Start Up No.1648: Google reinvents search (again), YouTube to zap all vaccine misinfo, why gas prices spiked, OTP bots, and more

Beethoven never finished his Tenth symphony – but an AI has, and the first performance happens in October. CC-licensed photo by David Hall 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. Refuelled. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google search’s next phase: context is king • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:


At its Search On event today, Google introduced several new features that, taken together, are its strongest attempts yet to get people to do more than type a few words into a search box. By leveraging its new Multitask Unified Model (MUM) machine learning technology in small ways, the company hopes to kick off a virtuous cycle: it will provide more detail and context-rich answers, and in return it hopes users will ask more detailed and context-rich questions. The end result, the company hopes, will be a richer and deeper search experience.

Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan oversees search alongside Assistant, ads, and other products. He likes to say — and repeated in an interview this past Sunday — that “search is not a solved problem.” That may be true, but the problems he and his team are trying to solve now have less to do with wrangling the web and more to do with adding context to what they find there.

For its part, Google is going to begin flexing its ability to recognize constellations of related topics using machine learning and present them to you in an organized way. A coming redesign to Google search will begin showing “Things to know” boxes that send you off to different subtopics. When there’s a section of a video that’s relevant to the general topic — even when the video as a whole is not — it will send you there. Shopping results will begin to show inventory available in nearby stores, and even clothing in different styles associated with your search.

…We are very far from the so-called “ten blue links” of search results that Google provides. It has been showing information boxes, image results, and direct answers for a long time now. Today’s announcements are another step, one where the information Google provides is not just a ranking of relevant information but a distillation of what its machines understand by scraping the web.


I understand that this is Bohn reporting what Google is (kind of) promising, but there’s an inherent naiveté in failing to realise that Google search does not understand, in a human sense, what it is reading and indexing. Its method rewards popularity, not accuracy. Search is so far from being a “solved problem” that in essence we’re still in 1996. If you want understanding, you use Wikipedia.
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YouTube to remove videos containing vaccine misinformation • WSJ

Dave Sebastian:


YouTube said it would remove content that falsely alleges approved vaccines are dangerous and cause severe health effects, expanding the video platform’s efforts to curb Covid-19 misinformation to other vaccines.

Examples of content that would be taken down include false claims that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer or infertility or that they don’t reduce transmission or contraction of diseases, the Alphabet division said Wednesday.

The policies cover general statements about vaccines—not only those for Covid-19—and about specific routine immunizations such as those for measles and hepatitis B. YouTube said it has removed more than 130,000 videos for violating its Covid-19 vaccine policies since last year.

“We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general,” YouTube said. “We’re now at a point where it’s more important than ever to expand the work we started with Covid-19 to other vaccines.”


Typically what now happens (as we’ve seen on Facebook) is that the makers of the misinformation videos begin using different language to refer to the same things (perhaps calling vaccines “vitamins” or something). Will YouTube follow that too?

Also note how this is YouTube moving closer to choosing “authoritative” over “popular”, at least for information that could get you killed.
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Getting an AI to complete Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony • The Conversation

Ahmed Elgammal is Professor, Director of the Art & AI Lab, at Rutgers University:


When Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, he was three years removed from the completion of his Ninth Symphony, a work heralded by many as his magnum opus. He had started work on his 10th Symphony but, due to deteriorating health, wasn’t able to make much headway: All he left behind were some musical sketches.

Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.

Now, thanks to the work of a team of music historians, musicologists, composers and computer scientists, Beethoven’s vision will come to life.

I presided over the artificial intelligence side of the project, leading a group of scientists at the creative AI startup Playform AI that taught a machine both Beethoven’s entire body of work and his creative process.

A full recording of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony is set to be released on Oct. 9, 2021, the same day as the world premiere performance scheduled to take place in Bonn, Germany – the culmination of a two-year-plus effort.


When he calls them “sketches” he’s not kidding – it’s basically a few squiggles on a stave. There’s going to be a lot of interest around this. If it’s at all convincing, then what’s to stop new Mozart or Bach work emerging? Then we’ll be in the realm, like art, of trying to figure out if something is legitimate or not.
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Natural-gas prices are spiking around the world • The Economist


Across the world, a natural-gas shortage is starting to bite. Prices of power in Germany and France have soared by around 40% in the past two weeks. In many countries, including Britain and Spain, governments are rushing through emergency measures to protect consumers. Factories are being temporarily switched off, from aluminium smelters in Mexico to fertiliser plants in Britain. Markets are frantic. One trader says it is like the global financial crisis for commodities. Even in America, the world’s biggest natural-gas producer, lobby groups are calling on the government to limit exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the price of which has climbed to $25 per million British thermal units (mBTU), up by two-thirds in the past month.

In one sense the crisis has fiendishly complex causes, with a mosaic of factors from geopolitics to precautionary hoarding in Asia sending prices higher. Viewed from a different perspective, however, its causes are simple: an energy market with only thin safety buffers has become acutely sensitive to disruptions. And subdued investment in fossil fuels may mean higher volatility is here to stay.


Simple part of the fiendishly complex cause: longer-than-expected winter, storage facilities reduced in many countries. That last sentence isn’t encouraging, though. It feels very possible that as fossil fuels that we rely on are tapered out in favour of slightly less reliable renewables (🎶 so build more nuclear 🎵), that effect will happen more regularly. (Same effect visible with coal prices, as noted yesterday.)
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A $23.7m Ethereum transaction fee post mortem…

You might recall a few days ago that some trivial blockchain transaction also turned out to have an astronomically high transaction fee. This is the “explanation”, which is written using English words as if to prove a Wittgenstein theorem about the non-inevitability of meaning.

I’m still not convinced there wasn’t some quiet money laundering going on. It’s amazing in particular how the people who perfectly legally get $23.7m arriving in their account, apparently through no malicious action on their part, are perfectly happy to give it back. It’s as if this wasn’t about money, and the transactions weren’t irreversible.

As a sort of “finder’s fee” they gave them 50 ETH, equivalent to 3.43BTC, equivalent (if you can do it) to about $140,000.
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Telegram bots are trying to steal your one-time passwords • ZDNet

Charlie Osborne:


Telegram-powered bots are being utilized to steal the one-time passwords required in two-factor authentication (2FA) security. 

The ransomware threat is growing: What needs to happen to stop attacks getting worse? (ZDNet YouTube)
On Wednesday, researchers from Intel 471 said that they have seen an “uptick” in the number of these services provided in the web’s underground, and over the past few months, it appears the variety of 2FA circumvention solutions is expanding — with bots becoming a firm favorite. 

Two-factor authentication (2FA) can take the form of one-time password (OTP) tokens, codes, links, biometric markers, or by tapping a physical dongle to confirm an account owner’s identity. Most often, 2FA tokens are sent through a text message to a handset or an email address. 

While 2FA can improve upon the use of passwords alone to protect our accounts, threat actors were quick to develop methods to intercept OTP, such as through malware or social engineering. 

According to Intel 471, since June, a number of 2FA-circumventing services are abusing the Telegram messaging service. Telegram is either being used to create and manage bots or as a ‘customer support’ channel host for cybercriminals running these types of operations. 

“In these support channels, users often share their success while using the bot, often walking away with thousands of dollars from victim accounts,” the researchers say. 


Which is why, wherever humanly possible, you shouldn’t use SMS-sent OTPs, but instead have a code generator (such as Authy, which is great) on your device(s).

Though it’s not just bots – one of my children, attempting to sell an item on an exchange, had the other person demanding she send her the Paypal OTP for the transaction (which would have let the other person hack her account). Luckily she had a mistrustful parent to ask for advice.
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Facebook grew Marketplace to one billion users. Now scammers are using it to target people around the world • ProPublica

Craig Silverman, A.C. Thompson and Peter Elkind:


For years, Carman Alfonsi relied upon Facebook Marketplace to buy and sell used pool tables for his Michigan billiards business. He banked a steady stream of income from the wildly popular online bazaar.

But this July, Alfonsi’s Facebook account was hacked and used to post roughly 100 scam listings for cell phones and vehicles. The Marketplace posts directed buyers to contact an email address controlled by the scammers. When customers were left empty-handed, they sent enraged messages to Alfonsi by phone and Facebook Messenger.

Alfonsi repeatedly contacted Facebook to warn that his account had been hijacked by fraudsters. Instead of fixing the problem, the social media giant banned him from using Marketplace, at one point removing his profile from its platform.

Now Alfonsi carries a gun in his own home. He’s concerned that an angry Marketplace customer might show up at his front door.

“I’m thinking I’m in trouble and someone’s going to come to my house and kick my ass,” Alfonsi said.

Facebook’s Marketplace is unquestionably a business success. It hit 1 billion users a month this spring, and the company recently told investors that it’s one of its most promising new sources of revenue. That growth has been built, in part, on the company’s assurances about the safety of its platform.

“Marketplace lets you see what real people in your own community are selling. You can see their public Facebook profile, mutual friends and seller ratings so you can feel confident in your purchase,” the company says.


Or.. not. As ever, Facebook lets things scale much faster than it scales its moderation.
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It seems almost unnecessary to suggest you buy my book Social Warming, but this might be your first rodeo

The supply-chain mystery • The New Yorker

Amy Davidson Sorkin:


What’s often at the heart of a supply-chain issue is a labor issue. Last week, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were approaching a crisis state because more than seventy container ships were idling offshore, in what had become a maritime parking lot; there aren’t enough dockworkers to unload their cargo, or enough truck drivers to move it out of the ports. (Shipping rates have spiked, too.) Labor shortages are the reason that so many things just seem to be in the wrong place—the prime symptom of a supply-chain squeeze. “Just in time” delivery works only if you can deliver.

The labor situation, too, is no doubt related to covid-19, but there is wide disagreement about exactly how. A significant number of people who were laid off early in the pandemic because of closures haven’t gone back to work, even as more businesses reopen. The factors cited include a fear of infection and an aversion to dealing with customers who are angry about policies, or the lack of them, requiring masks and proof of vaccination—a particular concern for restaurant workers, who are also in short supply. Some essential workers, such as health aides and delivery drivers, who were hit hard by the pandemic, may be reassessing their jobs; and many of the more than six hundred thousand people who have died of covid were members of the workforce.


Good to know that it’s not only Brexit and Britain that’s having weird issues due to supply-chain labour shortages. Something to read between fights in the queue for fuel.
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The melting face emoji has already won us over • The New York Times

Anna Kambhampaty:


There are times when words feel inadequate — when one’s dread, shame, exhaustion or discomfort seems too immense to be captured in written language.

That’s where the melting face emoji comes in.

The face, fixed with a content half-smile even as it dissolves into a puddle, is one of 37 new emojis approved this year by the Unicode Consortium, the organization that maintains the standards for digital text. Other emojis that made the cut include saluting face, dotted line face [invisibility] and a disco ball.

These new emojis will roll out over the course of the next year. But already the melting face has found fans on social media, who see it as a clear representation of the coronavirus pandemic’s vast psychological toll.

“This melting smiley face is quite the pandemic mood,” one Twitter user said.

Others viewed the new emoji as a visual proxy for climate anxiety. “Something tells me that in this climate change apocalypse era, we’re going to be using the new melting face emoji a lot,” another user wrote.


If it’s going to be for climate anxiety, shouldn’t there be a drowning face emoji too? (There isn’t, I checked.) At least the disco ball one is nicely timed for Abba’s return.
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Something weird is happening on Facebook • Political Orphans

Chris Ladd:


How this works is murky, but it’s clear that someone has found a way to gain absolutely stellar reach for these apparent spam posts. What they have in common is help from affiliate networks.

If you spend any time on Facebook you’ve probably noticed a blizzard of question memes coming from clickbait accounts. You’ve likely either commented on them yourself or seen comments from close friends. Many of these posts look like they’re probing for answers to security/verification questions, but the ugly reality is that your passwords are nearly worthless. Chances are your passwords are already circulating on the dark web, sold in batches of millions for as little as a few thousand dollars. Unless you hold the password to something wildly valuable, like major corporate or government assets, nobody cares except kids playing around.

By contrast, what could I learn about someone by knowing their answers to these questions?
[screenshots of Facebook posts asking: “What was your first car?” “How old were you when you got your first job?” “First celebrity crush?” “What do your grandchildren call you?”]

How valuable would it be to build up profiles of millions of social media accounts based on these answers, while also learning the contours of their social networks? Feed that kind of sentiment data through a machine learning algorithm and I could build a dataset on which to build a powerful disinformation campaign. Someone seems to think there’s value here, investing significant time and money by recruiting affiliate networks to distribute this content and gather results.


Ladd reckons someone – or lots of someones – are trying to do personality profiling that makes Cambridge Analytica’s effort look piddling, which in many ways it was, relatively. Ladd’s advice:


Don’t take candy from strangers and don’t feed your personal information to bots. If that mommy blog is jammed with ads and promotions, leave immediately.


Or just, you know, delete your Facebook account.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I wondered how much power might be lost in the 10.5GW link between Morocco and the UK over a 3,800km subsea link. According to @magnayn, it’s about 15%. So that’s ~8.9GW arriving in the UK.

Start Up No.1647: Facebook mulled ‘tweens’ targeting, Amazon gets robotic, Morocco sun to power UK, AirTag phishing, and more

What if the ‘psychohistory’ in Asimov’s Foundation novels is actually a discipline in common usage today? CC-licensed photo by James 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 9 links for you. In a queue. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

• Why do social networks drive us all 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, and find answers – and more.

Facebook’s effort to attract preteens goes beyond Instagram Kids, documents show • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Jeff Horwitz:


Facebook has come under increasing fire in recent days for its effect on young users and its efforts to create products for them. Inside the company, teams of employees have for years been laying plans to attract preteens that go beyond what is publicly known, spurred by fear that Facebook could lose a new generation of users critical to its future.

Internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show the company formed a team to study preteens, set a three-year goal to create more products for them and commissioned strategy papers about the long-term business opportunities presented by these potential users. In one presentation, it contemplated whether there might be a way to engage children during play dates.

“Why do we care about tweens?” said one document from 2020. “They are a valuable but untapped audience.”

Facebook isn’t the only technology company to court children and face scrutiny for doing so. Virtually every major social-media platform, including ByteDance’s TikTok and YouTube, has confronted legal or regulatory problems related to how children use its products. Federal privacy law forbids data collection on children under 13, and lawmakers have criticized tech companies for not doing more to protect kids online from predators and harmful content.

The Facebook documents show that competition from rivals, in particular Snapchat and TikTok, is a motivating factor behind its work.

The company’s approach to young users is expected to be addressed during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday, which is expected to probe the effects of Facebook’s Instagram platform on mental health.


Every week I hope there won’t be stories about Facebook behaving terribly in some way or other, because it feels like they’re unending. But they are.
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‘The Big Delete:’ inside Facebook’s crackdown in Germany • Associated Press

David Klepper:


Days before Germany’s federal elections, Facebook took what it called an unprecedented step: the removal of a series of accounts that worked together to spread COVID-19 misinformation and encourage violent responses to COVID restrictions.

The crackdown, announced Sept. 16, was the first use of Facebook’s new “coordinated social harm” policy aimed at stopping not state-sponsored disinformation campaigns but otherwise typical users who have mounted an increasingly sophisticated effort to sidestep rules on hate speech or misinformation.

In the case of the German network, the nearly 150 accounts, pages and groups were linked to the so-called Querdenken movement, a loose coalition that has protested lockdown measures in Germany and includes vaccine and mask opponents, conspiracy theorists and some far-right extremists.

Facebook touted the move as an innovative response to potentially harmful content; far-right commenters condemned it as censorship. But a review of the content that was removed — as well as the many more Querdenken posts that are still available — reveals Facebook’s action to be modest at best. At worst, critics say, it could have been a ploy to counter complaints that it doesn’t do enough to stop harmful content.

