:

»

Google fired dozens of employees between 2018 and 2020 for abusing their access to the company’s tools or data, with some workers potentially facing allegations of accessing Google user or employee data, according to an internal Google document obtained by Motherboard.

The document provides concrete figures on an often delicate part of a tech giant’s operations: investigations into how the company’s own employees leverage their positions to steal, leak, or abuse data they may have access to. Insider abuse is a problem across the tech industry. Motherboard previously uncovered instances at Facebook, Snapchat, and MySpace, with employees in some cases using their access to stalk or otherwise spy on users.

The document says that Google terminated 36 employees in 2020 for security-related issues; 86% of all security-related allegations against employees included mishandling of confidential information, such as the transfer of internal-only information to outside parties.

…A Google spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement: “The instances referred to mostly relate to inappropriate access to, or misuse of, proprietary and sensitive corporate information or IP.”

«

Mostly, OK, and it’s a small number of people being fired, though of course one person could exfiltrate a ton of data. Or target one very important person.
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Why the internet in Cuba has become a US political hot potato • The Guardian

Ed Augustin and Daniel Montero:

»

With millions of Cubans now online, the state’s monopoly on mass communication has been deeply eroded. But after social media helped catalyse historic protests on the island last month, the government temporarily shut the internet down.

Full connectivity returned 72 hours later, but the issue has become a hot potato in the US. Hundreds of Cuban-Americans marched against the regime in Washington last week, and politicians are trying to leverage political capital: Florida senator Marco Rubio has called for the US to beam balloon-supplied internet to the island nation, while Joe Biden said his administration is assessing whether it can increase Cuba’s connectivity.

Experts say it’s unclear how internet access could be increased at scale if the host nation is unwilling to cooperate. “I haven’t seen anything other than pie in the sky,” said Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University.

Past US government attempts to bolster connectivity in Cuba read like a John Le Carré novel.

In 2009, Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, was arrested for distributing satellite equipment. His work was funded thanks to a US law that explicitly calls for the overthrow of the Castro regime. (Gross was later released as part of the restoration of US-Cuban relations during Barack Obama’s second term.)

Attempts to smuggle satellite ground stations disguised as surf boards on to the island were similarly foiled.

«

It’s the internet equivalent of exploding cigars. The US never does anything involving Cuba that doesn’t seem bizarrely clumsy.
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Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades • PNAS

Bollen et al:

»

Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time? Here, we look for the historical traces of cognitive distortions, thinking patterns that are strongly associated with internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety, in millions of books published over the course of the last two centuries in English, Spanish, and German. We find a pronounced “hockey stick” pattern.

Over the past two decades the textual analogs of cognitive distortions surged well above historical levels, including those of World War I and II, after declining or stabilizing for most of the 20th century. Our results point to the possibility that recent socioeconomic changes, new technology, and social media are associated with a surge of cognitive distortions.

Individuals with depression are prone to maladaptive patterns of thinking, known as cognitive distortions, whereby they think about themselves, the world, and the future in overly negative and inaccurate ways. These distortions are associated with marked changes in an individual’s mood, behavior, and language.

We hypothesize that societies can undergo similar changes in their collective psychology that are reflected in historical records of language use. Here, we investigate the prevalence of textual markers of cognitive distortions in over 14 million books for the past 125 y and observe a surge of their prevalence since the 1980s, to levels exceeding those of the Great Depression and both World Wars.

This pattern does not seem to be driven by changes in word meaning, publishing and writing standards, or the Google Books sample. Our results suggest a recent societal shift toward language associated with cognitive distortions and internalizing disorders.

«

Wow. We’re talking ourselves into collapse? (Thanks Richard B for the link.) And since we’re on the topic…
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These six countries are most likely to survive a climate change-caused societal collapse • Mic

AJ Dellinger:

»

If you have ever considered your zombie apocalypse survival plan, you’ve almost certainly concluded that the best place to be to survive the end-of-the-world event is somewhere isolated, and preferably surrounded by water. As it turns out, science agrees with you — it’s just that the event threatening our survival isn’t a zombie takeover; it’s climate change.

A new Global Sustainability Institute study published in the journal Sustainability did the work of ranking the locations best suited to survive a global societal collapse stemming from climate change-led destruction. The results: Islands and other sparsely populated, remote locations are the best places to post up for the end times — though take that with a grain of salt, because no place will go entirely untouched by the planet’s continued warming and ensuing fallout.