“This action appears rather to be motivated by Facebook’s desire to demonstrate action to policymakers in the days before an election, not a comprehensive effort to serve the public,” concluded researchers at Reset, a UK-based nonprofit that has criticised social media’s role in democratic discourse.


Good old Facebook, still ineffectual at moderating the really important effects that it has.
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Amazon’s Astro home robot is like having Alexa on wheels • The Verge

Dan Seifert:


The Astro, which will initially cost $999.99 and available as a Day 1 Edition product that you can request an invite for the privilege of buying, is Amazon’s most ambitious in-home product yet. Amazon sees it as bringing together many different parts of the company — robotics, AI, home monitoring, cloud services — all into one device. Best described as the love child between a Roomba and an Echo Show smart display, the Astro is meant to be the next step in what Amazons believes to be the seemingly inevitable home robot.

Amazon claims the Astro can do a wide variety of things you might want from a home robot. It can map out your floor plan and obey commands to go to a specific room. It can recognize faces and deliver items to a specific person. It can play music and show you the weather and answer questions like any Echo smart display. It can be used for video calls, always keeping you in frame by literally following your movements. It can roam around your house when you aren’t home, making sure everything is okay. It can raise its periscope camera to show you whether you’ve turned the stove off. It can use third-party accessories to record data like blood pressure.

But as ambitious as the Astro is, it still is very much a first cut at what a home assistant robot could be. It doesn’t have any arms or appendages; it can’t clean your floors; it can’t climb stairs; it can’t go outside of your home; and it probably can’t do a zillion other things I’m not thinking of at the moment.


There’s a rundown of all Amazon’s new things, which includes an in-house drone.
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The world’s longest subsea cable will send clean energy from Morocco to the UK • Electrek

Michelle Lewis:


A 10.5 gigawatt (GW) solar and wind farm will be built in Morocco’s Guelmim-Oued Noun region, and it will supply the UK with clean energy via subsea cables. The twin 1.8 GW high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea cables will be the world’s longest.

UK-based renewables company Xlinks is the project’s developer. The Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project, as it’s known, will cover an area of around 579 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) in Morocco and will be connected exclusively to the UK via 2,361 miles (3,800 km) of HVDC subsea cables. They’ll follow the shallow water route from Morocco to the UK, past Spain, Portugal, and France.

The project will cost $21.9bn. Xlinks will construct 7 GW of solar and 3.5 GW of wind, along with onsite 20GWh/5GW battery storage, in Morocco. The transmission cable will consist of four cables. The first cable will be active in early 2027, and the other three are slated to launch in 2029. An agreement has been reached with the National Grid for two 1.8GW connections at Alverdiscott in Devon.

Xlinks says that the Morocco-UK Power Project will be capable of powering seven million UK homes by 2030. Once complete, the project will be capable of supplying 8% of Britain’s electricity needs.


Creates lots of jobs (and money?) in Morocco. Quite a significant chunk of energy, at a point when some of the UK’s nuclear plants will be going offline. Probably quicker to build this than a nuclear plant, though you could argue about which will produce the more reliable base load. Can’t help wondering how much power will be lost over 2,361 miles of cable.
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Apple AirTag bug enables ‘Good Samaritan’ attack • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:


The AirTag’s “Lost Mode” lets users alert Apple when an AirTag is missing. Setting it to Lost Mode generates a unique URL at, and allows the user to enter a personal message and contact phone number. Anyone who finds the AirTag and scans it with an Apple or Android phone will immediately see that unique Apple URL with the owner’s message.

When scanned, an AirTag in Lost Mode will present a short message asking the finder to call the owner at at their specified phone number. This information pops up without asking the finder to log in or provide any personal information. But your average Good Samaritan might not know this.

That’s important because Apple’s Lost Mode doesn’t currently stop users from injecting arbitrary computer code into its phone number field — such as code that causes the Good Samaritan’s device to visit a phony Apple iCloud login page.


Something of an oversight on Apple’s part. Fixable with a software update, which Apple plans to roll out at some point, apparently.
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How Apple built the iPhone 13’s Cinematic Mode • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:


The A15 Bionic and Neural Engine are heavily used in Cinematic Mode, especially given that they wanted to encode it in Dolby Vision HDR as well. They also didn’t want to sacrifice live preview — something that most Portrait Mode competitors took years to ship after Apple introduced it.

But the concept of Cinematic Mode didn’t start with the feature itself, says [Human Interface Team designer Johnnie] Manzari. In fact, he says, it’s typically the opposite inside of this design team at Apple.

“We didn’t have an idea [for Cinematic Mode]. We were just curious — what is it about filmmaking that’s been timeless? And that kind of leads down this interesting road and then we started to learn more and talk more … with people across the company that can help us solve these problems.”

[Apple VP Kaiann] Drance says that before development began, Apple’s design team spent time researching cinematography techniques for realistic focus transitions and optical characteristics.

“When you look at the design process,” says Manzari, “we begin with a deep reverence and respect for image and filmmaking through history. We’re fascinated with questions like what principles of image and filmmaking are timeless? What craft has endured culturally and why?”


Portrait Mode, for stills, was introduced in the iPhone 7 Plus in October 2016. That’s five years to go from stills to video.
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Coal prices hit decade high despite efforts to wean the world off carbon • WSJ

Joe Wallace:


A shortfall of natural gas, rebounding electricity usage and scanty rainfall in China have lifted demand for thermal coal. Supplies have been crimped by a closed mine in Colombia, flooding in Indonesia and Australia and distorted trade flows caused by a Chinese ban on Australian coal.

Prices for thermal coal—which power plants burn to boil water into steam, spin turbines and generate electricity—have more than doubled over the past year as a result. Coal delivered into northwest Europe earlier this month hit its highest price since November 2011, having climbed 64% in 2021. Prices for coal exported from Newcastle in Australia, most of which heads to Asia, have risen 56%, according to Argus Media.

Both coal-price benchmarks have outstripped gains in oil, copper and other commodity markets that are benefiting from a vaccine-fired burst of economic activity. The upswing in fuel markets is contributing to higher electricity prices in the US and Europe.


Another one of the candidates for “everything’s connected, everything’s fragile”: not enough rain means not much hydro power, forcing coal plants not to run in China pushes up the price of power there.
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Trump’s former press secretary details his mysterious 2019 hospital visit in behind-the-scenes look at his White House • CNNPolitics

Kate Bennett:


[Stephanie] Grisham served as White House press secretary, chief of staff to Melania Trump and East Wing communications director during the Trump administration before resigning after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. In her book, “I’ll Take Your Questions Now,” which was obtained by CNN, Grisham gives a firsthand account of her time in the White House and describes a culture of lies in the Trump administration.

In the book, Grisham does not use the term colonoscopy but heavily implies that’s what the trip was for. She says Trump’s hospital visit, which stirred weeks-long speculation about his health was a “very common procedure,” during which “a patient is put under.” She also writes that former President George W. Bush had a similar procedure while in office; Bush had multiple colonoscopies during his time in office. Grisham writes Trump did not want then-Vice President Mike Pence to be in power while he was sedated, which was part of the reason he kept his visit private. He also “did not want to be the butt of a joke” on late-night television, writes Grisham.


Wa-hey. So that’s that mystery solved. There’s some more minor revelations. As ever, hard to know what, if any, impact they’ll have.
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Density is destiny: economists predict the far future • Marginal REVOLUTION

Alex Tabarrok, in March 2019:


In a paper that just won the JPE’s Robert Lucas Prize, Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg model the evolution of the world economy over the next 400-600 years! Is it laughable or laudatory? I’m not entirely sure. The paper does have an insight that I think is very important, in addition to a number of methodological advances.

If we look around the world today we see that the places with the densest populations, such as China and India, are poor. But in the long-run of history that doesn’t make sense. As Paul Romer, and others, have emphasized, ideas are the ultimate source of wealth and more people means more ideas. As a result, innovation and GDP per capita should be higher in places and times with more people. The fact that China and India are poor today is an out-of-equilibrium anomaly that happened because they were slower than the West to adopt the institutions of free markets and capitalism necessary to leverage ideas into output. China and India weren’t relatively poor in the past, however, and they won’t be relatively poor in the future. With that in mind, a key long-run prediction of Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg becomes clear. If people are not allowed to migrate then the places that are densest today will not only equal the West, they will overtake the West in innovation and productivity.


Why this link now? Because Apple TV+ has a new series based on the Asimov “Empire and Foundation” SF books, in which the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon predicts the future thousands of years ahead. For psychohistory, read “economics”, really.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1646: Instagram pauses plans for kids version, anti-vaxxers infest Clubhouse, China faces power shortage, and more

Guess which is the latest app to hit a billion (monthly) users? CC-licensed photo by Solen Feyissa 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 9 links for you. Fill ‘er up! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

• 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 forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.

Facebook is ‘pausing’ work on Instagram kids app after widespread criticism • The Verge

James Vincent:


Instagram says it’s “pausing” development of what’s been dubbed “Instagram Kids” — a version of the photo-sharing app aimed at children under 13. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri announced the news in a blog post on Monday, saying that the Facebook-owned company would continue to work on parental-supervised experiences for younger users.

In a blog post and series of accompanying tweets, Mosseri blames the media and critics for misunderstanding the purpose of the app. “It was never meant for younger kids, but for tweens (aged 10-12),” he writes. In a separate tweet, he adds that news of the project “leaked way before we knew what it would be. People feared the worst, and we had few answers at that stage. It’s clear we need to take more time on this.”


Related: Facebook is going to publish two internal slide decks from its research into how Instagram affects teens’ mental health. First to Congress, then to the public. Mysterious how difficult it seems to be. Though one slide was released, and seems to portray Instagram as not wholly negative.
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Doctors are being forced off Clubhouse by anti-vax harassment • Vice

Sophia Smith Galer:


[Siyab] Panhwar is part of a group of doctors who have tried their best to counter misinformation on Clubhouse, which has about 2 million weekly active users. Many were excited when Clubhouse first came on the scene; emergency physician Dr Rocky Jedick in Utah created a club with other doctors called The Evidence Base to provide, as the name suggests, an evidence-based approach to answering difficult questions. 

But soon, he realised that Clubhouse rooms were spiralling out of control. He recalled the controversial evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein one day telling almost 1,500 listeners that Ivermectin was “100% effective as COVID prophylaxis,” and that health agencies restricting access to this medicine were “killing millions.” Weinstein has 59,000 followers on the app.

Now, many of the doctors are fed up. “Most of us have decreased our time on Clubhouse,” said Dr Danish Nagda from St. Louis, “especially in COVID rooms because anti-vaxxers are actively disruptive on the stage. I have reported account after account with zero feedback or actions taken from Clubhouse.”


Again and again you’ll see the same patterns in unmoderated systems like this: the people who have the time to waste will spend it harassing those who don’t, until the latter group gives up because they have more important things to do. It’s repeated again and again – essentially, a version of Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) for information when there’s no reward for providing good information.
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China power outages close factories and threaten growth • The New York Times

Keith Bradsher, in Dongguan, eastern China:


The outages have rippled across most of eastern China, where the bulk of the population lives and works. Some building managers have turned off elevators. Some municipal pumping stations have shut down, prompting one town to urge residents to store extra water for the next several months, though it later withdrew the advice.

There are several reasons electricity is suddenly in short supply in much of China. More regions of the world are reopening after pandemic-induced lockdowns, greatly increasing demand for China’s electricity-hungry export factories.

Export demand for aluminum, one of the most energy-intensive products, has been strong. Demand has also been robust for steel and cement, central to China’s vast construction programs.

As electricity demand has risen, it has also pushed up the price of coal to generate that electricity. But Chinese regulators have not let utilities raise rates enough to cover the rising cost of coal. So the utilities have been slow to operate their power plants for more hours.

In the city of Dongguan, a major manufacturing hub near Hong Kong, a shoe factory that employs 300 workers rented a generator last week for $10,000 a month to ensure that work could continue. Between the rental costs and the diesel fuel for powering it, electricity is now twice as expensive as when the factory was simply tapping the grid.

“This year is the worst year since we opened the factory nearly 20 years ago,” said Jack Tang, the factory’s general manager.


China also outlawed bitcoin mining last week. If this is the start of a big power crunch, the supply chain problems will only worsen.
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Petrol station chaos worsened by motorists filling up with wrong fuel • The Guardian

Gwyn Topham:


The chaos on Great Britain’s petrol station forecourts has been worsened by hundreds of panicking motorists filling their tanks with the wrong kind of fuel, breakdown services have reported.

With queues snaking hundreds of metres from some filling stations – and tension building between motorists in places [fisticuffs have been filmed at more than one place – CA] – more than five times as many people as usual in the UK have mistakenly put diesel in their petrol engine or vice versa.

Misfuelling can cause significant damage to cars, and motorists are advised to not switch on the ignition at all once they realise their mistake – meaning such breakdowns potentially block the already crowded forecourts. Hapless drivers also need to have their tanks fully drained while the contaminated fuel has to be jettisoned.

The AA said it had attended 250 such incidents over the weekend compared with an average of 20-25 on an average day. The breakdown company has a fleet of specialist “fuel assist” vans to deal with this type of incident. Should the driver not immediately notice their mistake, large amounts of smoke can come from the exhaust, and the engine is apt to misfire and cut out. Using petrol in a diesel car is the more serious mistake in terms of possible damage.


I have put petrol into a diesel car (a long time ago). The moment of realisation is appalling. It must be a million times worse if you’re on a forecourt filled with angry drivers.
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TikTok reaches 1 billion monthly users • CNBC

Jessica Bursztynsky:


TikTok revealed Monday it has 1 billion active global users, indicating steady growth of the short-form video app.

TikTok, which is privately held and owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, has reported a surge in users over the past few years, with a large amount of its US audience joining amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

TikTok said it had about 55 million global users by January 2018. That number grew to more than 271 million by December 2018 and 507 million by December 2019. The company reported nearly 700 million monthly active users in August 2020.

In comparison, Facebook said in the second quarter it had 3.51 billion monthly users across its family of apps, up from 3.45 billion in the first quarter.

Still, the company launched one of the most successful short-form video apps, with many of its large tech competitors racing to recreate their own versions. Facebook launched its TikTok clone, Instagram Reels, broadly last August. Snap announced a similar feature called Spotlight last year. Google’s YouTube launched its competitor, Shorts, last September.


That’s pretty much straight-line growth: adding about 30m users per month consistently for nearly three years. It’s naturally going to run out of people who want or like its format at some point, but there’s plenty of headroom yet. Facebook should be worried: TikTok has brought the NewsFeed idea of “an algorithm for attention” to a new peak.
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Goldman Sachs, Ozy Media and a $40m conference call gone wrong • The New York Times

Ben Smith:


the Zoom videoconference on Feb. 2 that [media company] Ozy arranged between the Goldman Sachs asset management division and YouTube was supposed to be about [a $40m investment by GS in Ozy]. The scheduled participants included Alex Piper, the head of unscripted programming for YouTube Originals. He was running late and apologized to the Goldman Sachs team, saying he’d had trouble logging onto Zoom, and he suggested that the meeting be moved to a conference call, according to four people who were briefed on the meeting, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details of a private discussion.

Once everyone had made the switch to an old-fashioned conference call, the guest told the bankers what they had been wanting to hear: that Ozy was a great success on YouTube, racking up significant views and ad dollars, and that Mr. Watson was as good a leader as he seemed to be. As he spoke, however, the man’s voice began to sound strange to the Goldman Sachs team, as though it might have been digitally altered, the four people said.

After the meeting, someone on the Goldman Sachs side reached out to Mr. Piper, not through the Gmail address that Mr. Watson had provided before the meeting, but through Mr. Piper’s assistant at YouTube. That’s when things got weird.

A confused Mr. Piper told the Goldman Sachs investor that he had never spoken with her before. Someone else, it seemed, had been playing the part of Mr. Piper on the call with Ozy.


You’ve probably already worked out which company the faker worked for; the excuse provided for their presence on the call is wonderfully modern. The phrase “Potemkin village” appears in the piece, though “house of cards” might have served as well.
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Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith pleads guilty on North Korea sanctions charge • Decrypt

Liam Frost:


Griffith [aged 38] was arrested in November 2019 after traveling to the North Korean capital Pyongyang and giving a talk at a blockchain conference there. Facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison over conspiracy to violate the Emergency Economy Powers Act, Griffith reportedly took a plea deal [on the first day of his trial] that would see him face a maximum of six and a half years in prison.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York argued that Griffith violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that prohibits exporting goods, services, or technology to North Korea.

In a statement, US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman later alleged that Griffith “provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions.”

“Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime,” Berman explained.

Apart from giving “valuable information” to the North Korean audience, Griffith also entered the country in April 2019 without approval from the US—despite being warned about traveling to the country, the criminal complaint also alleged.


Quite a dramatic example of thinking that the law won’t apply to you because you’re doing libertarian technology, maaaan, and that asking forgiveness rather than permission always works. North Korea was completely aware of the benefits of cryptocurrency for evading sanctions well before that, of course, but that doesn’t make Griffith any less foolish. Sentencing in January 2022.
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DeversiFi says user funds are safe after $23.7m gas fee blunder • CoinDesk

Andrew Thurman:


Decentralized exchange DeversiFi is looking to calm user jitters after a simple ERC-20 token transaction somehow cost the platform $23.7m in fees.

The transaction occurred early Monday morning and was flagged two hours later on Twitter. The transaction was for $100,000 in stablecoin Tether – a ERC-20 token transfer that, at the time of writing, should have cost under $5.

While early reports indicated that the transaction originated from centralized exchange Bitfinex, DeversiFi’s tweet seems to indicate that it was an internal transaction. Both Etherscan and on-chain analytics service Nansen have the originating address labeled as belonging to Bitfinex, and the address holds nearly $1.5bn in ETH – orders of magnitude more than DeversiFi’s $45m in total value locked, per DeFi Pulse.


If you squint, you can see how an “internal transaction” that charges gazillions for a tiny transaction could be a wonderful opportunity for fraud – either money laundering (dirty money comes in, big fee gets oopsie-charged, repayment is in “clean” money which can wash back out) or simple fraud where you charge absurd amounts. One difference, I suppose, is that it’s harder to hide these things with blockchain operations. That assumes that enough people are watching – though if you get caught then all you say is that it’s an internal error and user funds are safe, exactly the same as you’d say if it were an innocent error.

The fact that Bitfinex was involved has made a lot of people suspicious.
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NBC gets super aggressive in YouTube TV dispute • The Verge

Jon Porter:


NBC is one of several NBCUniversal channels running prominent banner ads on YouTube TV streams, warning customers that they could lose access over a carriage dispute with Google. The banner lists over a dozen channels that could disappear if a deal isn’t reached by Wednesday, September 30th, and directs customers to an NBCU-owned website offering various ways to pressure Google. These include a pre-written tweet directed at YouTube TV, links to Google’s customer support, and a tool to find alternative providers.

“Attention YouTube TV Customers,” the banner, which runs roughly every 10 minutes, reads, “YouTube may drop 14+ channels including NBC, Telemundo, USA, SYFY, Brave, Oxygen, MSNBC, NBCSN, CNBC, GOLF Channel, and E!. Go to and tell YouTube TV not to drop your favorite channels.”

…Responding via a blog post, Google says negotiations are ongoing and that it’s seeking the “the same rates that services of a similar size get from NBCU” and for YouTube TV to be treated like “any other TV provider.” Google added that if it’s unable to reach an agreement it’ll drop its US prices by $10 (bringing its monthly price down from $64.99 to $54.99) while NBCU’s lineup is off the service. Google says that customers are free to cancel anytime and can sign up for Peacock separately for $4.99 a month.


America-only (and look at those prices!), though what I find notable here is that YouTube TV has been drawn into being Just Another TV Service, at the mercy of the content providers and begging to be treated as a little minnow, rather than an arm of a company that could swallow some of the TV providers without burping.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s video pushing a single charging standard dated from 2009, and wasn’t made by the EU – it was created by a guerilla marketing agency trying to get a contract. You can read more about the EU’s proposal in this Twitter thread. Or the Wikipedia page.

Start Up No.1645: gig workers struggle and want an exit, UK fuel depletion shows supply chain fragility, Android in court, and more

Your Ikea desk (or any other brand’s desk or table) could house an invisible wireless charging point from next month. Inefficient, but beautiful. CC-licensed photo by Derek Davis 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. Right place at the right time. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Gig workers are uncertain, scared, and barely scraping by • Rest of World

Peter Guest and the team:


Digitally-mediated gig work has surged over the past decade. The International Labor Organization counted 489 active ride-hailing and delivery platforms worldwide in 2020, ten times the number that existed in 2010. The fluid nature of the workforce means there are few consistent estimates to how many people are now engaged in this kind of labor, but some researchers believe that as much as 10% of the global workforce now engages in some kind of gig work. 

While the “sharing economy” model really began to take off in the US, gig work platforms are now global, adapting their models — or not — for wholly different contexts. To try to understand how this kind of work is experienced outside of the West, Rest of World spoke to platform workers around the world. Through a survey of more than 4,900 workers, conducted in partnership with the research company Premise, and interviews with dozens more workers, we have tried to capture their experiences. We found great commonalities: Gig work is stressful and fragile; it pays relatively well, but it also costs workers a lot in fuel, data, and insurance. Workers, whether driving a taxi in Ethiopia or a truck in Indonesia, don’t feel they can turn down gigs, meaning that it’s rarely as flexible as the companies make out. 


Part of this series shows gig workers by the numbers – which indicates that 60% want to quit within a year.
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Boris Johnson to consider using army to supply petrol stations • The Guardian

Aubrey Allegretti:


Hundreds of soldiers could be scrambled to deliver fuel to petrol stations running dry across the country due to panic buying and a shortage of drivers under an emergency plan expected to be considered by Boris Johnson on Monday.

The prime minister will gather ministers to scrutinise “Operation Escalin” after BP admitted that a third of its petrol stations had run out of the main two grades of fuel, while the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, said 50% to 90% of its members had reported running out. It predicted that the rest would soon follow.

The developments led to growing fears that the UK could be heading into a second “winter of discontent” and warnings that shelves could be emptier than usual in the run-up to Christmas.

In a bid to avert the crisis deepening further, ministers including the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, transport secretary Grant Shapps and home secretary Priti Patel gathered for a midday meeting on Sunday to discuss options – including Operation Escalin.

It was conceived years ago during the planning for a no-deal Brexit, and would mean hundreds of soldiers could be drafted in to drive a reserve fleet of 80 tankers. It is understood it would take up to three weeks to fully implement, because some of those mobilised may already be on other deployments and others could be reservists.


It has been an amazing three days. There have been traffic queues, fights in fuel stations, and all beginning with a few stations – literally a handful – running out of fuel. This isn’t a political point: it’s about the incredible fragility of our modern systems, where a small number of people suddenly filling up is enough to tip fuel stations from “OK” to “empty”. (Yes, the precursor was Brexit, followed by Covid, which created the conditions for the shortage of qualified fuel delivery drivers.)
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Google to fight record EU fine in marathon Android court hearing • POLITICO

Simon van Dorpe:


A five-day court hearing is set to start on Monday in which the U.S. search giant will seek to quash EU competition czar Margrethe Vestager’s 2018 ruling that Google abused the dominance of its Android operating system. Vestager slapped Google with a €4.34bn penalty, the largest antitrust fine the EU has ever imposed.

The showdown at the EU General Court in Luxembourg comes six weeks before the same court rules on Vestager’s first Google decision, which saw the company fined €2.42bn for favoring its own shopping comparison service over rivals. Vestager launched another major probe — into Google’s advertisement services — in June this year.

The EU’s Google cases were the first in a cascade of competition probes into Big Tech worldwide. Last year, Google was hit with three fresh investigations in the U.S. A lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice in Washington is broadly similar to the EU’s Android case.

For Vestager, who has been portrayed as Europe’s “tech-slayer in chief,” the Google court cases are the first big test for her antitrust campaign against the Silicon Valley giants. Apart from antitrust enforcement, she has suffered court defeats in state-aid cases involving tax bills for Apple in Ireland (€13bn) and Amazon in Luxembourg (€250m).

Next week’s hearing will see Google’s team of lawyers try to unpick the Commission’s 2018 findings that its contracts with smartphone-makers and mobile telecoms operators illegally cemented the dominance of its search engine. Google Search is key to the tech giant’s advertisement-driven business model.


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How truthful is GPT-3? A benchmark for language models • AI Alignment Forum

Owain Evans:


We propose a benchmark to measure whether a language model is truthful in generating answers to questions. The benchmark comprises 817 questions that span 38 categories, including health, law, finance and politics (see Figure 1). We crafted questions that some humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception. To perform well, models must avoid generating false answers learned from imitating human texts. 

We tested GPT-3, GPT-Neo/GPT-J, GPT-2 and a T5-based model. The best model was truthful on 58% of questions, while human performance was 94%. Models generated many false answers that mimic popular misconceptions and have the potential to deceive humans. The largest models were generally the least truthful (see Figure 2 below). For example, the 6B-parameter GPT-J model was 17% less truthful than its 125M-parameter counterpart. This contrasts with other NLP tasks, where performance improves with model size. However, this result is expected if false answers are learned from the training distribution. We suggest that scaling up models alone is less promising for improving truthfulness than fine-tuning using training objectives other than imitation of text from the web.


GPT-3 had suggestions such as “yes, coughing can help stop a heart attack” and “The US government caused 9/11”. This is quite a problem: these systems are only as good as the corpus they’re built on, and the corpus of “the web” is completely unreliable.
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Meta-reviews are amplifying bad and even fake ivermectin data, researchers warn • Science Alert

Carly Cassella:


A few bad apples have spoiled the meta-studies that first touted ivermectin, the common deworming agent, as a promising treatment for COVID-19.

Within weeks of being made available online, some of these clinical trial overviews were found to contain impossible numbers, unexplainable cohort mismatches, inconsistent timelines and substantial methodological weaknesses. 

One of these preprint analyses has since been withdrawn, whereas another has been revised after it was found to include fraudulent data.

Despite the slew of serious mistakes, millions of doses of ivermectin have already been given to COVID-19 patients the world over, while others who haven’t caught the virus are taking matters into their own hands and using it as a preventative, potentially endangering their health.

Some scientists are now calling for an immediate remediation of the meta-analysis process to stop this from happening again.

In a letter published in Nature, the authors argue we should no longer include any studies in a meta-analysis unless we have access to the raw individual patient data (IPD).

If the original study authors are not willing or able to provide such detailed information, then the clinical trial should simply be excluded. Such simple standards would have stopped the meta-studies on ivermectin from ever being published, researchers say.


Certainly every piece of meta-analysis about ivermectin has leant heavily on one or two studies which have been called into serious doubt. This would certainly give meta-reviews (studies of studies) a lot more ability to sort wheat from chaff.
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Yet another plug for Social Warming, my latest book. Buy now before panic shopping depletes supplies.

Ikea’s $40 Sjömärke pad puts a wireless charger under your desk • The Verge

Richard Lawler:


Ikea got in relatively early on selling furniture embedded with wireless charging coils, but what if you don’t have one of its powered-up desks or shelving units? If you want seamless Wireless Qi charging without redecorating, then next month, there will be a solution. Meet the Sjömärke, a $39.99 wireless charging pad made to work with furniture you already own.

This device isn’t like most Qi charging pads, where you’d put your phone or earbuds directly on the mat. Instead, the seven-inch by three-inch aluminum and plastic charger works through plastic or wood, so you can use its double-sided tape (or screws, not included) to put it on the underside of a table or shelf.

As long as you’re mounting the device on something wood or plastic, it should safely send an electric charge through to your gadgets on the other side. It needs a minimum distance from the phone of about 8mm, and Ikea recommends using it with a surface between three-eighths and seven-eighths of an inch thick.


Pervasive charging (even if rather inefficient)? Not a bad idea.
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Why the EU forcing Apple to adopt USB-C would be a bad thing • Android Police

Martim Lobao:


USB Type-C is arguably the best plug we have going right now, I’m not arguing against that. But we wouldn’t be able to experiment with alternatives as easily if a specific port becomes mandated for certain product categories.

What if this had happened when Micro USB was still the standard? Imagine still being stuck on Micro USB for everything, using a weak connector that was more prone to breaking, wasn’t reversible, and got clogged with lint and gunk more easily. Standards at the time for that port capped at 480 Mbps transfer speed maximums, without the benefits of our current much higher fast-charging rates. And sure, we could have improved on that same four-wire implementation beyond what we had, but we wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of USB Type-C’s 20 extra pins and all the protocols and functionality you legitimately just need more copper to deliver. Apple’s Lightning connector, which was released three years before USB-C was announced, would probably never have existed either, if you see that as a benefit.

Compounded by that is the fundamental fact that the pace of legislation moves much slower than technology. USB-C was first proposed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) in 2014, making it already 7 years old (as old as Micro USB when USB-C was first announced). If (or when) the USB-IF announces a successor to USB-C, how many years will it take until the EU makes it legal for companies to implement it?


When Android Police is on Apple’s side, you know something’s up. On this topic, the EU has put out an advert. You won’t believe it.
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Semiconductor firms can’t find enough workers, worsening chip shortage • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:


The semiconductor chip shortage that has so vexed the auto industry looks set to continue for quite some time, according to a new industry survey. More than half of the companies that were surveyed by IPC said they expected the shortage to last until at least the second half of 2022. And right now, the chip shortage is being exacerbated by rising costs and a shortage of workers.

According to the survey, 80% of chip makers say that it’s become hard to find workers who have to be specially trained to handle the highly toxic compounds used in semiconductor manufacturing. The problem is worse in North America and in Asia, where more companies are reporting rising labor costs compared to those in Europe.

But only a third of Asian chip makers say they are finding it harder to find qualified workers, compared to 67% of North American companies and 63% of European companies. That may well explain why fewer Asian semiconductor companies (42%) are reporting increasing order backlogs, compared to 65% of North American and 60% of European companies.

Just under half (46%) said they were retraining their current workers to fill the gaps, and nearly as many (44%) said they were increasing wages to make the jobs more attractive. Other popular measures include more flexible hours and more training opportunities for workers.


And chip fabrication is definitely one of those jobs you just can’t do at home.
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Apple wins a patent that can entirely change how MacBooks work • Techgig



The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a crucial patent for the MacBook which might influence future generations of the company’s coveted notebook. The patent depicts a MacBook with two displays, a virtual keyboard, and the ability to charge an iPhone wirelessly. Apple’s patent, which was filed three years ago and was recently awarded, highlights an ambitious design for the MacBook, which is now undergoing design modifications.

The patent, which was discovered by Patently Apple, largely details radical alterations. Take, for example, the virtual keyboard. With the next-generation MacBook Pro, Apple is rumoured to be deleting the Touch Bar, but a new patent suggests the company may be considering removing the complete physical keyboard. Instead, the MacBook will include a second display. Different keyboard layouts for typing will be available on the display, similar to how you type on your smartphone’s screen.

If Apple ever decides to incorporate such a method, it will not be the first. Asus already sells laptops with additional displays that can serve as a virtual keyboard or a touchscreen calculator. The patent demonstrates that the MacBook’s secondary display will serve as the foundation, and because it is a touchscreen, the possibilities are unlimited.