According to researchers, New Zealand, specifically, is the best location to live in as climate change rears its ugly head. It’s an unsurprising choice, as the country checks a lot of boxes for survivalists: It’s a remote island with vast, largely untouched landscapes that, in a survival scenario, amount to untapped resources. And it seems there’s some agreement about New Zealand’s merits when it comes to potential global societal collapse. According to the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative, which similarly ranks countries based on their readiness and capability to adapt to climate change, New Zealand ranks second out of 181 countries, behind only Norway.

«

I know, I know – you’re thinking that New Zealand is a long way away. But don’t worry:

»

“Using the perspective of the Gaia Hypothesis, northern Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the British Isles (along with mountainous regions at lower latitudes) may remain habitable through the persistence of agriculture and may therefore act as ‘lifeboats’ for populations of humans.”

«

Hooray?
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The CDC needs to stop confusing the public • The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci:

»

On July 21, the White House’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told CNBC that Delta was “clearly different” than previous variants, with an extraordinary capacity for transmitting from person to person, and that fully vaccinated people might want to consider wearing masks indoors. However, just one day later, the C.D.C.’s director, Rochelle Walensky, asserted again that wearing masks for the vaccinated was an “individual choice,” saying that the vaccinated enjoyed “exceptional levels of protection.” Then on July 25, Dr. Fauci confirmed that bringing back mask mandates was “under active consideration.”

Just two days later, on July 27, Dr. Walensky addressed the issue again, but now with a very different message: Delta was behaving very differently, she said, and the C.D.C. was now recommending even the fully vaccinated wear masks indoors in public places wherever transmission rates were “substantial.”

All this was fairly confusing for the public especially since it was already many weeks after the agency should have reacted. A pandemic requires a forceful, quick, clear and unified response from public health authorities.

In announcing changes in mask recommendations Dr. Walensky notably said that vaccinated people who became infected had viral loads similar to those of unvaccinated people who got sick, and could “forward transmit with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person.”

«

The CDC’s messaging has been terrible all through. As Tufekci points out, in 2020 it was excusable because Trump didn’t allow it to be clear. But its messaging since has been all over the place, giving room for misinterpretation. It needs the PR equivalent of defensive driving, expecting that people will be trying to misunderstand it.
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Google: ‘racist comments’ behind Piers Morgan’s Simone Biles ad block • UK Press Gazette

Charlotte Tobitt:

»

Google has said it blocked advertising on a Piers Morgan Mail Online column slamming US gymnast Simone Biles for quitting Olympic events over her mental health because of “racist comments” under the article.

Mail Online has criticised Google for taking a day to provide this explanation and for failing to provide any examples, while Morgan claimed the action “represents a disgraceful attack on free speech”.

The original column, headlined “Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’ – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country”, received 9,000 comments – many from readers agreeing with Morgan’s point of view.

Google told Mail Online it stopped serving ads because it had found “some issues that are policy violations that you must fix”.

Morgan wrote that he had been told by Google that his column contained “dangerous or derogatory content”. According to Morgan, Google has “restricted demand” on nine of his previous columns by choosing not to buy or sell ads. But this is the first time it has fully disabled its service for enabling ads, in what Morgan described as a “draconian blanket ban”.

A Google spokesperson told Press Gazette it had taken the decision because of user-generated comments under the column.

«

That’s quite the distinction. Morgan was utterly outraged at the “woke snowflake Twitterati” who he blamed for… something. But if Google is taking racism in the comments into account, the Mail might have a problem with a lot more of its articles and suddenly need to balance moderation costs against ad revenue more carefully.
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Sky News Australia banned from YouTube for seven days over Covid misinformation • The Guardian

Amanda Meade:

»

Sky News Australia has been banned from uploading content to YouTube for seven days after violating its medical misinformation policies by posting numerous videos which denied the existence of Covid-19 or encouraged people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin.

The ban was imposed by the digital giant on Thursday afternoon, the day after the Daily Telegraph ended Alan Jones’s regular column amid controversy about his Covid-19 commentary which included calling the New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant a village idiot on his Sky News program.