Sounds like a recipe for confusion. Does anyone fancy the idea of typing all day on what would essentially be an iPad screen? Glass isn’t fun to touchtype on (even though we spend ages on our phones: that’s thumb work). I once tried Lenovo’s attempt at this sort of thing; it was awful. So here’s hoping this is an idea more for a phone-as-computer than to displace the MacBook.
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Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou reaches deal with Justice Department • WSJ

Aruna Viswanatha, Dan Strumpf and Jacquie McNish:


The US Justice Department agreed to allow Huawei Technologies finance chief Meng Wanzhou to return to her home in China nearly three years after she was detained in Canada on behalf of the US, removing one irritant in a deteriorating relationship between the US and China.

Under the agreement, entered in federal court in Brooklyn on Friday, Ms. Meng admitted remotely from Canada to some wrongdoing in exchange for prosecutors deferring and later dropping wire and bank fraud charges.

Representatives for Huawei and the Justice Department declined to comment. Ms. Meng, who is 49 years old, is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment and a leader in 5G technology.

The deal comes as relations between the two countries have worsened, particularly after the US, UK and Australia announced an initiative this month to provide Australia with nuclear submarines to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.


China immediately fulfilled its side of what must be a quid pro quo and released the two Canadian businessmen it has been holding on trumped-up charges since Wanzhou was detained, demonstrating that they were indeed trumped-up charges. As far as we know the sanctions on Huawei will remain, though; and Wanzhou gave testimony as part of her plea deal that can now be used in the future.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1644: in search of the hurricane delivery man, the UK’s missed insulation scheme, Upworthy as data, and more

The EU is going to mandate USB-C for charging phones, tablets and other products to cut e-waste – but is that really the source of the problem? CC-licensed photo by Doug McCaughan 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 9 links for you. Reusable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

European Commission proposes a common charger for electronic devices • European Commission


Today, the Commission is proposing:

• A harmonised charging port for electronic devices: USB-C will be the common port. This will allow consumers to charge their devices with the same USB-C charger, regardless of the device brand.
• Harmonised fast charging technology will help prevent that different producers unjustifiably limit the charging speed and will help to ensure that charging speed is the same when using any compatible charger for a device.
• Unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device: consumers will be able to purchase a new electronic device without a new charger. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused. Reducing production and disposal of new chargers is estimated to reduce the amount of electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes’ yearly.
• Improved information for consumers: producers will need to provide relevant information about charging performance, including information on the power required by the device and if it supports fast charging. This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger. Combined with the other measures, this would help consumers limit the number of new chargers purchased and help them save €250m a year on unnecessary charger purchases.

…In 2020, approximately 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU. On average, consumers own around three mobile phone chargers, of which they use two on a regular basis. Despite this, 38% of consumers report having experienced problems at least once that they could not charge their mobile phone because available chargers were incompatible. The situation is not only inconvenient but also costly for consumers, who spend approximately €2.4bn annually on standalone chargers that do not come with electronic devices. In addition, disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to pile up to 11,000 tonnes of e-waste every year.


I’d like to see the source of those statistics. I suspect the e-waste actually comes from non-phone devices. (This directive will apply to “smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles” – so not routers, set-top boxes, and various other electronic things with completely non-standard low-voltage plugs.) All sorts of perverse outcomes likely; the most probable being Apple abandoning the charging port in favour of inefficient wireless charging.

Some way from being law; the European Parliament still has to approve it, which isn’t certain.
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A search for the delivery worker in a viral Hurricane Ida video • The New Yorker

Eric Lach:


That night, more rain fell in a three-hour period than in any three-hour period in New York’s recorded history, breaking a record that had been set only ten days earlier, during Hurricane Henri. The man with the electric bicycle, meanwhile, cut a familiar profile, even to a new arrival: in recent years, the restaurant-delivery business, enabled by market-altering apps and a proliferation of electric bicycles, has exploded in New York City. Sixty-five thousand people, most of them poor immigrants, many of them undocumented, are now employed meeting the city’s demand for door-to-door burritos, grain bowls, and sushi combos.

Here, [photographer Johnny] Miller thought, was a [delivery] guy in the richest city in the world, out trying to make a buck in historically disastrous weather. “To see inequality and climate change come together in one video, like one frame,” Miller said later. “It just sort of happened.”


Lach joins Miller in his search for the delivery guy. It’s a story with an ending. Not, probably, the ending you’d expect. (Via Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things.)
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March 2021: UK government’s green homes grant in urgent need of rescue, MPs say • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey, in March 2021:


The UK government’s flagship home insulation scheme, intended to kickstart a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, has been botched, disastrous in administration, devastating in some of its impacts, and stands in urgent need of rescue, an influential committee of MPs has said.

Their outspoken criticism is a blow to the government’s plans for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and comes as ministers prepare to host vital UN climate talks – called Cop26 – in Glasgow this November.

There can be little chance of meeting the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 without a comprehensive programme to insulate Britain’s 19m draughty homes and switch from gas boilers to low-CO2 heating, the environmental audit committee of MPs said on Monday.

But they delivered a damning assessment of the green homes grant, launched last summer to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating, and demanded urgent action from ministers. They said the scheme was “rushed in conception and poorly implemented … [the] scheme administration appears nothing short of disastrous”.

They added: “The impact of its botched implementation has had devastating consequences on many of the builders and installers that can do the work, who have been left in limbo as a result of the orders cancelled and time taken to approve applications.”


Which is why there’s now a protest group called Insulate Britain which has been blocking roads to try to get the government to get homes insulated. If this project had been going fantastically well, the government could point to it. But no, not at all – rather as every environmental project (and pretty much every large-scale government project that has to permeate down to individuals) gets screwed up.
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The Upworthy Research Archive, a time series of 32,487 experiments in US media • Scientific Data

Nathan Matias et al:


The pursuit of audience attention online has led organizations to conduct thousands of behavioral experiments each year in media, politics, activism, and digital technology. One pioneer of A/B tests was, a US media publisher that conducted a randomized trial for every article they published.

Each experiment tested variations in a headline and image “package,” recording how many randomly-assigned viewers selected each variation. While none of these tests were designed to answer scientific questions, scientists can advance knowledge by meta-analyzing and data-mining the tens of thousands of experiments Upworthy conducted.

This archive records the stimuli and outcome for every A/B test fielded by Upworthy between January 24, 2013 and April 30, 2015. In total, the archive includes 32,487 experiments, 150,817 experiment arms, and 538,272,878 participant assignments. The open access dataset is organized to support exploratory and confirmatory research, as well as meta-scientific research on ways that scientists make use of the archive.


You won’t believe this one trick that data scientists use to make people read their papers.
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Another week, another chance to order Social Warming, my latest book, about how social media drives everyone a little mad – even if they don’t use it.

Apple will not reinstate Epic’s Fortnite developer account, but Epic’s other developer accounts remain active • Daring Fireball

John Gruber goes into some detail about the back-and-forth in which Epic wants to be able to update its Fortnite app on the App Store:


Sweeney tweeted the following on September 11, one day after the Epic-v.-Apple decision was delivered:


Thinking much more about whether we’re going to live in a world where two platform megacorps dictate software and world commerce to everyone or whether the digital world and the future metaverse will be a free world. Wouldn’t trade that away to get Fortnite back on iOS.


That doesn’t sound like the words of a man poised to comply with the App Store rules around in-app purchases. But, it doesn’t mean Epic wasn’t going to submit a Fortnite build that fully complies with the rules, either. Really does seem like Sweeney just thinking out loud in a tweet.


A good illustration of why chief executives in sticky legal positions shouldn’t be allowed near Twitter. See also: Elon Musk.
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COVID will end up resembling common cold by spring next year, leading experts say | UK News | Sky News

Rebecca Speare-Cole:


Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the virus could resemble the common cold by spring next year as people’s immunity to the virus is boosted by vaccines and exposure.

He added the country “is over the worst” and things “should be fine” once winter has passed, adding that there was continued exposure to the virus even in people who are vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel also said on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic could be over in a year as increased vaccine production ensures global supplies.

It comes the day after Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, whose work helped to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, said viruses tend to become weaker as they spread around.

Asked about her comments on Times Radio, Sir John said: “If you look at the trajectory we’re on, we’re a lot better off than we were six months ago. So the pressure on the NHS is largely abated. If you look at the deaths from COVID, they tend to be very elderly people, and it’s not entirely clear it was COVID that caused all those deaths.

“So I think we’re over the worst of it now and I think what will happen is, there will be quite a lot of background exposure to Delta,” he added, saying the case numbers are quite high but those who have had two vaccines and are infected will still lead to stronger herd immunity.


Hmm. UK deaths are running at about 1,000 per week, though flat; hospitalisations have come down quite dramatically. With more vaccination, perhaps this forecast is correct – for the UK, at least.
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File not found • The Verge

Monica Chin:


Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.


The generation where search engines plus smartphones and iPads have become pervasive. Also, if you’ve ever seen a teenager’s room you know that “filing” is not a familiar concept, at least for clothes.
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Facebook rolls out News Feed change that blocks watchdogs from gathering data • The Markup

Corin Faife:


Facebook has begun rolling out an update that is interfering with watchdogs monitoring the platform.

The Markup has found evidence that Facebook is adding changes to its website code that foils automated data collection of news feed posts—a technique that groups like NYU’s Ad Observatory, The Markup, and other researchers and journalists use to audit what’s happening on the platform on a large scale.

The changes, which attach junk code to HTML features meant to improve accessibility for visually impaired users, also impact browser-based ad blocking services on the platform. The new code risks damaging the user experience for people who are visually impaired, a group that has struggled to use the platform in the past.

The updates add superfluous text to news feed posts in the form of ARIA tags, an element of HTML code that is not rendered visually by a standard web browser but is used by screen reader software to map the structure and read aloud the contents of a page. Such code is also used by organizations like NYU’s Ad Observatory to identify sponsored posts on the platform and weed them out for further scrutiny. 


Bet that it’s in fact implemented to stymie ad-blocking, but of course Facebook won’t be unhappy if it gets in the way of Ad Observatory too.
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Section 230 and a tragedy of the commons • Communications of the ACM

Michael A Cusumano:


Given the law, social media platforms face a specific dilemma: If they edit too much content, then they become more akin to publishers rather than neutral platforms and that may invite strong legal challenges to their Section 230 protections. If they restrict too much content or ban too many users, then they diminish network effects and associated revenue streams. Fake news and conspiracy theories often go viral and have been better for business than real news, generating billions of dollars in advertisements.

…we would all benefit from a revision of Section 230 that allows the public to hold online platforms accountable at least for advertisements and profits tied to the wilful dissemination of false and dangerous information. We need government guardrails not only to protect the public but also to protect online platforms from their worst tendencies—the temptation to give in to harmful or destructive content that generates billions of dollars in sales and profits. Even Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged the problem of regulating digital content is too big for Facebook and other social media platforms to solve by themselves.


Cusumano is a professor and deputy dean at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coauthor of The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and Power (2019). He’s also completely wrong about Section 230: it doesn’t matter how much a platform edits – they never “become more akin to publishers”.

As to the other bit – holding platforms accountable based on “wilful” dissemination – try to define what “wilful” would look like. That Facebook (etc) monitored the content and let it go? But that’s not how platforms work. It’s amazing how people write daft articles like this and (respectable?) organisations publish them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1643: Lithuania says ditch your Xiami phone, Facebook seeks new PR sheen, Bellingcat’s eye in the sky, gas prices to stay high, and more

Is Apple’s iPhone 13 range a yawn-inducing incremental change, or just what the customer(s) ordered? Can it be both? CC-licensed photo by Mark Mathosian 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 9 links for you. Tantalising. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Lithuania urges people to throw away Chinese phones • BBC News


Consumers should throw away their Chinese phones and avoid buying new ones, Lithuania’s Defence Ministry has warned.

A report by its National Cyber Security Centre tested 5G mobiles from Chinese manufacturers. It claimed that one Xiaomi phone had built-in censorship tools while another Huawei model had security flaws.

Huawei said no user data is sent externally and Xiaomi said it does not censor communications.

“Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible,” said Defence Deputy Minister Margiris Abukevicius.

Xiaomi’s flagship Mi 10T 5G phone was found to have software that could detect and censor terms including “Free Tibet”, “Long live Taiwan independence” or “democracy movement”, the report said.

It highlighted more than 449 terms that could be censored by the Xiaomi phone’s system apps, including the default internet browser.

In Europe, this capability had been switched off on these models, but the report argued it could be remotely activated at any time.

“Xiaomi’s devices do not censor communications to or from its users,” a spokeswoman told the BBC. “Xiaomi has never and will never restrict or block any personal behaviours of our smartphone users, such as searching, calling, web browsing or the use of third-party communication software.”


So far the cryptographer Matthew Green hasn’t warned that this is a desperately dangerous system. Sure that he’s just about to get around to it.
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Inside Facebook’s push to defend its image • The New York Times

Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel:


Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, signed off last month on a new initiative code-named Project Amplify.

The effort, which was hatched at an internal meeting in January, had a specific purpose: to use Facebook’s News Feed, the site’s most important digital real estate, to show people positive stories about the social network.

The idea was that pushing pro-Facebook news items — some of them written by the company — would improve its image in the eyes of its users, three people with knowledge of the effort said. But the move was sensitive because Facebook had not previously positioned the News Feed as a place where it burnished its own reputation. Several executives at the meeting were shocked by the proposal, one attendee said.

Project Amplify punctuated a series of decisions that Facebook has made this year to aggressively reshape its image.


A Facebook PR complained (on Twitter) that the puff pieces will feature in a chunk of the News Feed marked “Facebook”. Someone else pointed out that it’s no different from newspapers pushing stories about how wonderful they are. Yet Facebook’s ability to trumpet things – and particularly to downplay others – is a colossal power.
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Google worker unrest rises after removal of Russia voting app • Bloomberg via MSN

Ryan Gallagher and Mark Bergen:


Google employees have joined the slew of politicians and activists blasting the internet giant for pulling a voting app from Russia’s opposition leader, a move critics say showed the company was caving in to the Kremlin. 

Staff members complained over the weekend about the Google’s decision in internal forums and on memegen, a messaging board that has served as a breeding ground for protests within the company. Images circulating inside Google, which were viewed by Bloomberg News, spoofed its corporate creed about prioritizing users. One picture depicts a man reading a magazine below the slogan, “Putin the user first.” 

These internal frustrations are the latest in a series of blows to Alphabet’s Google operations in Russia, where the company is facing increased political pressure, fines and aggressive demands to police its influential internet services. So far, Google has decided those pressures are still worth operating in the multibillion dollar advertising market. 


I’d hazard a guess that there’s similar frustration inside Apple. As Ben Thompson pointed out in a (subscriber, paywalled) article, the problem is (as I said) there being so few choke points that it only takes a little pressure to have a big effect.

Though that also points to the benefit of enabling sideloading so that people can install apps from anywhere in such situations.
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Elizabeth Holmes private text messages leak during Theranos fraud trial • CNBC

Yasmin Khorram:


Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes believed in herself so much that she wrote in a text message to Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani proclaiming that she had “total confidence in myself best business person of the year.”

The message to her then-boyfriend and Theranos president Balwani are among thousands of private texts and Skype messages obtained by CNBC that show Holmes had no lack of confidence in herself and Theranos, the blood-testing company she founded. They also reveal that Holmes told Balwani about courting high-profile investors who ended up giving Theranos hundreds of millions of dollars.

“My new life as of this night and forever more: – total confidence in myself best business person of the year – focus – details excellence – don’t give what anyone thinks – engage employees in meetings by stories and making it about them (ie prepare well),” Holmes texted Balwani in November 2014 while discussing the full moon that evening.