News Corp told Guardian Australia the ending of Jones’s column did not mean the company does not support the “compelling” broadcaster.

YouTube has not disclosed which Sky News program the videos were from but said there were “numerous” offending videos which have now been removed.

The Sky News Australia YouTube channel, which has 1.85m subscribers, has been issued a strike and is temporarily suspended from uploading new videos or livestreams for one week.

«

Interesting how patterns emerge in this stuff. Which is more powerful, the video site or the TV station? Which is too powerful, the TV station or the video site?
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Tokyo braces for the hottest Olympics ever • The New York Times

John Branch and Motoko Rich:

»

when the Summer Olympics return to Japan’s capital, they will open on July 24 and run until Aug. 9 [which was the 2020 schedule]. It will not take an unusual heat wave to turn them into the hottest Olympics in history, endangering athletes, spectators, workers and volunteers. Yet in awarding the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo in 2013, the International Olympic Committee barely considered the weather.

So why was it so important to stage them in the thick of summer?

“It’s essentially driven by American television,” said Dick Pound, a longtime member of the Olympic committee and former chairman of its television negotiations committee.

Officially, the Olympic schedule is dictated by the I.O.C. But because nearly three-quarters of I.O.C. revenue comes from broadcast rights, and about half of those rights are paid by the American broadcaster NBC, the American sports calendar tends to have an outsize impact on Olympic scheduling. Baseball and football dominate American television screens in September and October. July and August, on the other hand, are relative voids.

The last time the Summer Olympics were held outside the July-August window was in 2000, when the Sydney Games were staged in late September. They remain the least watched Summer Games in the United States over the past several decades.

Ever since, the Olympic committee has told candidate cities that the Summer Games must be scheduled between July 15 and Aug. 31, barring “exceptional circumstances.”

The committee offers a scattershot of explanations for that tight window, including a desire to align with the calendars of various sports federations and attract the likes of N.B.A. players in their off-season.

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But instead it’s rainy and hot – “like sitting in a giant sauna” as one Tokyo denizen calls it.
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Political inaction is dragging the UK deeper into the climate crisis • Financial Times

Henry Mance:

»

London suffered flash floods twice in the past month. Water poured through Tube stations. Raw sewage gushed through homes. People were rightly alarmed. Did Boris Johnson or his ministers seize the moment? Did they wade through the water, and explain that worse would come unless we acted? Did they bring out charts showing that the trend in extreme weather is even worse than climate scientists forecast? Did they announce new policies to reduce emissions? They did not. If only the floods had carried a few dinghies of asylum seekers — the government might have done something.

What is the roadblock to action? You could start with Johnson, a prime minister whose climate commitment is better than many centre-right leaders but still fair-weather. To his credit, he has set a new legal 2035 target for reducing emissions, which means the UK’s emissions must more than halve within 15 years. This should drive urgency and hard choices, but instead there are too many vague strategies. Johnson has promised there will be no carbon taxes on individuals, such as a meat tax, on his watch — a pledge privately dismissed as fanciful by his own ministers.

Johnson’s ambivalence explains the hesitancy of the Treasury, which wants to know how net zero will be paid for. Economists can come up with neat environmental incentives, but politicians need to buy into them. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is a fiscal conservative inclined to limit borrowing after the coronavirus splurge.

At least a few Tory MPs want to go even slower. Steve Baker, the backbencher who helped to scupper Theresa May’s Brexit deal, rails against the “cost of net zero”. This ignores the cost of inaction, and so is just the latest variant of climate denialism.

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Climate denialism has more variants than Covid. It’s exhausting.
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Start Up No.1607: the electric car’s forgotten history, bear fight!, Surgisphere’s fake paper lives on, how to baffle climbers, and more


Got a landing spot for Amazon’s Prime Air drones? It’ll probably go untroubled for quite a long time. CC-licensed photo by Graham Smith on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Crimp it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Heard about Social Warming, my latest book? Follow the link!


The slow collapse of Amazon’s drone delivery dream • WIRED UK

Andrew Kersley:

»

Just five years ago, Prime Air’s UK operations were at the centre of a frenzied public relations campaign, with Amazon executives claiming that drones would be delivering packages within a few years. The company offered tours of its secret drone lab to local schools, opened a huge new office in Cambridge and released an array of promotional videos for the flights that received millions of views. UK regulators also fast-tracked approvals for drone testing, which made the country an ideal testbed for drone flights and paved the way for Amazon to gain regulatory approval elsewhere.

But in the intervening years the tours stopped, the promotional videos were unlisted from Amazon’s YouTube channel and, bar occasional promises from executives like Jeff Wilke that delivery drones would become a reality “within months”, the firm’s previously widespread PR campaign disappeared. Meanwhile, despite being one of the first big companies to show interest in drones, Amazon was overtaken by Alphabet-owned Wing and UPS in the race for US regulatory approval. Now, half a decade after first conducting UK test flights, the project’s entire UK data analysis team is being made redundant.

An Amazon spokesperson says it will still have a Prime Air presence in the UK after the cuts, but refuses to disclose what type of work will take place. The spokesperson also refused to confirm, citing security reasons, if any of the test flights that once filled promotional videos will still take place in the UK. The spokesperson adds that the company has found positions in other parts of its business for some affected employees and that it will keep growing its presence in the region. The spokesperson did not confirm how many employees were offered other jobs internally.

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Lots of very juicy details about life in an office where everyone has come to realise that it’s dead, Jim.
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The lost history of the electric car – and what it tells us about the future of transport • The Guardian

Tom Standage, in an extract from his forthcoming book:

»

Pollution, congestion and noise were merely the most obvious manifestations of a deeper dependency. An outbreak of equine influenza in North America in October 1872 incapacitated all horses and mules for several weeks, providing a stark reminder of society’s reliance on animal power. The New York Times noted “the disappearance of trucks, drays, express-wagons and general vehicles” from the streets. “The present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and commerce,” noted the Nation. Horses and stables, the newspaper observed, “are wheels in our great social machine, the stoppage of which means injury to all classes and conditions of persons, injury to commerce, to agriculture, to trade, to social life”.

Yet societies on both sides of the Atlantic continued to become steadily more dependent on horses. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of horses in American cities grew fourfold, while the human population merely doubled. By the turn of the century there was one horse for every 10 people in Britain, and one for every four in the US. Providing hay and oats for horses required vast areas of farmland, reducing the space available to grow food for people. Feeding the US’s 20 million horses required one-third of its total crop area, while Britain’s 3.5 million horses had long been reliant on imported fodder.

Horses had become both indispensable and unsustainable. To advocates of a newly emerging technology, the solution seemed obvious: get rid of horses and replace them with self-propelling motor vehicles, known at the time as horseless carriages. Today, we call them cars.

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It’s like a metaphor, innit.
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Intense bear fight caught on camera – 3 different angles • YouTube

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Big brown bears fighting in Kuhmo, Finland. The fight took place near the bear hides operated by Boreal Wildlife Centre.

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I like the way they initially use the tree as a means to not quite engage. Until they do.

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Retracted COVID paper lives on in new citations • MedPage Today

Nicole Lou:

»

Published online on May 1, 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study relied on Surgisphere data to claim an association between renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) inhibitor therapy and worse outcomes in hospitalized COVID-19 patients with cardiovascular disease.

The journal retracted the paper due to concerns about fraudulent data on June 4, 2020 in a widely publicized move, but the study has continued to rack up citations — totaling at least 652 as of May 31, 2021, reported Todd Lee, MD, MPH, of McGill University in Montreal, and colleagues.

Just 17.6% of verified citations acknowledged or noted that the paper was retracted, according to their research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine. [Most citations were used to support a statement in the article, and 2.6% included the data in a new analysis.]

In May of this year alone – 11 months after the article was retracted – it was referenced 21 times.

“Our findings challenge authors, peer reviewers, journal editors, and academic institutions to do a better job of addressing the broader issues of ongoing citations of retracted scientific studies and protecting the integrity of the medical literature,” Lee’s group urged.

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This feels like more evidence that it almost works better to distrust stuff until it has been replicated.
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The climbing wall architects of the Tokyo Games • The New York Times

Natalie Berry:

»

“We’re not paid to be nice to athletes, but if they can’t make progress, we’ve gone wrong,” said Percy Bishton, the chief setter at the Tokyo Olympics. “Nobody wants to watch climbers who can’t get off the floor.”

To gauge the level of the world’s best, setters climb with the best. Athletes often work as commercial setters, and some setters are former competitors.