…In March 2015, Holmes texted Balwani: “Mary Meeker trying to convince me to stay private, raise massive $$$ and go and think bigger.”


Going to be interesting to see how her lawyer spins this into her being under Balwani’s thumb.
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Bellingcat can now access specialised satellite imagery. Tell us where we should look • bellingcat


Our team has purchased a subscription to Planet Labs, a private company whose satellites can capture 50cm resolution imagery of anywhere on Earth within a few days of a tasking request. Just a few years ago, satellite imagery of this quality was largely unavailable to the non-profit and independent researchers who play a key role in Bellingcat’s work.

We intend to regularly collect suggestions for where this tasking should be directed, then publish the resulting image for all to access and analyse. To inaugurate this exciting new resource, we’ll soon launch a Twitter poll that will pit our four favorite suggestions against one another; the winning suggestion will be tasked and the image published.

If you would like to suggest a location for satellite tasking, please be as specific as possible and include the following details:

• Direct coordinates of the location (right click the spot on Google Maps to view and copy them).
• Either a screenshot of the desired spot or a direct link to the location on a mapping service, such as Wikimapia or Google Maps.
• An explanation for why Bellingcat should take an image of this site — and why others might find it interesting and useful. Alternatively, a link to a media article can also be provided to demonstrate newsworthiness and relevance.


Amazing. No hint on pricing on the Planet Labs page, which bought the Skybox satellite constellation from Google in 2017; Google’s acquisition for $500m in 2014 seemed like a brilliant move to find out what was happening in the world, but apparently it was too big a mouthful of data even for Google.
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Energy regulator rejects Boris Johnson’s claim of ‘short-term’ gas crisis, with UK in ‘unprecedented territory’ • The Independent

Rob Merrick:


The prime minister raised eyebrows when he rejected warnings of a cost-of-living crisis this winter, insisting “spikes in gas prices” – like food supply problems – will soon be over.

But Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem’s chief executive, refused to echo the prediction, telling MPs. “It’s extremely difficult to predict the future of the gas price.”

He pointed to “unprecedented changes over the last few months” – which had seen the wholesale price leap by almost six times over the last year – warning: “We are in unprecedented territory I’m afraid.” There were “many, many factors” that were outside the UK’s control, such as rising international demand and supply restrictions, an emergency inquiry by the Commons business committee was told.

“It’s very, very hard to predict how long that will last,” Mr Brearley said, warning an end to the supply squeeze was “not something that we at Ofgem would rely on”. But the chief executive played down fears of the UK running out of gas, saying: “You can’t rule anything out, but we have a resilient system that customers can rely on.”

Meanwhile, the boss of the Energy UK industry body revealed it warned the government and Ofgem that the sector was fragile at least two years ago. Chief executive Emma Pinchbeck said she had warned that even well-run suppliers might go bust, because of fault lines in the UK energy market.


Again, it’s businesses that are going to get squeezed by this.
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Asda and Sainsbury’s chilled foods distributor on brink of collapse • Sky News

Mark Kleinman:


A chilled foods distributor whose customers include Asda and J Sainsbury is on the brink of collapse as a maelstrom of headwinds including acute driver shortages threatens further disruption to grocery retailers’ supply chains.

Sky News has learnt that EVCL Chill – a division of the independent logistics group EV Cargo – is close to being placed into administration.

Industry sources said on Tuesday that the business, which employs about 1000 people, was holding talks with its largest customers about contingency plans that would ensure continuity of supply.


Dominoes starting to fall. EVCL Chill went into administration in early 2020 and was bought. The last year for which revenues are available is 2018, when they were £334m – on which it made a £29.1m loss. No reason to think things improved in 2019/2020.
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The most important iPhone ever • Asymco

Horace Dediu:


The new cameras are for the new generation of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok influencers. Ordinary people with extraordinary tools can do extraordinary work.

The latest iPhone 13 is, in my opinion, the most important iPhone ever. It creates the perception of what a phone should be and it sets up the trajectory for demand that did not yet exist. It’s facile to think that the utility of an ok older phone is good enough. That assumes that we are satisfied with ok messaging and ok apps. With ok photos and ok video. With no wide angles, no nightmode and no macro photos. What the iPhone has shown however is that the demand for performance can be nudged up.

We did not ask for rack focus, post-production focus (!), night mode, macro photography and portrait bokeh. But once we have these features we begin, ever so slowly, to use them and then we start demanding them. Conversely it seems that what people mostly ask for—that is what the critics ask for—are extrapolations of existing features. The “faster horse” dilemma.

What makes the iPhone and perhaps Apple special is that it seems to deliver things that nobody asks for but then everybody wants while eschewing overshooting a performance dimension that a few demand but most won’t use.

The tragedy of overservice and disruption is that if you don’t shift the definition of performance eventually you run out of demand at the top of the performance curve. That opens you up to “good enough” competition from below. Instead you need to re-define the notion of performance: compete on a new basis, reset expectations.


As Dediu points out, the iPhone avoids traditional disruption (low-end plain device does good-enough work) by not rushing to add features. Many companies don’t have the patience not to run when they can.

For another perspective, there’s this…
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Apple iPhone 13 review: the most incremental upgrade ever • The New York Times

Brian X Chen:


The truth is that smartphones peaked a few years ago.

After so many advances, the miniature computers have reached incredible speeds, their screens have become bigger and brighter, and their cameras produce images that make amateur photographers look like wizards.

The problem with so much great innovation is that upgrades are now so iterative that it has become difficult to know what to write about them each year. That’s especially the case with Apple’s iPhone 13, which may be the most incremental update ever to the iPhone.

The newest iPhone is just 10% faster than last year’s models. (For context, in 2015, the iPhone 6S was more than 70% faster than its predecessor, the iPhone 6.) Its flashiest new feature, a higher screen “refresh rate” on the $1,000-plus models, makes motion look smoother when opening apps and scrolling through text — hardly a game changer.

Innovations on smartphone cameras also appear to be slowing. Apple executives described the iPhone 13 cameras as “dramatically more powerful” and the iPhone’s “most advanced” ever, largely because they can capture more light and reduce noise. But in my tests, the improvements were marginal.


The “peak” link is to the iPhone 11 – two years ago. (Notice that Apple isn’t using the “S” designation now?) Certainly true that improvement is incremental, rather than dramatic, now: Cinematic Video, better low-light performance, better battery life. We’ve been in tech stasis for some years.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little – or a lot – 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 forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1642: the UK’s missed chance for renewables, Telenor exits Myanmar, the totally repairable laptop, and more

The story of Lot’s wife and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have some basis in reality – caused by a meteorite skyburst. CC-licensed photo by jean louis mazieres 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. Unsalted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Government should have moved earlier to low-carbon, say industry experts • The Guardian

Fiona Harvey:


The gas supply crunch has prompted a flurry of government meetings with industry, and reassurances in parliament on Monday from the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, that “there is no question of the lights going out” and that the UK is “highly resilient”.

But the supply issue demonstrates that fossil fuels are inherently subject to wild price fluctuations, which happen at least once a decade, according to Roger Fouquet, of the London School of Economics. “Price volatility is an inevitable part of the fossil fuel energy system,” he said. “Renewables do not suffer from these market-related problems.”

Switching to renewables reduces the impact of fossil fuel price fluctuation, but the UK is still “particularly exposed to international gas prices”, said Rob Gross of UCL. “Gas power stations set prices [in the UK], particularly when demand is high and renewables output is low. Countries with a lower share of gas in their power mix experience less volatile prices and we should expect that here too.”

Dan McGrail, chief executive of RenewableUK, which represents wind energy companies, said the government should learn the lesson for future years. “The first priority for government and the sector is, of course, protecting consumers in response to this price surge. The only way to do that in the long term is to have an energy system powered by cheap renewables, with flexible storage, hydrogen and other low-carbon technologies to meet demand at lowest cost.”

He pointed out that it was already cheaper, even before the gas price began soaring, to generate electricity by building a new windfarm than running an existing gas power plant.


See also, from March 2016:


Supporters of leaving the EU have said claims by Energy Secretary Amber Rudd that total household bills could rise by as much as £1.5m a day are “absurd”.

Ms Rudd said the UK faced an “electric shock” outside the EU, pointing to research suggesting energy costs could increase by £500m a year.

The UK, she claimed, was more at risk of Russian “hijacking” outside the EU. Leave campaigners said the UK did not depend on the EU or Russia for supplies and EU membership pushed costs up.


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Norway’s Telenor says Myanmar unit sale plan followed junta’s pressure on surveillance tech • Reuters

Fanny Potkin:


Norwegian telecom firm Telenor is selling its Myanmar operations to avoid European Union sanctions after “continued pressure” from Myanmar’s military junta to activate intercept surveillance technology, the company’s Asia head told Reuters.

Telenor announced in July it would sell its Myanmar unit to Lebanese investment firm M1 Group for $105 million, prompting an outcry from activists in the country who have been relying on its services for communications.

A Reuters investigation in May found telecom and internet service providers in Myanmar had been secretly ordered in the months before the junta’s Feb. 1 coup to install invasive technology that would allow the army to freely eavesdrop on the communications of citizens.

“Since the military took over, it’s been clear for us that our presence will require Telenor Myanmar to activate intercept equipment and technology for the use of Myanmar authorities,” Asia head Jørgen Rostrup said in an interview.

Allowing the activation of the intercept technology would break the 2018 EU arms embargo against the Southeast Asian country, the executive added, stressing the need for legal or regulatory safeguards in Myanmar to protect human rights.

“Telenor Myanmar has not activated the equipment as of yet and will not do so voluntarily,” he said. He declined to comment on whether the intercept technology had been installed at Telenor’s operations in Myanmar.


This is huge. Telenor was one of the two biggest mobile networks in Myanmar (along with Ooredoo) out of four, and one of the original enablers of the dramatic explosion in smartphone use there after 2010. (There’s a whole chapter about the effect of smartphones on Myanmar in my book Social Warming. Just sayin’.)
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For more on Myanmar, and much else, read Social Warming, my latest book.

The Framework is the most exciting laptop I’ve ever used • Pluralistic

Cory Doctorow:


I was ready to buy another Thinkpad by last spring. What else was I going to buy? I wanted something maintainable, and I loved the hardware mouse-buttons and the Trackpoint. But Lenovo was estimating 4-5 months to fulfill orders, so I closed the window and bailed.

Then I saw Ifixit’s teardown of a Framework laptop. They described a computer whose hardware was fully user-maintainable/upgradeable. The system opens with six “captive” screws (they stay in the case) and then every component can be easily accessed.

There’s no tape. There’s no glue. Every part has a QR code that you can shoot with your phone to go to a service manual that has simple-to-follow instructions for installing, removing and replacing it. Every part is labeled in English, too!

The screen is replaceable. The keyboard is replaceable. The touchpad is replaceable. Removing the battery and replacing it takes less than five minutes. The computer actually ships with a screwdriver.

All this, without sacrificing size or power – it’s so similar to a Macbook that a friend who came over for dinner (and who knows about my feelings about proprietary Apple hardware) expressed shock that I’d switched to a Macbook!


It certainly looks like a Macbook, but he’s running Ubuntu.
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To treat users fairly, Facebook must commit to transparency • Facebook Oversight Board

Catalina Botero-Marino, Jamal Greene, Michael McConnell and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, co-chairs of the Oversight Board:


In light of recent developments, we are looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting. The Board has reached out to Facebook to request they provide further clarity about the information previously shared with us. We expect to receive a briefing from Facebook in the coming days and will be reporting what we hear from this as part of our first release of quarterly transparency reports which we will publish in October. On top of providing new information on the types of appeals the Board is receiving, these reports will provide an analysis of the Board’s decisions related to cross-check and Facebook’s responses on this topic.

We are also looking at how the Board can further explore policy issues related to cross-check, which may lead to further recommendations in this area.


Since January the FBOB has received more than half a million requests from users to examine Facebook decisions, taken on 20 cases, issued 15 decisions and gone against Facebook 11 times. Not what you’d call a stunning throughput, but they don’t say how many requests were rejected – or maybe all but those 20 were.

However the WSJ has now got the FBOB annoyed. Wonder how that’s going to go.
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Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power: excerpt • NY Mag

Max Chafkin:


At the time [in 1998-99], the Valley was so full of competing payments companies that there was a second one on the same floor. was better funded than PayPal, with a famous investor — Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital — and a charismatic founder who’d already sold another start-up for some $300m. His name was Elon Musk.

Musk didn’t know that the engineers across the landing were also working on digital money transfers. (The sign on their door bore the name of a parent company.) X and PayPal shared a trash bin in the alley behind their building, and PayPal engineers later bragged to a group of X employees that they found documents that described X’s payments scheme, which used the web, rather than Palm Pilots, as well as a system for generating referrals by giving customers cash. They incorporated the ideas into PayPal’s strategy. Some X employees I spoke with took this boast literally, though Musk cast doubt on the story. “It’s possible, I suppose,” he told me. “But it’s a bit like saying, ‘You stole my idea for going to the moon.’” Even though he has long since moved on to running Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has complicated feelings about Thiel, in part because of what happened next.

Shifting PayPal’s focus to the web and paying new users referral fees juiced the company’s growth. Some of Thiel’s coders made a little software app to track how many people had created new accounts, which appeared on his screen as a little box titled “World Domination Index.” Every time a new user joined, the app played the sound of a bell. In November 1999, PayPal’s customer base was a few thousand. By spring, the index was up to 1 million. That was a nearly unprecedented rate of growth, but it meant that PayPal had spent something like $20 million on referral fees out of the $28 million it had raised. The losses, and the similarity of their businesses, persuaded Thiel and Musk to combine their companies.

Thiel left shortly after the merger. “I wouldn’t say we’re oil and water, but there are some pretty big differences,” Musk, who became CEO, told me. “Peter likes the games manship of investing — like we’re all playing chess. I don’t mind that, but I’m fundamentally into doing engineering and design. I’m not an inves tor. I feel like using other people’s money is not cool.” A person who has talked to each man about the other put it more succinctly: “Musk thinks Peter is a sociopath, and Peter thinks Musk is a fraud and a braggart.”


I agree with Musk, based on what Thiel is described doing in the rest of the extract.
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Trump campaign knew lawyers’ voting machine claims were baseless, memo shows • NY Times

Alan Feuer:


Two weeks after the 2020 election, a team of lawyers closely allied with Donald J. Trump held a widely watched news conference at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington. At the event, they laid out a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that a voting machine company had worked with an election software firm, the financier George Soros and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Mr. Trump.

But there was a problem for the Trump team, according to court documents released on Monday evening.

By the time the news conference occurred on Nov. 19, Mr. Trump’s campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.

The court papers, which were initially filed late last week as a motion in a defamation lawsuit brought against the campaign and others by a former Dominion employee, Eric Coomer, contain evidence that officials in the Trump campaign were aware early on that many of the claims against the companies were baseless.


There’s a tiny bit of technology flavour to this, but really it’s about how democracy is poisoned and killed: by people willing to lie that elections were fraudulent. They, perhaps more even than those in Belarus and Russia who carry out fraudulent elections, are the murderers of democracy, because they are under its care – they just want to snuff it out when they dislike the outcome.
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iPhone 13 and Apple Silicon • Creative Strategies

Ben Bajarin on the difference that Apple’s ownership of its silicon design gives it over pretty much everyone else:


I found this line found on Apple’s website explaining the tight integration of the hardware teams, software teams, and silicon teams demonstrates the unique way all three groups collaborate. 

“What’s truly unique about Apple is that we don’t just start with a superfast chip and build features around it. Instead, we start with an idea about a great experience we’d like you to have, and then we all work together to bring it to life.”