Bishton falls into a different category: He’s a pig farmer. “There aren’t many Olympic athletes farming pigs,” he said.

His route to Tokyo began as a teenager, when he screwed pieces of rock to the exterior of the house while his parents were away. Bishton followed in the hand- and footholds of many British climbers of his era, eventually taking a position as a climbing instructor. But in the 1990s, indoor climbs were rarely changed, and Bishton became bored of the same routes. He decided to reset a climb. One new route inevitably led to another, and it developed into a job, he said.

There’s little glamour.

“It’s extreme D.I.Y.,” Bishton said. “We’re all eccentric, resilient and tough characters.”

Setters invent new movements and compose complex sequences. Over time, some become easy to decipher. Occasionally, athletes find overlooked solutions. From run-and-jumps to gibbonlike leaps, tiptoe teetering to awkward contortion, moves are added to the setters’ playbook and athletes’ repertoires.

But the physicality of setting is juxtaposed with a cerebral aspect. “There’s an artistic element, and many of us also have an analytical, engineering side,” said Bishton, who is also a woodworker.

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Do read the whole article – Berry has done a fantastic job of explaining the complexity of setting routes – but if you had an image of Bishton as a rotund jolly bloke with a pipe hanging out of his mouth, think again. He’s a very good climber in his own right. (He also declared his retirement from routesetting in 2016. God laughs at your plans.)
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Your Facebook account was hacked. Getting help may take weeks — or $299 • NPR

Shannon Bond on the desperate measures some people take to get their hacked Facebook accounts back, given there’s almost zero customer support on Facebook:

»

Brandon Sherman of Nevada City, Calif., followed a tip he found on Reddit to get his hacked account back.

“I ultimately broke down and bought a $300 Oculus Quest 2,” he said. Oculus is a virtual reality company owned by Facebook but with its own customer support system.

Sherman contacted Oculus with his headset’s serial number and heard back right away. He plans to return the unopened device, and while he’s glad the strategy worked, he doesn’t think it’s fair.

“The only way you can get any customer service is if you prove that you’ve actually purchased something from them,” he said.

When McNamara, the Facebook user in Canada, first heard about the Oculus trick, she thought it was a joke. But she said, “Once I started thinking about it, all my memories, I really realized that I wanted to do whatever possible to get it back.”

So she, too, ordered an expensive gadget she never planned to use and returned it as soon as she got back into her Facebook account.

(A warning to anyone thinking about trying this — other Reddit users have said they tried contacting Oculus support but were unable to get their Facebook accounts restored. Also, last week, Facebook said it was temporarily halting sales of the Oculus Quest 2, which retails starting at $299, because its foam lining caused skin irritation for some customers.)

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Don’t mention on Twitter that you’ve had your Facebook account hacked: it attracts a ton of scammers who will promise to get it back, but cannot do anything of the sort. (I wrote about that for Which? Computing magazine.)
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Giving young people a safer, more private experience on Instagram – About Facebook

»

Wherever we can, we want to stop young people from hearing from adults they don’t know or don’t want to hear from. We believe private accounts are the best way to prevent this from happening. So starting this week, everyone who is under 16 years old (or under 18 in certain countries) will be defaulted into a private account when they join Instagram. 

Private accounts let people control who sees or responds to their content. If you have a private account, people have to follow you to see your posts, Stories and Reels. People also can’t comment on your content in those places, and they won’t see your content at all in places like Explore or hashtags. 

Historically, we asked young people to choose between a public account or a private account when they signed up for Instagram, but our recent research showed that they appreciate a more private experience. During testing, eight out of ten young people accepted the private default settings during sign-up. 

…Starting in a few weeks, we’ll only allow advertisers to target ads to people under 18 (or older in certain countries) based on their age, gender and location. This means that previously available targeting options, like those based on interests or on their activity on other apps and websites, will no longer be available to advertisers.

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I’d say the latter part will make the bigger difference. Notice too that existing under-16 accounts aren’t being made private, even though that would make no difference for those who already follow them. It’s not as if Instagram has any means of age verification either.
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eBay manager imprisoned for harassment of journalists the CEO wanted to “take down” • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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A former eBay security manager who pleaded guilty for his role in a cyberstalking conspiracy was sentenced to 18 months in prison yesterday.