This subtle point often gets overlooked amidst talk of Apple’s silicon performance. To a degree, Apple is to blame since they have frequently called out their silicon performance against competitors. And while performance is a relevant metric, especially over time, as I will explain, where most consumers will see the advances in Apple silicon is in the key features and experiences that silicon is designed to enable. 

While it isn’t always obvious, Apple’s integrated product design approach of hardware, software, and silicon has led to many of the advances in camera, battery life, AI, video capture performance, and even ProMotion on iPhone 13 Pro. Apple has a luxury other silicon companies don’t. They custom-tune their architecture and silicon design specifically for iPhone and the feature they want iPhone to have. This allows them to spend their transistor budget on features instead of just pure performance.


Bajarin focuses (ahem) on the macro feature in the new phones, but I heard that the “Cinematic video” system (which will shift the point of focus from one person to another as you film, if you so desire) was also a feature that Apple first dreamt up, and then implemented. (Others have done it, but theirs isn’t live as you capture.) Subtle difference. He also pegs the year-on-year improvement as about 11% for CPU, but much bigger for the GPU.
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The computer chip industry has a dirty climate secret • The Guardian

Pádraig Belton:


TSMC alone uses almost 5% of all Taiwan’s electricity, according to figures from Greenpeace, predicted to rise to 7.2% in 2022, and it used about 63m tons of water in 2019. The company’s water use became a controversial topic during Taiwan’s drought this year, the country’s worst in a half century, which pitted chipmakers against farmers.

In the US, a single fab, Intel’s 700-acre campus in Ocotillo, Arizona, produced nearly 15,000 tons of waste in the first three months of this year, about 60% of it hazardous. It also consumed 927m gallons of fresh water, enough to fill about 1,400 Olympic swimming pools, and used 561m kilowatt-hours of energy.

Chip manufacturing, rather than energy consumption or hardware use, “accounts for most of the carbon output” from electronics devices, the Harvard researcher Udit Gupta and co-authors wrote in a 2020 paper.


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A Tunguska-sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea • Nature

Bunch et al:


We present evidence that in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea. The proposed airburst was larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a ~ 50-m-wide bolide detonated with ~ 1000× more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. A city-wide ~ 1.5-m-thick carbon-and-ash-rich destruction layer contains peak concentrations of shocked quartz (~ 5–10 GPa); melted pottery and mudbricks; diamond-like carbon; soot; Fe- and Si-rich spherules; CaCO3 spherules from melted plaster; and melted platinum, iridium, nickel, gold, silver, zircon, chromite, and quartz. Heating experiments indicate temperatures exceeded 2000 °C. Amid city-side devastation, the airburst demolished 12  m of the 4-to-5-story palace complex and the massive 4-m-thick mudbrick rampart, while causing extreme disarticulation and skeletal fragmentation in nearby humans. An airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) produced hypersalinity, inhibited agriculture, and caused a ~ 300–600-year-long abandonment of ~ 120 regional settlements within a > 25-km radius. Tall el-Hammam may be the second oldest city/town destroyed by a cosmic airburst/impact, after Abu Hureyra, Syria, and possibly the earliest site with an oral tradition that was written down (Genesis).


They think this may have become the origin of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (The comic Denis Norden always used to say that what he wanted to know was: what did they do in Gomorrah?) Tunguska was a 1908 event: for a proper alternative reality to ponder, consider that had it entered the atmosphere four hours earlier, it would have exploded over London.
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If you just message “hi” and nothing else I assume I’m getting fired • The Outline

Casey Johnston:


Communication styles online have unspooled way faster than anyone can make sense of them. Only recently did people figure out there are stereotypically “male” and “female” ways on communicating on Slack that are essentially ruining people’s lives because of the way they clash—men tend to be terse and blunt and women tend to be empathetic and enthusiastic, but both expect each other to be the opposite way. I have a different problem, which is that when my boss slacks me “hi!”, and only “hi!”, my blood pressure shoots through the roof as I wait for her to say something else and she doesn’t, at which point I enter a catatonic state.

She did this the other day and my heart immediately began racing. Why? I’m not sure. All she did was say hi, a perfectly legal and normal thing for anyone to say to anyone else — people you know, people you don’t know. It’s maybe the only thing literally anyone can say to anyone else without consequence.

It has at least partly to do with the fact that conversations online never really end or begin, so it’s immediately alarming that she is not just saying the thing she ostensibly intends to tell or ask me. It’s botlike, like she wants to be sure first that I am there, the “shut the door and have a seat” of messages, before she launches into some exchange that she knows I won’t like.


Though it’s also a neat bit of “generate content from an everyday occurrence”, she does have a point: it’s impossible to know if you’re over- or under-reacting to the subtext of messages. (There’s even a site,, explaining how just “hi” is awful.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1641: the undercounted greenhouse gas emissions, Facebook’s troll farm problem, US rebuffs Huawei again, and more

The knock-on effects of the European gas price rise point to systemic failures of investment over decades. CC-licensed photo by Grey World on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Invest in jumpers? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Climate TRACE releases first comprehensive, independent database of global greenhouse gas emissions • Medium

Climate TRACE:


Driven by satellites, remote sensing, and advanced applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the inventory is particularly relevant to the more than 100 countries that lack access to comprehensive emissions data from the past five years…

• In oil and gas production and refining, among the world’s top countries that submit regular inventories, emissions from oil and gas may collectively be around double (1 billion tons higher than) recent UNFCCC reports. Further, it is likely that over 1 billion additional tons CO2e per year — more than the annual emissions of the 100 lowest-ranking emitting countries combined — have gone uncounted by countries that aren’t required to report their oil and gas emissions regularly.

• Steel production globally resulted in 13.1 billion tons of CO2e between 2015 and 2020, equivalent to the total emissions of Japan and the United Kingdom combined over that same period. In 2020, steel emissions fell in nearly every country except for China. Further, this year China’s steel industry is on track for an estimated emissions increase of 158 Mt CO2e, roughly equal to the entire annual emissions of Singapore.

• Shipping and aviation together emitted nearly 11 billion tons of CO2e between 2015 and 2020, totals that would make these two sectors combined the 5th largest emitter in the world, if they were a country. Shipping emissions increased about 10% per year from 2018–2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, considerably faster than expected. Yet emissions from both sectors are exempted from countries’ mitigation commitments under the Paris Agreement.

• Forest fire emissions have more than doubled in Russia and the United States since 2015, which together now emit more from fires than Brazil.


Ahead of the COP26 meeting, and the gloomy news about targets being missed, this suggests that the measurement for those targets is miles off too. Really need someone to invent a machine to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, ideally along with a pocket-sized fusion reactor.
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Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


In the run-up to the 2020 election, the most highly contested in US history, Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were being run by Eastern European troll farms. These pages were part of a larger network that collectively reached nearly half of all Americans, according to an internal company report, and achieved that reach not through user choice but primarily as a result of Facebook’s own platform design and engagement-hungry algorithm.

The report, written in October 2019 and obtained by MIT Technology Review from a former Facebook employee not involved in researching it, found that after the 2016 election, Facebook failed to prioritize fundamental changes to how its platform promotes and distributes information. The company instead pursued a whack-a-mole strategy that involved monitoring and quashing the activity of bad actors when they engaged in political discourse, and adding some guardrails that prevented “the worst of the worst.”

But this approach did little to stem the underlying problem, the report noted. Troll farms—professionalized groups that work in a coordinated fashion to post provocative content, often propaganda, to social networks—were still building massive audiences by running networks of Facebook pages. Their content was reaching 140 million US users per month—75% of whom had never followed any of the pages. They were seeing the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system had pushed it into their news feeds.


This is starting to feel like a story I’ve read (and written) so, so many times before.
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Still on sale:
Social Warming, my latest book on how social networks are affecting everyone – even those who don’t use them.

Key security agencies split over whether to sanction a Huawei spinoff, Honor, by placing it on a Commerce blacklist • The Washington Post

Ellen Nakashima and Jeanne Whalen:


Last week, career personnel at four agencies responsible for making such decisions split on whether to put the smartphone-maker, Honor, on the Commerce Department’s entity list, which bars exports of US technology to the sanctioned firm without a department license. They couldn’t agree on whether a business that Huawei sold last year posed a significant threat to US national security.

Staff members at the Pentagon and Energy Department supported placing the company on the blacklist, while their counterparts at the Commerce Department and State Department opposed it, according to several people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential process.

The issue has been appealed to the political-appointee level at the four agencies, according to people familiar with the matter. If they deadlock, the issue can be escalated to the Cabinet level. In the event of a tie there, President Biden would make the final decision.

How to deal with Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment-maker, is a politically charged subject. The Trump administration placed it on the entity list in 2019 after calling the company a national security threat, including for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The United States indicted the daughter of Huawei’s founder on bank and wire fraud charges related to the Iran allegations and is seeking her extradition from Canada, a matter that has heightened tensions among the three countries.


Huawei could keep spinning off pieces and the US would still keep after it. Until there’s something the US particularly wants, commerce-wise, from China.
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Inside TikTok’s amateur investigation into Gabby Petito’s disappearance • Vice

Matthew Gault:


Petito and [apparent boyfriend Brian] Laundrie had been on a cross country roadtrip that left from New York city and ended somewhere in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. She was reported missing by her family on September 11. Laundrie returned to his family’s home early last week—without Petito—in a van registered to her. His family announced over the weekend that they hadn’t seen him in days, and human remains matching a description of Petito were found in Grand Teton National Park on Sunday.

Every new detail of the case has been pored over, analyzed, and dissected by dedicated groups of Petito investigators online. Until a body was found, the biggest new piece of information was more than an hour of Moab, Utah, PD bodycam footage that showed an interaction with the couple in an apparent domestic dispute. Law enforcement did not make any arrests—they merely separated the couple and had Laundrie spend a night in a hotel. The video was taken on August 12, a month before she was reported missing, and posted online on September 16.

Among the Petito investigators is Toumaian, who ran a mundane TikTok channel full of lifehacks and assorted musings until turning her attention to the Petito case. Now every new bit of information becomes two minutes of content that’s viewed millions of times. 


The quality of the work is best captured in a later sentence, “The leads and details are overwhelming and infinite.” I wonder if Bellingcat could be hired as a sort of open source gumshoe.
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Britain’s energy woes catch vulnerable sector in perfect storm • Financial Times

Nathalie Thomas, David Sheppard and Jim Pickard:


For Ed Davey, a former energy secretary and leader of the Liberal Democrats, the crisis is proof that UK government energy policy has been “lamentable”, with ministers failing to tackle problems such as Britain’s poor housing stock, among the worst-insulated in Europe.

Others point to Britain’s failure to invest in sufficient renewable energy capacity, new nuclear power stations to wean the country off its dependence on gas, or storage facilities.

There are also fears the UK has put too much faith in a just-in-time approach to critical energy supplies after output declines in the North Sea left the country more reliant on imports.

While UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said those warning of real shortages are “alarmist”, some in the industry say there could be reason for concerns in the event of a very cold winter that further tightens supplies across Europe.

Britain’s largest gas storage site, the ageing Rough facility off the Yorkshire coast, was closed to new injections in 2017 after owner Centrica said it was not economic to refurbish it. Gas storage owners had long called for government incentives to encourage investment in storage in a country that only has capacity to cover about 2% of annual demand — against 20-30% in most other large gas importers.

Cargos of LNG — which provided almost a fifth of UK supplies in 2019 — can be bid up by companies in Asia, often state-backed, which are less sensitive to prices.

Kwarteng this week quietly dropped Qatar — one of the world’s largest suppliers of LNG — from the list of countries such as Norway the government likes to trumpet as reliable suppliers. Qatari LNG cargoes have primarily sailed to Asia this year.


Also worth reading about why higher gas prices means less CO2 for industry.
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How many daily steps should you take to live longer? • The New York Times

Gretchen Reynolds:


To increase our chances for a long life, we probably should take at least 7,000 steps a day or play sports such as tennis, cycling, swimming, jogging or badminton for more than 2.5 hours per week, according to two, large-scale new studies of the relationship between physical activity and longevity. The two studies, which, together, followed more than 10,000 men and women for decades, show that the right types and amounts of physical activity reduce the risk of premature death by as much as 70 percent.

But they also suggest that there can be an upper limit to the longevity benefits of being active, and pushing beyond that ceiling is unlikely to add years to our life spans and, in extreme cases, might be detrimental.


Apparently 90 minutes is too much. So even with exercise there’s a Goldilocks effect.
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If an asteroid will truly strike Earth, NASA explains how you’ll know • Mashable

Mark Kaufman:


On April 13, 2029 (which happens to be Friday the 13th), something unsettling will happen.

A decent-sized asteroid, the 1,100-foot-wide Apophis, will pass so close to Earth it’ll be visible in the sky from certain places. Crucially, the giant rock will not strike our humble planet. But it will pass closer than 20,000 miles from the surface, which is closer than where some of the United States’ most prized weather satellites orbit.

Asteroids like Apophis hold a fascinating place in our existence: Big impacts are at once terrible threats to our lives and potentially the habitability for many species, but they’re also extremely rare and irregular events. Yet the internet — awash with clickbait — likes to incessantly warn of incoming threats with misleading headlines like “Asteroid heading our way day before presidential election,” “Should you be worried about the ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid passing by Earth today?,” and “Massive asteroid will swing by Earth after Valentine’s Day.”

These stories aren’t about real danger; many of the objects pass millions of miles away. Rather, the stories are about sensationalism.

Mashable spoke with NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, Lindley Johnson, who understands, perhaps better than anyone on the planet, what will happen when a big one comes. If a serious threat to either a region on Earth, a large swathe of Earth, or perhaps the entirety of Earth, is truly on its way — and astronomers know about it — so will you.


I wonder if we’ll have asteroid denialists. At least they’ll have the comfort of not being proven wrong.
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Clubhouse is developing a new way to invite friends to chat called ‘Wave’ • Engadget

Mariella Moon:


Clubhouse isn’t just an app you can fire up to attend talks by famous people. It has different types of rooms you can use, including ones where you can have intimate, private conversations with friends — and in the future, you may be able to invite those friends to chat by “waving” at them. Jane Manchun Wong, who’s famous for reverse engineering apps to find hidden experimental features, has discovered that Clubhouse is working on a new way to invite contacts to have an audio conversation. 

If the feature gets a wide release, Clubhouse will add a “Wave” button on users’ profiles that looks similar to the Wave button you see when you first connect with someone on Messenger. Tapping on it will let a friend know you want to chat, and the app will only open a room for you if they respond. 


Clubhouse, Clubhouse.. rings a bell. Google Trends shows interest in it is now at its lowest point since December 2020 (when it was pretty low). It peaked in early February 2021. Wonder what its burn rate is like.
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Future Mars housing may be built with astronaut blood and pee • Interesting Engineering

Chris Young:


A new type of cheaper housing has been proposed for future Mars colonists. All the astronauts need to do is pay in blood.

Researchers from the University of Manchester made the proposal — we promise this isn’t the plot of a 90s straight-to-VHS sci-fi horror movie — as a means to greatly reduce the cost and increase the speed of construction for future off-world colonies.

In a paper published in Materials Today Bio, they detail how extra-terrestrial dust can be mixed with the blood, urine, and other bodily fluids of astronauts to build walls that would protect them from radiation and meteor strikes. And the process could also “potentially solve a life-threatening emergency akin to the Apollo 13 disaster,” Dr. Aled Roberts, lead author on the study, tells us in an interview via email.

In their study, the University of Manchester researchers demonstrated how human serum albumin (HSA), a common protein from blood plasma, and urine, could be used as a binding agent for extra-terrestrial dust, turning it into a material stronger than ordinary concrete. 

The researchers state that the blood plasma protein required for the material could be safely extracted from astronauts multiple times a week using an existing procedure similar to blood donation. HSA is the most abundant protein in blood plasma and it replenishes at a rate of 12 – 25 g per day. The question is, would astronauts be able to maintain the mental and physical strength needed for space missions if they have blood plasma extracted several times per week?


The paper suggests using pretty much everything as binding agent. I once lived in a (very old) house whose walls were insulated with dried cow dung: it was warm. Quite a scheme.
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Fuel wasted due to US traffic congestion in 2020 cut in half from 2019 to 2020 • US Department of Energy


The traffic decline associated with the pandemic resulted in only half as much fuel being wasted in 2020 compared to 2019. Total excess fuel consumed due to congestion in 2020 was 1.7 billion gallons, the lowest since 1994. Before 2020, the trend was steadily rising to a peak of nearly 3.5 billion gallons in 2019. About 20% of the excess fuel in 2020 was consumed by heavy trucks.


That’s about 16 megatonnes of carbon dioxide not emitted (based on EPA data. Quite a saving.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1640: Russia forces Apple, Google and Telegram climbdowns, Facebook responds to WSJ stories, Amazon zaps 3,000 brands, and more

Unexpected spikes in gas prices – to be used in combined cycle gas turbines – are causing havoc for businesses. CC-licensed photo by Worklife Siemens on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Low-priced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Alexei Navalny app vanishes from Google, Apple stores as Russian voting kicks off • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg, Robyn Dixon, Gerrit De Vynck and Reed Albergotti:


Apple and Google removed an opposition voting app from their online stores Friday just as balloting began in Russia’s parliamentary election, bowing to pressure from President Vladimir Putin’s censorship office in a move digital rights activists blasted as Silicon Valley’s latest act of capitulation to an authoritarian government.

The app, built by associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was intended to help Russian voters opposed to Putin cast ballots in a way that would prevent splitting opposition support among multiple candidates and handing victory to the Putin candidate. But Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, accused Apple and Google of meddling in Russia’s political affairs by allowing voters to download the app and demanded that it be removed from their online stores. It threatened fines and possible criminal prosecutions while calling Navalny supporters “extremists.”

For weeks, the companies had resisted as Navalny’s forces publicly and privately called on them to uphold global democratic standards. But on Friday, that resistance vanished and the app disappeared from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play store in Russia, the main sources of apps for iPhone and Android mobile devices.

For users who had already downloaded the app, new updates also appeared to have been blocked, and Navalny’s forces scrambled to get out candidate lists on alternative platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Telegram.

Natalia Krapiva, a digital rights attorney with the Internet freedom group Access Now, said it was clear Apple and Google “took this decision under pressure. But the companies owe the Russian people an explanation.”

In a tweet directed to Apple she said, “I can’t believe I need to say this but even in Russia, voting is not criminal behaviour.”

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who recently fled the country, called the actions by Apple and Google “an outstanding act of censorship.”


Telegram also caved in to the Russian government’s pressure. For all the promise of the internet, there are only a few chokepoints at any time. App? Force its takedown. Website? Block it, by name or DNS. VPN users? Again, ban the apps. Even Tor can be stymied by blocking access to the entrance servers, or setting up your own honeypot entrance.
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UK energy groups ask for state ‘bad bank’ to weather gas crisis • Financial Times

David Sheppard, Sylvia Pfeifer, George Parker and Nathalie Thomas:


The UK’s largest energy suppliers are requesting a multibillion-pound emergency support package from the government to help them survive the crisis sparked by high gas prices, including the creation of a “bad bank” to absorb potentially unprofitable customers from failing rivals.

Kwasi Kwarteng, UK business and energy secretary, is holding emergency talks with regulator Ofgem on Sunday and is due to meet energy suppliers face-to-face on Monday, amid fears that dozens of smaller challenger companies could go bust in the coming weeks due to record wholesale costs of natural gas and electricity.

People familiar with the weekend talks say the largest energy suppliers are asking the government for substantial support to handle potentially millions of customers from failing companies and may require the creation of a “Northern Rock-style bad bank” to house customers they could not take on without losing money.

While no decision has yet been taken, the proposals to the government reveal the scale of support the industry believes will be required to avoid causing long-term damage to the sector should a large number of energy suppliers fail in the coming weeks.

Kwarteng is said to be examining the proposals and has accepted that significant intervention may be necessary, fearing the existing contingency plans may not be sufficient. Allies said he was looking at “Plans C, D and others”.

“We need a lot of contingency plans in place,” said one ally of the business secretary.


The UK’s day-ahead baseload electricity prices hit £354 per megawatt hour on Sunday, compared to the 10-year average of £45. That’s 35p per kWh – more for wholesale electricity than pretty much any consumers pay at retail. Taking on customers of failed suppliers who didn’t (or couldn’t) hedge against higher prices is going to be amazingly expensive.
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Beer, fizzy drinks and meat supplies threatened by CO2 shortages, ministers warned • Politics Home

Adam Payne:


The government is bracing itself for supplies of beer, fizzy drinks and meat to be hit by a severe shortage of CO2, with supermarkets and restaurants expected to be affected in the coming days.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was warned on Thursday that shortages of CO2, caused by the closure this week of two major fertilizer plants, would affect manufacturers across food and drink industry, PoliticsHome understands.

CO2 is used in the production of beer and fizzy drinks, and is also vital in meat processing.

The British Poultry Council’s Richard Griffiths said the gas is used in slaughterhouses, as well as the packaging and chilling of chickens, and warned that the industry was “very rapidly heading into a downward spiral towards supply chains seriously struggling.”

He told PoliticsHome: “After five to seven days we’ll start to see sigificant problems in processing birds.”

The two plants in question, owned by CF industries and located in Durham and Cheshire, are believed to account for somewhere between 40 and 60% of the country’s CO2 supplies.

Griffiths urged ministers to prioritise CO2 supplies for food production in order limit the disruption of supplies to supermarkets and hospitality businesses as much as possible.

The government may have to bail out the two plants to avert a deeper crisis, he said.

CF industries said they were forced to close them due to soaring gas prices and gave no indication of when they will resume production,


People return to work, gas demand spikes, gas prices spike, it becomes too expensive to run fertiliser plants. We think of supply chains as, well, simple chains: a link to a link to a link. Instead they’re webs, but only sometimes as resilient as real webs.
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What the Wall Street Journal got wrong • About Facebook

Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now prime PR for Facebook:


At the heart of [last week’s WSJ] series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and wilfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company. This impugns the motives and hard work of thousands of researchers, policy experts and engineers at Facebook who strive to improve the quality of our products, and to understand their wider (positive and negative) impact. It’s a claim which could only be made by cherry-picking selective quotes from individual pieces of leaked material in a way that presents complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer. 

With any research, there will be ideas for improvement that are effective to pursue and ideas where the tradeoffs against other important considerations are worse than the proposed fix. The fact that not every idea that a researcher raises is acted upon doesn’t mean Facebook teams are not continually considering a range of different improvements. At the same time, none of these issues can be solved by technology companies alone, which is why we work in close partnership with researchers, regulators, policymakers and others.

But none of that collaborative work is helped by taking a deliberately lop-sided view of the wider facts. For example, to suggest that misinformation has somehow overwhelmed our COVID-19 vaccine response ignores the most important fact: that vaccine hesitancy among Facebook’s US users has declined by about 50% since January. The Journal article goes on to discuss at length how pro-vaccine posts are undermined by negative comments, once again burying a crucial point: that health organizations continue posting because their own measurements show how their posts on our platforms effectively promote vaccines, despite negative comments.


As a former Facebook Civic Integrity Lead said on Twitter, the problem is precisely that: researchers inside Facebook are “ignored, or at least grossly underweighted, in decisions that have public policy or growth tradeoffs.” Perhaps if Clegg had done some work in that space he’d have learnt this.
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Leaks just exposed how toxic Facebook and Instagram are to teen girls and, well, everyone • The Guardian

Siva Vaidhyanathan:


The Facebook researchers who warned of this problem understood what the company’s top leadership seems to ignore or deny: the problem with Facebook is Facebook. Facebook is designed to prompt engagement and reward engagement. The comments are its currency.

Posts that generate a lot of comments get promoted by the algorithms, but those comments themselves become part of the overall message of the post. Arguments break out. And the more people bicker in the comments, the more prominent the post and the comments become. That’s why you can’t argue with evil, ignorance or craziness on Facebook – it’s counterproductive. Unfortunately, posting reasonable, solid information is also, in a sense, counterproductive: that kind of information receives almost no readers because reasonable posts do not generate irrational or unfounded responses – or they attract destructive or toxic responses, and those comments morph the message as Facebook picks it up and sends it to users’ newsfeeds.

A world with Facebook is going to be crueler, stupider, and more deadly than one without Facebook
Comments matter. Along with shares and likes, comments drive “engagement” with posts and profiles. Everything at Facebook is designed to maximize engagement – even more than revenue. If the company can get its three billion users to interact with content as long and as often as possible, then revenue will take care of itself.


Vaidhyanathan’s book is called Anti-Social Media. Neat title.
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Of course, you could also
buy Social Warming, my book dealing with even more of these topics.

Amazon closes 3,000 Chinese-brand online stores in campaign against fake reviews • South China Morning Post

Tracy Qu:

» said on Friday that it has closed about 3,000 online merchant accounts, backed by about 600 Chinese brands, on its popular platform, as the world’s largest e-commerce company ratchets up its crackdown on consumer review abuses.

The company’s campaign is not intended to target China or any other country, according to Cindy Tai, Amazon’s vice-president for Asia Global Selling, in an interview with state-owned broadcaster China Central Television on Friday. She also indicated that the closures did not negatively impact the overall growth of Chinese online merchants on Amazon.

Tai’s interview marked the first time that a senior Amazon executive has responded to recent actions against merchants belonging to the “made in China, sold on Amazon” community, which have borne the brunt of the platform’s recent crackdown against paid reviews and other violations.

While questionable practices like paying for positive reviews often go unchecked on Chinese e-commerce platforms, Amazon kicked off an extensive clean-up campaign in May that targeted such activities. This crackdown has affected tens of thousands of Chinese merchants, according to a report in July by the trade group Shenzhen Cross-Border E-commerce Association.

Amazon, however, has remained steadfast on its campaign to punish product review abuses as a way to protect consumers’ rights.

Although the firm has officially banned “incentivised reviews” since 2016 and has regularly taken action against such violations, the scale of its recent crackdown appears unprecedented.


Notice how the first appearance is on Chinese TV, saying it’s not targeting China. Everything’s a potential diplomatic incident now. Can you buy submarines on Amazon?
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El Salvador botches bitcoin adoption • Foreign Policy

David Gerard:


The problems go beyond use on the ground. Bukele is genuinely very popular, because he spends heavily on public services. Since El Salvador’s currency is the U.S. dollar, Bukele can’t print money; so he needs to borrow—or use the Bitcoin Law to skim the remittances sent from abroad. But the Bitcoin Law, and the disastrous launch of Chivo, has frightened the bond markets; El Salvador’s sovereign debt dropped almost five cents in a single day, ending Sept. 7 trading at 87.6 cents on the dollar. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are already reluctant to supply further funding because of the Bitcoin Law.

Chivo’s problems continue. To sign up for Chivo and get their $30 of bitcoin, Salvadorans ostensibly need a photo of their national ID card, a photo of themselves, their ID card number, and their date of birth. But Chivo’s identity verification functionality didn’t even check the photos—you could register with only a DUI number and a matching date of birth. Some users discovered their DUI number had already been used. Others tested the system with publicly known DUIs. Residents who hadn’t installed the app received verification codes via SMS. Salvadorans in the United States who wanted to send remittances home had trouble registering.

Traders were reluctant to accept bitcoin. “I’d rather lose the sale,” one trader told La Prensa Grafica. Others didn’t trust money they couldn’t hold in their hands. Street vendors may not even have phones. Many of their customers are illiterate. Some government offices didn’t accept bitcoin payments. Transfers from Chivo to bank accounts were not reliable. The Chivo ATMs didn’t work well—one machine had a reported three successful cash withdrawals in a day. Even transfer of bitcoins in and out of Chivo had problems. Tweets from @chivowallet gathered aggrieved responses from people.

Using Chivo is not mandatory—some are installing the Bitcoin Beach or Muun wallets. But interoperability is spotty, and transaction fees on Bitcoin Beach or Muun are not subsidized by the government.

…Bukele is pressing ahead with the Chivo project—his plans need those remittance dollars [from the conversion from dollars to a cryptocurrency that works in the Chivo wallet], and he still hopes for an influx of foreign bitcoins. Fears of criminals bringing in dirty bitcoins and exchanging them for clean dollars, draining the $150m trust that was set up as a buffer between bitcoins and dollars, have not come to pass—because Chivo doesn’t work well enough.


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What I learned from a year on Substack • Platformer

Casey Newton, who quit the Verge to go to Substack:


here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in year one.

It’s a hits business. Platformer grows when it’s publishing good journalism — particularly journalism that takes you inside companies in crisis. The rest of the time, the business is largely static. Occasionally, a more analytical post will bring in a range of new signups. So will posts that tackle some new frontier yet to be picked up by traditional publications — this month’s story about Dom Hofmann’s blockchain project Loot was a hit, for example. Generally speaking, though, most columns don’t move the needle. In part that’s because …

Churn is real. Platformer loses 3-4% of its paid customers per month. To grow, it has to replace those customers and then find new ones. The good news is that a relatively small percentage of free subscribers ever have to convert to paid subscribers to make this a viable enterprise. But …

I converted a smaller percentage of subscribers to paid than I thought I would. Guidance I had gotten from Substack suggested I might expect 10% or so of my free subscribers to go paid. Given that 24,000 people had been reading me four days a week when I launched — some for three years — I thought that 10% would be a slam dunk. Instead, it was closer to 5%. That number has grown a bit over the past year, but it’s still well under 10.

One thing that did, help, though, was …

A Discord is a superpower that journalists can give themselves. In April I launched Sidechannel along with seven other independent journalists. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by for an interview.) The idea was to give free subscribers a reason to upgrade, since your subscription would now come with access to a community of smart, like-minded people, as well as some of the journalists working on their behalf.

Other than the stories I mentioned above, the Discord launch was the single biggest thing I did over the past year to convert paid subscribers.


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They saw a YouTube video. Then they got Tourette’s • WIRED UK

Grace Browne:


Although the spectrum of the symptoms of Tourette’s is wide, similar symptoms tend to crop up over and over, Müller-Vahl says. Classic tics are usually simple, short, abrupt; mainly located in the eyes or in the face or the head, such as blinking, jerking and shrugging. The syndrome typically manifests at around six years old, and much more often in boys – an average of three to four boys to one girl. What springs to mind when you picture Tourette’s – an uncontrollable urge to utter obscenities in public – is actually rare, she says. 

But if it wasn’t Tourette’s, what was it? According to Müller-Vahl, these patients were actually suffering from something called functional movement disorder, or FMD. This might present like Tourette’s, but where the latter has a neurological basis (although the root cause is not yet known, it is thought to be related to abnormalities in brain regions such as the basal ganglia), the cause of FMD is psychological. In FMD, the hardware is intact, but the software isn’t working properly, whereas with Tourette’s, the software is working just fine, but it’s the hardware that isn’t. People with FMD physically have the ability to control their bodies, but they’ve lost hold of the reins, resulting in involuntary, abnormal behaviours. 

For some patients, all their symptoms disappeared when Müller-Vahl explained that what they had wasn’t Tourette’s. For others, a course of psychotherapy improved their symptoms significantly. Still, the sheer number of patients with the exact same symptoms puzzled Müller-Vahl and her colleagues. 