Philip Cooke, former senior manager of security operations for eBay’s Global Security Team, pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and one count of conspiracy to commit witness tampering. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on each charge, with the two sentences to be served concurrently, according to an order issued in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He was also fined $15,000 and sentenced to supervised release of three years after he gets out of prison.

The Department of Justice alleged that in 2019, Cooke helped plan and attempt to cover up the stalking of Ina and David Steiner of Natick, Massachusetts, who run the news website EcommerceBytes. Cooke was one of seven eBay employees accused of harassment involving sending threatening messages and deliveries of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask to the couple’s home. Several conspirators allegedly traveled from California to Massachusetts to conduct surveillance on the couple, but Cooke was not among them. Cooke wasn’t included in the initial charges filed in June 2020 but was charged a few weeks later.

eBay executives were angered by EcommerceBytes’ news coverage of eBay. Text messages show that then-Chief Communications Officer Steven Wymer wrote, “We are going to crush this lady,” referring to editor Ina Steiner. In another text, then-CEO Devin Wenig allegedly wrote to Wymer, “Take her down.” Wenig and Wymer were not charged.

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Just closing the circle on this one, which first surfaced just over a year ago. That Wenig and Wymer didn’t get charged feels remarkable, but if they didn’t actually say what to do, well…
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How Facebook’s content moderation failed Palestinians • WIRED Middle East

Bani Sapra:

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From the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement, social media platforms have become a public space for activists to rally global attention to their cause. For Palestinians—whose voices have long been left out of mainstream conversations—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok have provided ways to reclaim their narratives, spreading awareness of their situations, filming confrontations with the Israeli security forces, and documenting violent clampdowns on protests.

However, as Shtaya points out, the platforms themselves aren’t always neutral. Although Instagram posted a mea culpa late on May 6, blaming the removal of stories, highlights, and archives on technical problems occurring around the world, Shtaya points out that the glitches don’t explain all the cases she flagged that day. More importantly, Shtaya says that Palestinians continued to face difficulties posting after Instagram said that it had resolved the problems on May 7.

“Sixty-eight% of the cases that we have received on Instagram were after the platform announced that they solved their technical glitches,” she says. “So their announcement was somehow meaningless for Palestinians.”

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I saw this in Benedict Evans’s newsletter and thought “well, that’s interesting – I didn’t see this on Wired UK or Wired.com”. Turns out that despite this being a story about Facebook, moderation, and suppression of speech in demonstration, and despite Sapra’s byline appearing on other stories in other Wired sites, this one didn’t get picked up. You could layer the irony on your toast.
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Why is China smashing its tech industry? • Noahpinion

Noah Smith on China’s peculiar attack on a number of its tech companies and even their funding:

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The U.S. has slapped down a few of its corporate giants before — Microsoft, AT&T, Standard Oil — but ultimately it didn’t crush the industries these companies were a part of. We’re unlikely to see major action against all the U.S. internet companies at once, and broad EU action will likely take the form of new rules rather than a sweeping crackdown. China’s attack on its tech companies, in contrast, seems far more comprehensive — it’s not just attacking the biggest internet companies, it’s attacking the entire sector. (Update: An important piece of evidence here is that China also appears to be reducing venture funding. If you want more competition you don’t squash new entrants!) For whatever reason, China is suddenly not a fan of the industry we call “tech”.

This is strange because for years, it was conventional wisdom in the Western media that having a “tech” sector was crucial to innovation and growth etc. In fact, for many years American pundits argued that China’s economy would be held back by the government’s insistence on control of information, because it would make it impossible for China to build a world-class tech sector! Then China did build a world-class tech sector anyway, and now it’s willfully smashing the world-class tech sector it built. So much for U.S.-style “innovation”.

But notice that China isn’t cracking down on all of its technology companies. Huawei, for example, still seems to enjoy the government’s full backing. The government is going hell-bent-for-leather to try to create a world-class domestic semiconductor industry, throwing huge amounts of money at even the most speculative startups. And it’s still spending heavily on A.I. It’s not technology that China is smashing — it’s the consumer-facing internet software companies that Americans tend to label “tech”.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: thanks to Gregory Buthis for the link to the Belarusian heavies v sprinter transcript yesterday.