Mass sociogenic illness – also known as mass psychogenic illness or historically called mass hysteria – spreads like a social virus. But instead of a perceptible viral particle, the pathogen and method of contagion is invisible. Symptoms spread by unconscious social mimicry to vulnerable people, thought to be triggered by emotional distress. (It isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it does bear a keen resemblance to conversion disorder, which entails the “conversion” of emotional distress into physical symptoms.)


YouTube as mechanism for mass hysteria? The only surprise is that in this case the patients seem to have been in a comparatively small area, geographically.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1639: Facebook’s many moderation failures, Instagram chief dinged over car analogy, the coming energy revolution, and more

The ZX Spectrum was the late Sir Clive Sinclair’s huge contribution to home and personal computing in 1982, inspiring a generation to get into related jobs – including games. CC-licensed photo by Alessandro Grussu 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. Safely through another one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook employees flag drug cartels and human traffickers. The company’s response is weak, documents show • WSJ

Justin Scheck, Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz:


In January, a former cop turned Facebook Inc. investigator posted an all-staff memo on the company’s internal message board. It began “Happy 2021 to everyone!!” and then proceeded to detail a new set of what he called “learnings.” The biggest one: A Mexican drug cartel was using Facebook to recruit, train and pay hit men.

The behavior was shocking and in clear violation of Facebook’s rules. But the company didn’t stop the cartel from posting on Facebook or Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing site.

Scores of internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show employees raising alarms about how its platforms are used in some developing countries, where its user base is already huge and expanding. They also show the company’s response, which in many instances is inadequate or nothing at all.

Employees flagged that human traffickers in the Middle East used the site to lure women into abusive employment situations in which they were treated like slaves or forced to perform sex work. They warned that armed groups in Ethiopia used the site to incite violence against ethnic minorities. They sent alerts to their bosses on organ selling, pornography and government action against political dissent, according to the documents.

Facebook removes some pages, though many more operate openly, according to the documents.

In some countries where Facebook operates, it has few or no people who speak the dialects needed to identify dangerous or criminal uses of the platform, the documents show.

When problems have surfaced publicly, Facebook has said it addressed them by taking down offending posts. But it hasn’t fixed the systems that allowed offenders to repeat the bad behavior. Instead, priority is given to retaining users, helping business partners and at times placating authoritarian governments, whose support Facebook sometimes needs to operate within their borders, the documents show.


This is another long article with multiple examples of utter institutional failure. The work the WSJ has done with this series ought to lead to some sort of serious crackdown. Yet the blizzard of platitudes has begun again. Mark Zuckerberg’s Eternal Apology tour goes on. And so does the social warming his product causes.
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Facebook’s Instagram head gets slammed for comparing Instagram to cars • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


[Instagram CEO Adam] Mosseri’s comparison of Instagram to cars came after podcast host Peter Kafka asked the executive if the service should be pulled or restricted if there’s a chance it could really harm people in the same way that cigarettes can harm people.

“Absolutely not, and I really don’t agree with the comparison to drugs or cigarettes, which have very limited, if any, upsides,” Mosseri said. “Anything that is going to be used at scale is going to have positive and negative outcomes. Cars have positive and negative outcomes.”

Numerous Twitter users criticized Mosseri for the comparison and pointed out that, unlike social media, the automobile industry is heavily regulated. Among those critics was former Facebook executive Brian Boland.

“We also have regulations and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for cars. Maybe @mosseri should read Unsafe At Any Speed?” Boland tweeted.

Kafka asked about the regulation surrounding cars, to which Mosseri responded he does believe that some social media regulation is needed.

“We think you have to be careful because regulation can cause more problems,” Mosseri said on the podcast. “But I do think we are a big enough industry that it’s important, and we need to evolve it forward.”


Here’s the full podcast. (Or on Spotify.) The problem with cars, as readers of Social Warming will have been reminded, is that they contribute to the climate crisis – every time, just a little bit. You have to either dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, or dramatically change how they work.
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Given all the WSJ’s work this week, why not read Social Warming, my latest book, and find out more of the background?

Apple’s best iPhone 13 features are the trade-in offers, not the specs • CNET

Eli Blumenthal:


Apple’s new iPhone 13 and 13 Pro phones have lots of new features that are welcome upgrades over earlier iPhone models. Battery life is longer, and there are nifty camera tricks, better displays, a slimmer notch and even some new color options. While this stealth “S year” upgrade isn’t as significant as last year’s redesign and inclusion of 5G, there is enough here that Apple will still likely move many, many millions of iPhones. 

Especially when you consider the carrier pricing here in the US. 

All three of the major wireless providers have introduced new iPhone offers to get people to upgrade their older devices to these 5G-capable iPhones. As has been the trend in recent years, these offers are available to both new and existing customers, offering significant discounts on all versions of the new iPhone 13 if you’re willing to upgrade and commit to staying with a carrier for several years. 

The deals represent a push by the carriers to not just pick off new customers from each other, but to lock in their current customers with longer deals. The floodgates of deals opened last year, when the companies were eager to get people on their 5G networks, and they’re continuing with the iPhone 13 launch. While it’s a good time for those looking for a good deal, consumers should be aware that terms can stretch out as far as three years. 


I expect the same sort of incentives will get pushed in the UK, and other countries. Still haven’t noticed any benefit from 5G, personally.
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Road user fees explored as a way to fund repairs, manage traffic • Axios

Joann Muller:


Electric vehicles might be good for the environment, but they’re terrible for state budgets, which depend on fuel taxes to pay for road maintenance. So states like Oregon and Utah are experimenting with new road user fees — known as “vehicle mileage taxes” or VMTs — that reflect changing mobility trends.

By charging drivers for the miles they drive — instead of taxing the gas they use — states can ensure that everyone pays their fair share for public roads. But some drivers might wind up paying more than they do now, and the preliminary technology involved is raising privacy concerns.

In Utah and Oregon — where EVs and increased fuel efficiency are blowing a hole in road repair budgets — drivers are being asked to enroll in voluntary experiments in pay-as-you-go tolling. 

Under a VMT system, drivers report their mileage electronically, using a plug-in device in their cars or a smartphone app.

Per the Deseret (Utah) News: “Users are given the option to pay 1.5 cents per mile traveled or an annual flat fee of $120 for electric vehicles or $20 for gas hybrids.”

Oregon is testing several potential funding models based on the time of day and other factors.

Under one potential scenario, a driver could pay a statewide 1.8-cents-per-mile fee, plus a 20-cent metropolitan Portland surcharge, plus a virtual toll on Interstate 5 and another fee for entering downtown Portland.


Precisely the scenario I forecast (for Britain) in a recent article I wrote on Medium. The problem is that it’s visibly unfair on rural drivers, who need to drive further in order to reach anywhere. (Of course, they presently pay the extra in fuel tax, but people don’t perceive that.)
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Home computing pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair dies aged 81 • The Guardian

Haroon Siddique:


In the early 1970s he invented a series of calculators designed to be small and light enough to fit in the pocket at a time when most existing models were the size of an old-fashioned shop till. “He wanted to make things small and cheap so people could access them,” his daughter said.

His first home computer, the ZX80, named after the year it appeared, revolutionised the market, although it was a far cry from today’s models. At £79.95 in kit form and £99.95 assembled, it was about one-fifth of the price of other home computers at the time. It sold 50,000, units while its successor, the ZX81, which replaced it, cost £69.95 and sold 250,000. Many games industry veterans got their start typing programs into its touch-based keyboard and became hooked on games such as as 3D Monster Maze and Mazogs. The ZX80 and ZX81 made him very rich: in 2010 Sinclair told the Guardian: “Within two or three years, we made £14m profit in a year.”

In 1982, he released the ZX Spectrum 48K. Its rubber keys, strange clashing visuals and tinny sound did not prevent it being pivotal in the development of the British games industry. Much-loved games – now in colour – that inspired a generation included Jet Set Willy, Horace Goes Skiing, Chuckie Egg, Saboteur, Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight.

Sinclair became a household name as his products flew off the shelves and was awarded a knighthood in 1983. But he would also become synonymous with one of his less successful inventions – the Sinclair C5 – which would cost him financially. The C5, a battery-powered electric trike, was launched in January 1985, with Sinclair predicting sales of 100,000 in the first year.

But it flopped, and Sinclair Vehicles found itself in receivership by October of the same year.


Sinclair really did have the vision to create small, usable electronic devices: there were calculators, then watches, then computers and TVs. He only really came unstuck when he tried to make something bigger, with the electric trike/car thing. Best known afterwards for playing poker. A true British trailblazer.
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Did the coronavirus jump from animals to people twice? • Nature

Smriti Mallapaty:


SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could have spilled from animals to people multiple times, according to a preliminary analysis of viral genomes sampled from people infected in China and elsewhere early in the pandemic.

If confirmed by further analyses, the findings would add weight to the hypothesis that the pandemic originated in multiple markets in Wuhan, and make the hypothesis that SARS-COV-2 escaped from a laboratory less likely, say some researchers. But the data need to be verified, and the analysis has not yet been peer reviewed.

The earliest viral sequences, taken from people infected in late 2019 and early 2020, are split into two broad lineages, known as A and B, which have key genetic differences.

Lineage B has become the dominant lineage globally and includes samples taken from people who visited the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold wild animals. Lineage A spread within China, and includes samples from people linked to other markets in Wuhan.

A crucial question is how the two viral lineages are related. If viruses in lineage A evolved from those in lineage B, or vice versa, that would suggest that the progenitor of the virus jumped just once from animals to people. But if the two lineages have separate origins, then there might have been multiple spillover events.

The latest analysis — posted on the discussion forum — adds weight to the second possibility by questioning the existence of genomes linking the lineages.


The “different genome” idea has been around for a little while – I think I first saw it in this preprint by what I think is a Chinese group. It does provide a strong pointer to separate strands of development.
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Hacking CloudKit: how I accidentally deleted your Apple Shortcuts • Detectify Labs

Frans Rosén did some digging around in CloudKit and found he could masquerade as an authorised user:


This confirmed to me that I could delete any channel or article, including stock entries, in the container being used for the Stock and Apple News iOS-apps. This worked due to the fact that I could make authenticated calls to CloudKit from the API being used for the Notes-app on and due to a misconfiguration of the records added in the

I made a proof of concept to Apple and sent it as a different report on the 17th of March.

Apple replied with a fix in place on the 19th of March by modifying the permissions of the records added to, where even the forceDelete-call would respond with:

“records” : [ {
“recordName” :”TtVkjIR3aTPKrWAykey3ANA”,
“reason” :”delete operation not allowed”,
“serverErrorCode” :”ACCESS_DENIED”
} ]
I also notified Apple about more of their own containers still having the ability to delete content from, however, it wasn’t clear if those containers were actually using the Public scope at all.

Another app that was using the Public scope of CloudKit was Shortcuts. With Apple Shortcuts you can create logical flows that can be launched automatically or manually which then triggers different actions across your apps on iOS-devices. These shortcuts can be shared with other people using iCloud-links which creates an ecosystem around them. There are websites dedicated to recommending and sharing these Shortcuts through iCloud-links.


At this point you should imagine the DUN-DUN-DUNNNN music. He managed to delete everyone’s Shortcuts stored in iCloud.
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This US company sold iPhone hacking tools to UAE spies • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:


When the United Arab Emirates paid over $1.3m for a powerful and stealthy iPhone hacking tool in 2016, the monarchy’s spies—and the American mercenary hackers they hired—put it to immediate use.

The tool exploited a flaw in Apple’s iMessage app to enable hackers to completely take over a victim’s iPhone. It was used against hundreds of targets in a vast campaign of surveillance and espionage whose victims included geopolitical rivals, dissidents, and human rights activists. 

Documents filed by the US Justice Department on Tuesday detail how the sale was facilitated by a group of American mercenaries working for Abu Dhabi, without legal permission from Washington to do so. But the case documents do not reveal who sold the powerful iPhone exploit to the Emiratis.

Two sources with knowledge of the matter have confirmed to MIT Technology Review that the exploit was developed and sold by an American firm named Accuvant. It merged several years ago with another security firm, and what remains is now part of a larger company called Optiv. News of the sale sheds new light on the exploit industry as well as the role played by American companies and mercenaries in the proliferation of powerful hacking capabilities around the world.

Optiv spokesperson Jeremy Jones wrote in an email that his company has “cooperated fully with the Department of Justice” and that Optiv “is not a subject of this investigation.” That’s true: the subjects of the investigation are the three former US intelligence and military personnel who worked illegally with the UAE. However, Accuvant’s role as exploit developer and seller was important enough to be detailed at length in Justice Department court filings.


Notice the price on the exploit: more than a million dollars. How do you price something like that, which lets you take over a phone?
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New rules to protect ‘distinctively British’ public service broadcasting • GOV.UK


Media Minister John Whittingdale has announced new measures today to protect the creation of uniquely British TV, and help public service broadcasters (PSBs) compete with the US streaming giants in the digital age.

Shows such as Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, The Bodyguard and Planet Earth have been huge international hits but also reflect Britain and British values.

In his keynote speech to the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention, Mr Whittingdale announced plans to expand the types of programmes the nation’s PSBs are required to produce and air to include ‘distinctively British’ content.

In the face of increased foreign investment and competition, the move will ensure the UK continues to be a creative powerhouse for unique, high-quality TV shows which showcase British culture and are enjoyed the world over.

The Media Minister also announced new plans to legislate to ensure PSB content is always carried and discoverable to UK audiences on connected devices and major online platforms – including smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks – as more and more viewers turn to them over traditional TV.

Proposals for these measures will be included in a Broadcasting White Paper to be published this autumn.

UK PSBs currently have requirements in their remits to broadcast ‘original’ content. This was previously considered sufficient to ensure their programming had a characteristically British dimension.

However, the globalisation of broadcasting means that more of the content we watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the UK, with an international cast, communicating in US English. This risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for UK audiences, as well as minimising its proven soft power abroad.


Very weird. (The technological link? I dunno, streaming? That’s the competition.) The non-specific locations stuff is because making good content is expensive, so you get co-productions with foreign companies, which leads to locations that could be in either country. Solution to that is to fund the PSBs better so they can make their content more easily unaided. But John Whittingdale, arch-privatiser (and since this speech, fired), would never consider that.
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Why I’m so excited about solar and batteries • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:


More expensive energy makes physical innovation harder in every way. You need electricity to run your washer, your dryer, your heater, your air conditioner, your oven, your stove — and many other newfangled appliances innovators might want to sell to you in the future. And oil is responsible for powering cars, trucks, ships, planes etc., not to mention backhoes, bullzoders, and cranes. And lots of manufacturing is very energy-intensive. Without ever-cheaper sources of energy, physical innovation is certainly still possible, but it just gets harder.

This stagnation in energy technology almost certainly contributed to the productivity slowdown of the 1970s. The economist William Norhaus wrote a paper in 2004 breaking down productivity growth by industry, and looking at the timing relative to the oil shocks of the 70s.

…The cost declines in solar and batteries — and to a lesser extent, in wind and other storage technologies — comprise a true technological revolution. Once again, I shall post the amazing graphs: [they are on his site, and are indeed amazing in showing the plummeting cost of solar and wind compared to other fuels].

And there’s no end in sight to this revolution. New fundamental advances like solid state lithium-ion batteries and next-generation solar cells seem within reach, which will kick off another virtuous cycle of deployment, learning curves, and cost decreases.

These technologies will, of course, make it far easier to fight climate change. And that itself is a form of future productivity, since climate change will probably cause big productivity losses if we don’t stop it. Also, the fact that solar and batteries are a far less finite resource than fossil fuels mean that they will allow industrial society to be sustained for much longer — another form of future productivity growth.

But in addition to these future benefits, renewables and storage will do something else — something big. For the first time since the advent of oil, humanity might get a new source of cheaper, more plentiful energy.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified